My colleagues and I at Widmeyer Education, a Finn Partners company, spend our days working on public policy and advocacy issues that affect public schools, with a particular emphasis on schools in underserved communities.
A critical component of effective public schooling is a set of academic standards teachers use to hold all students in a school district or state to the same expectations. Our work frequently focuses on advocating for high standards, so that all kids get the opportunity to succeed in school to become prepared for college and career opportunities. Those standards can occasionally become controversial if a community doesn’t take into account local sentiment and invite local participation into their development and implementation.
Last month, the Wall Street Journal’s Leslie Brody published a story about the successful introduction and rollout of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), the first revision of science standards in nearly 20 years. The NGSS managed to avoid most of the political pitfalls encountered by the Common Core State Standards for math and reading, released a few years earlier. For those who were living under a rock at the time, after more than 40 states adopted the Common Core, conservatives (and later, progressives) mounted a backlash that criticized the federal government for overreach and spread a tremendous amount of “fake news” concerning what the standards would and wouldn’t do for students.
My colleagues at Widmeyer/Finn and I worked on the science standards since well before they were developed or released, first with the Carnegie Corporation of New York (which funded their development), and then with Achieve, which coordinated the work of educators from 26 states who voluntarily and collaboratively developed and released them. I can attest to the accuracy of the WSJ’s themes: We did indeed carefully watch what happened with the Common Core and learned several key lessons we could then apply to our own work to support the NGSS. I remember when the NGSS’ slogan, “By States, For States,” was first uttered, and how important we knew it was to emphasize states’ roles in creating and rolling out the NGSS. We knew the importance of the old adage, “slow and steady wins the race.” We respected states’ needs to go at their own pace, and follow their own official and unofficial protocols. We deferred to state leaders to determine when the time was right. Our role was to support them, not lead them.
The story is particularly gratifying because, at the time of the NGSS’ release, no one was predicting a successful launch or rollout. We were told time and time again that we were walking into a political buzz saw by releasing another set of standards in the wake of Common Core. We were accused of contributing to Common Core’s challenges by electing to launch when we did. But every time, we graciously but firmly replied that our states knew what they were doing, they were following a different strategy, and they’d be able to navigate successfully the pitfalls built into the process.
Now, the Wall Street Journal has declared our efforts a success. Of course, there’s still more work to be done. As the article points out, more states still need to adopt, and in states that now use the NGSS, teachers require professional development and students need materials aligned to the new standards. But because the rollout to date has been built upon such a successful foundation, I’m optimistic states—and our nation’s teachers and students—will continue to be successful.