The New K-12 Standards Debate

Peter Wood

The Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) recently released a draft of K-12 standards for public comment.  And the public, including members of the National Association of Scholars, has responded.  NAS itself has yet to take an official stand and may not in view of the diversity of opinions among our members.  But we are keenly interested and would like to advance the discussion.  To that end, we are providing some links to articles pro and con the proposed standards and some background for readers who have not followed this story in detail. 

1.  First, the standards are the work not of the federal government but of CCSSI.  You will sometimes see CCSSI referred to as “Common Core,” not to be confused with another group named “Common Core,” that also promotes common educational standards.  For the sake of sanity, we’ll stick with the name CCSSI (which we pronounce see-S-e).  CCSSI was created by the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).  The latter sponsors dozens of educational improvement projects and has been out in front promoting CCSSI.  In December, CCSSO executive director Gene Wilhoit testified to the House Education and Labor Committee on the excellence of CCSSI.    

2.  Not being a federal thing, CCSSI is also not a mandatory thing.  States can opt in or out.  But there is a federal angle.  Opting out of the standards essentially means opting out of the purse put up by the Department of Education in the form of the $4 billion “Race to the Top” (RttT). 

3. So let’s glance at the Race.  It is the part of Obama’s education reform agenda that has made the most news (RttT), and it is essentially a fund that rewards states that participate in four specific reforms:

  • Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace and to compete in the global economy;
  • Building data systems that measure student growth and success, and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve instruction;
  • Recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most; and
  • Turning around our lowest-achieving schools. 

4.  The draft K-12 standards for public comment are not CCSSI’s first fruits.  They were preceded last September by The college- and career-readiness standards, which are something like the scaffolding on which the K-12 standards have been hung.   

5. The connections between the CCSSI and the Obama administration’s broader educational agenda are complicated.  Early in his term, President Obama committed his administration to another round of school reform.  His agenda for education at that point declared that “President Obama and Vice President Biden believe that our kids and our country can’t afford four more years of neglect and indifference” and he promised to end “education programs that don’t work.”  In place of these unnamed albatrosses, he proposed “preparing our children to compete in a global economy.”  CCSSI echoes this rhetoric in its emphasis on “college readiness standards” and “skills” rather than content or subject specific knowledge. 

6. President Obama’s agenda for education has advanced since then, sometimes in curious ways.  The program Head Start, for example, is widely reckoned by experts to have minimal value, but instead of ending up on the chopping block for “education programs that don’t work,” Head Start has shared in a $5 billion pat on the back as part of the stimulus bill.   The Obama administration has played favorites with education programs it likes.  Whatever happens with CCSSI, the administration’s partiality towards it should be understood as a political calculation more than a judgment of its educational merits. 

7. President Obama also floated the idea of withholding Title I funding from states that don’t adopt reading and math standards that pass federal muster—presumably CCSSI.  Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is the principal source of federal aid to schools. 

8. Some states have already declared that they are not interested in CCSSI.  Other states are weighing their options.  Texas and Alaska were the original hold-outs.  Massachusetts, Virginia, Minnesota, and California are pondering their options.  The problem as these states see it is that their educational standards are already higher than CCSSI.  If they adopt the standards in a bid for Race to the Top millions, they will actually have to lower their educational ambitions.  NAS board member Sandra Stotsky co-authored with Ze’ev Wurman a report that nicely captures this irony.  In Why Race to the Middle?  First-Class State Standards Are better than Third-Class National Standards they review the foundational document for CCSSI, the college- and career-readiness standards mentioned above (see #4).  They endorse the idea of common standards for the states, or at least competition among the states for standards, but not standards as low as the CCSSI ones. Stotsky and Wurman conclude, “Common Core College Readiness will not get you into college.” 

9. We have received several other critiques of the CCSSI standards in the form of testimony before state boards of education.  Last week the New Jersey Board of Education heard a statement by Susan Wolfson, Professor of English at PrincetonUniversity and president of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers. She expressed her and her ALSCW colleagues’ disappointment “to see nothing in the ‘college-and career-readiness standards’ that serves to frame cumulative, graduated learning in literary history, traditions, forms, styles, and significant writers.”  

