Common Core Watch

While the quick adoption of Common Core by 46 states was cheered by those who had been pushing for common standards for decades, the more jaded among us wondered: Do most states really understand what they signed up for?

Do most states really understand what they signed up for?

To find out, we would do better to ignore the philosophic debates among policy wonks and dig into the teacher-driven conversations happening in classrooms, on blogs, and in professional development sessions around the country. These debates will likely have a far greater impact on the success or failure of the new standards than much of the political noise happening inside the Beltway and in state legislatures.

A Gates-funded survey of teachers released last week included some results cheered by supporters of Common Core, including the finding that most teachers (78 percent) had heard of the standards, that nearly two thirds (64 percent) felt that the expectations were going to have a “strong” or “very strong” impact on student achievement, and that 73 percent of teachers felt “somewhat” or “very” prepared to teach to the standards.

In isolation, this sounds like good news. But consider the results from a separate report, released by the Center on Education Policy, which found that barely half of school districts in states that adopted the Common Core standards “are taking essential steps to implement them.”

One might wonder how teachers can feel so prepared to teach to standards that are so different from what they...

Paul Gross penned an editorial in yesterday’s Gadfly Weekly on the neglect of evolution in many state standards that’s definitely worth a read. While Dr. Gross notes that science standards are falling short in general,

Particularly dismaying is how rarely state standards indicate that evolution has anything to do with us, Homo sapiens. Even states with thorough coverage of evolution, like Massachusetts, avoid linking that controversial term with ourselves. Only four states—Florida, New Hampshire, Iowa, and Rhode Island—discuss human evolution in their current standards. This isn’t just a Bible Belt issue. Even the bluest of blue states don’t expect their students to know that humans and apes share ancestry.
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In January, with the release of our analysis of state K-12 science standards, we reported that the state of state science standards was very poor—the overall national average was a very low C, and 26 states earned a D or F. This news was unwelcome, if also unsurprising.

But, as many people already know, a group of 26 states have teamed up with Achieve to do for science what the NGA and CCSSO did for ELA and math—to create a rigorous set of common standards that states would have the option to adopt as their own.

Whether those standards will be worth adoption remains an open question, but insiders tell us that we can expect the first public draft to be released for comment later this spring.

Our advice to the drafters of these “Next Generation Science Standards” (NGSS) was to look to the model state standards—to places like D.C., California, and Massachusetts—to inform their work. But what about the most commonly used national international benchmarks for science achievement—the NAEP, PISA, TIMSS, and ACT? The results from these assessments are often used to describe how well (or how poorly) states and nations are doing in science education. But are the standards that undergird these assessments strong? And can they provide a roadmap for the authors of the NGSS?

To help answer this question, using the same criteria that we used to evaluate each state’s standards, we asked distinguished biologist (and veteran Fordham science reviewer) Paul Gross to analyze the...

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A few weeks ago, I posted a piece about how reading
instruction would change when aligned to the Common Core. For the piece, I drew
on advice from David Coleman, the lead architect of the CCSS. At least one
element of the post (his push to end pre-reading activities in ELA classrooms)
set off a firestorm of debate among ELA teachers. What’s interesting, however,
is so much of the pushback against Coleman’s ideas centered not on the ideas
themselves, but rather on the fact that he does not have a background in
teaching.

Take, for example, California
teacher of the year and education blogger, Alan Lawrence Sitomer who wrote:

[Coleman] has zero K-12 teaching
experience. Should we really be learning how to cook from a person who’s never
been in the kitchen?

Sitomer isn’t alone in this view. Here are a few other
samples from across the web:

Mr. Coleman is not an expert. He is simply someone who has been positioned and now is situated as an 'expert'. Itrequires significant arrogance to utter the bold statements Mr. Coleman makes.
I apologize for my brevity, but who IS David Coleman? What are his credentials, and how did a non-teacher gainauthorship of the hugest educational document ever written?
Practitioners are often quick to dismiss reform ideas that are
promoted by people who have little direct classroom experience.

Of course, these instincts aren’t limited to reading
...

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People often talk about—even debate—whether teaching is
art or science. After reading magician Teller’s recent article “Teller
Reveals His Secrets
” in Smithsonian magazine, I’m now fully
convinced that great teaching is neither art nor science. It’s magic. And, as
we talk about and debate how best to select, evaluate, and reward great
teachers, we should consider taking some of Teller’s advice.

17/365: i could be your magician
Great teaching is neither art nor science. It's magic.
Photo by jin.thai.

It turns out that his most basic secret—the “magic” of
Penn & Teller’s work—doesn’t involve a clever slight of hand or carefully
developed prop. Instead, it takes hard work, or grit. In simple terms, Teller
explains:

You will be fooled by a trick if it
involves more time, money and practice than you (or any other sane onlooker)
would be willing to invest.

It underscores a simple but all-too-often overlooked life
lesson: The only way to be truly great at anything is to set a goal and commit
yourself to achieving it beyond what most normal people would think prudent.
And then just refuse to give up.

Teller explains, for instance, that he and his partner
Penn spent weeks preparing...

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Several weeks ago,
Education First—a national education policy and strategic consulting
firm—released the
first in what will be a series of three reports
aimed at providing guidance to states as
they work to develop Common Core implementation plans. Yesterday, Education
First and Achieve together released the second report, a “Common
Core State Standards Implementation Rubric and Self-Assessment Tool.
” While
imperfect, this rubric is a useful tool that can help push states thinking
about standards implementation.

