Massachusetts leads, California lags
California likes to be linked with Massachusetts as states with the nation’s most rigorous academic standards. Call it bragging by association.
A big difference, though, is that the Bay State is also high-achieving – near the top of the National Assessment of Educational Progress state rankings, among other measures – while California bumps along year after year near the bottom.
The two states’ approaches to evaluating common-core standards, being developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, are revealing as well – and tell a lot about how seriously the two states go about deciding education policy.
While the concept of common math and English language arts K-12 standards and accompanying assessments is compelling, every state should be taking a hard look at the proposals and especially the cost implications of new curricula, assessments and textbooks. California and Massachusetts especially will want to make sure that the common standards don’t water down the two states’ standards.
But while Massachusetts has taken the evaluation seriously and critically, California has, well – it’s hard to know what California has been doing.
Massachusetts has refused to succumb to the federal government’s pressure to adopt common core, sight unseen. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan offered an extra 20 points in Race to the Top competition as an incentive for states that pledged to adopt common core standards by Aug. 2. The first draft of common core wasn’t out until after states submitted their first-round applications, and the delayed final draft won’t even be out until June 2, a day after the second round applications are due.
As a matter of principle, Massachusetts education commissioner Mitchell Chester said, the state refused to commit without seeing the standards. The 15 points it lost as a result of its candor moved it from fifth to 13th place in the first round – even though President Obama often praises Massachusetts’s standards as a model for the nation.
Chester, who spoke at the Education Writers Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco on Saturday, said he was so angry with the feds’ ploy that the state is considering withdrawing from the second round of the competition.
As a piece of its Race to the Top legislative package, Gov. Schwarzenegger and the Legislature set the state on the route to adoption of common core by Aug. 2. Initial drafts of Senate legislation (point 7 in the summary) called for adopting common core without public comment; wiser heads eventually prevailed, and the final version of SB 5X-1 set up a process to evaluate it: A 21-member common core commission, with 11 members appointed by the governor, and half of its members being teachers, is to make recommendations to the State Board of Education by July 15. And the board must then make an up or down vote by Aug. 2. But with less than two months left before the commission is to finish its work, its members have yet to be named.
Big task in a short time
As Chester made clear, from Massachusetts’s perspective, a lot of work must be done. Chester said that his state board would examine national analyses of common core standards; it would convene experts from K-12 and higher education to see what is lacking in common core; and it would hire one or more national expert to do a detailed, side by side comparison of the state and common core standards.
The California Legislature has authorized the state commission to change up to 15 percent of the common core standards to meet California’s needs. So it could bolster common core’s Algebra II standards or ratchet upward the expectations for Algebra I in eighth grade. But it will be hard-pressed to do a comprehensive review in the narrow time frame. The scope of the its work, the size of its budget and staff haven’t been spelled out.
Chester said that Massachusetts board has dedicated considerable staff time to provide suggestions to the drafters of common core, and they, in turn, “have been very responsive.” Michael Cohen, president of Achieve and a leader in the national standards movement, praised Massachusetts’ lobbying for rigor and its principled stand on Race to the Top. Common core has been improved because of Massachusetts’ efforts, he told education journalists.
California’s education officials did comment on initial college and career readiness standards but issued no formal response to the main draft and has been a bit player.
Chester said that Massachusetts reviews its standards every five years and that he looks forward to learning from the research behind common core – regardless of whether the state ultimately adopts it.
California adopted its standards in the late ‘90s and has no mechanism for making changes. Instead, state leaders have been worried about reigniting math wars and ideological fights over bilingual education. While disappointing, it’s not surprising that legislators and education leaders view common core as little more than points to be gained in a federal competition that the state’s not likely to win.