Common Core Watch

At Inside Schools, a website for parents covering New York City schools, reporter Lydie Raschka visits a dozen elementary schools and comes away concerned. “[I] saw firsthand how hard teachers are working to meet the new Common Core standards for reading,” she writes. “I also saw precious time wasted, as teachers seemed to confuse harder standards with puzzling language.” A striking example:

At the teacher's prompting, a kindergartner at PS 251 in Queens tries to define "text evidence" for the rest of the class. "Test ed-i-dence," says the 5-year-old, tripping over the unfamiliar words, "is something when you say the word and show the picture.

“Text evidence?” What's with this incomprehensible jargon in kindergarten?

What indeed.

Raschka is absolutely correct to criticize the use of such arcane language and the practice of asking five-year-olds to toss around phrases like “text evidence” in kindergarten. Where I think she's mistaken is in attributing it to Common Core.

Elementary school English language arts classrooms have long been in the thrall of nonsensical jargon. Children "activate prior knowledge" and make "text-to-text" or "text-to-self" connections in book discussions in the argot of "accountable talk" (itself an inscrutable bit of edu-speak). I’ve relentlessly banged the drum for years on the importance of building background knowledge as a critical component of reading comprehension. But I see no point in making second-graders sing about “building schema” like the kids in this video:

Why do we do this? I suspect it’s because jargon makes classroom conversation feel more sophisticated than it actually is; it pleases teachers to hear their terms of art parroted back. As a new teacher, I was thrilled the first time a kid said,...

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form in the Daily News and City Journal.

Last week, New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña demanded that dozens of New York City’s lowest-performing schools adopt and implement a widely criticized literacy curriculum with which she has long been associated. It was the most recent of a growing list of decisions she has made while running the nation’s largest school system that seem to be based not on empirical evidence, but on the chancellor’s personal preference.

In November, the city unveiled its School Renewal Program, a $150 million plan to turn ninety-four chronically low-performing schools into “community schools.” A concept paper inviting community-based organizations to partner with the New York City Department of Education (DOE) noted the approach “is based on a growing body of evidence” showing that “an integrated focus” on academics, health and social services, and other community supports are “critical to improving student success.”

What growing body of evidence? The paper didn’t say—not even in a footnote. Perhaps because the evidence is scant to nonexistent. New York’s initiative is modeled on a similar program in Cincinnati, but as a 2013 analysis by the New York Times noted, “what has gone largely unsaid is that many of Cincinnati’s community schools are still in dire academic straits despite millions of dollars in investment and years of reform efforts."

It gets worse. Last week, Chalkbeat’s Patrick Wall reported that elementary and middle school principals in Renewal schools have been ordered to use a literacy program created by Lucy Calkins, founder of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project—and to send their “best and brightest” teachers for training there. According to Wall, Fariña adviser and...

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form at RegBlog.

Most public policy issues fit roughly into one of three categories. The first contains fundamental matters of principle—what we generally call “social issues,” such as abortion, gay marriage, and gun rights. The second bucket includes topics that are more technical in nature: how to make various systems or sectors work better. Here we might put nuts-and-bolts issues like infrastructure or procurement reform. The third category is for issues that have elements of the first two, both fundamental matters of principle and technocratic questions of implementation. Health care reform certainly belongs there.

Category three is also where education reform in general, and Common Core in particular, belongs. There are clear matters of principle: Should all American children have equal access to challenging coursework? Do states have the right, perhaps even the responsibility, to set standards for their public schools, or should all such control remain with local school boards, educators, or parents? But technical questions are important too: Are the standards high enough? Are the tests properly aligned with them—and also psychometrically valid and reliable? Who is responsible for helping schools develop the capacity to teach to the new expectations? How should we respond to implementation struggles, as with the current confusion around some math topics?

This dual nature of Common Core as an educational and political issue is important to keep in mind over the coming months as state lawmakers debate whether to “stay the course” or “turn the page,” five years after they first adopted the standards. It also explains why most supporters and opponents of the Common Core appear to be talking past one another.

Many opponents are against the standards for fundamental ideological reasons. Some conservatives resent the role that the federal government played in encouraging states...

Jason Zimba

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form on the Tools for the Common Core Standards blog.

Standards shouldn’t dictate curriculum or pedagogy. But there has been some criticism recently that the implementation of the Common Core State Standards may be effectively forcing a particular pedagogy on teachers. Even if that isn’t happening, one can still be concerned if everybody’s pedagogical interpretation of the standards turns out to be exactly the same. Fortunately, one can already see different approaches in various post-CCSS curricular efforts. And looking to the future, the revisions I’m aware of that are underway to existing programs aren’t likely to erase those programs’ mutual pedagogical differences, either.

Of course, standards do have to have meaningful implications for curriculum, or else they aren’t standards at all. The Instructional Materials Evaluation Tool (IMET) is a rubric that helps educators judge high-level alignment of comprehensive instructional materials to the standards. Some states and districts have used the IMET to inform their curriculum evaluations, and it would help if more states and districts did the same.

