SEATTLE – Math and English instruction in the United States moved a step closer to uniform — and more rigorous — standards Wednesday as draft new national guidelines were released.
Supporters of the project led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers hope the lists of things kids should learn at each grade level will replace a patchwork of systems across the country.
The effort is expected to lead to standardization of textbooks and testing and make learning easier for students who move from state to state.
The federal government recently opened bidding for $350 million to work on new national tests that would be given to students in states that adopt the national standards.
People involved in the effort endorsed by 48 states, two territories and the District of Columbia said the new standards will raise expectations of student achievement in some states and be in line with the educational expectations of top-performing states and countries.
Unlike most efforts to revise standards at a state level, this document was not built on consensus, said Chris Minnich, director of standards and assessment for the Council of Chief State School Officers.
"We really used evidence in an unprecedented fashion," Minnich said Monday.
In contrast, states that have engaged in consensus-building have not made the tough decisions about what should be contained in the standards and what shouldn't, Minnich said.
Some have criticized the process, saying adoption of the new standards will not be voluntary.
"First they tried to tie it to Race to the Top money ... now they're trying to tie it to Title I funds," said Robert Scott, Texas' commissioner of education.
President Barack Obama told the nation's governors last month that he wants to make Title I dollars for public schools contingent on adoption of college- and career-ready reading and math standards, but the president said the states would not be required to adopt the coalition's standards.
Texas and Alaska are the only states not participating in the national standards effort and Texas also opted out of the federal Race to the Top competition for $4.35 billion for education reform.
"Texas has chosen to preserve its sovereign authority to determine what is appropriate for Texas children to learn in its public schools," Scott 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 public is invited to comment on the proposed new national standards until April 2, and the developers hope to publish final education goals for K-12 math and English in May.
A glance at the math standards reveals the changes are not dramatic: Kids would still learn to count in kindergarten, not multiply and divide. Minnich said the main improvement is clarity and focus. In that, they follow the trend already set by recent state standards revisions.
Each grade will have fewer goals in each subject area, but each goal goes deeper; the goals are written in plain English with little or no educational jargon; and some learning goals may start to show up earlier than expected.
For example, second graders now are expected to add and subtract triple digit numbers. Fractions start in third grade. And kindergartners are expected to learn to count to 100.
Grade placement of particular topics in both the math and English standards was based on state and international comparisons and the collective professional judgment of educators, researchers and mathematicians.
"These are rigorous standards. These standards are as high as the highest standards that any state has," said William McCallum, chairman of the math standards committee, math professor and head of the mathematics department at the University of Arizona.
One math expert who was not involved in writing the draft standards questioned the value of moving concepts 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, who plans to participate in the public comment period, said she doesn't think making kids learn things earlier translates 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 development team worked to resolve differences between those who would like to see math instruction focus on computation and those who prefer the discovery method that focuses on higher-level problem solving. McCallum said the draft standards respect both points of view, calling for both conceptual understanding and computational skills.
"We tried to resolve conflicts and go beyond some of these arguments," McCallum said. "We listened very hard."
The draft report also addresses the debate over how much should be expected from immigrants who are just learning English. An introduction to the standards explains that English language learners should be held to the same standards but should be given more time and instructional support to meet the requirements.
Students with disabilities should also be challenged to master as many of the standards as they can, the document argues.