Common Core Watch

One of the few things that nearly all sides of the education policy debate can agree on is that student achievement in urban schools and districts across the nation is distressingly low.

But that is where the agreement ends.

There is a complicated, rolling debate about the problem itself: whether this low level of achievement should be described as a failure of schools or a consequence of poverty, whether things are actually getting better and how, and whether our expectations about what schools can do are too high.

But even when we can reach some consensus on the scope of the problem, there is an even more hotly contested discussion about its solutions. Interestingly, though, conversations about how to improve achievement and reduce gaps seem almost myopically focused on systems and governance—how schools or districts are organized, how to hold them accountable, who should hold them accountable, and on. At the same time, claims about the potential of system-level and governance changes seem to both overestimate the impact system-level changes can have on student achievement at scale and studiously avoid what happens every day in the classroom.

It’s as if we were trying to improve cancer treatment with debates about how insurance companies reimbursed hospitals or whether states should provide financial oversight over billing rates, but without talking about how to improve the detection and treatment of the disease itself.

And the reality is that while we undoubtedly have school-governance challenges that need to be overcome, we also have a...

For the past year, much of the ed-reform world has been concerned about the (seemingly) growing opposition from the right to the Common Core standards. But the closer you look at these critiques of Common Core, the weaker their case appears. Can something as solid as CCSS really be stopped by such an intellectually flimsy attack?

The Pioneer Institute is a leader in the conservative anti–Common Core brigade, launching reports, op-eds, and testimony in a seemingly unending effort to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the standards. They are nothing if not fanatical in their opposition to the Common Core; even when they acknowledge the facts aren’t on their side, they simply refuse to change their story.

Take, for instance, Pioneer’s recently released white paper, written by former Texas Commissioner of Education Robert Scott and entitled, “A Republic of Republics: How the Common Core Undermines State and Local Control over K–12 Education." In terms of criticism of the Common Core, there is very little substantively new in the report—the arguments are all very familiar to anyone who’s been following the backlash over the past several months. What makes the report so curious is that they actually accept four facts about the Common Core that leave little of their argument intact.

Fact #1: Local Control. On page 2, Scott acknowledges that, across all states—even those that have adopted the Common Core—it is state and local leaders, not the federal government, who will make decisions about curriculum and instruction.

Fact #2: Not...

So far, I am leery of both sets of official tests for the Common Core, at least in English language arts (ELA). They could endanger the promise of the Common Core. In recent years, the promise of NCLB was vitiated when test prep for reading-comprehension tests usurped the teaching of science, literature, history, civics, and the arts—the very subjects needed for good reading comprehension.

In an earlier Huffington Post blog, I wrote that if students learned science, literature, history, civics, and the arts, they would do very well on the new Common Core reading tests—whatever those tests turned out to be. To my distress, many teachers commented that no, they were still going to do test prep, as any sensible teacher should, because their job and income depended on their students’ scores on the reading tests.

The first thing I’d want to do if I were younger would be to launch an effective court challenge to value-added teacher evaluations on the basis of test scores in reading comprehension. In the domain of reading comprehension, the value-added approach to teacher evaluation is unsound both technically and in its curriculum-narrowing effects. The connection between job ratings and tests in ELA has been a disaster for education.

The scholarly proponents of the value-added approach have sent me a set of technical studies. My analysis of them showed what anyone immersed in reading research would have predicted: The value-added data were modestly stable for math but fuzzy and unreliable for reading. It...

For many years, my son Ted has been principal of the elementary grades of a K–12 public charter school in Massachusetts. It uses the Core Knowledge Sequence (a grade-by-grade outline of essential content) as a primary tool for developing its curriculum. His school ranks in the top-performing group of schools in the nation’s top-performing state. Needless to say, the school has long followed the rightly admired Massachusetts standards. Indeed, the Massachusetts standards are so good that some of the most vocal opponents of CCSS are claiming that the Common Core State Standards will represent a watering down. But Ted’s school justifies a very different inference. His Core Knowledge–based curriculum is consistent with both the Massachusetts standards and the CCSS. How so? It’s because both sets of standards set rigorous goals but don’t specify content for each grade level. In the course of actual implementation, therefore, a school can simultaneously fulfill both the Massachusetts standards and the CCSS, as Ted’s school so effectively does. 

This fall, Ted’s daughter, Cleo, will be teaching in a school in the Bronx, assigned to teach the American Revolution to seventh-grade public school students. Though hugely competent, she panicked and called me: “O my gosh. Granddad, are there any teaching guides for this?” Her school could offer no real support. I sent her one of the thick, grade-by-grade teacher handbooks produced by the Core Knowledge Foundation. These handbooks explain each topic and provide instructional suggestions. In addition, they also lay out the knowledge above and beyond the lesson topics that would...

Common Core
 

When I’m asked if I support the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS), I give an emphatic “yes.” They constitute the first multi-state plan to give substance and coherence to what is taught in the public schools. They encourage the systematic development of knowledge in K–5. They break the craven silence about the critical importance of specific content in the early grades. They offer an example (the human body) of how knowledge ought to be built systematically across grades. They state,

By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.

That principle of building coherent, cumulative content animates the most effective school systems in the world, and for good reason: The systematic development of student knowledge from the earliest grades in history, literature, science, and the arts is essential to high verbal ability—which in turn is the key to social mobility and college readiness.

The words quoted above don’t define the specific historical, scientific, and other knowledge that is required for mature literacy. (If they did, no state would have adopted the CCSS, because specific content remains a local—or teacher—prerogative in...

