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A guest column by Bob King of the Council on Postsecondary Education and Dr. Terry Holliday, Kentucky Commissioner of Education.
There has been a great deal of talk among educators about the new "Common Core Academic Standards." From classroom teachers to principals and superintendents, to college presidents, legislators, governors and the U.S. Secretary of Education, the new standards are at the center of attention.
While there's been a lot done in Kentucky to help develop and embrace the new standards, parents and students may not know much about the significant changes about to be implemented across our public school system.
Let's start with the basics.
What are standards? Simply stated, they define what children need to know at each stage of their education, from kindergarten to 12th grade.
For instance, in Kentucky, first graders should be able to print all upper- and lower-case letters and tell and write time. Sixth-graders should be able to demonstrate an understanding of figurative language, word relationships and nuances. Tenth-graders should be able to understand the solving of mathematical equations as a process of reasoning and explain that reasoning.
Every state has academic standards for its public school students, but those have tended to vary greatly from state to state and have often varied from school district to school district. Until now, standards have often tried to cover too much content, in too little depth. And, too often, academic standards have not always reflected what employers expect their employees to know, nor are they been fully aligned with what an incoming student needs to know to succeed in college or technical schools.
It has been common that students who had been earning "As" and "Bs" in high school have been placed in remedial courses in college. This is not because they suddenly became dumb over the summer. Rather, it is because what students have been learning in high school is simply is not been the right stuff to adequately prepare them for careers or college. The new Common Core Academic Standards are designed to correct that.
Why does all of this matter? First, job opportunities for those with only a high school diploma are declining, and very few of those jobs pay wages that can sustain a family. These new standards will significantly increase the likelihood that youngsters graduating from high school will be ready to learn more complex material offered in our technical and community colleges and at our four-year campuses. They will be more prepared for the high-tech jobs of the future. And data clearly demonstrate that students entering our colleges and universities prepared will graduate at twice the rate of those who do not.
There are other reasons all this matters. America's ability to remain among the most prosperous in the world is directly dependent on improving the education levels of our citizens.
Once No. 1 in educational attainment, the U.S. now ranks No. 8 in attainment among young adults, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Nations that just a generation or two ago were thought of as "third-world countries" have now surpassed the United States in the proportion of their citizens possessing bachelor's degrees. Among the 40 most industrialized nations today, American students perform in the bottom quartile on international math and science examinations.
Kentucky has long recognized the need to improve educational opportunity for its citizens. Since the passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act in 1990, the state's educational standing relative to other states has improved. The Kentucky Long-Term Policy Research Center noted that Kentucky had moved from 43rd in 1992 to 35th in 2007 on the center's National Education Index.
But KERA did not fully recognize or address the lack of alignment between what was being taught in P-12 and what is required to be successful in college and careers. Nor did it provide the professional in-service training for classroom teachers to fully implement all of its potential.
In 2009, the Kentucky General Assembly enacted Senate Bill 1, which not only calls for more rigorous standards, but for every student to graduate college- and career-ready. It directs the P-12 and higher education systems to work together to create this alignment and ensure that our teaching corps is prepared to integrate the new standards into the classroom.
Armed with this new set of directives, a truly inspiring set of activities is now under way to improve the content and quality of learning in our public schools and to assure that every student who graduates will do so college- and career-ready.
u Kentucky joined a multi-state effort sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers, the National Governor's Association and the nonprofit Achieve Inc. to develop new learning standards for mathematics and English/language arts (grammar, spelling, vocabulary, reading and writing). Nearly 200 Kentucky college faculty and P-12 educators participated in the effort to develop the standards.
u Kentucky was the first state in the nation to formally adopt the new standards at a joint meeting of the Council on Postsecondary Education, the Kentucky Board of Education and the Education Professional Standards Board.
u Since early this summer, teams of teachers and college faculty have been engaged in intensive efforts to "unpack the standards," translating sophisticated technical language into objectives students and their parents can understand.
u The next step will be to develop training to implement the new standards for all 44,000 of Kentucky's teachers. Simultaneously, teacher preparation programs at the state's public and independent colleges and universities are being upgraded to include the new standards.
u Kentucky also will develop new standards in social studies, natural sciences and the arts in the years to come.
The General Assembly has set some very ambitious goals in SB 1: over the next five years, we will be expected to decrease by 50 percent the number of students graduating from high school who are not college- or career-ready and improve the graduation rates of those students entering college in need of remediation by three percent each year.
To accomplish these goals and more, much remains to be done. We will need to attract high-performing students into teacher preparation programs, ensure the programs prepare aspiring teachers to teach to the new standards and more effectively help each child learn that which is expected.
In addition, we will need to play a broader role in supporting teachers and administrators once they enter their careers, specifically with meaningful and effective professional development.
We will be hearing about "college- and career-ready" and "common core standards" a great deal in the months and years ahead. Implementation will demand much more from our teachers, administrators and college faculty. It will demand more from our students and patient understanding from parents.
If we all do our parts, however, the investment of time and effort will produce positive and prosperous outcomes for our children and a brighter, healthier and more productive future for our state and nation.
u Bob King is president of the Council on Postsecondary Education. Dr. Terry Holliday is Kentucky Commissioner of Education.