Common Core Watch

One of the arguments I’ve long made in support of Common Core is that properly understood and implemented, it’s a delivery mechanism for the ideas and work of E. D. Hirsch, Jr., and the Core Knowledge curriculum he created.

It’s gratifying—and, alas, too rare—when others connect the dots. But here is Politico, out with its list of fifty “thinkers, doers and dreamers who really matter.” Sharing number eight on the list is Hirsch and David Coleman, the principal author of the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts.

Hirsch’s work and output span decades, but a principal thrust of his ideas can be summarized thusly: reading comprehension is not a “skill” we can teach directly, practice, or master. It is not like riding a bike, where if you learn on one you can ride another with ease. Once you learn to “decode” the words on a page, your ability to read with understanding is largely a reflection of how much knowledge and vocabulary you have and share with the writer.

If schools understood and embraced this well-grounded insight, American education—and elementary education specifically—would look very different. There would be a lot less “question the author” and “find the main idea.” Instead you’d see teachers (especially those who work with our poorest children) restored, in David Coleman’s lovely and apt phrase, “to their rightful place as guides to the universe.” You’d see big chunks of the K-5 school day handed over to science, history, geography, and the...

Neal P. McCluskey

photo credit: Flazingo.com

Over the past couple of years, a raucous debate has emerged over the Common Core, content standards in English and mathematics adopted by states nationwide. The debate has been marked by acrimony rather than analysis, but there is hope that both sides want a reset. We—one Core advocate, one opponent—want to assist by laying out the facts on which we think everyone should agree.

What are some signs of detente? Core architect David Coleman recently decried characterizations of Core opponents “as crazies or people who don’t tell the truth,” while strategists at firebrand Glenn Beck’s “We Will Not Conform” event called for ditching invective like “ObamaCore” or “communist plot.”

Now, the facts.

First, there is no evidence that most Core opponents or advocates are ill-intentioned. There’s no compelling reason to believe, for instance, that Bill Gates is funding Core advocacy for any reason other than that he thinks it is beneficial, or that opponents are motivated by anything other than concern that the standards are inadequate, or amount to dangerous national standardization.

Next, the Core was not created by Washington, but groups that saw crummy state standards and tests and agreed on the need to improve their quality. In particular, these organizations wanted to ensure that “proficient” meant the same thing in Mississippi as Massachusetts, and sought to reduce the huge proportion of people arriving at college or workplaces without the skills to succeed. Responding to this,...

In NRO today, Rick Hess explores “five half-truths” that he says supporters of the Common Core like to propagate. These spurred five questions of my own:

  1. You dispute that the Common Core standards are “evidenced based” because “what the Common Core’s authors did falls well short of what ‘evidence-based’ typically means.” By your definition, would any set of standards be considered evidence-based? Such as those previously in place in the states? Or any set of education standards one might develop in the future? (Or, for that matter, in myriad other fields?) If no, then what’s your point? Do you think we should abandon standards-based reform?
  2. Relatedly, would you consider elements of the Common Core to be evidence-based? Such as their focus on scientifically-based reading instruction in the early grades, or the demand for fluency in arithmetic, or the admonition to delay calculator use? Would you disagree that those decisions were based on evidence? Do you think states should go back to standards that don’t include these evidence-based expectations?
  3. You complain that the Common Core standards don’t include calculus. Do you think states should expect all students to learn calculus? If not, where would you set the bar for “college and career ready”? 
  4. You say that it’s hard to judge the “rigor” of standards. OK. So do you think other standards are more rigorous than the Common Core? Ohio, for example, is having a debate about whether it should repeal the Common Core and deploy the old Massachusetts standards instead. Do
  5. ...


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It’s too soon to guess TIME Magazine’s person of the year, but a clear favorite has emerged for Common Core person of the year: the man, woman, or group that has done the most to advance the adoption and implementation of Common Core State Standards in the U.S. 

Ladies and gentleman, for meritorious service to further the cause of rigorous academic standards and educational excellence, please put your hands together for the governor of the great state of Louisiana, Common Core Man of the Year, Bobby Jindal!”

Jindal, as I’m sure you know, is suing the federal government over Common Core. And for this, he deserves enthusiastic cheers and undying gratitude from supporters of the Common Core State Standards. He has thrown into profound jeopardy the most effective talking point that their opponents have: that the feds forced national standards down the states’ throats and that Uncle Sam is illegally dictating what schools will teach. If this were true, any number of states, districts, or other stakeholders would have been in court ages ago. But they haven’t. The blunt fact of the matter is that this is powerful rhetoric atop an extremely weak legal case—like posting a “beware of dog” sign on your home when you own a beagle puppy.

Jindal’s suit alleges that the Department of Education forced adoption of Common Core through its Race to the Top program, which “required” states to “enter...

I have a complicated relationship with testing. I refuse to pretend that it’s caused no mischief in our schools—narrowing curriculum, encouraging large amounts of ill-conceived test prep, and making school a joyless grind for too many teachers and students alike—but neither can any fair-minded analyst deny that there have been real if modest gains in our present era of test-driven accountability, especially for low-income black and Hispanic children, particularly in the early grades.

What to make, then, of Secretary Duncan’s widely heralded concession that testing is “sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools” and his offer to states of a year-long delay in making test scores part of their evaluation systems?

“There’s wide recognition that annual assessments—those required by federal law—have done much to shine a light on the places and groups of students most in need of help. Yet in too many places, it’s clear that the yardstick has become the focus,” Duncan wrote in a lengthy blog post Thursday.

We at Fordham have been among those pleading for some reasonable flexibility in this area, particularly as new standards and assessments kick in, so the secretary’s message is welcome. Some states don’t want to shift gears, but others crave a breather while curriculum and pedagogy catch up with newly rigorous expectations. (We’ll save for another day an examination of the constitutional aspects of all this, as Duncan’s department evidently will be offering states waivers from conditional waivers, the statutory...

