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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 06/ 3/2010

What Common Core State Standards are -- and aren't

By Valerie Strauss

So now we have a set of standards for math and English language arts that were designed for all states to adopt so learning could be more uniform across the country.

On Wednesday, the folks behind the initiative -- the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association -- released the standards that spell out what children are expected to learn in those two subjects from kindergarten through the end of high school.

There’s no good way to argue against the notion that a student in Florida should learn the same important concepts and skills as a kid in Alaska, especially considering the current hodgepodge of state standards -- some of which expose students to academic garbage.

But we should keep in mind what the results of the Common Core State Standards actually are -- and what they aren’t.

The idea behind the initiative was to uniformly boost student achievement across the country. The notion of national standards isn’t a new idea in the United States, where there is a strong tradition of local control over education. But it gained new impetus after the federal No Child Left Behind law led some states to weaken their standards as governors looked for ways to cut education costs.

National standards were embraced by President Obama's Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who made the adoption of the Common Core standards a requirement of his $4 billion Race to the Top competition.

Though Duncan says the department had nothing to do with drawing up the standards, it most certainly wasn't a powerless bystander in its promotion.

Different education groups rushed Wednesday to praise the standards, which most states will review over the summer before adopting them as their own.

So we know what the standards actually are. What they aren’t is another matter.

If anybody is expecting these standards all by themselves to make much of a difference in schools they will be sorely disappointed.

No set of standards has much meaning without equitable resources to ensure that teachers are trained well enough to reach kids who live in widely different circumstances.

And we are a long way from equitable distribution of education resources, a problem being made worse by Duncan’s Race to the Top competition. Deep budget crises in states threatening thousands of teachers' jobs are creating problems that no standards can overcome.

Another issue is the next step. After states adopt the standards, then what? Well, it is likely that what comes next are expensive new standardized tests that will only further the education world’s current obsession with these assessments. The big winners here will be test creation companies.

I also wonder about the speed with which students are supposed to progress under these standards in the earliest grades. Are youngsters being asked to do things that many of them are not developmentally ready to do?

Author Richard Whitmire, in his book “Why Boys Fail,” makes the case that many boys, who acquire literacy skills later than girls, are being asked to read and write far earlier than they are ready to and are falling behind in academic achievement.

What, for example, will happen to a youngster who doesn’t manage to accomplish the following new kindergarten standard in language arts by the time they start first grade:

“Read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding.”


“Use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose opinion pieces in which they tell a reader the topic or the name of the book they are writing about and state an opinion or preference about the topic or book (e.g., My favorite book is...)."

Or the first grader who hasn’t grasped how to read well yet but are, according to the standaqrds, supposed to be able to do the following by the time second grade rolls around?

"Read grade-level text with purpose and understanding."
"Read grade-level text orally with accuracy, appropriate rate, and expression."
"Use context to confirm or self-correct word recognition and understanding, rereading as necessary."

Are children who still have trouble reading in second grade labeled failures already? If districts don't have ways to help these kids catch up before they are too far behind to catch up, well-structured and ambitious and cohesive standards won't mean a whole lot.

Some people in American education reform circles contend that we are falling behind other countries with high-achieving school systems, in large part, because we don’t have national standards.

Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who served as Obama’s chief education adviser during the presidential transition, shows otherwise in her book, “The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future.”

She writes about how Finland - now widely hailed by U.S. policymakers - reformed school system, not by establishing a highly centralized national system with detailed national standards but by shifting “to a more localized system in which highly trained teachers design curriculum around very lean national standards." All assessments are school-based, designed by teachers, rather than standardized.

In our increasing desperate effort to “fix” public education, it is important to remember that these standards - nor any other single effort - will be the silver bullet some mistakenly believe is out there, just waiting to be discovered.