  10.   Yesterday Sandra Stotsky presented a critique of the English Language Arts (ELA) component of CCSSI’s proposed standards before the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Stotsky characterizes these standards as “culture-free and content-empty.” For example, Standard 1 for literature calls for students to be able to “cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.” That standard isn’t tied to any particular author, book, or subject—or for that matter, to any particular grade level. The version just quoted is for grade 6 but the versions for grades 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12 are essentially paraphrases. One of Stotsky’s strongest criticisms is that standards such as these don’t progress in difficulty from year to year. 

      11.  Bert Fristedt, a mathematician at the University of Minnesota, has critiqued the math portion of the CCSSI proposed standards. He is troubled by their diffuseness. He says the standards include way too many particular items and often scramble them in illogical ways. Seventh graders, for example, are asked to examine cubed numbers but aren’t taught integer exponents until high school. The standards also contain much vague language about having young students “understand” mathematical concepts before they have any practical grasp of them. Learning math is like learning to ride a bicycle. You have to be able to do it before you can theorize it. Like Stotsky, Fristedt sees problems with the progression from grade to grade in these standards and takes that as an indication that they are not “well-thought-out.”  

  12. CCSSI has floated its draft standards for math and English language arts (ELA). The ELA standards include a subsection on “literacy” in history, social studies, and science, not to be confused with actual history, social studies, and science. Substantive standards in those subjects will come later. An NGA spokesman last October promised that CCSSI would get to these as soon as it had nailed math and English.  

  13. Because history, social studies, and science standards are up in the air, individual states are hashing out their own standards in these areas with an eye out for how their efforts will mesh with CCSSI. These state efforts have occasioned a great deal of controversy on their own. For example, Ohio is attempting to meet a June 2010 deadline for social studies academic content standards revisions. The state is inviting comments until April 19 on its standards drafts. Eric Price addressed the Ohio State Board of Education, advancing the idea that the standards “be reviewed by members of the National Association of Scholars.” Volunteers? Columbus calls.  

  14. Neal McClusky at the Cato Institute worries that the new standards will “move us one step closer to complete centralization of education, which portends many potentially bad things, from total special-interest domination to even more wasteful spending.” 

  15. But Chester Finn at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute advances five good reasons conservatives should “take seriously” the proposed standards. He says they’re intellectually solid, voluntary, and will help parents make better school choices.  

  16. Lynne Munson, president of Common Core (the actual organization with that name) praises the standards as having “far exceeded the expectations of those of us who want to return content to the center of our children’s education.” Stotsky and Wolfson criticized the ELA standards for being excessively focused on “skills,” as opposed to important books and substantive knowledge. But Munson extols the emphasis on skills and argues that “students must read texts closely in order to meet these standards.” 

  17. Last July, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in announcing the Race to the Top, said that he expected the RttT to promote “common, internationally-benchmarked K-12 standards that truly prepare students for college and careers,” and to that end would “set aside $350 million to competitively fund the development of rigorous, common state assessments.” Last week in a conference call to reporters, Duncan said that CCSSI is “providing extraordinary leadership.” On March 17 he testified to the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee: “we call on states to adopt college and career ready standards,” referring to the CCSSI standards. 

The National Association of Scholars, of course, focuses primarily on higher education. It is impossible, however, to grapple with the problems in colleges and universities without taking into account the poor preparation in K-12 of millions of the students who matriculate. The nation’s schools, by common consent, fall far short of reasonable expectations in preparing students for the college classroom. The Obama administration, enthusiastically backed by the Carnegie Corporation, the College Board, the Lumina Foundation, and a who’s who of higher education, have called for a massive expansion—actually a doubling—of college enrollments by the end of this decade. The prospect at the moment is that colleges and universities will be overwhelmed with a flood of ill-educated and unqualified undergraduate students. 

We would be in favor of higher standards in K-12 education in any case, but we are especially in favor of such reform in view of the deluge to come. Are the CCSSI standards a step in the right direction? Or are they a hastily-assembled and ill-thought-through expedient? Your assignment is to choose one and tell us why in 250 words or less. 

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