U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan raised some hackles when he told a gathering of state education superintendents on Nov. 15 that fresh complaints about the Common Core State Standards were mostly from “white suburban moms” upset that their children weren’t as “brilliant as they thought they were.” Local school districts weren’t “quite as good as they thought” under the new standards, he added.

The standards have been adopted by 45 states, along with the District of Columbia, since 2010. They aim to establish a rigorous set of academic achievement benchmarks for all kindergarten through 12th-grade students. Rollout of related changes, including new assessments to measure progress, is under way and expected to be fully implemented in the 2014-2015 school year.

Paul Reville, Francis Keppel Professor of Practice of Educational Policy and Administration at Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), served as secretary of education in Massachusetts from 2008 through 2012. He spoke with the Gazette about the standards and some of the controversy surrounding them.

GAZETTE: What are the Common Core State Standards intended to do?

REVILLE: They’re intended to set a common high standard for student achievement all across the country. … The goal is to set standards at such a level that virtually all students who graduate high school will be both ready to do successful college work or to enter a 21st-century high skill/high knowledge career and be successful in that.

GAZETTE: Do they replace No Child Left Behind or some other prior initiative?

REVILLE: No. In No Child Left Behind, states were asked to set their own standards. States have voluntarily come together in the Common Core movement and agreed upon a common set of standards that they will all adopt. There’s some variance — they still can vary by 15 percent state to state — but now we have a set common standard across the country and these standards in general are higher than what the states had prior to this time.

GAZETTE: What is different in the classroom since the standards were adopted?

REVILLE: There’s a different focus. So for example, in mathematics, you’d find more emphasis on statistics. You’d see more teaching in that area. In English and language arts, you’d see more of a focus on nonfiction — a slight shift in the balance between fiction and nonfiction, favoring a greater emphasis on nonfiction since this is what people are typically reading in careers and so forth. Here in Massachusetts, we had a very substantial overlap between our existing standards and the Common Core Standards, so the changes aren’t as significant here as they are in some other places. What still has yet to be determined — which will be determined once we have assessments — is how well students have to do against the standard. It’s one thing to say a student has to know algebra, but how well does the student have to know algebra? How proficient do they have to be at it? So that’s a part of the standards that’s yet to come. The state of New York implemented an aligned assessment — in other words, it wasn’t part of the new assessments yet, but they made changes in their own assessments to align it with the Common Core — and what happened is I think what we can predict will happen in most places … in general, student scores declined relative to the state’s prior assessment. Not surprisingly, because the state’s prior standards were somewhat lower than the Common Core standards. So in the near term, one of the challenges both practically and politically is going to be that performance will look worse. It won’t actually be any worse, but it will look worse against the higher standard than it looked against the previous, somewhat lower standard.

GAZETTE: The standards appear to have fairly widespread support. Who opposes them and what’s the basis for their opposition?

REVILLE: The approval of the standards is two to three years old in many states, so you’ve had changing leadership. Sometimes new leaders take a different perspective on a leadership decision than their predecessors had taken. At another level, you have an alliance between some of those who have historically always opposed testing and accountability, who see with the onset of these standards and the assessments associated with them an opportunity to beat back a movement in education toward accountability that they never supported in the first place. You have that group of people, which is typically on the far left wing. And then on the far right wing, you have a number of ideologues ranging from tea party conservatives to libertarians who oppose anything that’s happening in education at the national level, even though this is not a federal program. The Common Core Standards are developed voluntarily by the states and embraced by the states, but they see this as a move in the direction of federal involvement in education and they oppose that. So it’s a combination of those two kinds of forces coming together to oppose it and taking advantage of events like the performance of students in New York where a certain number of parents then get concerned that their students don’t look good under the new assessments and are pushing back against that kind of measurement system that’s incorporated in the new assessments.

GAZETTE: Are there legitimate complaints about the standards or is this really an ideological fight?

REVILLE: There are definitely some ideological dimensions to this struggle. When the states adopted it, for a long period of time this was quiet, there was no controversy associated with it. The controversy has flared up because the assessments have now come online. And this is what’s reinvigorated the opposition movement, which was frankly before just a fringe of far-right-wing think tanks and groups like this, but now has become reinvigorated by the tea party’s interest in this and by interest that has arisen in the anti-testing crowd. And then you’ve got a number of new governors who have come into office and decided for political reasons that it would be well to reverse course on this.

