A leak in the core

Several months ago, a collaboration of major education organizations began work on a high-profile effort to develop common core standards in English language arts and mathematics based on exemplary state standards and benchmarked to top-performing countries. The effort is led by the Council for Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), National Governors Association (NGA) in partnership with ACT, the College Board and Achieve, Inc. According to their press release, the standards will be “fewer, clearer and higher” and are intended to inform the development of state standards. As such they will be voluntary. To date, 46 states have signed on, at least until the results are in.

 We just got an early glimpse when education bloggers leaked the first review draft last week. While the 84-page document challenges the claim of “fewer,” the draft includes a lot of helpful material, examples, etc., that illuminate what the authors mean by the brief standards statements themselves. The aim to be “clearer” has resulted in a minimal use of jargon, certainly when compared to many standards documents. But how clear still depends a lot on the reader.

 I have more familiarity with English language arts than mathematics, and I was able to easily gauge the kind of reading and writing a high school graduate who met these standards could handle. Math is a different story, especially when I’m missing the usual markers of course titles to serve as proxies. But even here, a couple of themes emerge. One, the standards emphasize traditional math concepts, yet really push students beyond the routine application of mathematical rules and procedures, and call on students to basically think mathematically by handling complex, non-routine problems that may not have a single “right” answer. Second, the math standards pay what I think is proper attention to probability and statistics in addition to algebra.      

 One thing is absolutely clear. These standards are higher.  That’s no surprise, since one of the collaboration’s purposes was to develop “college- and career-ready” standards. But I suspect the Goldilocks argument will be the one to dominate the public debate: that is, are the draft standards too high or high enough? Michael Kirst at Stanford University has already weighed in on his blog, writing that “The burden of proof is on the standards group … to demonstrate [2 and 4-yr] college preparation are the same. One way to do this is to have a good grasp of skills needed for exemplar job clusters and job training programs.” At the same time, the goal for “college- and career-ready” is a central part of the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s “race to the top” education agenda.

I think this is the right debate to be having and a good opportunity to raise public awareness of what is required for young graduates entering the workforce and taking care of day-to-day life. The Center’s Defining a 21st Century education is a really good place to start the conversation. —Patte Barth

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