Although debates persist about the common standards now adopted by 45 states, a new book suggests they hold the potential to "transform American education." And with this in mind, author Robert Rothman has just written something of a primer that seeks to explain the standards effort to a broad audience, and that also highlights the challenges ahead in realizing their potential.
Rothman, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education, and a former Education Week reporter, spoke about his book yesterday at a forum hosted by the alliance on the common standards. I wasn't able to attend that event, which also included several other speakers, but I did chat with Rothman by phone yesterday about the common standards and his new bookSomething in Common: The Common Core Standards and the Next Chapter in American Education, published by the Harvard Education Press.
To be clear, Rothman is definitely a fan of the common standards in English/language arts and mathematics, which he describes as "clear and coherent" and says are rightly and effectively aimed at preparing students for college and a career.
"This is a very significant milestone in American education, and it happened very quickly, and I don't think a lot of people really knew the whole story behind it," he told me. "I thought it was worth examining what this is, how it came about, why it might be different from previous efforts, and what the promise and challenges are ahead."
As you might imagine, our conversation focused mainly on the promise and challenges.
"Since the inception of the standards movement, the idea was that if states developed standards and used them as the centerpiece of their education system, that that would drive improvement, but it hasn't resulted in as much improvement as had been hoped," Rothman said.
Part of the problem, he argues, is that "the translation of the standards from state documents to the classroom didn't happen very well, and so these documents didn't really drive changes in classroom practice in the way they could."
One reason for this, he explains, is that state assessments in general have not followed along as closely to the standards as was expected. "A lot of research on alignment of tests and standards found that there were big gaps, and tests tended to measure relatively low-level skills and knowledge and didn't capture all the expectations in the standards," he said.
As the stakes attached to tests have steadily risen, Rothman said teachers have placed more emphasis on the assessments rather than the standards. He also suggested that there was never the level of quality professional development to help teachers bring state standards into the classroom.
And so, what now? First, Rothman said he's encouraged to see many states working hard to help teachers understand the common standards and what they mean for classroom practices, from professional development to curriculum maps and Web portals supplying curriculum resources and so on.
Another promising development, he says, is the work under way by two state consortia to develop common assessments that closely mirror the standards.
"That is a huge development, and the consortia are developing some additional resources for implementation of the standards," including content frameworks and professional-development resources.
But big questions remain, Rothman cautions.
For one, the common assessments are a work in progress. "There are still questions about how much the consortia can do, especially because the states have to pick up the tab of administering [the tests]. They don't want to develop these overly ambitious models that states can't follow through on. ... So to the extent that the assessments are less than what the standards expect, that could affect how they're implemented."
Another big challenge, Rothman said, is whether states and school districts in difficult fiscal times will find the money to provide the quality and quantity of professional development needed to help teachers bring the standards into the classroom.
Rothman also notes that political challenges remain for the common standards. Although 45 states have adopted them, "there is some opposition emerging." There were efforts in a number of states, including New Hampshire and South Carolina, to rescind the common standards, but none of those legislative measures passed.
The final chapter of Rothman's book is titled "Promise and Challenges." He ends it by expressing his hope that the common standards can be transformative.
"The importance of the standards is that, for the first time, expectations are the same for all students, regardless of their backgrounds or where they live," he writes. "The promise of such a step is too great to let it slip through our fingers."