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Almost There? The Road to Common Standards Reaches a Milestone

Two organizations helping to mold the Common Core State Standards
Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a collaborative effort between the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association (NGA) that is developing core K12 standards in English-language arts and math. The current patchwork of state standards makes it difficult, if not impossible, to evaluate student performance across states and countries. Dissatisfaction with this situation is a major factor driving the effort to develop common, internationally benchmarked standards. The CCSSO and NGA released draft standards for college and career readiness in September, and the groups plan to have final standards for each grade level ready in January 2010. At that point, the states and territories that are participating in the initiative—all but Texas, South Carolina and Alaska at this time—will submit their timelines and processes for adopting the standards. Any state may choose to include additional standards beyond the common core as long as the common core represents at least 85 percent of that state’s standards.

The implications of this process for states and districts will be profound and far-reaching. We decided to speak about it at length with Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the CCSSO, and Dane Linn, director of the Education Division of the NGA Center for Best Practices, in separate interviews.

Questions for Gene Wilhoit:

Given your experience as an educator and administrator, what’s your take on the present situation in which each of the fifty states has its own set of standards?

My first encounter with this problem was when I was commissioner in Kentucky [in 2000-2006]. We were trying to set our state standards, and there was no national benchmark we could use to do the work, although we did rely on NAGB [National Assessment Governing Board] work and the NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress] assessment, and we did look at the discipline-based documents. Each of the states had a very different process, and although there were some common references as we began the work, the processes were all different. As commissioner I could report against our state standards, but I was very concerned that Kentucky students be achieving at a level similar to those of other states. I wanted some means to have over time some benchmark against which we could make those judgments. That didn’t happen.

What changed with NCLB?

What emerged out of the federal-state partnership under NCLB was states reporting success against state indicators, but once you looked inside those you found a different level of expectation, a different set of standards, a different number of schools being affected by the outcome of those judgments, and, I think, a sense of confusion on the part of administrators at the local level about what was actually being reported, and a sense of this not being a fair way of determining accountability. I’m not sure we would have come to this conclusion that we needed some sort of commonality had we not had those frustrating experiences and inability to come together in more meaningful ways out of our prior experiences.

How do you see this particular moment in history as being different from other moments when common standards were discussed?

First, we’re finding that there are some things other countries can teach us. It is not a good idea to take a practice and replicate it exactly without thought, but it is a good idea to use the world as a laboratory for learning. And what we’re finding out is that some of these countries have been very thoughtful and deliberate about what they’re doing to improve learning, and in many ways we could improve our practice by adopting some of their strategies. We have a direct learning program with other countries, and we’ve formed stronger ties with the British and the Japanese systems, we’ve had direct interactions with Singapore and China, we’re learning a lot from Australia and New Zealand about what’s going on—and they’re trying to learn from us—and you can see this kind of connectivity emerging that is bringing some improved practice.

Second, we’ve had to mature over the last few years. When the reforms came about at the local level and at the state level, we had so many things hitting us, and we had so many different concepts being placed in front of us that we had to learn about, accept and incorporate that just the simple fact that we had to move from an inputs-based structure to a performance-based system—well, that’s easy enough to talk about, but that caused dramatic shifting in terms of the work.

I think all of that’s led us to think about what are the points of great leverage that we could bring about in the system. What are the points where we could spend our energy and make the greatest difference? We think one of them is eliminate some of the confusion in the system. Let’s be clear about what we want our students to know and be able to do. Let’s engage the field in that enterprise, and then let’s begin to build around those expectations. Not that those expectations are going to be perfect, but at least we’re coming together around a common agreement of what those students should know and be able to do.

Third, SEA [state education agency] capacity has changed, and as we begin to think about reform at the state level over the last few years, we’ve had to sort of transform the role and function of states. The SEA is the point at which ultimate accountability comes about, and the courts have reinforced that in recent years. It’s one thing to be responsible for maintaining a system and ensuring that rules are followed and regulations are in order and that people are reporting in a consistent and understandable way. It’s another to take on the new challenge that society has given us. It’s been sort of an evolutionary process, but the expectation of the system today is very different than it was twenty years ago.

What are the main differences?

