Common Core Watch

Increasingly, the conversation about Common Core is dominated by politics and controversy. It has become so loud and shrill that it’s easy to forget that across the country are countless superintendents, principals, and teachers who are seizing the opportunity to challenge themselves to change the way they work to provide a better education for their students.

I remain as optimistic about the promise of the Common Core as I was when I first reviewed the standards four years ago. I believe that ultimately Common Core will succeed or fail based not on what politicians say but, rather, based on what teachers and school leaders do. That’s why I’m proud to take on a new opportunity to bring the Common Core—combined with the power of Core Knowledge—to a network of urban Catholic schools as its superintendent.

In March 2013, the Archdiocese of New York signed a landmark deal with the Partnership for Inner-City Education to support six inner-city Catholic schools in Harlem and the South Bronx. This is the first time that an independent organization has been given the opportunity to manage a set of schools in the Archdiocese of New York, and the agreement builds upon the Partnership’s 20-year track record and unwavering commitment to inner-city Catholic education. This is a team of principals, teachers, and leaders who are dedicated to charting a new course for urban Catholic education. I'm proud to join them.

On a personal note, this is also bit of a homecoming for me....

For all of the talk about how different reading instruction is meant to be in the Common Core era, and for all of the hand wringing over the critical “instructional shifts” embedded in the new literacy standards, a glimpse at the world of classroom implementation reveals that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Thanks to a combination of inertia, self-interested publishers, and leaders who prefer to see reading taught the way it’s been taught for years, Common Core-aligned reading instruction runs the risk of becoming a repackaged version of the ubiquitous balanced literacy we’ve seen in schools for decades.

This issue came into sharp relief last month, when the New York Times reported that New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has been counseling schools to continue using the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project as the foundation of their literacy instruction. This is a repudiation of the guidance given to City schools by Fariña’s own Department of Education just last year, when the Teachers College project was conspicuously missing from a list of recommended, CCSS-aligned literacy programs.

It was just the latest sign that despite all of the discussion about how the Common Core is going to “change everything,” the message that’s getting to the field is, “This, too, shall pass.”

That message isn’t always delivered so clearly, though. While Fariña may have been unusually direct in her guidance to Gotham schools, the messages being sent elsewhere are far...

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Alan J. Borsuk

Here’s a suggestion for something to include in Wisconsin-specific education standards for Wisconsin children:

By the end of first grade, children will know that two Badgers plus two Badgers equals four Badgers.

You want Indiana-specific standards for Indiana kids? By the end of first grade, children will know that two Hoosiers plus two Hoosiers equals four Hoosiers.

North Carolina standards for North Carolina kids? You got it—two Tar Heels plus two Tar Heels equals four Tar Heels.

What kind of silliness is this? Best as I can see, it’s about the level of silliness the whole discussion of education expectations for our children is reaching, both in Wisconsin and across the nation.

With Governor Scott Walker’s one-sentence statement on Thursday that he wants the legislature to repeal Wisconsin’s involvement in the Common Core standards movement, we have crossed onto turf where chaos in education policy is likely to reign for the coming school year.

At the same time, I bet we’re also on the way, in the long run, to changing very little when it comes to state standards for what kids should learn. I say that because states that have announced they are going to set their own standards are generally coming up with new plans that actually change little. That’s for two reasons.

  1. The Common Core standards are not perfect, but they’re really pretty sound (and there is wide agreement they’re a lot better than what Wisconsin had before). Any serious-minded group, regardless of politics, would agree
  2. ...
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Last week, I had the privilege to speak in front of a group of education journalists convened by the Poynter Institute and the Education Writers Association about identifying strengths and weaknesses in curriculum.

This is a heavy lift for journalists. It’s simply asking too much for even the most seasoned education reporters to develop a discerning eye for curriculum; it’s not their job, and it makes their job covering the instructional shifts taking place under Common Core uphill work.

I referred my listeners to a recent NPR effort to get “super-specific about what makes a good Common Core–aligned lesson.” The reporter enlisted the aid of Kate Gerson, who works with EngageNY, a New York State Education Department’s web site. She’s one of the leaders of New York State’s transition to Common Core; NPR asked her to walk through a supposedly exemplary ninth-grade lesson—a close reading of a short story by Karen Russell entitled, “St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised By Wolves.”

Great idea! I’m all for reporting that sheds light on Common Core. I’ll admit that I’m not familiar with Russell or this particular story, but no matter. Standards are not curriculum. Common Core isn’t top-down and lock step. Local control and teacher choice rules! This is gonna be great!

NPR’s report continues,

Russell’s work meets recognized benchmarks for literary quality—her debut novel was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and she’s the winner of a 2013 MacArthur grant. Being new is good, too. “The phrase ‘contemporary authors’ is

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The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is thrilled to welcome Robert Pondiscio as our senior fellow and vice president for external affairs, effective today. Here's his first of many posts he will pen as a member of the Fordham Institute team. Look for his posts on topics besides Common Core on Flypaper.

Frank Bruni of the New York Times worries that the pressure of selective college admissions is forcing kids to do “stagy, desperate, disturbing things to stand out.” He tells the story of a would-be Yalie with good grades and test scores but whose personal essay described a conversation with a teacher she admired—a conversation too important and stimulating to interrupt. “During their talk, when an urge to go to the bathroom could no longer be denied, she decided not to interrupt the teacher or exit the room. She simply urinated on herself,” he writes. 

In Bruni’s telling, today’s college applicants have grown up in the era of oversharing, “a tendency toward runaway candor and uncensored revelation, especially about tribulations endured and hardships overcome.”

Certainly this trend of uncensored oversharing is disconcerting. But the fault, dear Bruni, is not in our scars but in our schools. To a significant degree, this awkward, uninhibited narcissism is aided, abetted, and even encouraged by what passes for writing instruction as far back as elementary school.

