Special Report

May/June 2012 Transcontinental Education

Soon, nearly every state in the union will have the same demanding standards for what students should know. If history is any guide, a burst of innovation won’t be far behind.

By Robert Rothman

To keep the effort at the state level, two organizations of state leaders, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, took the lead. The groups called a meeting at an airport hotel in Chicago in April 2009 to announce the effort and to release a memorandum of understanding, under which states would commit themselves to the initiative. Under the memorandum, states would agree to take part in the development of the standards, but would not necessarily have to adopt the product when it came out. Forty-eight governors and state education chiefs (all but those from Alaska and Texas) signed the agreement. State leaders said they recognized that they could achieve a better product if they pooled their resources rather than work separately.

The process was designed to differ significantly from the standards-setting efforts of the 1990s. Perhaps most importantly, the leaders set the goal of developing standards that would ensure that all students who graduated from high school would be ready for college or the workplace. To that end, the standards setters based their decisions on evidence of what knowledge and skills were essential for post-secondary success. That criterion helped minimize some of the political compromises that had weakened state standards.

The writers of the standards, who included some of the nation’s leading subject-area experts, were guided by a simple mantra: “Fewer, higher, clearer.” That is, they wanted to produce a document that was leaner than many state standards and would provide the focus and coherence that many of the state standards lacked. They wanted standards that would surpass the expectations embodied in many state guidelines—and that, in fact, would be as high as those embodied in the standards of high-performing nations like Finland and Singapore. And they wanted standards that would be clear, so teachers could understand the goals students would be expected to reach and redesign their classrooms to help students attain them.

There is some debate about whether the standards writers achieved all of their goals—for example, a study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania concluded that the common core high school mathematics standards, which were supposed to be leaner and more focused, included more topics than many state standards did. But the common core state standards, released on June 2, 2010, at a ceremony at Peachtree Ridge High School in Suwanee, Georgia, in many ways represented a sea change in American education. The standards set out bold expectations that, if realized, would raise the level of learning for many young people. All students would be expected to understand content deeply, but also be able to apply their knowledge to think critically and solve complex problems.

For example, one of the most significant departures from much current practice in the English language arts standards is the expectation that all students would be able to read and comprehend complex texts. Evidence cited by the standards writers showed that the level of complexity of materials used in entry-level college classes and the workplace had increased in recent years, but that the language used in high school materials had grown easier over time. The common core standards expect all students to demonstrate that they can understand harder and harder texts every year.

The standards also place a great deal of emphasis on the ability to reason from evidence. The standards writers found that many teachers expect students to rely on personal experience or opinions in showing how they respond to writing or write papers on their own. Many essays required for school, for example, are personal narratives with no audience beyond the teacher—“How I Spent My Summer Vacation.” But college professors and employers expect young people to be able to marshal facts in support of a position, and so the standards expect all students to be able to draw on relevant evidence, cite it appropriately, and use it to make a case—and to write effectively and correctly while doing so.

The standards also make clear that reading and writing are not the sole province of English classes. The standards include literacy expectations in history/social science, science, and technical subjects. The standards writers recognized that understanding a historical document or a science journal article requires skills that are different from those needed to comprehend Romeo and Juliet.

The mathematics standards likewise call on students to be able to demonstrate that they understand mathematics and can use their knowledge to solve problems. Guidelines in the early grades expect students to be able not only to apply familiar algorithms but also to show that they understand what these algorithms represent and how to apply their understanding to the way mathematics is used in the world. For example, sixth graders are expected to “solve real-world and mathematical problems involving area, surface area, and volume.”

In high school, the standards place an emphasis on mathematical modeling: using mathematical thinking to analyze real-world situations and make appropriate decisions. Modeling represents the way mathematics is used in careers; workers don’t solve equations that are handed to them, they have to determine the appropriate procedure, gather data, and make decisions based on the best available evidence. The standards expect high school students to learn to do the same.

The standards gained wide acceptance in short order. A few states did not even wait for them to be released to adopt them; Kentucky did so in February, four months before they were final (although the state board of education reserved the right to review the final product). Within weeks of the release, thirty states adopted the standards, and by the end of 2010, forty-three had done so. A few more added their voices in 2011, bringing the total to forty-six states and the District of Columbia. (The Anchorage, Alaska, school district signed on in March 2012, becoming the first district to do so.) The federal government helped push the adoption process along through the Race to the Top program, but by most accounts states were eager to sign on to the effort. Although there have been a few attempts in states to reverse decisions to adopt the standards, all have failed as of this writing.

But adopting the new standards was merely the first step. The steps necessary to implement the standards in classrooms, and to support that implementation through new materials and training for teachers, have been and will continue to be far more significant. They will determine whether the common core state standards, like the railroad standards of the mid-nineteenth century, have the power to be truly transformative.

Robert Rothman is an education writer and a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education. He is the author of Something in Common: The Common Core Standards and the Next Chapter in American Education.


  • Big River Bandido on May 11, 2012 12:40 PM:

    If the only way you measure students against "standards" is high-stakes testing, you take all the "education" out of "reform". Ten years of NCLB has diluted the primary and secondary education experience into nothing but a drill of rote concepts that are likely to appear on standardized tests.

    What good is requiring students to be able to recite the Gettysburg Address if schools aren't allowed the time to teach them what it means?

  • Anonymous on May 11, 2012 1:10 PM:

    that's how students are taught by countries with better educations.
    i hope this will work out great!
    a good non-partisan comprehensive article on educational reform.

  • LoachDriver on May 30, 2012 11:12 PM:

    It's easy to see the benefits of national standards but country mouse I am willing to sacrifice a bit of efficiency to maintain local standards in education.

    Regimented efficiency was a favorite dogma of the Soviet Union & we saw how that worked out, not very well.

  • rick on June 04, 2012 8:56 PM:

    Any school reform generated in ivory towers will become an abject failure. Any experienced teacher can read the handwriting on the wall regarding the common core. I would recommend that the experts generating this newest round of tests spend a marking period in front of a class of 7th graders before that press the print button.