Innovation, collaboration can reduce cost of transitioning to common core

New analysis of the costs tied to implementing the common core standards suggests California could provide a "bare bones" integration that would cost less than what the state currently spends annually on instructional materials, teacher professional development and student assessments.

The report released Wednesday by the Thomas Fordham Institute notes there remain many critics of the common core who have turned the debate into one about money - claiming implementing the new content standards will be expensive and likely ineffective.

But researchers from the conservative-leaning education policy group based in Washington D.C. argued bringing the standards into the classroom can be done effectively at a modest expense.

"If states are astute enough to implement differently, redeploy resources that they're already spending and take advantage of this rare opportunity to revamp their education delivery systems, too," said the report's authors led by Patrick Murphy, a professor of political science at the University of San Francisco.

The report, drawn from analysis of the 45 states that adopted the common core plus the District of Columbia, comes as lawmakers in Sacramento struggle with yet another massive budget shortfall next year and a looming 2014-15 deadline for implementing the new content standards in math and English language arts.

Last fall, the California Department of Education estimated implementation costs could be as much as $800 million, although more recently staff has suggested that number probably could be reduced through improved efficiencies and shared benefits with other states.

Indeed, Fordham researchers noted that multi-state collaborations already are taking advantage of what they called the commonness' of the new standards though shared costs of new assessments, instructional materials and online professional development.

"Creation of new and better instructional tools by multiple vendors is helping more teachers teach the new standards," the report said. "And the rise of innovative school-delivery models, such as charter networks and virtual schools, means that lessons gleaned from them can benefit more teachersâall of whom are teaching the same standards."

The researchers estimated that, under the most conservative option, transition costs should represent about 3 percent of a state's annual K-12 budget.

The Fordham team looked at three different implementation scenarios and developed cost estimates with each:

Business as Usual. This is the "traditional" approach to standards implementation: buying hard-copy textbooks, administering annual paper assessments to students, and delivering in-person professional development to all teachers.

Bare Bones. This is the lowest-cost alternative. It utilizes online open-source materials, computer-administered assessments, and online professional development via webinars and modules.

Balanced Implementation. This is a mix of approaches, some of which may be at least as effective as their Business as Usual counterparts and also reduce costs. It utilizes a blend of instructional materials (e.g., teacher self-published texts and/or district-produced materials), both interim and summative assessments, and a hybrid system of professional development (e.g., a train-the-trainers approach).

For California, the team estimated the traditional approach would be the costliest, at slightly more than $1.6 billion. The lowest-cost alternative would come in at $380 million, with the blended approach costing about $680 million.

They noted California currently spends about $533 million on related activities, most of which could be redeployed to cover the common core costs.

While the authors challenged critics who said the common standards would be expensive, they also cited some overly optimistic supporters who claimed the implementation could be done without adding significant costs.

"States will likely find that the common core standards demand increased rigor and that teachers will therefore require additional preparation," they said. "Further, professional development costs will be affected by choices that states make relative to instructional materials and assessments; the bigger the changes in those areas, the more likely that professional development will be needed."

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