Common Core Standards have caused a dividing line among several voices in education; our own John Merrow has weighed in on the topic as well. We convened several experts to discuss Common Core below. Feel free to post your own comments below, as well. If interested in more of these online discussions, please visit our collection page for the series.

Editor’s Note: We regret an error in editing Susan Ohanian’s initially submitted comments. They have been restored to their original state.

Karen Rambo, Colorado State University

Assessments will be the key here

Karen Rambo is an assistant professor at Colorado State University in the School of Education and School of Teacher Education and Principal Preparation. Her research interests include assessment, academic growth, and mathematics education. She is a ten year veteran mathematics teacher.

The assessments for the Common Core will provide two key components: 1) allowing comparisons of how well individual states are educating their students, and 2) providing critical frequent feedback to teachers on how their students are performing. The former is of interest to policy makers and the media, but it is the latter that gets me excited about the potential of the Common Core. If the creators of the assessments can design tools that allow for frequent specific feedback of student performance, teachers will have the potential to be quite nimble in adjusting their instruction to meet the need of their students.

When I was a classroom teacher, I (like other mathematics teachers) used assessments frequently to try to find what my students knew and tailor my instruction to their needs. I now know that those assessments (often created by me) — while well-intentioned — were often insufficient. I knew my content area well, but I was only informally trained in the art and science of student assessment.

Having just completed my graduate work, I have a new appreciation for the technical savvy and expertise that goes into making a quality assessment. When I was a classroom teacher, I would have loved access to frequent relevant student information derived from high quality assessments — as long as the feedback about my instruction and student performance was constructive and not punitive.

The goals of the assessments for the Common Core are quite extensive but admirable. If the assessments of the Common Core can accomplish their stated goals, then I am optimistic about the success of the Common Core in ensuring all students are career and/or college ready.

Robert Rothman, Alliance for Excellent Education

There are three elements in the Standards’ favor

Robert Rothman, a veteran education writer, is a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education and the author of Something in Common: The Common Core Standards and the Next Chapter in American Education (Harvard Education Press, 2011).

The Common Core Standards represent a significant step forward in American education. Long before other nations, the U.S. established a basic education as a right for every child. Two decades ago, states began setting standards to define the knowledge and skills that should comprise that education. Now, with the Common Core Standards, nearly all states have defined a basic education as what all students should know and be able to do to be prepared for college and careers. And, significantly, the expectations are the same, no matter where a student lives.

A lot has to happen in order to realize this vision, and the record of twenty years of standards-based reform is decidedly mixed. But three factors are in the Standards’ favor. First, they are clear and spell out a logical progression over time. That makes sense to teachers. Second, the assessments that are currently being developed are designed explicitly to measure the full range of the Standards. Of course, there could be some slippage, but that is the intent, and because of the influence of tests on instruction, this is a powerful lever for change. Third, the fact that forty-six states have adopted the Standards means that other institutions that paid little mind to standards in the past — such as higher education, teacher education, and textbook publishers — are paying close attention to these Standards.

There have been fierce debates over education policy in recent years, but none of the issues that have become such flashpoints are likely to produce anywhere near the impact on student learning that the Common Core could produce. That’s because they don’t address what Dick Elmore calls the “instructional core” — the interactions between students and teachers that are the heart of learning. The Common Core goes straight to the instructional core. Done right, they can affect nearly every classroom in America — and for the better.

Susan Ohanian, Teacher/Author

We’re being steamrolled into one-size-fits-all

Susan Ohanian is a longtime teacher and author of 25 books on education policy and practice. One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards was provoked by the last time corporate bullies tried to push curriculum mandates into the schools. Her website in opposition to NCLB, Race to the Top, and the Common Core was awarded the George Orwell Award for Honesty and Clarity in Public Language.

We’d do well to heed 19th-century abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher warning to gardeners against being “made wild by pompous catalogue.” These days, Common Core State Standards (CCSS) hucksters pitch a pomposity more noxious than giant hogweed. We should name the CCSS for what it is “a dangerous distraction from the real needs of children. No matter how many hundreds of millions the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pours into developing, promoting, and enforcing the CCSS, no matter how many desperate governors sign on to collect blood money from Arne Duncan’s flimflam supporting Gates’ obsession, no matter how many curriculum border patrol agents police school hallways to make sure all 15-year-olds are reading Death in August on schedule, the poverty rate of children attending most urban and many rural schools exceeds.

