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Key Calif. Commission Recommends Common Standards

The recently developed common standards got an important green light in California yesterday.

A special California commission late last night wrapped up its work considering the new standards in mathematics and English/language arts, ultimately voting to recommend that the state adopt them—but not before putting its own imprint on them.

The main source of debate was in math, with the commission taking a variety of steps to ensure that all students are prepared to complete Algebra I in the 8th grade.

Although analysts were still scrambling to get details on the commission's work, it appears that the commission did not move to subtract anything from the common standards. Instead, it supplemented the standards with additional material, and in some cases apparently shifted math content to earlier grades.

The approval by the commission give the standards momentum as they head to California's state board of education, which holds ultimate authority in deciding whether to adopt them. The board has until Aug. 2 to do so. Under a recently passed state law, the board must provide a simple up or down vote on the standards package as put forward by the commission.

So far, half the states have adopted the standards, with the latest addition being South Carolina.

For a firsthand take on what happened at the commission's final meeting yesterday, check out this post from The Educated Blog. As the blogger points out, the real debate came in math.

The California State Academic Content Standards Commission voted separately on the ELA and mathematics sections, with the former approved unanimously. In math, while there was heated debate, only two members voted against approving them. The commission has 21 members—many of them teachers—with 11 members appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the rest named by the state Senate and Assembly.

In an e-mail, Ze'ev Wurman, a member of the commission and a software engineer who helped write the state's current math standards, said he was one of two "no" votes on the math standards.

"I fear it was a sad day for California," he wrote to me in an e-mail after the commission completed its work. He argued, in part, that at the K-7 grades, "the supplementation has been quite limited and hence eliminated and diluted many current grade level expectations."

As I mentioned, the early word I'm getting is that the commission did not remove any portion of the common standards. This is an important point since organizers of the common standards effort at the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers have indicated that participating states must adopt the common standards in their entirety, but may add up to 15 percent from their own standards.

According to The Educated Guess blog account, "The commission ... shifted a handful of eighth grade common core standards to seventh grade and seventh grade common core standards to sixth, in order to strengthen preparation for algebra."

Overall, the blog post explains: "The breakthrough came when commissioners coalesced in agreement that the primary aim of K-7 standards is to prepare all students for algebra in eighth grade, to put students on a path to take at least three, and most likely four, years of high school math needed to assure their spot at a UC or CSU campus. Pre-algebra would be offered to those who still lack the skills."

Meanwhile, in an editorial yesterday, the Los Angeles Times urged the state board of education to give a thumbs up to the common standards.

"California has among the highest academic standards in the country; the new 'common core standards' would neither toughen nor weaken them appreciably," the editorial says. "But the state still has something important to gain by adopting them: a more coherent blueprint for instruction that builds students' skills in a clear and sensible way, and allows teachers to delve more deeply into each subject."

In addition, the California Collaborative on District Reform—a collection of district superintendents, researchers, policymakers, and others—wrote a letter to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on July 9 that expressed support for adopting the standards.

"We have not come to this decision lightly," the letter says. "Based on experience and after much discussion and review of the standards themselves, we believe that the Common Core Standards represent the next step in California's journey to build a rigorous and effective education system."

The letter adds: "Do we feel the Common Core Standards are perfect? No, of course not. But we as a state cannot become stagnant while others strive to attain greatness."

Stay tuned for more details on the work of the California commission. Many folks on the West Coast are still just waking up, especially after the commission's late night work.

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