Prepared for Delivery on August 28, 2013

Chairman Kelly, ladies and gentlemen. I’m Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank in Washington, DC that also does on the ground work in your neighboring state of Ohio. (No football comments, please!)  At Fordham, we promote high-priority education reforms with a particular focus on standards-based reforms and school choice. I’ve worked in this field myself for many years, including more than a few fruitful go-rounds with you, Mr. Chairman, when you served on Governor John Engler’s staff back in the nineties.

I am glad that you have been holding these hearings and seriously considering whether Michigan should stick with the Common Core academic standards. I know you’ve heard from some folks who hope that you won’t. I hope that you will. Before getting into my eight top reasons, let me lay a few facts on the table regarding the Common Core:

These standards are clear, rigorous, and nationally and internationally benchmarked. They emphasize reading rigorous, high-quality literature in English class, plus nonfiction in history, science, and other courses. They also emphasize the fundamentals of mathematics. Properly taught and successfully learned, they will indeed produce high-school graduates who are ready for college-level courses and modern jobs.

The Common Core effort is and has always been a state-led effort to improve the quality and rigor of K–12 academic standards, an effort in which Michigan leaders have participated. And by adopting and implementing the Common Core, states...

Back in June, we at Fordham released a critical review of the final Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). As we explained at the time,

…using substantially the same criteria as we previously applied to state science standards—criteria that focus primarily on the content, rigor, and clarity of K–12 expectations for this key subject—our considered judgment is that NGSS deserves a C.

Our review team felt that these new standards fell short in a number of critical areas. Far too much essential science content was either missing entirely or merely implied. Science practices, while essential to K-12 science learning, were given undue prominence. And the inclusion of “assessment boundaries” meant to limit test development would like place an unintended but undesirable ceiling on the curriculum that students would learn at each grade level.

Besides all of that, our expert team was disappointed by what they found, and didn’t find, by way of math, especially in relation to physics and chemistry. “In reality,” they said,

there is virtually no mathematics, even at the high school level, where it is essential to the learning of physics and chemistry. Rather, the standards seem to assiduously dodge the mathematical demands inherent in the subjects covered. There is math available in the Common Core that could be used to enhance the science of the NGSS. No advantage is taken of this.

Since then, the NGSS authors have released an appendix—Appendix L—that is meant to show “Connections to the Common Core State Mathematics Standards [CCSSM].” This...

When New York released the test-score data from its first administration of the Common Core–aligned tests, they unleashed the shot heard ‘round the education world. Critics are—predictably—outraged. But let’s remember, when the state set the cut scores too low and reformers like Joel Klein benefited, they were also outraged. The old test scores, they rightly explained, didn’t align to what we knew from NAEP and other data were overall low levels of achievement.

These new test scores are more in line with what we’ve learned about achievement in New York from the NAEP test, from the college-readiness assessments given to high school students last year, and from college completion rates. But rather than claim victory, critics are still furious.

Why? There are no doubt myriad reasons—some of them political—but certainly two contributing factors are the fact that we haven’t had a real debate about the role consequences should play in an era of more rigorous tests and the fear over how these tests will be used to judge individual teachers and schools.

While reformers are right to stand by leaders as they work to right the ship, if we want to build stronger support for these changes, we need to carefully examine how they have played out in recent years and ask hard questions about the role of consequences in the harsh sunlight of real results.

While I’ve long supported standards- and accountability-driven reform, I’ve also questioned the wisdom of state-led accountability...

Jason Zimba, PhD
Indianapolis Statehouse
After testifying in Indianapolis, Jason Zimba reflects on what he learned about the entrenched opposition to the Common Core State Standards.
Photo by W9NED

Earlier this week, I spent a day visiting Indiana’s beautiful nineteenth-century statehouse in Indianapolis, where I testified about the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics. Testimony in favor of the standards was also given to legislators by in-state experts, like Warren Township school superintendent Dena Cushenberry and Purdue Dean of Admissions Pamela Horne. Afterwards, I reflected about what I had learned about the entrenched opposition to the standards.

The first thing I learned is that there is a significant gap in the quality of the evidence being brought forward in this debate.

  • In my testimony, I cited a peer-reviewed journal study by a distinguished university researcher on international mathematics performance about the grades and topics in the standards—research concluding that the Common Core agrees with high-performing countries better than any previous state standards, including those of Indiana. During his testimony, noted critic of the standards Dr. Williamson Evers cited an online news article.
  • At a previous hearing, Mr. Ze’ev Wurman apparently told legislators[1] that  “Common Core completely forgot conversion among fractional forms—fractions, percent, and decimals.” But standard 7.EE.3 on page 49
  • ...
Jason Zimba, PhD

Until now, I have generally kept out of the politics of the Common Core State Standards, in favor of helping teachers, districts, and states understand and implement them. But the recent editorial by James Milgram and Emmett McGroarty was so misleading that it demands a response.

Just how rigorous are the Common Core State Standards?

Jason Zimba
Jason Zimba: "Calling the Common Core 'fuzzy' is not only misreading the standards—it is also, I fear, sanctioning others to misread them in the same way."

  • The standards received a perfect score for content and rigor in the Fordham Institute’s 2010 review.
  • Research by William Schmidt, a leading expert on international mathematics performance and a previous director of the U.S. TIMSS study, has compared the Common Core to high performing countries in grades K–8. The agreement was found to be high. Moreover, no state's previous math standards were as close a match to the high-performing countries as the Common Core.
  • Milgram and his circle are a decided minority on the question of Common Core. The presidents of every major mathematical society in America support the Common Core, including the American Mathematical Association, the Mathematical Association of America, and the National Association of Mathematicians. These presidents lead organizations representing literally hundreds of research mathematicians.

Milgram and McGroarty have misrepresented the standards in...

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