Common Core Watch

You may have missed it over the holidays, but NPR ran a fascinating profile of Jason Zimba, one of the primary architects of the Common Core math standards. The piece, by the Hechinger Report’s Sarah Garland, an exceptionally thoughtful education reporter, traces Zimba’s career from Rhodes scholar and David Coleman’s business partner to “obscure physics professor at Bennington College” and unlikely standards bearer for the math standards that he had so much to do with creating.

Garland makes much of the fact that Zimba spends Saturday mornings tutoring his two young daughters in math. We’re told he feels the math his kids are getting at their local Manhattan public school is subpar, and that’s even after the school began implementing Common Core. “Zimba, a mathematician by training, is not just any disgruntled parent,” Garland notes. “He's one of the guys who wrote the Common Core.”

Some will surely see irony in Zimba feeling compelled to supplement what his kids learn in school with breakfast-table math lessons—more schadenfreude for Common Core critics—but there is no irony. As my Fordham colleague Kathleen Porter-Magee noted in another great piece you might have missed in recent days, even the best standards don’t help teachers ensure that all students master the content and skills set forth in those standards. That’s what a good curriculum does—a point pressed by Zimba in the NPR segment. "I...

Editor's note: This post was originally published in a slightly different form as an op-ed in the Washington PostIt was subsequently republished in the Denver PostTampa Bay TimesSalt Lake TribuneTampa TribunePhiladelphia InquirerCommercial AppealPost and CourierPost-StandardNews TribuneNews Journaland Capital Times.

In November, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush suggested to hundreds of lawmakers and education reformers gathered for his foundation’s annual summit that “the rigor of the Common Core State Standards must be the new minimum.” Furthermore, he said, to “those states choosing a path other than Common Core, I say this: That’s fine. Except you should be aiming even higher and be bolder and raise standards and ask more of our students and the system.” Several Republican politicians, including Louisiana Senator (and gubernatorial hopeful) David Vitter and Mississippi Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves, promptly took up his suggestion, calling on their states to replace the Common Core with standards that are even more challenging.

In theory, this position is exactly right. Academic standards are the province of the states; it’s within their rights to have their own standards if that’s what their leaders and residents want. Furthermore, though there are benefits to having common standards in terms of cost savings (for taxpayers) and continuity (for students who move across state lines, including the children of military families), most of Common Core’s upside stems from its rigor, not its sameness.

But if our fellow Republicans move to embrace standards that are even higher than Common Core,...

Perhaps the highest praise you can heap on another writer’s work is to acknowledge a tinge of professional jealousy. You read a blog post, column, or piece of reporting and think, “Damn, I wish I’d written that.” Here are some of the pieces—about Common Core and education at large—I wish I’d written in 2014.

Tim Shanahan of the University of Illinois at Chicago has long been indispensible on literacy—and never more so than in the era of Common Core. In November, he waded into the “close reading” thicket with a pair of clear-eyed posts on the importance of prior knowledge in reading. The second of Tim’s two-part post offered particularly useful guidance for teachers on dealing with knowledge deficits when teaching reading comprehension. A third installment is promised and hopefully coming soon. 

As long as I’m casting a jealous eye at posts about reading: I also wish I’d written this one, by my Fordham colleague Kathleen Porter-Magee, on how reading standards mislead teachers. I’ve said more or less the same thing for years, but Kathleen said it far better.

Math educator Barry Garelick is no fan of the Common Core. I simply don’t agree with his assertion that the standards demand “all math should be taught using the techniques of ‘reform math.’” But no matter. He did the field an enormous service with a series of posts at the Heartland Institute’s blog titled “A Common Sense Approach to Common Core,”...

Previously, I posted about the perils of applying standards-driven instruction to reading classrooms. The point was that reading standards typically don’t articulate the content that students need to learn to become good readers; they merely list the skills and habits exhibited by already good readers. Therefore, using standards to plan lessons results in ineffective reading instruction—those skills and habits can’t really be taught, practiced, and mastered in the abstract.

