Common Core Watch

The following post was adapted from a talk delivered by Kathleen Porter-Magee at the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.

Thank you, Dr. Reyes and also, thanks to Reverend Rodriguez for the invitation to speak. I’m honored to be with you here today.

Before I begin, I want to take a moment to express our sincere gratitude to Reverend Rodriguez for standing up in support of the Common Core, particularly at a time when it is politically more expedient to do the opposite. His support for these new standards and the promise they hold for the Latino and faith communities shows real courage and leadership, and your willingness as a group to start what we hope will be a long conversation is much appreciated.

As Dr. Reyes mentioned, I recently joined the College Board as the senior advisor for policy and instruction. But I’ve spent the past 17 years working both on the ground level, in schools as a teacher and network administrator in both Catholic and urban charter schools, and at the 30,000-foot level working to translate lessons from great classrooms and great schools to policy.

But before I dive in, I’d like to tell you a little about who I am and why I’m here.

I come from a traditional Irish Catholic family, where faith and religion were a big part of our family. Today is actually my grandmother’s 96th birthday. She was born in Hell’s Kitchen in New York before women won the right to vote and...

The latest in a series of anti–Common Core scare tactics came from Michelle Malkin yesterday, when she implored,

It is not easy to stand up and challenge sovereignty-undermining, curriculum-usurping, privacy-sabotaging education orthodoxy, especially when it is plied by a toxic alliance of both Big Government and Big Business interests. But if we don’t do it, who will?

The post goes on to share stories from parents who complain that local principals have refused to listen to their anti-CCSS complaints and that they’ve had “gag orders” put on them when they’ve tried to question “what the Common Core is doing to our children.”

The specific criticisms mostly point to assignments that children are bringing home from school. Earlier this year, for instance, two Indianapolis moms launched a campaign against the standards in their home state of Indiana. According to an NRO article written in May, “Heather [Crossin] suddenly noticed a sharp decline in the math homework her eight-year-old daughter was bringing home from Catholic school.”

Crossin explained,

Instead of many arithmetic problems, the homework would contain only three or four questions, and two of those would be “explain your answer.” Like, “One bridge is 412 feet long and the other bridge is 206 feet long. Which bridge is longer? How do you know?”

Last month, an article on TownHall.com showed a truly confusing math question that was part of a supposedly Common Core–aligned math program. In short order, it spread like wildfire through social media. And parents...

Last week, Chester Finn and Michael Petrilli—Fordham’s dynamic duo—joined a Cato Institute debate on Common Core, going up against Neal McCluskey of Cato and Emmett McGroaty of the American Principles Project.

Here are the key arguments that Checker and Mike made in defense of the Common Core:

Politics

In his opening remarks, Checker explained that “most of the discussion about the Common Core isn’t actually about education or about what kids learn; it’s about politics.” Indeed, Common Core has become the ball in a political kickball game. Many, perhaps most, Common Core critics have not read the standards themselves, nor do they want to engage in a debate over whether students are learning the rigorous content and skills they need to be prepared for what lies ahead.

Quality

State standards are not new. Prior to the Common Core, each state set academic standards for English language arts and math. But those standards were vague or low-level. Worse, the tests that states used to judge proficiency tested low-level knowledge and skills and had unacceptably low proficiency cut scores. The Common Core are clear and rigorous. That they are common is less important than the fact that they are high quality.

Improved outcomes

No Child Left Behind—and state testing programs before it—demonstrated that we could boost the achievement of the lowest performing kids by setting a low bar and demanding that schools help our most disadvantaged students get over it. Now we are embarked on a more ambitious project: to better align...

As a Relinquisher, I’m weary of broad government mandates. I believe educators should run schools, parents should choose amongst these schools, and government should hold schools accountable for performance and equity.

So what to make of the Common Core—which will be the broadest combination of federal- or state-initiated regulatory overhaul that we’ve seen in decades?

Admittedly, it took me a while to sort through my competing impulses. But here’s the path I followed:

Skepticism: The research on standards

1.    There’s very little evidence that higher standards lead to higher achievement. As Tom Loveless notes, states with better standards do not show more growth on NAEP.

2.    There’s also a financial, political, and labor-opportunity cost to working on standards over other things more directly related to Relinquishment (charter expansion, human-capital pipelines, etc).

Pragmatic hope: The research, logic of assessments

1.    All states have standards, and experts seem to agree that the Common Core standards are better than most existing state standards—so if we’re going to have standards, we might as well make them higher quality.

2.    Why? Because I think this standards shift will include something that has not consistently happened under the NCLB standards shift: assessments will become more rigorous.

3.    Great standards can sit on shelves. Great assessments must be dealt with—and there is some evidence that increasing rigor of assessments in fourth-grade math and reading (by raising cut scores) is correlated to achievement gains. While causation is difficult to prove, this finding...

One of the few things that nearly all sides of the education policy debate can agree on is that student achievement in urban schools and districts across the nation is distressingly low.

But that is where the agreement ends.

There is a complicated, rolling debate about the problem itself: whether this low level of achievement should be described as a failure of schools or a consequence of poverty, whether things are actually getting better and how, and whether our expectations about what schools can do are too high.

But even when we can reach some consensus on the scope of the problem, there is an even more hotly contested discussion about its solutions. Interestingly, though, conversations about how to improve achievement and reduce gaps seem almost myopically focused on systems and governance—how schools or districts are organized, how to hold them accountable, who should hold them accountable, and on. At the same time, claims about the potential of system-level and governance changes seem to both overestimate the impact system-level changes can have on student achievement at scale and studiously avoid what happens every day in the classroom.

It’s as if we were trying to improve cancer treatment with debates about how insurance companies reimbursed hospitals or whether states should provide financial oversight over billing rates, but without talking about how to improve the detection and treatment of the disease itself.

And the reality is that while we undoubtedly have school-governance challenges that need to be overcome, we also have a...

For the past year, much of the ed-reform world has been concerned about the (seemingly) growing opposition from the right to the Common Core standards. But the closer you look at these critiques of Common Core, the weaker their case appears. Can something as solid as CCSS really be stopped by such an intellectually flimsy attack?

The Pioneer Institute is a leader in the conservative anti–Common Core brigade, launching reports, op-eds, and testimony in a seemingly unending effort to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the standards. They are nothing if not fanatical in their opposition to the Common Core; even when they acknowledge the facts aren’t on their side, they simply refuse to change their story.

Take, for instance, Pioneer’s recently released white paper, written by former Texas Commissioner of Education Robert Scott and entitled, “A Republic of Republics: How the Common Core Undermines State and Local Control over K–12 Education." In terms of criticism of the Common Core, there is very little substantively new in the report—the arguments are all very familiar to anyone who’s been following the backlash over the past several months. What makes the report so curious is that they actually accept four facts about the Common Core that leave little of their argument intact.

Fact #1: Local Control. On page 2, Scott acknowledges that, across all states—even those that have adopted the Common Core—it is state and local leaders, not the federal government, who will make decisions about curriculum and instruction.
...

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...

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...

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...

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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