"Common Core" education standards: Impressive, balanced, serious

I haven't closely examined the new draft "Common Core" math standards (and am in any case shy about judging them, having myself forgotten the difference between cosines and tangents), but the draft "reading/language arts/literacy" standards are pretty darned impressive. Some of what makes them impressive, however, is buried deep in their infrastructure and won't necessarily be obvious on first inspection. At least it wasn't to me. Not until one of the drafters walked me through them did I grasp what they've built here.

Besides doing justice to the "skill side" of English language arts (from early reading on up through sophisticated writing), they've taken language "conventions" and content seriously--and cumulatively--in a dozen ways. They've devised deft ways of incorporating literature (including means by which monitors of state/district curricula can gauge the quality and rigor of what students are actually asked to read). They've delicately balanced between "traditional" and "modern" approaches, between “basic” and “21st Century” skills, etc. They've imaginatively incorporated the reading sides of science and history as well as English per se. They've supplied plenty of compelling examples of what kids at various levels should be reading. And they haven't overpromised. Indeed, they state plainly at the very start that proper implementation of these standards hinges on also having a topnotch curriculum in place.

During the three-week comment period that started yesterday, many people will pore over these (and the math standards). Grumps will inevitably be sounded from many directions. Revisions will eventually be made. Nobody can say for sure what lies ahead. But my own initial reading is that millions of American kids would be far better off in schools adhering to these standards than they are today--and if their schools are serious, their curriculum strong, their teachers competent, and the still-to-come assessment systems are well-designed and properly aligned--those young people will emerge from 12th grade in possession of a plausible version of college readiness, at least in the fields addressed here, and the United States will be farther along the road to international competitiveness than it is today.

Keep in mind, though, that math and ELA are the only subjects addressed (save for smidgens of history and science) and that the amount of construction needing to be placed atop the standards foundation is immense. States and districts will need to be ready, for example, to transform their curricula (and very likely willing to institute statewide curricula); to renovate their approaches to instruction (and very likely strengthen their instructional personnel); and to buy into new assessment systems that haven’t even been designed yet (though four interesting models were aired at a Washington conference this week). Taking these standards seriously will lead in time to fundamental changes in just about everything in K-12 education. That’s a very tall order indeed and not something to be done until people are satisfied that these standards deserve it. 

Some states may well determine that their current standards are superior and that they have no need of Common Core (though we should be wary of those who say that when what they really mean is they don’t have the energy or will or resources to make the requisite changes). The last time Fordham reviewed state standards--a process we’re now commencing once more--we found just six jurisdictions with math standards that deserved “honors” grades and only twenty that earned As or Bs in English. All the rest got Cs or below. It’s hard for me not to think that their schools and students would be better off with the “Common Core”--and all that follows from it. A tougher call will be states--California cannot be avoided here--that already have solid standards but have done a dismal job of implementing them. A change of standards will only benefit their kids if the implementation changes, too.

As states and others (including Fordham’s own experts) commence close-up reviews of the Common Core drafts, I suggest that you temporarily ignore the complexities introduced by Secretary Duncan’s plan to pay for the first round of assessment development and by President Obama’s premature and heavy-handed hint that future federal (Title I) funding will hinge on states participating in this arrangement. Ignore, too, the plain fact that we still have no idea how this arrangement will be organized, governed, or financed over the long haul. For the moment, just look at the draft “college- and career-ready” standards themselves and ask whether these set forth (for two subjects, anyway) a first rate depiction of the skills that you’d be proud to see young Americans acquire in school.

I think they do--and deserve to be taken very, very seriously. But let me caution you again: When you review the Common Core drafts, don’t just eyeball them. That didn’t get me deep enough into them. Like a building, appearances can be deceiving--and in any case you want to know that there’s more here than a façade. Dig deep and, if the architecture and infrastructure aren’t clear to you, demand a tutorial. You, too, may be favorably impressed. 

P.S.: People whose math prowess far surpasses my own are generally pretty positive about the draft math standards, too. 

P.P.S.: Watch for expert reviews of the draft standards next week.

An abbreviated version of this piece first appeared yesterday on Fordham’s blog Flypaper. Subscribe to our RSS feed here.

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