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Stop believing what state officials say about academic standards

Posted by Jim Stergios  June 9, 2010 04:18 PM

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The Secretary and Commissioner of Education have repeatedly said that they would not adopt national standards if they were weaker than Massachusetts state academic standards. I long ago stopped believing, even as friends in the media and elected officials told me otherwise.

Even as recently as May 20th, Secretary Reville noted to GateHouseNews Service:

“There’s no plan whatsoever with how we’re going to proceed on this,” said Reville. “There’s simply an opportunity for us to play a national leadership role.”

He said the state had “absolutely no plan to replace MCAS.”

On June 2nd, Commissioner Chester put out a press release on the Department's website declaring:

Our curriculum experts have worked closely with the developers of the Common Core Standards to ensure that the final documents are strong, challenging and bold. But while we have played a leadership role in their development, we have made no commitment to ultimately adopt these standards. Instead we have made clear that Massachusetts will do so only after conducting a comprehensive review of the final drafts to ensure they are as strong as—or stronger than—our current state standards.

Well, Massachusetts' second round Race to the Top application has been submitted to the feds. I just looked at the home page for the MA Department of (Elementary and Secondary) Education and, at least as far as I can see there will be no public comment period on the question of whether the state adopts the Common Core's standards.

With the date set by the Commissioner for the Board to adopt the proposed national standards (July 21, 9 am, Malden), there really isn't room for a public comment period, which usually takes 60 days. Originally, because the Commissioner's plan called for a special Board of Education meeting on August 2nd (60 days after the June 1 application submission date), we hoped they would allow a comment period. Nope. Nada.

So, we are taking one of the most important steps in education policy without any real vetting. I've heard that there may be an organization invited by the Commissioner or possibly the Hunt Institute to do a comparative analysis of the MA standards up against the proposed national standards. Interestingly, the Hunt Institute, which has received $3.8 million from the Gates Foundation to advocate for the national standards, is fishing around for a group in MA to do the analysis. The Gates Foundation will pay to do the work. Given that Gates has funded dozens of organizations across the country and specifically two trade organizations (the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers) to advance national standards, I think any even slightly skeptical person would ask if the conclusion of the report is pre-baked.

To give you a sense of how much of a done deal adoption of the national standards is to the Commissioner, the Department and the Secretary of Education, here is some language from the application on pages 44-49:

We plan to adopt the Common Core Standards by August 2, 2010, and have established a timeline that will make it possible for the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to meet this deadline.

That sure sounds like they are adopting the standards. The state officials put in some "wiggle room" language:

The Board will receive the final version of the Common Core Standards by June 2, along with a side-by-side analysis completed by our staff and Achieve, Inc., which compares the Common Core Standards with drafts of our own ELA and mathematics standards revisions (2009 and 2010 respectively). By June 21, an independent panel of educators from PreK-12, higher education, and business will review the Common Core standards and present a report to the Board to inform its vote on adopting the standards, which will be taken at a special meeting in late July 2010. This independent panel will validate that the Common Core is at least as comprehensive and rigorous, if not more than, our current standards. In addition, we will secure at least one expert reviewer to conduct a gap analysis of the Common Core and Massachusetts standards. These validations will ensure that by adopting the Common Core standards, Massachusetts will maintain, if not exceed, its high standards.

Note that Achieve has also received funding from Gates to advance the national standards (and that Governor Patrick is on the board of Achieve). Interestingly, only after the adoption of the national standards will there be a public comment period and it will only relate to whether the state should take advantage of the feds' allowance of a marginal percentage of additional standard elements. Sentences like the following indicate a strong presumption that the state will adopt the standards:

Following the adoption of the [national] standards in July, our plan is for the Board to discuss the possible addition of Massachusetts standards in September.

And what to make of this language on page 49 regarding the end of the MCAS and the adoption of the federal assessments?

In four years we will be prepared to administer this assessment [the new national assessment] in place of our current state assessments in those subjects.

You draw your own conclusions about what is going on. I can say one thing for sure - the Ed Secretary and Commissioner are contradicting what our US delegation said the very day the Department of Ed submitted the RttT application. All twelve of our Congressmen stated:

In the absence of language clearly stating that these national standards would be equal to or higher than what Massachusetts has set for itself, the Commonwealth is unfortunately forced to decline accepting these standards.

You know the old adage: Trust but verify. I would urge our Congressional delegation to stop believing and start verifying.

Crossposted at the Pioneer blog.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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