Twenty years ago we thought we could lose some children in the system and absorb that in adult life. We could turn students out who were not going on in the educational enterprise, and those individuals could find a place in society and be rewarded. Those days are gone, and now the expectation of the system is a twofold challenge of educating every one of our children and so reducing the numbers of dropouts we have but at the same time educating them at a higher level because our society’s not going to be able to absorb the losses out of the educational system. The successes in the system are going to be those students who have much to add to innovation, to creativity, to initiative. In order to do that, you cannot be simply there at an SEA overseeing what has occurred in the past or what is currently underway. You’ve got to be thinking about how you change a system to be accommodating and supportive of these new goals.

I think we’re getting better at the state level, better at the local level, but you have to be thinking about yourself differently to assume some of these new responsibilities that are coming forward right now. And in that context, it is important for an SEA to begin to shift its roles and responsibilities, to enter into much stronger partnerships with local districts, to provide much more technical assistance and support than we’ve done in the past, to work much more collaboratively with folks outside the education enterprise than we’ve done in the past.

How would you characterize your organization’s relationship with the NGA and with the other organizations that have played a role in the initiative to develop common standards?

First of all, this is a partnership. We wanted a unified voice from the administrative ranks at the state level around these issues. It does no one good for there to be a disconnect between the governor’s office and the education system in the state, and I would not want to characterize this work as solely that of the NGA or CCSSO, because we’ve depended heavily on other organizations to help us get to this point. We’ve had no one say no to us. I think that speaks to how this is resonating as an important need.

What specific steps have you taken to prevent the process from getting bogged down by the different interest groups that have a stake in the outcome?

From the very beginning, because we’d had some experience in the area of setting standards at the state level, we could observe the by-product of the standards that now exist, and we could observe the process that had been used to get there, and we could learn some things from that. The good news is that the states have set standards and that we’re now operating on a performance-based system. But the negative side is that those standards are very different. We saw too that many of the standards were poorly stated and unclear. You could literally have two teachers teaching next to each other, be teaching differently, and yet be meeting the standard because they were so broad that they didn’t provide the kind of specificity you need to do curricular design and instructional delivery. We also saw that many of them were too low. They didn’t contain the rigor that is expected by both the business community and colleges and universities—the next step of education and learning. And we saw that there were too many of them.

Our first decision was that as we began to develop common standards we needed to set a goal for ourselves that the end-product would eliminate some of these problems that we were seeing emerging in the field. So we’ve used this phrase “higher, clearer, fewer standards.” Higher—we want to set standards that will ensure success in college and in the workforce. And in the workforce we mean not just low-paying and dead-end jobs. We’re talking about jobs that would cause students to have an economic reward in adulthood and also an opportunity for advancement. Clearer—we want to make sure the standards are stated in ways that educators, the general public, parents and students can understand. And we want them sequenced in a way that makes sense both in terms of cognitive development and in terms of the mastery of content over time. Fewer—we want to get down to what is the essential knowledge a student must master and marry that to the cognitive challenges students are going to have to face, and that is getting to beyond recall of content to application of that content, the ability to synthesize information, to apply new knowledge to an old challenge, to take different patterns of learning in different content areas and apply them in a central way to a specific problem, to make the learning experience much more applied, direct, and understandable by students.

We thought if we did all that, it might help us when people begin to get to the table and say, “No, we think the standard ought to be this, or the standard ought to be that.” And we knew there would be some conflicting points of view about this. We wanted to hear those points of view, but we wanted to have some way to make judgments about what goes into these standards and what doesn’t. I think it’s been very helpful to have this process. Now will this be a perfect document? I think there will be at the end some people who are disappointed. You can’t accommodate everyone and have higher, clearer, fewer standards. So we’ll have to make some tough calls.

"When we get to the implementation phase, this is really going to be right in district administrators' laps." -Gene Wilhoit

What will adoption of the standards mean for the states in terms of redesigning curricula, revising textbooks, retraining teachers and so forth?