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By Valerie Strauss  | June 3, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  National Standards, No Child Left Behind  | Tags:  common core standards, common core states standards initiative, math and reading standards, national standards, new standards, standards for k-12, standards initiative  
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I have read somewhere that in Finland (and the other Scandinavian countries), almost all programs are captioned. Most youngsters enter school not only able to read, from years of watching the words on the screen and hearing the audio during their cartoons. In other words, one of the keys to reading is to read interesting material aloud while the youngsters look at the words--exactly what there is too little of in American schools. (Because the telecasts cross so many national boundaries, the students also know some of the surrounding languages.)

Posted by: sideswiththekids | June 3, 2010 8:34 AM | Report abuse

What ever happened to the "two front teeth theory" related to reading readiness? My eldest, a son, was always an extremely bright fellow and even astounded his pediatrician as an infant. And as a toddler, his manner of play was most fascinating and creative. We read plenty to him - he had an insatiable appetite for books, desiring those of historical and scientific nature (not the pure factual type, but simple biographies of scientists type). Yet, he loved well written and colorful fun kids' books too, like those of Margaret Wise Brown. We visited the library weekly; he choose his own books and I (or hubby) choose some for him and his siblings as well.

Now the interesting part.....he had virtually no desire to learn to read on his own. In kindergarten, this was okay since they understood development, until first grade came around, then not so understanding. The pressure was on. I asked him why he didn't want to learn to read. His answer, "because if I learn to read, you won't read to me anymore." I assured him that I would. Now, his teacher and myself had him on board for this endeavor. However, progress was slow. I explained to his teacher (nationally recognized) that since his second front tooth in just on the way in, perhaps a little while longer (now mid-year). His teacher hadn't heard of the theory relating to the two front teeth and seemed surprised. Then soon, with both front teeth fully in place, amazingly, he was catching on to this new reading thing.

I should say that at one teacher conference his teacher told me that he could go his entire career and never see a child such as this, very bright. However, when we had to move. His new school relied heavily on standardized testing; they saw a student that wasn't on grade-level reading (he was 7) and did horribly on their tests, thus appeared an idiot and was actually treated as such.

Long story short. I homeschooled him (and his siblings) until high school. He did very well - National Honor Society, all advanced courses, etc. He also did quite well in college and has been highly successful in his career.

Posted by: shadwell1 | June 3, 2010 9:21 AM | Report abuse

Additionally, the U.S. has some unique features in its classrooms that individual European countries do not: in many large cities there may be over 50 languages present in an INDIVIDUAL school due to our immigrant populations - if a school does not have adequate ESOL resources and/or tutors, the children who speak these languages will be constantly behind as they often cannot even read and write in their own language.

And to bring up another sore point with many people - kids with learning disabilities, like severe dyslexia. Assessments before first or second grade may not be accurate due to the developmental issues mentioned in the article, yet you have to get that baseline in early and continue in the early years to determine what kind of help students need. Talk about resources!!! Assessments are expensive and time-consuming, but to really help bring these kids into the reading-world - or content world, as the disabilities are organic and need many compensations - is necessary. And many of these children are very bright, right-brained, and have a lot to offer as future citizens. Without proper help, not only will the almighty test scores suffer, but so will these students.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | June 3, 2010 9:33 AM | Report abuse

Relating to my earlier post, I should add that that my son was excellent in math and as the math progressed (he was given the 2nd grade math book in kindergarten) and required more reading (word problems), this served as an impetus to learn to read as well - doing math on his own, without someone reading the instructions/problems to him.

Posted by: shadwell1 | June 3, 2010 9:38 AM | Report abuse

Using Finland as an example or comparison is a joke. It's a homogenous culture in a population with a high mean IQ. The US was ahead in the 1970s because they weren't yet bothering to educate all students, not because they were doing a great job educating its heterogeneous population.

You're right about one thing. There's no silver bullet. But Darling Hammond's prescriptions would be a lot worse than the nonsense proposed by the feds, which will at least do some decent measuring.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | June 3, 2010 11:08 AM | Report abuse

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