The New Standard: A new national movement is changing who decides what schools will be required to teach

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National trends often have local consequences. During the span of only a few months in 2009, 46 states plus Washington D.C. adopted the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a bold new set of educational standards to be implemented in public schools by 2015. The change is a direct result of President Obama’s Race to the Top educational initiative, which prompted states to reform their education systems with the incentive of a federal grant.

The Common Core is a national movement, rapidly changing the face of public education. This represents the first time in our nation’s history that such a widespread initiative in education has ever taken place, and many of the consequences are still unknown. However, to fully understand this current development, it is necessary to explore the history of what is known in education as the standards movement itself.

A Nation at Risk

Public schools in Michigan have a long history of local control: funding determined primarily by local taxes and classroom content determined by local school district.

“There was a general sense among educators in Michigan that the state Department of Education should not dictate what curriculum they offered,” said Chuck Hatt, coordinator for K-12 Literacy and K-5 Social Studies instruction for the Ann Arbor Public Schools. “That it should be an [intermediate school district], local school board, local school and district decision of what it should offer.”

The beginnings of the standards movement in education, a term used to describe increasing emphasis on standardized benchmark and tests, began with a federal commission report titled “A Nation at Risk.” This report, published in 1983 by a federal commission during the Reagan administration, warned the nation that the public education system had slipped into “mediocrity,” at a time where the consequences of globalization and international competition were beginning to take hold. No longer could the United States be assumed to be the world leader in industry, technology, and education this document warned, and massive changes needed to take place in the public education system before the nation lost its competitive edge.

“It was a galvanizing response to what was perceived as a national crisis,” said Hatt. “You had real crises in urban schools and real uneven performance in schools across the country. It was just this recognition that if we didn’t do something to stem our dropout rates, if we didn’t do something to raise the levels of literacy performance for our students and numeracy and math performance, our future generations were not going to be competitive in world markets.”

The fear that disparities and inconsistency at the local level resulted in these poor educational results caused states to begin crafting their own standards, and holding local school districts accountable for them.

The federal government has had some direct role in public education since President Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, a federal statute passed as part of his War on Poverty campaign. But the most aggressive steps by the federal government that define the current state of standardized education was the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act, only the latest of many overhauls of Johnson’s ESEA. Passed in 2001, the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind Act required each state to raise 100 percent of its students to meet academic proficiency by 2014, as defined by state administered standardized tests. The threat of diminished funding and considerable restructuring of schools and districts was a strong feature of NCLB. The Act marked the first time that federal money for states for education could be tied specifically to results of standardized tests.

High Standards

Until 2005, high school students in Michigan were only required by the state to complete one semester of Civics. Aside from that, local school districts were responsible for determining their own graduation requirements. However, performance of Michigan schools was sub-par, according to state data, which suggested an estimated high school dropout rate of 31 percent, and only 22 percent of Michigan adults aged 25 and older with Bachelor’s degrees or higher.

A commission, formed by former Gov. Jennifer Granholm and chaired by Lt. Gov. John Cherry, was installed to investigate the causes and recommend solutions to what was considered Michigan’s mediocre performance in education when compared to the rest of the nation. Published in 2004, the Cherry Commission, as it is now known, resulted in the passing of legislation that bore the Michigan Merit Curriculum, a considerable expansion of the state’s prior role in education.

Beginning with the graduating class of 2011, the MMC required all Michigan high school students statewide to complete a rigorous set of required courses: four years of language arts, four years of mathematics, three years of science, three years of social studies, one year of physical education and health, one year of visual, performing and applied arts, and one year of foreign language.

“It was a way to improve the preparation of all of our young people, to make sure that they were equally well prepared in every part of the state,” said John Austin, president of the state board of education. “It’s a way to improve educational achievement, improve high school graduation, improve the numbers of people going on to college, and more importantly the numbers of people succeeding in postsecondary education by earning advanced degrees. That’s the goal. More people with higher levels of education that are better equipped to participate and shape their own futures in today’s economy.”

Alongside the Merit Curriculum, the Department of Education introduced a set of standards known as the Grade Level Content Expectations for K-8 classes, and the High School Content Expectations (or “Huskies,” as educators often refer to them). The HSCEs were developed by committees appointed by the Department of Education, which included university professors and members of the Department of Education, and reviewed by teachers, administrators, and consultants. The standards defined in the HSCEs were numerous, detailed and highly methodical.

