Math and English classes could be standardized

Texas and Alaska have already chosen to opt out of the newest incarnation of education reform

Published March 11, 2010 12:59AM (EST)

Governors and education leaders on Wednesday proposed sweeping new school standards that could lead to students across the country using the same math and English textbooks and taking the same tests, replacing a patchwork of state and local systems in an attempt to raise student achievement nationwide.

But states must first adopt the new rigorous standards, and implementing the standards on such a large scale won't be easy.

Two states -- Texas and Alaska -- have already refused to join the project, and everyone from state legislatures to the nation's 10,000 local school boards and 3 million teachers could chime in with their opinions.

The public is invited to comment on the proposed new standards until April 2, and the developers hope to publish final education goals for K-12 math and English in May.

The state-led effort was coordinated by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Experts were called in to do the writing and research, but state education officials and teachers from around the nation were actively involved.

After the standards are complete, each state will still have to decide whether to adopt them as a replacement for their existing education goals.

The stakes could be high. President Barack Obama told the nation's governors last month that he wants to make money from Title I -- the federal government's biggest school aid program -- contingent on adoption of college- and career-ready reading and math standards.

Already, the federal government has opened bidding for $350 million to work on new national tests that would be given to students in states that adopt the national standards.

But some critics worry the federal government, which is enthusiastically watching the project but not directing it, will force them to adopt the results.

"Texas has chosen to preserve its sovereign authority to determine what is appropriate for Texas children to learn in its public schools," Robert Scott, Texas' commissioner of education, wrote in a letter to U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. "It is clear that the first step toward nationalization of our schools has been put into place."

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is helping pay for the effort, believes most states will value the new national standards.

Vicki L. Phillips, director of foundation's K-12 education program, said every state she's talked to thinks high school achievement isn't high enough and that more students need to graduate ready for college.

"The standards make those aspirations concrete and tangible," Phillips said.

One state, Kentucky, already adopted the standards in February, before the process was complete.

A look at the math standards reveals the changes are not dramatic. Kids would still learn to count in kindergarten, not multiply and divide.

But each grade will have fewer goals in each subject area, and the goals are written plainly with little or no educational jargon.

Also, some learning goals may start to show up earlier than expected.

For example, second-graders will be expected to add and subtract triple digit numbers. Fractions will start in third grade. Kindergartners will be expected to learn to count to 100.

One math expert who was not involved in writing the draft standards questioned the value of moving lessons earlier.

Cathy Seeley, senior fellow at the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas, has been involved in the revision of math standards in more than a dozen states. She saw a lot of similarity between the recent state revisions and the national plan.

Seeley said she didn't think making kids learn things earlier translated into higher standards.

"It's not that they're learning it well but too late. It's that they're not learning it well," Seeley said.

The new standards are based on evidence and input from educators, researchers and mathematicians to determine when students should study certain topics, said Chris Minnich, director of standards and assessment for the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Some states' existing standards aren't tough enough because they were formed based on consensus among all parties, he said, not evidence of what works.

"We really used evidence in an unprecedented fashion," Minnich said.


AP reporter April Castro contributed to this story from Austin, Texas.


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By Donna Gordon Blankinship

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