New York City’s schools, for example, have long been have long been in the thrall of the Teachers College ...

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While proponents of school choice often base their case on student achievement—contending that choice-based accountability leads to school improvement and stronger pupil attainments—opponents seem likelier to argue against choice on the grounds that it fractures communities and undermines democratic values. This dynamic is unfortunate because it leaves the impression that the advancement of school choice is hostile to—or at least indifferent to—issues of community and democracy. The reality, however, is that nothing could be farther from the truth.

There is no doubt that opponents of school choice are spilling more ink than reformers on this question of education for democracy and community. It is, for instance, the mission of the new Network for Public Education to “fight to protect, preserve and strengthen our public school system, an essential institution in a democratic society.” And education historian Diane Ravitch repeatedly makes the case that the traditional public school system is “one of the foundation stones of our democracy” and that “an attack on public education is an attack on democracy.”

However, the case that the traditional school system is the only or even the best path to upholding community and democracy is remarkably weak. In fact, a close look at the history of traditional public education reveals the strongly anti-democratic strains of the common schools movement, some of which we still live with today (a topic that receives a thoughtful book-length discussion in Charles Glenn’s Myth of the Common School).

The troubling but often forgotten truth

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What follows is the text from State Superintendent John White’s opening comments at the 2014 Teacher Leader Summit in New Orleans, Louisiana.

On behalf of the state of Louisiana, on behalf of its 50,000 educators, its 1,400 schools, and its 800,000 school children, welcome to the 2014 Teacher Leaders Summit.

Over the next two days, we will immerse ourselves in a special kind of community, one with great diversity but also a powerful and common bond: belief in the great potential of young people and in the ability of educators to unlock that potential.

This Teacher Leader event is truly led by teachers. Louisiana teachers designed this event. Louisiana teachers created each session. Louisiana teachers will be leading each session. And I’d like to take a minute to thank all of the Louisiana educators who made this day happen. If you are a Teacher Leader Advisor or if you’re leading a session today or tomorrow, would you please stand and be recognized so that we can thank you for your efforts here today.

I come here today invigorated by one simple idea: that our children in Louisiana are as smart and capable as any in America, that God has bestowed on them gifts as great as those of any children on Earth, and that we owe it to them to provide an education that is as challenging and as fulfilling as they would be provided anywhere else.

I come here today inspired by the...

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Here’s a puzzler: Why are the Common Core math standards accused of fostering “fuzzy math” when their drafters and admirers insist that they emphasize basic math, reward precision, and demand fluency? Why are CC-aligned curricula causing confusion and frustration among parents, teachers, and students? Is this another instance of “maximum feasible misunderstanding,” as textbook publishers and educators misinterpret the standards in ways that undermine their intent (but perhaps match the interpreters’ predilections)?  Or are the Common Core standards themselves to blame?

My take is that the standards are in line with effective programs, such as Singapore Math, but textbook publishers and other curriculum providers are creating confusion with overly complex explanations, ill-written problems, and lessons that confuse pedagogy with content.

Many of the “fuzzy math” complaints seem to focus on materials that ask students to engage in multiple approaches when tackling arithmetic problems. But to understand whether the confusion stems from the standards or the curriculum, let’s start by recalling what the CCSS actually require.

1. The Common Core explicitly demand student mastery of the standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division for both whole numbers and decimals.

Any honest reading of the standards must recognize that in grades 4, 5, and 6, the Common Core demand that students master standard algorithms. In grade 4, students should “fluently add and subtract multidigit whole numbers using the standard algorithm.” By grade 5, they are expected to multiply whole numbers using the standard algorithm. And by grade 6, they are expected...

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Common Core State Standards have had quite a year in Michigan.

After a near-death experience in the spring of 2013, when a handful of legislators delayed their implementation via a budget provision despite strong support from the state’s business and education community, they sprang back to life in October when bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate voted to proceed full speed ahead.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that another major challenge lurks for the Great Lakes State and its education reform efforts: the misguided desire by some to move away from rigorous, Common Core–aligned student assessments, assessments that allow us to see progress, identify problems, and measure Michigan against other states in the nation—critical in our global economy.

Those of us who support standards-based reforms like the Common Core understand that standards alone are just words on paper. That’s why scholars such as Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution have found that states with stronger standards in the pre–Common Core era didn’t necessarily perform better on national tests of student achievement. That’s not surprising; it would be like thinking that developing countries that adopt better constitutions would automatically have better-functioning governments or economies. Constitutions, like standards, can lay a strong or weak foundation, but their success will depend on many other factors.

In the world of school reform, the most important complement to good standards is an aligned, challenging...

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While political fireworks are grabbing most of the Common Core headlines these days, the real story is how teachers and leaders—particularly those within the reform community—are changing their daily practice in light of the content and rigor demands of the CCSS.

Out of sight but hard at work, leaders of the “No Excuses” schools are taking the adoption of the Common Core as a challenge to refocus their reading instruction in ways that will help their students make greater gains in reading and writing than they have historically been able to do. Central to that challenge is the question of how to help students—a majority of whom are struggling readers who often lack basic reading skills and vocabulary—meet the content and rigor demands of the CCSS.

Reading in the Common Core era

As longtime readers of this blog know, my support for the Common Core literacy standards stems from three things: (1) the emphasis on building knowledge to improve comprehension, (2) the focus on close reading and using evidence to support answers and analysis, and (3) the push to give all students regular practice with complex texts.

It's the combination of all three—working together—that holds the promise of finally helping students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, master the reading skills needed to succeed in college.

While each of the three changes poses its own special challenge to the status quo, it’s the last piece—the emphasis on text complexity—that is most threatening to the conventional wisdom driving reading instruction in American...

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