Here’s a central problem: despite all the money and policing that goes into this, the poverty rate of children attending most urban and many rural schools exceeds 50 percent — and that remains the elephant in the room. The fact that so many of our children live in poverty, not teacher incompetence or a dearth of rigorous texts, is what should concern us. If the Standardistos weren’t so intent on downgrading the very idea that fiction teaches important lessons, they might heed Alice Walker’s observation: The most important question in the world is, “Why is the child crying?”

Back during a different education crisis, I received an emergency credential to teach English in a New York City high school larger than my hometown. When one of my students refused to read the assigned text, I panicked and ran to my department chair. He gave me the best pedagogical advice I ever received: “Then find a book he will read.”

Later, when I taught 8th grade, 15-year-old Keith was astounded to read his first book ever. “I read it, Miz O. I really read it. Honest. Listen, I’ll read it again.” Keith’s reading of Hop on Pop is one of the triumphs of my career. Funny thing: My principal hadn’t understood my determination to subscribe to the Dr. Seuss book club. And today’s CCSS fundamentalists would term Keith’s experience as my failure to supply the “substantial supports and accommodations” to give him “access to rigorous academic content” such as Little Women, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” and Travels with Charley.

As ever dutiful teachers across the country provide scaffolding to force feed rigorous books chosen by committees outsourced from Achieve, Inc., millions of children will never want to read another book. Look up the definition of rigor.

Billed as the CCSS architect, David Coleman delivered a teaching guide to the pompous and sterile pedagogy underlying CCSS when he spoke at the New York State Department of Education in April 2011, proclaiming, “[A]s you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a sh*t about what you feel or what you think.” Certainly, nobody writing the CCSS gave a fig about what teachers thought, and now the model lessons designed to turn English classrooms into boot camps for the global economy are spreading faster than ragweed. Coleman heralds the CCSS emphasis on nonfiction, insisting that readers gain “world knowledge” through nonfiction, which he calls “informational text,” as though fiction doesn’t provide readers with plenty of critical information. Skeptics might doubt that replacing Brown Bear, Brown Bear with a Wikipedia entry on Ursus arctos will fix our balance of trade — but the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s Web site is listed as a CCSS exemplary text.

Although I find it easy to mock the CCSS exemplary texts, don’t misunderstand: If the CCSS listed all my favorite books, I’d still denounce it. Different readers need different books, and teachers discover children’s needs through close encounters, not by committee fiat. Education policy makers should read Arnold Lobel’s lovely little fable “Crocodile in the Bedroom.” A crocodile who loved the neat and tidy rows of the flowers on the bedroom wallpaper was coaxed outside into the garden by his wife. The crocodile couldn’t stand the “terrible tangle” and retreated to his bed, admiring the neat and tidy wallpaper. There, “he turned a very pale and sickly shade of green.” With David Coleman as their spokesman out on the stump, the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the U. S. Department of Education –acting in concert with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, — prescribe a very pale, sickly shade of green future for our deliciously messy classrooms. Certainly, Lobel’s moral — without a doubt, there is such a thing as too much order — is critical here. Letting corporate school reformers steamroll our schools into a neat and tidy standardized one-size-fits-all product puts our children in great peril.

John Cronin, NWEA

What’s important is the quality of the response to adversity

John Cronin is the Director of the Kingsbury Center at Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA).

For ten years now, thanks to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), teachers have focused their efforts on increasing the rate of student proficiency on state assessments. Our organization’s research has found that proficiency standards on these assessments are generally very low. And because NCLB’s accountability formula is focused on increasing proficiency rates, most schools devote their energy to moving relatively small numbers of kids performing near the proficiency bar -“bubble kids” in educator lingo - above it.

The Common Core standards represent a major departure from current state standards in three respects:

1. The standards are substantively different. A May 2011 University of Pennsylvania study found only low to moderate alignment between current state standards and the Common Core. This suggests that teachers will be expected to deliver significantly different curriculum as we make the transition to the new standards.

2. The expectations are higher. The Common Core standards are grounded in the concept that students should leave school ready to enter college without requiring remedial courses. If the tests associated with the standard truly reflect this, then meeting this standard requires much higher performance by kids than is currently demanded by state assessments.

