Spotlight on education in America

10 December 2012

The following article by Ann Puntis, Chief Executive of our exam board Cambridge International Examinations, appeared in SecEd - the UK’s only weekly publication that is dedicated exclusively to secondary education - on 6 December 2012 .

As the debate over changes to secondary qualifications and exams in the UK continues, schools on the other side of the Atlantic are getting to grips with reform on a more radical scale – implementing a common standard of education for primary and secondary students across the country. 

The adoption of the Common Core State Standards by more than 45 US states is the first step towards meaningful and comprehensive comparisons of student performance and achievement between states. 

The Common Core State Standards initiative was launched in 2009 by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers to enable educators across the country, for the first time, to work under the same guidelines for what students need to know and are expected to do. 

This approach maybe familiar to educators in this country, who are used to working within a framework of defined standards. It is, however, a less familiar concept for many in the United States. For decades, it has maintained various academic quality standards within states. This has, unsurprisingly, resulted in wide disparities in student proficiency across the country. 

The Common Core State Standards are internationally benchmarked and backed by evidence showing that students’ mastery of these standards leads to students being prepared for higher education and the workforce. 

The initiative defines college and career readiness as the ability “to succeed in entry-level academic college courses and in workforce-training programs” (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2010). 

The standards were developed with input from teachers, school administrators, and experts. The groups also received nearly 10,000 comments providing insight that shaped the final drafts of standards released in June 2010 for English language arts (including English and language arts and literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects) and mathematics. 

The Common Core State Standards are central to the government’s goal of raising the percentage of US college graduates (with two or four-year degrees) to 60 per cent of the population by 2020, from the current 39 per cent. 

All states that have adopted the standards are planning to implement the initiative by 2015 by basing at least 85 per cent of their state curricula on the standards. 

There are some misconceptions about Common Core State Standards. First, they are not mandatory for states – the reform is being driven by the federal government. Each state, whether by state board of education approval, legislation, or some other means, voluntarily chose to adopt them. 

Second, the standards are not a curriculum – they are a clear set of shared goals and expectations for what knowledge and skills will help US students succeed that link to curricula, such as the IGCSE. 

And most importantly, they do not dictate how teachers should teach. The standards were developed in collaboration with teachers, who decide how the standards are to be met. 

US students will be assessed on the Common Core State Standards for the first time in the 2014/15 school year. School year 2012/13, therefore, marks a crucial time for schools across America to implement the standards. It also provides a real opportunity for professional development and collaboration, because the initiative is new to everyone. 

These changes have influenced our own work with education partners in the US and led us to map Cambridge IGCSE English and maths syllabuses to the Common Core Standards. These bespoke, IGCSE qualifications are currently being trialled in a US education programme called “Excellence for All” in Arizona, Connecticut, Kentucky and Mississippi. 

The programme is aimed at increasing the number of US high school students who are college-ready when they graduate. We have published additional support for these qualifications which detail where each standard is covered in each syllabus. 

The feedback from these schools has been positive. They tell us that a curriculum such as that offered by the IGCSE really helps with the adoption of the standards. Many feel that they are now ahead of the implementation process because the internationally benchmarked Cambridge curriculum and assessments already have them doing what will be required by the Common Core State Standards. 

Since almost all states across the US have signed up to the standards, leaders and educators together are now considering how to make these standards a reality. So what is needed for successful implementation? 

As with any educational reform on this scale, this will require intensive capacity-building, professional development, and training for teachers and principals. 

It will also require strong leadership, clear communication and open discussions between policy-makers, education leaders, teachers, staff, parents, and students. It will be hard work for all concerned – but for the millions of American students preparing for college and to compete successfully in the global economy – it will hopefully be worth it. 

Research Matters

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