Common Core and Higher Education: A View from the Trenches

Most attention to the Common Core State Standards has focused understandably on the continued political backlash against the standards and the status of implementation in schools.  As we look ahead to next spring when students will take assessments that indicate whether they are on track to college and career readiness, we have seen some attention begin to focus on the role of higher education in the development and implementation of the standards (see New America’s report, "Common Core Goes to College," and a recent story from Hechinger Report).   Unfortunately, the takeaway from these sources and others is that higher education has mostly been watching from the sidelines and that it has been difficult in many places for K-12 and higher education to overcome decades of entrenched habits and work productively together.

It would be easy to conclude that greater cooperation (and improved alignment) between K–12 and higher education is “mission impossible,” given the differences in structure and culture between the two sectors.  But I have been deeply involved in efforts to create greater academic alignment between K-12 and higher education for almost a decade—first at the American Council on Education (ACE) and now at the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium—and I see more reasons for optimism than pessimism.  Here’s why.

  • There is a growing list of large-scale K-12/higher education cooperative efforts.  Well before Common Core, there were great examples of K–12 and higher education working together to define common academic expectations for students and create a more seamless pathway between the two sectors.  In virtually every one of these cases (e.g. the Early Assessment Program in California, the Indiana “Core 40” requirements, the series of reforms instituted in Kentucky), leadership in state government, K–12 and/or higher education gave the sectors the push they needed to work together.  Common Core has further prompting the two sectors to collaborate.
  • Faculty helped write the standards.  Initial involvement from higher education faculty in the development of the Common Core was deep (especially in math where the lead writers are higher education faculty) but insufficiently broad, so when I was at ACE we organized an effort to bring more faculty into the discussion.  As a result, the Conference Board on the Mathematical Sciences, an umbrella group for the many scholarly organizations in math and statistics, endorsed the standards based on the recommendation of a broadly diverse committee that they convened.  In English, the Modern Language Association (MLA) also convened a committee to provide feedback.  While the MLA did not ultimately endorse the standards, the recommendations of that committee did result in a number of important changes as the standards were being drafted.
  • Faculty generally agree with the standards.  The Education Policy Improvement Center asked 1,800 faculty who teach introductory courses in an array of disciplines to review the standards and answer questions about whether the standards describe the knowledge and skills that students would need to succeed in their courses.  Across the board, more than 80 percent of faculty agreed that the standards are an accurate reflection of the knowledge and skills needed for success in introductory college courses.  Anyone who has worked in higher education knows that it is remarkable when more than 80 percent of faculty agree on anything!
  • K­–12 consulted higher education prior to adopting the standards.  As states went about the process of adopting the standards, many of them consulted with higher education faculty in their states to determine whether the standards reflected the skills students would need for introductory courses at their public colleges and universities.
  • Faculty have assisted with implementation.  Since the Common Core was adopted and states joined the assessment consortia, higher education faculty have been involved in the implementation of the standards and in the development of assessments.  Has this involvement been as broad as we would like?  Not always, but the pool of higher education faculty and administrators who are working to help implement the standards in one way or another is continuing to grow.
  • Higher education leaders are voicing their support.  In early June, Higher Ed for Higher Standards debuted.  This web site spotlights several hundred high education leaders who have lent their names to a statement of support for college and career ready standards and aligned assessments.
  • Higher education will help set assessment performance standards.  This fall, higher education faculty and administrators will join with K–12 educators to recommend the performance standards on the new Smarter Balanced assessments.  This will help ensure that the assessments are an accurate measure of the knowledge and skills that students need in order to be ready for entry-level college courses.  Further, higher education leaders will vote with their K–12 counterparts on the performance standards for the high school assessments, providing further validation that the assessments are adequately rigorous to measure college readiness.
  • Parents and students will soon demand change.  Looking back at what we have accomplished over the last decade, I see many reasons for optimism.  But I am even more encouraged as I look ahead.  K–12 educators have taken a courageous step.  They have agreed to reset the bar by which they are judged.  No longer will it be enough that students display the basic skills necessary for a high school diploma.  Schools will be judged based on the proportion of students who graduate ready for college and the high-performance workplace.  When students meet that bar, they – and their parents – will demand that higher education recognize their accomplishment in a meaningful way, both by guaranteeing them placement into credit-bearing courses and by ensuring that those introductory courses build on what they have learned in high school.  The devil will be in the details, of course, and there is much work to do to ensure that we find an appropriate balance between the consistency of expectations that schools and students need and the diversity of mission and curricula that higher education values.  But no longer will any of us be able to claim that working together is “mission impossible.”
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Author:

Lindsey Tepe is a senior policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. She is a member of the Learning Technologies Project and PreK-12 team, where she focuses primarily on innovation and new technologies in public schools.