The illusive Common Core

With little time or money, state needs a plan

In the next several months, various state players in education will try to make sense of what the state should do to prepare for the Common Core standards that California and 42 other states adopted last year. The state currently has no coherent plan for Common Core; if it doesn’t come up with one, California risks either being unprepared for Common Core standardized tests four years from now or ceding control over curricula to textbook publishers and other states and organizations charging ahead in developing them.

The state faces significant obstacles. One is legal, at least for the moment: The Legislature, at former Gov. Schwarzenegger’s encouragement, placed a hold until 2015 on the adoption of new textbooks and materials, along with the curriculum frameworks on which they’re based. Assembly Education Chairwoman Julia Brownley and Sen. Alan Lowenthal are sponsoring bills – AB 250 and SB 140 respectively – to lift the moratorium and to expedite the adoption of math and English language arts textbooks for Common Core  – a process under the authority of the State Board of Education for K-8th grades.

Assuming the Legislature doesn't lift the moratorium, the State Board would adopted frameworks in May 2017 and approve materials in November 2019 - four years after the start of new assessments.

Assuming the Legislature doesn't lift the moratorium, the State Board would adopt frameworks in May 2017 and approve materials in November 2019 - four years after the start of new assessments.

If the moratorium isn’t lifted – it would be crazy not to do so – elementary and middle school students could begin to be tested on Common Core standards four to six years before they have in their hands textbooks and online materials on which tests are based, according to a presentation that Deputy State Superintendent Deb Sigman gave this month at an EdSource conference in Irvine.

The other obstacle is financial. The state has been slashing money for education. In cutting dollars for categorical programs, including textbooks and teacher training, the Legislature has given districts spending flexibility, and many districts have diverted money for professional development and materials to keep lights on and teachers on the job.

Last summer, EdSource estimated the cost of the full adoption of Common Core at as high as $1.6 billion, but the organization acknowledges the price could be considerably lower.  The big expense is in the implementation (buying materials, training teachers), not in the development of Common Core tests and curriculum. Much of the money annually allotted for training and materials could be redirected to Common Core; it’s not as if the state would be starting from scratch. Nonetheless, however much the price tag comes to – and no one has a handle on that yet – it’s largely money the state doesn’t have at the moment.

But budget and legalities aside, the biggest challenge will be figuring out the state’s role amid constantly moving parts. Common Core presents the opportunity to  incorporate curriculum development that’s being done in other states and by national organizations like Common Core. A teacher-led nonprofit, unaffiliated with the states-led Common Core initiative and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it has created in-depth K-12 English language arts “curriculum maps” that include materials and classroom activities aligned to Common Core.

What’s clear is that the state’s traditional, serial process, starting with the adoption of standards and ending with the adoption of state-approved textbooks, with the creation of detailed curriculum frameworks in between, will not apply this time.

A schedule that took more than a decade in California last time around has been compressed to five years, and each phase is being developed simultaneously. Over the next year, two federally funded consortia of states charged with developing the next generation of standardized tests – Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium – will pilot the first round of assessments. (Within the next two months, California must choose whether to join one or both of them.) All of the parallel efforts could benefit California and other states, or they could create confusion and accusations that states are abdicating their control over curricula – or having it usurped by assessment consortia and publishers. (See EdWeek; rumblings have already started. Consortia leaders, in turn, are insisting that their work will be open and transparent. The EdWeek article attributes some of the confusion to misunderstandings over the definition of curriculum, which some see as lesson plans and others as a coherent set of guidelines specifying the content knowledge and skills that students are expected to learn across the grades.)

All of this underscores the need for a state plan to implement Common Core – a project that State Board of Education President Michael Kirst says will be done, in conjunction with the State Department of Education. It will include attention to three areas that could get short shrift by the assessment consortia: the needs of English learners, measurements of  career readiness, and California’s unique addition of algebra standards to the Common Core eighth grade standards.

