Clearer, better, fewer: Common Core today

I first blogged about the Common Core standards back in October, when the movement was really picking up speed.  If you aren’t familiar with the movement, here is a brief synopsis as provided to me from the National Writing Project’s Site Leader’s Ning, which gives a very concise history of the movement:

The process began with a fair amount of secrecy and provided little sense to the pubic of the direction of the standards. Then, as reported in EdWeek in July 2009, a draft of the Common Standards was released (unexpectedly) on the web. As EdWeek reports:

“A draft of common academic standards, meant to bring greater coherence to the nation’s English and mathematics lessons, is drawing a mix of enthusiastic, ambivalent, and barbed responses from those who have seen it. The working document, which was unexpectedly put out for public consumption [recently] is meant to serve as the first step of a standards-writing process, led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. … The draft that was circulated on the Web yesterday attempts to set “college- and career-readiness” standards for English and math—the skills students need to succeed in credit-bearing postsecondary courses and workforce-training programs.”

Where we are today (according to a session I attended with Elyse Eidman-Aadahl and Mary Ann Smith of the National Writing Project at the NWP Spring Meeting in Washington, D.C.) is at the point where states are reviewing the Common Core standards for possible adoption. The intention behind the standards was to provide “clearer, better, and fewer” standards, the idea being that the original standards movement within states has failed.  Standards have been written that are not preparing students to be “college ready,” they are vague, they are too numerous, they set the bar too high or too low, the do too much or too little: they just plain aren’t right.  The Common Core standards were deliberately written on their first draft without the input of professional educators precisely because of the original perceived failure of professional educators in writing their own state standards.

That being said, the Common Core standards have gone through at least three iterations that have each benefited from public comment and shaping by professional educators, including National Writing Project teachers who’ve been in on the conversation at the state level.

In our discussion about the standards in D.C., a number of really interesting points were made.

  • National Standards do not equal increased student achievement.  In fact, many have argued that looking at data from other countries, standardization leads to more standardization, not necessarily increased student achievement.
  • There were many things in the current draft of the ELA Writing Standards we like: process writing and writing online were two additions to the original standards that clearly responded to the feedback from educators and writing teachers.
  • The use of student exemplars was also a positive improvement on what we saw before; this was tempered by the fact that all the student exemplars came out of testing situations.
  • Some noted that districts, especially poor and urban districts, have begun “remediating” students by engaging in very rote reading and math programs.  These types of standards would prevent this type of malpractice for our most vulnerable students.

Elyse Eidman-Aadahl encouraged us to comment on the standards before April 2nd.  She also noted that all of us have an opportunity to have our voices heard in this debate by working at the State level on the standards by saying,”these are good, but let us show you how we can go beyond these standards.”  In taking this path, we writing teachers have an opportunity to demonstrate good writing pedagogy, the pedagogy we know impacts not only student achievement, but empowers them by giving them literacy.

In my opinion, I am not convinced that national standards are the answer.  They may, in fact, be more of a problem (as Yong Zhao notes in his blog).  My bigger concern is the role that ACT and Achieve, Inc have played in the crafting of these standards.  I worry that this is a harbinger of what the assessments will look like that demonstrate the standards are being taught and learned.  It is no accident that the early draft so neatly reflected the current ACT test.  To me, the bigger issue will be to make sure we are crafting assessments that allow students to truly demonstrate knowledge, that are not biased in the way ACT is biased.  At bare minimum they should assess writing beyond a 30 minute argumentative essay.  When you have a nation of students assessed in this standardized way, you merely encourage standardized thinking.  In an age when creativity is king, I find it unwise to privilege such standardized thinking.

What are your thoughts on the current draft?  Did you go out and comment?