Thursday, March 7, 2013

Common Core Now

By Jon McGill, Director of Academic Affairs, Baltimore Curriculum Project

The motivation behind the national Common Core State Standards, now adopted by forty six states and the District of Columbia, is straightforward and clear: such standards would provide an immediate improvement for most of the states who signed up, improvement in curriculum, in assessments and in results.  According to the newest report from The Brown Center on Education Policy at The Brookings Institution, “proponents point to the intuitive appeal of a common curriculum……”, although, of course, the CCSS are not a common curriculum, just common standards to be assessed.  The content of the curriculum is still as fragmented across the states as ever. The Brown Center report goes on to say that the CCSS are based on three “theorized effects”.  First, that the standards are superior to those now in play in most states; two, that setting higher expectations will push states to do the same and, three, that “standardization yields its own efficiencies.”

The introduction to the standards first published in June 2010 pointed out that the rationale for them was that they would be “research and evidence based, aligned with college and work expectations, rigorous and internationally benchmarked.” Further, the standards were designed to “lay out a vision of what it means to be a literate person in the twenty-first century.”  This attempt to set a path and promote higher expectations is a worthy endeavor.  It has also, nearly three years later, still not provided the tests that will replace many state standardized tests, and the assessments are not due to begin officially until 2014, so many teachers live in a state of nervous frenzy as they try to grapple with what the standards will make explicit for their classroom practices. As teacher evaluation becomes increasingly linked to test outcomes, this nervousness will grow.

The test development agency PARCC (Partnership for Achievement and Readiness for College and Career) is a 22-member consortium charged with developing assessment tools that will link directly to the common core. There are a number of pilot projects across the country but, to date, no final versions of any tests that will accompany common core state standards. On March 5, 2013, PARCC announced a pilot testing program, following an August 2012, press release in which PARCC presented a small sample of some of their test questions. In addition, there is the “Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium”, a lesser-known group of 19 “governing” states and three “advisory” states which is also funded federally to produce assessments based on the CCSS.

Both consortiums will provide tests that run on computer platforms and both claim that the tests will go “much deeper” and be much more analytical that those created as “bubble tests” for most state standardized tests.  Almost all signatories to the CCSS report that they believe, in the words of ASCD Executive Director Gene Carter, that “Creating such high standards is the first step in transforming our education system.”  (ASCD InfoBrief, December, 2010). However, the existence of two potentially competing consortiums, and the oft-ignored fact that some states have not signed on to CCSS mean that the jury is still out, and will be for some time, on whether a significant improvement is embedded in the mere existence of CCSS. Minnesota, for example, opted out of CCSS because of what they felt were inadequate mathematics standards.  Virginia opted out , preferring their own “already very high” standards to those of CCSS. Alaska and Texas have also opted out, for various reasons.

A recent article by Robert Rothman (July/August, 2012) in the Harvard Graduate School Of Education journal outlines nine areas of classroom practice that will change as a result of common core adaptation. For example, in mathematics, Rothmans argues, as have many others, that fewer means better: fewer topics will allow for more analysis and better definition of what really matters. “Teachers might allow students more time to work on problems rather than expect them to come up with solutions instantaneously” is how Rothmans sees it. For Language Arts, there will be more non-fiction, greater focus on evidence, and “staircasing”, (no doubt soon to be a buzzword!), which means moving from simple to complex texts.  Speaking and listening skills will be assessed: Rothmans points out these are rarely included in current state standards. Clearly, the advocates of Common Core are in unison when it comes to extolling the potential gains for the assessment standards.

The heart of the matter, however, rests in two connected locations: first, the issue of classroom practice and, second, the deeply entwined issue of teacher preparedness.  The assumption that higher expectations produces better results is attractive but the evidence that there is a causal relationship rather than merely a correlation is currently thin. The Brown Center report (cited above) is clear is its determination that assessments and raised expectations, on their own, have historically done little to increase academic achievements. While many educators extol the myriad virtues of the CCSS, there may be less enthusiasm if other things are not put in place to support the assessments.

Another report of some interest, though less current, is the ACT publication “A First Look At The Common Core and College and Career Readiness”. This report, published in 2010, provides some daunting evidence about the lack of preparedness, at that time, of students for the high expectations of CCSS. For example, only 31% of students were ready to deal with complex texts at the level the CCSS expects.  In mathematics, only 34% performed a level, on number and quantity, asked by the CCSS.  The ACT report follows those statistics by making “Recommendations to Polcymakers”.  These recommendations focus on preparing teachers and districts for the implementation in the classroom of the CCSS:ACT is fully endorsing the CCSS but clearly believes that without major shifts not only in the professional development of teachers but also in local, state and federal resources made available to schools, the arrival of CCSS will not make much difference in the low statistical performance cited. In other words, ACT agrees with the Brown Center analysis that suggests new standards, on their won, will do little to raise achievement.  New practices might do that, new training, new ways of training and evaluating teachers might do that, and new revenue streams for education might do that.  However, without those three, the CCSS efforts might end up with so many other “initiatives”, on the sidelines. It is also true that assessments, from whatever source, are not substitutes for curriculum and while there are still those who philosophically want to fight the battle for a national curriculum (Bill Gates, for example), the Common Core is not likely to stimulate a move in that direction. Indeed, it is entirely possible that, as the tests are rolled out and the stakes get higher, some of the enrolled states choose the path of Minnesota and Virginia and opt, after all, for their existing standards.

What we look for, now, as the pilot testing is rolled out and the deadlines for implementation draw ever nearer, are more signs that classroom practice and teacher skill development are the focal points of professional development and preparation for CCSS.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that the landscape of education has been so recently fraught with issues such as teacher evaluation and threats to job security that our attention to the details of what Common Core means for daily practice has been compromised.  Therefore, the gap between what districts think they have provided, in terms of training and guidance for administrators and teachers, and what teachers believe they need to improve their practice has grown.  This leaves teachers in that familiar position they know so well, trapped between meta-policy on one hand and the burdens of daily requirements on the other. There will be less and less time to make sense of all this.