Grading the Core Curriculum Standards

Now that the Common Core State Standards Initiative has released proposed national standards for math and language arts, reviews are starting to come in. The consensus seems to be, among the 48 states whom have agreed to be part of the process (Texas and Alaska declined the offer) that the March draft (see here) for both subjects is a vast improvement over the January draft, though still not up to the level of the highly regarded standards in Massachusetts, California, and Indiana. There’s considerable pressure for adoption: Ed Sec. Arne Duncan has made it clear that states that adopt the standards will have an edge in the next Race To The Top round.

Here’s a few samplings from national commentators regarding this grade-by-grade uniform set of academic standards intended to standardize our erratic American curriculum that ranges from mediocre to outstanding, depending upon where your child goes to school. The Thomas Fordham Foundation says they’re “pretty darned good”: regarding math, “our reviewers found clear rigorous standards that set forth most of the essential content that students in grades K-12 must master.” They give it an A-. For language arts, “the standards are also strong, though in need of a few more adjustments.” It gets a B because it has some vague spots and the need for more references. Dennis Van Roekel, President of NEA, gives it a thumbs-up, and likes that the draft includes material for English language learners and children with disabilities. The National Association of State Boards of Education likes that too. This morning E. D. Hirsch, Jr. called it a “radical transformation” which represents “a fundamental and long overdue rethinking of the dominant process-approach to U. S literacy instruction.”

Whoa. Snaps all around.

Unless you live in New Jersey, where there is substantial criticism, particularly of the math standards. On March 17th the NJ Coalition for World Class Math gave testimony at the DOE. While this group of mathematicians, parents, and educators believes that the March draft is a significant improvement over the January one, it is still not as good as core standards in Massachusetts, Indiana, and California The group finds especially weak the lack of articulation among grades 7, 8, and high school (particularly in algebra, and particularly in grade 8). There’s also grave concern about the lack of consistency between proposed standards and college entrance requirements. There’s general disapprobation over the repetitive use of the word “understand” in some of the standards: “Numerous computation skills are delayed or under emphasized, while, at the same time, children are expected to "understand" sophisticated ideas and principles that many teachers do not themselves understand.”

There seems to be less dissension over the language arts common core, though one important naysayer is Dr. Sandra Stotsky, who was a prime mover and shaker of widely-praised Massachusett’s construction of state standards and served on the national Validation Committee for English Language Arts. Dr. Stotsky is especially aggrieved at the “generic, content- and culture-free skills as the intellectual goals of grade level standards.” She hates the “complexity formula” which is supposed to help English teachers judge the level of the literature they teach. (Example: applying the formula to “Grapes of Wrath” yields a “complexity level” of grade 2-3.) The problem, she says, is that “textbooks have been continuously dumbed down for decades. But the solution is not to ask English teachers to use a complexity formula to help them judge what texts to teach at each grade level. They know how (or should know how) to determine complexity better than any formula can.”

The NJ DOE also heard from Dr. Susan Wolfson, a Professor of English at Princeton University, who was distressed to discover the lack of cumulative, graduated learning in literary history, traditions, forms, styles, and significant writers. Dr. Wolfson alleges that there was a “systematic exclusion of those with expertise in literary study in the development of the standards” and that the case was “predecided.” “We are surprised and concerned that the media have failed to note the exclusion of literary study from what are deemed “college readiness” standards.”

So, where does this leave New Jersey? Our current common core standards are far worse than the proposed national ones, plus we need any oomph we can get for our next Race To The Top application. Here's a potential solution: the Math Coalition recommends that the US DOE take a step back and field-test the standards for a year, and/or allow states to get credit for adopting Massachusett’s laudatory standards in lieu of the national ones. Not a bad compromise. In addition, states are permitted to adopt the core curriculum while changing up to 15%. Seems like we can address legitimate concerns and eat our cake too.

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