Common Core Watch

So far, I am leery of both sets of official tests for the Common Core, at least in English language arts (ELA). They could endanger the promise of the Common Core. In recent years, the promise of NCLB was vitiated when test prep for reading-comprehension tests usurped the teaching of science, literature, history, civics, and the arts—the very subjects needed for good reading comprehension.

In an earlier Huffington Post blog, I wrote that if students learned science, literature, history, civics, and the arts, they would do very well on the new Common Core reading tests—whatever those tests turned out to be. To my distress, many teachers commented that no, they were still going to do test prep, as any sensible teacher should, because their job and income depended on their students’ scores on the reading tests.

The first thing I’d want to do if I were younger would be to launch an effective court challenge to value-added teacher evaluations on the basis of test scores in reading comprehension. In the domain of reading comprehension, the value-added approach to teacher evaluation is unsound both technically and in its curriculum-narrowing effects. The connection between job ratings and tests in ELA has been a disaster for education.

The scholarly proponents of the value-added approach have sent me a set of technical studies. My analysis of them showed what anyone immersed in reading research would have predicted: The value-added data were modestly stable for math but fuzzy and unreliable for reading. It...

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For many years, my son Ted has been principal of the elementary grades of a K–12 public charter school in Massachusetts. It uses the Core Knowledge Sequence (a grade-by-grade outline of essential content) as a primary tool for developing its curriculum. His school ranks in the top-performing group of schools in the nation’s top-performing state. Needless to say, the school has long followed the rightly admired Massachusetts standards. Indeed, the Massachusetts standards are so good that some of the most vocal opponents of CCSS are claiming that the Common Core State Standards will represent a watering down. But Ted’s school justifies a very different inference. His Core Knowledge–based curriculum is consistent with both the Massachusetts standards and the CCSS. How so? It’s because both sets of standards set rigorous goals but don’t specify content for each grade level. In the course of actual implementation, therefore, a school can simultaneously fulfill both the Massachusetts standards and the CCSS, as Ted’s school so effectively does. 

This fall, Ted’s daughter, Cleo, will be teaching in a school in the Bronx, assigned to teach the American Revolution to seventh-grade public school students. Though hugely competent, she panicked and called me: “O my gosh. Granddad, are there any teaching guides for this?” Her school could offer no real support. I sent her one of the thick, grade-by-grade teacher handbooks produced by the Core Knowledge Foundation. These handbooks explain each topic and provide instructional suggestions. In addition, they also lay out the knowledge above and beyond the lesson topics that would...

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Common Core
 

When I’m asked if I support the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS), I give an emphatic “yes.” They constitute the first multi-state plan to give substance and coherence to what is taught in the public schools. They encourage the systematic development of knowledge in K–5. They break the craven silence about the critical importance of specific content in the early grades. They offer an example (the human body) of how knowledge ought to be built systematically across grades. They state,

By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.

That principle of building coherent, cumulative content animates the most effective school systems in the world, and for good reason: The systematic development of student knowledge from the earliest grades in history, literature, science, and the arts is essential to high verbal ability—which in turn is the key to social mobility and college readiness.

The words quoted above don’t define the specific historical, scientific, and other knowledge that is required for mature literacy. (If they did, no state would have adopted the CCSS, because specific content remains a local—or teacher—prerogative in...

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Prepared for Delivery on August 28, 2013

Chairman Kelly, ladies and gentlemen. I’m Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank in Washington, DC that also does on the ground work in your neighboring state of Ohio. (No football comments, please!)  At Fordham, we promote high-priority education reforms with a particular focus on standards-based reforms and school choice. I’ve worked in this field myself for many years, including more than a few fruitful go-rounds with you, Mr. Chairman, when you served on Governor John Engler’s staff back in the nineties.

I am glad that you have been holding these hearings and seriously considering whether Michigan should stick with the Common Core academic standards. I know you’ve heard from some folks who hope that you won’t. I hope that you will. Before getting into my eight top reasons, let me lay a few facts on the table regarding the Common Core:

These standards are clear, rigorous, and nationally and internationally benchmarked. They emphasize reading rigorous, high-quality literature in English class, plus nonfiction in history, science, and other courses. They also emphasize the fundamentals of mathematics. Properly taught and successfully learned, they will indeed produce high-school graduates who are ready for college-level courses and modern jobs.

The Common Core effort is and has always been a state-led effort to improve the quality and rigor of K–12 academic standards, an effort in which Michigan leaders have participated. And by adopting and implementing the Common Core, states...

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Back in June, we at Fordham released a critical review of the final Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). As we explained at the time,

…using substantially the same criteria as we previously applied to state science standards—criteria that focus primarily on the content, rigor, and clarity of K–12 expectations for this key subject—our considered judgment is that NGSS deserves a C.

Our review team felt that these new standards fell short in a number of critical areas. Far too much essential science content was either missing entirely or merely implied. Science practices, while essential to K-12 science learning, were given undue prominence. And the inclusion of “assessment boundaries” meant to limit test development would like place an unintended but undesirable ceiling on the curriculum that students would learn at each grade level.

Besides all of that, our expert team was disappointed by what they found, and didn’t find, by way of math, especially in relation to physics and chemistry. “In reality,” they said,

there is virtually no mathematics, even at the high school level, where it is essential to the learning of physics and chemistry. Rather, the standards seem to assiduously dodge the mathematical demands inherent in the subjects covered. There is math available in the Common Core that could be used to enhance the science of the NGSS. No advantage is taken of this.

Since then, the NGSS authors have released an appendix—Appendix L—that is meant to show “Connections to the Common Core State Mathematics Standards [CCSSM].” This...

