Common Core standards: Now what?

Just a year ago, we could scarcely imagine the extent and speed of adoption of the new Common Core standards. With almost forty states now signed up, serving more than 80 percent of U.S. school kids, we can reasonably assert that America is finally on the road to national standards for its schools.

Anyone who follows Fordham’s work knows that we see this as a key move in the right direction. For years we’ve argued that America’s patchwork system of standards and tests simply cannot meet the needs of a big, modern country in today’s world. Nor were we confident that many states would raise standards on their own. But we were also nervous. What if the Common Core turned out to be mediocre—or worse?

Fortunately, the new standards are a commendable product, a real upgrade in academic rigor and clarity for the vast majority of states, whose leaders deserve kudos for banding together (yes, with Uncle Sam’s encouragement, but no direct involvement) and producing some fine documents.

Still and all, this is just the beginning of a long and arduous process. Standards describe the destination that schools and students are supposed to reach, but by themselves have little power to effect change. Much else needs to happen before one’s education system can reach that destination.

One important element is development of strong assessments that are aligned with the standards. This effort recently commenced via two consortia of states that will spend the next four years building tests—fancy, modern “assessment systems,” if all goes well—that will replace those states now use. This is potentially a bigger deal than the Common Core itself, because “what’s on the test” is the real standard, for better or worse. Our fingers are again crossed

Fordham has been engaged in various stages of this evolution. Today, we’re particularly interested in a question that has received little attention from others outside the NGA and CCSSO themselves: How will the Common Core be implemented over the next five or so years? And how will it be governed over the long term? Who will “own” the standards and tests ten or twenty years from now? Whose job will it be to make sure they don’t get corrupted or co-opted?

Earlier this year, we set out to spark some smart thinking on these thorny matters. We commissioned five background papers that address various aspects of governance of the standards and assessments.

Next, we posed a dozen tough questions to two-dozen smart people—all of them veterans of countless education-policy and education-reform wars—about what the nitty-gritty governance arrangements might look like. And we got back incredibly varied answers. (These are available on our website.) Our respondents seemed to inhabit different planets in the policy cosmos.

They lacked consensus not only on the details, but even on the need for “governance,” not to mention its timing. Some said to wait, to let the Common Core effort play itself out before thinking about ownership of the standards. Others urged the nation to settle these issues immediately. Some wanted to entrust oversight to existing organizations. Others yearned to create something from scratch. And on it went.

Amidst this cacophony, we came to see that one reason for the lack of consensus was that we ourselves had not been clear about what exactly needs to be “governed.” Is it just the standards? Is the question simply who will revise and update them? Would some new or existing organization also oversee the assessments? What about test validity? And what about “implementation” and all it entails—developing curricular materials, training teachers, disseminating achievement results, providing online learning tools, creating a robust accountability system, and so on?

In other words, how you think about governance of the Common Core and assessments a decade or two hence cannot be detached from how you expect the system itself to operate. In particular, does “implementation” happen—or not—state-by-state (and district-by-district)? To what extent might it happen nationally? In our new paper, we noodle some possible models and their implications. We came up with three:

1.      “Let’s Become More Like France.” Here, we picture a powerful governing board—probably via a new compact among participating states—to oversee the standards, assessments, and many aspects of implementation, validation, and more.

2.       “Don’t Rock the Boat.” We keep the Common Core footprint as small as possible. An existing group is charged with updating the standards when the time comes, but everything else stays with states, districts, and the market.

3.      “One Foot before the Other.” This middle ground foresees an interim coordinating body that promotes information sharing, capacity building, and joint-venturing among participating states. By the time the Common Core needs revising, this interim body may evolve into something more permanent or may recommend a long-term governance plan.

In our minds, and with some honest ambivalence, some version of Model #3—an interim monitoring and coordinating council—makes the most sense today. Let’s call it the Common Core Coordinating Council—“CCCC” or “4C,” which could even morph into “Foresee.” Its initial charge would be five-fold:

1.      Track and report on state efforts to implement the standards and assessments and the many other steps needed to give them traction;

2.      Foster interstate cooperation and collaboration when it comes to curricula and other tools, teacher training and licensure issues, online learning opportunities, and accountability systems;

3.      Prepare for the eventual update of the standards and possible inclusion of additional subjects, particularly through a robust research and validation program;

4.      Work toward greater understanding and buy-in of the standards in higher education, employers, and the general public; and

5.      Recommend a long-term governance arrangement.

We’re not fully satisfied with so modest a “coordinating council.” Something bolder and more ambitious would be needed to ensure the high-quality implementation of the Common Core standards—something closer to the interstate compact envisioned in Model #1. But we don’t think the country is ready for that, especially in the current political environment. It’s too abrupt a change. It could stir passions about a “national school board.” It might put off the many new governors and chiefs who will take office in January. And it could put the common standards at risk.

Nor will 4C be the only entity worrying about Common Core implementation. Many trains are already moving down these tracks, with various organizations and coalitions thinking through how to contribute to the effort. Indeed, the NGA and CCSSO are mulling it themselves (though so far they don’t seem keen to touch the implementation challenges)—and they’ve lately suggested, albeit politely, that none of this is anybody else’s business! We respectfully dissent. We applaud what they’ve accomplished, but there’s far more needing to be done now and, as Clemenceau once put it, war is too important to be left entirely to the generals. That’s true of the war on ignorance, too.

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