Common Core Watch

I taught fifth grade for many years at P.S. 277, in New York City’s South Bronx. But the school's full name was the Dr. Evelina Lopez-Antonetty Children's Literacy Center. I'd wager heavily there's not a student in that elementary school, or more than two or three adults, who could tell you a single fact about Lopez-Antonetty, whose name is on the door they walk through every morning and whose portrait (last time I looked) hangs in the school auditorium. I always found this odd and irksome. If it's important enough to put someone's name on a public building, it should be important enough to know why.

In the wake of the horrific, racially motivated shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, there have been demands to remove the Confederate battle flag from the capitol grounds in Charleston and wherever else it appears. Activists are demanding the removal of statues of Confederate Civil War figures and the rechristening of roads, bridges, and military bases bearing their names. There are nearly two hundred K–12 schools in America named after Confederate leaders, and now the calls have begun to strip the names from those buildings as...

Contractors removing old chalkboards from an Oklahoma City high school last week uncovered a second set of chalkboard drawings still covered with lessons and student work from a school day in 1917. The Thanksgiving-themed drawings, multiplication problems, musical scales, and lessons on cleanliness offer an eerie, time-capsule glimpse into the past. But the discovery was important for another reason: Researchers finally have tangible evidence of what kids were learning in at least one American school.

I’m not entirely joking. Pop quiz: Can you name the English language arts curriculum in the public schools where you live? How about the math program? If you can name them, are they any good? How do you know? Do you have student performance data on the program or textbook? Or is your opinion just based on philosophy and preference?

I’ve long lamented the general lack of curiosity within education reform about curriculum as a means of improving student outcomes, despite good evidence that curriculum effects are larger than teacher effectiveness, chartering, standards, and other beloved reform levers. Likewise, I’ve expressed the hope that Common Core might spur something of a golden age in curriculum development (hell, I’ll settle for bronze)....

I liked Grant Wiggins more than just about anyone with whom I disagreed so much. On several occasions, he’d write something about teaching or curriculum I vehemently disagreed with, or vice versa. A sharply worded blog comment or tweet would follow. Then, invariably, there would be an email. Often lots of them. Nothing remarkable there; arguments begun in one venue often spill over into others. But what I came to value about those exchanges with Wiggins, who passed away suddenly and unexpectedly last week at age 64, is that they weren’t an attempt to win an argument or a convert. If you disagreed with him—if you looked at the same evidence and came to a different conclusion—he had to know why. 

Wiggins, the author of the influential curriculum planning guide Understanding by Design, held to his beliefs tightly and argued them passionately. He would never have embraced the label of education reformer—far from it—but he resisted the facile view of the education world as an “us versus them” proposition. He was adamant that instructional practices he railed against—dry lectures; activities divorced from big ideas and important skills; dutiful marches through content to be covered—were not a product of “reform,” but...

I like the Common Core State Standards just fine, but let me confess a little secret: standards have never interested me very much. As a teacher, I would no sooner reach for state standards to decide what to teach than an architect would look to building codes for inspiration when sketching a skyscraper. Likewise, I suspect chefs never start with safe food handling procedures when planning a tempting menu. Of course, I want my students to be able to “determine two or more central ideas of a text” (that’s a standard). But deciding which texts are worth reading is far more interesting. And that’s not a standards question—it’s a curriculum question.

Much of my enthusiasm for Common Core has been predicated on the assumption that raising our game on teaching and testing can’t be accomplished without taking a long, hard look at curriculum—the course content and class materials we put in front of students. Curriculum is largely beyond the reach of Common Core; it’s strictly (and correctly) a local concern. But it’s been widely hoped the new standards would create a robust nationwide market for innovative new materials—especially in English language arts (ELA), where Common Core explicitly states the standards...

Amid way too much talk about testing and the Common Core, not enough attention is being paid to what parents will actually learn about their children’s achievement when results are finally released from the recent round of state assessments (most of which assert that they’re “aligned” with the Common Core).

Ever since states adopted more rigorous standards—and the two assessment consortia began to develop next-generation tests that will faithfully gauge pupil performance in relation to those standards—there’s been vast anxiety about the bad news that’s apt to emerge. How will people react when informed that their kids aren’t doing nearly as well academically as the previous standards-and-testing regime had led them to believe? Will more parents “opt out” of testing? Will the political backlash cause more states to repudiate the Common Core, change tests yet again, or lower the “cut scores”?

We know the Common Core standards are more challenging than what preceded them in most places. That was the point. We know that the new assessments—at least those custom-built by PARCC and Smarter Balanced—are supposed to probe deeper and expect more. We understand that this reboot of America’s academic expectations is indeed like moving the goal posts. There’s ample...

