Common Core Watch

Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth, and Christopher Lehman—together with their colleagues at the Heinemann publishing house—have just released a new book entitled Pathways to the Common Core. The book sounds like a useful resource that ELA teachers can use to figure out how to align their instruction to the new standards. Unfortunately, it misses the mark. Part ideological co-opting of the Common Core (CCSS) and part defense of existing—and poorly aligned—materials produced by Heinemann, the book is the leading edge of an all-out effort to ensure that adoption of the new standards requires very few changes on the part of some of the leading voices—and biggest publishing houses—in education.

On page one, the authors explain the book’s mission:

Pathways to the Common Core will help you and your colleagues teach in ways that will bring your students to the Common Core State Standards’ level of work in literacy. This book will illuminate both the standards themselves and the pathways you can take to achieve those ambitious expectations. It will help you understand what is written and implied in the standards and help you grasp the coherence and central messages of them….

…Pathways to the Common Core is written for teachers, literacy coaches, and school leaders who want to grasp what the standards say and imply—as well as what they do not say—deeply enough that they can join in the work of interpreting the standards...

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Since the release of the Common Core state math standards two year ago, math textbook writers and publishers have fallen over themselves to release new or “updated” curriculum resources that they declare to be “aligned” with the new expectations. Unfortunately, until recently there have been scant resources available to educators seeking to determine whether any of these ballyhooed instructional materials have truly been aligned with the content and rigor of the new expectations.

The criteria are clear, readable, and user-friendly.

Enter the lead authors of the CCSSM and their just-released “K-8 Publishers Criteria for the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics.” While ostensibly aimed at publishers earnestly struggling to align their resources with CCSSM, the ten criteria (and accompanying rubric) can also be used by math teachers, department heads, instructional specialists, principals, and superintendents who are wading through and trying to judge the quality and alignment of materials for their schools and classrooms. They can, in fact, be treated as a “buyer’s guide” that helps show which publishers have made the necessary changes for this big shift in math education. And here is hoping that is one way they get used.

The criteria are clear, readable, and user-friendly. For instance, one of the most critical aspects of the standards is their focus on essential content. “Focus,” the criteria explain, “requires that we significantly narrow the scope of content in each grade so that students more deeply experience that which remains.” To that end, the first criterion unambiguously states that,...

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The introduction to the Common Core English language arts standards includes a page that articulates “what is not covered by the standards.” The first bullet notes that,

…while the Standards make references to some particular forms of content, including mythology, foundational U.S. documents, and Shakespeare, they do not—indeed, cannot—enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The Standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectations laid out in this document. [emphasis added]
Champagne on ice
Proponents of content-driven curricula would do well to keep the champagne on ice.
Photo by James Cridland.

An article penned by Sol Stern in the latest edition of the City Journal argues that this call for a content-based curriculum is perhaps the most important element of the standards and that is has led to at least one “undeniably positive development” in American education: “States are now having a serious discussion about the specific subject matter than must be taught in the classroom. And that’s a discussion that hasn’t happened in American schools for almost half a century.”

Yet, proponents of content-driven curricula would do well to keep the champagne on ice because, while the standards hint at this important restoration, they alone can’t deliver on it. Instead, it will be...

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Terry Ryan of Fordham's Ohio team recently returned from the GE Foundation's Summer Business and Education Summit and provided a fascinating recap of the diverse groups rallying around the Common Core effort. Here are a few of the highlights:

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush captured the scale of the [Common Core implementation] challenge when he told the gathering on the first morning that states are heading for a “train wreck.” He noted that when the new standards and assessments come fully online in 2014-15 that many communities, schools and families are in for a rude awakening... He said, “My guess is there’s going to be a lot of people running for cover and they’re going to be running fast.”

The need for higher standards was brought home by business leaders:

During breakout sessions business leaders from some of the largest, most innovative and successful companies in the world – General Electric, IBM, Boeing, Disney World, Apple Inc., and Intel – lamented that they had good jobs in American factories and offices they couldn’t fill because they couldn’t find candidates with the required math and science skills to do the work.

Terry also recounts the remarks by NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, AFT President Randi Weingarten, and CCSS architect David Coleman. It's worth a read.

