Massachusetts students are performing at high levels – second-to-none among the states and commensurate with some of the highest-performing nations. But despite our successes, huge challenges remain. Not all student groups are enjoying the same level of success, and nearly 40 percent of our high school graduates who enroll in a public higher education campus are placed in one or more non-credit bearing, remedial courses. Tackling these gaps and inconsistencies requires adjustments to our current educational system.
The allure of the Common Core standards was the opportunity to take part in the development and implementation of a state-led, state-driven initiative that sets the right targets for what students should know and be able to do. The standards capitalize on feedback from employers and higher education about the literacy and mathematical skills in which our graduates were most often lacking. They provide clear signals to students in prekindergarten through grade 12 about their readiness for the next grade level and, in high school, their readiness for college and careers.
Common Core reinforces the importance of reading, writing, speaking and listening across subjects. Students continue to study great works of fiction along with nonfiction and informational texts that will strengthen their preparation for higher education and work. The new standards also incorporate skills for the critical appraisal of digital and print sources – the so-called "new literacies" – to enhance research, production and distribution of ideas.
The new mathematics standards capitalize on the new understanding gained over the past decade about the learning progressions that lead to stronger mathematical competence. They provide greater focus and clarity for teachers and students at each grade level. In the early grades, teachers concentrate on developing students’ fluency with numbers and operations, while the middle grades focus on proportional reasoning (ratios, proportions, fractions, decimals), an essential conceptual underpinning for algebra and higher level math. Individual grade-level standards are united by a set of overarching "standards for mathematical practice" that describe intellectual qualities that students develop over time – perseverance in solving problems, the ability to reason abstractly and quantitatively, and the capacity to construct defensible arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
Since their adoption, I have seen the new standards (and emerging resources) energize educators here and in other states. The attention paid to the new standards has resulted in a renewed focus on improving teaching and learning. We are developing new online resources and tools that teachers can use in the classroom and collaborating with other states to build a next generation assessment system aligned to Common Core.
In a world where political boundaries (state and national) are increasingly irrelevant to economic opportunity, it makes little sense for 50 states to develop 50 different targets for literacy and numeracy competence. Adopting a common set of college- and career-ready standards benchmarked to the academic aspirations of the highest-performing nations was the right way for Massachusetts to exercise leadership while capitalizing on the considerable national and international expertise applied to this initiative. The new standards are more rigorous, coherent and focused. Students are benefiting, and our educators are excited about the future.
Mitchell Chester is the Massachusetts commissioner of elementary and secondary education.