Amy Bednarz, an English as a second language teacher in a Massachusetts elementary school, is confused. She doesn't know exactly what to teach.
For years, she'd been told that the state standardized tests were a make-or-break aspect of her teaching and should drive her instruction. Then came the professional development meetings this summer where she was told to teach the Common Core State Standards, a new set of academic benchmarks now being adopted by the majority of U.S. states. She got a worksheet, a binder and little guidance.
But while exams that test the Common Core are still in development, her kids will be taking the same old state tests. And then there are the emails her principal sends the school every morning: the state tests are 30, 29, now 28 days away.
"It feels like another initiative that's being thrown at us, a latest and greatest tool to solve problems in education," she said of the Common Core.
The piled-on reform she refers to received top billing in Barack Obama's State of the Union address.
"For less than 1 percent of what our nation spends on education each year, we’ve convinced nearly every state in the country to raise their standards for teaching and learning -- the first time that’s happened in a generation," said Obama, referencing the Common Core.
What Obama made sound like a revolution seems more like a slog, such accounts and recent reports indicate. The Common Core State Standards in math and English Language Arts are beginning their slow creep into America's classrooms in 46 states and Washington, D.C., according to a new report released Wednesday by the Center on Education Policy. The standards pepper the conversations of teachers and school administers, shaping instruction -- or not -- in various ways.
The CEP report surveyed 35 CC-adopting states, finding that while the "vast majority" are familiarizing school officials with the new materials, states don't expect to implement the new standards until 2014-15 or later. And while they're staying the course, 21 states cited challenges in gathering the adequate resources to implement the standards, and 20 states indicated that they are concerned about having the right number of computers required to handle the new tests.
The Obama administration incentivized these national standards, which came to fruition through the collaboration of governors, state schools' chiefs and Gates Foundation cash. Substancewise, they focus on teaching fewer things, in greater depth. Their development included the input of teachers, unions, university administrators and the influence of international assessments. The standards themselves came out last year. The assessments that test the standards are still in development: two consortia are working off of $360 million in federal Race to the Top money, having outside companies develop test items. The tests, which will be administered on computers, are currently scheduled to be operational by the 2014-2015 school year.
While the new benchmarks are often described as a method for both ensuring that students are "college-and-career ready" and that school standards are comparable across state borders, there's no way to guarantee they're being taught.
As it turns out, in this transitional period, teachers like Bednarz are teaching one set of standards while being tested on another.
Jack Jennings, CEP's president, said people shouldn't worry about these differences. "Right now, the Common Core is just being introduced to teachers, in the sense that they're being told what it means and why it's different from what they're doing now," Jennings said.
Other teachers are having an easier time. Darren Burris, who teaches high-school math in Boston Collegiate Charter School, volunteered to coach other teachers on implementation and sees the standards as an "opportunity."
"We have a narrow mission: to prepare each kid for college," he said. "And that's the goal of these standards."
The Common Core's focus on depth over breadth, he said, has allowed him to experiment in the classroom -- and in the hallway. One day's Common Core standard was to "construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others," so he brought that lesson to life by writing out math prompts on big post-its in the corridor. Pairs of students circulated between them, scrawling their answers on the post-its, while commenting on the solutions of their peers.
"Why didn't we do this before?" a student asked.
Yet especially with Republicans taking office in statehouses and governorships since the commitments were made, the standards have been perceived by some as a political liability: a potentially big-government-seeming program that appears to standardize education across the country when state control has long been Conservative currency. For that reason, proponents are careful to couch it in state, not federal, terms.
The CEP study says that at this point, states' concerns are more practical than political. "The thing that I found most arresting was the clarity with which the report puts forward that it's the view that the political risk is secondary to the implementation risk," David Coleman, an author of the literacy standards, told The Huffington Post.
But recent headlines show that may not be the full story. A few months ago, Alabama launched an unsuccessful bid to pull out of the standards. Just Wednesday, Indiana's state senate voted down a measure to leave the new standards behind. But its sponsors -- which count Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) among its ranks -- are vowing to revive the push.