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Diane Ravitch penned a post this week lambasting the architects of the Common Core standards for not “field testing” the expectations in a small handful of states before rolling them out more broadly. The standards “are being rolled out in 45 states without a field trial anywhere,” Ravitch complains.

How can I say that I love them or like them or hate them when I don’t know how they will work when they reach the nation’s classrooms?
You can’t “field test” what a state should expect its students should learn.

This sounds like sage advice. After all, field testing is a proven way to refine and validate solutions to complicated problems. But in this case, just because it sounds like sage advice, doesn’t make it so. In fact, suggesting that we “field test” Common Core betrays a fundamental misunderstanding about what standards are and what they are not.

Standards aren’t an instructional program or curriculum that helps teachers and students reach an academic goal. Standards are the goal. They are nothing more or less than a simple list of knowledge and skills that students should learn at particular grade levels. You can’t “field test” what a state should expect its students should learn.

Of course, reasonable people can and should debate what should comprise that list of the essential knowledge and skills all children should learn. And educators can quibble over what whether students should learn particular content in fifth or sixth grade. Many critics of the Common Core...

Anti-testing advocates frequently decry the amount of time students spend on state summative assessments. I must admit that I’m persuaded that it’s gotten out of hand—in Connecticut, where I lived for the past 6 years, nearly every public school student in the state spent the better part of March taking tests. Even if the tests were better, it’s hard to justify taking 3-4 weeks out of a roughly 36-week school year away from instruction. But maybe it doesn’t have to be this way?

It’s hard to justify taking 3-4 weeks out of a roughly 36-week school year away from instruction.

There is an old engineering maxim: “Good, fast, cheap; pick two.” When it comes to summative state assessments, we seem to have picked just one: cheap.

The truth is, if we want to build a better assessment, we need to set a more ambitious goal. The current crop of time consuming, low-quality tests isn’t the way the world needs to work; it’s simply the byproduct of a failure of imagination and leadership.

But what if we simply raised our expectations? Why can’t we, for example, have a new kind of test, aligned to the Common Core and leveraging the latest technology, that requires only 3-4 days of testing rather than 3-4 weeks?

Can’t be done? That’s what they said about the iPhone.

Apple’s innovations were as much a product of Steve Jobs’ commitment to doing the impossible as anything else. As Gregory Ferenstein wrote in a Fast Company...

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Last December, I wrote a post criticizing the assessment consortia for their failure to release more information about the development of the forthcoming Common Core assessments. At the time, I argued that providing information about how the standards would be assessed is critical for teachers working to align their planning, curriculum, and instruction to the new expectations.

Providing information assessments is critical for teachers working to align their planning, curriculum, and instruction to the new expectations.

Today—seven months later and just two years from implementation of the new tests—we aren’t much closer to giving teachers a clear sense of how they and their students will be held accountable to the new standards. And while state and district leaders have begun to put pressure on curriculum developers to provide CCSS-aligned materials, there is very little public pressure being put on the consortia to release more information that would help teachers (and curriculum writers) in their quest to align planning, curriculum, assessment, and instruction to the Common Core.

Fortunately, a few states have started to provide more of the guidance that teachers so desperately need. To that end, the New York department of education has released a set of sample assessment questions for grades 3-8 for both ELA and math. (New York is a governing member of the PARCC consortium, but this work is separate from—though I assume informed by—the work being done by the consortium. PARCC is expected to release sample items sometime this summer as well.) The...

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Oleksandr Nartov
Setting a high bar for academic performance is key to international competitiveness.
Photo by EO Kenny.

There is a reason big, modern countries care about education: Decades of experience and heaps of research have shown a close tie between the knowledge and skills of a nation's workforce and the productivity of that nation's economy.

One way to ensure that young people develop the skills they need to compete globally is to set clear standards about what schools should teach and students should learn—and make these standards uniform across the land. Leaving such decisions to individual states, communities, and schools is no longer serving the U.S. well.

We know from multiple sources that today's young Americans are falling behind their peers in other countries when it comes to academic performance. We also know that U.S. businesses are having trouble finding the talent they need within this country and, as a result, are outsourcing more and more of their work.

One major reason for this slipshod performance is the disorderly, dysfunctional way we've been handling academic standards for our primary- and secondary-school students. Yes, an effective education system also requires quality teachers, effective administrators, and a hundred other vital elements. But getting the expectations right, and making them the same everywhere, is important and getting...

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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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