Friday, April 17, 2009

California Schools Superintendent Wants to Water Down Academic Standards in Name of "21st-Century Skills"

California State Schools Superintendent Jack O'Connell spoke to the annual EdSource Forum in Irvine today (April 17).

O'Connell, who holds a nonpartisan office, began his speech with political partisanship:

President Obama won a mandate for change that has placed him in a position to cause a massive shift in the way our government operates and in the manner in which it serves the needs of its citizens....

In just the first few months of this Administration, I can easily and confidently say that we have seen a dramatic shift in the willingness of this White House to be a partner to states — this is a welcome difference from the previous Administration....

There was more, but you get the general idea.

O'Connell then went on to identify "four key areas" that the Obama administration wants states to concentrate on:
  • Adopting internationally benchmarked standards and assessments...;
  • Building high-quality data systems that track students' academic careers, making it possible to tell which teachers, programs and schools are effective;
  • Recruiting more high-quality educators to underperforming schools, as well as to subjects like math and science; and
  • Supporting effective strategies to turn around underperforming schools.

Superintendent O'Connell proceeded to voice views that reflect the standards-and-accountability consensus on most of these matters.

I should point out that he was particularly careful to note that any "creative approaches" and "creative solutions" on teacher pay would be done only "in partnership with all the professionals involved in teaching and learning."

A flag of caution almost went up when the Superintendent said that we need to test California students more "comprehensively" than we do now. Often such phrasing is coded language for statewide portfolios or project-based testing. But then the Superintendent went on to promise that any revised testing would be as "valid" (a technical term in testing) as the current California standards-based tests and the high-school exit exam (of which the Superintendent is rightfully the proud author).

But there was one place where Superintendent O'Connell set off alarm bells: His desire to revamp and "re-up" California's academic-content standards.

The Superintendent acknowledged that this is "an area in which California has served as an established leader for some time now":

I am proud, as all of you should be, that California purposely set the bar high for what our children should know and be able to do, and we have never wavered from that commitment.
But instead of maintaining these internationally-benchmarked high standards, he wants to "rededicate and reinvigorate" them. "Evolving them is healthy," the Superintendent says.

Superintendent O'Connell wants to revamp the California academic standards because, he says, they are “a mile wide, but only an inch deep.” But, with all due respect -- as I have stated in the Los Angeles Times -- I have to disagree. Indeed, the California standards have been judged among the best in the country by the Fordham Foundation and the American Federation of Teachers. California already has official Key Standards in mathematics, for example, to identify teaching priorities and the topics that should be covered in depth.

The Superintendent also wants to revamp the California standards: order to fully engage both students and teachers in the learning process in a way that sees both parties benefit and helps to better prepare students for success in the economy of the 21st century.

Translation from education jargon: He wants to water down California's existing high standards in the name of the wolly concept of "21st-century skills," that is, communicating with each other, working in groups, media literacy, and so forth. He wants to subtract from classroom time spent on solid subject-matter content to teach these supposed stand-alone skills

Unless advocates of solid academics speak up, California will -- in the name of 21st-century skills -- follow Massachusetts down the primrose path of diluted standards.


  1. The folks in CA better get off of their butts and start fighting this.

  2. Bill,

    I teach 7th grade history in California and I love the standards...they are an island of sanity in a sea of fatuous jargon. O'Connell doesn't know what he's doing --21st Century Skills sounds wonderful, but in practice it's replacing substance with B.S. Mr. O'Connell, please prove to me that Indian, Chinese and Finnish students' high-achievement is due to the use of your trendy "evolved" methods.

  3. Thank you Mr. O'Connell! I've been praying about this for years! Thanks to you, our children will once again be inspired to learn, and can grow more happily, knowing that the bar of acheivement won't be set so high and out of reach!

  4. What are you going to believe, what Jack O'Connell said, or what Bill Evers says he means?

    The Superintendent endorsed US Ed Secretary Duncan's four "priorities." He did not mention the document, "21st Century Skills," or Broader and Bolder rhetoric. If O'Connell intended to do anything more than line up behind Duncan, his speech didn't show any sign of his intent.

    The aspiration of "raising standards" is wooly thinking at its worst. How can you "raise" content standards? The "bar" is being set by arbitrary cut scores on ungrounded achievement tests. The cut scores have been set differently from state to state, but that's a matter of gaming NCLB. NAEP records indicates essentially "flat" performance over the term of NCLB, and this is confirmed by the "no impact" results of the evaluation study of Reading First.

    Wouldn't it be a good idea to look at the status of instruction on the ground before trying to raise the metaphorical "bar"?

  5. I've not been terribly impressed by the CA state standards for the primary grades (I've only looked at K-2). The math & English ones aren't too bad, except that they're about a grade level behind IMHO. The science and especially the social studies ones, however, are a complete joke.

  6. Brilliant! The best way to describe California's standards is "a mile wide, but only an inch deep"! Yes, it is easy to say we have challenging standards, but honestly - in one school year - it is impossible to meaningfully teach all of those standards! I believe they are considered "challenging" because there are so many! Teaching each and every standard leaves little time to help our students cultivate higher level thinking skills! And that is what our future needs - kids with the ability to analyze, problem solve, and evaluate.

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  9. His desire to revamp and "re-up" California's academic-content standards.

  10. He wants to subtract from classroom time spent on solid subject-matter content to teach these supposed stand-alone skills.

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