Sandra Stotsky is Professor of Education Reform Emerita at the University of Arkansas and the 21st Century Chair in Teacher Quality. Her latest book is The Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum, published by Rowman & Littlefield in June 2012. She served on Common Core’s Validation Committee and on the National Mathematics Advisory Panel. She was Senior Associate Commissioner in the Massachusetts Department of Education from 1999 to 2003 and served on the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education from 2006 to 2010.
Some political officials (Governor Sandoval of Nevada) and self-described policy wonks (Fordham Institute staff) are calling into question the usefulness of locally elected local school boards. Governor Sandoval suggested replacing them with governor-appointed boards, while Fordham has argued for years against locally elected school boards and for regional authorities, possibly appointed by governors and/or legislatures. Trust us, they say, we’re from Washington and know how to make your teachers accountable. Trust us, they say at the state level, we know how you should teach. That’s not how Massachusetts’ educational reform was ever envisioned – and the commonwealth’s reforms are well known as being the most successful educational reforms over the past half century.
Trust us, they say, we’re from Washington and know how to make your teachers accountable. Trust us, they say at the state level, we know how you should teach. That’s not how Massachusetts’ educational reform was ever envisioned – and the commonwealth’s reforms are well known as being the most successful educational reforms over the past half century.
Our reforms set agreed-upon standards and tests, but left a lot of flexibility to localities. Our standards were far less prescriptive on pedagogical method than the Common Core is. Our goal was to set a high bar and provide local professionals with the funding they needed to get the job done. In the 1990s, the Massachusetts Board of Education was a model for the rest of the country. Unfortunately, no one followed it.
If there are questions about education leadership, Fordham and the governors should be asking about the performance of the two highest strata of the nation’s federal system: the US Department of Education and our other state boards of education. After half a century and hundreds of billions of dollars into enlarging the federal role in education, where’s the measurable improvement in our schools? And, secondly, what about the performance of most state boards of education?
This kind of examination is especially timely, given the rising anger of parents and teachers across the country over the poorly written Common Core standards and the increasingly costly tests based on them that governor-appointed boards of education and appointed or elected commissioners/superintendents have imposed on local school districts.
So far, there is no record of even one state board or department of education listening to and then responding rationally to parents’ or teachers’ grievances about the Common Core standards and tests being imposed on their schools (although we have high hopes this may happen in Massachusetts this year).
Perhaps it’s time for many states to rethink quaint 19th century institutions developed with good intentions but which have outrun their usefulness. Even though there are irresponsible parents, are not most parents a better judge of the kind of education they want for their children than a state board of education, the state department of education, or the US Department of Education? Political scientists interested in questions of responsiveness to the body politic, as well as the role of outside money, would have a field day in studying the adoption of the Common Core by state boards and commissioners or superintendents of education.
Fordham and Governor Sandoval have it backwards—and that is likely because both have an interest in diminishing the power of local school boards and even local education professionals. Fordham has long wanted a strong federal role in driving content decisions; as a governor, Sandoval would perhaps love to have more of his friends determine how schools operate.
But if we look at what has worked in American education in the past 50 years, it would be clear that the federal government and most state boards have been ineffective in increasing students’ academic achievement, and they have also been unaccountable. Accountability should be in the hands of those who pay most of the bills for education. And the educators whose salaries they pay should be accountable only to them, not the federal government or state boards. Just a reminder: Teachers and principals are the ones interacting with students in the schools.
The entire Common Core project is rapidly going south, and within two years may be no more than a dim memory of a nightmare in the minds of a growing army of angry parents and teachers from coast to coast. Before this dystopian scheme for upgrading the academic status of low-income children emerges in a more deadly form in a newly re-authorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), we could try to salvage one of the reasonable arguments for a “common core.” We could benefit from some research-based and internationally benchmarked common standards in elementary school reading, writing, and arithmetic across states. But not up to grade 12. As educators in other countries and most parents everywhere know, many young adolescents don’t want to go to college or can’t do college coursework and would prefer other options. But common standards up to grade 8, with flexibility in the curriculum and in school organization for that educational wasteland known as middle or junior high school, make sense.
The first task is to relabel the currently toxic package as high school-ready standards and give the forthcoming “college readiness” tests not in grade 11 but in grade 8, which is where they better fit with respect to content and cut score. There, with additions by academic experts in each state to ensure adequate content knowledge is also assessed, they can serve as nationally recognized indications of whether students are capable of authentic high school-level work in grade 9.
