Common Core Watch

USA Today ran a story Saturday entitled, “Common Core Standards Driving a Wedge in Education Circles.” The article comes after a week of exceptionally bad press for standards- and accountability-driven reform, capped off by the tale of a talking pineapple and his apparently cannibalistic friends.

Of course, it wasn’t always this way. In fact, it was just two short years ago that a remarkably broad and bipartisan coalition that united union leaders and market reformers helped secure passage of the new standards.

What a difference a couple years makes.

What’s interesting, though, is that, with some limited exceptions, the debate over the Common Core standards has very little to do with the standards themselves. In fact, on all sides of the ed reform aisle, people seem to agree that these particular standards are rigorous, clear, and better than the vast majority of the state standards that were in place previously.

Instead, the debate over the Common Core is now caught up in a larger fight about the merits of education reform writ large. In this increasingly toxic environment, Common Core has become one more conspiracy to uncover, one more grand scheme for the fringe on the right and left to fight against.

Every day brings a new line of attack, each less comprehensible than the last. Some believe the standards are part of a giant corporate plot, the main goal of which is to pad the pockets of testing companies. Others believe they’re part of a grand scheme—led...

On Monday, I wondered aloud whether the debate among policy elites over the value of the Common Core had become nihilistic. Yesterday, Terry Ryan, Fordham's VP for Ohio programs and policy, confirmed that, at least in the heartland, the discussions among practitioners about the value and potential of the Common Core was far more optimistic and productive. Terry described how Ohio educators, interviewed by journalist Ellen Belcher for a forthcoming report, view the transition to and the potential of the new expectations:

The educators in Ohio interviewed by Belcher, the people on the frontlines of our schools who work daily with our kids, see the move towards the Common Core as a positive. But, they worry seriously about the implementation challenges, and they fear that somehow our political leadership class will screw all of this up and turn a good into something bad. Or, as one Cleveland educator remarked, “the Common Core is the right work we should be doing as a country.” “But let’s not make this the metric system of our time…and all of sudden stop.” This is thoughtful guidance from someone actually doing the work.
Common sense, increasingly scarce in the public debate around the Common Core among talking heads and the chattering class, still prevails in the heartland. I take some solace in this fact and I hope others do as well.

The entire post is worth a read. It’s a helpful reminder of the importance of listening to front-line educators and not getting...

Last week, Tom Loveless penned an Education Week op-ed where he (again) argued that the Common Core standards don’t matter—that the quality of a state’s standards has little correlation with how well students in that state fare on the NAEP.

Loveless’s main point—which is mostly right—is that statewide standards implementation has not led to dramatic student achievement gains. He notes, for instance, that “from 2003 to 2009, states with terrific standards raised their National Assessment of Educational Progress scores by roughly the same margin as states with awful ones.”

It’s not easy to get right, but when effectively implemented this playbook gets results.

Yet, we do know that teachers, schools, and even districts that set high standards for student learning, hold teachers and principals accountable for reaching specified goals, align curriculum and instruction to the standards, and intentionally use short- and long-term data to drive instruction are able to make significant gains for kids. It’s not easy to get right, but when effectively implemented this playbook gets results. At least on the school and district level.

Therein lies the challenge: we have yet to see equally dramatic results on the state level.

Of course, we at Fordham have long argued that standards alone won’t drive achievement—they need to be linked to meaningful implementation and accountability to have any hope to impact student learning.

Loveless does try to address this by arguing that existing standards—good and bad—have been implemented. He reasons:

Past standards-setters were neither as naive nor passive as...

Leonie Haimson—a vocal ed-reform critic—helped generate a media firestorm about testing recently when she posted about an absurd passage that was included on this year’s New York State eighth grade ELA test. The post itself generated more than 2,000 hits in its first few hours and led to a New York Daily News article entitled “Talking pineapple question on state exam stumps ... everyone!

pineapple
The citrus fruit that rocked education reform.
 Photo by Richard North.

The passage on the exam needs to be read in full to be believed. It’s a perfect storm of bad writing, poor structure, and inexplicable questions. If you haven’t read it—and you should—it’s enough to know that the moral of the story—included in bold at the end—is this:

Moral of the story: Pineapples don't have sleeves.

Haimson and her fellow testing foes are right to call out this passage as ridiculous. And critics of accountability can and should play this role, helping surface problems and draw attention to the need for change.

But the real outrage among those of us who care deeply about accountability is why these problems aren’t being caught earlier. For too long, we have been focusing our attention on expanding the use of tests to more grades and more subject areas and increasing the consequences tied to...

In the 1990s, much of the fireworks in the education policy debate centered around a “reading war” where supporters of whole language squared off against the forces of phonics. Now, in the Common Core era, I predict a similar firestorm is on the horizon. Only this time, the debate will not be about how to teach students to read in the first place, but rather how to help them build knowledge and improve comprehension over time. More specifically: It’s about how to choose the books you are asking students to read. And the outcome of this debate could go a long way towards deciding the long-term impact of CCSS ELA standards.

Books
"What to read?" will become the next debate in education policy.
 Photo by Duncan Harris

There are two camps in debate over how to select and assign texts. The first is what I’ll call the “Just Right” or “Goldilocks” books approach. The second I will call the “Grade Appropriate” approach.

The prevailing view among many educators in the United States today is that the best way to improve student reading comprehension is to assign lots books that are “just right” for individual students. The theory is that every student has three reading levels: an independent reading level (what the student can read without teacher scaffolding or support), an instructional reading...

