Common Core Watch

Thanks in part to the Common Core, there is broad (though not yet universal) agreement that we need to raise the level of rigor in the reading that’s assigned to all students. Unfortunately, the guidance that’s starting to emerge about how teachers can best select “grade-appropriate” texts is overly complicated and may actually end up undermining the Common Core’s emphasis on improving the quality and rigor of the texts students are reading.

Take, for example, the book recently released by the International Reading Association entitled Text Complexity: Raising Rigor in Reading. The first chapter of the book (blogged here), made a strong argument against the practice of assigning “just right” books and in favor of selecting more rigorous texts.

Having made a persuasive case for upping the rigor of readings, the authors devote the better part of the remaining eighty pages to showing, in great detail, just how complicated this process can become when put into practice. What unfolds is a dizzying array of quantitative and qualitative measures that teachers can use to select appropriate texts. 

The authors warn teachers that relying on quantitative measures alone (word and sentence length, word frequency, and text cohesion), which are by far the easiest and perhaps even the most reliable way to pin a text to a particular grade band, is “too problematic to be effective.”

Of course, the authors are right that quantitative measures alone can’t give you...

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The central idea behind standards- and accountability-driven reforms is that, in order to improve student learning, we need to do three things:

  • Clearly define a minimum bar for all students (i.e., set standards).
  • Hold students, teachers, and leaders accountable for meeting those minimum standards.
  • Back off: Give teachers and leaders the autonomy and flexibility they need to meet their goals.
The push for greater accountability has often been paired with less autonomy and more centralized control.

It’s a powerful formulation, and one that we’ve seen work, particularly in charter schools and networks where teachers and leaders have used that autonomy to find innovative solutions to some of the biggest instructional challenges.

Unfortunately, in far too many traditional school districts, the push for greater accountability has been paired with less autonomy and more centralized control. That is a prescription for a big testing and accountability backlash. 

You needn’t look far for examples of how traditional districts have gotten the accountability balance all wrong. There are a host of stifling district practices that unintentionally hamstring, rather than free, our teachers and leaders. And that unintentionally encourage precisely the kinds of practices most testing critics loathe.

Many of these top-down district policies stem from the earnest desire to replicate the practices of the best and most effective teachers. Unfortunately, what too many state and district leaders miss is that you can’t script your way to great instruction from district offices or from the statehouse. And trying to do so...

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Guest blogger Paul Gross is an emeritus professor of life sciences at the University of Virginia and former head of the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole.

Yesterday in Ed Week, an article by Nora Fleming highlighted the results from a recent NAEP assessment of “hands-on” science skills, which demonstrated that “elementary, middle, and high school students failed to demonstrate a deep understanding of science concepts when they performed activity-based science tasks and investigations…” This breathless account hardly merits close attention. The NAEP data will receive it in due course. But the remarks of the NAEP Governing Board’s spokesman, here quoted, are disturbing. They call for a response not much longer than statements quoted in Nora Fleming’s article.

Cell Culture
All scientific "situations" are "real life."
Photo by Umberto Salvagnin.

First, the comment attributed to Alan J. Friedman implies that, until now, K-12 science education has consisted of “rote memory and how to follow instructions.” Abandonment of this canard by science teachers (and their teachers) is long overdue. There is no evidence to support it. For half a century, specialists in school science and their professional organizations have stressed, and overstressed, the importance of “hands-on” science learning. That insistence antedates by decades the advent of computers. The suggestion that until now science education ignored the “grasping of...

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Common practice and conventional wisdom among many literacy experts suggest that the best way to help improve student reading comprehension is to assign “just right” texts—those that are pitched at a student’s instructional reading level. The theory is that you want to challenge students to read books that are just hard enough to push their comprehension, but not so difficult that they’ll throw up their hands in frustration.

Does a focus on “just right” texts adding to the gap between advanced readers and their below-level peers?

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post wondering whether this focus on “just right” texts was doing a disservice to our most-struggling students, even adding to the already large reading and content gap between advanced readers and their below-level peers.

A new book published by the International Reading Association and written by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, Diane Lapp provides yet more evidence that the focus on “just right” books may in fact be undermining student learning in three critical ways:

1. Assigning “just right” books makes reading too easy.

“Perhaps one of the mistakes in the past efforts to improve reading achievement has been the removal of struggle,” the authors argue.

As a profession, we may have made reading tasks too easy. We do not suggest that we should plan students’ failure but rather that students should be provided with opportunities to struggle and to learn about themselves as readers when they struggle, persevere, and eventually succeed.

Of course, advocates of the...

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I don’t love standards. I doubt any teacher does.

I love literature. History. Science. I love grappling with ideas. I’m excited to know how things work and to share what I have learned with others, especially eager-to-learn children. Standards, by contrast, are unlovely, unlovable things. No teacher has ever summoned his or her class wide-eyed to the rug with the promise that “today is the day we will learn to listen and read to analyze and evaluate experiences, ideas, information, and issues from a variety of perspectives."

School events teach liberty, citizenship
No teacher has ever summoned his or her class to the rug with the promise that "today is the day we will learn to listen and read to analyze and evaluate experiences, ideas, information, and issues from a variety of perspectives. Won't that be fun boys and girls?!"
Photo by Fort Rucker.

“Won’t that be fun, boys and girls?!”

