Such is Progress: Wisconsin’s Academic Standards Might No Longer Be “Among the Worst in the Nation”

Common Core state academic standards are getting a lot of press. There was an interesting article in the Journal-Sentinel yesterday (Hat-tip: SIS blog) about the growing clout of Tony Evers as state superintendent of public instruction. The article noted that Evers recently decided that the Common Core standards would be adopted in Wisconsin, and he was able to accomplish this by a stroke of his pen (or keyboard), as opposed to the situation in most other states where a state-wide board of education must sign off on changes in state education policy. A front-page article in the New York Times this morning reports that, though the Common Core standards took final shape just a few months ago, 26 states besides Wisconsin have already adopted them, driven in part by the states’ desire to beef up their Race to the Top funding applications. Finally, the Thomas Fordham Institute (which I gather tends toward the conservative end of the spectrum) issued a report today that compares each state’s existing educational standards to what is proposed in the Common Core.

The Common Core state standards are the product of an initiative undertaken last year by the National Governors Association and the hitherto-unknown Council of Chief State School Officers. The groups assembled a team of teachers, school administrators, and other experts to work out a set of English and math standards describing what each student should know and what skills he or she should possess by school grade, from kindergarten through high school.

DPI’s endorsement of the Common Core standards may be more hortatory than directive when it comes to the curriculum decisions of individual school districts in the state. Nevertheless, It seems to me that adoption of the standards is a positive step for Wisconsin, particularly if DPI follows through in an effective way. DPI promises that it will develop curriculum that reflects the standards and will make available resources for teachers to develop lesson plans to teach those standards.

DPI also says that it will work with a consortium to develop high-quality, common assessments that are connected to classroom instruction. We can’t do much worse than the current WKCE tests, but this may hold the potential for us to actually do quite a bit better on standardized, state-wide assessment. Plus, if the state-wide assessment is keyed to the Common Core standards, this should prompt individual school districts to pay some attention to what the standards call for.

The Common Core academic standards, which can be found here, seem to this non-expert to be better than what we have today. Of course, it may not be all that hard to do better. According to the Fordham Institute report issued today, both Wisconsin’s English Language Arts and Mathematics standards  “are among the worst in the country.”

The report politely notes that Wisconsin’s standards are well-organized and many are reasonably clear and jargon-free. But, as the report makes clear, the primary shortcoming of the current standards is that they are too skimpy – standards are only identified for 4th, 8th and 12th grades and they don’t provide enough specific detail or identify enough specific expectations to be useful. The report considers the Common Core standards a lot better.

An example illustrates the point. The Wisconsin and Common Core standards both approach what should be expected of the creative writing of 12th grade students. Here is the expectation as set forth in the Wisconsin standard: “Write creative fiction that includes an authentic setting, discernible tone, coherent plot, distinct characters, effective detail, believable dialogue, and reasonable resolution of conflict.”

Here is the expectation as set forth in the Common Core standards:

 • Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.

     o Engage and orient the reader by setting out a problem, situation, or observation and its significance, establishing one or multiple point(s) of view, and introducing a narrator and/or characters; create a smooth progression of experiences or events.

     o Use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, description, reflection, and multiple plot lines, to develop experiences, events, and/or characters.

     o Use a variety of techniques to sequence events so that they build on one another to create a coherent whole and build toward a particular tone and outcome (e.g., a sense of mystery, suspense, growth, or resolution).

     o Use precise words and phrases, telling details, and sensory language to convey a vivid picture of the experiences, events, setting, and/or characters.

     o Provide a conclusion that follows from and reflects on what is experienced, observed, or resolved over the course of the narrative.

I’m not a teacher, but I would think the Common Core standard would be a lot more useful, since it provides a more comprehensive description of what the student should be able to produce and offers a better template of what the teacher might look for in assessing the student’s work.

As one would expect, the common core standards have been attacked from the left and right. From the right, the argument is made, unsurprisingly, that the standards are not rigorous enough and will only end up “equalizing mediocrity.” The attack from the left is similarly predictable. For example, Alfie Kohn, apparently the go-to guy for attacking standards as an assault on humanistic values, contends that a focus on standards detracts for the pre-lapsarian wonderland of students’ awakening intellects that he imagines the ideal classroom to be. And here’s a quote from a professor at Berkeley who also doesn’t seem to be a fan: “But standards threaten to further routinize pedagogy, filling students with bits of reified knowledge — leaving behind the essence, the humanistic genius of liberal learning.”

I don’t know just how much of that humanistic genius is typically on display in our classrooms now, or how much we’d be sacrificing by adopting more specific standards, but I’m more interested in producing graduates who can write a coherent essay and are prepared for the rigors of college than jibber-jabber about the dangers of “reified knowledge.” Harrumph.

There are advantages to Wisconsin adopting a national set of academic standards apart from their substance. More consistency in the curricula taught in different states would certainly be a help for students who move around. Common standards and assessments would also facilitate more meaningful comparisons of student learning in the different states and perhaps prod the laggards into stepping up their performance. I suspect that better national comparisons might also shake Wisconsin officials out of a sense of undeserved complacency about the overall academic performance of our students.

Writing in the New York Times, a supporter of the Common Core standards pointed out another potential advantage: National standards “go nicely with the rise of blogs, self-publishing and platforms like BetterLesson.com. Some amazing teachers will sell their yearlong courses, often displacing textbook companies (or making licensing relationships with them). If you’re teaching 9th grade algebra, do you want a book from Scholastic, or a whole curriculum (lesson plans, homework, classwork, a yearlong calendar, remediation plans, “Do-Nows,” “Tickets-to-leave”, quizzes, unit tests and a final exam) from the Teacher of the Year in, say, Philadelphia?”

According to the 12th grade Common Core standard for “informative/explanatory texts” I should end this post by providing “a concluding statement or section that follows from and supports the information or explanation presented (e.g., articulating implications or the significance of the topic).” Thus we see . . . Nah, forget it. I’m done.

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