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Yes! We absolutely need national educational standards. Sadly, many may not know the history of educational standards in our country just before the Common Core State Standards began, and they may not understand why it was essential to make the transition from individual state standards to the Common Core. 

History - 

Inch Deep, Mile Wide -

According to Marzano, in the 1990s and before, there were state standards for each state in the nation. Marzano's group examined the state standards in every state at that time. They found, for most subjects in most states, teachers were expected to cover much more material than students could reasonably be expected to learn in the school year. 

Marzano's group found that the standards were “an inch deep and a mile wide.” By this, they meant that there were not only too many standards to cover in the school year but that the standards were often very narrow and disjointed. This did not easily allow teachers to group the standards in order to utilize project-based or inquiry learning in order to have students work with multiple standards in a real world fashion. 

High-Stakes Testing Begins -

Added to the setting of standards in most states that no-one could reasonably expect any teacher to truly teach in a single school year, No Child Left Behind legislation was just around the corner. This set the stage for the high-stakes testing to begin. Schools were going to be tested to see if children knew these state standards. In many states, there are still today some truly awful consequences for schools that do not show Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP. Principals can be fired. The state can require all teachers at a school to be under an overseer that examines all of their lesson planning and the results of their lessons. Also, an entire school's staff can be fired and the school “reconstituted.”

According to the Common Core State Standards Institute, fortunately, educational leaders in many of the states began to work together. They realized that it was absurd that teachers were going to be held accountable for having to teach too many standards in one school year. These leaders knew that the federal government could withhold funding for state educational programs if they did not comply with the new federal government laws but that teachers could not realistically teach all the standards to mastery in one school year. 

What Teachers Did to Cope - 

While these new Common Core Standards were being developed, teachers were still having to teach the “mile long and inch deep” standards for several more years. At the same time, the high-stakes testing began. Marzano's group advocated that teachers would simply have to pick and group the most important standards and choose those that were less important that would likely not be able to be covered. In this manner, the students were going to be able to learn the “big picture” skills and concepts that they would need and bypass the smaller skills they might not need to succeed. 

Anecdotally, teachers were finding that the high-stakes testing would place an emphasis on some of the smaller skills that it was unreasonable to be able to teach, along with all of the other required standards, in a school year. One can draw their own conclusions. 

Consequences in School Districts of AYP Failure - 

Sadly, as the high-stakes testing was rolled out and the states began to get the first few years' worth of results, they were being required by the federal government to institute some really draconian measures on schools that were not able to meet the AYP for every student group represented on their campus. This lead to some good results in that school districts had to target certain groups on campus for extra help. The bad results were that some schools in poorer neighborhoods around the country began to de-emphasize certain subjects that were not tested in the first few years, like history. This is one of those sad times in our profession when the pendulum swung too far in one direction and has likely harmed students who today are citizens in the workforce and potentially voters. 

The other sad legacy of the old, individual state standards that were an “inch deep and a mile long” was that many teachers did not follow Marzano's advice. They began to hurry through the curriculum, trying to “cover” everything in the school year, rather than teaching the standards to mastery. 

Many administrators were so frightened of being fired or their school being reconstituted that they were pushing teachers to “teach to the test.” Instructional time was being wasted with too many benchmark examinations that were not always even adequate measures of mastery of the state standards. 

As schools got nearer in the school year to the testing window, administrators would often have teachers waste instructional time on test-taking instruction. All of this time spent on benchmark examinations that were in addition to a teacher's own summative examinations and teaching students test-taking skills began to eat away at what little time teachers had to teach those “inch deep and mile long” standards. In some states and in districts with many students who lived in poverty or districts with many ELLs, this over-emphasis on too many benchmark examinations and time spent teaching test-taking skills was over the top. 

Common Core Standards Come on the Scene - 

This madness went on for several years with state standards that were impossible for any teacher to teach or student to learn in a year coinciding with high-stakes testing that could and did institute grave consequences upon students, instruction, careers, and neighborhoods. Finally, many states adopted the Common Core State Standards that were created to bring an end to this really destructive situation that was taking place in our profession. 

What is the Main Goal of the Common Core State Standards - 

The main goal of the Common Core State Standards is to have a progression of skills and concepts that students learn in every subject so that they can leave high school after their senior year able to read adult-level text and to synthesize the information from multiple texts in order to create new ideas. Each subject has a progression of concepts and skills in order to allow for students to become critical thinkers and work on real world scenarios as they learn about that subject. 

Also, a goal of the Common Core State Standards is that all subjects help students become strong readers, writers, listeners, speakers and critical thinkers within that subject. 

Each set of standards for a year of instruction in a given subject is purposely designed to emphasize developmentally the skills and concepts a student would need to move toward an adult comprehension and real world use of the subject matter by the time they are ready to graduate high school. Topics of instruction are grouped in a manner to emphasize the “big picture” ideas and also to emphasize real world instructional experiences to learn the skills and concepts. 

Based upon the dire backdrop of the past, when the public school system in the nation was imploding, we can answer our initial question, “Why do we need one set of educational standards for the entire nation?” There are a few answers: 
  • We need standards that emphasize critical thinking, deep reading and real world skills, so students are prepared for work and/or academia after 13 years in the public schools.
  • We need standards that we can realistically teach in a school year and that students can learn to mastery. Otherwise, it is not fair to the students or the teachers that they are held accountable for having to attempt to do too much in one school year. Students need to learn the curriculum to mastery. Teachers should not just be “covering” material. It was a travesty to students and teachers for so many years that they were being expected to do the impossible. It was a travesty all of the consequences that were heaped upon schools who failed to do the impossible.
  • We need standards that emphasize students receive a well-rounded education that includes English, mathematics, history, science, and physical education.
  • We need standards that help students make the connections between all of these subjects in a big picture. 
  • We need standards that group the concepts and skills to be learned in a given subject in a given school year to be a logical progression that teachers can teach and students can learn, not a dizzying array containing some trivia that the student will not need to learn. 

It was easier for the best educational minds in the nation to work together to create these standards as a team because it helped the states keep the federal government's strong-handed, high-stakes testing and its mandated consequences from destroying public education. Had individual states worked on this project alone, the federal government might have withheld funding from the states that were going it alone. With most all of the states solidly supporting standards that emphasize critical thinking, deep reading and real world learning, it was tough for the federal government to put a halt to this important change needed in education.

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