Morgan Polikoff

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Nearly all American K–12 students are exposed to it every day. It decides, in large part, what students will learn in school and how they will learn it. It is never evaluated for quality in any serious way, but when it is rigorously evaluated, its impact on student achievement is significant.

No, this isn’t another blog about teachers. I’m talking textbooks. We need good textbooks in front of kids just as badly as we need good teachers. However, from a research and policy perspective, improving textbook quality is a lot easier.

A little-noticed report last week in Education Week described a new initiative intended to be the Consumer Reports of textbooks. A new nonprofit called EdReports plans to post “free online reviews of major textbooks and curricula that purport to be aligned to the Common Core State Standards.” If they’re careful, credible, and diligent, this initiative could turn the lights up on a largely ignored factor in student outcomes that is ripe for analysis and improvement. And it could even blunt some of the more pointed criticisms of the Common Core. Here’s why I think EdReports, textbooks, and other curricular materials, in general, matter:

First, textbooks aren’t people. There is no union seeking to protect the interests of textbooks. They don’t need due

...

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Results from the annual Education Next poll are out this week, and the news is not good for us proponents of the Common Core. Support among the public dropped from 65 percent to 53 percent in just one year (from June 2013 to June 2014); Republicans are now almost evenly split on the issue, with 43 percent in support, and 37 percent opposed. What’s more, the new PDK/Gallup poll (out today) corroborates these trends and offers even worse news, finding that a majority of the public, and three-fourths of Republicans, now oppose the Common Core. Finally, Education Next found that support from teachers plummeted from 76 to 46 percent in just twelve months.

Nobody who has been following the public debate should be particularly surprised, at least when it comes to the overall numbers or those for Republicans. (The results for teachers are another matter; more on that in a bit.) After two punishing years of legislative assaults, Tea Party attacks, implementation controversies, and negative stories in conservative media, it’s a bit of a miracle that the numbers aren’t even worse. (Still, let’s be honest: these numbers are plenty depressing.)

I see two silver linings for those of us who still think the Common Core has great potential to improve American education:

  1. While the Common Core “brand” is
  2. ...

With the release last week of half of the test questions from the most recent round of New York State Common Core ELA/Literacy and math tests, we can now begin to see if the tests are, as one New York principal insisted last spring, “confusing, developmentally inappropriate and not well aligned with the Common Core standards.”

Do the charges stick? After a quick analysis of the released items, on the charge of “confusing,” I find the tests (at least somewhat) guilty. Not well aligned with the Common Core standards? Not guilty. Developmentally inappropriate? That charge should never have been brought in the first place.

Calling Common Core “developmentally inappropriate” has become something of a blanket criticism, but it’s largely irrelevant. University of Virginia cognitive scientist Dan Willingham has repeatedly cautioned against invoking the idea of developmental stages to draw strong conclusions about what children are ready for. “Hard” and “developmentally inappropriate” are not synonyms.

Critics are on firmer footing describing some test items as confusing. The first passage on the fifth-grade reading test was “My Grandma Talley,” a short story by Nadine Oduor that makes frequent use of vernacular language. Unfamiliar words like “frettin’,” “lotta” (a lot of), and “doodlebug” and idiomatic language like “wet behind the ears” could easily trip up young readers. Dialect is not the same as the archaic language typically found in historical documents, which have been heavily signaled as important under Common Core.

Following the passage, one question asks...

I’m looking forward to Elizabeth Green’s forthcoming book Building a Better Teacher. A sneak preview will run in the New York Times magazine this weekend and already is up on the website.

The lengthy Times’ excerpt tells the story of a teacher who fell in love with novel ways of teaching math that were pioneered by reformers in the United States and adopted in his native Japan, reportedly to great success. But when Akihiko Takahashi came to our country years later, he was surprised and saddened to learn American classrooms were not the hotbeds of innovation he expected. “It wasn’t the first time that Americans had dreamed up a better way to teach math and then failed to implement it,” Green writes.

I’ll set aside for now the question of whether or not those methods (such as “reform math” championed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) are superior. But Green’s next paragraph leapt from the page:

The trouble always starts when teachers are told to put innovative ideas into practice without much guidance on how to do it. In the hands of unprepared teachers, the reforms turn to nonsense, perplexing students more than helping them.

This observation, that poor teacher preparation turns everything to garbage, strikes me as the skeleton key that unlocks so much of our failure to make and sustain gains in American education, regardless of grade, setting, subject,...

Increasingly, the conversation about Common Core is dominated by politics and controversy. It has become so loud and shrill that it’s easy to forget that across the country are countless superintendents, principals, and teachers who are seizing the opportunity to challenge themselves to change the way they work to provide a better education for their students.

I remain as optimistic about the promise of the Common Core as I was when I first reviewed the standards four years ago. I believe that ultimately Common Core will succeed or fail based not on what politicians say but, rather, based on what teachers and school leaders do. That’s why I’m proud to take on a new opportunity to bring the Common Core—combined with the power of Core Knowledge—to a network of urban Catholic schools as its superintendent.

In March 2013, the Archdiocese of New York signed a landmark deal with the Partnership for Inner-City Education to support six inner-city Catholic schools in Harlem and the South Bronx. This is the first time that an independent organization has been given the opportunity to manage a set of schools in the Archdiocese of New York, and the agreement builds upon the Partnership’s 20-year track record and unwavering commitment to inner-city Catholic education. This is a team of principals, teachers, and leaders who are dedicated to charting a new course for urban Catholic education. I'm proud to join them.

On a personal note, this is also bit of a homecoming for me....

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