State governors and education officials proposed new national standards for K-12 education today, a step President Obama believes is key to improving the quality of the nation's schools. The voluntary guidelines, dubbed the "Common Core State Standards," call on states to teach specific topics in each grade level, replacing present guidelines which vary wildly from state to state.
"What's different about these standards is that we've taken time to look at the evidence that's out there about college and career readiness and align the expectations for all students," said Chris Minnich, director of standards for the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) that developed the guidelines with the National Governors Association (NGA).
The core standards lay out detailed, high-achieving goals for math, language, and history at every grade level. In seventh grade, for instance, the draft standards call for students to be able to "use ideas about distance and angles, how they behave under dilations, translations, rotations and reflections."
In reading, seventh-grade students are expected to be able to "analyze how particular lines of dialogue or specific incidents in a story or drama propel the action, reveal aspects of a character or provoke a discussion."
The standards also include a suggested reading list heavy on the classics, though its authors stress it is meant as a guideline for appropriate "text complexity" for different grades, not as a required list.
The CCSSO and the NGA have posted over one hundred pages of draft standards to a Web site, www.corestandards.org, where they are inviting educators, students, and members of the public to give feedback before they issue a final document, which they expect to publish in the spring of this year.
President Calls for National Standards
President Obama has long called for improved national education standards. In a March 2009 speech, the president included such standards as one of his five pillars for education reform.
"Let's challenge our states to adopt world-class standards that will bring our curriculums to the 21st century," Obama said. "Today's system of 50 different sets of benchmarks for academic success means fourth grade readers in Mississippi are scoring nearly 70 points lower than students in Wyoming -- and they're getting the same grade. ...That's why I'm calling on states that are setting their standards far below where they ought to be to stop low-balling expectations for our kids. The solution to low test scores is not lowering standards -- it's tougher, clearer standards."
Effort for New National Education Guidelines Is Led By States
While the No Child Left Behind law introduced under President George W. Bush calls for testing and progress toward proficiency, it left it up to the states to determine specific classroom standards and test criteria. Critics say that some states have artificially lowered their standards to make their students appear to be higher-performing on standardized tests.
Obama isn't the first president to call for national education standards -- it's been a goal going back several administrations. President George H.W. Bush called for similar guidelines in his America 2000 plan, but the standards were eventually rebuffed by states who accused the federal government of meddling in state responsibilities.
The Obama administration played no role in drafting the proposal, though his administration is offering over $4 billion in incentives for states that adopt them.
Parents, conservatives and other groups have long resisted calls for standardized testing, saying control of school boards and curricula should be a local issue.
"The difference this time is that the states are leading the effort," said Minnich.
The Governors Association and the CCSSO are both state-run organizations, and they set out last year to create core standards. Forty-eight states agreed to participate, with Alaska and Texas sitting out. The authors looked at high-performing states and nations like Finland and Singapore to help write the guidelines.
Dane Linn of the National Governor's Association said that states that adopt the common standards may see student performance go down, at least at first.
"We should prepare ourself for larger gaps, but as we talk to governors, one thing we've stressed to them over and over again is that it's better to be honest about what the gaps actually are as opposed to lying to parents and teachers and students," Linn said.
While it's not clear yet whether states will adopt the final guidelines, Minnich says that states have responded positively to the draft and he expects that "the majority of states that have started with us will stick with us."
Giving Teachers Clear Expectations
The CCSSO believes its standards use clearer language and avoid the jargon that has confused parents and students in the past, but they stress that the standards are not intended as a specific teaching method.
"We don't tell teachers how to teach to these standards," said Minnich. "We think there's still a real local need to understand how you get students to meet these expectations," with different teaching styles in different classrooms.
Susan Fuhrman, president of Columbia University Teachers College in New York City, believes the guidelines will be a big help to teachers.
"What teachers want most of all are clear expectations of what they should teach," Fuhrman said. "Right now, the clearest guideline they have is the state-issued test. They don't have a curriculum to follow in most places."
Fuhrman said that once national standards are in place, textbooks, teacher training, and other educational tools will be developed to support teachers.
"Our whole system will be much more coherent, much more like the countries that consistently outperform us," she said.
ABC's Chris Bury contributed to this report.