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

The most significant step has been the development of common assessments—you might know them as standardized tests—to measure student performance against the standards. Tests play a hugely important role in influencing classroom practice. But as the usually derisive tone of the phrase “teaching to the test” suggests, the influence of state tests has been, in many cases, negative. That’s because test development is expensive, and states have opted to build relatively cheap multiple-choice tests that fail to measure students’ abilities to think critically and solve problems. The common core standards make it possible for states to pool resources and develop tests that are much more ambitious than states could pay for on their own, and thus should drive classroom practice in a more positive direction.

The U.S. Education Department jump-started the development effort by awarding $330 million to two consortia of states that are creating tests that promise to be major advances from current practice. These tests, scheduled to be ready for the classroom in the 2014-15 school year, are expected to ask students to perform tasks, such as conducting research and writing lengthy essays, that will measure much deeper skills and competencies than do current tests. That, in turn, will encourage teachers to have their students conduct extended projects and write extensively—experiences they will need in college and the workplace. Although the effort holds enormous promise, the consortia are under extremely tight deadlines, and whether they will be able to carry out their ambitious plans remains to be seen.

Other cross-state innovations are under way. For example, a group of mathematics educators known as the Mathematics Teacher Education Partnership has launched an effort to work with middle and high school teachers to revamp teacher preparation programs to ensure that new teachers are prepared to teach to the expectations of the common core standards. The partnership is lining up potential participants; the initial planning committee includes educators from eight states.

For-profit organizations are also getting in on the act. Pearson, one of the largest commercial textbook publishers, is developing a series of K-12 curriculum materials designed to align with the common core standards. The materials, developed with input from members of the teams that wrote the guidelines, will be delivered completely online, through devices like the iPad. They will include projects for students to complete, texts and digital materials to support students in conducting projects, and assessments to check student understanding. The firm has received support for this effort from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; as a condition of this support, some of the materials will be available to all schools free of charge.

Other firms are likely to follow suit. The fact that nearly all states have adopted the common core standards means that textbook companies no longer have to tailor their products to individual states or produce a hodgepodge of materials that reflect different states’ standards. They can sell to a nearly national market. At the same time, the availability of technology makes possible online learning resources, which are relatively inexpensive to produce and can now be used in any state.

Many innovations are taking place at the state level as well. For example, Kentucky, the first state to adopt the common core standards, has led the way in preparing teachers to work with the new standards, make changes in classroom instruction, and make expectations clear for students. The Kentucky department of education prepared an extensive analysis that compared the common core with Kentucky’s previous standards, and distributed it widely. Kentucky Educational Television also prepared online units for parents, teachers, and community members to explain the standards, and the Prichard Committee, a statewide organization of civic leaders, developed a campaign to explain the new guidelines and why they matter to parents and community members across the state.

The state department of education also built an online portal called Kentucky’s Continuous Instructional Improvement Technology System, which will host lessons, tests, and curriculum materials. The system will also include podcasts produced by higher education faculty to help educate teachers about new instructional strategies designed around the standards.

In addition, the state has engaged its higher education institutions. The Council on Postsecondary Education, the governing body of colleges and universities, is working with the K-12 education system to develop assessments based on the standards to be used to determine placement in first-year college courses. And colleges of education are redesigning their teacher preparation programs to align them with the expectations of the standards.

The common core state standards still could face a number of challenges, and one of them is political. Despite the widespread adoption of the standards among states, the concept still faces opposition from a small group of critics who consider them—contrary to the evidence—a federal takeover of what has been a state responsibility. Legislatures in half a dozen states have considered bills to review the adoption of the standards, and the state board of Alabama, with a new composition, considered a bid to revoke their approval. As of this writing, all of these efforts have failed.

The opponents have something of an advantage, in that many of the leaders who spearheaded the common core effort are no longer in office. After the 2010 election, thirty new governors and twenty-five new state school superintendents took office. These new leaders had not signed the 2009 memorandum of understanding that put the standards effort into motion. But the failure of the repeal efforts thus far suggests that there is a strong base of support for the common core.

While that diffuse sense of enthusiasm for the standards has helped repel political attacks, in other ways the lack of a centralized governance structure may be a liability. Without an overarching authority, there is no system of quality control. Companies can produce products and claim that they are aligned to the standards, but there is no independent way to judge the validity of their claims. And what will happen when it is time to revise the standards, when new evidence suggests that topics might need to be added or taken out? Who will oversee that process? While states have led the effort so far, a more formal mechanism might be needed.

A third challenge is financial. It costs money to develop new tests, buy new textbooks and other materials, and train teachers—but the standards were adopted at one of the worst fiscal moments in American history. States are trying to upgrade their education system at a time when they are cutting budgets across the board. Moreover, states vary widely in the extent to which they are preparing to implement the standards. While most states have pledged some form of professional development for teachers, in some states these could end up being superficial. States are only beginning to engage their higher education institutions in the effort, which could delay changes in teacher education, and not all are like Kentucky in putting together resources for teachers and parents.

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.