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The Real Story Behind Common Core State Standards

Note: Rick Hess is on sabbatical through May 6th. If you're missing him, you might try to catch him while he's out and about discussing his new book Cage-Busting Leadership (available here, e-book available here). For updates on when he might be in your neck of the woods, check here. Meantime, a tremendous lineup of guest stars has kindly agreed to step in while Rick's gone and share their own thoughts on the opportunities, challenges, implications, and nature of cage-busting leadership.

Guest blogging this week is Dr. Eric Smith, former Florida Education Commissioner and emeritus member of Chiefs for Change. Chiefs for Change is a coalition of state school chiefs and leaders who are committed to putting children first through bold, visionary education reform to increase student achievement and prepare students for success in colleges and careers.

The number one job of any state education chief is to ensure that all students in his or her state are well prepared for college and the workforce. And, in today's increasingly global economy, it is imperative that America's students are prepared to compete and collaborate with individuals from around the world. Unfortunately, countries like Finland, South Korea, Hong Kong-China, Japan and Singapore are beating the United States in international education rankings - not because America has failed to improve, but because we have not kept the pace of improvement that our international counterparts have set.

America's education crisis is not limited to one state or region; it is an issue the entire nation must address. That is true now and it was true in 2009 when I realized that education chiefs in every state were battling many of the same challenges I was in my home state of Florida, like the large number of students who weren't reading at grade level and the growing number of students who were not ready for post-secondary education when they graduated from high school. Too many of our students faced the reality that their K-12 public education systems did not prepare them for success in post-secondary education when they were told that they did not qualify for credit-bearing courses and were enrolled in remedial ones.

My colleagues and I had similar questions about whether students in our respective states were being prepared to compete against their peers in other states and countries. Given the statistical findings on student drop-out rates, graduation rates, the number of students scoring at grade-level or better on state tests, college-course remediation rates, and so on, teachers, schools, districts and states were clearly "not making the grade." One thing we knew for certain was that few policies more critical to a quality education for our K-12 students than the academic standards shaping what we teach.

Since my colleagues shared my concerns, we decided to collaborate to find solutions and meet the challenges head on. In Spring of 2009, 41 education chiefs from across the country, and from both sides of the aisle, came together at a Council of Chief State School Officers meeting to discuss the idea of developing a shared, rigorous set of standards for English language arts and mathematics - what came to be known as the Common Core State Standards.

With the support of the National Governors Association, stakeholders in each state - including teachers, administrators, the business community, parents and citizens - got involved in developing, reviewing, editing and providing input into the Common Core State Standards, the initiative became a grassroots movement with a strong American identity firmly cemented in 45 states and the District of Columbia. The development of the standards was, and continues to be, a state-driven effort. It is a voluntary collaboration of states that have come together to share best practices and learn from each other as well as from some of the brightest minds in American education and the business community, while benefiting from economies of scale through shared costs, innovation and a more diverse marketplace.

These clearer, higher standards will raise the bar for the nation, while allowing states and their residents to compare performance among each other in ways never before possible. Simply put, states will be able to compare "apples to apples." Further, American families will have access to better and more transparent information regarding the state of education throughout the nation. The same way that families can now compare the schools in their home state, they will be able to compare the schools within their country. A family moving from Idaho to Florida, for example, will be able to compare the school they are transferring their kids from to the school to which they are transitioning.

Unfortunately, developing and implementing higher, more rigorous standards that result in the deeper learning that students need to be truly college and career ready - as well as ready to compete on the world stage - is growing increasingly difficult given the public complacency and political realities that always make change and bold reform difficult.

As states across the country move closer each day to adopting these world-class academic standards, we are also working to make sure our progress is not eroded by misinformation or misplaced politics. As state education chiefs, state and local leaders, educators and stakeholders work to make these new standards a reality; we hope you will help us inform your networks and your partners about just how critical the state-driven Common Core initiative is to the quality of our nation's education system, America's economic competitiveness and the futures of children and grandchildren.

There has never been a more important time to come together to support education reform, and I encourage you to visit the Common Core State Standards Communications Toolkit developed by ExcelinEd to learn more about Common Core and about how you can help effect change.

- Dr. Eric Smith

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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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