Can a ‘National Curriculum’ Improve Student Achievement?

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Last school year, one of five Rochester schoolchildren tested proficient in reading and one of four in math, according to the just released NYS ELA (English Language Arts) and math assessments given in grades 3-8. Statewide, just over half tested proficient in ELA and two-thirds in math, though rates for African-Americans are much lower at 37% and 46% respectively. Who can argue that raising expectations and achievement beginning in kindergarten isn’t a dire need? Part of the solution could be the newly created and much ballyhooed Common Core State Standards. A working knowledge of these standards is a must for savvy taxpayers, armchair education policy wonks, practitioners and parents. Here’s a primer.

A National Curriculum?

Five years ago, governors and state education chiefs began calling for a clear set of K-12 standards and corresponding assessments to ensure rigorous “college and career-ready” expectations nationwide. The motivating factor was the U.S.’s continued slide in international performance. National competitiveness is on the line. States should no longer set their own “meet or be punished” bar, which is essentially what No Child Left Behind did. Forty-five states adopted the Common Core, pledging full use by 2014. States have signed on with one of two consortia (known as SBAC and PARCC ) to develop aligned assessments to go into effect in 2014-15.

The Common Core Standards are a coherent set of statements of what students should know and be able to do at each grade level in order to be college and career ready. They seek to correct what has become the de facto curriculum in too many schools—watered-down test-prep focused on reading and math to the exclusion of other content. So, reflecting international benchmarking, the Core elevates integration of content (science, history, arts) and reading, and builds deeper math understanding. The Common Core is intended to “ramp up” our collective expectations. Among the biggest shifts that the general public will notice:

1. Students will be exposed to and expected to read more non-fiction text. Currently, K-12 is heavy on narrative fiction, leaving students underprepared for the college and workplace demands of digesting dense informational text.

2. In math, the focus will be on far fewer concepts each year, allowing time to go much deeper. Depth over breadth is how math is taught in many other nations that outperform the U.S., and this approach also responds to a frequent teacher lament about pressure to “cover the material” when students haven’t yet mastered it.

Here in NYS, teachers are expected to teach in alignment with the Common Core this upcoming school year, and there will be new corresponding versions of the state tests in the spring.

More of the same or reason to be hopeful?

There are all kinds of reasons to be skeptical about this if you are so inclined—Will states sincerely implement the Core or are they just cooperating to get Race to the Top money? Will the demand for “Common Core-aligned” textbooks and distance learning resources result in better materials or just better bottom lines for publishers? Was poor performance a consequence of inadequate standards?

And, isn’t this just a new flavor of standards-based reform and test-crazed accountability that hasn’t been working under No Child Left Behind?  We no longer believe that standards alone (even with aligned tests!) change classroom practice.

From this former teacher’s perspective, there are differences this time around. First, many states are creating Common Core curricula—the bridge between conceptual standards and granular lessons. (Statewide curriculum coherence, even on a voluntary basis, is new for NY and many other states.) NYS has invested large amounts of its Race to the Top dollars in developing NYS Common Core Curriculum resources, which flesh out the standards with lesson plans and performance assessments. This is a fast-moving train, and as resources are completed, they’re posted and available to the public at www.engageny.org, along with implementation timelines. Stay tuned to see how this rolls out in schools near you.

Providing access to a clear, rigorous curriculum that builds to college and career readiness is just one piece of this puzzle, to be sure, albeit a huge piece for disadvantaged students. But another key difference is that this time we’re simultaneously revamping the teacher and principal evaluation processes to include student performance and a focus on instruction (a topic for another Brief). A clear curriculum aimed at high standards and an evaluation system that fosters growth and accountability are important building blocks of an effective K-12 system, and they stand a chance because they are focused on the classroom.

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