Common Core Watch

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan deserves the many plaudits he received on Friday from President Obama and his friends in the reform community, and even his sometime-foes in the teachers unions. As everyone remarked, he’s a good and decent man—a fighter for disadvantaged kids who’s passionate about his work and loyal to his team. That was certainly my personal experience with him, as he was more gracious toward me than I probably deserved, considering the many swipes I’ve taken at his policy decisions over the years.

So please bear with me one more time: Even at this moment of celebration, congratulation, and reflection regarding Arne’s time at the helm, the Obama Administration can’t seem to help itself. It almost seems determined to poison the well with Congress and play to the stereotype of a government unwilling to abide by constitutional limits.

I’m referring, of course, to the decision to appoint John King (another smart, committed reformer and all-around great guy) as “acting” Education Secretary for an entire year, rather than put him through the Senate confirmation process.


It’s certainly true that the confirmation process has slowed to an agonizing pace over the past few decades. And the Bush 43...

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the average American lived to be about 50 years old. One hundred years later, nearly three decades have been added to that lifespan, due in no small part to advances in public health: immunization and control of infectious disease, safer and healthier food, motor vehicle safety, fluoridation of drinking water, and recognizing the dangers of tobacco use.

Public health's watershed advances occur in part because public policy and awareness are intertwined with medical practice and research, mutually reinforcing one another. Research teaches us about the ill effects of smoking; doctors discourage their patients from smoking; policymakers raise taxes on cigarettes, pass laws curtailing who can buy and sell them and where people are allowed to light up. Eventually the combined forces become overwhelming. The habit is seen as dangerous, expensive, and socially unacceptable. Fewer Americans purchase cigarettes, and even those who do become reluctant to expose their children to tobacco smoke. Behavior changes. Quality of life improves.

American education has enjoyed no such golden era, largely because education force multipliers too seldom act in concert. Those who work in education research, policy, and practice frequently fail to communicate with one another, and when...

A great problem in U.S. education is that gifted students are rarely pushed to achieve their full potential. It is no secret that American students overall lag their international peers. Among the thirty-four countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development whose students took the PISA exams in 2012, the United States ranked seventeenth in reading, twentieth in science, and twenty-seventh in math.

Less well known is how few young Americans—particularly the poor and minorities—reach the top ranks on such measures. The PISA test breaks students into six levels of math literacy, and only 9 percent of American fifteen-year-olds reached the top two tiers. Compare that with 16 percent in Canada, 17 percent in Germany, and 40 percent in Singapore.

Among the handful of American high-achievers, eight times as many kids come from the top socioeconomic quartile as from the bottom. That ratio is four to one in Canada, five to one in Australia, and three to one in Singapore.

What has gone wrong? Thanks to No Child Left Behind and its antecedents, U.S. education policy for decades has focused on boosting weak students to minimum proficiency while neglecting the children who have already cleared that low bar. When...

What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all its children. – John Dewey

The intuitive appeal of this oft-quoted maxim is obvious. It speaks to the conviction that all of the children in a community or a country are “our kids” and that we should want the very best for them just as we do for our own flesh and blood.

Taken literally, however, it is also problematic, for it equates “sameness” with “equity.” That’s an error in part because what “the best and wisest parents” want varies—some seek traditional schools, others favor progressive ones, etc.

But it’s also a mistake because children’s needs vary. Kids growing up in poverty and fragile families, and dysfunctional communities need a whole lot more than kids living with affluence and stability. And when it comes to their schools, poor kids may need something a whole lot different. That’s why I’m a big fan of No Excuses charter schools, which are showing great promise for low-income children—even if they might not be a good fit for many of their upper-middle class peers.


The sweetest and shiniest word in the progressive lexicon is “universal.” It connotes equity, equality, and above all fairness. As a practical matter, however, these lofty ideals are undermined when we give everyone the same even if some need more. This is a truth universally acknowledged.

It also seems lost upon New York City’s uber-progressive mayor, Bill de Blasio, who seems oddly determined at times to make worse, not better, the “Tale of Two Cities” dichotomy between rich and poor New York that he rode into office two years ago.

The second year of de Blasio’s signature education initiative, a $300 million program to provide free, full-time pre-K to all New Yorkers, began this fall with troubling data suggesting that it is badly misfiring. Using census data and information from the mayor’s office, Bruce Fuller—a professor of education and public policy at University of California, Berkeley (Berkeley!)— estimates that there are 103,000 four-year-olds eligible for the program. In many instances, however, those who need it most are not being reached.