It won’t take long for college faculty to realize that Common Core’s tests are a better indication of whether students can do authentic high school-level work in grade 9 than of college-level work. Few post-secondary institutions will survive the pretense that grade 6/7 reading and mathematical skills denote “college readiness.” No doctors or engineers can be developed if they are at that academic level in grade 11 or 12, even when fraudulently deemed “college-ready.” How many American communities can survive without a few doctors and engineers of their own?
Once common ELA and math standards serve to guide a curriculum that makes most students ready for real high school work by the end of grade 8, we can work out alternative high school curricula—the upper secondary options that appeal to a broad range of students even today—and give young adolescents a choice of the kind of curriculum they are willing to commit themselves to—with change always possible. This is what most developed countries do, including Finland. Our aim would be to try to make sure that all students complete a basic education through grade 8, before compulsory schooling ends and before they choose their upper secondary curriculum.
Do not think I exaggerate our predicament. At present, we are spending billions of dollars trying to send students to college and maintain them there when on average our high school students read at about the grade 6 or 7 level and their mathematical knowledge is not much higher—in comparison to their peers in high-achieving countries. Two independent sources converge on that reading level: Renaissance Learning’s latest report on the average reading level of what our students in grades 9-12 read (whether assigned or chosen), and the average reading level of the books that colleges assign to incoming freshmen for summer reading (the titles can be found in the latest Beach Book report). As for mathematics, most high school graduates do not do much in mathematics beyond what students in high-achieving countries complete in algebra and geometry by the end of grade 8. Common Core asks for little more than that by the end of grade 11.
A crisis is a terrible thing to waste, as we have been regularly told. And here’s one we should take advantage of in order to salvage a battered public school system. If we don’t come to grips with Common Core’s notion of “college readiness,” we face dissolution of our entire education system. And there are other English-speaking post-secondary institutions outside of this country eager for students who can do high school-level reading and mathematics.
Sandra Stotsky was Senior Associate Commissioner in the Massachusetts Department of Education in 1999-2003 and responsible for its K-12 standards in all major subjects. She was also a member of Common Core’s Validation Committee.
To help out governors and state legislatures that really want to get state-tailored standards close to the quality of the pre-2010 Massachusetts and California standards–or the Indiana 2006 standards–I have provided an outline of the steps or procedures a state legislature could follow (see below).
The outcomes remain open-ended. But these procedures, based on my experiences in Massachusetts over 10 years ago, and in other states in recent years, ensure that no special interest groups, including a state’s board, commissioner, or department of education, can take control of the “process,” deceive the parents of the state, and feed back a warmed-over version of Common Core as is now happening in South Carolina and Oklahoma, and as has happened in Indiana and Florida.
These procedures, among other things, are designed to ensure that those in charge of revising mathematics, science, or English language arts standards for a state actually know the content of these disciplines and teach in a state’s own higher education institutions. If anyone knows what college readiness should mean for a particular state, they should.
Procedures for state legislatures to use to establish standards development committees to replace Common Core’s Standards
STEERING OR EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE to be chosen by the State Legislature
- Chancellor of State System of Higher Education
- State Legislators (3)
- Others? PLUS (when chosen)
- ELA Standards Development Chair
- Mathematics Standards Development Chair
- Oversees the entire project
- Final approval of all content and work of the committees
- Final approval of all committee membership
- Supported by Attorney General’s office
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR (paid)
- Selected by and reports to Steering Committee
- Oversees entire standards process
- Assures accurate communications to the Legislature, the Governor. and the public at large
- Works directly with ELA and Math Chairs, and directs work of the ELA and Math Scribes
Document SCRIBES (paid) selected by the Steering Committee
- ELA Scribe
- Math Scribe
- Expertise in subject matter
- Adept at digital technology
- Report to ELA or Math Chair on Steering Committee
- Prepares database of all nominees
- Processes nominations to various committees
- Schedules and secures sites for all in-person and virtual meetings
- Arranges for the services of meeting facilitators where needed
- Takes and transcribes detailed notes of all meetings
- Creates minutes from Steering Committee meetings
- Provides ongoing updates of standards-writing process to all committees and the public
- Posts appropriate information on webpage
- Maintains all drafts and revisions throughout the writing process
- Compiles public comments
- Coordinates responses to public comment
MATH AND ELA CHAIRS (2 members)
- Undergraduate teaching faculty in the arts and sciences
- Math Chair must be a faculty member in a science, mathematics or engineering department
- ELA Chair must be a faculty member in an English literature/language department
- Nominated by the president of the candidate’s four-year accredited university or college that maintain graduate-level programs (not a member of faculty of college of education)
- At least 2 candidates for each committee will be nominated to the Steering Committee for final selection
- Maintains schedules and timelines
- Leads and coordinates the work of the Standards Development Committees
- Assures that standards are written with an emphasis on disciplinary content and accuracy
- Works with Executive Director
STANDARDS DEVELOPMENT COMMITTEES (15 members each)
District superintendents may nominate up to a total of 6 teachers for the subgroups in ELA and Math (i.e., no more than 1 per subgroup).