“I personally feel like I was a better teacher before the HSCEs came about, because I think I was more innovative in the way I instructed,” said CHS math teacher Moe El-Hussieny. El-Hussieny has taught at CHS for four years, and nine years overall. “It’s very hard to be innovative when you are trying to cover so many topics, and what I think it does to the students is that it gives them a lot of work. They have to learn a large amount of information every semester, and what it does is it makes them learn [the material], but not on a deep level. So, they’ll learn it…but since it’s such a quick turnaround they’re more apt to forget it as opposed to learning it well, keeping it in your long term memory, and retaining it for future use.”

HSCEs are documents that are dozens of page long which can contain over 90 standards to teach for one course.“Only looking at them can you truly appreciate how packed they are,” said CHS social studies teacher Cindy Haidu-Banks. “Take a look at some of the World History HSCEs and see what one [standard] asks…I remember looking at it and thinking, ‘Good lord, they want all of this in one standard?’”

While the HSCEs are a thorough set of standards, they do not provide specific tools and methods to teach the required content.

“The benchmarks really don’t say very much about instruction,” said Professor Annemarie Palincsar, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of Michigan School of Education. “Really the benchmarks provide a roadmap to teachers; they provide a goal that teachers can aspire to. Benchmarks can play an important role in increasing the level of challenge of the curriculum, so if teachers are mindful that students are going to be held to ambitious goals, and there’s a lot of interest in the State of Michigan in increasing the level of challenge so that Michigan graduates are better prepared for a knowledge economy, so they are valuable in that respect.”

But teachers complain that the HSCEs are impacting the quality of their classes.

“Not only am I losing content, but what I’m doing is getting more and more watered down,” said Courtney Kiley, who has taught science at CHS for four years. “So I’m having to hit more and more of these standards just to say I hit them, and instead of doing big science research projects and things that actual scientists do, we’re having just to blow through this stuff and only touch it at the surface instead of getting a really deep understanding of it, and it’s frustrating.”

The HSCEs open up room for debate in the question of who should be accountable for determining educational standards.

“If it continues to be only local control, you’ll continue to see widening gaps in opportunity,” said Hatt. “Some students have access to a very high level, very functional public education, and other students do not. One of the impulses in the standards movement is to address that, and to equalize opportunity for greater numbers of students.”

Teaching to the Test

An important aspect of the Michigan Merit Curriculum is the corresponding standardized tests, known at the local level as common assessments, that are correlated to the required courses. While individual school districts have the freedom to design or contract their own common assessments, they are required by Michigan law. AAPS Common Assessments can take the form of the computer administered SRI literacy test, developed by for-profit corporation Scholastic, or multiple-choice tests written by the district and often administered as midterms and finals for social studies and math courses.

“Basically on your final exam there has to be a question or two that addresses each HSCE that’s supposed to be learned in Algebra II,” said El-Hussieny. “So essentially, it’s making the final exams common to all, as opposed to letting the teacher who taught the subject create their own final exam. Usually that assessment is created by someone who did not teach the class. So someone gives me a test, and that’s what you’ll be tested on, even though that person may have taught it differently than me.”

District tests are used by administrators to assess the performance of teachers, buildings and districts, and provide feedback for instruction.

Along with the district Common Assessments, all Michigan students are required to take two main state standardized tests, the Michigan Educational Assessment Program test (the MEAP), taken from grades three through nine, and the Michigan Merit Exam, three days worth of tests including the ACT taken by all 11th graders. Students are asked to take several standardized tests and common assessments every year, and they are administered during class time.

“I’m losing units,” said DeWoskin. “I lose units every year because with all the testing, and all the prep for testing. I lose a lot of content time…This year is the first year I lost the Romeo and Juliet projects.”

The consequences of regular poor performance on these assessments can be severe. The MEAP and MME are some of primary measures in the effectiveness of buildings and school districts overall.

“If we are not performing well on those tests, that’s what we call a trailing indicator,” said Hatt. “We want to look carefully at all of those trailing indicators and find out who’s not performing well, and where. And then what we want to do is we want to say, ‘What are the leading indicators? What was in place for those students that led up to that performance?’”

