By Ze’ev Wurman and Sandra Stotsky
Published in the MetroWest Daily News
It began as an admirable idea. Develop a set of national K-12 English and math standards states could sign on to voluntarily to help reduce race- and class-based achievement gaps, ensure high standards for all public school students, and help make the United States more competitive in the global economy.
But just a year later, national standards are looking far less admirable. President Obama just announced that signing on to once voluntary standards would be a condition for receipt of federal funding, even though the standards aren’t even complete and recent drafts are woefully deficient.
In short, the “Common Core College Readiness” standards wouldn’t get you into college. Our review of a recent draft finds that they fail to meet the requirements of almost all the nation’s state colleges and universities.
The standards are not benchmarked against those in high-achieving countries. As a result, requirements at higher grade levels lag one-to-two years behind academic standards in those countries.
The math drafts cover too few topics to adequately prepare students for college. The standards place topics in the wrong grades and dumb down critical stepping stones to college success.
High school math teachers will look in vain for course standards in Algebra II, pre-calculus, or trigonometry. The drafters deem algebra, which the prestigious National Math Advisory Panel identified as the key to higher math study, as an outdated organizing principle.
The English language arts (ELA) standards aren’t much better. They often show little increase in difficulty from grade to grade and contain few substantive requirements.
Neither the so-called top-level college- and career-readiness ELA standards nor the tests to be based on them would require students to demonstrate familiarity with the major authors and works of American and British literary history. That familiarity is what allows them to be educated readers of the nation’s seminal political documents.
The top-level standards aren’t really academic standards at all, just content-free generic skills.
Some states, like Connecticut and West Virginia, have implemented standards similar to these drafts, with predictable results. Rather than improving student achievement and narrowing achievement gaps, they’ve had exactly the opposite effect. In recent years, Connecticut reversed course and adopted standards modeled on Massachusetts’ content-rich curriculum frameworks.
States like Massachusetts have the most to lose. Its model standards are one of the major reasons for Bay State students’ unprecedented performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card. Yet the national standards haven’t sufficiently drawn on them.
A thoughtful, deliberative process was used to develop strong state standards. The process by which draft national standards have been developed leaves the distinct impression that the U.S. Department of Education, National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers knew they had something to hide when they formed the Common Core State Standards Initiative. For months, no membership lists were available for the standards development committees, even though their work was proceeding.
Rather than giving this important topic the deliberation it deserves, the process is being rushed. Standards are to be developed and implemented in less than a year, and this important work is being undertaken by people who lack the necessary qualifications for writing K-12 math and ELA standards. Recently we learned that only three weeks will be allowed for public feedback before the standards would be finalized.
Many of us were pleased when president used the carrot of federal “Race to the Top” (RttT) grant money as an incentive to get states to lift arbitrary charter school restrictions. But that success seems to have created the dangerous precedent of using federal money to dictate state education policy.
State and local governments foot more than 90 percent of the bill for public K-12 education. Recognizing this, the Obama administration should eliminate the adoption of national standards as a criterion for receipt of RttT grants.
There may be merit to the goal of national academic standards. But recent drafts are third rate and the process by which they have been developed severely wanting. It’s time to take a step back before we adopt standards that would leave American students less ready for authentic college coursework in mathematics and English than they are now and damage the nation’s economic competitiveness.
Ze’ev Wurman was active in developing California’s standards and assessments. Sandra Stotsky is a member of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.