Will there be problems with it? Probably. It’s not anything like some of the opponents who like to analogize it to [the Affordable Care Act]. It doesn’t require a large federal architecture to do this; it’s all voluntary. States make their own decisions about whether they participate, they take these standards and they adapt them to their own environment. These standards have been widely vetted with employers and with college faculty to say, these are the standards that truly young people need to meet if they’re going to be successful with college and career. And really, the argument is, I think, overheated when it comes to the standards themselves and even the assessments. After all, what standards are is a target, and the assessments are a yardstick that measures progress against achieving the goals.

The area that I think needs work and attention is, what are the strategies we’re using to get our students to high standards? Here in Massachusetts we had high standards already and we do pretty well against those standards. But we still have huge achievement gaps. In our progress against the new standards, those gaps may get even wider for a while. The real discussion ought to be: How do we do a better job of teaching young people to read as early as possible? How do we do a better job of helping young people not only understand and be able to do science, but be inspired to want to do science in the long run? How do we do a more effective job using the tools of technology and the Internet to instruct students in mathematics, let’s say, so that we improve performance in math?

The whole discussion about strategy is more complex, it’s more technical, it’s more attached to the direct act of teaching. It’s not something policy people, let alone laypeople, are comfortable talking about. But that’s where the energy really needs to be now. Because if you had trouble reaching your prior standards, you’re going to have even more trouble reaching the new standards. The capacity it takes to meet those new standards is going to be profoundly affected by what strategies they choose. Now that we have the same standards, we’ll have a lot of help from the private sector, from the nonprofit sector, and from the sharing of information between states in terms of developing effective curriculum. I think one of the legitimate controversies here is, how quickly do we integrate these new standards into the curriculum and into assessment? And that’s where you’re getting some push-back from teachers who are working hard on other matters of education reform, and they’re saying, ‘Adapting our curriculum takes more time than we’ve been given and that’s going to affect our performance against the new assessments. Give us more time before you bring these assessments into play.’ So that’s a legitimate conversation and legitimate push-back. It’s not ideological; it has more to do with sequencing and the pace of reform.

GAZETTE: What have been some of the snags in the rollout?

REVILLE: It’s not a snag in the rollout, it’s simply that it takes time to develop curriculum to meet new standards. We say we want to get students achieving such-and-such a standard by eighth grade. Well, what are the activities in the classroom that are actually going to make that happen? Teachers had some activities in the eighth grade that they were doing in that classroom, but now that they look at the new goals and the sequence in the new goals, it means different things will come at somewhat different times. So they’re going to have to juggle their curriculum around a little bit and rearrange it and add some new activities that have different emphases and cultivate somewhat different skills and knowledge. That does take time for teachers to do, and since we don’t in general in this country favor states promulgating curriculum, although some states do, we leave a lot of this to the district level. Far too much of it is done somewhat inefficiently by letting individual schools and teachers do it, so that it takes a long time for people to develop the curriculum units that they want to have in place in order to achieve the standards.

But there’s a lot of help going on out there. There are a lot of textbook companies and curriculum-related businesses that are supplying up-to-date curriculum that aligns with the Common Core. Many states and districts are adopting these kinds of tools. There are all kinds of best practices websites that are springing up both within states and nationally. One of the great advantages is there’s going to be a lot of sharing of best practices that didn’t happen before. And really, what’s happening in this overall movement is the same thing that happened in virtually every state prior to this movement toward Common Core state standards. Here in Massachusetts I was very involved. Within the state we said, does it make sense to have 400 school districts each setting its own separate standards? Many of those districts were not doing it and leaving the standards to individual schools and then you’ve got 1,800 schools and 60, 70, 80,000 teachers teaching individually. [Does it make sense] to just leave all standards to be local and relative and implicit? Or does it make sense to be clear in education what it is we’re trying to achieve with young people and recognize that no matter whether students live in the Berkshires or whether they live in Chelsea, they’re all students here in the commonwealth, they’re going to move around as adults and it’s in our interest to have them all educated to a high level?

And that’s the logic that exists here. It’s how we develop the capacity to do it. It’s one thing to have a goal, it’s another thing to really spend some time and energy and invest in the resources to build the capacity of teachers and school systems to deliver on the idea that all students ought to achieve at high levels.

GAZETTE: Is there a danger that even supporters could turn on the initiative?

REVILLE: In any reform, there’s a danger if you rush it. If you take a perfectly good idea, but you insist that people embrace it and implement it before they’re feeling qualified and ready to do so, you can overtax the system and it can flip on you. So there is that danger. I think there’s some risk of that here, but for the most part, I think in states across the country, we’re doing pretty well on pacing reform at a reasonable pace.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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