Membership of ELA Standards Development Committee
- ELA Chair
- ELA Vice Chair — Teaching faculty member in an undergraduate English Literature
Department at a four-year university (selected by the ELA Chair)
- 4 Pre-K to Fifth Grade school teachers
- 4 Middle school teachers (Sixth Grade-Eighth Grade)
- 4 High school teachers at each grade level (Ninth Grade-12th Grade)
- 1 Librarian (nominated by State’s Library Association)
Qualifications for teachers (District Superintendents are to use one-page nomination forms:
- Minimum 7 years experience at the educational level of the subgroup for which they are applying: Current teaching assignment at one of the grade levels in that subgroup
- At least a minor in English and/or list courses completed in literature, composition, or rhetoric for those seeking middle or high school subgroup
- Reading methods coursework for those in PreK-grade 8
- Steering Committee in conjunction with the ELA Chair and Vice Chair make the final selection of those to serve on the subgroups
Membership of Math Standards Development Committee
- Math Chair
- Math Vice Chair — teaching faculty member in an undergraduate Mathematics Department at a four-year university (selected by the Math Chair)
- 4 Pre-K to Grade 5 teachers
- 4 Middle school teachers (Sixth Grade-Eighth Grade)
- 4 High school teachers (Ninth Grade-12th Grade) to Include:
- Algebra I teacher
- Geometry teacher
- Algebra II teacher
- Precalculus or Trigonometry teacher
- 1 Engineer (nominated by a state engineering professional organization or university faculty)
Qualifications for classroom teachers (District Superintendents use a one-page nomination form):
- Minimum 7 years experience at the educational level of the subgroup for which they are applying: Current teaching assignment at one of the grade levels in the subgroup
- At least a minor in mathematics, science, or engineering
- Steering Committee in conjunction with Math Chair and Vice Chair make the final selection of those to serve on the subgroups
- Each Standards Development Committee as a whole selects for use a highly-rated pre-2009 set of state standards as the foundational blueprint (for ELA: California, Indiana 2006, Massachusetts 2001 or condensed/revised 2013, and for math: California, Indiana 2006, Massachusetts 2000, or Minnesota).
- Each subgroup addresses each relevant grade-level set of standards by adoption, modification, or rewrite.
- Standards Development Committee as a whole examines entire set of standards and revises when necessary
- Submits the documents to the Steering Committee for review and approval
FIRST-DRAFT REVIEW COMMITTEE
- Remaining nominees not selected to be on Standards Development Committee
- Teachers review all standards at their own educational level for appropriateness and wording
- High school teachers review all documents
- Comments are recorded by the Scribes and sent to the Standards Development Committee for review and possible action
- First draft presented to the Steering Committee for approval
SECOND DRAFT REVIEW by higher education and special interest groups
- State Chamber of Commerce
- State business and industry professional organizations
- State engineering organizations
- Early childhood advocacy organizations
- Special education advocacy organizations
- English Language Learners advocacy organizations
- School counselor professional organizations
- Speech pathology professional organizations
- Undergraduate teaching faculty in science, engineering, mathematics and English literature/language
- Review content standards and advise on:
- a) Classroom application
- b) Vertical alignment
- c) Provide comment on how the standards affect the population they represent.
- All responses must be signed and submitted electronically
- Comments on any recommended changes to the Second Draft are recorded by the Scribes and sent to the Standards Development Committee for review and possible action
- Second draft presented to the Steering Committee for approval. Steering Committee reviews recommendations and provides direction to the ELA and Math Chairs and the Standards Writing Teams as they edit the second draft.
The presidents, provost, and faculty of the 4 year colleges nominate two well known or well published experts in each subject area.
Membership: Selection is by the Steering Committee
- Individuals do not teach at a state college or university
- Qualifications determined by Steering Committee
- The External Reviewer will report on the quality of the standards
- The External Reviewer will report to the Steering Committee and the State Legislature
After the second draft review, the Standards Development Committees will review, revise and submit a final draft to the Steering Committee. Final draft will be submitted for a 45-day public comment period and public hearing at the State Capitol. Public comment will be incorporated as deemed appropriate by the Standards Development Committee
Final Draft submitted to the State Legislature for Legislative Hearings and final approval.
