Making standards and sausages

Several weeks ago I found myself embroiled in a friendly argument with Ze’ev Wurman, a former Education Department official and one of the authors of California’s (generally well-regarded) math standards. I mentioned, rather casually, that I rather liked what I saw of the common core standards, by which I really meant the Language Arts standards. Certainly I place myself pretty firmly in the camp of those who think we’ve set the educational bar too low.

I probably should have donned some Kevlar. Actually, that’s unfair to Mr. Wurman,  who’s  a charming and thoughtful interlocutor. But he’s certainly a committed foe of the common core standards, and indeed of the idea of a set of national standards – not only because he disagrees with many of their specifics, but even more because he thinks they undermine state reform efforts and enforce nationwide mediocrity.

If you’re interested in his reasons, and a rather thorough, critical overview of the standards, here’s a link:

But I invited Ze’ev Wurman to blog as a guest today for a slightly different reason. Like many common core opponents, and even some common core supporters, he also chafes at the high-handed, even bullying tactics used to “encourage” states to adopt the standards. When I sent him an email with a link to the Utah Board of Education notice of a one-week comment period on Utah’s core standards, here’s what he has to say:

Well, I know that I sound like a Johnny one note, but that was a big  part of what turned me sour on the whole national standards thing. I  told you initially I was mostly supportive and just worried about making  them good. But, then, I saw how the sausage was made and I decided that  nothing good can come out of such non-public process eventually, even if it may not look terrible right now.


The whole game of releasing the standards by June 2, 2010, and expecting  them to be adopted by anyone who wanted to apply for the Race to the Top  by August 2, precisely two months later, was asinine. Normally the  process of adopting standards takes easily a year for a state, sometimes a bit more. Drafts upon drafts, multiple statewide hearings, revisions,  etc.  It serves to make citizens feel that have a part in them, it  allows people to consider what they are buying into, and it allows for  budgeting and preparation. Here everything was truncated. Some states  adopted them even *before* they were ready! Most others held some  perfunctory vote in the middle of the summer when everybody was on  summer vacation, and the deal was all done by the time the school year  started and parents returned from vacations. It was incredible. And disgusting. Almost nobody held any public hearings before the votes  (including California). It’s like selling your sovereignty for a lentil  stew.


Anyway, just to make sure you are aware of the timeline. Utah adopted  them on first reading on June 4, and that was sufficient to claim  “adoption” for the purpose of Utah’s Race to the Top application. The final adoption happened on the board’s next meeting in early August (but  after the federal RttT deadline of Aug. 2, which is why the first vote
on June 4 was so important).


— Common Core was released June 2, 2010.


— Utah’s BOE adopted them in first reading in June 4, 2010. Page 18341  here:


— Utah’s BOE adopted them in final reading on Aug. 6, 2010. Pages  18355-57 here:


—  Utah’s ed dept claims it held meetings here (third paragraph). As  far as I could figure it out, Utah did NOT hold any public hearings on  the Common Core between June 4 and August 6 of 2010. Perhaps before,  perhaps after, but seems like nothing before the board took the final
vote. I can’t vouch for this, but I couldn’t find any mention of hearings in those 8 weeks through a web search. And now, two years  later, they suddenly offer five days of public input. Seriously???

In a follow on email, Mr. Wurman added these comments (and another valuable link):

I am sure you saw the recent set of publications from Tom Loveless (most recent is here — needs an Education Week subscription) that argues the unimportance of standards for achievement. I am not buying fully into it but Tom has a point that standards did not prove themselves to be a clear difference maker in educational achievement.


California is one of the clearer examples of that. We have had standards widely recognized as the best in the country for almost 15 years now, and the best argument one can make is that without them it would have been worse. (This is actually reasonably supported claim, as we have grown in our fraction of Hispanics from about 35% to over 50% since the standards and we still moved a bit ahead among the states.) Compare that with Massachusetts that also has very good, even if not excellent, standards yet did a much better overall job with them. In my opinion it is mostly about alignment, about getting teachers’ and parents’ buy in and good will, about putting reasonably aligned support mechanism (licensure testing, PD) in place. In California  there has been a strong faction among teacher, CDE people, and Democratic legislators, constantly trying to show that our standards are “mindless,” “mechanical,” or “Republican cabal.” Many of our own ed schools put them down as unnecessarily rigid, focusing on content rather than on “deep thinking.” “Stupid,” in short.


