NJ Board of Education Adopts Common Core Standards

Vote sparks debate and drama as various factions take sides on specifics of national standards

After months of talking about it, New Jersey yesterday became one of the early states to sign on to new national academic standards in language arts and math.

But for all the attention given to the standards here and nationally, it still could be years before anything changes in what’s taught and tested in the state’s public schools — and in some cases, if things change at all.

The state Board of Education at its monthly meeting unanimously approved a resolution that makes New Jersey the ninth state to adopt the Common Core State Standards, a thick compendium of expectations for what children in each grade should be able to do and learn.

For instance, second graders should know how to read and comprehend different forms of literature, including drama and poetry.

Seniors in high school need to be able to analyze different interpretations of the same poem or play, with Shakespeare now included as required reading.

Seen as Just a First Step

But how much the specifics of the new standards drive changes over New Jersey’s existing standards remains to be seen, especially when curricula are largely left to local districts. For example, Shakespeare is widely taught in New Jersey schools already, albeit not always explicitly required.

The most immediate impact is likely in new testing and textbooks, but even that is also only now beginning. State officials explicitly told districts this spring to hold off on new textbooks until the standards were adopted.

The testing piece by itself is being developed through its own national project, with New Jersey so far straddling the fence in terms of what model to adopt.

“This is the absolute first step,” deputy education commissioner Willa Spicer said of the standards adoption yesterday. “There are lots of ways to go from here.”

Still, New Jersey’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards did not come without considerable debate and drama, as different groups lined up for and against different pieces of the package.

The math changes drew the most heat, with warring groups vying for different emphases on foundational skills versus conceptual understanding.

A long-time advocate in the latter camp wrote state board members an email late Tuesday night with concerns that the national standards were weaker than New Jersey’s and that the state board was moving too fast without soliciting more input.

And he didn’t let up last night after the vote was taken.

“Simply, this will come down to dumbing down our math instruction,” said Joseph Rosenstein, a Rutgers math professor and leader of the New Jersey Math and Science Coalition.

He maintained that the national standards have a “fanatical focus on fractions” and essentially banish statistics, probability and discrete mathematics to the later grades.

“They should be woven throughout the curriculum and all grade levels,” he said.

State Defends Adoption

But state officials maintained that the national standards excel in their brevity and clarity, and that having fewer standards does not mean less rigorous ones.

“When you reach high school and you aren’t able to do three-digit multiplication, that’s a real problem,” said state Education Commissioner Bret Schundler. “Part of the problem is we move students through so fast that they don’t gain that ability.”

He said the department has heard the concerns about the math standards, and others, in public hearings over the course of the last three months. “And it was not just us who didn’t agree, but neither do scholars across the country,” he said.

Still, there was some urgency to Schundler wanting the board to move on the national standards, as New Jersey’s participation will also gain it points on the pending application for $400 million in federal Race to the Top funds.

How this plays out in schools and classrooms is far from being determined, however. The language arts standards drew little debate overall, in part because many educators said that New Jersey’s standards already matched up well against them.

“Will it change much? Probably not a whole lot,” said board member Dorothy Strickland, a Rutgers professor in literacy who was a consultant on the Common Core project. “When you look across the two, we map pretty well.”

The most significant impact in any standards adoption is how they drive new state testing, but much of that remains in flux as a second project is underway to develop national test models that the states could then adopt.

It’s actually two parallel projects that are each vying for developing different models, with different emphasis on single-subject exams or general knowledge exams like New Jersey’s current ones. New Jersey so far has signed up in support of both projects to protect its interests.

A decision is likely to be due later this summer or fall, officials said, with the final tests to be developed by 2015.

“We don’t have to choose yet, so we’re siding with both,” said Spicer, the deputy commissioner. “They’re both very attractive pieces, and I think we’d get a good product in either one.”

State board members applauded the state’s adoption yesterday, saying it finally brought New Jersey and other states in line with one another.

“It’s actually historic,” said Josephine Hernandez, the board’s president. “We’re not doing things in a vacuum any longer, but instead we’re now part of a greater movement of setting what American kids, not just New Jersey kids, should know and master.

“For the first time, we are speaking with one voice,” she said.