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New California Curriculum Standards, Coming Soon to a School Near You (and Don't Mind the Elephant)

By Gavin Payne - April 28, 2011

Much has been made about a new generation of tests being developed by two consortia of states under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

Both consortia promise tests that delve more deeply and broadly into students’ mastery of skills and knowledge than ever before. These new tests will be built upon marvelous new standards that have been adopted by over 40 states.

While the excitement for these new assessments is palpable, the hard work of weaving the new standards into the fabric of classroom learning is beginning to take place in districts across California.

And it couldn’t be happening at a worse time.

Hammered by tens of billions of dollars in cuts over the last three years, districts are struggling to keep school doors open, let alone implement new curricula.

And yet, in staff rooms, department meetings, and district offices, educators are unpacking and repacking the new standards and beginning to own them.

There are three main reasons why educators, even in these desperate times, are taking the standards seriously: this is known work; economies of scale will abound; and the new standards are not a big reach.

Known Work

Standards-based educational delivery has never been a static enterprise. Every summer, teachers take stock of their previous year’s work and make adjustments for the next year. The same goes for departments, schools and districts. The work of unpacking and re-packing, scaffolding, and adjusting instruction is the professional bread-and-butter of the educational enterprise. This summer’s work will be more complicated, to be sure, but my sense is most teachers are embracing the changes.

Economies of Scale

A great benefit of implementing this new generation of standards derives from how they were built – based on state, national and international evidence – developed by states working together, and vetted by practitioners. Today, every state is making the standards uniquely its own, but the great bulk of the standards are common to every state.

Since the standards are now essentially universal, every textbook publisher, professional development provider, and formative assessment vendor is writing to the same objectives.

It stands to reason that California teachers, principals and district staff will have a myriad of choices for instructional materials and professional development, at arguably cheaper prices. In fact, some materials and training are being designed in an open-source environment, making them essentially free.

Not a Big Reach

Arguably, California led the nation in the rigor of its previous standards. As such, adjustments to instruction are relatively straightforward. For instance, in English Language Arts, a greater emphasis on different writing types will be needed – with additional attention being paid to technical writing as well as literature.

In addition, for the first time, the English Language Arts standards call out specifically for coordination with other disciplines, causing wonderful instructional conversations amongst all the teachers at a school site.

Mathematics will require the biggest adjustment to instruction, since this domain is where old and new standards differ most. Professional development in mathematics will need to be substantially augmented to adjust to the new regime, but providers are working diligently to serve districts’ training needs. Significantly, the new math standards will help better prepare middle school students for the rigors of Algebra, potentially reducing the downstream training burden.

The Elephant

If there is an elephant in the room (other than finances), it is the uneasy situation surrounding reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), otherwise known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

Both Congress and the Obama Administration are intent on reauthorizing ESEA this year. But if this doesn’t happen, districts who embrace the new standards will find themselves in a huge bind – they could continue being held accountable to a system of assessments tied to the old standards while they are transitioning to the new.

Fortunately, policymakers in Washington and Sacramento recognize this, and there is a legitimate desire to insure a smooth transition to new standards. If there is not resolution to the issue through Congressional action, look to the federal department of education to try to provide administrative remedies to states.

Here, again, there is strength in numbers – this is not an issue limited to California. We have common cause with over forty other states to insure a smooth transition to a new system of accountability based on the new standards.

Source:  Gavin Payne served as Chief Deputy to California's State Superintendent Jack O'Connell from 2003 through mid-year 2010, managing all activities of the state Department of Education. Last year, he launched the firm Gavin Payne Consulting.