Well, no, it won’t. Standards are a joyless way to reverse engineer the things we love to teach and do with kids. Thus I understand and sympathize if beleaguered teachers view Common Core State Standards (CCSS) as just one more damn thing imposed on them from on high, interposed between them and their students. But if they do, that’s a shame. Because far from being just another compliance item on the...

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Fordham's Mike Petrilli joined Education Sector's Susan Headden on Minnesota Public Radio to discuss how much the Common Core will actually change American education. The conversation includes why the Common Core hasn't gotten more headlines nationwide and what impact it will have on the states that adopt it. The replay is worth a listen:

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Among the most controversial aspects of the Common Core ELA standards is their far greater emphasis on nonfiction reading than is traditionally seen in American classrooms. The standards demand that students spend as much as 50 percent of their time reading “informational texts” in the early grades and up to 75 percent on informational texts and literary nonfiction by high school. It’s a common sense effort to restore balance to readings that have traditionally focused almost exclusively on fiction. But it also takes on one of the most prominent and often fiercely defended fallacies in American education: that fiction is the only—or perhaps even the best—way to develop students’ love of reading, learning, and critical comprehension skills.

The CCSS take on the fallacy that fiction is the only—or perhaps even the best—way to develop students’ love of reading, learning, and critical comprehension skills.

Diane Ravitch recently added fuel to the fire when she penned a post entitled, “Why Does David Coleman Dislike Fiction,” where she lamented the standards’ focus on informational texts and literary nonfiction. She argued:

Maybe David Coleman thinks that education is wasted on the young. But how sad it would be if future generations of young people never read the poems and stories and novels that teach them not only how to think but how to feel, how to dream, how to imagine worlds far beyond those they know.

Of course, none of the CCSS architects or supporters imagines a world where students don’t read fiction....

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As states and districts strain their budgets, the cost of the impending transition to Common Core State Standards has generated a disconcerting lack of attention from state policymakers. At a time when money is a key element in education-policy discussions, the dearth of such cost projections is not only alarming, it has left the entire standards effort vulnerable to opponents eager to spread fears about—inter alia—its fiscal viability. Those who are still pushing states to repudiate the Common Core would have us believe that its price tag is huge—and that all those costs are new. Wrong. Most states have been implementing their own academic standards (good, bad, or mediocre) for years and money that they’re already spending for that objective can (and should) be repurposed for Common Core implementation. Nor do all implementation strategies carry the same costs. Which, especially in an era of tight budgets, is why the nuanced findings of Fordham’s latest study, Putting A Price Tag on the Common Core: How Much Will Smart Implementation Cost?, come at a crucial time.

CCSS costs video
Watch Amber Winkler explain how much Common Core implementation will cost. 

Our analysts (Patrick Murphy of the University of San Francisco, Elliot Regenstein of EducationCounsel LLC, and Keith McNamara) targeted the three primary cost drivers of standards implementation—instructional materials, student...

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Today, Fordham is releasing a new report on the costs of putting the Common Core State Standards into place around the country. Putting a Price Tag on the Common Core: How Much Will Smart Implementation Cost? estimates the implementation cost for each of the forty-five states (and the District of Columbia) that have adopted the Common Core State Standards and shows that costs naturally depend on how states approach implementation. Authors Patrick J. Murphy of the University of San Francisco and Elliot Regenstein of EducationCounsel LLC illustrate this with three models:

Pricing the Common Core
Download Putting a Price Tag on the Common Core to learn more.
  • Business as Usual. This “traditional” (and priciest) approach to standards-implementation involves buying hard-copy textbooks, administering annual student assessments on paper, and delivering in-person professional development to all teachers.
  • Bare Bones. This lowest-cost alternative employs open-source instructional materials, annual computer-administered assessments, and online professional development via webinars and modules.
  • Balanced Implementation. This is a blend of approaches, some of them apt to be effective as well as relatively cost-efficient.

The report examines the tradeoffs associated with each strategy and estimates how much the three approaches would cost each state that has adopted the Common Core. The authors also point out that, since states already invest billions annually in professional development,...

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Education reform critics often compare the practices of elite private schools to those of traditional public schools serving our nation’s most disadvantaged students and are appalled by the differences they see. Just this morning, I saw a tweet from science teacher Aaron Reedy, retweeted to Diane Ravitch’s 30,000 followers, which said:

We need to look at what works for the wealthy and emulate that in all of our public schools.
Too many of us draw exactly the wrong lessons about what should be replicated from elite private (and public) schools.

It’s a familiar theme, and one that I—and many reformers—are sympathetic to. Unfortunately, when observing teaching and learning at elite private (and public) schools, too many of us draw exactly the wrong lessons about what should be replicated. And by doing so, we unintentionally promote strategies that end up widening the knowledge gap between children born to privilege and those born to poverty.

I wrote about this a year ago, responding to an article written by Alfie Kohn that accused urban schools in engaging in what he called “a pedagogy of poverty.” At the time, I argued:

A lot of education activists, like Alfie Kohn and Diane Ravitch, like to argue that urban schools should copy the instructional practices of elite private schools…
…What they are missing is what happens outside the classroom: the heavy reliance on parent involvement to help teach their students the key skills, knowledge and abilities they need to succeed. Teachers in these schools...
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