The illusive Common CoreWith 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.
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.