Since we at Fordham began reviewing state academic standards in 1997, we’ve understood—and made clear—that standards alone are insufficient to drive improvements in student achievement. They describe the destination, but they don’t chart the journey for leaders, teachers, or schools. Which means that for standards to have any impact on what students actually learn, they must influence curriculum, assessment, and accountability. It’s far better to have a desirable destination than an unworthy one—better to aspire to reach the mountains than the recycling plant—but standards alone won’t get you there.

Plenty of educators understand this, but they often lack access to suitable vehicles by which to make the journey. The need for standards-aligned curricula is undoubtedly the most cited implementation challenge for states, districts, and schools. It’s also why “access to high-quality, standards-aligned curricular resources” comes up in nearly every discussion of the implementation challenges that teachers, schools, and districts face as they ramp up to meet the content and rigor demands of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

This near-universal need for properly aligned curricula and curricular materials is also why so many publishers rushed to slap shiny “CCSS-aligned!” stickers on their products, regardless of how much those products changed...

Since we at Fordham began reviewing state academic standards in 1997, we have understood—and made clear—that standards alone are insufficient to drive improvements in student achievement. Standards describe the destination, but they don’t chart the journey for leaders, teachers, or schools, which means that for standards to have any impact on what students actually learn, they must influence curriculum decisions, assessments, and accountability. Educators intuitively understand this, but not all policy makers and pundits appear to. The need for standards-aligned curricula is undoubtedly the most cited challenge for states, districts, and schools implementing the Common Core.

Yet five years into that implementation, teachers still report scrambling to find high-quality, standards-aligned instructional materials. Despite publishers’ claims, there is a dearth of programs that are truly aligned to the demands of the Common Core for content and rigor. Fixing America’s curriculum problem is no small challenge.

In Uncommonly Engaging? A Review of the EngageNY English Language Arts Common Core Curriculum, Fordham analyzes New York State’s Common Core-aligned ELA curriculum, built from scratch and made available online for all to use for free. How solid is this product? Is it well aligned to the Common Core? Is it teachable?

Here’s what we...

Editor's note: This post has been updated to include the entirety of "Knowledge is literacy."

In his best-selling book In Defense of a Liberal Education, Fareed Zakaria worried that in the era of technology and globalization, "an open-ended exploration of knowledge is seen as a road to nowhere." Defenders like Zakaria have argued that a liberal education is still the best preparation for a broad and unpredictable range of careers.

I agree, but I'd like to propose that we start by restoring the liberal arts tradition to where it can really do the most good: elementary school. A K–5 version of a liberal arts education would go a long way toward solving one of the most stubborn problems we face in American education: How to raise kids who love to read and are pretty good at it.

To be educated in the liberal arts is to have a broad grasp of literature, art, music, history, and the sciences. That's also a fair description of what it takes to be a good reader. Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia, has driven this point home with exceptional clarity in his outstanding new book Raising...

Sherman Dorn

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form on Sherman Dorn's blog.

Science writer David Kohn has an op-ed in this morning’s New York Times, “Let the Kids Learn Through Play.” For historians, the first three words ring alarm bells: “Twenty years ago, kids in preschool, kindergarten and even first and second grade spent much of their time playing” (emphasis added).

Great: another Myth of the Golden Age. Maybe my memory is flawed, but Google Books and I both agree that the early 1990s was a time when “child-care crisis” was on the tip of many tongues, or at least on far more tongues and keyboards than before or since:

For many parents, any child care they can pay for is an uncertain proposition; debates over play versus early academics are a luxury for millions. For others, the quality of interactions between teachers and young children trumps the question of what happens during the day. And in practice, the divide between “play” and “academics” is often specious. When my son’s preschool teachers in the late 1990s cut up samples of almost a dozen types of fruit for his class to try, was that...

In 2007, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute published what was probably the most influential study in our eighteen-year history: The Proficiency Illusion. Using data from state tests and NWEA’s Measures of Academic Progress, our partners at NWEA estimated the “proficiency cut scores” of most of the states in the country. We expected to find a race to the bottom during the No Child Left Behind era; instead we found a walk to the middle. Importantly, though, we also demonstrated the vast discrepancies from state to state—and within states, from subject to subject and even grade to grade—when it came to what counted as “proficient.”  Checker and I wrote in the foreword:

What does it mean for standards-based reform in general and NCLB in particular? It means big trouble—and those who care about strengthening U.S. K–12 education should be furious. There’s all this testing—too much, surely—yet the testing enterprise is unbelievably slipshod. It’s not just that results vary, but that they vary almost randomly, erratically, from place to place and grade to grade and year to year in ways that have little or nothing to do with true differences in pupil achievement. America...

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