We’re asking states to look at those standards against their existing standards and begin to think about what kind of changes would be necessary in their states. And we’re asking in the short term that there be some official adoption commitment on the part of the state, but once that’s done, we see a process of maybe two to three years to even get to the point where we can have a system operating around those standards. And the reasons are, you have to have a curriculum that is aligned not only with the outcome expectations but with these learning progressions.

There will be some places in the curriculum where a certain state might have been encouraging teachers to teach at the third-grade level what the rest of the country has been teaching at the second-grade level or vice versa. There will need to be some serious conversations at the district level about how you organize your curriculum to make sure it represents these expectations and what you can do in terms of the professional development of teachers over these years to get them prepared to teach to the curriculum.

We think all those things are absolutely necessary and prerequisite to the actual implementation of testing systems in the states. We think that one major shift will be the alignment of assessment. We know that the current assessment designs are fairly primitive in nature, that is, they’re usually all multiple choice, and too many of them are at a lower level of cognitive challenge.

What will this mean for federal policy?

It will impact at least our interactions with the administration and Congress about changing the partnership that exists between states and the federal government to allow for multiple assessments, to move to accountability for growth as well as status determination, to include more forms of multiple assessments in the design. Our intent is to advocate a federal-state relationship that accommodates a different sort of assessment structure than what we have in place right now.

Are you talking about common assessments across multiple states?

What we’re going to do in this process is give states that want to come together around a common assessment the opportunity to do so. We’re not going to force all states in any way, or advocate that all states have to be a part of this. But I do have a bias on this, and that is, ultimately everyone in public education in this country needs much better comparison of results than what we have right now, and the best way to make those comparisons is through common tests. Now if that’s not possible, what we really have to work on is some way of linking the results so we can get some comparable state results and be able to make some judgments about how well states are doing. Whether we’ll be able to do that through a common assessment, I’m not quite sure at this point. I do know that there are several states interested in a common assessment around the common core, and we’ll work with those states.

What do you think will be the long-term impact of the initiative?

The common core standards will become a sort of benchmark that all states will reference, and I expect this will be the beginning of a different way in which we look at standards in this country. Regardless of the number of states that adopt this in totality, I think it will serve as a benchmark for all states, and it will continue to live on as we move forward. The idea that we can all operate under different expectations and operate systems without collaborative work is gone. We’ve moved into an era where cooperation and common work are being prized, and it’s a time in which the states find great benefit from the interaction with each other, and there’s a much stronger desire on their part to be as competitive and as positive about this whole experience as they can be. It’s another one of those shifts we’re seeing in terms of educational development in the country.

What does this shift mean for districts?

The implications are tremendous for district offices. I hope the days are gone when states and districts work independently and the day is gone when states do this work without interaction and consultation with districts. We’re encouraging all states to build these partnerships. The audience you’re addressing is so critical to not only the standards conversation but, boy, when we get to the implementation phase, this is really going to be right in their laps.

Dane Linn, director of the Education of the Council of Chief State School Officers

Questions for Dane Linn:

As a long-time educator, how did you come to believe that common standards were desirable or even necessary?

It’s become clear to me that we need to give teachers, students and parents a clear set of expectations. The current state of standards does not clearly communicate the expectations that students should meet. It doesn’t clearly communicate what teachers are expected to teach their children, and in some cases we have unreasonable expectations. We have standards that are not clear, and we have far too many standards. As a result, the job of a classroom teacher has been focused on trying to get done what you can to get through the day, as opposed to a focus on the essential knowledge and skills students will need to demonstrate if they’re going to be able to compete in college or the workforce.

How did you see this in your own career as an educator?

When I was an elementary teacher [in West Virginia in the late 1980s], I found the problem around standards to unfold in a couple of ways. I often found that the standards themselves were changing on a regular basis. So I always felt like it was a moving target and was never sure what I was expected to do as a classroom teacher and what expectations I was supposed to help my students meet.

Are you talking about state standards?

Yes. And there were so many of them. And there were so many three-ring binders that were sent to me as a classroom teacher from the central office. It became a matter of trying to keep the most current paperwork as opposed to trying to focus on the most current standards in my daily instructional practices. I think my other struggle came at the state level, which is where I was frequently trying to answer the question of where students with disabilities fell in the process of students meeting state standards. I did a lot of work, I was in the office of exceptional students, and it was never clear—other than saying we want students with disabilities to be included—how students with disabilities were expected to meet the standards and what we were supposed to be doing, either at the state level, the district level, or the classroom level, to really ensure that students with disabilities weren’t left behind.

