Part two of an ongoing series on higher standards in New York State
Ever since 1983, when President Ronald Reagan called for state leaders to raise expectations for their education systems, the issue of state standards has been part of the education policy conversation. Over the decades that followed, each state developed its own standards, including New York, which approved “learning standards” in seven content areas in 1996. But this patchwork led to frustration among policymakers, who wanted to be able to compare student data across states in order to determine the relative effectiveness of their schools and education policies. State-by-state variation in standards also meant that American students faced vast differences in educational expectations depending on where they happened to live. Some states intentionally set low standards, in a so-called “race to the bottom,” so that they could claim that a higher number of their students were achieving proficiency.
Thus, in 2009, governors and state education commissioners from 51 states and territories agreed to create shared standards in ELA and math. A team of content experts, education researchers, teachers, and higher education faculty was assembled to begin the development process. New York contributed more experts to the K-12 standards development teams than any other state; these included certified teachers, representatives of the teacher’s unions, and SUNY faculty. In March 2010, the National Governors Association released a draft for public feedback, and more than 10,000 individual comments were received. New York had more than 570 commenters—including parents, higher education faculty, and over 300 teachers—far outnumbering the participation in any other state except California. The final standards were released in June 2010, and over the months that followed, individual states further reviewed them and decided whether to adopt them.
Ultimately, more than 40 states and the District of Columbia adopted the Common Core standards. Because the Common Core standards were developed through a state-led, open and collaborative process that drew on the best available expertise, they can truly be said to embody “the best of our knowledge.” The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank that specializes in analyzing education standards, describes the features that make the Common Core standards so much better than pre-existing state standards:
They are admirably aligned with rigorous research (on early reading instruction, for example); explicit about the quality and complexity of reading and writing that should be expected of students every year; very solid on arithmetic as a clear priority in the elementary grades; ambitious in aiming for college and career readiness by the end of twelfth grade; and relatively jargon-free.
Moreover, expectations are now consistent across more than 40 states and are no longer dependent on a student’s zip code.
Yet every passing week seems to bring a news story about another state in which the Common Core is under attack. Many of these stories are based on bills that were introduced by state legislators but ultimately failed to become law, or lawsuits sponsored by interest groups who misleadingly paint the standards and testing consortia as forcible intrusions by the Obama administration into state and local matters. While it is true that federal Race to the Top grants provided financial incentives that hastened adoption of the standards and financed the testing consortia, state participation in those programs was voluntary. The state-driven common standards movement pre-dates Race to the Top, and most states welcomed the influx of federal funding in support of their efforts.
The Common Core standards are in effect in more than 40 states, including every state that originally adopted them except Oklahoma and South Carolina. In response to political controversy, some states have re-branded the standards by changing the name but have quietly retained the substance. More than a dozen states, including New York, have adapted the standards by adding supplementary language—a move that was anticipated by the original adoption agreement under the so-called “15 percent rule.” Numerous states, including New York, have postponed or pulled back from full-scale participation in the Common Core testing consortia, while retaining the standards themselves. Several states, including New York, have launched processes to review the standards and associated tests.
All of this has done little to roll back the Common Core standards, and it is arguable that the additional scrutiny and fine-tuning at the state level will ultimately strengthen the standards and improve their implementation.