The criticism that I referred to earlier comes from math educator Barry Garelick, who has written a series of blog posts that aims to sketch a picture of good, traditional pedagogy consistent with the Common Core. The concrete proposals in his series are a welcome addition to the conversation math educators are having about implementing the standards. Reading these posts led me to consider the following question:

If the only computation algorithm we teach is the standard algorithm, then can we still say we are following the standards?

Provided the standards as a whole are being met, I would say that the answer to this question is yes. The basic reason for this is that the standard...

Some of ed reform’s leading lights finally see that what kids learn makes a difference.
Robert Pondiscio

Crying “Dump it!” might be good politics. But any high standards will look a lot like Common Core.
Michael J. Petrilli and Michael Brickman

Perhaps the highest praise you can heap on another writer’s work is to acknowledge a tinge of professional jealousy. You read a blog post, column, or piece of reporting and think, “Damn, I wish I’d written that.” Here are some of the pieces—about Common Core and education at large—I wish I’d written in 2014.

Tim Shanahan of the University of Illinois at Chicago has long been indispensible on literacy—and never more so than in the era of Common Core. In November, he waded into the “close reading” thicket with a pair of clear-eyed posts on the importance of prior knowledge in reading. The second of Tim’s two-part post offered particularly useful guidance for teachers on dealing with knowledge deficits when teaching reading comprehension. A third installment is promised and hopefully coming soon. 

As long as I’m casting a jealous eye at posts about reading: I also wish I’d written this one, by my Fordham colleague Kathleen Porter-Magee, on how reading standards mislead teachers. I’ve said more or less the same thing for years, but Kathleen said it far better.

Math educator Barry Garelick is no fan of the Common Core. I simply don’t agree with his assertion that the standards demand “all math should be taught using the techniques of ‘reform math.’” But no matter. He did the field an enormous service with a series of posts at the Heartland Institute’s blog titled “A Common Sense Approach to Common Core,” which described how to “interpret the Common Core math standards in a sensible manner that does not fall back on questionable and ineffective education practices.” Hear, hear.

It’s not a blog, but I wish I’d thought of doing something like this video from Center for American Progress Senior Policy...

Previously, I posted about the perils of applying standards-driven instruction to reading classrooms. The point was that reading standards typically don’t articulate the content that students need to learn to become good readers; they merely list the skills and habits exhibited by already good readers. Therefore, using standards to plan lessons results in ineffective reading instruction—those skills and habits can’t really be taught, practiced, and mastered in the abstract.

The truth is that while the problems are most acute in reading, standards for any subject are most effective when used not to drive lesson planning on any given day, but rather the selection of a clear, teacher-friendly, coherently developed curriculum. That’s because even the best standards don’t help teachers figure out how to ensure that all students master the requisite content and skills. They describe the destination, but they don’t provide a roadmap. Curriculum is the missing link.

One might then ask why we are even talking about standards. Rather than debating the Common Core State Standards why not debate a “Common Curriculum”? In fact, that is how it works in many countries. Even Finland—the country that most reform critics want us to emulate—began their now-famous transition to international education superpower by, first and foremost, writing and adopting a national curriculum.

In other nations, state-developed curricula go further than American standards. Here, states list content and skills, but stop short of defining pedagogy or prescribing curriculum. Abroad, governments prescribe a particular course of study; they detail curriculum and pedagogy. American standards stop well short of that. They are meant to serve as a pragmatic response to the dual need to establish a common set of expectations in core subjects­—something necessary to ensure schools are serving all students—while also respecting our longstanding history of...

Just in time for Christmas, my Fordham colleague Mike Petrilli has left a present under the tree for inquisitive children and busy parents who don’t think the sky will fall if the kids get a little screen time now and again (it won’t).

Over the course of a year’s blog posts, and with the help of several able Fordham interns, Mike curated some of the best streaming web videos on Netflix, Amazon, and elsewhere. He then aligned them with the Core Knowledge Sequence, a robust list of subjects from pre-K to eighth grade that undergirds the curriculum at some of the nation’s most successful schools. These have now been repackaged into a neat little website he’s calling “Netflix Academy.” Homeschoolers for whom Core Knowledge is a subject of near-religious devotion will also be grateful for this resource. 

You’ll find videos on science, literature, and U.S. and world history. Click on “Science,” for example, and you’ll see a drop-down menu organized by knowledge domains (aquatic life, mammals, insects, outer space, etc.). Within each domain are direct links to streaming videos from Netflix, National Geographic, PBS, YouTube, and others sources. You’ll also find movie versions of classic children’s book and lots more. It’s entertainment with high caloric content.

“As E.D. Hirsch Jr. has argued for a quarter-century, the early elementary years are the ideal time to introduce children to the wonders of history (natural and otherwise), geography, literature, art, music, and more,” Mike writes.

I heartily agree. The impulse in education is “fewer topics, deeper learning”—better to go a mile deep than an inch wide—and I predict that some kids may wear out Netflix Academy watching every last video about dinosaurs or other topics of youthful obsession. But don’t dismiss the value of broad knowledge about a...

You can’t teach reading the way you teach other subjects.
Kathleen Porter-Magee

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