Honors grades for the Common Core

We’re one step closer. “Common” standards for U.S. schools are knocking at the door. They won’t likely make it all the way in but even a partial entry is looking like it might do some good.

Two weeks ago, the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers released drafts of new “Common Core” academic standards in English language arts (ELA) and math for grades K-12. Already the object of much interest--and plenty of controversy--these are standards that, once revised and finalized, will be candidates for adoption by individual states in place of those they’re now using.

We’ll admit to seeing considerable merit in national standards done right. Done wrong, they would do more harm than good. So the proper question to ask at this juncture isn’t whether you’re for or against national standards in theory. It’s whether what’s been placed before us is worth taking seriously.

Until April 2, the public has an opportunity to comment on this draft (you can do so here). Earlier this week, the Fordham Institute released detailed comments, prepared by experts in these subjects whose judgment we trust. Our intent is neither to praise nor to bury the “Common Core” draft. It’s to give constructive feedback during a comment period that is intended to yield later improvements. And yes, we’ll return--we’re Gadflies, after all--to evaluate the final product upon release to see whether it sets the world-class standards we need. We’ll also appraise states’ current standards to see how they compare. Not every state will want to adopt the Common Core, but they ought to make those decisions on the basis of the relative strength of those standards versus their own--and we aim to supply them with some metrics.

Readers may recall that in October we published expert evaluations of the Common Core end-of-high-school draft then in circulation as well as other influential national and international standards and frameworks (NAEP, TIMSS, PISA). Our lead reviewers, W. Stephen Wilson (math) and Sheila Byrd Carmichael (ELA) concluded that the end-of-high-school draft was pretty good--they conferred “B” grades in both subjects--but they also offered numerous suggestions for strengthening it. This time around, they’ve examined the full K-12 draft, culminating (again) in end-of-high-school expectations. (This time Dr. Wilson was joined by a fellow math expert, Dr. Gabrielle Martino.)

On the math side, they found rigorous expectations that set forth most of the essential content that students in grades K-12 must master. While tweaks and nips and tucks and a few additions are needed--particularly at the high school level--the standards “embod[y] internationally-competitive expectations for students in mathematics.” They earned an impressive A-.

On the ELA side, the Common Core draft is also strong, but needs a few more adjustments. Some key content is missing or too shallow and some of the standards aren’t precise enough to provide essential guidance to educators, test builders, etc. “Despite [these] fixable flaws,” Ms. Carmichael concludes, “the standards do an admirable job of providing a roadmap for students to become ‘college- and career-ready.’” As written, the standards earn a solid B.

Bottom line: There is much to applaud in these drafts, but they can and should be even better.

But don’t take our word. See for yourself. New standards for U.S. schools are too important a project to entrust to experts. That’s the point of a public-comment period. We hope very much that parents, educators, employers, public officials, scholars, and so on will put in the time and effort needed to comb these drafts and offer their own feedback. You, too.

But please keep three questions in mind as you proceed:

First, recall that we’re dealing here only with math and ELA. Educated children also need high-quality science, history, art, and much more. Who is making that happen in your state or community?

Second, as the Common Core drafters acknowledge, without strong curricula (and, we would add, effective instruction and quality assessments), standards only describe the destination we’d like to reach--they don’t get us there. In the case of the ELA standards in particular, states (and districts, schools, and educators) bear a special responsibility to supplement these skills-centered standards with a solid, content-rich curriculum that is eventually aligned to rigorous assessments. Who will ensure that that happens in your schools?

Third, perfection is the wrong criterion by which to judge these standards. Perfect standards do not exist. The right question to ask as you consider our reviews, other commentators’ opinions, and the draft standards themselves are: Are they significantly better than what we’re using today? And how could they be improved?

Several states have already signaled that they will opt to keep their own standards rather than adopting the Common Core. So be it. A handful of states have done standards right. Most have not. And some places with strong standards have done a miserable job of implementing them.

The Common Core draft is pretty strong. We hope it gets stronger in the weeks ahead. Even then, however, it’s only the first step of a journey that is fraught with difficulties. States that choose to opt out should do so because they prefer a different destination, not because they’re afraid of challenge.

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