Common Core Watch

“There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.”

—Colin Powell

There isn’t a Common Core supporter in the nation who hasn’t qualified her enthusiasm for what the standards can do with “if they are implemented properly.” On the other hand, I’m not sure there’s a Common Core opponent who isn’t standing in the wings, waiting for implementation to fail.

It’s only by allowing the chance for failure that standards can have any real meaning.

This is often the point in a new initiative when supporters feel most vulnerable and start scrambling to figure out how to avoid high profile failures. But, if we’ve going to succeed in this venture, we shouldn’t be trying to avoid failure, we should be looking to shine a spotlight on it and embrace it as a key element of change. It’s only by allowing the chance for failure that standards can have any real meaning.

This is something that KIPP understands intimately. KIPP has become perhaps the most well-known charter model not just because it was the first CMO to achieve national scale, but also because it’s been consistently the most successful. There are KIPP schools around the country that beat the odds and that do amazing things for the students in their care.

Of course, there are also KIPP schools that haven’t lived up to the promise of the best among them. Schools that opened to great promise, but whose...

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Today, Achieve is releasing drafts of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), an attempt to create “common,” multi-state standards for that critical subject. (It’s not part of the separate Common Core initiative for reading and math.) Using a framework developed by the National Research Council (and reviewed by Fordham last fall), experts from twenty-six Lead State Partners worked with Achieve to draft the new standards, supposedly “rich in content and practice, arranged in a coherent manner across disciplines and grades to provide all students an internationally-benchmarked science education.”

It remains to be seen whether these common standards willl avoid the pitfalls that plague too many state standards; their "commonness" alone certainly doesn't guarantee they will be better than existing standards. Still, this is a crucial step in a multi-year process, one that may significantly alter American science education—and it couldn’t come at a better time. Fordham will be publishing a formal review of the draft standards in coming weeks (and Achieve is soliciting feedback, so sharpen your pencils), but regardless of how the NGSS drafts stack up, something needs to change. Our recent study of state science standards in every state revealed a dismal situation: A majority of states received a D or F grade in the review, with the national average a low C. States will need to think hard about whether they can live with the status quo—and whether the NGSS offers a viable alternative.

To give a better sense of...

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A clique of conservative groups is pushing the message that tomorrow’s ALEC vote is part of a “growing movement” against federal intrusion vis-à-vis the Common Core standards. There’s a problem with that line of reasoning: ALEC is already on record against federal intrusion into education vis-à-vis the Common Core standards.

In December, the organization of conservative state lawmakers adopted two Common Core resolutions in its education committee. One—the subject of the vote tomorrow at the board of directors level—calls on states to back out of the common standards initiative altogether. The second—which has already become ALEC policy—focuses instead on the federal role in the initiative, and tells Uncle Sam to back off.

Here’s the first resolution:

The State Board of Education may not adopt, and the State Department of Education may not implement, the Common Core State Standards developed by the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Any actions taken to adopt or implement the Common Core State Standards as of the effective date of this section are void ab initio. Neither this nor any other statewide education standards may be adopted or implemented without the approval of the Legislature.

And the second:

BE IT RESOLVED, that the {legislative body} vigorously opposes any effort by the federal government to deny the authority of any state to set its own education academic content standards or to attempt to overturn decisions made duly by a state regarding any education standards deemed by the constitutionally-designated authorities in that state to be in...
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In a 2000 campaign speech, George W. Bush famously said:

Some say it is unfair to hold disadvantaged children to rigorous standards. I say it is discrimination to require anything less—the soft bigotry of low expectations.
It turns out that there are also some pretty deep, possibly unconscious, biases at work that manifest themselves through the way we praise students.

It was a powerful turn of phrase that ended up emerging as the signature phrase of Bush’s reform agenda. There has been evidence around for some time that students of color or those from disadvantaged backgrounds have not been exposed to the same rigorous content as their white, middle class and affluent peers. But it turns out that there are also some pretty deep, possibly unconscious, biases at work that go beyond exposure to rigorous content and that manifest themselves through the way we praise students.

For a new study recently published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, Rutgers-Newark psychology professor Kent D. Harber and his team gave a poorly written essay to 113 white middle and high school teachers. The teachers were told that the essay was written by a black, a white, or a Latino student and that their feedback would be given directly to the student to help him/her improve. According to one article:

The results showed that the teachers displayed a “positive feedback bias.” The teachers provided more praise and less criticism if they thought that the student who wrote the essay was Black or Hispanic....

An independent task force on U.S. Education Reform and National Security brought together by the Council on Foreign Relations released a report in March that found that "the United States' failure to educate its students leaves them unprepared to compete and threatens the country's ability to thrive in a global economy and maintain its leadership role."

These findings may be disconcerting, but they're not new. Politicians, policymakers, educators, parents, and even students have long understood that far too many American students leave high school without having mastered the essential knowledge and skills they need to succeed in college and on the job.

There is no shortage of reforms put forth by earnest education advocates eager to improve student achievement. But who is right?

Of course, there is no shortage of reforms put forth by earnest education advocates eager to improve student achievement. Many believe that small classes are our best route to closing the achievement gap. Others feel similarly about setting clear and rigorous standards. And still others push for accountability reforms that use results from assessments to hold students, teachers, and leaders accountable.

Who is right?

There is a saying among high performing schools that there is no 100 percent solution to helping students learn. Instead, there are a hundred 1 percent solutions that add up to big results.

The same is true in the world of education policy. Our best hope to improve student achievement is to find the right mix of policies that, taken together, have the...

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Several years ago, Grover “Russ” Whitehurst did a study that looked at whether there was a link between high quality standards and student achievement. Drawing upon rankings of standards done by Fordham and the AFT, he found no relationship between the strength of a state’s standards and their student achievement results.

