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Implementing the Common Core State Standards

Notwithstanding the last-ditch street blockades erected by the naysayers, it seems more likely with the passage of each day that most American states will stick by their commitments to implement the Common Core State Standards.  But what does it mean to "implement the standards," and what do we expect implementation to accomplish?  Much depends on how we set expectations.  If those expectations are fulfilled, standards will be seen as having succeeded, if not, standards will have failed.

A new report by William Schmidt, an education professor at Michigan State University, provides a statistical analysis making a strong case that the Common Core K-8 standards in mathematics are comparable to those used by the world's top-performing countries and an equally strong case for the link between high standards and high student performance at the state level here in the United States.  So, does that mean that we can expect world-class student performance if we implement the Common Core State Standards?

That depends on what we mean by "implement the Common Core State Standards."  Schmidt has interviewed American teachers on this point.  The good news is that, when asked, they say they like the Common Core State Standards.  The bad news is that they also say that these standards are pretty close to what they are already doing, so they clearly think they don't have to change their practice much in order to implement them.

None of the countries that outperform the United States think that they got there simply by implementing challenging academic standards.

Our own work strongly suggests that the main reason that students are not ready for college level mathematics is that they have not really mastered elementary and middle school mathematics, and when we looked into why that is true, we discovered that it is because many of their teachers, from elementary school to high school, do not really understand elementary school and middle school mathematics very well.

Years ago, researchers found that among all the professions, school teachers did less reading as adults than the members of any other profession.  There is no reason to believe that that situation has changed.  Reading and writing a lot are the keys to writing well.  It is hardly clear that American teachers are in a position to teach their students to write well, any more than they are in a position to teach their students the mathematical reasoning behind arithmetic.

All of the high-performing countries have not only developed high academic standards and matching assessments, as well as first-rate curriculum to which the assessments are aligned, but they have also worked very hard to develop a high quality teaching force.  It will not matter what the mathematics standards for students are if many of their teachers cannot meet them.  It will not matter what our writing standards are if many of our teachers cannot themselves write well.  It will avail us nothing if we require our students to reason well, to be really good at synthesizing information from many sources in a creative way and to analyze complex data and come up with an original solution, but we have failed to make sure that their teachers can do these things.

Implementing the standards cannot simply mean informing teachers about what the designers of the standards intended or providing them with videos of teachers teaching the standards well.  If that is what it ends up meaning, we can expect very little from the implementation of the Common Core State Standards.  If we expect adoption of the Common Core State Standards to result in world-class student performance, then each state will have to do the other things that top-performing countries have done.  That includes creating high quality, highly coherent state-level instructional systems; putting a whole complex of policies in place to greatly raise the quality of teachers; putting more resources behind students who are hard to get to high standards and less behind those who will reach those standards more easily; aggressively benchmarking their competition and keep learning from them; changing out their low-quality multiple-choice tests for much higher quality assessments; greatly reducing high stakes assessment and starting to trust their teachers as the quality of their teaching force rises; and organizing and managing schools in a way that makes employment in those schools attractive to people who could otherwise become high status professionals in other sectors of the economy.

If we are going to rely exclusively on new standards and new tests to improve student performance in the United States, then we should not expect much.  If we are after the same kind of student performance we see in the top-performing countries, we will have to deploy a much wider range of strategies to get there.  This is a big agenda.  If our competitors are any guide, it will take years to implement.  But there are no shortcuts.

Bottom line: high standards are necessary, but hardly sufficient.  It is time to start setting realistic expectations.  That means starting to share this larger agenda and helping the press and the public to understand that new standards can be the prelude to major improvements in student performance, but it is going to take years, many years, to match the performance of our best competitors.
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