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When New York released the test-score data from its first administration of the Common Core–aligned tests, they unleashed the shot heard ‘round the education world. Critics are—predictably—outraged. But let’s remember, when the state set the cut scores too low and reformers like Joel Klein benefited, they were also outraged. The old test scores, they rightly explained, didn’t align to what we knew from NAEP and other data were overall low levels of achievement.

These new test scores are more in line with what we’ve learned about achievement in New York from the NAEP test, from the college-readiness assessments given to high school students last year, and from college completion rates. But rather than claim victory, critics are still furious.

Why? There are no doubt myriad reasons—some of them political—but certainly two contributing factors are the fact that we haven’t had a real debate about the role consequences should play in an era of more rigorous tests and the fear over how these tests will be used to judge individual teachers and schools.

While reformers are right to stand by leaders as they work to right the ship, if we want to build stronger support for these changes, we need to carefully examine how they have played out in recent years and ask hard questions about the role of consequences in the harsh sunlight of real results.

While I’ve long supported standards- and accountability-driven reform, I’ve also questioned the wisdom of state-led accountability...

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Jason Zimba, PhD
Indianapolis Statehouse
After testifying in Indianapolis, Jason Zimba reflects on what he learned about the entrenched opposition to the Common Core State Standards.
Photo by W9NED

Earlier this week, I spent a day visiting Indiana’s beautiful nineteenth-century statehouse in Indianapolis, where I testified about the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics. Testimony in favor of the standards was also given to legislators by in-state experts, like Warren Township school superintendent Dena Cushenberry and Purdue Dean of Admissions Pamela Horne. Afterwards, I reflected about what I had learned about the entrenched opposition to the standards.

The first thing I learned is that there is a significant gap in the quality of the evidence being brought forward in this debate.

  • In my testimony, I cited a peer-reviewed journal study by a distinguished university researcher on international mathematics performance about the grades and topics in the standards—research concluding that the Common Core agrees with high-performing countries better than any previous state standards, including those of Indiana. During his testimony, noted critic of the standards Dr. Williamson Evers cited an online news article.
  • At a previous hearing, Mr. Ze’ev Wurman apparently told legislators[1] that  “Common Core completely forgot conversion among fractional forms—fractions, percent, and decimals.” But standard 7.EE.3 on page 49
  • ...
Jason Zimba, PhD

Until now, I have generally kept out of the politics of the Common Core State Standards, in favor of helping teachers, districts, and states understand and implement them. But the recent editorial by James Milgram and Emmett McGroarty was so misleading that it demands a response.

Just how rigorous are the Common Core State Standards?

Jason Zimba
Jason Zimba: "Calling the Common Core 'fuzzy' is not only misreading the standards—it is also, I fear, sanctioning others to misread them in the same way."

  • The standards received a perfect score for content and rigor in the Fordham Institute’s 2010 review.
  • Research by William Schmidt, a leading expert on international mathematics performance and a previous director of the U.S. TIMSS study, has compared the Common Core to high performing countries in grades K–8. The agreement was found to be high. Moreover, no state's previous math standards were as close a match to the high-performing countries as the Common Core.
  • Milgram and his circle are a decided minority on the question of Common Core. The presidents of every major mathematical society in America support the Common Core, including the American Mathematical Association, the Mathematical Association of America, and the National Association of Mathematicians. These presidents lead organizations representing literally hundreds of research mathematicians.

Milgram and McGroarty have misrepresented the standards in...

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Tomorrow, the New York Department of Education plans to publicly release the results from the first administration of its new Common Core–aligned assessment—and leaders have already tipped their hands to let schools and districts know that the news isn’t good.

Common Core
We raise the bar in order to ground the work of our schools in an honest understanding of how our students are actually doing.
Photo by Benjamin Chun

Even though this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone in New York, especially since state officials have been previewing the presumed drop in scores for nearly a year, opponents of standards- and accountability-driven reform are at the ready to jump on the announcement and lambaste State Education Commissioner John King and New York City Mayor Bloomberg, both of whom remain steadfast in support of the Common Core.

Some of the criticism you will see will be familiar: these standards and tests are simply pitched at a level that’s too high, some will say. Our expectations are unrealistic. Diane Ravitch previewed those complaints earlier this year (and in a post written this morning) when she came out against the Common Core. At the time, she argued,

When Kentucky piloted the Common Core, proficiency rates dropped by 30 percent. The Chancellor of the New York Board of Regents has...
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My name is Kathleen Porter-Magee; I’m a senior director and Bernard Lee Schwartz policy fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning education-policy think tank in Washington, D.C., that also leads ground-level work in the great state of Ohio. We support a variety of education reforms, with a particular focus on school choice and standards- and accountability-driven reform. In addition to my own policy work, I’ve spent several years working to implement rigorous standards in urban Catholic and charter school classrooms. Fordham’s president, Chester Finn, served in the Reagan Administration, and its executive vice president, Mike Petrilli, served under George W. Bush.

I’m honored to be with you here today and am grateful for the opportunity to talk to you about what I believe is one of the most important education initiatives of the past decade: the development, adoption, and implementation of the Common Core State Standards.

I hope to help explain why the Common Core hold such promise, to demystify what the standards are all about, and to debunk some of the most common myths and misconceptions. But before we decide whether the CCSS is the right choice for Indiana students, it’s important to understand four facts:

1.   The Common Core State Standards are clear, rigorous, and nationally and internationally benchmarked.
2.   Common Core English standards emphasize the importance of reading rigorous, high-quality literature in English class, plus nonfiction in history, science, and other courses.
3.   The Common Core effort is and has always been a state-led effort...

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