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Common Core State Standards: Not Your Father’s Standards

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February 21, 2012 03:35 pm

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The Common Core State Standards represent one of the most significant developments in education in decades, and they deserve the scrutiny that Tom Loveless has given them. And in general, looking at the past is a good way of figuring out what might happen with similar initiatives in the future. But predicting the effects of the Common Core State Standards based on the effects of previous state standards is like predicting the performance of a Chevy Volt based on that of the Chevy Impala. These are not your father’s standards.

In the nearly two years since the Common Core State Standards were released, a number of activities have taken place that provide some reason for hope that these new standards will make a difference in ways that previous standards did not. Three main reasons stand out.

First, states and districts have developed detailed plans for implementing the standards, by adopting new curriculum materials, providing professional development for teachers, and revising tests, among other things. These efforts have been accelerated in many ways through technology. For example, Kentucky is building a web-based tool that will provide teachers with easy access to lessons, formative assessments, curriculum material, and professional development. These kinds of actions happened sporadically, at best, in the 1990s and 2000s.

Second, the fact that nearly all states have adopted the Common Core State Standards has made possible cross-state and national efforts to develop materials and prepare teachers to implement the standards that simply could not have happened when each state developed its own standards. For example, a group of mathematics educators has formed to revamp teacher preparation in a range of colleges of education to align with the Common Core State Standards. In addition, publishers like Pearson are developing new, innovative curriculum materials based on the standards; without a national market, these materials would not have been developed in the past two decades.

Third, and perhaps most significantly, the two state consortia now developing assessments to measure performance against the Common Core State Standards will likely do more than anything else to ensure that the standards make a difference. These assessments promise to be closely aligned to the standards, and many of the standards-writers are involved in their development. And the proposals by the consortia make clear that the assessments will incorporate new techniques to measure more challenging content and skills. In the past, by contrast, state assessments were not well aligned to state standards, and tended to measure relatively low-level knowledge and skills. Because of the consequences associated with the tests, the tests were much more influential on practice than the standards. Little wonder the standards did not raise performance overall and close achievement gaps.

To be sure, the new assessments might not live up to their promise. And funding challenges and other problems might scuttle the state plans for implementing the Standards.

But the actions taken so far, and the seriousness with which people are taking the Standards, suggests that this time around the Standards might have a much greater effect than previous efforts.

Sometimes, history doesn’t repeat itself.

Robert Rothman is a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education and author of Something in Common: The Common Core Standards and the Next Chapter in American Education. To order a copy, visit http://www.hepg.org/hep/book/146/SomethingInCommon.

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