Why do I bring up all this? Because by circumventing the public processes while adopting the standards many states exposed themselves to the same dynamics. The standards in themselves may not be academically terrible (although some of their interpretation is already promising to be, but that’s for another day) but now that they became the focus of fight between what’s seen as central-planners vs. state-rights people, the standards are risking people undermining them, and not unifying behind their implementation, as they are seen as federal intrusion. That is precisely what is visibly happening in South Carolina (and in Alabama and Indiana earlier) and now in Utah. And I hear rumblings from New Hampshire too. I find it hard to believe that those states will truly unify behind the implementation, which will doom them to the fate of California rather than Massachusetts.


And I don’t buy into the rhetoric when states claim that these are now “their standards” rather then federal ones. When your teachers will find the proposed experimental way of teaching Geometry unworkable — as many surely will, because it never worked anywhere it was tried — there is nothing Utah legislature can do about it. If Utah’s parents will find something disagreeable with the English standards they need not bother to call their representatives or their state adminstration — Utah’s legislature and your State Office of Education can’t change a thing about them either. And if Utah is granted the “flexibility NCLB waiver” from the feds that it is after, withdrawing from the Common Core will become effectively impossible, whether you will like the national test or not.


Perhaps I should feel bad about contributing to this process but I don’t. The federal government sneaky implementation of the Common Core and its heavy-handed coercion must be resisted. As I jokingly mentioned a few month back in a discussion, I am not sure that CC proponents will be as excited about them when Michele Bachmann, our next Secretary of Education, will start using her philosophical outlook and the power to affect the curriculum that the Common Core provided the federal government.


  1. Carolyn Sharette

    Great post Mary. I do worry about the math standards in the CCSS. But I am excited about the Language Arts standards when compared with Utah’s current LA standards.

    I also don’t like the way they were adopted. But I do not believe that a “public process” is the answer either. People see things so differently especially with regard to what to teach, when and I believe the conversation would go on forever if we waited to get “buy in” from all the “stakeholders” on each and every standard. I am just at a loss as to how that would work.

    So I guess, in a cowardly way, am glad SOMETHING was adopted that will thrust us into improved language arts standards, and I hope we will not see a degradation in math instruction, and perhaps we will figure out how this whole process should ideally be approached.

  2. Oak

    On March 6, 2012, Utah State Superintendent Larry Shumway was on Rod Arquette’s KNRS radio show and Rod asked him why he felt compelled to write Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and assert that the Utah Common Core standards were our own. Larry replied:

    “Well, I’m bothered by things I hear the secretary say in speeches and the President say in speeches where they take credit for these standards. And I’m bothered by the Department of Education making requirements that are associated with these standards.”

    When it’s this obvious that the feds are asserting control over the standards and it’s well known that the feds funded the creation of the assessments with SBAC and PARCC ($350 million), and the feds have set up a database and are working to eliminate privacy laws, how much more clear does it have to be for people to see this is clearly going to be a loss of local control of education?

    Last week I also learned that members of the USOE who have been telling people that these were state-led standards, didn’t even know who was on the drafting committee of common core till the standards were written. That’s pretty stunning.

  3. Dennis R. Lisonbee

    Is there wisdom in adopting such a sweeping and revolutionary educational curriculum and pedagogy without any independent scientific studies that test each component of the plan? Is is wise for our legislature, executive branch and school board to buy into anything that is untested? We require high scientific testing standards for drugs before they are released. It would seem reasonable for our governor, legislature and school board to require the same high testing standards for curriculum and pedagogy that will instill morals and knowledge into the minds of our youth.

    The solution? Don’t rush into such a high cost program that has not been tested. Let other states implement the program. Hire an independent testing firm to study the states who implement the program. Five years after the full program is implemented in theses states, analyize the results and the costs. If it is a stellar success and we have the funding, let’s adopt it. But from the point of view of this teacher, rushing into an untested educational program lacks could very will lead to disastrous and very expensive results. Let’s do what we advise our children to do when they want to rush intro something dangerous, “Johnny, slow down, take a breath and give some real thought to what you are about to do.”

    • Christel Swasey

      The standards themselves are a moot point. Educational decisions without political freedom are meaningless. The federal micromanaging of the tests and the federal paying of the NGA, CCSSO, Achieve, WestEd, and others, to promote Common Core and to make it appear that this was a state-led, rather than a federal, agenda, are obvious to anyone who does even half an hour’s reading; the feds are in control of Common Core.

