Common-core standards under fire
When the man overseeing the common-core standards initiative in math admits that the deadlines for completing the work are “insane,” you know we may be headed for trouble.
And if a panel discussion at a national mathematicians conference in San Francisco over the weekend is an indication, William McCallum and a group of 45 mainly mathematicians drawing up K-12 national math standards are in for withering criticism. (Update: There are actually 51 members of the panel drawing up math standards. Go here for a list of who they are. )The panelists, who included two elementary school teachers and an author of two college textbooks on elementary math, were blunt. They complained that the draft standards were obtusely written, that they expected too much of students in early grades, that they would encourage the same kind of bureaucratic enforcement of state standards that has already damaged math education.
Most of all, they pleaded with McCallum not to rush the standards into adoption.
The draft individual grade standards will be publicly released in early February. After a month of public comment, the final standards will be issued in late March. In order to compete for federal Race to the Top money, states, including California, have agreed to adopt them by late summer – sight unseen. A separate group is drawing up English language arts standards.
McCallum, a math professor at the University of Arizona, took the criticism in stride. He reminded the forum panelists that they were looking at draft language that had not yet been made public, and he warned against taking individual standards out of context. While acknowledging the concerns about front-loading demands in early grades, he said that the overall standards would not be too high, certainly not in comparison other nations, including East Asia, where math education excels.
He offered a mea culpa on the deadlines. A normal timetable for standards adoption would go through multiple iterations, with pilot testing. The compressed schedule was set by “his bosses,” the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers, which are leading the standards initiative. And they, in turn, have been pressed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who has used the possibility of getting Race to the Top money as leverage to force states to commit now to adopting uniform standards. Forty-eight states have agreed to do so.
But having gotten those commitments – and overcome initial resistance from states that has doomed past efforts – Duncan could recognize the danger of haste and push back the timetable. He runs the risk, I would think, that states not getting Race to the Top money might subsequently back out if the standards are done poorly.
It wasn’t the concept of uniform, national standards but the wording of the draft standards that bothered Scott Baldridge, the elementary textbook author and professor at Louisiana State University. It’s clear to me, he said, that as written, “the standards will lead to a bureaucratic assessment system that will be turned into rigid requirements.” He described the “rituals” in large Louisiana districts, where teachers spend hours doing out lesson plans filled with administrative detail. Principals walk the school, matching daily standards programmed into their BlackBerrys with what’s written on teachers’ blackboards.
The way to avoid this path, leading to assessments that are a “sledge hammer on the backs of teachers,” he said, is to focus on central elements for each grade – like proportion in seventh grade – and write “non-threatening standards for teachers” accompanied by clearly worded examples of what you mean.
McCallum said that sample tasks or illustrations would accompany the standards, and he emphasized that the standards would be a “living document,” subject to future revisions.
But Bill Evers, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and former federal assistant secretary of education in the Bush administration, cautioned that whatever standards are forced on states initially would be used as the basis for assessments, textbooks and professional development. The implication: Get it right the first time.