Tuesday, July 13, 2010

States Receive a Reading List: New Standards for Education

Published: June 2, 2010

The nation’s governors and state school chiefs released on Wednesday a new set of academic standards, their final recommendations for what students should master in English and math as they move from the primary grades through high school graduation.

The standards, which took a year to write, have been tweaked and refined in recent weeks in response to some of the 10,000 comments the public sent in after a draft was released in March.

The standards were made public at a news conference on Wednesday in Atlanta.

Leah Lechleiter-Luke, a Spanish teacher from Mauston, Wis., who is that state’s 2010 teacher of the year, said at the conference that the new standards were preferable to her home state’s. “It’s not that the standards in Wisconsin are so bad, it’s just that there are so many of them,” she said. “These are more user-friendly.”

The Obama administration hopes that states will quickly adopt the new standards in place of the hodgepodge of current state benchmarks, which vary so significantly that it is impossible to compare test scores from different states. The United States is one of the few developed countries that lacks national standards for its public schools.

Students whose families move from New York to Georgia or California, for example, often have difficulty adjusting to new schools because classroom work is organized around different standards. The problem has become worse, since many states have weakened standards in recent years to make it easier for schools to avoid sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The new standards were written by English and math experts convened last year by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. They are laid out in two documents: Common Core State Standards for Mathematics, and Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects. With three appendices, the English standards run to nearly 600 pages.

Under the new math standards, eighth graders would be expected to use the Pythagorean theorem to find distances between points on the coordinate plane and to analyze polygons. Under the English standards, sixth-grade students would be expected to describe how a story’s plot unfolds in a series of episodes and how an author develops the narrator’s point of view.

“The standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach,” the introduction to the new English standards says. “They do not — indeed, cannot — enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum.”

In keeping with those principles, the English standards do not prescribe a reading list, but point to classic poems, plays, short stories, novels and essays to demonstrate the advancing complexity of texts that students should be able to master. On the list of exemplary read-aloud books for second and third graders, for instance, is James Thurber’s “Thirteen Clocks.” One play cited as appropriate for high school students is “Oedipus Rex,” by Sophocles.

Five English texts are required reading. High school juniors and seniors must study the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Also, said Susan Pimentel, a consultant in New Hampshire who was lead writer on the English standards, “Students have to read one Shakespeare play — that’s a requirement.”

In a joint letter, Joel I. Klein, the New York Schools chancellor, and 54 other big-city superintendents who are members of the Council of the Great City Schools urged adoption of the standards.

Just how many states will adopt them remains unclear. Texas and Alaska declined to participate in the standards-writing effort. In the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition, states that adopt by Aug. 2 will stand a higher chance at a piece of the $4 billion in federal grant money to be divided among winning states in September.

“I’m hopeful that a bunch of states with crummy standards will end up with better ones this way,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., a former assistant secretary of education who has long called for national standards. But the Obama administration is pressing states to adopt them too fast, he said. His recommendation to states: “Don’t rush to judgment.”

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