Common Core Watch

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form in the Daily News and City Journal.

Last week, New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña demanded that dozens of New York City’s lowest-performing schools adopt and implement a widely criticized literacy curriculum with which she has long been associated. It was the most recent of a growing list of decisions she has made while running the nation’s largest school system that seem to be based not on empirical evidence, but on the chancellor’s personal preference.

In November, the city unveiled its School Renewal Program, a $150 million plan to turn ninety-four chronically low-performing schools into “community schools.” A concept paper inviting community-based organizations to partner with the New York City Department of Education (DOE) noted the approach “is based on a growing body of evidence” showing that “an integrated focus” on academics, health and social services, and other community supports are “critical to improving student success.”

What growing body of evidence? The paper didn’t say—not even in a footnote. Perhaps because the evidence is scant to nonexistent. New York’s initiative is modeled on a similar program in Cincinnati, but as a 2013 analysis by the New York Times noted, “what has gone largely unsaid is that many of Cincinnati’s community schools are still in dire academic straits despite millions of dollars in investment and years of reform efforts."

It gets worse. Last week, Chalkbeat’s Patrick...

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form at RegBlog.

Most public policy issues fit roughly into one of three categories. The first contains fundamental matters of principle—what we generally call “social issues,” such as abortion, gay marriage, and gun rights. The second bucket includes topics that are more technical in nature: how to make various systems or sectors work better. Here we might put nuts-and-bolts issues like infrastructure or procurement reform. The third category is for issues that have elements of the first two, both fundamental matters of principle and technocratic questions of implementation. Health care reform certainly belongs there.

Category three is also where education reform in general, and Common Core in particular, belongs. There are clear matters of principle: Should all American children have equal access to challenging coursework? Do states have the right, perhaps even the responsibility, to set standards for their public schools, or should all such control remain with local school boards, educators, or parents? But technical questions are important too: Are the standards high enough? Are the tests properly aligned with them—and also psychometrically valid and reliable? Who is responsible for helping schools develop the capacity to teach to the new expectations? How should we respond to implementation struggles, as with the current confusion around some math topics?

This dual nature of Common Core as an educational and political issue is important to keep in mind over the coming months as state lawmakers debate whether to “stay the course” or “turn...

Jason Zimba

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form on the Tools for the Common Core Standards blog.

Standards shouldn’t dictate curriculum or pedagogy. But there has been some criticism recently that the implementation of the Common Core State Standards may be effectively forcing a particular pedagogy on teachers. Even if that isn’t happening, one can still be concerned if everybody’s pedagogical interpretation of the standards turns out to be exactly the same. Fortunately, one can already see different approaches in various post-CCSS curricular efforts. And looking to the future, the revisions I’m aware of that are underway to existing programs aren’t likely to erase those programs’ mutual pedagogical differences, either.

Of course, standards do have to have meaningful implications for curriculum, or else they aren’t standards at all. The Instructional Materials Evaluation Tool (IMET) is a rubric that helps educators judge high-level alignment of comprehensive instructional materials to the standards. Some states and districts have used the IMET to inform their curriculum evaluations, and it would help if more states and districts did the same.

The criticism that I referred to earlier comes from math educator Barry Garelick, who has written a series of blog posts that aims to sketch a picture of good, traditional pedagogy consistent with the Common Core. The concrete proposals in his series are a welcome addition to the conversation math educators are having about implementing the standards. Reading these posts led me to consider the following question:...

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. ...

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