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Researchers See Potential for Common Core to Boost Learning

A new research paper offers what amounts to a spirited defense of the Common Core State Standards in mathematics, making the case that the standards are, in fact, consistent with those in high-achieving countries and suggesting their faithful implementation holds considerable promise to improve student learning.

The paper bases that optimism about the new standards' potential on a look at the achievement of states whose prior math standards most closely aligned to the common core.

"The simple translation is that those states with standards that are closest to the Common Core ... did better," based on national test data from 2009, said William Schmidt, an education professor at Michigan State University who coauthored the study.

That said, Schmidt emphasized (repeatedly) that this particular finding is merely suggestive, and does not establish causation.

"I want to be very clear about this," he told me. "This does not prove anything. ... It's a reasonable approximation of what might be possible."

The study was set to be publicly released at a press conference this afternoon co-sponsored by Achieve, a Washington-based group that helped to develop the standards, as well as Chiefs for Change and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education. Here is a link to a slide presentation derived from the new research.

The new research also finds that prior state math standards reveal a wide degree of variation from the common core, and that while the new standards adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia have a lot in common with certain states, they reflect a big change for others.

On the question of quality, the standards deserve recognition, Schmidt contends.

"It's pretty clear that these standards are world class and very coherent, focused, and rigorous," he said in an interview.

(Although not part of the team that developed the common-core standards, Schmidt's prior research was considered influential in its development, and he served on a validation committee that reviewed and approved the final standards.)

For the new study, Schmidt and his colleague at Michigan State Richard Houang developed a statistical measure of "congruence" among standards. They compared the common core in several ways to the standards of the highest-achieving countries as measured by performance on TIMSS, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. (Drawing from an earlier study from Schmidt, this list includes Belgium, the Czech Republic, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea.) Basically, mathematicians developed what is called the "A+ profile," a composite of the standards of those countries.

The new paper concludes that the common core is closely aligned with the A+ standards, with about a 90 percent degree of similarity when it comes to focus and coherence. Also, the report finds a high degree of consistency in math topic coverage between the A+ standards and the Common Core, a point it uses to make the case that the common standards are "rigorous" and "implying that [they] are internationally competitive."

For a contrarian view on the standards, check out this 2010 paper published by the Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston. In it, Ze'ev Wurman, a former education official in the George W. Bush administration, argues that the common standards fall short of prior standards for California and Massachusetts, as well as "our international competitors." The paper suggests that the final standards "miss chunks of content" recommended by a national math panel and "leave large holes" in high school math curriculum.

[UPDATE (5/8/12) Two days ago, Wurman published a blog post that offers a sharp critique of the Schmidt/Houang analysis, calling it "just another piece of misleading advocacy."]

Meanwhile, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has defended the math standards, giving them a grade of A- and suggesting they are "clearly superior" to pre-existing standards in 39 states (and not identifying any state standards it deems clearly superior to them).

[UPDATE (5/8/12) Kathleen Porter-Magee from Fordham also has blogged about the Schmidt/Houang research since I first wrote this post, suggesting it makes an "important" contribution. However, echoing Schmidt's own caveats about the potential of the common standards, she cautions common-core advocates to "keep the champagne on ice," given the heavy lift ahead in implementing the standards.]

The Michigan State researchers also examined the level of congruence between prior state math standards and the Common Core, looking at both coherence and focus.

"The results show that many states have a long road to travel in order to implement the CCSS, but some have had standards which are quite similar to the CCSS," the report says. Among the eight states most closely aligned were California, Florida, Michigan, and Washington State.

Schmidt, by the way, recently released preliminary findings from separate research suggesting some mismatch between current math instruction and the common core. It finds, based on educator surveys, that many math teachers currently teach key concepts at higher or lower grade levels—and for more years—than is called for in the common core.

Schmidt said the new research was aimed in part at pushing back against those who suggest that high-quality standards bear no connection to improved student achievement. On this point, we blogged earlier this year about a report from the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

Schmidt and Houang looked at state math achievement on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress. They find a "statistically significant positive relationship between the degree of congruence between a state's standards and the CCSS ... and achievement as defined by the 2009 NAEP assessment."

(The Brookings paper looked at growth in NAEP scores over time, and found no connection between the quality of state standards and improved learning.)

Ultimately, the research paper argues that the new standards merit a big push from states to realize their potential. (Or, to paraphrase John Lennon, "All we are saying, is give [them] a chance...")

"What is clear to us is that the new Common Core State Standards for Mathematics deserve to be seriously implemented," the report says.

Or, as they put it earlier: "Standards are not self-executing, and states could easily have strong academic goals that are never seriously pursued—standards that exist only on paper."

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