How do you see this particular moment in history as being different from other moments when common standards were discussed?

I believe there is the will at the state level, and significant interest from teachers and administrators from across the country who are basically saying, “We’d like to have a very clear set of standards that we’re expected to teach to, that students are expected to meet, and if there are going to be comparisons—and there will be comparisons—of how the students in South Carolina are performing against the students in Mississippi, then let’s have fair comparisons. And so if we’re going to have comparisons, we should all be using the same set of standards that students are expected to meet.

Common standards was on the agenda when the nation's governors met with President Obama last February at the White House

I also believe that the national and state economies are contributing to the will among governors, legislators, state commissioners, and district superintendents, who are essentially saying, “Let’s once and for all agree on the standards so we can move to the most important part.” That is providing the instructional material to teachers that equips them to teach to the standards, providing a comprehensive system of professional development, and using assessment tools—not one assessment but multiple ways of measuring performance—against the standards so that the emphasis can once and for all get beyond the inputs. We have spent so much of our time in this country perfecting the definition of the inputs that we spend little time focusing on the performance. And that’s what matters most.

How do you envision the means of assessment will change for states that adopt the common standards?

There’s a lot of testing for which the results rarely get used to inform policy or instructional practice. We have states that are administering statewide assessments to comply with NCLB, we have districts and schools in some places around this country that add additional assessments, we have the NAEP sample, which is required under NCLB. So we have a lot of testing going on. The conversation that we need to have in this country is how do we create an assessment system that is not a once-a-year, every-spring snapshot but is more integrated throughout the school year.

What would such a system look like?

Teachers would administer benchmark assessments to students so they would be able to identify where students’ weaknesses are, so that there would be ample time during the school year to address those weaknesses, as opposed to what we’re currently doing, which is playing catch up. We identify the weaknesses at the end of the year, promote the students to the next grade, and then find that they’re really not ready for the next grade.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, left, and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick greet each other at the July meeting of the National Governors Association.

The second issue we need to confront as we work toward a new system of assessments is trying to figure out how we require students through the assessments to demonstrate their knowledge of the subject matter in a more deep and meaningful way. Simple regurgitation and coloring in the bubbles is not the only form of assessment we should be using to capture student learning. My hope is that we could use the lessons learned from leading states and districts in other countries to help think about an assessment system that requires students to apply the knowledge they’ve learned and in some cases apply them to integrate the knowledge they’ve learned, so that to solve a problem in physics, they may also be demonstrating their knowledge in algebra. That’s expensive. But if one of the goals is to streamline the assessment system that we currently have and create a more meaningful system, we should be able to think about ways in which we could reallocate existing dollars.

Are you talking about common assessments across multiple states?

We are very interested in bringing together those states that want to adopt the common core to work toward the creation of a set of common assessments that could be used across states. Now if some states decide that they want to add that additional 15 percent on to the standards—say, if Massachusetts said we want to go even higher, and they used the additional 15 percent to go higher, and they wanted to measure student performance against that, they’d have to work on a way to build the measurement of those items into their assessment system, but the basis of comparison for states that adopt the core would be a measurement of student performance against the core. We hold equal interest to the CCSSO in trying to get states to come together. At some point, we have to reach economies of scale here. We’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars across the states on student assessment each year, and Secretary Duncan has clearly shown some interest in putting some money on the table. Bringing states together to develop a common assessment might also be an opportunity for the federal government to reallocate their own dollars to support a more robust assessment that would allow for fairer comparisons across the states.

What will adoption of the standards mean for the states in terms of redesigning curricula, revising textbooks, retraining teachers and so forth?

