Connecticut's public education establishment is facing a reckoning.
Not only are student test scores expected to drop drastically when standardized tests based on national standards are adopted in 2015, but the shift is expected to cost districts millions to update their textbooks, teaching materials, technology to administer the new tests on computers and to train teachers to align lessons with the new standards.
"A monster is headed straight for us," said Robert Rader, the executive director of the state's school board's association, after a recent presentation by the author of these new national standards.
Connecticut, whose State Board of Education is scheduled to discuss the new standards Wednesday, is not alone. Almost every state has agreed to have their students tested on the same math and English language arts and literacy materials beginning in the spring of 2015.
"This is going to hit home to every one of the districts represented in here," Gov. Dannel P. Malloy told superintendents at their annual conference in Southington last month. "All of a sudden the people who think their kids are getting it are going to understand that on an objective basis... they are going to get very real and different results. Now they may not accept those results. Some folks won't."
A study commissioned by the State Department of Education before it agreed to participate in this national initiative known as the Common Core State Standards showed that 80 percent of the state's existing English curriculum and 92 percent of math curriculum aligned with this national material.
"That's what we were told when it was approved," Rader said. "But now that we are implementing these changes, our members are finding it's much more than that."
'Basic sanity' or death of fiction?
Laura Fetter's daughter loves reading, but the material her teachers sends home with her to read is uninspiring.
"It's all fiction," her mother said. "She gets through it, gets a good grade, and moves on."
This heavy utilization on fiction in public school classrooms is about to end. The new standards that will begin in pilot districts next school year and statewide beginning in the fall of 2014 will require districts to have 50 percent of their reading materials be nonfiction.
"This is a daring move," David Coleman, who co-wrote the national standards, told a crowd of education foundation leaders in Cromwell last month. "To me this is basic sanity, but to others it's the death of fiction."
To reformers like Coleman, fiction like Harry Potter or Charlotte's Web may be what's needed to get some students engaged and excited about reading, but it should not drown out reality. He says that 80 to 90 percent of the reading materials in schools today are fiction.
"Reading and writing become an essential part of doing social studies and science.... What you find is students are writing not based on facts or based on sources," Coleman said. "In the real world, writing not based on facts doesn't get you very far in college or your career."
The new standards also will encourage teachers to really dig into teaching the fundamentals of math rather than glazing over everything quickly. Proponents say the present U.S. curriculum is a mile wide and an inch deep.
In kindergarten to the third grade, the new mandate will be stick to addition and subtraction. In third through fifth grade, it will be to master multiplication and division.
"Focus, focus, focus. Without that foundation you are helpless in math," said Sandra Alberti, director of professional development for Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit organization that promotes the common core nationally.
The shift also will begin testing students on computers, instead of the traditional bubble sheets. This will allow for the computer to adapt to where a student falls in the understanding of a subject, similar to the SATs.
The impetus behind the launch of these national standards was state officials eager to catch their students up on international tests. Having a test based on national standards is also expected to help identify which states are really behind.
"Today, American young people are graduating our public schools thinking a diploma prepares them for the future, but finding out that it may not be worth the paper on which it was printed," the Connecticut Council for Education Reform, the state's business-backed reform group, news bulletin tells its readers of the benefits of Common Core.
Not everyone is as supportive.
During the presidential campaign, Republican Mitt Romney opposed common core, saying he believed that individual states should develop their own education standards. The Obama administration has encouraged states to embrace the new standards by encouraging its implementation in order for states win the Race to the Top challenges and to land waivers to the federal No Child Left Behind laws.
Utah recently decided to back out of its promise to implement these national standards, joining four other states.
Cost vs. standards
State officials in Connecticut are committed to a full rollout of Common Core in two school years, but district leaders say the funding has not followed to implement these new standards.
"It's expensive," said Rader, talking of the price of new books, teaching materials and training for teachers.
Joseph Erardi, the superintendent of Southington Public Schools, said his district has not fully implemented the new standards yet.
"We are really waiting to see what that direction is from the state... Our plan now is to do [Common Core] within our current operating budget," he said.
The apprehension surrounds the price tag, not the the intention behind the shift, Rader and Coleman said.
"There is so much goodwill, but little progress," Coleman said of some districts in Connecticut. "It's heartbreaking."
Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said during a recent interview that he understands the need for additional state support, but can make no promises.
"We anticipate that further investment is required," he said. "Do we need to make further investments? Yes."
A draft expansion budget prepared by the State Department of Education recommended that the state invest $18 million over the next two years to implement Common Core. But with the state facing a deficit as large as $1.2 billion for the upcoming fiscal year, local officials are not holding much hope that help is on the way.
The price tag is also steep in many other states. The California Department of Education estimates it could cost as much as $500 million. New York has already spent $125 million ahead of the roll out.
Allan Taylor, the chairman of Connecticut's Board of Education, said the state has been spending money to provide trainings for teachers, but no specific price has yet been identified. The Fordham Foundation, a conservative education policy group, estimates the cost could be as much as $123 million for Connecticut if officials decide new books, materials and computers and technology to administer the new tests are necessary. This price is in addition to the $56 million already spent each year in the state on materials.
State board members were told that the department is working with districts in the coming months to see if districts need to update their computers and technology. The state's approved waiver to the federal No Child Left Behind requirements also notes that the state is considering working with an organization called Align to determine how aligned a district's textbooks and materials are with these new standards.
This expensive price tag is not unique to Connecticut. In a survey of 43 state education department leaders, 19 leaders said they face major challenges in finding the money to implement Common Core. Another 11 said it was going to be at least a minor challenge.
Common Core: A political risk?
Malloy made education the priority of his second year as governor. It dominated his second legislative session. So, when scores dip as expected, the average resident may deem his efforts a failure or call for a retreat from these new tests that make their schools look bad.
But national experts are urging politicians to remain steadfast.
Richard Laine, the director of education services at the National Governors Association, told the governor's education council last week that the tough, new standards come with a political risk.
If there is not a broad coalition that understands, supports and promotes the new standards, he said, any governor associated with them will suffer politically.
"If he is alone, he gets killed," Laine said. The NGA was the driving force behind getting so many states to agree to implement these standards.
After the education council meeting, Malloy said the risk is worth taking.
"That's a scary proposition, but it's an opportunity," said Malloy, who is chairman of the NGA's education and workforce committee. "The opportunity is to start work now and get the work done, so that we understand the implications of those test scores, and we're already changing our approach to education.
"Round one was education reform. Round two is execution."