In a funny story in the Washington Post on December 24, 2014, Mike Petrilli and Michael Brickman (experts on nothing at all) claim that it will not be easy to replace Common Core’s standards with something better.
They even go so far as to claim that “The basic problem is that it’s impossible to draft standards that prepare students for college and career readiness and that look nothing like Common Core.”
Why is their claim funny? Because we have already had standards that did exactly that, looked nothing like Common Core, and were remarkably easy to implement. As I noted here:
Unlike Common Core’s standards, which are not designed to prepare American high school students for authentic college coursework, the Commonwealth’s previous standards accelerated the academic achievement of minority groups in the state and did prepare our grade 10 students for authentic college coursework.
We know that achievement on the grade 10 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) was related to authentic college readiness from a report relating our high school students’ performance on their grade 10 MCAS to the type of public college they enrolled in after graduation in 2005 and the extent of remedial coursework they needed.* Almost all the students at the Advanced level and about 80% of the students at the Proficient level who had enrolled in four-year public colleges and universities in the Bay State in 2005 needed no remediation in mathematics or reading. They were college-ready as well as high-school diploma-ready, whether or not they took a mathematics course in their senior year of high school (which the report doesn’t tell us).
On the other hand, about half of the 2005 high school graduating students who had enrolled in a Massachusetts community college in 2005 and had earlier been placed at the Needs Improvement level on a grade 10 MCAS test needed remediation in mathematics, reading, or both. (Again, we don’t know if they had taken a mathematics course in their senior year of high school or tried in other ways to improve their academic records in their junior and senior years of high school.) Sounds completely rational.
How do I know that it was easy to implement the Massachusetts 2001 English language arts and 2000 mathematics standards? Because, unlike Petrilli and Brickman, I vas dere, Charlie. Bay State teachers did not moan and groan after these standards were officially approved by a Board of Education chaired by incoming Secretary of Education James Peyser. They simply implemented them without a fuss. In fact, when it was time to start revising the 2001 ELA standards (by statute), less than 30 teachers in the entire state bothered to reply to the Department of Education’s survey on what changes they wanted. None were substantive, and none were from English teachers. Moreover, there is no record of complaint by Bay State parents, either.
Why don’t Petrilli and Brickman ask each Department of Education or Department of Public Instruction in each state to send out a survey to all the state’s teachers just asking for suggestions to upgrade the state’s Common Core-based standards. They will soon find out how welcome a different set of standards would be. And how much they might support a new use for Common Core-based tests so long as they are tied to accountability for education schools, not the teachers they graduate. See http://pioneerinstitute.org/education/how-to-make-common-core-useful/
What could be done to make the idea of a common core across 50 states make sense in this country? I finally have come up with what could be the solution that Governor Huckabee simply missed. We need to relabel them high school-ready standards and give the so-called “college readiness” tests based on them in grade 8, which is where they belong with respect to content and cut scores. The contents and pass scores for the current Common Core-based tests are a better indication of whether students can do authentic high school-level work in grade 9 or 10 than of college-level work.
A common core can make sense at the right grade levels. We need to compress most of the standards in both English language arts and mathematics from K-12 so that they can serve to make most students ready for high school by the end of grade 8 or 9. That is what we really need a common core of standards for, not for preparing all students for college when large numbers of young adolescents don’t want to go to college or can’t do college coursework and would prefer other options. Then, educators could work out alternative high school curricula and give young adolescents a choice of the kind of high school curriculum they are willing to commit themselves to.
At present, we are spending billions of dollars trying to send students to college and maintain them there who on average read at about the grade 6 or 7 level, according to Renaissance Learning’s latest report on what American students read, and to judge by the reading level of the books that colleges assign to incoming freshmen for summer reading. Nor can most of our high school graduates do much in mathematics beyond grade 8 compared with what students in high-achieving countries can do by the end of grade 8. Our aim would be to try to make sure that all students complete a basic education through grade 8 or 9. We could then provide them with upper secondary options that make sense to them (as do most countries, including Finland). Such a move would mean that this country no longer embarrasses itself by using invalid tests based on invalid K-12 standards written by charlatans.*
*Sandra Stotsky. “An Invalid Validation of the Common Core Standards” (pp. 55-72) and “How Did Charlatans Ever Get to Design National English Standards, and Why Would We Respect Them” (pp. 103-122). In K. Lombard (Ed.), Common Ground on Common Core. Madison, Wisconsin: Resounding Books, 2014. http://www.resoundingbooks.org/books/commonground/