      Giving away Utah’s educational sovereignty to Washington State, the lead state under the consortium, is absurd. Why would a consortium know better what is good for Utah kids to learn, than Utah knows? Worst of all, we can’t hang on to our freedom to amend. The amendability of the CCSS standards is up to federally funded groups that have no representation by Utah. The Utah Core Standards will be dropped by the wayside as soon as teachers wake up to the fact that their merit pay and student performance is based on their ability to teach the CCSS (federal, non-amendable) standards. That means, far less class literature (more infotexts) and more dumbing down of the math so that our scores will appear high when the feds compare them. Okay, I said worst of all, but I was premature: even worse than that is the parental rights that are getting slashed by revising FERPA laws. Wasatch School Board did it Thursday night. Davis did it earlier. Soon every Utah district will have removed parental consent authority over student data, in favor of giving superiority to Federal government. Read your FERPA laws, folks. Tell your school boards they have no authority to take away parental authority.

  4. Fred 44

    I personally think the concept of the common core is a great idea. If we are going to use standardized testing as an assessment of anything (student progress, teacher effectiveness etc.) we should have a set of standards that we agree upon, and then develop assessments to measure those standards. The curriculum and the assessments must go hand in hand. This would seem to be fundamentally obvious,even to a politician.

    The common core, as with most things done to education by non-educators is a good idea screwed up because of a rush to implement. I do not teach either math or language arts, but in talking to my colleagues who do, they really like much of what is in the common core. The concern that I hear most, especially with the math common core is that the implementation plan is poor at best. It is my understanding that we have some students in the common core currently and others that are continuing under the previous math course sequences. This is causing scheduling problems and will undoubtedly leave some students with gaps in their math education. There are also technical concerns about the curriculum but those can be overcome, but if students are left with gaps in their education, or unable to progress to maximal ability, then we have a problem.

    If we are to improve education, we must stop the constant changes in both instructional methodology and curriculum, and invest the time in finding the right curriculum and the right methodologies for teaching that curriculum. To continue to roll out new programs that are not ready for implementation to meet a political need is only going to continue to exacerbate the problems we currently have in education.

    • Aaron

      We have certainly jumped to the common standards much too quickly and it’s going to cause more problems. One of the greatest challenges is that we do not have any assessment resources that match the new core. My 8th grade math class will be taking the State’s Pre-Algebra end-of-level test! The cores are similar but not the same. The Pre-Algebra assessment will not be a valid indication of student learning.
      Haste makes waste!

      • Mary McConnell

        Any chance I could get you to expand on some of these concerns in a guest blog? I’m eager to hear from math teachers. As an economics teacher I’m something of a math end-user . . . and not always a happy one.

    • Mary McConnell

      Yes! Like you, I approve of much that I see in the new standards, especially the Language Arts. (Keep in mind, however, that I teach history, government, and economics, so I have a stake in, and perhaps a prejudice in favor of, more emphasis on non-literary texts.) But constantly churning standards and assessments devours teacher time. And as we both know, that time is not infinite.

      I always tell my economics students (and now I’m about to tell my online economics students) that if they remember only one concept from my class, they still will have learned something enormously important. That one concept is opportunity cost. Economists measure the “cost” of any action by the value of the next best thing that is given up.

      What will we give up – in teacher preparation time, in hours devoted to administration as opposed to teaching, in the loss of valuable lessons that no longer “fit” the latest model standards? I’d like to see more people asking that question, and I’m glad you did.

      Hey, this is getting a little scary . . . the two of us agreeing more often. Let me just say that when I agree with you and when I don’t, I always find your point of view thoughtful. Thanks for continuing to weigh in.

  5. Jennifer Chamberlain

    I found out about the Common Core Standards only three days before it closed for public comment. A concerned teacher was who informed me about these standards. I immediately called my legislator and the governor’s office. I was told by both that they did not know what the Common Core was. I was very concerned. This was adopted right under our noses without most people having any idea what it was. We should not give up Utah’s educational sovereignty for anything, not even a pot of gold (even at the price it’s worth today). Ben Franklin said, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” It appears that society, including our teachers, school board members and elected officials are not studying or teaching what they need to study and teach in order to keep a free society. Whether the standards are good or not should not be the question. Let us not value academics more than freedom, or we may end up with neither. We can and should raise the standards without giving up freedom or taking bribes from the federal government. We need to focus on the basics though…classics, traditional math, and writing skills. They need to read and write about true history, science, good poetry and good wholesome books. We might even find that behavior improves in the classroom and society also.

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