Common Core Watch

In NRO today, Rick Hess explores “five half-truths” that he says supporters of the Common Core like to propagate. These spurred five questions of my own:

  1. You dispute that the Common Core standards are “evidenced based” because “what the Common Core’s authors did falls well short of what ‘evidence-based’ typically means.” By your definition, would any set of standards be considered evidence-based? Such as those previously in place in the states? Or any set of education standards one might develop in the future? (Or, for that matter, in myriad other fields?) If no, then what’s your point? Do you think we should abandon standards-based reform?
  2. Relatedly, would you consider elements of the Common Core to be evidence-based? Such as their focus on scientifically-based reading instruction in the early grades, or the demand for fluency in arithmetic, or the admonition to delay calculator use? Would you disagree that those decisions were based on evidence? Do you think states should go back to standards that don’t include these evidence-based expectations?
  3. You complain that the Common Core standards don’t include calculus. Do you think states should expect all students to learn calculus? If not, where would you set the bar for “college and career ready”? 
  4. You say that it’s hard to judge the “rigor” of standards. OK. So do you think other standards are more rigorous than the Common Core? Ohio, for example, is having a debate about whether it should repeal the Common Core and deploy the old Massachusetts standards instead. Do
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It’s too soon to guess TIME Magazine’s person of the year, but a clear favorite has emerged for Common Core person of the year: the man, woman, or group that has done the most to advance the adoption and implementation of Common Core State Standards in the U.S. 

Ladies and gentleman, for meritorious service to further the cause of rigorous academic standards and educational excellence, please put your hands together for the governor of the great state of Louisiana, Common Core Man of the Year, Bobby Jindal!”

Jindal, as I’m sure you know, is suing the federal government over Common Core. And for this, he deserves enthusiastic cheers and undying gratitude from supporters of the Common Core State Standards. He has thrown into profound jeopardy the most effective talking point that their opponents have: that the feds forced national standards down the states’ throats and that Uncle Sam is illegally dictating what schools will teach. If this were true, any number of states, districts, or other stakeholders would have been in court ages ago. But they haven’t. The blunt fact of the matter is that this is powerful rhetoric atop an extremely weak legal case—like posting a “beware of dog” sign on your home when you own a beagle puppy.

Jindal’s suit alleges that the Department of Education forced adoption of Common Core through its Race to the Top program, which “required” states to “enter...

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I have a complicated relationship with testing. I refuse to pretend that it’s caused no mischief in our schools—narrowing curriculum, encouraging large amounts of ill-conceived test prep, and making school a joyless grind for too many teachers and students alike—but neither can any fair-minded analyst deny that there have been real if modest gains in our present era of test-driven accountability, especially for low-income black and Hispanic children, particularly in the early grades.

What to make, then, of Secretary Duncan’s widely heralded concession that testing is “sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools” and his offer to states of a year-long delay in making test scores part of their evaluation systems?

“There’s wide recognition that annual assessments—those required by federal law—have done much to shine a light on the places and groups of students most in need of help. Yet in too many places, it’s clear that the yardstick has become the focus,” Duncan wrote in a lengthy blog post Thursday.

We at Fordham have been among those pleading for some reasonable flexibility in this area, particularly as new standards and assessments kick in, so the secretary’s message is welcome. Some states don’t want to shift gears, but others crave a breather while curriculum and pedagogy catch up with newly rigorous expectations. (We’ll save for another day an examination of the constitutional aspects of all this, as Duncan’s department evidently will be offering states waivers from conditional waivers, the statutory...

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Morgan Polikoff

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Nearly all American K–12 students are exposed to it every day. It decides, in large part, what students will learn in school and how they will learn it. It is never evaluated for quality in any serious way, but when it is rigorously evaluated, its impact on student achievement is significant.

No, this isn’t another blog about teachers. I’m talking textbooks. We need good textbooks in front of kids just as badly as we need good teachers. However, from a research and policy perspective, improving textbook quality is a lot easier.