Common Core supporters would do well to keep the champagne on ice.

Whitehurst’s study has emerged as the rallying cry of Common Core skeptics, with fellow Brookings scholar Tom Loveless using it to argue that the implementation of the Common Core doesn’t matter and won’t make a different in improving student reading or math achievement.

There is one small problem: The Whitehurst study doesn’t address Common Core standards because they didn’t exist when he did his research.

Enter Dr. William Schmidt, an education professor at Michigan State University. Rather than resurrecting the Whitehurst study—or the Fordham evaluations of state standards—Schmidt did his own original analysis. And the findings from this study seem to suggest that Loveless—and anyone else trotting Whitehurst out to undermine the Common Core—may have gotten things exactly wrong.

The difference between the studies is critical to the debate over the CCSS. In short, while Whitehurst relied on Fordham's and the AFT's appraisals of state standards, Schmidt used his own original analysis to get much more directly to the question at hand: Will the particular changes Common Core is likely to usher in make a difference? He looked at every state’s existing or previous (i.e.: non Common Core) standards...

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USA Today ran a story Saturday entitled, “Common Core Standards Driving a Wedge in Education Circles.” The article comes after a week of exceptionally bad press for standards- and accountability-driven reform, capped off by the tale of a talking pineapple and his apparently cannibalistic friends.

Of course, it wasn’t always this way. In fact, it was just two short years ago that a remarkably broad and bipartisan coalition that united union leaders and market reformers helped secure passage of the new standards.

What a difference a couple years makes.

What’s interesting, though, is that, with some limited exceptions, the debate over the Common Core standards has very little to do with the standards themselves. In fact, on all sides of the ed reform aisle, people seem to agree that these particular standards are rigorous, clear, and better than the vast majority of the state standards that were in place previously.

Instead, the debate over the Common Core is now caught up in a larger fight about the merits of education reform writ large. In this increasingly toxic environment, Common Core has become one more conspiracy to uncover, one more grand scheme for the fringe on the right and left to fight against.

Every day brings a new line of attack, each less comprehensible than the last. Some believe the standards are part of a giant corporate plot, the main goal of which is to pad the pockets of testing companies. Others believe they’re part of a grand scheme—led...

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On Monday, I wondered aloud whether the debate among policy elites over the value of the Common Core had become nihilistic. Yesterday, Terry Ryan, Fordham's VP for Ohio programs and policy, confirmed that, at least in the heartland, the discussions among practitioners about the value and potential of the Common Core was far more optimistic and productive. Terry described how Ohio educators, interviewed by journalist Ellen Belcher for a forthcoming report, view the transition to and the potential of the new expectations:

The educators in Ohio interviewed by Belcher, the people on the frontlines of our schools who work daily with our kids, see the move towards the Common Core as a positive. But, they worry seriously about the implementation challenges, and they fear that somehow our political leadership class will screw all of this up and turn a good into something bad. Or, as one Cleveland educator remarked, “the Common Core is the right work we should be doing as a country.” “But let’s not make this the metric system of our time…and all of sudden stop.” This is thoughtful guidance from someone actually doing the work.
Common sense, increasingly scarce in the public debate around the Common Core among talking heads and the chattering class, still prevails in the heartland. I take some solace in this fact and I hope others do as well.

The entire post is worth a read. It’s a helpful reminder of the importance of listening to front-line educators and not getting...

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Last week, Tom Loveless penned an Education Week op-ed where he (again) argued that the Common Core standards don’t matter—that the quality of a state’s standards has little correlation with how well students in that state fare on the NAEP.

Loveless’s main point—which is mostly right—is that statewide standards implementation has not led to dramatic student achievement gains. He notes, for instance, that “from 2003 to 2009, states with terrific standards raised their National Assessment of Educational Progress scores by roughly the same margin as states with awful ones.”

It’s not easy to get right, but when effectively implemented this playbook gets results.

Yet, we do know that teachers, schools, and even districts that set high standards for student learning, hold teachers and principals accountable for reaching specified goals, align curriculum and instruction to the standards, and intentionally use short- and long-term data to drive instruction are able to make significant gains for kids. It’s not easy to get right, but when effectively implemented this playbook gets results. At least on the school and district level.

Therein lies the challenge: we have yet to see equally dramatic results on the state level.

Of course, we at Fordham have long argued that standards alone won’t drive achievement—they need to be linked to meaningful implementation and accountability to have any hope to impact student learning.

Loveless does try to address this by arguing that existing standards—good and bad—have been implemented. He reasons:

Past standards-setters were neither as naive nor passive as...
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Leonie Haimson—a vocal ed-reform critic—helped generate a media firestorm about testing recently when she posted about an absurd passage that was included on this year’s New York State eighth grade ELA test. The post itself generated more than 2,000 hits in its first few hours and led to a New York Daily News article entitled “Talking pineapple question on state exam stumps ... everyone!

pineapple
The citrus fruit that rocked education reform.
 Photo by Richard North.

The passage on the exam needs to be read in full to be believed. It’s a perfect storm of bad writing, poor structure, and inexplicable questions. If you haven’t read it—and you should—it’s enough to know that the moral of the story—included in bold at the end—is this:

Moral of the story: Pineapples don't have sleeves.

Haimson and her fellow testing foes are right to call out this passage as ridiculous. And critics of accountability can and should play this role, helping surface problems and draw attention to the need for change.

But the real outrage among those of us who care deeply about accountability is why these problems aren’t being caught earlier. For too long, we have been focusing our attention on expanding the use of tests to more grades and more subject areas and increasing the consequences tied to...

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