3. The standards affect everyone. The accountability expectations associated with the Common Core focus on evaluating schools and teachers by the growth they produce for all students rather than the number of kids who achieve proficiency. Teachers can’t meet these expectations by focusing on a few bubble kids; they will have to deliver instruction that is aimed at moving all students forward, regardless of their current performance.

All of this is a good thing, but it’s a huge change. Schools have spent the last decade calibrating their practices to a system that was focused on moving a few more kids each year over a low, fixed, achievement bar. Now we’re asking educators to teach to a much higher bar and adapt practices that move every kid forward. Let’s not be surprised when initial results on assessments of the Common Core seem disappointing, and let’s judge schools instead on the quality of their response to these challenges.

B. Jason Brooks, Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability

It could be great — or it could be an exercise in futility

B. Jason Brooks is the Director of Research at the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability.

The new Common Core learning standards in English language arts and math are a firm step in the right direction. As a nation, we are saying what students should know and what they should be able to do at each grade level. Yet, as significant as this development is, reformers need to tread cautiously to put this effort, and its potential results, into proper perspective.

Simply changing learning standards won’t result in improved student outcomes. Other things – big things – need to change as well.

Academic content that gets tested is more likely get taught, especially if there is a teacher-evaluation system in place that takes student achievement on assessments into consideration. Recognizing this, the federal government awarded nearly $400 million to state consortiums to fund the development of new rigorous assessments based on the Common Core learning standards. The hope is that these exams will allow states to evaluate how well students are meeting learning expectations.

It remains to be seen if state leaders will have the courage to implement assessments that are as comprehensive and rigorous as they need to be. Results of the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam, commonly referred to as the “gold standard” of assessments, reveal that a whopping 63 percent of the nation’s 8th graders failed to demonstrate grade-level proficiency in reading and 57 percent failed in math. Are these numbers the type that state education leaders are willing to admit? In the past, states have watered-down their exams and lowered the scores needed to pass, and thus artificially inflating pass rates, rather than telling families that most students aren’t being adequately prepared for college or a career. States must avoid similar temptations for the new Common Core is to be a success.

While national standards movement shows promise, the devil will be in the details of its implementation. Without proper rigor in both the content of these standards and the assessments designed to measure what our children have learned, this latest Common Core standards effort will rightly be little more than an expensive, time-wasting, over-hyped national exercise.

Joe Aguerrebere, Former President/CEO of NBPTS

A true turning point in our education policy history

Joe Aguerrebere is a former President and CEO of NBPTS (2003-2011), as well as a Deputy Director of the Ford Foundation from 1994 to 2003.

Common Core has the potential to provide consistency, focus, and coherence regarding what all students in this country should learn where there is now wide variation in student learning and performance. However, standards are only the beginning. The standards move us toward some agreement on the first pillar of a quality education program, which is a consensus on what students should learn, often referred to as a curriculum. A second pillar addresses what and how we actually teach inside the classroom, or instruction. A third pillar involves what and how we assess learning so that we know what is working and what needs adjustment.

Moving ahead, there are many concerns to address. The first is that the standards are currently limited to English/Language Arts and mathematics. A well-rounded education demands more than a focus on two subjects. In addition, the groups that develop the standards for any subject should contain more generalists who can provide a counterbalance to the content heavy influence of subject matter specialists. A bottom line question for the inclusion of any set of standards should be “why does learning this stuff really matter in life?”

Secondly, standards should never be seen as final, but rather dynamic with periodic updating to maintain their currency. Therefore, the governance structure for oversight must be performed by a body that is inclusive, transparent, and independent. The current oversight is performed by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association. Unfortunately the membership of these organizations tends to change rapidly due to the volatility of electoral politics. This leads to a risk that the standards can be affected by shifts of political ideology and consequently lose their credibility. Therefore, a governance structure must maintain an arms-length relationship with any policy-making organizations.

Lastly, we know that student learning and performance will vary with some students reaching the standards and others not. What happens to students who have not mastered the standards? Unless standards are used to set targets and develop action plans to help all students achieve, we run the risk of standards being used as new barriers to keep students from charting a road to college and careers.

What we do now will determine whether standards become another barrier or a constructive tool to support all students.

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