This is where No Child Left Behind plays a significant role, according to Hatt. “It has been very controversial, because the Federal government’s response has been to threaten to take away resources if schools aren’t doing well. The assumption there is whatever you’re doing isn’t working and we need to get your attention to do something differently. So in the most drastic case a school can be taken over. The government can say you need to replace the principals and the teachers and redo this.”

The Michigan Department of Education maintains a Persistently Lowest Achieving schools list, which compiles the bottom five percent of schools determined by MME and MEAP scores. The PLA schools list is a federally mandated initiative, and PLA schools are required to implement a federally pre-approved redesign plan. Plans can include replacement of principals and staff, development of schools into charter schools, and complete closure of buildings and consolidation of displaced students. There were 98 schools on the most recent PLA schools list.

Standardized test scores will soon have significant leverage in a new state standard for teacher evaluation which is currently developed. According to an article in the Detroit Free Press published in March, the new review process will require that by the the 2013-14 school year, 25 percent of teacher evaluations must be based on student growth data, or standardized test results. By the 2015-16 school year, that will rise to 50 percent.

“That’s very worrisome,” said English teacher Judith DeWoskin, who has worked at CHS for over 30 years. “Because then what are you going to do? Are you going to say, ‘I don’t want to teach this population of students because they historically don’t do well on tests. Just give me the strong students and then I’ll get my bonus, or I’ll get my praise or I’ll get whatever it is that’s being offered.”

Professor Palincsar worries that assessment data may not be the most effect tool in measuring teacher success.

“When the assessment is administered,” said Professor Palinscar, “we’re really looking at the performance of students based on what the prior year’s teachers have provided, so to argue that current teachers should be rewarded is a tricky argument to make. And of course there are a lot of factors that contribute to how well students perform on these assessments. Certainly their opportunity to learn is part of it, but it’s more than that, you know? A youngster who comes to school hungry, no matter well a teacher teaches, is probably not going to do well. A child who’s tired, a child whose vision is poor, a child who doesn’t really see the value of doing well in school because they don’t see how school is going to enable them to do anything they couldn’t have done without school. So there are many factors that play into a student’s performance on these kinds of measures.”

The new evaluation process is being developed by the Governor’s Council on Educator Effectiveness and is chaired by Deborah Ball, dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan.

“[The new evaluation] will be more robust,” said Austin, “and more thorough and more effective, we think, in how all schools should be evaluating their teachers annually so that we have a way to evaluate teachers to make sure they are given feedback so they can improve, and so they ultimately are teaching effectively. That new teacher evaluation process is still being developed, but when we have it, it will be a different, more wholesome, more thoughtful teacher evaluation system.”

The Common Denominator

In June 2010, Michigan adopted the Core Curriculum State Standards Initiative, a new set of content standards in Mathematics and English Language Arts which are expected to replace the HSCEs by 2015. The standards are unique in that they were developed and introduced by two national bodies: the National Governors Association, a representative coalition of all United States governors, and The National Council of Chief State School Officers, heads of state education departments. After publishing a report entitled “Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring U.S. Students Receive a World Class Education” in 2008, these two associations launched the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a movement with the intention of standardizing content expectations for public schools nationwide. Within two months after it was introduced, 46 states pledged to implement the Common Core State Standards into their state public education programs, according to an article published in the education journal EdWeek in Feb. As of now, 46 states plus Washington D.C. have currently adopted the Common Core, the exceptions of Nebraska, Alaska, Texas and Virginia.

The sudden development and implementation of the Common Core can be explained by the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top education initiative. States, many severely economically depressed due to the national recession, were eager to qualify for a slice of the $4 billion grant the initiative offered if they adopted these new standards by Aug. 2, 2010.

“In the Race to the Top application, it had language that said that [states] would get extra scores on this rubric to get Race to the Top money if they were part of some consortium of standards,” said Ruth Isaia, English language arts consultant for the Michigan Department of Education. “Now, a lot of people on the left and on the right will say that this is how the Obama administration got around the fact that they couldn’t mandate this because the Constitution says you can’t do this in our country…Race to the Top really accelerated this movement for a lot of states deciding to ‘volunteer,’ hoping that they would score higher on the Race to the Top grant and get money.”

While Michigan did not qualify for the grant, it adopted the Common Core State Standards.

President Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 explicitly barred the federal government developing a national curriculum for public schools. The Common Core State Standards are legally voluntary agreements by states to agree upon a unified, new set of standards, and is not a federally mandated curriculum or set of content standards.

