VERSAILLES — Kentucky became the first state in the nation to formally adopt new "common core content standards" for math and English language arts in grades K-12 on Wednesday evening, an initiative that will guide public education in the state for years to come.
The new standards — which essentially set forth what Kentucky students will be expected to learn — are "fewer, clearer and deeper" than previous standards, and more demanding, officials say.
Indeed, Kentucky educators expect state test scores to fall initially when the new standards kick in with the 2011-2012 school year. But they say scores will rebound as students and teachers adjust to the tougher new requirements.
The state estimates that implementing the standards, preparing teachers to use them, and developing a new student testing system could cost about $15 million over the next two fiscal years. But officials say the payoff — generations of Kentucky youngsters fully prepared to succeed in college or careers in an increasingly competitive global marketplace — would be well worth that investment.
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The Kentucky Board of Education, the state Council on Postsecondary Education and the state Education Professional Standards Board each voted unanimously to adopt the new standards Wednesday night in a joint session at the Kentucky Community and Technical College System headquarters. The audience included a virtual who's who of Kentucky education.
Gov. Steve Beshear and others on hand touted the standards adoption as a "historic step" to toward a "new era of education," calling it perhaps the most important education reform initiative since the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act.
"These standards will move us closer to our ultimate goal, a K-12 system that positions our children for success," Beshear said. "They will require not only knowledge but skills, like thinking creatively, solving problems, thinking analytically. In short, they will help our teachers teach, and our students study more effectively and more competently."
The new math and language standards were developed through a joint effort by the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers. Forty-eight states have signed on the initiative, but Kentucky is the first to actually adopt the standards. If the others follow suit, students in all the participating states would be on the same page, so that what "represents success in Kentucky matches that in North Dakota or North Carolina," the governor said.
Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday called the new standards an attempt to "harness the winds of change."
"We must create the future for our children," Holliday said. "I think this is the first wave of the next wave of change for the future of our children, and it is securing that future."
Wednesday night's action is a major step in the implementation of Senate Bill 1, which the General Assembly approved last year calling for new, more demanding state education standards aligned from preschool to college. Now that math and language standards have been adopted, the next step will be preparing new standards for other subjects. The Kentucky Department of Education plans to do that in-house.
Charlie Newquist, a math teacher at East Jessamine Middle School who participated on a panel that reviewed the new math and language standards last year, predicted that they will do much to boost education in the state.
"The standards are rigorous, but reachable," said Newquist, who spoke at Wednesday's session. "I think students and parents will be excited because the standards are very clear. We know what the kids need to do. We know what they need to understand. And we know how to get there at every grade level."
Susan Perkins Weston, an education authority who has been analyzing a draft of the new math-language standards for the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, says the new requirements will be more challenging for everybody.
"It's going to hurt, in the same way that getting physically fit hurts," she said. "We now say that a child is reading at grade level, and that sounds reassuring. But in fact, that isn't strong enough for us to keep pulling in the good jobs, and competing with the rising nations of Asia and Europe. We need to be stronger than our current average."
The new math standards, for example, are expected to match up well with the Singapore math program that nine Fayette County elementary schools have instituted this year.
"Standard research on the countries that have been beating us in math says that they all do it the way these new standards are set up," Weston said.
A key piece of the reform effort is the state's application to the federal Race To The Top program, which was filed last month. Kentucky hopes to get up to $200 million from the Race program, which would be used for implementing SB 1 and the new standards. The state should learn in April how much it will money it will get.
That will be crucial, officials say, because the state will need to move rapidly to start preparing teachers in how to use the new standards in classrooms starting in 2011.
That could be "the scariest piece," Weston said. For example, she said, it will be tough for schools to find ways to free teachers from classroom work so they can study the standards.
"If Ford wants to make a different car, they shut down the factory and retool," she said. "But we will have to keep our schools running and beg, borrow or steal the time teachers need to prepare."