Common Core Watch

A famous workplace adage goes: “The boss is coming, look busy!” It is a recognition that far too often people are judged not just by what they produce, but by how hard they work to produce it.

Nearly every state is working hard to look busy, lest they be accused of not taking the Common Core seriously.

Many education reforms are designed to shift away from this thinking, placing the emphasis on outcomes instead of inputs, encouraging the use of objective data to drive judgments about performance, to shift the conversation to one grounded in genuine productivity and effectiveness. The crucial insight of these efforts is that management styles that prioritize “busy-ness” over effectiveness encourages people to make grand, often complicated plans that may not be well suited to drive the kind of change we need.

Yet, isn’t this exactly what we’re seeing in our rush to implement the Common Core?

Since its inception—and with the exception of the development of the actual K-12 expectations—the Common Core has encouraged haste. Four states (Kentucky, Hawaii, Maryland, and West Virginia) adopted the standards before they were even final.

Twenty states adopted them within one month of their release. All but six states had, in their Round 1 Race to the Top applications, developed plans to transition to the Common Core five months before the final CCSS were released. And districts have begun to align curriculum and instruction to the standards with very little guidance about how the expectations will be...

In 2005, Achieve and the National Governors Association hosted a National Education Summit on High Schools where forty-five governors came together with business leaders to address an ongoing challenge in American education: the gap between what students need to master to earn high school diplomas, and the knowledge and skills they need to be prepared for college and careers. Every year since, Achieve has released its annual “Closing the Expectations Gap” report, aimed at highlighting the progress states have made—and need to make—to better align K-12 and postsecondary education expectations.

The challenge is that tracking implementation is tricky.

The first report, released in 2006, focused primarily on whether high school academic standards and graduation requirements were aligned to “college and workplace expectations.” (In all but two states, they hadn’t been, though as many as thirty-five states were working towards it.) This year, the landscape has obviously shifted dramatically: Thanks in part to the Common Core, schools in every state and the District of Columbia are guided by standards that are aligned to College and Career Ready (CCR) expectations.

Of course, that means that the report must shift to match the changing landscape. To that end, this year’s report has, for the first time, begun to track state progress towards implementation of the standards. According to the authors, the report “provides an overview of the progress states are making” and it “draws attention to key issues states should consider as adoption and implementation work continues.”

The challenge is that tracking...

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The Pioneer Institute released a report last week entitled How Common Core’s ELA Standards Place College Readiness At Risk. As the title suggests, this is the latest in a series of Pioneer broadsides against the Common Core. Readers who find their way through the reflexive criticism and confusing presentation will be rewarded with some genuine insights into how to get implementation right. Unfortunately, because that guidance is buried deep amidst a sea of misrepresentations and sometimes inflammatory rhetoric, it is unlikely to further the discussion of how best to implement the CCSS.

The authors hammer home their message with all the subtlety of a wrecking crew.

The authors hammer home their message with all the subtlety of a wrecking crew: The Common Core English language arts expectations are poor—far lower in terms of content, clarity, and rigor than the Massachusetts English language arts standards, they clearly believe—and their adoption in states across the country “places college readiness at risk.”

The reality—as evidenced by the substance of the report, if not its title—is far more nuanced. And the authors of this report, Mark Bauerlein and Sandra Stotsky, have much to contribute to the discussion of how best to implement the CCSS.

For starters, and despite the promotional material Pioneer has issued surrounding this publication and its associated event, Huck Finn is not in at risk of disappearing from high school English class. At least not any more so today than it was the day before forty-six states and the District...

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Thanks in part to the requirements of the Federal Race to the Top program, since 2010 states and districts across the country have adopted teacher evaluation systems that use student achievement as part of the assessment of individual teachers’ performance. Given the amount of energy and political capital the education-reform community has put into developing, negotiating, and implementing these plans, you would think it’s a sure fire way to boost student achievement. Unfortunately, the top-down nature of these changes may very well be undercutting any chance they have to make a real difference for kids.

Top-down systems that bypass or undermine school leaders rarely produce excellence in the classroom.

The problem is not about the details of these evaluation systems—although clearly some are better than others—but rather who should be in the driver’s seat in making the decisions about how to hire, fire, and evaluate teachers. And the reality is that teacher-evaluation reforms are unlikely to succeed for reasons education reformers should know well: Top-down systems that bypass or undermine school leaders rarely produce excellence in the classroom.

It wasn’t that long ago that education reform was driven forward by a commitment to freeing determined principals who had a vision for excellence from the constraints that prevented them from developing the teams and practices they needed to drive school-wide change. Today, by contrast, reformers seem to have lost faith in the transformative power of school leadership and are now pushing teacher-quality reforms directly from district offices and statehouses through a...

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Thanks to the Chicago Teachers Union strike, 350,000 of some of our nation’s neediest children have missed school this week. While it sounds like the strike may be close to an end, its impact will likely be far reaching and linger long after the teachers go back to work.

According to the unions, the fact that Chicago children have been denied the education they deserve is unfortunate but necessary to stop what they perceived as an unfair and unjust evaluation system that “would rely heavily on student standardized test scores.” One of key talking points being thrown around by the media is that student performance on standardized tests would account for as much as 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, something that even many reformers can’t stomach.

However, a close read of the final teacher-evaluation proposal from the Chicago Public Schools reveals a very different picture. In fact, the CPS proposal is more thoughtfully crafted and balanced than the rhetoric suggests, using a well-developed and tested teacher evaluation rubric, peer evaluation from master teachers, and student performance on teacher-created and teacher-scored performance assessments.

