Standard Deviation

The National Governors Association first declared its support for national education standards in 1989, with then-President George H.W. Bush’s blessing. Yet despite efforts during both the Bush and Clinton years, no common standards system ever emerged.

Now that could change. On June 1, 46 states, 3 territories, and the standardized-testing industry announced an initiative aimed at changing that. The stakeholders have promised to work together to create national curriculum standards -- but crucially, have not agreed on how to actually implement them in each state. The Prospect talked with Scott Montgomery, deputy executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Dane Linn, director of education for the National Governors’ Association Center for Best Practices, whose organizations are leading the coalition, about how this initiative is different that past national standards efforts and what challenges lie ahead.

The previous efforts to set national standards resulted in vague agreements of support, but implementation was disjointed across states. How will this initiative improve upon previous attempts?

Dane Linn, NGA: There are a couple ways in which the work that we’re doing now differs from previous efforts. One is, the data clearly shows that the gap between how U.S. students perform relative to those in high-performing countries, including our neighbor to the north, Canada, is growing. The second way in which this work differs is that there is a political climate that exists today that may not have existed in previous efforts, where it’s no longer tolerable for the United States to depend on the top 10 percent to carry this economy.

We have both a moral and an economic responsibility to ensure that all students have an opportunity to take advantage of what we traditionally call those high-wage, high-skill jobs. And the other thing is that it’s just not defensible to spend as much money as we are on the development of standards and assessments -- times 50. So if we can leverage resources from state to state -- for example, on student assessments -- we can stop spending the approximately $700 million we are spending collectively and reach an economy of scale that is not obtainable in one state alone.

Now that you have this agreement between these 49 states and territories, who is going to participate in the writing of these standards at the policy level?

Scott Montgomery, CCSSO: What’s being developed right now and what’s going to come out in July are the drafts of college- and work-readiness standards. That is being developed by our partners from Achieve, College Board, and ACT. And we chose those three groups because they’ve done the lion’s share of the work on these things the last 30-plus years in defining what college-readiness is. Those are in draft form; they’ve been reviewed, the work teams are actually working on them right now. And we’ll be finalizing sometime early to mid-summer, after there’s been a review period by the states and they’ve been validated by this national validation committee. From that, the individual grade-by-grade K to 12 standards will be developed throughout the rest of the summer, and those will be out for comments by the states and review committees and finalized early in 2010.

You’re developing these common core standards for English language arts and mathematics. Where do science, civics, and other subjects fit into that?

Linn: We think it’s really important to demonstrate success. We think English language arts and mathematics are the foundation for success in the other subjects, and hence that’s why we’re focused on those two subjects right now.

Montgomery: As an old social studies teacher, I get the concern that a lot of groups have about, “Where are social studies? Where’s science? Where are the other pieces of this?” But one of the things we discussed early on was that the ability to read and write effectively and do math calculations is so critical to everything else that students do in school -- and frankly, it’s where states are at right now given the guidelines of No Child Left Behind. So this is essentially the low-hanging fruit of the standards world, and I think we’ve got ideas for where we go in the future. But we had to start some place, and let’s get this one right first and then move on to those others.

The agreement says these new standards will not be lower than any state’s existing standards. With so much disparity across states, how do you go about creating these standards?

Montgomery: That’s a good question, and it’s actually one that we anticipated as we drafted our Memorandum of Agreement. For states that are struggling with, “How do I ratchet the bar up that much higher than what I may already have?” we anticipated an implementation window of up to three years. For states that already believe that their standards are high, we’ve actually said that if you adopt the standards in whole, as long as the common core represents at least 85 percent of your state standards, you could add a few other things around that.

How will CCSSO and NGA help states implement these standards?

Montgomery: We know that all states are a little different. There are some states that have put their standards adoption processes on hold barring the outcome of this process. I can think of a couple off the top of my head: Arkansas and Delaware, who really want to see this work. And in those cases the adoption process may be fairly quick. In other states who have a different timeline, who may have just gone through an adoption process -- Colorado just implemented brand new standards in English language arts -- there’s a timing issue where they certainly don’t want to put in a second set of standards right on top of the ones they just brought in last year. I think a lot of this is going to be individual one-on-one discussions that state policy makers and Achieve and the governors and others are going to have.

Since the adoption process is optional, what happens if these standards are developed and then states either delay or signal that they’re actually not going to adopt the standards?

Linn: We’re the first to admit that not only is this a significant scope of work, but this is hard work. No one said this is going to be easy. And we know there are a lot of challenges that we’re going to have to face as we work with states to implement these standards. The state boards are critical to adopting these standards. But there are a lot of factors that are going to weigh in on their decision about whether or not to adopt these standards. Our role and the role of many of the other organizations is to help them figure out ways to address those challenges.