(This story was updated on Nov. 12; see below.)

It’s probably impossible to have a substantive discussion about 1,348 pages of highly technical academic material in just five and a half hours, but the State Board of Education gave the public a say on all that material Wednesday.

StockStandards111109The board devoted much of its monthly work session to a public hearing on proposed new content standards in 13 subject areas. Proposed health standards on sex education was the only issue that sparked any substantial discussion, and that was mild.

Stanley Rabinowitz, a consultant who’s advised the state on standards, told the board, “You got the most moderate range of views I have ever seen in a hearing on state content stands.” He attributed that to the exhaustive process used to develop the documents. The real, word-by-word work on the standards was done in thousands of hours spent in more than 200 meetings involving hundreds of people this year and last.

It’s now up to the seven-member state board to consider what changes it wants to make before its Dec. 15 deadline for adopting the documents.

While board members have an “awesome responsibility,” in Rabinowitz’ words, he advised them “to trust your process” when considering changes.

🔗What the standards are

The standards aren’t curriculum or lists of facts students are supposed to know. Rather, they lay out “The few, crucial concepts and skills students need to have mastered by the end of each grade,” in the words of a Department of Education document.

The new standards are required by a 2008 law that mandates an overall reform of the state’s education system through updating of standards, statewide tests and then curricula and high school graduation requirements.

So, while the standards by themselves may seem opaque to all but professional educators, they will lay the groundwork for what’s taught in classrooms and required for high school graduation in the future.

Wednesday’s meeting was tightly scheduled, with introductions by Department of Education officials and chairs of the committees that drafted individual standards. Twenty minutes was allotted for discussion of each standard, although the schedule inevitably ran behind.

The proposed health and physical education standards drew the most comment, about 40 minutes worth, primarily on the perennial hot-button issue of sex education.

Danelle Hiatt, principal of Singing Hills Elementary School in Elizabeth, said she was concerned that proposed 5th grade health standards were too demanding for the teacher time available and perhaps inappropriate for the age group. “Essentially this is sex education in the 5th grade,” she said.

Leaders of the subcommittee that drafted the health and PE standards said the 5th grade standards about human reproduction are meant to be introductory and keyed to 5th grade science standards. More detailed sex ed is saved for middle school.

Another witness, Alison Maklin of Planned Parenthood, was critical from another point of view, saying the standards “as currently written don’t reflect true comprehensive sex education.”

Comments on other subjects were largely technical, nit-picky or insidery.

There were some witnesses who disagreed over whether financial literacy should be included within the social studies standards for economics, two witnesses who complained that the U.S. Constitution isn’t mentioned specifically in the standards (that’s inaccurate), one complaint that technology and engineering aren’t well enough represented in the science standards and one witness, Fort Collins charter school principal Florian Hild, who challenged the whole premise of the standards, setting requirements for student skills and proficiencies rather than content knowledge.

(On Thursday, SBE members returned to the standards during a brief discussion. Some members expressed concern that there are too many standards, particularly in health and physical education, for schools and teachers to realistically cover. The board currently is scheduled to meet Dec. 9 and 10 but is considering holding another meeting before then, perhaps by phone or online, to allow more time for a standards discussion.)

🔗What’s behind the new standards

The key difference from past standards is that the new ones are designed to be “fewer, clearer and higher,” include 21st century skills and incorporate descriptions of both school readiness and college and workforce readiness, in addition to emphasizing concepts and skills, not just facts.

The standards were designed “backwards,” starting with the skills and competencies high school graduates should have.  In most cases specific standards for student skills in each grade were then designed down the ladder to kindergarten. Previous state standards applied to spans of multiple grades.

As an example, the standards for Reading, Writing and Communicating set four broad standards – oral expression and listening; reading for all purposes; writing and composition, and research and reasoning. The 169 pages then lay out the specific skills in each of the four areas that students should demonstrate in each grade.

While the state board and CDE already had begun work to update the state’s standards, most of which are 13 years old, passage of the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids (Senate Bill 08-212) in 2008 provided a hard push for writing new ones.

The CAP4K law set in motion a multi-year process of creating descriptions of both school readiness and postsecondary and workforce readiness, adoption of the new standards by the end of this year and adoption of a new statewide testing system by the end of 2010.

After that, individual school districts will have to adopt standards at least as rigorous as the state’s, retool their curricula to teach those standards and adopt new high school graduation standards as necessary.

So, the whole new system won’t be implemented in the state’s classrooms until 2012.

Creation of the standards started with review of the old standards and comparison with those of some other states and nations by WestEd, an education consulting group, and coordination of the process by a 23-member committee of educators, business representatives and others.

The standards in each content area were written by subcommittees of experts (total membership of more than 250) and then reviewed by out-of-state educators. The department conducted an extensive series of public meetings around the state to gather opinions about the standards and also accepted comments online. CDE says it received more than 8,000 comments during meetings and online.

Despite the Dec. 15 deadline in the CAP4K law, that may not mark the end of discussion about the standards.

There’s an ongoing process to create a national set of common core standards in English and math.

That voluntary effort, of which Colorado is a part, is being pushed by the National Governors Association. But,  the latest draft of the standards won’t be publicly released until December, so it isn’t known yet how state standards will mesh with the national effort.

Rabinowitz told the board, “I believe that your standards will line up side by side with the very best national work that I have seen … better than most.” He also speculated that states might have a number of ways to adopt the national standards without abandoning their own.

While CAP4K is intended to be a thorough reform of Colorado’s education system and to make every high school graduate ready for college, specialized training or work, it’s by no means clear if it will achieve those goals or how it will change the state’s classrooms.

Many observers believe that CAP4K will have an impact only if it’s effectively implemented through teacher training, appropriate class materials and other changes at every school. Implementation will cost the state and school districts money, which is tight now. A CAP4K cost study is just getting underway by a private consultant, and its first report won’t be made until next year.

Rabinowitz emphasized that point in his remarks to the board, saying effective teacher training will be needed to ensure the standards live up to their intentions.

🔗Do your homework

Highlights of the standards, prepared by CDE (toward bottom of document)

• Links to full standards documents

• Other links