Meanwhile, some districts aren’t sitting around and waiting for the state. The California Office to Reform Education (CORE), a nonprofit started by the seven districts that led the state’s second round application to Race to the Top, will soon launch an initiative that will develop curricular tools – materials and formative assessments – for one or two key Common Core standards in math and English language arts in most grades. Superintendents for the districts, which include Los Angeles, San Francisco, Long Beach, and Fresno, have committed assigning outstanding teacher leaders to the project and to creating an open-source Web site that will be open to all districts in the state. This pilot project will provide insights to districts and the state on the best ways to teach Common Core standards and involve teachers in the preparation, said Rick Miller, CORE’s new executive director and former Deputy State Superintendent. The William and Flora Hewlett, James Irvine, and Silver Giving foundations are underwriting its work.

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  1. Changes on this scale always cause my blood pressure to rise, given the high stakes of these reforms and the potential impact they could have on students and their future successes.  However, the status quo isn’t exactly well serving many pupils (particularly the third of high schoolers who “vote with their feet” and simply dropout), so I suppose we ought to embrace change.  But here’s one glaring oversight: With all of this energy revolving around ELA/Math, can’t we admit that this fixation has led to an intolerable narrowing of curriculum, in which history, civics, science, economics, geography, the arts and other disciplines have been marginalized? 

    And don’t even get me started with the vacuous throw-away line “career readiness.”  Does anyone believe those pushing for Common Core have a clue what that means?  Everyone understands “college readiness,” which is clearly the priority … but I believe many Core advocates wrongly assume college preparedness is synonomous with career readiness (as if college-prep coursework is essential to entry-level work skills, or that it will guide students into a coherent career pathway … NOT!).

    Can’t we learn from the shortcomings of NCLB and avoid repeating those mistakes?  The adult reformers need to keep the needs and realities facing adolescents front-and-center; a continuation of a one-size-fits-all approach would be insane.

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  2. In the light of all this urgency to figure out how we’ll pay for CCSSI adoption, it’s easy to forget that we don’t actually have to do it.  Adoption of these standards is not a necessity to the degree that keeping newly trained teachers employed is.  Allegations that our current standards are horribly deficient and are largely to blame for lagging test scores are motivated not by any substance (the current CA standards have almost nothing to do with our problems) but by the mouthwatering prospect of lucrative contracts for private industries.  We had one vote last summer that approved adoption, and that could easily be reversed.  One of our options is to not adopt.

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  3. Doug is right.  California’s current standards were actually pretty well regarded around the country, and we are not obligated to change them.  Some states did need to “upgrade” their learning goals, but by and large, ours will not be improved by adoption of the Common Core. (The only good thing to come out of this switch is that it highlights, once again, the centralized, cumbersome, top-down, wasteful, special-interest-driven process for curriculum selection that CA shares with many states.)  The fear was that we would miss out on funding based on the CC adoption and on the opportunity to compare our students’ achievement more readily across the country.  But as I understand it, the financial incentives around adopting CC are likely to last only a couple of years, and many states are already contemplating changes to CC for their specific state’s needs.   We are likely to find ourselves with CC standards that are not all that “common” within a few years.  Education policy “follows the money”, and there are signs that other funding sources and priorities will start influencing CC standards — sooner than we might expect.

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  4. Wait until the fancy tests are available. Design the curriculum or pick textbooks to fit the tests.
    Our current curricula are close enough to the common core as they are anyway.

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  5. Nicely done. One shortcoming of adopting the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) so quickly is that the CCSS does not define high school courses, as the original CA content standards does. Instead, the CCSS outlines a variety of strands from which courses can be created. Fortunately, the national group created an “Appendix A” for the CCSS which outlines six courses, whose standards come from the six strands (some from column a. some from column b). However, the CDE and SBE need legislative authority to amend the Common Core.
    As far as vetting resources aligned to the CCSS, the California Learning Resource Network has already begun reviewing supplemental ELA and math resources that are aligned to the Common Core. In addition, CLRN will begin reviewing online courses aligned to the CCSS this fall.

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    John, or other critical thinkers, please comment upon the following, regarding the worth of investing in Common Core Standards:

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  1. State law could delay new textbooks for 8-10 years

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