In fact, according to the final proposal, student achievement on standardized tests will never account for more than 25 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. And, even then, the district ensures that the often-derided state assessments—which, as critics note, are in desperate need of improvement—will not be used to judge a teacher’s effectiveness.

According to the CPS proposal, there are four essential elements of...

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Perhaps the most seductive trap in all of education reform is the idea of replication. A charter school is high achieving? Turn it into a CMO! A curriculum is achieving big results? Bring it to every classroom in its district! An instructional strategy is clicking with teachers? Take it nationwide! In theory, this makes sense. We should, after all, learn from the best, and if something is working, why not replicate it?

copier
Copying success doesn't always lead to success.
Photo by Andre W.

Too often, though, replication falls short of these high expectations. It ends up more like an old-fashioned Xerox, where each new copy is a little worse than the one that came before.

In education, the Xerox effect often stems from a shift in focus. In the high achieving schools and classrooms so many seek to copy, teachers and leaders work together with their eyes firmly focused on the goal of improving student achievement. In replication schools, however, that focus is too often diverted from student outcomes to the faithful implementation of “proven” programs, systems and tools.

What’s more, feedback in replication schools too often becomes unidirectional and is aimed at how well the program is being implemented, rather than on whether—faithful to the program or not—teachers are driving outstanding achievement. Unfortunately, when fidelity to...

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The premise of Paul Tough’s excellent new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character—that cognitive ability matters, but character traits like tenacity, curiosity, and optimism matter more—is a strong challenge to my long-held notion that, when students struggle, whether in high school or college, much of that is attributable to their lack of academic preparedness. How Children Succeed largely argues otherwise, but there is a brief but fascinating account late in the book that suggests we shouldn’t be too quick to worship at the altar of grit alone.

playing black
Is school just like chess? Perhaps not. 
Photo by Adam Raoof.

The first half of Tough’s book unpacks clinical research that demonstrates the importance of parents protecting children from adversity in the first years of life. But it is the ability to persist in difficult tasks that ultimately seems to lead to success. Tough’s book, broadly speaking, makes the case that, insofar as there is any formula for success in life, it starts with a child’s need for protective, nurturing parenting, followed by independence and challenge to develop resiliency and “grit.”

A chapter entitled “How to Think” describes in vivid detail the remarkable success of the chess team at IS...

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Robert Pondiscio, a vice president at the Core Knowledge Foundation and editor of its blog, posed an interesting question on Twitter this week:

I’ve seen bad schools with good test scores before. Any good schools with bad test scores?

It’s a timely and important question that gets to the heart of the emerging debate over whether standardized tests can fairly and accurately measure student learning, and whether accountability systems based on their results are too often mislabeling successful teachers and schools as “failures.”

Obviously, no accountability system is perfect, but we can all agree that one that gets it wrong as often as it gets it right is in need of serious reform. But is there any proof that is happening?

No accountability system is perfect, but we can all agree that one that gets it wrong as often as it gets it right is in need of serious reform.

Enter Kristina Rizga, a Berkeley-educated muckraking journalist who recently took the reins as the education reporter at Mother Jones after stints at Wiretap Magazine and AlterNet. In preparation for her new article, “Everything You’ve Heard About Failing Schools Is Wrong,” Rizga spent a year “embedded” in Mission High School in San Francisco. Her goal was to seek a “grassroots view of America’s latest run at school reform,” with an eye towards how we know “when schools are failing,” and whether “the close to $4.4 billion spent on testing since 2002…[is] getting results.” The culmination of her work at...

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A version of this post originally appeared on the Shanker Institute blog.

Up until now, the Common Core (CCSS) English language arts (ELA) standards were considered path-breaking mostly because of their reach: This wasn’t the first time a group attempted to write “common” standards, but it is the first time they’ve gained such traction. But the Common Core ELA standards are revolutionary for another, less talked about, reason: They define rigor in reading and literature classrooms more clearly and explicitly than nearly any of the state ELA standards that they are replacing. Now, as the full impact of these expectations  starts to take hold, the decision to define rigor—and the way it is defined—is fanning the flames of a debate that threatens to open up a whole new front in America’s long-running “Reading Wars.”

Game of Risk
A new front opens on a war worth waging. 
Photo by Ben Stephenson.

The first and most divisive front in that conflict was the debate over the importance of phonics in early-reading instruction. Thanks to the 2000 recommendations of the National Reading Panel and the 2001 “Reading First” portion of No Child Left Behind, the phonics camp has largely won this battle. Now, while there remain curricula that may marginalize phonics and phonemic...

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Children Lose Out” was the title of an editorial penned by The Salt Lake Tribune in response to last week’s State Board of Education decision to withdraw from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). Nationally, Common Core (CCSS) advocates worry that this move will not only hurt Utah’s kids, but also that it represents a weakening of support for the new expectations, and they worry that it could fuel even more anti-CCSS fire across the country.

Perhaps.

On the other hand, if Utah education leaders seize this moment as an opportunity to prove both that the CCSS is truly a state-lead initiative and to show how a state can take the reins to ensure that the aligned assessments are clear and rigorous and to give teachers the implementation tools they need, this move could do more to garner support for CCSS implementation than either consortium has done to date.

The reality is that, more than two years after the release of the final version of the CCSS, SBAC and the other assessment consortium, PARCC, have released scant information about what their assessments will look like—and how (if at all) they’ll differ from the mediocre tests we have now. Nor have they given teachers the information they need to guide lesson planning and instruction. Given the pressure that states are feeling to develop implementation plans, and that teachers are feeling to quickly align their practice to the new expectations, this lack of information is troubling. Assessments are, after all, where...

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