As the Texas Board of Education weighs revisions to the state's math standards, it must also consider strong criticism from the business community and the media over the proposed changes. Fordham's new review of the draft math standards, by W. Stephen Wilson, adds another reason for the board to think twice before approving the changes. As Wilson writes,

The new standards are an improvement. Some content that was previously missing from the [existing] standards has been included, the standards remain clear and well organized, and the high school content remains strong.
Unfortunately, Texas has overcorrected its minimalist problem by adding too many standards—many of which descend inappropriately into pedagogy—and including a lot of unnecessary repetition. Worse, the new draft standards overemphasize process, and arithmetic is not given suitable priority.

By going it alone, Texas had hoped to do better than the Common Core. Unfortunately, it missed the mark. Check out to full report to learn more.

Guest bloggers Kate Walsh and Arthur McKee are the president and managing director of teacher preparation studies, respectively, at the National Council on Teacher Quality. This post was originally published on NCTQ's Pretty Darn Quick blog.

You might not expect us to champion this great new report from Brookings, but we are. Russ Whitehurst and his new colleague, former Harvard professor Matt Chingos, not only decry the nation's excessive focus on teacher quality—at the expense of curriculum—but also provide some neat evidence of the cost of that imbalance to student performance.

Brookings
Source: "Choosing Blindly: Instructional Materials, Teacher Effectiveness, and the Common Core," by Matthew M. Chingos and Grover J. Whitehurst, (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 2012).

One might quibble over the source of data for this little chart, given that the big impact from a better curriculum is derived from just a single study (though a very good one), but we think their point is still valid. Curriculum can and does move student performance. To quote the authors: "To focus education reform policy on selecting and retaining effective teacher while ignoring the role of instructional materials is to pay too much attention to the aspects of teacher quality that are set in stone and too little attention to ways that the effectiveness of all teachers might be improved...

Is it intellectually inconsistent to promote common standards while advocating for school choice?

Bruce Baker—Rutgers professor by day, anti-reform gadfly by night—thinks so, and took Fordham to task for either inconsistency between its goals or harboring a “weird, warped agenda.” He explains:

Collectively what we have here is a massive effort on the one hand, to require traditional public school districts to adopt a common curriculum and ultimately to adopt common assessments for evaluating student success on that curriculum and then force those districts to evaluate, retain and/or dismiss their teachers based on student assessment data, while on the other hand, expanding publicly financed subsidies for more children to attend schools that would not be required to do these things (in many cases, for example, relieving charter schools from teacher evaluation requirements).

This is a helpful way to frame it because I think Baker has gotten it precisely wrong.

Adopting common standards does not mean forcing a common curriculum on all schools.

For starters, adopting common standards does not mean forcing a common curriculum on all schools. And the difference between standards and curriculum is more than mere semantics. Standards define a baseline set of knowledge and skills that all students should learn. How students should learn that content—the curriculum—is up to the district/school/teacher to decide. And suggesting that holding all schools to the same standards somehow limits “any potential for real innovation,” as Bruce does, is misguided. Innovation stems not from different schools defining different ends, but instead from schools reaching those goals...

As of April 5, 2012, forty-five states plus the District of Columbia had adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). While they deserve plaudits for strengthening their previously lackluster expectations for students, nobody should expect standards-adoption alone to drive academic gains. Nor will the development of curriculum, adoption of new textbooks, and ramped up professional development—some of the “stuff” that folks refer to when they talk about “implementing” the CCSS—mean much unless accompanied by means of holding individuals and buildings accountable for progress. To get real traction from new standards, states must also install robust accountability systems that incentivize, support, reward, and sanction districts, schools, students, teachers, and other adults.

This is the perfect time for states to reboot their accountability systems, not only because of the opportunity presented by CCSS, but also due to the availability of waivers from some of the accountability shackles and oddities of No Child Left Behind. Moreover, most of the ESEA reauthorization bills now creaking through Congress would give states even wider latitude to design their own approaches to accountability.

But what do strong state accountability systems look like? And how strong are they today?

Defining Strong State Accountability Systems
The time is ripe for states to revamp their approaches to accountability. 

To examine those questions, Fordham probed the accountability systems of seven states as part...

“You can never cross the ocean until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore” ― André Gide

As we’ve said numerous times before, for the vast majority of states, adoption of the Common Core standards was an enormous improvement. (Click for Fordham’s review of each state’s standards and the Common Core.) It’s equally clear that we have an enormous challenge on our hands to ensure that the Common Core is implemented in a way that makes the most of these stronger and more rigorous standards. Change is hard but Common Core, correctly implemented, has the potential to amp up expectations and instruction across American classrooms. 

I’ve already posted about the danger of curriculum publishers co-opting the Common Core to promote their own (relatively unchanged) materials. But there’s a second, and potentially even more troubling challenge that lies ahead: a resistance among teachers to changing their instruction.

As the time comes to start implementing Common Core some teachers are starting to dig in their heels.

Of course, for teachers, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. There has been no shortage of curriculum fads and reforms that have demanded instructional changes and promised improvements, but yielded very little in the way of student achievement gains. It’s no wonder, then, that as the time comes to start implementing Common Core some teachers are starting to dig in their heels.

Valerie Strauss, a Washington Post blogger who has created a cottage industry out of assuming the worst about...

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