Our Stand on Standards

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Seems our report and the release of the common core standards draft have set off a lot of interest in Massachusetts’ view, and especially in Pioneer’s take on the national standards effort. See Jay Greene’s blog for a long string of comments. Here is a bit of a longish overview of some of the issues we see in this from the Massachusetts and the national perspective. First, the Mass perspective:

1. Standards are the lifeblood of student achievement in public schools; and that includes even those site-based managed schools that are based on parental choice. You all know the stories of charters and voucher programs that don’t deliver the kind of transformational improvement we all want. In MA, our charters for the most part are of a higher quality than elsewhere and far outperform their district counterparts. In part that is because of the great upfront business planning/vetting and accountability/closure processes (yes, regulation), but it is even more because MA has set really high academic standards, assessments, and teacher testing. Charters are effective at attaining goals but you have to set high academic goals for them to be good schools with high-achieving students. Arizona, with its numerous but too often lower quality charter schools, take note.

2. The March common core academic standards drafts, notwithstanding improvements that we see on the math side and also on the ELA side, still fall way short of what Massachusetts or Minnesota have. We have systematically gone through the previous drafts and we have also gone through the latest drafts. We are not there, and not even close. There are lots of problems with specific ELA and Math standards, but there are also two larger points: (1) the wonderful lists included in the appendices are not binding, and (2) the end goal or frame for this whole exercise is the College and Career Readiness standards, which are skills-based gobbledy-gook. And the skills focus will govern the application of the ELA and math standards, and even more so the assessments.

Three broader points:
1. Checker Finn (see his comment on Jay Greene’s blog) is right to lament good-on-paper-only states, but the creation of new federal standards will not help move that any faster. In fact, the development of all new federal standards will likely slow or in fact reverse the process and gains in some states. Perhaps on that score some federal incentives to ensure implementation of state standards would be a more effective approach. After all, the changes entailed by standards are enormous, and they include local implementation by districts of the standards, assessments, and in most cases even teacher testing (which ought to be aligned with the new standards). Were the provisions of NCLB so quickly and so rigorously implemented? 😉 (Hate to say it, Checker, but federal officials have just as much grease in their hair as state officials.)

2. Why aren’t we moving forward based on an approach where the federal government sets a “floor” (basically minimum requirements, not “word for word” or 85% adoption of national standards as CCSSIers/ Duncan laid down) with, going forward, guarantees of flexibility for states to develop even higher standards? (See the comments of the NY Times’ Sam Dillon in this regard in a New American magazine article.) Or why not provide financial incentives for states to improve on NAEP scores and leave it to them to get it done? Massachusetts is not alone in finding that a much more comfortable fit, rather than letting decisions on standards move to Washington, where we know so much, ahem, good work goes on.

3. There are many reasons to think this is going to die of its own weight, but I’ll stick to two reasons:

a. There are so many jurisdictional trip wires on the path to moving forward that it is bound to blow up. The CCSSO, the NGA and USED have crossed into the jurisdiction of (1) Congress on the use of Title I funds in a coercive fashion; (2) many state legislatures which will want to review the intersection with key provisions of their respective statutory reforms of education; and (3) some boards of education, which will want to preserve their roles in education policy.

b. A number of states that have focused on standards (VA, CA, MN, and TX) have begun peeling off.

We certainly hope that we can list Massachusetts among the states who insist on higher standards than what the NGA/CCSSO have offered us.