In many third-grade classrooms in California, students are taught — briefly — about obtuse and acute angles. They have no way to comprehend this lesson fully. Their math training so far hasn't taught them the concepts involved. They haven't learned what a degree is or that a circle has 360 of them. They haven't learned division, so they can't divide 360 by 4 to determine that a right angle is 90 degrees, and thus understand that an acute angle is less than 90 degrees and an obtuse angle more.
It makes no pedagogical sense, but California's academic standards call for third-graders to at least be exposed to the subject, and because angles might be on the standardized state test at the end of the year, exposed they are.
Now, that might change. In June, a yearlong joint initiative by 48 states produced a set of uniform but voluntary educational standards in English and math. Urged on by the Obama administration, the initiative's main purpose was to encourage states with low academic standards to bring their expectations into line with those of other states. Twenty states have already adopted the standards; 28 more, including California, are considering them. Texas and Alaska are the only states that declined to participate in the project.
California has among the highest academic standards in the country; the new "common core standards" would neither toughen nor weaken them appreciably. But the state still has something important to gain by adopting them: a more coherent blueprint for instruction that builds students' skills in a clear and sensible way, and allows teachers to delve more deeply into each subject. The standards would reduce the long list of academic material that California teachers must race through so their students can look good on the yearly fill-in-the-bubble tests. They focus on skills and abilities rather than on topics or specific books to be read, and, unlike much of California's current standards, they call for preparing students in one grade for the demands of the next. The change is overdue.
A state commission, made up largely of teachers, has been reviewing the new standards. It is scheduled to make its recommendation Thursday to the state Board of Education; the board will vote Aug. 2 on whether to adopt the standards. It should embrace them.
A welcome surprise
There was valid reason for early concern about the new standards. The Common Core State Standards Initiative, led by the National Governors Assn. and the Council of Chief State School Officers, were written very quickly; California last rewrote its standards in the 1990s, and the process took years. There's also pressure from the Obama administration for states to adopt the standards by Aug. 2; those that do get extra points in their Race to the Top applications for federal education reform grants. On top of that, the Legislature passed a bill that all but committed California to the standards before they had even been seen. Such important decisions should not be rushed, especially for the mere possibility of winning a grant that represents less than 2% of what California spends each year on schools.
Yet, for once, political pressure and doing the right thing for education coincide. The document that has emerged from the initiative is a thoughtful and exciting design for learning that emphasizes critical thinking, sophisticated writing and building on students' skills and knowledge so that they are prepared to succeed at the next step, especially in math. It is flexible enough to provide for the needs of college-bound students and those who plan on a job after high school, an improvement over recent pushes to demand a college-prep curriculum for all students.
The common core standards are easily the most useful and important reform to come out of the Obama administration's education policy. Instead of trying to manage structural issues such as how states evaluate teachers or whether they have large numbers of charter schools, the standards revolve around the fundamentals: what students should learn, and how they should learn it.
The administration wisely didn't try to impose national education standards after previous attempts fell apart over the right of states to regulate their schools. Rather, Education Secretary Arne Duncan bemoaned the uneven standards across the nation — with many states falling perilously short of preparing their students for college or a decent job — and left it to the states to respond with their own initiative. It will be up to each state to decide if it wants to adopt the resulting plan.
If it does, the state cannot weaken the standards in any way, but it can add to them, as long as the result retains at least 85% common core standards. California's standards commission has been struggling with that issue this week.
One of the chief complaints in California, from those who have supported the idea of requiring all eighth-graders to take Algebra 1, is that the standards would build more flexibility into the state's math program. The standards call for teaching some algebra skills in eighth grade, but spreads them out over subsequent grades as well. California could decide to add to the standards by requiring all typical Algebra 1 activities to take place in eighth grade, but it would be a mistake to do so. The eighth-grade requirement, which has been challenged in court, was poorly thought out. Close to half of California's students don't take algebra by eighth grade, and about 40% who do are not proficient in it by the end of the year. The standards outline a more sensible approach of making sure that students grasp the necessary skills as they progress. In fact, it's very similar to the way algebra is taught in Japan, one of the world's most successful countries at teaching math.
Some English teachers might blanch because the standards deemphasize the study of literature and instead stress the importance of training students, from the earliest years, to read more nonfiction — from newspapers to textbooks and primary research papers — and develop better skills at pulling information from those readings, using it to build cogent arguments and analysis.
Colleges and universities have long complained that students reach higher education without the necessary adeptness at extracting information from written sources, thinking about it critically and writing about it masterfully. Employers complain that job-seekers are inept at comprehending and following instruction manuals or at using critical-thinking skills to reach useful conclusions. Literature should remain an important component of English education; the ability to unlock the world of stories is how children first get excited about reading. But there has been too little focus in California's public schools on thinking analytically and too much emphasis on the five-paragraph essay.
One topic the standards do not address adequately is the education of students who are not fluent in English. This is where California should concentrate when it comes to adding to the standards.
But the state board doesn't need to address any of these concerns in order to approve the standards on Aug. 2. It can take time to refine its amendments. Implementation of the standards is expected to take place over the next four years.
Making it happen
The standards encourage a different kind of instruction than California's teachers have been urged to do over the past several years. They should open pathways to more creative classroom work.
But California's experience shows that high standards don't necessarily translate into a first-rate education. California will have to change its curriculum to match the standards, and that will mean eliminating topics or books that are held dear by one group or another and completely refashioning its approach. The state — and the nation as a whole — will need much better textbooks than are now widely available. Those books should have richer content, better writing and fewer flashy but distracting graphic elements. Teachers must be well trained.
Finally, teachers cannot change how they teach until better standardized tests are devised to reflect this welcome change in pedagogical thinking. Such tests will have fewer fill-in-the-bubble questions; instead, they will examine whether students can think through a mathematical process, understand concepts, read critically and write with persuasion and grace.
Fortunately, if dozens of states are working on these issues together, all of this will cost less and happen more quickly, because the states can share the expense of devising new textbook requirements, professional development and tests. There will be no need for each state to reinvent the academic wheel. California should become one of those states, starting with these common academic standards that are demanding enough to be proud of and engaging enough to touch off an era of more meaningful classroom instruction.