California established its current academic content standards in English language arts and math in 1997. A new initiative is raising the question of whether it is time for the state to re-examine these standards.
What is the Common Core State Standards Initiative?
The Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) is an effort to establish a set of K–12 academic content standards in English language arts and math that multiple states can adopt. Content standards are expectations of what students should know and be able to do. (For example, California's current math standards call for fourth graders to understand that rectangles that have the same perimeter can have different areas.) If a state adopts the Common Core standards, it is expected to adopt them verbatim, and they are to comprise at least 85% of a state's standards in English and math.
The initiative is led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State Schools Officers. The two organizations have brought together scores of curriculum specialists and content experts from all over the country (and a few people from other countries) to work on the standards.
The initiative appears to be supported by grants from foundations, plus funds from the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices. A list of specific sources of funding for this initiative is not yet available from the Common Core State Standards Initiative website.
A total of 48 states (all but Texas and Alaska), plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands have signed on as participants in the process--but participation does not necessarily mean that a state will adopt the standards.
What problem is it trying to solve?
Some see the current variety of content standards among states as a "crazy patchwork," with many states having learning expectations that lack rigor, specificity, and focus. Supporters see the CCSSI as an opportunity for states to establish a common set of rich, challenging, specific, high-priority learning expectations. The intent is to create education systems throughout the country that will help all students graduate from high school ready for college or a career and make the United States more competitive in the global economy.
Proponents of the initiative acknowledge that standards alone will not accomplish that goal. They hope the new standards will form a basis upon which states would then build systems of aligned curriculum, assessments, teacher training and preparation, and teacher and student supports.
Some people are downright skeptical of the Common Core initiative. As evidenced by previous efforts to establish common standards, forging a consensus around what content to include is difficult. Furthermore, some question the wisdom of standardization when students vary widely in their needs, goals, and abilities.
How might the initiative affect California?
Now that the Common Core has been finalized, California, like all other states, can choose to adopt it as the centerpiece of content standards in English language arts (ELA) and math. In January 2010, California enacted legislation requiring the creation of a commission of 21 members, a majority of whom were to be K–12 teachers, to develop proposed standards in ELA and math, with the Common Core making up at least 85% of the standards. The commission has until July 15, 2010 to put forward its proposal, and the State Board of Education (SBE) has until August 2, 2010 to accept or reject the proposal. This deadline conforms to a target date expressed in the Race to the Top (RTT), a federal competitive grant program that promotes reform in several areas, including standards and assessments. (Adopting common standards represents 20 points out of 500 in the RTT application process, and the maximum potential grant for California is about $700 million over four years. To put that amount in context, California's total funding for K–12 education in 2009-10 alone was $66 billion.)
If the board accepts the commission's proposal, the superintendent of public instruction and SBE must present to the governor and Legislature a plan and schedule for implementing the Common Core. If, on the other hand, the board rejects the proposal, California would continue with its current content standards.
What factors will the State Board of Education and California's elected leaders consider?
In deciding whether to accept the commission's proposal, the board will need to consider several questions:
Are the Common Core standards better than California's existing, highly-rated standards, and based on what evidence?
In particular, how does the Common Core treat Algebra I, which California encourages be taught in eighth grade? And how does the Common Core treat Algebra II, which California students must successfully complete to be eligible for the state's public universities?
Should the state endorse one set of expectations for all high school graduates, as the Common Core calls for, or continue having varying sets of requirements depending on students' postsecondary plans?
Can California afford to implement the standards and how would it do so? Would the state actually realize cost savings from implementing common standards and assessments, as Common Core supporters claim?
Can California afford not to participate if the vast majority of other states implement these common standards?