The truth is that while the problems are most acute in reading, standards for any subject are most effective when used not to drive lesson planning on any given day, but rather the selection of a clear, teacher-friendly, coherently developed curriculum. That’s because even the best standards don’t help teachers figure out how to ensure that all students master the requisite content and skills. They describe the destination, but they don’t provide a roadmap. Curriculum is the missing link.

One might then ask why we are even talking about standards. Rather than debating the Common Core State Standards why not debate a “Common Curriculum”? In fact, that is how it works in many countries. Even Finland—the country that most reform critics want us to emulate—began their now-famous transition to international education superpower by, first and foremost, writing and adopting a national curriculum.

In other nations, state-developed curricula go further than American standards. Here, states list content and skills, but stop short of defining pedagogy or prescribing curriculum. Abroad, governments prescribe a particular course...

Just in time for Christmas, my Fordham colleague Mike Petrilli has left a present under the tree for inquisitive children and busy parents who don’t think the sky will fall if the kids get a little screen time now and again (it won’t).

Over the course of a year’s blog posts, and with the help of several able Fordham interns, Mike curated some of the best streaming web videos on Netflix, Amazon, and elsewhere. He then aligned them with the Core Knowledge Sequence, a robust list of subjects from pre-K to eighth grade that undergirds the curriculum at some of the nation’s most successful schools. These have now been repackaged into a neat little website he’s calling “Netflix Academy.” Homeschoolers for whom Core Knowledge is a subject of near-religious devotion will also be grateful for this resource. 

You’ll find videos on science, literature, and U.S. and world history. Click on “Science,” for example, and you’ll see a drop-down menu organized by knowledge domains (aquatic life, mammals, insects, outer space, etc.). Within each domain are direct links to streaming videos from Netflix, National Geographic, PBS, YouTube, and others sources. You’ll also find movie versions of classic children’s book and lots more. It’s entertainment with high caloric content.

“As E.D. Hirsch Jr. has argued for a quarter-century, the early elementary years are the ideal time to introduce children to the wonders of history (natural and otherwise), geography, literature, art, music, and more,” Mike writes.

I heartily agree....

Before the age of standards and tests, teachers generally taught the textbook. They began on page one and got as far as they could before the end of June, sometimes racing through the last four chapters in less time than they devoted to the first.

Standards, testing, and accountability changed that. Now there are clearly defined goals that all students must meet, and teachers are asked to ensure not just “coverage,” but that all students master a predetermined set of content and skills.

That means today’s curriculum and instruction are driven not by where you began but by where you want to end up. In a data-driven, results-oriented classroom, good teachers begin with the standards and “backmap” from June to September to ensure that the most critical or difficult topics get the instructional time they deserve.

This approach makes sense for most subjects, where the standards describe the actual content that students need to master within and across grades. Math, for instance, is a hierarchical subject with a logical progression of skills and content. Yearlong curriculum plans can be devised and focused on ensuring adequate time to master all of the key standards. And teachers who themselves are math experts may well be able to piece together a coherent program that meets their students’ needs using the standards as their guide.

Reading, however, is different.

Beyond the foundational reading skills, standards in this realm don’t articulate the content that students need to learn to become good readers. Instead, the standards...

[Editor's note: This is part two of a multi-part series on the use of prior knowledge in literacy. It originally appeared in a slightly different form at Tim Shanahan's blog, Shanahan on Reading. The first post can be found here.]

 In my first post, I focused on the controversy over prior knowledge. Common Core has discouraged enhancing reading comprehension through the introduction of information external to a text.

That challenges the most popular ways of introducing texts in schools—telling students information about the text topic or exploring student knowledge relevant to the topic. CCSS proponents bridle at such practices. They want students to become independent readers, which means they’d be able to read texts effectively without extra information.

