Massachusetts Think Tank: National Standards Dumb Down Our Own

Are national standards a good thing? Perhaps, though there are many problems with them, as I’ve explained in recent days.

Here’s one other problem I haven’t mentioned: National standards may in some cases be inferior to home-grown, state standards.

Here, for example, is a press release from the Boston-based Pioneer Institute, which has just released a report comparing Massachusetts standards with those of the common core:

Even after multiple drafts, Common Core’s final English language arts (ELA) and mathematics standards don’t compare favorably with those in California and what was until recently in place in Massachusetts, according to a review published jointly by the Pacific Research Institute and Pioneer Institute.

In Common Core’s Standards Still Don’t Make the Grade: Why California and Massachusetts Must Retain Control Over Their Academic Destinies, University of Arkansas Professor Sandra Stotsky and Ze’ev Wurman, a Silicon Valley executive active in developing California’s standards and assessments during the mid-1990s, write that Common Core’s mathematics standards don’t progress rapidly enough to prepare students to take Algebra I, the key to higher math study, by eighth grade.

The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to adopt Common Core’s standards on July 21st; California is still considering the national standards.

“Common Core has made strides compared with its earlier drafts,” said Pioneer Institute Executive Director JimStergios. “Its final standards compare favorably with those in a number of states. But Massachusetts is not racing to the top nationally; we’re already there. Adopting the national standards last week slows us in the real competition — the one between Massachusetts and countries with the world’s best education systems.”

“The analyses presented in this White Paper should raise questions about the conclusions drawn by other reviewing organizations—to the effect that Common Core’s standards provide a curriculum framework in mathematics and English language arts that is at least as strong as or stronger than what is provided by the California and Massachusetts standards,” said Lance Izumi, Koret Senior Fellow and Senior Director of Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute.

Last year, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers agreed to sponsor the Common Core State Standards Initiative and, with encouragement from the United States Department of Education (USDE) and support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to develop common mathematics and ELA standards that states could voluntarily adopt. USDE subsequently included adoption of the standards among the criteria for states vying to win federal “Race to the Top” education grant funding.

Common Core has developed both “college- and career-readiness standards” for national high school tests that would assess student preparedness for college-level work, and K-12 math and ELA grade-level standards that are the grade-by-grade translation of the college- and career-readiness standards.

The authors find the gulf between Common Core’s standards and Massachusetts’ or California’s own standards particularly large in the following areas:

  • › Coherent grade-by-grade progressions through high school in both mathematics and English
  • › Expectations embodied in the content of Common Core’s standards for Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II that are less demanding than the standards in California and Massachusetts and reflect a less rigorous definition of “college readiness”
  • › Common Core’s replacement of the traditional Euclidean foundations of geometry with an experimental approach to the study of middle and high school geometry that has neither been widely used elsewhere in the world nor considered effective where it has been tried
  • › Common Core’s aim to teach Algebra I only in high school, at least one year behind the recommendation of the National Mathematics Panel and current practice in both California and our nation’s major international competitors
  • › Specificity of literary cultural content in high school English

Adopting Common Core’s standards will have an expensive ripple effect, requiring new professional development for teachers and textbooks be aligned with the new standards.

“Massachusetts taxpayers have spent nearly $100 billion on school reform since 1993. As a result of investing the money wisely, our students now lead the nation and are internationally competitive,” said Stergios. “But the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education put short-term gain ahead of kids when it voted to ditch our nation-leading academic standards for weaker standards in pursuit of a one-time $250 million federal grant.”

Adopting Common Core’s standards also provides an opening for those who have long sought weaker teacher licensure tests, such as the many Massachusetts teacher educators and union members who advocate for replacing the Commonwealth’s teacher licensure tests with off-the-shelf PRAXIS tests.

Myself, I’m skeptical of efforts to create standards in the political world. But if we are to have school standards created through politics, it’s better to let states take the lead. Harmonizing standards across states runs the risk of spreading mistakes across the nation rather than confining them to one state. Imagine, for example, if a whole-language emphasis, to the exclusion of phonics, had not been contained to California.

You can always get this or that person, meanwhile, to say that the proposed common core standards are superior to those currently in place in most states. In fact, the Thomas Fordham Institute says such a thing. But government targets and goals are subject to revision (just think back to how the KBOE adjusted its timetable for meeting the requirements of No Child Left Behind, to start with). There’s nothing to say that a “good” set of standards today won’t in time become weak or otherwise objectionable.

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