Over the last several months, discussions of the Common Core State Standards have been eclipsed by the public’s reaction to major issues which have arisen in their implementation – issues such as declining student test scores, and the role of such test scores in teacher evaluations, evaluations mandated if a state was to receive its share of federal money from the “Race to the Top” funds. The Common Core, we remember, is a set of standards or goals which has been developed to describe what our students should achieve at various points in their education. Accepted by some 45 states and the District of Columbia, these standards are meant to ensure that our young people will be prepared for whatever futures our rapidly evolving society creates, that they will be college-ready and employment-ready, that they will be globally competitive.
The Common Core, we must also remember, is not a curriculum or a lesson plan; rather, teachers in each state are expected to develop the means – the curriculum and the pedagogies – they feel are most suited to achieve these core standards. Such curriculum development takes substantial time and resources, as does the development of rigorous and valid assessment instruments; and, it is in these areas that most implementation problems have arisen. New York State’s Common Core implementation problems are typical of many around the country: premature testing of students on content aligned with the standards, but to which they had not yet been exposed, led to understandable major decreases in the scores of the test- takers, infuriating parents and generating considerable concern across all stakeholder groups - parents, students, teachers and legislators.
New York was also concerned that very “high stakes” decisions were going to be made using data derived from student tests which had yet to be evaluated. Indeed, New York has just approved legislation delaying the use of data derived from student tests “aligned to the Common Core Standards” in the evaluation of teacher performance. Such student test results also will not be used to place or evaluate a student, or even be placed in their records, till 2018. Further, such tests will not be used as graduation requirements till 2022, when today’s 4th graders will graduate.
While such legislative action could be construed as a diminution in New York’s commitment to the Common Core Standards, this is certainly not the case. Rather, these legislative actions will allow the time for fruitful discussion of a number of critical policy issues facing K-12 education. For instance, a non-politicized, objective and professional analysis of effective ways to evaluate teacher performance is long overdue. Members of the teaching profession should not be excluded from such scrutiny, nor do they wish to be. However, the student performance portion of such evaluations must be based on thoroughly vetted student tests of fully-developed curricular content, something which will take both time and considerable new resources.
Too many state- and federal-level education policy makers have, I feel, underestimated the difficulties involved in attempting to implement common core standards in our nation’s schools. Teachers need to be educated about the new standards, rigorous new educational programs need to be developed to meet these standards, and wholly new assessment instruments need to be devised.
And all this, even in districts with extremely low resources. Ironically, even as this praiseworthy initiative has been launched, funding for K to 12 has decreased substantially in many states.
With the introduction of the Common Core State Standards we have, I feel, the opportunity to improve in a major way the educational preparation of our young people. We cannot afford to lose this opportunity by conflating implementation challenges with the quality of the standards themselves. States need to acknowledge and then address the barriers to implementation of the standards across all their districts, including the commitment of resources which will be necessary. We cannot afford to remain a low performer in international surveys of educational achievement; we cannot afford the huge amount of college-level remediation which is proving necessary to address the inadequacies of K to 12 preparation in large percentages of our high school graduates; we cannot afford to drive our businesses to other countries to obtain the skills they need in their new employees. This is a critical time for our country, and the implementation and evaluation of the Common Core State Standards provide us with a real opportunity to address education policy issues of enormous importance to our nation’s future in new and different ways. Let the conversations begin.
Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge”.
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