(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)

California, like many states, is embarking on an ambitious rewiring of its public school system. By the 2014-15 school year, it plans to implement new Common Core academic standards in English and math for all grades. The new standards were adopted by the State Board of Education only 18 months ago. Having all of our state’s teachers and schools on board with this shift in core content in just another two-and-a-half years would be an impressive feat of bureaucratic derring-do. The last time the state undertook a similar effort with the current academic content standards – under an even longer time frame and in better fiscal straits – we didn’t meet our lofty goals so well.

Because this undertaking is too important to implement poorly or unevenly, Public Advocates is calling for an independent study of how well California’s Common Core implementation is proceeding. Adopting the standards was the easy part. Now the state must simultaneously modify its teacher education programs so that all new teachers are prepared to teach the revised standards, adopt and disseminate curriculum materials integrating the new standards, ensure current teachers receive appropriate professional development in how to adapt their curriculum, and build new assessments to measure student progress in learning the new standards.

The Department of Education and the State Board are doing what they should be doing in developing an implementation plan. Still, only by examining how well we’re building this plane beforetake-off can the powers that be identify deficiencies and engage in the timely re-engineering needed to ensure no child’s exposure to the new Common Core  standards substantially lags behind others’.

Recent history reminds us that having an ambitious plan alone isn’t enough. When the state imposed a new high school exit exam in 1999 based on California’s then relatively new English Language Arts and Mathematics academic content standards, it wisely required that the implementation of the exam and students’ exposure to the ELA and math content be studied by an independent contractor. That contractor, known as HumRRO, has published a series of biennial reports, the most revealing of which occurred in the years leading up to the implementation of the exit exam’s diploma penalty. The State Board of Education delayed the diploma penalty for two years based on HumRRO’s reports of widespread unequal and insufficient access to math and ELA standards-based content prior to the initial exam implementation date of June 2004.

HumRRO’s later evidence showed that, even during the 2005-06 academic year when the diploma penalty took effect, many students still were not being exposed to the English and math standards covered by the test. Mind you, at that point, those content standards had been adopted fully eight years earlier and the standards-aligned exit exam requirement had been imposed six years prior. Nonetheless, at the start of the 2005-06 year, HumRRO found that fewer than half of high schools had fully aligned their curriculum to the material tested on the exit exam. One in seven at-risk students in the class of 2006 reported that they had not been taught most of the English topics tested; one in six such students made the same report for math. Of the schools that responded to HumRRO’s survey, 12 percent of English departments and 8 percent of math departments reported that that they were operating with more than 25 percent of their teachers lacking appropriate credentials, and less than a third of high school principals reported that nearly all of their teachers had received professional development on how to teach the content standards tested on the exam.

Whether through an NCLB waiver, under the impending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or under the inevitable revisions to the state’s own Academic Performance Index, California in the not-too-distant future will be operating under an accountability system significantly based on Common Core assessment performance. Waiting until after we’ve imposed the new standards on all students and schools to see if we have effectively implemented them makes no sense. It is imperative that we examine now whether implementation is proceeding unevenly and if so, whether we are systematically underserving certain sub-populations like English learners or students with disabilities or certain sectors like low-income districts or low-performing schools. It is better to know where the weaknesses in Common Core implementation lie so that they can be addressed by policy makers that much sooner.

Some may feel that we simply cannot afford any additional expense in these tight fiscal times. Yet, even before exploring the possible ways in which federal or private foundation dollars might help support such a study, the state itself should acknowledge the value of the minor investment here. For a few hundred thousand dollars, the state will know if its $50 billion educational enterprise is on the right track or not. Seems like a no-brainer.

Fortunately, Assemblymember Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), who has worked tirelessly to ensure that every student has an equal opportunity to learn and be educated, will partner with Public Advocates and will carry a bill to institute a Common core implementation study.  We hope the entire education community will get behind this important measure, AB 2116.  Hopefully, this time we make sure our new standards are implemented fully and fairly.

John Affeldt is Managing Attorney at Public Advocates Inc. a nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization and a leading voice on educational equity issues. He has been recognized by California Lawyer Magazine as a California Attorney of the Year, The Recorder as an Attorney of the Year and a Leading Plaintiff Lawyer in America by Lawdragon Magazine.

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