The standards alone are not going to help our students compete with other countries around the world. The standards are one piece to the puzzle. We have to think about curriculum, and we’re very interested in working with publishers and trying to figure out how we can ensure that teachers, principals and superintendents are using instructional materials. By that I don’t necessarily mean just textbooks, but how are we using, for example, the digital media to help students meet the standards? We first have to make sure that whatever tools we are encouraging teachers, principals and superintendents to use, there’s some level of guarantee that those products are really aligned to the standards, that there’s a conceptual link between the materials teachers are using and the standards themselves. I don’t foresee NGA or the CCSSO dictating curricula, I don’t think states will dictate what the curriculum should look like, but we should be providing a greater level of assurance to practitioners that the materials, the tools they are using, are aligned to the standards.

Although South Carolina Superintendent of Education Jim Rex has signed on to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, Gov. Mark Sanford has not.

The other component that is going to be essential—critical to the success of the implementation stage—is the system of professional development. With the number of teachers who are retiring—and the number of teachers who are coming into the system having gone through the very same preparation programs that have gotten us into this mess, of teachers being unprepared to teach to the standards—teachers are going to have to play a critical role. So the revamping of teacher preparation, opening up new models of preparation, and providing a more comprehensive system of professional development and support for the teachers is going to be critical.

Do you think teachers will welcome that?

I think teachers will be more than happy with the focus on professional development. While we have some districts in some states who have attempted to improve the way in which professional development is provided, we have many more places where teachers have three days of professional development at the beginning of school. And sometimes it bears a direct relationship to what they do every day and what the student performance data tells them based on assessment scores. And other times, the professional development has nothing to do with what those teachers teach, or what the data tell them about student performance. We have a disjointed system of professional development. We have significant amounts of money that are put into professional development, but the implementation of that professional development is so disjointed that teachers don’t see the relationship from one session to another.

How should districts improve their professional development systems?

In some cases, professional development should be carried out individually. If the principal notices that his fifth-grade math scores aren’t meeting the benchmark every year, then there might be a need for customized professional development for the fifth-grade math teachers. That could also be professional development done in collaboration with fifth-grade math teachers in the school fifteen miles up the road. There may be a more systemic problem that requires professional development be carried out with all teachers and paraprofessionals in the building. I think there are many ways in which you can carry out the professional development, but the constant should be data. What do the data tell us? That should be the driver.

How do you see the relationship between state educational agencies (SEAs) and districts changing as common standards are adopted?

In Texas, Education Commissioner Robert Scott has said of the common standards, "I will absolutely look at them and make sure that Texas' standards are always higher."

SEAs were created to monitor compliance with state and federal laws. They were not created to help facilitate the solutions to the problems that were identified by the agency. Some of our most successful agencies, however, not only restructured but have attempted to attract individuals who can help solve the problems. They’ve recruited individuals who don’t just go out to districts and say, “You haven’t met this law, you’re not meeting that law,” but “Here’s a problem, and here are some ways in which you can fix it.” In short, the SEAs are going to play a critical role in being facilitators of change. It’s not going to be enough just to tell districts, “You didn’t dot these I’s and cross those T’s,” but you’re going to have to help them figure out how to fix the problems. And that, I think, is going to be the greatest challenge in realizing these standards, particularly in some of our low-capacity districts and schools.

How would you characterize your organization’s relationship with the CCSSO and with the other organizations that have played a role in the initiative to develop common standards?

Since the day we announced this initiative, our organizations have understood that this work is a partnership at the national level, but it’s also a partnership in each and every state. And that’s the only way we’re going to be successful. What I’ve also valued about this partnership is that we have worked to involve the best and the brightest minds, from classroom teachers in New York City, to superintendents, to deans of schools of education, to leading superintendents in urban districts. We have realized that there are a number of other critical actors that are essential. And we have agreed to involve many of these individuals and national organizations at the beginning of the process.

So, for example, we have actively engaged with the National Council of the Teachers of Mathematics, and we have met with their members at the university level, the district level, the classroom level. NCTM has engaged with us on a regular basis throughout this process, as have the AFT, the NEA, the Council of Great City Schools, and others. Not just the national organizations, but their members have come into D.C. or have been on conference calls with us, so that we could get their input on the front end. And I think that’s a tribute both to NGA and the CCSSO understanding that the governor and the commissioner can only take us so far, but the implementation, the realization of these standards, will not happen in the governor’s office. It will happen in classrooms across the country and districts across the country.