Governance matters

As we’ve noted before, the Fordham Institute team with help from the Gates Foundation has embarked on a multi-stage think-fest concerning the long-term governance of the “Common Core” state standards and the forthcoming assessments that are meant to be aligned to them.

As readers know, the final version of these K-12 “college-and-career-ready” standards for math and English language arts were released on June 2 by the Council of Chief State Schools Officers and the National Governors Association, the organizations that—with much help, tons of input, multiple drafts, a million meetings, and scads of reviews—developed them.

So far, thirteen states have declared that they will adopt these standards in place of their own. Many other states are considering the desirability and feasibility of doing that. By August, dozens more may declare their intention to replace their own academic standards in these two subjects with something state-based yet quasi-national.

Concurrently, the Education Department just wrapped up its grant competition for new assessment systems, systems meant to be aligned with the Common Standards and, like the standards themselves, used by multiple states in lieu of their present assessments. Grants will presumably be made to ardent consortia of states by September 30.

There are a million next steps to contemplate if these standards and assessments are to get traction in American K-12 education over the next few years. But we at Fordham are looking even farther ahead: We’re contemplating the thorny issues that will determine the long-term viability of this endeavor. Simply stated: In 2020, who will be in charge of the common standards-and-testing effort? What will they do? Who will pay for it?

These aren’t just mundane questions of organizational ownership and budget. Governance has never (well, not since 1787) mattered more. For the quality and credibility of this enterprise over the long haul have immense implications for the nation’s future, not just in K-12 education but also on college campuses and workplaces, and not just for education but also for our international competitiveness and much more.

States considering the Common Core are legitimately concerned about how it will work tomorrow. Will those standards get dumbed down? Ratcheted up? Joined by curriculum? Will they reach from English and math into other subjects? Will universities take them seriously?

Critics and doubters, too, are eying governance, asking what will keep the Common Core from slipping under Uncle Sam’s control, recalling some earlier disappointments on that front, and are fretful, too, that the loopiest of educationists will infiltrate until they are in control of academic expectations that will then drown in dubious fads and educational mistakes like whole-language reading, “rain forest” math, and so-called “21st Century skills.”

How this venture is governed (or misgoverned) in the future will do more than anything else to deter—or invite—such a fate.

How it’s governed is not our decision, of course, but we’re bent on providing some thoughtful analyses and plausible options for the country to consider. For the first stage of this ambitious undertaking, we invited a handful of experts to write background papers. Five are in hand and available for review on our website at this time. (We expect a sixth to follow.)

In what follows, I sketch some highlights of these excellent papers:

The Oversight of State Standards and Assessment Programs: Perspectives from a Former State Assessment Director,” by Pat DeVito describes how states currently “govern” their standards-and-testing programs. (DeVito now works at Measured Progress and directs that firm’s work on the Massachusetts MCAS testing program; he formerly served as Rhode Island’s testing director.) One might generalize that individual states do this “administratively,” usually within the state education department under the policy eye of the state board of education. That’s certainly the case in the states that DeVito profiles (Massachusetts, Kentucky, Michigan, and North Carolina). Perhaps most relevant to the Common Core governance challenge is his description of the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP), a consortium effort that pulls together four states for a shared assessment. One might think of it as a miniature version of the Common Core, but even on this small scale it’s been delicate and complicated and challenges remain. (For example, test results are reported in and for individual states, not across states, even though they use the same test!)

Networked Governance in Three Policy Areas with Implications for the Common Core State Standards Initiative,” by Paul Manna, Associate Professor of Government at William and Mary, describes an approach to governance about which I for one knew very little before reading his paper: “networks” of varying levels of formality, sometimes involving interstate arrangements, sometimes multiple agencies in a community, state, or region. Manna profiles three of these and poses key questions about how they are structured, membership defined, decisions made, and expenses covered. He also examines “implications” for the Common Core—and how to address “the looming federal presence.”

E Pluribus Unum in Education? Governance Models for National Standards and Assessments: Looking Beyond the World of K-12 Schooling,” by Patrick McGuinn, Associate Professor of Political Science and Education at Drew University, looks outside the education sector for examples of national standards in operation. He sketches a number of examples, from the Uniform Law Commission and Financial Accounting Standards Board to various initiatives by the federal government that are not directly managed from Washington (e.g., the “Energy Star” rating system for energy-efficient products). Most interesting, I think, is his discussion of “interstate compacts” (some of which exist in education but more outside) and the considerable potential of such an arrangement to govern Common Core over the long haul.

What Can the Common Core State Standards Initiative Learn from the National Assessment Governing Board?,” by Mark Musick, long-time head of the Southern Regional Education Board and chairman of NAGB, now at East Tennessee State University, examines the history and functioning of NAGB and finds therein a number of lessons that may apply to Common Core governance in the years ahead. These include independence, staffing, resources, organizational culture, and more. He concludes—quite firmly—that while valuable lessons can indeed be drawn from the NAGB experience, NAGB itself is not the proper place to house governance responsibility for the Common Core.

How will the Common Core Initiative Impact the Testing Industry?,” by Tom Toch, head of the Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington, co-founder of Education Sector, and a veteran education journalist, and former Newsweek reporter Peg Tyre, now a Spencer Fellow at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, picks up on an earlier paper that Toch wrote about the U.S. testing industry and goes on to forecast how the Common Core assessments will evolve and what this means for that industry. They are especially useful in framing key challenges that the nascent assessment “consortia” will face as they move forward, particularly given the ambitious multiple purposes that the Education Department wants these assessments to fulfill.

At the risk of disappointing some readers and thrilling others, I will refrain for now from conclusions of my own. Our project will continue to unfold over most of the next year and the truth is that I’m still chewing on these issues myself. The background papers outlined here provide plenty more to chew on.

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