Common Core Watch

Last
week on the Core Knowledge blog, Robert Pondiscio called for the end
of seven classroom practices that don’t work
. Four of the seven practices
dealt with standards- and data-driven instruction—or, really, the
bastardization of standards- and data-driven instruction. The crux of
Pondiscio’s argument is right on the money: Standards-driven instruction is
only as good as the standards and assessments that are used to drive
instruction, and reading standards (and/or assessments) that prioritize empty
reading skills over content are sure to steer our teachers wrong.

Unfortunately,
Pondiscio’s post distracts from that point by deriding some practices that,
when done well, can be used to powerfully drive student achievement.

Take,
for example, data-driven instruction. Pondiscio is right that “using data in
half-baked or simplistic ways” is going to do very little to drive student
learning. But the answer is not to abandon data-driven instruction writ large,
but rather to encourage teachers to use data thoughtfully and purposefully.
There aren’t nearly enough examples (or quality PD purveyors) that demonstrate
how this can be done and done well. We need more.

There is no question that test prep is virtually useless.

Similarly,
Pondiscio derides both “dumb test prep” and “reciting lesson aim and standard.”
There is no question that test prep is virtually useless. In fact, the fact
that test prep is used so widely, but that reading scores have remained
...

Last
week, a report was released by Education First and the EPE Research
Center entitled Preparing
for Change
. The report is the first in a series of three that will look
at whether states have developed Common Core implementation plans that address
three areas of CCSS implementation:

  • Developing a plan for teacher
    professional development,
  • planning to align/revamp
    state-created curricular and instructional materials, and
  • making changes to teacher evaluation systems.

Many
CCSS supporters cheered at the report’s main finding, which indicated that all
but one state—Wyoming—“reported
having developed some type of formal implementation plan for transitioning to
the new, common standards.” There is cause for excitement—this is a clear
indication that states are taking CCSS implementation seriously and that they
are working to reorient their education systems to the new standards.

That
said, while developing implementation plans is an important first step, it’s
far more critical to ensure that those plans are worth following—that they
properly identify the gaps in teacher knowledge and skill so that they can
target state-led PD efforts, for example, and that they prioritize the
essential components of the CCSS in state-created curricular and instructional
materials. This report doesn’t get into these questions of quality—though
Education First and EPE will release two follow-up reports in the coming months
that address...

Over
the past decade, education reform advocates on both the state and national
level have demonstrated an almost single-minded focus on various “structural
reforms”: setting standards, adopting assessments, establishing clear
accountability for results, providing school leaders greater autonomy and
flexibility, injecting greater competition and choice into school funding
systems, etc. But, by focusing on structural reforms over getting
classroom-level curriculum and instruction right, are reformers missing the
boat?

Beverly
Jobrack thinks so. In fact, she’s written a book— The Tyranny of theTextbook: An Insider Exposes How Educational Materials Undermine Reform—that
argues, essentially, that it’s curriculum, not structural reform, that has the
greatest potential to drive student achievement.

Standards alone will do little
to drive student achievement if they’re not meaningfully implemented.

Jobrack
has a point—as we’ve long said here at Fordham, standards alone will do little
to drive student achievement if they’re not meaningfully implemented (via,
among other things, a thoughtfully designed curriculum). In fact, few state and
national education reformers would disagree with Jobrack about the importance
of curriculum and instruction in driving student achievement. So why do so few
actually take up the fight for curriculum and instructional changes?

One
big challenge is the belief of many reformers—including Jobrack herself—that
curricular and instructional policy should not be set centrally. After all, if
you have to drive change one school at a time, you lose all the leverage
...

In
the discussion about ESEA reauthorization, people on both sides of the aisle
have recognized the importance of setting rigorous standards aligned to
college- and career-readiness expectations. The Obama Administration has, for
instance, required that states adopt college-
and career-ready standards as part of its ESEA waiver process. Similarly,
Republican-sponsored ESEA reauthorization proposals (which Mike wrote
about in a post
yesterday) also ask states to set college- and
career-readiness standards for students.

While
this focus on setting clear and sufficiently rigorous standards is important,
it is also insufficient. After all, if we’ve learned anything from 10 years of
NCLB implementation, it’s that the act of setting standards doesn’t translate
to increased student achievement unless those standards are meaningfully implemented
in the classroom. And, one of the most important things for states to do to
ensure strong implementation is to hold students accountable for actually
learning the content laid out in the standards.

While
the focus on setting clear and sufficiently rigorous standards is important,
it is also insufficient.

Unfortunately,
over the past 10 years, too many states—even those with reasonably rigorous
standards—have asked very little of students on statewide assessments. In fact,
Fordham’s 2007 “Proficiency Illusion” report found that “the central flaw in
NCLB is that it allows each state to set its own definition of what constitutes
‘proficiency.’” And so, as we look towards...

 Critics
of “bubble tests” rejoice! The campaign against the use of multiple choice
questions in state tests may finally be turning the tide. But, on the eve of
this victory, it’s worth pausing to ask: is this actually a good thing for
those of us who care about smart, efficient, and effective accountability
systems?

Details continue to trickle in about the PARCC
and SMARTER Balanced assessment consortia plans for their summative ELA and
math assessments. Catherine Gewertz has dug into the RFPs for both consortia
and shared some of her findings in an article published in Education Week yesterday. There’s a lot of
interesting information, including the fact that both consortia appear to be
moving away from multiple choice questions in their test designs. Gewertz
explains:

Documents
issued by the two groups of states that are designing the tests show that they
seek to harness the power of computers in new ways and assess skills that
multiple-choice tests cannot…

While the plans offer few details about how
the new items will differ, or why it’s necessary to abandon multiple choice
questions entirely, people across the education world will no doubt celebrate
the demise of the multiple choice question.

