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Common Standards: The Writers Speak

It was an interesting forum on the common standards yesterday at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The two very smart and articulate standards-writers who spoke, Jason Zimba from the math panel and David Coleman from English/language arts, focused on the content of—and thinking behind—the standards. They steered clear of most implementation and policy issues. (Goodness knows, there are plenty of those.)

Video of the forum is available here. A few highlights (I know, the expanse of gray below doesn't suggest "a few." But hey, these things are really hard to talk about briefly! And even this offers only a sense of the discussion. Please watch for yourself! Even better, review the actual standards and then watch for yourself.):

Fordham President Checker Finn, who moderated the event, asked the speakers at one point to address eight "flash points" on the standards. Zimba got a laugh when he responded that even the question itself made him "want to go wincing back to the gentle arms of quantum theory."

I won't be able to summarize all the answers from both subject areas. So when the video is posted, I urge you to listen for yourselves. But one of the flash points was the very hot question about whether the standards prepare students for Algebra 1 in 8th grade. Zimba said that the grade K-7 standards have the "intellectual prerequisites" for an "authentic, rigorous" Algebra 1 course in 8th grade, but that they were not designed to force every student into that path. Nor are the standards at 8th grade to be viewed as an authentic, rigorous, stand-alone Algebra 1 course, he said. The standards have to "click into a lot of different environments" state to state, Zimba said. (I can already hear a range of mathematicians and math educators groaning or screaming here, for a variety of reasons.)

Finn asked how the math standards fit into the debate about "integrated" math curriculum versus the traditional Algebra 1-geometry-Algebra 2-trigonometry pathway. Zimba said the standards are designed in "conceptual categories," not course titles, to maximize flexibility in that area, rather than to resolve the issue.

The next question was quick and easy: How, Finn asked, do the standards resolve the debate about the role memorizing math facts should play in learning math? Practically a sigh of relief there: The standards expect kids to know math facts by memory, Zimba said. "We've resolved that," he added with a smile.

There were two more questions about math flash points—how they resolve the debates about calculator use and how much statistics students need— but to keep this post from being as long as the Torah, let me jump to the three English "flash points." The first focused on whether the primary-grade levels of the standards were faithful to the findings of the National Reading Panel. Coleman said that while "big issues" remain, early reading is an area of great consensus, and that the standards, as a result, balance the importance of comprehension and knowledge with fluency in those years.

Another question for Coleman was how the English standards balance the tension between skills and knowledge development. He said the standards require knowledge of science, literature, and other fields, and also include a separate strand of language skills in spoken and written English, such as vocabulary. The strand was "controversial," but the standards-writers felt those skills were important, he said, adding, "We're conservative in that way."

Addressing the argument that a required reading list should be part of the standards, Coleman said a reading list is meaningless unless students master various types of texts of sufficient complexity, a chief aim of these new English standards. That said, the document supplies dozens of examples of texts that describe the quality and range of what students should be reading, he said. And they strongly suggest inclusion of important works such as Jane Eyre and Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1964 "Letter From Birmingham Jail." In one little glimpse of how the final version of the standards could evolve, Coleman did say that "world literature" will be "more present" in the next version than it is in the current draft.

The American Federation of Teachers' consultant David Sherman asked how curriculum, professional development, and assessments will take shape to maximize the utility of the standards. (There is a lot of buzz out there about this; lots of folks moving or getting ready to move in these areas.) Both speakers demurred here, noting that states, unions, foundations, and others are discussing this in various ways. (That's putting it mildly.)

A final note: It was clear yesterday that organizations supportive of the common-standards work have been refining a messaging strategy. Available at the event were sheaves of papers outlining the key ideas that led to the standards' development, and that underlie the way the math and the English/language arts standards are written. They've also got a "myths vs. facts" handout that offers the initiative's answers to some of the criticism that's been floating around about the endeavor. All this work was done by the James B. Hunt Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy, which has a $3.8 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to do policy and communications work to help states implement the common core. These papers aren't anywhere online yet, but we've got them for you here. Also, here is a Power Point presentation distributed yesterday by Achieve Inc., which co-sponsored the event along with Fordham and the Hunt Institute, and is playing a central role in developing the standards.

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