State policy leaders should commit these differences to memory.

Among the most useful
elements of the report is Table 1, which outlines the “key instructional
shifts” that ELA and math teachers will face as they begin to shift instruction
to the Common Core. Drawn from advice produced by Student Achievement
Partners
, the guidance is simple, but more clearly outlines the essential
differences between the Common Core and most existing state standards than most
of the “crosswalk” comparisons
that state Departments of Education have
undertaken to date. On the ELA side, for instance, the authors explain that the
CCSS will focus on:

  • Building knowledge through content-rich
    nonfiction and informational texts 
  • Reading and writing grounded in evidence from
    text 
  • Regular practice with complex text and its
    academic vocabulary 

This very clearly and
succinctly highlights some of the key differences between the Common Core and
existing state standards....

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As everyone in the
education world already knows, the New York Times won a lawsuit that forced the New York City
Department of Education to publish the teacher-level value-added data it has
been collecting as part of its accountability system. The result? The public
unveiling of the work product of an expensive system that is confusing,
unreliable—and apparently—error-riddled.

Before we go further down
this path, now is probably as good a time as any for education reformers to
pause and ask themselves if this kind of top down effort is really what will
lead our schools to excellence?

The question is not whether student achievement data should be used as one
of several measures of teacher effectiveness, but rather how those data should be used and who is ultimately in the
driver’s seat.

Critics of using test
data argue that it’s unfair; that standardized tests are imperfect and
therefore cannot be used to determine whether students have learned what they
should have, and certainly not whether teachers have taught what they were
supposed to.

Such arguments are
misguided for lots of reasons, chief among them that there is, in no
profession, a perfect measure of effectiveness. And teachers ultimately should
be held accountable for how well they are able to drive achievement in their
classrooms.

No matter how
well developed a tool is, it needs to be reality checked.

But these critics are correct on a larger...

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Amanda Young
learning specialist, Noble Charter Schools

Noble Charter Schools in Chicago have gotten a heap
of negative attention
over the past several weeks for a discipline policy
that some call a “dehumanizing system that looks a lot more like reform school
than a college prep.” In
short, the school issues demerits to students who commit infractions, and students
who earn four demerits in two weeks are given detention and charged $5. Critics
claim that such policies amount to “nickel and diming” poor families who are
already struggling to make ends meet. (Last week, Fordham’s own Adam Emerson pointed
out
that Noble is hardly alone—there are many Catholic schools, for
instance, that levy similar fines for student misbehavior.)

Of course, there are different ways to structure
discipline policies, and what works for one school won’t necessarily work for
another. But what’s missing from this discussion is the context necessary to
understand how the policy is used and its impact on the culture, students, and
families.

Below is the response from Amanda Young, a learning
specialist who works at a Noble Charter School
in Chicago, and
who is shocked and dismayed by the attention Noble’s discipline policy has
received. She believes that, taken together, Noble’s policies are designed to
support students and create a culture that helps them succeed. And it’s hard to
argue with the success they’ve had so far. As Emerson noted in his...

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The
Pioneer Institute—no friends of the Common Core to begin with—released a report
this week claiming that it will cost the nation $16 billion to implement the
new standards. (If you read the full text, the authors frequently note that
this is, in their opinion, a wild underestimate.)

The
astronomical estimate is not entirely surprising. If you want to scare
cash-strapped states away from moving forward with their Common Core plans,
it’s not hard to attach a frighteningly large price tag to implementation.
After all, the purpose of standards is to create the foundation upon which the
entire education system is built. So, obviously, changing standards must mean
knocking down the house, re-pouring the foundation, and starting again.

Concrete Housing Construction in Chile
Implementing Common Core doesn't necessarily mean knocking down the house and starting from scratch.
Photo by Concrete Forms.

Right?

Well,
not quite.

Yes,
implementing the Common Core will be costly. No one disputes that. Aligning
materials, instruction, and assessment around new standards cannot be done on
the cheap if it’s going to be done well.

On
the other hand, let’s pretend neither that implementation of the new standards
needs to look exactly like implementation...

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According to Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institute, “The Common Core will have little to no effect on student achievement.” 

Standards—no matter how clear or
how rigorous—are not a panacea.

To
prove this, he draws on research from 2009 conducted by his colleague,
Russ Whitehurst. Essentially, Whitehurst found that the quality of state
standards (as judged by our own Fordham analyses as well as analyses
conducted by the AFT) did not correlate with state NAEP scores. More
specifically, he found that “states with weak content standards score
about the same on NAEP as those with strong standards.”

Q.E.D.?

Hardly.
What Loveless conveniently ignores is the second—and arguably more
significant—element of Whitehurst’s research. In short, Whitehurst
“concluded that the effects of curriculum on student achievement
are larger, more certain, and less expensive than the effects of popular
reforms such as common standards…” (Emphasis added.)

His
point is that setting standards alone does very little, but that a
thoughtfully and faithfully implemented rigorous curricula can move the
achievement needle, sometimes dramatically.

While
one could chose to pit those two policy advancements against it each
other (standards versus curriculum), a much more logically way to view
it is that while strong standards provide a solid foundation, you still
need to build the schoolhouse. For education reformers trying to drive
the needle on student achievement, the process should start by setting
clear and...

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