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After a year of development, the much-anticipated “common core standards” for English and mathematics were unveiled Wednesday morning, just a day after states’ second-round applications were due in the federal Race to the Top competition.

Officially named the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI), the effort was spearheaded by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, not the federal government. The Obama administration kept its distance during the development of the common standards because of a general wariness at both the district and state levels of federal involvement in education. And yet, adopting these common standards is part of the Race to the Top competition, which seeks to reward states for enacting specific education reforms.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement that the standards were “developed by the states, for the states” – making clear that the initiative was not led by Washington. “These standards will help teachers, students and parents know what is needed for students to succeed in college and careers, and will enable states, school districts and teachers to more effectively collaborate to accelerate learning and close achievement gaps nationwide.”

Those most opposed to common standards tend to label them “national” standards, viewing them as the first step in a seismic shift toward national assessments and a national curriculum. Defenders of common standards counter that they’re more necessary than ever before because of Americans’ increasing mobility in the globalized world and because it doesn’t make sense for students in one state to learn drastically different things from students in another state. The argument is that what it takes to be college- or career-ready in Tennessee isn’t that different from what it takes in Texas.

The standards released in Georgia on June 2nd lay out a vision for what public school students should learn in English and mathematics each year from kindergarten to twelfth grade, although each state must still decide individually whether to adopt the standards. The present plan is to develop common science standards next.

The debate over what students should learn in each grade isn’t new. American public education has a long tradition of local control, with many decisions made by schools or districts and the rest typically settled at the state level. The U.S. Constitution makes no provision for public education, and thus it has widely been seen as the domain of the states. (All state constitutions address the issue of education.)

But beginning in the late 1950s in reaction to the Soviet launch of Sputnik, and especially with the Nation at Risk report in 1983 drawing attention to a “rising tide of mediocrity” in American education, policymakers and politicians began pushing for greater uniformity across states in what is taught to public schoolchildren. The standards movement gained greater momentum in the mid-1980s with the creation of the Core Knowledge Foundation by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., a professor at the University of Virginia who in 1987 authored the bestseller Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know.

Following an “education summit” in 1989, President George H. W. Bush and all 50 governors sought to move the nation forward with “America 2000,” which articulated six national education goals. In 1994, under President Bill Clinton, “America 2000” became “Goals 2000,” and it added two new goals – one about strengthening teacher education and professional development, and one about promoting parental participation. These programs didn’t go very far. The lofty goals, such as attaining a high school graduation rate of 90 percent and eliminating drugs and violence from all American schools, remain in the realm of fantasy.

But America 2000 and Goals 2000 did provide an important lesson – that grandiose goals don’t mean much unless they are accompanied by very concrete guidelines on how they might be achieved. And this is where standards enter the picture, as they guide teachers in their daily lessons.

Almost all schools and districts, of course, have specific standards that articulate what students should know and be able to do in different subject areas and grade levels. But this fact is increasingly seen as more hindrance than help: there are too many standards, and they vary too widely throughout districts and across states. In short, experts argue that current U.S. standards tend to be too voluminous, scattered and repetitive. The result is a mile-wide, inch-deep curriculum that shortchanges students. Michigan State University professor William H. Schmidt has expressed concern that the typical U.S. approach in math instruction is to “teach everything everywhere because somehow somebody will learn something somewhere.”

Though the standards debate is an old one, a solution seems for the first time to be within reach. The new standards, it is hoped, will raise the achievement of U.S. students by focusing on fewer topics in greater depth. “Fewer, clearer and higher” was a guiding principle in the development of the common core standards. “The idea here is less is more,” said Skip Fennell, a professor of education at McDaniel College in Maryland and a past president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. “Let’s ensure we’re teaching what’s important and ensure that kids really have it.”

Articulating a handful of clear and high standards is widely seen as necessary but not sufficient to raise the achievement of American students. Educators argue that good standards must also be aligned with strong assessments and instruction – and there are as many or more arguments about how the U.S. can improve assessments and instruction as there are about standards.

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Justin Snider is a contributing editor at The Hechinger Report. He is an assistant dean at Columbia University, where he also teaches undergraduate writing. Previously, Snider taught high-school English...

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