A little-noticed report last week in Education Week described a new initiative intended to be the Consumer Reports of textbooks. A new nonprofit called EdReports plans to post “free online reviews of major textbooks and curricula that purport to be aligned to the Common Core State Standards.” If they’re careful, credible, and diligent, this initiative could turn the lights up on a largely ignored factor in student outcomes that is ripe for analysis and improvement. And it could even blunt some of the more pointed criticisms of the Common Core. Here’s why I think EdReports, textbooks, and other curricular materials, in general, matter:

First, textbooks aren’t people. There is no union seeking to protect the interests of textbooks. They don’t need due

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Results from the annual Education Next poll are out this week, and the news is not good for us proponents of the Common Core. Support among the public dropped from 65 percent to 53 percent in just one year (from June 2013 to June 2014); Republicans are now almost evenly split on the issue, with 43 percent in support, and 37 percent opposed. What’s more, the new PDK/Gallup poll (out today) corroborates these trends and offers even worse news, finding that a majority of the public, and three-fourths of Republicans, now oppose the Common Core. Finally, Education Next found that support from teachers plummeted from 76 to 46 percent in just twelve months.

Nobody who has been following the public debate should be particularly surprised, at least when it comes to the overall numbers or those for Republicans. (The results for teachers are another matter; more on that in a bit.) After two punishing years of legislative assaults, Tea Party attacks, implementation controversies, and negative stories in conservative media, it’s a bit of a miracle that the numbers aren’t even worse. (Still, let’s be honest: these numbers are plenty depressing.)

I see two silver linings for those of us who still think the Common Core has great potential to improve American education:

  1. While the Common Core “brand” is
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With the release last week of half of the test questions from the most recent round of New York State Common Core ELA/Literacy and math tests, we can now begin to see if the tests are, as one New York principal insisted last spring, “confusing, developmentally inappropriate and not well aligned with the Common Core standards.”

Do the charges stick? After a quick analysis of the released items, on the charge of “confusing,” I find the tests (at least somewhat) guilty. Not well aligned with the Common Core standards? Not guilty. Developmentally inappropriate? That charge should never have been brought in the first place.

Calling Common Core “developmentally inappropriate” has become something of a blanket criticism, but it’s largely irrelevant. University of Virginia cognitive scientist Dan Willingham has repeatedly cautioned against invoking the idea of developmental stages to draw strong conclusions about what children are ready for. “Hard” and “developmentally inappropriate” are not synonyms.

Critics are on firmer footing describing some test items as confusing. The first passage on the fifth-grade reading test was “My Grandma Talley,” a short story by Nadine Oduor that makes frequent use of vernacular language. Unfamiliar words like “frettin’,” “lotta” (a lot of), and “doodlebug” and idiomatic language like “wet behind the ears” could easily trip up young readers. Dialect is not the same as the archaic language typically found in historical documents, which have been heavily signaled as important under Common Core.

Following the passage, one question asks...

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I’m looking forward to Elizabeth Green’s forthcoming book Building a Better Teacher. A sneak preview will run in the New York Times magazine this weekend and already is up on the website.

The lengthy Times’ excerpt tells the story of a teacher who fell in love with novel ways of teaching math that were pioneered by reformers in the United States and adopted in his native Japan, reportedly to great success. But when Akihiko Takahashi came to our country years later, he was surprised and saddened to learn American classrooms were not the hotbeds of innovation he expected. “It wasn’t the first time that Americans had dreamed up a better way to teach math and then failed to implement it,” Green writes.

I’ll set aside for now the question of whether or not those methods (such as “reform math” championed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) are superior. But Green’s next paragraph leapt from the page:

The trouble always starts when teachers are told to put innovative ideas into practice without much guidance on how to do it. In the hands of unprepared teachers, the reforms turn to nonsense, perplexing students more than helping them.

This observation, that poor teacher preparation turns everything to garbage, strikes me as the skeleton key that unlocks so much of our failure to make and sustain gains in American education, regardless of grade, setting, subject,...

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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
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