Should California have second thoughts on Common Core?

With new assessments scheduled for 2014-15, many districts and state education planners are becoming immersed in preparing for the Common Core State Standards in math and English language arts. California is one of 46 states to adopt them and has a lead role in one of two state consortia creating the new tests. Faced with potentially steep adoption costs and a conservative backlash to national standards, a few states may back out. California legislators, the State Board, and Gov. Brown have shown no intent of reversing course. Nonetheless, we thought we’d take the pulse again: Is moving ahead with Common Core adoption a wise move?

Advocating for the Common Core are David Plank, executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), and Jonathan Raymond, superintendent of the Sacramento City Unified School District. Arguing against are Eric Premack, founder and director of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento, and Ze’ev Wurman, a software engineer who served on the state commission that reviewed the Common Core standards in 2010.

What do you think?

David Plank: Once-in-a-generation opportunity

David Plank
David Plank

Implementation of the Common Core State Standards is a big step forward for California’s education system, for three main reasons:

The Common Core are better standards. They are comparable in rigor to California’s current standards, but they emphasize academic content and skills that were previously neglected. Where California’s standards were superior to the Common Core, the State Board of Education added California standards to them. The Common Core standards focus explicitly on ensuring that students leave high school ready for college, and grade-by-grade standards are organized systematically to support students’ progress toward that goal. This “vertical alignment” makes it possible to track students’ progress over time, measuring how much students have learned, as opposed to how much they know at a certain moment in time. Grade-level assessments aligned to the Common Core can provide early warnings if students begin to fall short of expectations.

  • The Common Core support better assessments. Adoption was a necessary condition for California to take advantage of new multi-state assessments aligned to the new standards. The computer-adaptive assessments that California will implement in 2014-15 will include complex performance tasks in addition to multiple-choice items, and will provide much fuller and more accurate information on how students are progressing than we get from our current assessments.
  • The Common Core create economies of scale, and open the way to the digital future. The Common Core have been adopted by 46 states, which makes it possible for California to benefit from curricular resources and instructional materials and tools developed anywhere across the country. Many of these are “open source” and essentially free to teachers and schools.  Adopting  the Common Core will save the state money in the short run, but it will become even more valuable as the role of digital technologies in education inexorably grows. The producers of digital materials and tools can align them to the  Common Core rather than to 50 different sets of standards, which will greatly accelerate the development of these resources and reduce their cost.

What will it cost to implement the Common Core? Some big numbers have been suggested, but these only make sense if we suppose that the alternative to Common Core implementation is spending – and doing – nothing. In fact, however, much of the spending associated with implementation – for the adoption and purchase of new materials, for the development of new and better assessments, and for the professional development of teachers – would be necessary whether California adopted new standards or kept those already in place. The benefits of adopting Common Core will surely exceed the marginal cost of change.

Implementation of the Common Core presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity for California educators to do things differently and better. Taking advantage of this opportunity is neither simple nor cheap, but the chance will not come again soon, and the state is wise to move forward.

David N. Plank is executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE). Before joining PACE in January 2007, he was a Professor at Michigan State University, where he founded and directed the Education Policy Center. He was previously on the faculties at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Texas at Dallas, where he taught courses and conducted research in the areas of educational finance and policy. He has published widely in a number of different fields; his current interests include the role of the state in education, and the relationship between academic research and public policy.

Eric Premack: Path to another ill-fated systemic reform

Eric Premack
Eric Premack

Nearly 15 years after adopting state academic content standards, aligned curriculum, and a standards-based high-stakes assessment system, California has precious little to show for its massive investments in “systemic” education reform. Yes, Academic Performance Index scores and proficiency rates are up, suggesting many students have acquired additional basic academic proficiency. At first blush, this sounds like progress.

Sobering data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests, however, suggest stalled progress. Though NAEP tests aren’t tightly aligned with California’s state standards, they reflect a loose national consensus and, for the past several years, are nearly flat. These results strongly suggest the apparent increases in student achievement on California’s state-specific tests stem from teaching to the test and narrowing of the curriculum rather than real increases in learning.

The price of standards-based reform is very high, including costly textbook and material adoptions, massive investments in staff development, testing, and often-disruptive interventions. Off-budget costs are much higher, including lost instructional flexibility, decimation of career/tech-prep instruction, millions of hours of lost instruction, and turning the teaching profession into a mechanized, assembly-line job (and we wonder why “smart” kids don’t join the teaching profession). Worst of all, a half-generation of students who aren’t engaged by the mile-wide, inch-deep, textbook-driven modes of instruction are lost.

Despite this track record, California is bellying up to drink a second pitcher of systemic reform Kool-Aid. It adopted new Common Core standards in a hasty, unsuccessful bid for federal Race to the Top funding and is now signing on to implement costly curriculum, testing, and other changes.

California is heading down this costly and ineffective path when it simply cannot afford to do so. Even if the systemic reform track record suggested success, ongoing implementation should be subject to cost-benefit analysis relative to other reforms and options. The State Board of Education and Legislature should hit the “pause” button and reconsider California’s commitment to a second round of standards-based reform. They might retain arguably essential elementary grades reading, arithmetic, and science standards, but should make state standards optional in upper grades to create options for high-demand career/tech-prep programs as well as other alternative programs such as multiple foreign languages, the arts, and in-depth critical thinking and analysis. The benefit may be large in terms of a richer range of programmatic options, student and teacher engagement, and a more comprehensive range of achievement measures – at little or no cost.

