There has been a big dustup over the common academic standards states have created and (for the most part) adopted in the past few years. Tom Loveless at the Brookings Institute says they won’t do any good. The Washington Post’s Jay Mathews, in his curmudgeonly way, sees Loveless's point and raises it, praising Virginia for not adopting the common standards. Loveless and Mathews are among the nation’s most astute thinkers on U.S. schools, but they get this one very, very wrong.
At base, their swipe at Common Core Standards is a swipe at any academic standards. They argue, in a nutshell, that the strength of a state’s standards bears little relation to student performance in that state, so standards must not really matter all that much. Why, then, they ask, should common standards be any different?
First of all, their basic premise is pretty shaky. Observers with as much heft as Loveless and Mathews believe that better standards have indeed made a difference in states across the country. Mark Schneider, who used to head the National Center for Education Statistics, believes the standards movement that took off in the early '90s caused twenty years of big gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). He notes that these gains have tapered off in the past few years but suggests that common standards can take things to the next level.
I can already hear the howls of protest: Correlation is not causation! The fact that scores went up during the standards era doesn't prove that standards had anything to do with the gains! True, but I defy you to prove that any big policy caused the gains. Standards are about as good an explanation as we can find.
Massachusetts and Minnesota, which saw some of nation's greatest gains in NAEP math scores, were among the states that went whole hog on standards-based reform in the early '90s. They adopted strong standards and then gave teachers the training, materials and support they needed to realize those standards in the classroom.
Loveless and Mathews are right about one thing: Standards don't guarantee success. Yet, like the blueprints of a building, standards a necessary condition of success. Just look at California. A think tank just rated the state's science standards among the very best in the nation, yet the state's NAEP science scores are among the nation's lowest. That should come as no surprise. In surveys, the state's teachers say they spend very little time actually teaching science. They also say they don't feel prepared to teach it well. What's more, the state's graduation requirements in science are thin, and they may well get thinner. The best standards in the world won't do a jot of good if no one pays any attention to them. The answer surely isn't to chuck the state's standards. It's far better to put good standards into actual practice.
That's the biggest lesson we should draw from Loveless and Mathews. Standards aren't enough. In fact, no single intervention is enough. That said, Common Core Standards are better than what most states have had in the past. If we truly follow through on them, they'll provide a foundation for better tests, better curriculum, better professional development, better teaching, and better learning.
By all accounts, the quality of state standards has been pretty spotty in the past, and many states have not done a great job of implementing the standards they have. The Common Core State Standards effort is a critical and long overdue opportunity to get standards-based reform right.