While the Common Core is a unique set of standards, several of the Michigan HSCE’s already align with the new expectations which the Core will replace by 2015. “The popular notion is that our Common Core standards are really rigorous and there won’t be a lot of difference,” said Chuck Hatt. “But I would argue that it’s the integrative nature of those standards that means that there will be changes…They’re going to mean a change in practice, but in terms of rigour, things won’t be getting harder within content areas, but the ability to think across content areas [will become more important].”

Isaia mentioned that the degree of change expected is still largely unknown. “You will see a million different groups coming out with a million different interpretations of what the Common Core really means. From everything to, and I’m not exaggerating, helping fight terrorism because we’re going to be much more scientifically organized, and we’re going to be able to compete with other nations around the world. There are other educational groups, and they can be way on the left or the right, who say that the Common Core is just a backhanded way of the Obama Administration telling us what to do, and really these standards are not going to produce any different kind of achievement for students, and it’s everybody’s buying into it because that’s how you get a Race to the Top grant. So people are all over the map.”

To write the Core Assessment, the standardized test targeted to arrive in schools nationwide in 2015, two consortiums of states were each awarded grants of $360 million by the federal Department of Education to write the test.

“Shortly after the Common Core came out, and it became obvious that a lot of states were going to buy into it, these testing consortiums were formed,” said Isaia. “They are related in that they were formed specifically to test the Common Core, but they are a separate body and entity from the Common Core. There were different groups that convened them, and they very intentionally [were established] separately so it didn’t look like the group that started the Common Core was just out to make a bunch of money by writing the test…they had to fill out a grant, apply for the money, and these two [consortiums] were awarded lots of money, millions of dollars over the next few years to write these assessments, and each state that wants to join them will be able to use those tests.”

Due to current Michigan law that requires the ACT to be administered as part of the MME, it is currently unknown whether the Core Assessment will replace the MEAP and MME or be administered alongside it.

“I’m afraid we’ll actually have to give both of the tests and that will be another week out of class,” said DeWoskin. “And you just don’t realize how every time we take 95 minutes away how much you lose. You kids don’t, we do.”

Local Consequences

Michigan schools, which have been primarily funded by state taxes since 1994, have been underfunded for years. The Ann Arbor Public Schools has been experiencing major multi-million dollar annual budget cuts since at least 2007. According to its own worst case projections, AAPS is preparing to cut $13.5 million for next school year. The realities are much worse for poorer communities across the state.

Dependant funding means higher dependence on those who set the guidelines.With state funding, as opposed to local taxes, determining the budget of Michigan school districts, public schools lose a great deal of local control.

“It does provides some legitimacy for curriculum that’s controlled from the state level,” said Austin. “Because we’re raising the money statewide, it’s sort of appropriate that we should expect all school districts to teach the same things.”

The ever increasing importance of standardization, coupled with regular insufficient funding are affecting schools. The consequences for Community High School, an alternative school with an historic emphasis on personalized education, liberal arts and small class sizes, could be dire.

“Budget cuts have already affected course offerings at Community High School,” said CHS art teacher Steve Coron, who has taught for 30 years. “Whenever they look to cut, they look at [art] first. Always. That’s the way it is, and it’s happening in our state already.” According to Coron, schools in Pinckney and Pontiac have already lost music and art programs.

Standards such as the Common Core and their related assessments provide teachers with high teaching expectations. But meanwhile schools are regularly losing funding and resources, raising classroom sizes to as high as 60 students per class in the Detroit Public Schools, and teachers’ annual salary step increase is frozen to consolidate spending. For Community, standardization means losing autonomy that once defined the unique curriculum: a focus on individualized learning.

“I don’t think it matters that we’re an alternative school anymore,” said DeWoskin. “It might have mattered 20 years ago, but I don’t think it will. I think that we’re already doing the Common Assessment…the MME, whatever the tests are, we’re proctoring them.”

“Everybody won’t have a great public education system when this all shakes out,” said Chuck Hatt. “Everybody won’t have a public education system that prepares the children in their community for participation in a global society. That’s for sure. We don’t really know what the future’s going to bring, but we’re in the cusp of a dramatic shift in wealth, and in power, and in educational opportunity. One thing we can predict is rapid change.”

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