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A step down: Federal education standards

Ohanian Comment: Great Pedagogical Principle: The enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend. We can rejoice in everybody fighting the Common Core. And we can even hold hands on certain issues. Such as this one:

While it's natural to be tempted by federal dollars during trying fiscal times, it's important to remember that education will still be a state and local responsibility when that money runs out.

I don't advocate the deification of Algebra, but I agree with Stotsky about crazy reading formulae. However, there is a hint here that she wants binding lists of literature.

by Ze'ev Wurman and Sandra Stotsky

THE OBAMA administration plans to make states adopt proposed national academic standards as a condition for receipt of federal education grants. The problem is what the administration has proposed is not near the quality of what the Commonwealth already has.

High academic standards are the foundation of Massachusetts's landmark education reform success. They set goals for students to reach in each year of elementary, middle, and secondary school. The standards are rigorous, but Massachusetts students have proven year after year that they are up to the challenge.

The latest draft of national English language arts and math standards looks very different. The prestigious National Math Advisory Panel identified algebra as the key to higher-level math study and recommended that more students should be ready to enroll in Algebra I by eighth grade. But it is unlikely that these standards could even support the teaching of such a course in ninth grade.

Rather than relying on English teachers to determine the relative complexity of the texts they would assign, the draft also recommends use of a formula that would be unusable by the average teacher. Indeed, the formula shows The Grapes of Wrath to be at a second- or third-grade level of complexity.

Some argue that subsequent drafts of the national standards will be better. However, they are based on a fundamentally different foundation than those in place in Massachusetts.

While the Commonwealth's standards steadily move to higher levels of academic content from K-12, the draft English language arts standards move along a yellow-brick road to an empty set of skill-based "college and career readiness" benchmarks. The content consists mostly of non-binding lists and titles included in the appendices. In math, the standards end somewhere short of Algebra II.

Ripple effects of the common core standards would be felt throughout public education in Massachusetts. New standards require new assessments to test mastery of them, and that would spell the end of MCAS.

Ominously, Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond is overseeing the assessment side of the national standards effort. Rather than focusing on academic achievement, Darling-Hammond has long touted using student portfolios and other forms of assessment like "those that have been used in leading-edge assessment systems . . . such as those in Connecticut, Kentucky, Maryland, Maine, and Vermont."

"Have been" are the key words here. Connecticut scrapped its former standards and assessments in favor of ones that look more like Massachusetts. Vermont and Kentucky also gave up on student portfolio assessments because they proved unwieldy, unreliable, and too expensive.

It takes time to develop and implement quality standards. The common core standards would be implemented just a year after the process was initiated. Only three weeks will be allowed for public feedback before the standards are finalized.

It's easy to understand much of the support for national standards, dubbed "no vendor left behind." The standards development committee includes an inordinate number of folks from major testing companies. But state policy makers should think long and hard before scrapping the nation's best standards in favor of an untested substitute.

The Commonwealth and its municipalities foot the bill for over 90 percent of state K-12 public education expenses. While it's natural to be tempted by federal dollars during trying fiscal times, it's important to remember that education will still be a state and local responsibility when that money runs out.

Massachusetts invested years of effort and billions of dollars to develop a set of standards that are the heart and soul of the nation's most successful education reform. Let's not give them up for a set of so-called Common Core College Readiness standards that wouldn't even get our children into college.

Zeâev Wurman, a high-tech executive in Silicon Valley, was active in developing California's standards and assessments in the mid-1990s. Sandra Stotsky is a member of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

— Ze’ev Wurman and Sandra Stotsky
Boston Globe


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