Children from low-income homes make up the largest share of program participants, accounting for roughly one-third of the sixty-five thousand registrations. But Fuller calculates that more than twelve thousand...

There were many routes to the podium at last week’s Republican presidential debate. Even with Rick Perry’s withdrawal from the race, the primary field is the largest in a century, and every candidate has taken his own path to the bright lights. Donald Trump has been carried along by his immense personal charm. Carly Fiorina leveraged her initial success among the mop-up squad to change the inclusion rules and gain a place at the top of the polls. Scott Walker got in…well, for reasons no one can quite remember now, but he’ll be damned if he’s heading back to the Great Madison Brat Fest with anything less than a VP berth in tow.

So with a slate of eleven(!) competitors and a run time that made The English Patient look like a particularly spritely episode of Glee, how was it that education never got an invitation to the party? While Jeb Bush was busily defending his brother’s national security record and Fiorina was helping Trump to a yuge slice of humble pie, we Fordhamites were left waiting for someone to mention the fifty million American kids just starting their school year. And...

Remember all those pitched battles and screaming matches over Common Core? The furious charges of federal overreach? The demands to "repeal every word" of it? As children return to school across the country this week, Common Core remains largely intact in more than forty states. At the same time, new evidence suggests that the much tougher Common Core challenges—the ones emanating from inside classrooms—have only just begun.

Results from the initial round of Common Core-aligned tests (administered last spring) have been trickling out for the past few weeks in more than a dozen states. The results have been sobering, but not unexpected. Recall that the No Child Left Behind years were an era of rampant grade inflation. States whose students performed poorly on the benchmark National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) routinely rated the vast majority of their students on or above grade level, simply because states were allowed to set their own bar for success and thus had a perverse incentive to declare ever-greater numbers of kids proficient. The result was a comforting illusion of student competence that was shattered when "proficient" kids got to college and needed remediation,...

Between 2010 and 2012, more than forty states adopted the Common Core standards in reading and math, setting dramatically higher expectations for students in our elementary and secondary schools. Now comes a critical milestone in this effort. In the coming weeks, parents in most states will receive for the first time their children’s scores on new tests aligned to the standards. The news is expected to be sobering, and it may come as a shock for many. Parents shouldn’t shoot the messenger.

It is important to remember why so many states started down this path in the first place. Under federal law, every state must test children each year in grades 3–8 to ensure they are making progress. That’s a good idea. Parents deserve to know if their kids are learning, and taxpayers are entitled to know if the money we spend on schools is being used wisely.

But it is left to states to define what it means to be “proficient” in math and reading. Unfortunately, most states have historically set a very low bar (often called “juking the stats”). The result was a comforting illusion that most of our...

Today marks the first class in a yearlong seminar in civics and citizenship I teach at Democracy Prep Charter High School in Harlem. My goal is for students to see America as their own, a country worthy of their dreams and ambitions. I will assign readings and papers, lead discussions, and design tests. I should take them all to see Hamilton on Broadway as well.

More than just an inventive musical or a hip hop history lesson, Hamilton accomplishes in two and a half hours what I will spend a year attempting to do in class, and what K–12 education barely even bothers to attempt anymore: It transfers ownership of America’s ideals and ambitions from one generation to the next.

The show’s star and creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, read the story of one of the nation’s most brilliant and volatile founders and saw echoes of Jay Z, Eminem, and Biggie Smalls. “I recognized the arc of a hip-hop narrative in Hamilton’s life,” he said in a recent interview. If the parallels are not obvious to you in the biography of the author of many Federalist Papers and America’s first treasury secretary—and they certainly weren’t to me—perhaps that’s the point.

“Lin is telling the story of...

Natalie Wexler

Standardized tests are commonly blamed for narrowing the school curriculum to reading and math. That’s one reason Congress is considering changes in the law that could lead states to put less emphasis on test scores. But even if we abolished standardized tests tomorrow, a majority of elementary schools would continue to pay scant attention to subjects like history and science.

Consider this: In 1977, twenty-five years before No Child Left Behind ushered in the era of high-stakes testing, elementary school teachers spent only about fifty minutes each day on science and social studies combined. True, in 2012, they spent even less time on those subjects—but only by about ten minutes.

The root cause of today’s narrow elementary curriculum isn’t testing, although that has exacerbated the trend. It’s a longstanding pedagogical notion that the best way to teach kids reading comprehension is by giving them skills—strategies like “finding the main idea”—rather than instilling knowledge about things like the Civil War or human biology.

Many elementary students spend hours practicing skills-based strategies, reading a book about zebras one day and a story about wizards the next.

That’s a problem for all students:...