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Common Standards: Questions About the Road Ahead

This week, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers released the draft English Language Arts (ELA) and math standards they've developed in their Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI). I don't have much to say on the standards themselves, though I am a big fan of the thoughtful folks who spearheaded this effort.

Even when I was in the classroom or writing about instructional practice, I was never all that confident I could distinguish good standards from bad (it's pretty much the same reaction I have to rubrics for professional assessment). That said, I had the pleasure of sitting down with David Coleman yesterday (David is the guy who has been the guiding hand behind the effort). By the time he walked me through the ELA standards, I was certainly convinced that there's an elegance and, more importantly, a leanness to them that is absent in most state standards I've read.

However, it's always struck me, as impressive a feat as agreeing on common math and reading standards is, that the most difficult and most important challenges still await. I've five big questions about where this is all headed. I shared them with David and I'll share them with you.

  1. When states promise to adopt the common core standards, what does that entail? Who will decide what constitutes "adoption"? How common will they ultimately look, by the time state adoptions are through, and what will this mean for the feasibility of common assessment?
  2. Does one set of common standards imply one national assessment? If so, does this mean we wind up ensconcing one of the big testing companies (and the insiders I know are betting it would be Pearson) as the monopoly provider, baking in their psychometrics-of-the-moment and stifling the extraordinary advances in assessment that are currently taking place? If not, will state adoption wind up amounting to less than meets the eye?
  3. If states adopt, how will they encourage financially strapped districts and schools to start dumping existing data systems, formative assessments, texts, curricular materials, and all the rest and replacing them with new materials? Will states mandate such steps? Will they supply the funds? Or will we see many districts using misaligned materials in 2015 and beyond?
  4. Even if district and school leaders get on board, how will they change teaching practice? Given the (time-proven and fully justified) tendency of teachers to figure "this too shall pass," what will stop them from closing their doors, teaching as they always have, but just picking up on the new jargon and lingo of the moment? After all, one of the defining characteristics of lean and elegant standards is that their very leanness makes it possible for even enthusiastic practitioners to interpret them in different ways. What will be done (other, presumably, than counting on the new assessments to drive changes in emphasis--see 2, above) to support desired changes in practice?
  5. And, finally, will we see a complementary shift in the tenor and focus of professional development and teacher training? Don't get me wrong--neither has any desire to resist the shift, and I'm positive they'll adopt the favored new jargon lickety-split. But I believe inertia may be the strongest force known to man. Professional developers have their models, rubrics, and protocols. Teacher education programs have syllabi, routines, course sequences, and the rest. It's easy to stick new labels on old bottles, and I'm sure they will. But what will be done to ensure that this shift isn't just for show? And, if they keep encouraging teachers to cover the same old material, using the familiar techniques, and with little appreciation for the significance of "fewer and clearer" standards, how much will teaching practice really change?

Look, I'm reasonably supportive of the push for common standards in math and ELA. I've various concerns, but I think it has the potential to help. And none of these queries are intended to suggest that the common standards unveiled this week will disappoint. At the same time, all the work invested in the standards to date will ultimately rest on the ability of their champions to devise good answers to these questions.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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