Multiple choice items are, after all, the
assessment items everyone loves to hate. Critics on all sides of the education
debate deride “bubble tests” as the enemy of genuine learning and believe that
...

In
all the excitement in the buildup to the New
Hampshire primary, one important educational
development seems to have gotten overshadowed. Last week, a New Hampshire law allowing parents to demand
alternatives to curricular materials that they find objectionable took effect.
It could have far reaching consequences not just in the Granite State but—if it
catches on—for schools across the country.

Specifically,
the law (which was passed over the governor’s veto) requires all districts to
adopt a policy that:

“…include[s] a provision requiring the parent or legal guardian
to notify the school principal or designee in writing of the specific material
to which they object and a provision requiring an alternative agreed upon by
the school district and the parent, at the parent’s expense, sufficient to
enable the child to meet state requirements for education in the particular
subject area.”
Do parents not have a right to
ask that assignments not insult their beliefs and teachings?

In
a post on Curriculum Matters last week, Erik Robelen explained
that New Hampshire Governor John Lynch “said the measure was too vague about
what might be deemed objectionable and would prove burdensome to school
districts. He also said it risked stifling teachers, who might shy away from
exposing students to ‘new ideas and critical thinking’ for fear of sparking
complaints.”

Governor
Lynch went on to say that...

iPod Sad Face
Photo by Joel Washing

Two months ago, Apple celebrated the 10th anniversary of the
release of the iPod. Sunday, we will “celebrate” the 10th birthday of NCLB.

The iPod is universally seen as a game changer—something
that not only transformed the way we listen to music, but that changed the
music industry itself.

Few would say the same about the transformative power of
NCLB.

Yet, what if the iPod hadn’t evolved in the ten years since
its initial release? What if, after Steve Jobs released the 2001 version—the
first-generation iPod—the different divisions at Apple couldn’t come to
agreement about how it should evolve?

As one tech-expert explained:

[The iPod] debuted in the fall of 2001 as a Mac-only,
FireWire-only $399 digital audio player with a tiny black-and-white display and
5 GB hard disk. The iTunes Store didn’t exist until April 2003. The Windows
version of iTunes didn’t appear until October 2003—two years after the iPod
debuted! Two years before it truly supported Windows! Think about that. If
Apple released an iPod today that sold only as many units as the iPod sold in
2002, that product would be considered an enormous flop.

The transformative power of the iPod was unleashed not by
its...

A
few weeks ago, Diane Ravitch posted a challenge on Twitter:

“I
challenge anyone who supports the current testing regime to take the 12th grade
test for graduation and release the results to the media.”

The
tweet was a response to a post published by Valerie Strauss in early December that
told the story of a prominent and, by all accounts, very successful Florida school board
member who took a state ELA and math test and publicized his results. (He
earned 17 percent in math, 62 percent in reading.) His experience caused him to
question to validity of using tests as part of a statewide accountability
system. He said:

“It
makes no sense to me that a test with the potential for shaping a student’s
entire future has so little apparent relevance to adult, real-world
functioning…I can’t escape the conclusion that decisions about the [state test]
in particular and standardized tests in general are being made by individuals
who lack perspective and aren’t really accountable.”

Strauss
agreed and concluded:

“There
you have it. A concise summary of what’s wrong with present corporately driven
education change: Decisions are being made by individuals who lack perspective
and aren’t really accountable.”

The
post and Ravitch’s challenge set off a firestorm of anti-testing vitriol. This
was proof, people argued, that “corporate-driven” standards- and
accountability-driven reforms should be abandoned.

Intrigued,
...

I believe that the right combination of rigorous standards, effective assessments, and strong implementation can transform teaching and drive outstanding student achievement.

But we have a long road ahead to reach that goal. The quality of state standards has been all over the map and implementation of those standards has been mixed at best. Now that nearly every state has adopted the Common Core, states have a chance to reboot and to get standards- and assessment-driven reform right.

To get there we will have to find the right answers to some key questions. How do we ensure the assessment consortia develop the rigorous assessments we need? Will state-driven professional development be focused where it needs to be? Will states focus too much on mandating curricular and instructional materials? Not enough? And, most importantly, will district leaders and teachers embrace the new standards and drive the classroom-level changes we need? Here, I hope to explore these questions and more.

But first a few answers about how I ended up as editor of Common Core Watch: I’m a Connecticut-based education policy analyst who’s been committed to and working in education for 15 years. I began as a classroom teacher, taught both middle and high school and served as a high school department chair. I currently work as a senior director here at Fordham, leading all of our projects related to standards. This is my second stint at Fordham—I worked here from 2003-2005, but left...

If you’re to believe the rhetoric around Common Core, these new college- and career-ready standards are poised to usher in major education changes—changes that will help better prepare American students for the rigors of university coursework and the workplace.

On the other hand, if you’re to read individual states’ own descriptions of the differences between the Common Core and existing ELA and math standards, the changes seem far less dramatic.

Since they have adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), nearly every state has undertaken some kind of review that compared existing ELA and math standards to the CCSS. And, almost without exception, these comparisons found near-perfect alignment between the CCSS and state ELA and math standards.

A Tennessee’s curriculum and assessment “crosswalk,” for example, found that “97 percent of the CCSS ELA standards have a match in Tennessee’s ELA standards, with 90 percent being rated an excellent or good match.” On the math side, Tennessee found that there are “no grade-level difference[s] in Kindergarten and only a 1 percent difference in 1st grade…” Similar comparisons by state departments of education around the country have found similar levels of alignment. (This despite the fact that our own analysis of state ELA and math standards found significant differences between a majority of state standards and the CCSS.)

There are several problems with these crosswalks and their findings.

For starters, these crosswalk comparisons too often lose the forest for the trees, focusing on narrow and sometimes...

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