Common Core standards are a smart move for the Buckeye State

Ohio has positioned itself to be among the first states to adopt the “common” academic content standards, created through a state-led process coordinated by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices. These standards – known as the “Common Core” – were released in draft form (for math and English-language arts) earlier this month, and Ohio has already set about offering technical assistance to guide school districts through the implementation process. 

Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia have signaled their intent to adopt the voluntary common standards. The aspiration behind common standards is that all American students will receive a high standard of education. The Common Core should make transitions easier for students who move between states and should ensure that high-school graduates from across the country are on equal footing when they enter the workforce or matriculate to college. Ohio’s adoption of the Common Core standards (in conjunction with the existing Ohio Core graduation requirements) would raise minimum expectations and result in more students engaging in rigorous academic work by the time they graduate from high school.

In an analysis released yesterday, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute issued grades of “A-” and “B” to the Common Core math and English-language arts drafts respectively. By comparison, in 2006, Ohio’s math standards earned a “D” from Fordham and its English standards garnered a “C.”

Improved academic standards are important to Ohio teachers as well. A recent survey of teachers by Scholastic and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found that a majority (71 percent) of teachers in the Buckeye State agree that clearer academic standards would have a “very strong” or “strong impact” on student achievement. Fifty-seven percent of Ohio teachers also responded that common national standards would have a very strong or strong impact on student achievement.

But, for those of us in the Buckeye State, the most important question about the Common Core standards is whether or not they are in fact superior to Ohio’s current standards. In general, we believe they are and here’s why:

They are narrower, and deeper. At 70 and 60 pages respectively, before appendices, the Common Core math and English standards are far shorter in length than Ohio’s standards. They save space by focusing on fewer topics and skill areas, but taking those topics deeper than Ohio’s current “inch deep, mile wide” standards.

For example, an Ohio Department of Education and CCSSO effort to benchmark Ohio’s standards against top international standards found that, in K-8 math, Ohio spreads content topics across more years than peer countries, leading to redundancy and less instructional emphasis on each topic. The Common Core math standards are focused on essential, core math content. The Common Core English-language arts standards emphasize foundational content but go deeper where necessary; for example, by including etymology as it relates to students’ vocabulary development.

They are more specific where it matters. The Common Core academic standards provide a level      of detail that is sometimes absent from Ohio’s standards. In math, for example, the Common Core gets to textbook-level specificity when it comes to fractions, clearly stating that by third grade students should understand that fractions are representations of numbers (i.e. points on a number line) and not simply parts of a whole (i.e. slices of pizza). Conversely, Ohio’s math standards fluctuate between clear and specific in one strand, while in another they are overly broad and immeasurable, such as the third-grade math standard for patterns: “Use patterns to make predictions, identify relationships, and solve problems.”

In English-language arts, the Common Core is more specific in what children need to know. For example, kindergartners need to know 25 sight words. Ohio’s standards are far less specific and simply say our five-year olds should be able to “read one-syllable and often-heard words by sight” but offer no guidelines about how many words students should know.

The Common Core standards in math and English-language arts offer students and teachers a better foundation for learning because they are deeper, more specific, and more cogent than Ohio’s current academic content standards. Even the layout of the document is more streamlined and reader-friendly. None of this is surprising, given that the Common Core initiative has benefited mightily from the trial and error of states, and other nations, in developing rigorous academic standards over the last decade.

Teachers should be happy to know that the Common Core standards are not overly prescriptive. They state the skills students should acquire at each grade level, but do not prescribe the content or methods that teachers should use to get children to the standard. For example, while the standards provide an outstanding list of example texts that can be used to help students attain reading skills, no reading lists per se are prescribed. States, local school boards, and individual teachers will still retain control over these decisions.

Adopting the Common Core standards isn’t a sure-fire recipe for academic success. High academic standards don’t automatically translate into stronger student performance. A corresponding, solid curriculum must accompany these standards, as must tests that are properly aligned to them and accurately measure students’ mastery of the standards. And, of course, teachers, parents, and students will still need to do their parts.

Although a strong step forward, the current iterations of the Common Core standards are not perfect. There are issues that ought to be addressed during the upcoming revision process and before the Common Core standards are finalized.  Failing that, Ohio must consider its own revisions and additions to the Common Core to address shortcomings. These include:

Looking out for and eliminating curious omissions. While basic number facts are the foundation for mathematics, the Common Core only requires students to memorize addition and multiplication tables, not the corresponding subtraction and division facts. Ohio’s standards indicate second-grade students should be fluent in addition and subtraction facts through 9, and third graders should be fluent in multiplication and division through 10. Students should master these basic facts before moving on to more complicated mathematical concepts.

Assuring standards do not impose a false ceiling. Though the Common Core standards set greater expectations for many Ohio students, the math standards could represent a step backward for some students. Ohio’s current mathematics “program models” include a path that incorporates algebra and geometry into the curriculum in middle and high school. The Common Core mathematics standards “top out” at pre-calculus. Advanced STEM math standards are provided as a guide for students intending to pursue STEM careers, though the fact that they are labeled separately and are not part of the minimum core could prompt educators to ignore them.  If Ohio educators do not make full use of the guidance for high school course development contained in the Common Core’s appendix, these standards could lower the curricular ceiling and corresponding expectations for some Ohio students.

Ensuring advancement opportunities for gifted learners. The Common Core standards could benefit from adding content to guide teachers in moving students beyond the minimum standards, including a statement of the need for “continuous progress” to help students move through the standards at an accelerated pace. Specific examples of how content can be differentiated in depth, breadth, and pace to accommodate academically talented students would also help ensure that these standards work to improve achievement for all students.

In general, the Common Core standards represent an improvement over Ohio’s current core academic standards. Experts, state education officials, Ohio teachers, and union representatives alike agree that improved academic standards such as those embodied in the Common Core can positively impact student achievement.

The Common Core standards, the final version of which Ohio’s State Board of Education plans to adopt this summer, will set clearer, higher, and more specific minimum academic expectations for students in the Buckeye State and will put them on a level playing field with their peers across the country. Common standards should allow Ohioans to more accurately gauge how our children are performing compared to students across the country, and should foster collaboration and information-sharing across states to create better curriculum and assessments.

It makes educational and fiscal sense for states to agree to common academic content standards and expectations, especially if the goal is to adequately prepare students for success upon high school graduation. Individual students and our nation as a whole will benefit from more demanding expectations. The process for developing the Common Core thus far has been driven by the states, and in going forward, strong state ownership and investment will be necessary for the effort to flourish. The federal government should continue to stay out of this, especially when it comes to the how (rather than the what) of academic standards. States, districts and individual schools are the best agents for determining the types of pedagogy, instructional programs, etc. that should be deployed to ensure that students master minimum academic standards.

After adopting the Common Core standards, educators in individual states will have the freedom, flexibility, and responsibility to go beyond the standards, devise systems to address individual student needs in less uniform ways, and capitalize on local strengths to raise the achievement of all learners. It is up to Ohio and other partner states to maximize the Common Core’s potential to better prepare our students.

As Gene Wilhoit of the Council of Chief State School Officers told Congress last December, this state-led effort should “ensure that all children regardless of zip code are taught to the same high standards that prepare them for college and career and allow them to compete with their peers around the globe.” Ohio is to be commended for not only embracing them, but also helping with their creation and development.

See the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s full review of the Common Core draft math and English-language arts standards here for content experts’ analyses of the standards’ strengths and weaknesses as well as specific suggestions for improvement. For more on the Buckeye State’s standards, see our most recent review of Ohio’s math and English-language arts standards here. 

This article is also available at State of Ohio Education blog.

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