Standards are the starting line, not the finish line

Last week, the New York Times ran an article looking back on the 10 years since more than 40 states started using the Common Core State Standards as benchmarks for what students should know and be able to do at each grade level. The article asked whether — in light of recent disappointing results from U.S. students on both nationwide and international assessments — the standards should be looked at as a success or failure.

Spoiler: I’m firmly in the camp of those who “say it is too soon to judge the program.” There are several reasons why I think that is the case, and why I am optimistic about the future.

I spoke with the author for her article and think the resulting story was both fair and accurate. It included several key points that often get lost in the retelling of the Common Core story, such as the fact that the initiative stemmed from state governors and education chiefs wanting to take action in a way that would not only benefit students but also make it possible to compare student achievement across the country. It also captured the real challenges the initiative faced — from the standards becoming a political football, to supporters, including the Gates Foundation, underestimating the level of support it would take to bring the standards to life in the classroom.

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Educators in Baltimore City Public Schools during lesson planning time.

While our foundation embraced the standards from the outset — and continue to believe our education system should have high standards and expectations for all students, regardless of their race, income level, or zip code — we’ve always looked at states having high-quality, consistent standards as the starting point and not the endgame.

In fact, our initial hope was that a handful of states would adopt the standards and build upon past efforts to use standards as bedrock for a coherent instruction system that would also include aligned curriculum, instructional materials and assessments, as well as professional development and training for teachers. As the article points out, the standards “were not rolled out with lesson plans, textbooks and widespread teacher-training programs.” The result was uneven implementation, which left teachers often scrambling to find materials aligned to the new standards and struggling to get the feedback and training they needed to make the transition in their classrooms.

Over the past several years, we’ve made a concerted effort to accelerate the availability of high-quality, aligned materials so that teachers can spend more of their time engaging students and less on hunting for lesson plans. The article mentions EdReports, an organization we support that engages teachers to review available curricula and materials and score them based on their quality and whether they are aligned to high-quality academic standards. Just like when you consult Consumer Reports before you buy a home appliance, we believe that those purchasing curriculum for schools should be able to have confidence in their selection being vetted for quality. And we’re already seeing this shift among decision-makers happen. A recent report from shows that more than 70% of district personnel involved in curriculum adoption decisions are now aware of EdReports and more than half of those say its reviews are useful in decision-making.

But high-quality curriculum isn’t a “silver bullet,” either. The systems that support instruction — assessments and professional development, for example — are still often lacking and misaligned to curricula, especially for Black, Latino, low-income, and/or English learner designated students.

That’s why we’re also working with networks of schools committed to aligning their standards, curriculum, and the training and coaching they provide teachers (my recent visit to Baltimore City Public Schools shows what this kind of effort looks like in practice). This isn’t just a hunch on our part. Multiple studies have shown that curriculum-aligned professional learning has statistically-significant, positive effects on student outcomes. In fact, in one study researchers found that a combination of curriculum and aligned professional development and coaching can produce the equivalent of four more months of students learning over two years. We believe that if curricula can help make the power of the standards real, high-quality implementation maximizes their potential benefits to students and educators.

To be clear, there are still many other structural factors that contribute to our students not achieving at the levels we know they are capable of — factors that won’t be solved by standards-based reform alone. Spiking economic inequality, segregation by race and class, opportunity myths that influence school climates and disproportionately impact students of color and low-income students, and lack of access to qualified and experienced teachers are just a few of the entrenched challenges our education systems need to grapple with. Our foundation is committed to playing its part to tackle several of these issues, including increasing our emphasis on teacher preparation and social emotional learning. But we realize these are national challenges that will require sustained attention and effort from across sectors.

Bill and Melinda often say that of all the issues the foundation works on, education may be the hardest. The very nature of a system that includes nearly 15,000 school districts and 50 million students makes it hard to find solutions that work in every context. But we continue to believe that the best days of standards-based instructional improvement are ahead and not behind us as a country. And we are incredibly proud of the work our partners and educators across the country are doing to realize the vision and potential of the standards — students who are ready when they graduate high school to succeed in work or in continuing their education.

President, U.S. Program, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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