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Robert Rothman: Common Core Standards ‘Make a Lot More Sense’

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The Common Core Initiative follows decades of defeated efforts to create standards all schools in the U.S. could follow. In promoting his new book, Something in Common: The Common Core Standards and the Next Chapter in American Education, education insider Robert Rothman spoke to an audience in Washington, D.C., this week on what makes the current state-led standards initiative seem so promising.

Rothman, whose career includes stints as study director at National Research Council and the National Center on Education and the Economy, explained that while No Child Left Behind was the main thrust toward the common core standards, efforts throughout the past 20 years made it apparent that a state-led standards initiative was both possible and necessary.

Several elements converged to open doors for common assessments, according to Rothman. As support center jobs and basic white-collar positions such as accountants were being off-shored, governors needed to find ways to prepare a more educated workforce. Meanwhile, federal-led efforts to synchronize standards were dead on arrival: An anti-Washington mood among the Republican congressional class of 1994 led to the demise of President Clinton’s Goals 2000 education package.

Even one-time supporters of a national curriculum seemingly had a change of heart. Lynne Cheney, former Vice President Dick Cheney’s wife, initially investigated a uniform curriculum in history as head of the National Endowment for the Humanities before savaging the final proposal in a famous 1994 Wall Street Journal essay. Add to that the emergence of No Child Left Behind and the reality that state standards and assessments varied greatly in rigor, and the need for a national, state-led, alternative was in order, Rothman said.

Rothman initially had reservations with the standards movement: “I used to think standards would move education…in the wrong way,” he said this week at the event held sponsored by American Educational Research Association. “It’s customary to say standards alone can’t improve schools.”

Yet with the Common Core State Standards Initiative, Rothman sees “really compelling documents that are a lot clearer than a lot of the state standards. These make a lot more sense,” he said. “They present a coherent projection from kindergarten to the 12th grade” and “are much clearer on what kinds of classroom activities might be called for. “

Authors of a 2010 Fordham Institute evaluation of the math and English language arts standards mostly agreed, finding that the Common Core is a step up from current ELA standards in 37 states and math standards in 39 states.

Rothman also voiced cost concerns on the assessment end, pointing to stimulus funds that were given to the two consortia that are hammering out the assessments. The funds totaled around $360 million and were available for four years.

Chad Colby, communications director for Achieve, a group that’s project managing the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) consortium (one of the two consortia working on the Common Core), said in an interview costs are expected to drop when states adopt the assessments. One of the selling points of the Common Core assessments was the rationale that the collaborative buying power of many states would make testing cheaper than it is currently under NCLB. There’s also an expectation the federal State Assessment Grants and its $400 million—which has helped subsidize assessments costs during the NCLB era—will be available to Common Core states.

Costs are being leveraged in other ways, too. The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (the second of the two Common Core consortia) is designing summative tests in paper format for up to three years following the 2014-15 rollout to help states transition to the new computer-based models.

The audience for Rothman’s lecture, made up of mostly representatives from state and federal offices like the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), offered some interesting perspectives. There was no clear consensus among the attendees on what the GED being pegged to the common core standards might mean for adult learners. Rothman said the current GED is not regarded as a rigorous replacement of a high school diploma, noting the NCLB does not permit states to consider GED recipients as high school graduates. Making the test more thorough might lead employers to hold that alternative credential in higher regard.

Audience members voiced concern that states were putting the onus on districts to provide professional development for adapting the Common Core standards. A recent Center on Education Policy survey found that in half of the over-30 states it surveyed, districts were shouldering the long-term plans for implementing Common Core.

Another topic of discussion was the extent to which teachers colleges and other higher education institutions are preparing their graduates for the new standards.