Rushing to judgment?

You could be forgiven for thinking that the education messiah will arrive on June 2, considering all the hype, angst, dither and pother that already surround next week’s promised unveiling of the final “common core” state standards (CCSS). I’m eager to see them, too, and to examine what’s changed during the comment-and-revision process that followed publication of the March drafts. But like so much else in contemporary American life, an orgy of carefully-orchestrated public relations ought not substitute for the careful scrutiny that these standards deserve.

The earlier drafts were unexpectedly and encouragingly good, particularly when placed alongside the crummy standards that too many states have come up with on their own. Fordham has been reviewing state academic standards since 1997, and we’ve been appalled by their general mediocrity even as we’ve been impressed and encouraged by a few. The final CCSSI standards would have to be a lot worse than the drafts for them not to represent significantly higher and more thoughtful academic expectations (in the two core subjects that they encompass) than those that presently drive K-12 education in much of the land.

It’s that widespread mediocrity, more than anything else, that has led me and my colleagues to favor some form of national standards—on the assumption, that is, that they’ll be more rigorous than what we’re using today. Plenty of other arguments can be made for national standards, including the fact that most big, modern, mobile countries on our shrinking and competitive planet have some form of national standards and tests—indeed, some form of national curriculum—for their schools, their teachers, and their children. But none of these arguments holds water unless the standards themselves are solid.

America has, however, been mugged by disappointing reality more than once and it would be imprudent and risky to turn CCSSI into an overhyped endeavor that states are browbeaten or bribed into joining without careful consideration of multiple variables. Indeed, we’d probably be better off in the long run if the federal Race to the Top program were not crowding states to make this decision within sixty days. Worse, they’re expected to commit to such a decision (to qualify for RTT funding) by June 1, even though the standards themselves don’t appear until June 2! This has the makings of theater-of-the-absurd. It also raises anxiety levels about this worthy state-initiated, state-led venture turning into yet another federal mandate that will get caught in the wringer of Washington politics.

Installing new standards in one’s schools, even solid, ambitious, rigorous, content-rich standards, such as we all hope the “common core” will turn out to be, is a momentous decision. At least if it’s to be more than lip-service—a façade of “adoption” that conceals the same old teachers teaching the same old stuff and assessing it via the same old tests. As most people now realize, standards per se are simply statements of aspiration—the skills and knowledge we yearn for our children to acquire as they pass through primary and secondary schooling. To have real traction and make a material difference in what’s actually learned, standards must be properly implemented.

That includes major changes in curriculum, textbooks, and other instructional materials; in teacher preparation, certification, evaluation and in-service training; in student assessments; in student and school-level accountability systems (both state and federal); in end-of-high-school expectations; and eventually in much more, including college admissions and placement. Because it is such a big deal, states considering adoption of the CCSSI standards should make themselves answer these four questions:

  1. How do the common core standards in math and English/language arts compare with those they’re already using? (We intend to help with this one. Watch for a comparative analysis from Fordham in about six weeks. And we’ll call it as we see it, including noting any cases where state standards turn out to be superior.)
  2. Does the state (and its districts) have the political, organizational, and financial capacity to infuse new and different standards throughout its K-12 system—and all the other systems that connect to it? Some places have recently made sizable investments in implementing their present academic standards. On the other hand, some “economies of scale” will likely result from adopting common standards and tests.
  3. If the new standards are indeed more demanding than the old, and assuming that these loftier expectations are mirrored by new assessments and definitions of “proficiency,” do state (and local) leaders have the intestinal fortitude to deal with the likeliest short-term consequence, namely a lot more kids not being promoted or graduated?
  4. Does the state have the resolve—and the means—to do all this in English language arts and math without short-changing the rest of what educated people must learn in school: science and history, obviously, but also the arts, civics, health, languages and more?

At day’s end, it’s still states that are responsible for public education in the U.S.—and states that must determine whether and how to change it. To be sure, the “common core” carries with it significant implications for the federal government, too, most obviously in the revision of NCLB/ESEA, as well as any later iterations of Race to the Top (and, of course, the grant competition now underway for new assessments).

States will do their kids no favor if they mess up this decision or just go through the motions of embracing new standards, maybe only long enough to qualify for RTT funding. In short order, everyone in those jurisdictions will recognize that this was a false messiah—and educators and voters alike will grow even more cynical about standards-based education reform.

But neither will states benefit their children or enhance their own futures by stubbornly clinging to mediocrity in the face of a rare opportunity to steer the entire K-12 enterprise onto a sounder course than it has been following.

That’s why these decisions should be carefully and soberly made, not rushed to judgment.

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