Eric Premack is the founder and executive director of the Charter Schools Development Center, the nation’s first charter school resource center and a leading provider of policy expertise, leadership training, advocacy, and technical assistance to charter schools, charter-granting agencies, and policy makers. Before founding CSDC, Premack provided consulting services to hundreds of California school districts at School Services of California, Inc., and was a nonpartisan education policy and finance analyst for California’s Office of the Legislative Analyst.

Jonathan Raymond: Strategic start for school transformation

Jonathan Raymond
Jonathan Raymond

To be globally competitive in the 21st century, our students must be equipped with the knowledge, skills, and behaviors that will poise them for success beyond our K-12 system. Long gone are the days when a high school diploma and a factory job were the paths to attaining middle-class status. Yet according to a report by the Public Policy Institute of California, only 56 percent of California students enroll in a post-secondary institution after high school. This rate fails to address the projected workforce demand for a million new, highly educated employees by 2025.

What does this trend mean for California? Simply that the current approach to educating our children is not working. Transforming our educational system must lead the way. Although there are no simple solutions to this challenge, improving the career- and college-readiness of our high school graduates is a strategic starting place. To that end, the Common Core State Standards are the right place to begin this journey. Standards influence essential components of our educational system, such as curriculum design, curricular resources, assessments, and teaching practice. The adoption and implementation of the Common Core is a vehicle to transform teaching and learning. These standards are clearer and fewer, giving students and teachers the time to master them. They are also more rigorous and aligned vertically across all grades.

Inherent in the Common Core are skills our young people will need to be successful in work and life: critical thinking, problem solving, communication, teamwork, and technological literacy. These vital skills and deeper content will transform our teachers as well as our students. No teacher’s manual or pre-packaged curriculum will suffice. Our teachers must themselves engage in collaborative critical thinking and problem solving to develop assignments, performance tasks, and assessments for students to master.

At Sacramento City Unified, we have begun to implement Common Core State Standards, albeit in a scaled fashion. We do not have the necessary resources to fully roll out the standards at this time, but it is important to start somewhere. For us the work has begun, with a cohort examining English language arts. To reduce expenses associated with planning and training, we are leveraging relationships with partners and seeking outside funding. Of course, all funds are at a premium in this economic climate.

Keeping the “gold” in California’s future is directly linked to the capacity of its educational system to meet the demands of this age and the anticipated rise of a new “creative class.” California can’t wait for other states to take the lead. We must begin transforming what our students are learning and how we are teaching them. The Common Core is an important step in this direction.

Jonathan Raymond has been superintendent of the Sacramento City Unified School District, California’s 11th largest school district with 47,000 students since 2009. Before his appointment, Raymond, a graduate of Tufts University, George Mason Law School, and the Broad Superintendents Academy, served as Chief Accountability Officer for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. His experience extends beyond education: He was president and CEO of the nonprofit, Boston-based Commonwealth Corporation; a deputy director in the Massachusetts Department of Labor and Workforce Development; and a private-practice attorney specializing in business and labor law.

Ze’ev Wurman: Wasting billions for weaker standards

Ze'ev Wurman
Ze'ev Wurman

The Common Core standards are mediocre: They are clearly better than those of about 30 states, as good as those of 15 about  states, and clearly worse than those of three states, California among them. Despite claims to the contrary, Common Core is not on par with international high achievers, nor will meeting Common Core qualify students for entry to either CSU or UC. In fact, California had to significantly supplement the standards just to close the gap between the Common Core and our current standards, which incidentally are based on those of high-achieving countries and will qualify students for CSU.

EdSource estimated the implementation cost of the Common Core for California to be $1.6 billion. That estimate does not include the massive technology infusion needed for the federally peddled national assessment, nor does it include the cost of restructuring the teacher preparation courses, the licensure examination, and principal training. Recently, the state Department of Education published its initial estimates of implementation costs. If we just take three basic numbers from them – $203 per student in new textbooks in K-8, $2,000 per each math and English teacher training, and $1,000 for English Learning training for almost every teacher – this comes to $850 million, $360 million, and $260 million respectively, close to EdSource’s original estimate.

Based on the number of existing classroom computers in the state, we need to spend $220 million to buy additional computers to bring their number to the minimal ratio of one computer to four tested students, and another $60 million to install and wire them, to provide bandwidth, and to train the staff. These sums amount to one-time spending over the next 2-3 years; afterward, we will need to spend an additional $35 million annually for assessment (at an optimistic $10 per student more than today) and $75 million more for computer support and amortization. All this just to … bring us back to a state worse than where we are today.

What is the logic behind adopting the Common Core, anyway? Do we really believe that a diverse country like ours needs some central planner in Washington, D.C., to tell us what to teach in our California schools? Canada and Australia don’t think so, yet they are high educational achievers. Are we really willing to sacrifice our independence just to satisfy Obama and Duncan in Washington? And for those who think so today, do they also look forward to the day when President Gingrich and his Secretary of Education will dictate our curriculum from Washington?

California should bail out and return to its own standards as soon as possible. Losing the Race to the Top was a blessing in disguise; we should now take advantage of it.

Ze’ev Wurman, a software engineer from Palo Alto, was a senior policy adviser in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development from 2007-09 and served on the California commission that reviewed the Common Core standards in 2010. He also serves on the panel that reviews mathematics test items for the California standards-based tests, and was a member of the California State mathematics curriculum framework committee.

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