They also blanch at the idea of students constructing text meanings without sufficiently accounting for the author’s input; texts should mean something closer to what the author intended than what a reader might choose to make it mean.

The problem with de-emphasizing existing knowledge is that reading comprehension depends on reader knowledge. We use what we know to draw inferences, clarify ambiguity, and store information in memory. Banning explicit attention to student knowledge can’t “level the playing field” between rich and poor because you simply can’t stop students from using what they know when they read.

I promised to provide some instructional guidance for dealing with prior knowledge during reading comprehension lessons (and shared/guided/directed readings). Here are ten guidelines for dealing with prior knowledge.

  1. Don’t overdo it. Research shows that providing readers with key
  2. ...

[Editor's note: This is part one of a multi-part series on the use of prior knowledge in literacy. It originally appeared in a slightly different form at Tim Shanahan's blog, Shanahan on Reading.]

An idea heavily promoted in Common Core (CCSS) discussions is the notion that we shouldn’t talk about students’ “prior knowledge,” and that avoiding such discussions somehow “levels the playing field” when it comes to learning to read. Researchers in the cognitive sciences rediscovered the importance of people’s knowledge in learning and comprehension back in the 1970s (revisiting ideas previously explored by Bartlett, Kant, Plato, etc.).

Research findings were very clear: Readers comprehend more when a text overlaps with their knowledge of the world, and they comprehend less when there is less such information in their minds.

Research also has shown benefits from increasing students’ prior knowledge (it is “prior” in the sense that readers knew it before the author told them). And even reminding students that they have relevant knowledge prior to reading can bear fruit.

Why is prior knowledge so useful to readers? There are many reasons, but certainly a basic one is that the availability of such information reduces how painstaking reading may have to be. If you already know much of what the author is going to say, you can kind of go on autopilot and just watch for the new stuff. Your less informed classmates are going to have to attend to the text more carefully, trying to build up...

Fordham Institute to evaluate Common Core assessments on quality and content alignment

PARCC, Smarter Balanced, ACT Aspire, and Massachusetts participating in landmark study

Media Contact:
Michelle Lerner

Washington, D.C. (November 19, 2014) — The Thomas B. Fordham Institute has launched a new study to evaluate the quality and content alignment of PARCC, Smarter Balanced, and ACT Aspire to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Fordham’s study will be published in summer 2015.

As part of the effort, Fordham will also evaluate the 2014 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), a high-quality state assessment, for Common Core alignment under an agreement with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“The promise of the Common Core State Standards, implemented faithfully, is improved education and life outcomes for millions of American children,” noted Amber Northern, vice president of research. “We need tests that fairly reflect and honor the hard work that we are asking teachers and students to do under the Common Core.”

Nancy Doorey (an educational consultant with assessment-policy expertise) and Morgan Polikoff (an assistant professor at...

Common Core has the potential to shift and drastically improve math instruction in American schools, but its detractors have marshalled a raucous opposition to its proposed changes. We’ve already examined the questionable arguments against Common Core literacy standards; now we’re turning our sights to math.

September’s Intelligence Squared U.S. debate pitted Fordham President Michael J. Petrilli and the Center for American Progress’s Carmel Martin against the American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess and New York principal Carol Burris. Hess and Burris are two of Common Core’s most eloquent and energetic critics, but the position they mounted against the initiative’s math standards is not a strong one. It can essentially be boiled down to three points:

1.) The standards confuse children.

This is perhaps the most common critique of Common Core math. As the new standards have been implemented (seldom perfectly) in participating states, districts, and schools, children have sometimes been assigned math problems that would make a structural engineer scratch her head. Parents accustomed to the “classic style” of teaching math—long worksheets of standard algorithms with one or two word problems at the bottom—worry about the unfamiliar presentation of their kids’ homework, and many opponents have delighted in picking apart often inscrutable questions. At the debate, Burris recited a confusing-sounding Common Core standard (1.OA.C.6) for teaching young students:

Here’s a first grade example. “Use strategies such as counting...