Point of View

Create commissions for NC academic standards

March 2, 2014 

Since 2010, state legislatures have struggled to address legitimate concerns about the Common Core State Standards, curriculum and testing. A legislative committee deliberating the future of Common Core in North Carolina should learn from the successes and failures of other states.

Iowa and Arizona have opted to rename rather than earnestly examine the implementation of Common Core, but rebranding is not a particularly honest long-term solution.

Additionally, some legislative proposals would scrap Common Core as soon as possible and start the standards-drafting process from scratch. Repealing standards immediately would mean, among other things, that a state’s public schools would lack meaningful accountability measures for multiple school years.

Still other states have convened legislative panels to outline alternative next steps for lawmakers. For example, the Indiana General Assembly paused implementation of Common Core standards and formed a committee to examine them. But the 12-member bipartisan committee was unable to reach a consensus. In one instance, five of the six Democratic committee members boycotted the meeting.

After examining these approaches, the John Locke Foundation recently proposed an alternative. The N.C. General Assembly should appoint teachers, subject-area experts and other stakeholders to two permanent commissions that would address concerns about standards, curricula and testing – one panel for mathematics and one for English language arts. These commissions would offer policy recommendations to state legislators and to the N.C. State Board of Education with one goal in mind: establishing the most rigorous, clear and coherent educational program in the country.

Before the adoption of Common Core, the Department of Public Instruction developed academic standards for all core subject areas and grades. By DPI’s own admission, however, state-developed standards were far inferior to Common Core. As such, it makes little sense to entrust the state agency with a task it has failed to perform adequately in the past.

For the two commissions to achieve their goals, their work would have to involve more than a cursory review of Common Core standards. The reason is simple: Standards reform alone will get our public school students only so far. A 2012 Brookings Institution study concluded that there was no apparent relationship between the quality or rigor of state standards and National Assessment of Educational Progress scores.

The reason some states performed well and others did not, according to the Brookings report, is that standards do not necessarily correspond to what teachers teach and what students learn. In other words, without a strong curriculum, even the best standards will not raise student achievement. That’s why each new commission should outline course content that teachers would be expected to teach in their classrooms.

The commissions should not mandate that teachers adhere to a particular instructional method. Teachers would use commission-developed standards and content as a starting point for classroom instruction. The organization, scope, sequence, pacing and delivery of the curriculum would be based on local decisions.

A content-rich curriculum produces other benefits as well. It would provide a more equitable educational environment, ensuring that all students, regardless of socioeconomic status, are exposed to the same baseline content. In addition, it allows the state to compensate for skill and knowledge deficiencies identified by institutions of higher education, private- and public-sector employers and other stakeholders. Finally, it allows teachers and students to identify clearly content that will be included on standardized tests.

Because the commissions would likely make substantial changes to state math and English standards and curricula, it would make little sense for them to recommend adopting tests tied to Common Core or state-developed standards. Instead, commission members should use this opportunity to get DPI out of the testing business. The state should adopt credible, independent, field-tested national tests of student performance in math and English. Unlike state-developed tests, a testing program such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills would produce reliable state-by-state comparisons of student performance.

Last year, legislators formed the Committee on Common Core State Standards in response to fears voiced by parents, teachers and other concerned citizens. But there is much work to do, and our proposal is the best way to do it.

Terry Stoops, a former classroom teacher, is director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation.

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