California on Monday joined 31 states and the District of Columbia in approving new common learning standards in math and English language arts for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.
The goal of the new education framework is to provide consistent, and consistently rigorous, instruction nationwide.
As the country's most populous state, California's adoption of the blueprint was key, especially because California has been praised for developing its own high standards. The second-largest state, Texas, spurned the effort entirely.
Two months of sometimes contentious debate preceded Monday's 9-0 vote by the state Board of Education, which had authority to approve or reject the framework. The discussion lasted more than two hours, but nearly all opposition had already faded.
"This is a critical, historic opportunity for the state," board President Ted Mitchell said before the vote.
With the action, the state managed to meet — barely — an Aug. 2 deadline related to its bid for a federal Race to the Top education grant that could be worth $700 million. By approving the national standards, the state's application received additional points.
Critics, and even some supporters, retain concerns about the rigor and logic of the new math standards, as well as the content relating to students who are learning English.
The initiative to create "common core standards" grew out of bipartisan legislation, dubbed No Child Left Behind, that gradually became associated with the administration of former President George W. Bush.
That law called for every U.S. student to be academically proficient by 2014. Schools and states that lag behind have been subject to opprobrium and sanctions.
It was left to states to define proficiency, and many adopted low standards.
The Obama administratrion has called for tougher academic standards nationwide, but lawmakers have historically resisted federal mandates regarding what students must learn. Instead, the administration assisted a consortium, led by participating states, to develop voluntary national guidelines.
Officials in states with high standards worried that their frameworks could be dumbed down to achieve consensus. The debate became especially heated in Massachusetts, also known for high state standards. A former governor opposed the national plan, but Massachusetts eventually adopted the standards.
Approval by California and Massachusetts was especially important, said former Colorado governor Roy Romer, who is also a former superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Romer worked with state leaders throughout the process on behalf of the nonprofit College Board, which played an important advisory role in the standards effort.
Critics remain. Some from the right warn about improper federal intrusion or an eventual lowering of academic standards. Some from the left worry about a uniformity that could frustrate creative teaching or lead to an over-reliance on standardized tests.
"This is a major public-policy shift," Williamson Evers, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, said at Monday's board meeting in Sacramento. "It's going to have a serious effect, a disparate impact on minorities and other disadvantaged children."
The new year-by-year framework was too hastily adopted and left students unprepared to take an "overstuffed" eighth-grade algebra course, said Evers, who served on the state commission that reviewed the standards.
However, Elk Grove math teacher Mark Freathy enthusiastically backed the standards.
"I'm excited when I look at these standards," said Freathy, who also served on the review commission. "This can work."
California's previous standards, though well-regarded, have yet to translate into broad, high-level student achievement.
Most reviewers predicted that the new grade-by-grade standards would better prepare students for success in algebra on their first try. The framework could allow multiple paths for eighth-graders, such as a one-year algebra course, a two-year course or an algebra-readiness curriculum to prepare students to take algebra in ninth grade.
The California Teachers Assn. endorsed the standards, with the caveat that schools must be careful not to steer some groups of students, such as low-income minorities, automatically onto slower academic tracks.
In English, the new standards shift some emphasis away from literature and toward nonfiction and the ability to research, analyze and write about factual topics.
California officials took advantage of rules that allowed states to add provisions. They created a strand for oral presentation in English that starts with memorizing poetry in first grade. They also inserted standards for neat handwriting and following directions and, at higher levels, for writing a business letter.
Many speakers urged the state to develop and integrate companion standards for students learning English. Joining in this view were a representative from United Teachers Los Angeles and John Deasy, the new deputy superintendent for L.A. Unified.
Developing curriculum guides, approving new materials and adjusting teacher training all lie in the future, as does an extensive revamping of the state's testing system.
Some officials said that a long, expensive process would take place before the effects are seen in classrooms.