The Past, Present, and Future of Common Standards

Something in Common: The Common Core Standards and the Next Chapter in American Education
By Robert Rothman
(Harvard Education Press, 300 pp., $24.95)

I must admit to a bias: I am a strong advocate of national standards, was intimately involved with their first iteration in the 1980s, and am delighted to witness their partial resurrection in a new guise.  As Robert Rothman observes, the new Common Core standards in English language arts and mathematics are not top-down driven reforms (one of the difficulties of the first national standards initiatives) or bottom-up efforts, which have suffered in the past when the states, with the singular exception of Massachusetts, tended to water down their individual attempts to the detriment, rather than the amelioration, of American public education.

The Common Core standards, to quote directly from the book’s introduction, “set expectations for student learning at every grade level,” and the book “describes the development process, the states’ adoption decisions, and early steps by states to implement them.”  Most important, the book explains in depth the content of the standards, what they expect of students, and how the assessment of student results is going to be carried out.

While all of this activity, strenuous and complex as it is, may seem to the educational neophyte to be more theoretical than practical, the fact of the matter is that within six months of the standards being issued in 2010, 43 states and the District of Columbia had adopted them.  Furthermore, they are designed to be “all or nothing.”  (It is difficult if not impossible to adopt some of them.)  They are written with every student in mind, rather than for the gifted few.  Their potential for transforming what is taught and raising the level of academic achievement nationally is truly extraordinary.

Why am I guilty of such unbridled optimism?  First of all, a great deal was learned from the pre-Common Core efforts. The first version of the national standards in the 1980s was vastly too ambitious.  Second, current federal education policy is very favorably disposed towards the common core initiative. Third, international comparisons with other highly developed countries, once shunned, are now fashionable.  They reveal that, no matter how the tests are framed, America is in the middle of the pack, well behind the likes of Finland, Singapore and Japan, in what we traditionally expect of our high school graduates. Fourth, other organizations are in the process of developing common core standards in science (to be released in 2012).  Assuming that they are of the same high quality as their 2010 counterparts, people may be emboldened to do the same for the other basic subjects, and thus escape from the current tendency to narrow the curriculum to the point of no return, a concern of particular moment to Diane Ravitch.  Fifth, unlike the situation in the 1980s, the charter school movement has matured to the point that its growth can provide a nationwide institutional context to pilot the teaching strategies appropriate to implementing the common core strategies.

Finally, there is a significant movement to align teacher education with these new standards.  Ross Perot once said to me “All teacher colleges ought to be torched.”  Such single-minded excoriation may be over the top, but there is no question that the new three R’s of teacher recruitment, retention and renewal are integral to any genuine education renaissance, and are indispensable to the implementation of the common core standards. Let’s hope that all of this really happens.  Robert Rothman certainly thinks there is a good chance it will.  After all, all these favorable circumstances are referenced in this informative volume.

-A. Graham Down

More book reviews by Graham Down can be found here.

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