Common Core Watch

Nearly two years ago, Achieve and the National Research Council (NRC), together with two dozen states, a handful of heavy-hitter foundations, and several other organizations, teamed up to develop a set of K–12, “next generation” science standards for states to consider for adoption. Their hope was to strengthen science education by setting clearer and more rigorous expectations than those that guide instruction in this crucial subject in most states today.

We urge states considering NGSS to exercise caution and patience
At the present time, we urge states considering NGSS to exercise caution and patience.
Image by moominsean.

The NRC initiated the process by developing a “framework” (National Research Council’s Framework for K–12 Education) setting forth the “key ideas and practices in the natural sciences and engineering that all students should be familiar with by the time they graduate from high school.” The Achieve team then embarked on a long process of building K–12 standards based on and faithful to that framework. They released two public drafts, received comments, made revisions, and then, the week before last, unveiled the final version of these “Next Generation Science Standards” (NGSS).

States are being encouraged to embrace and adopt these standards—and it’s no secret that most would benefit from far stronger standards for science than those they’ve been using....

This prediction will puzzle, upset, and maybe infuriate a great many readers—and, of course, it could turn out to be wrong—but enough clues, tips, tidbits, and intuitions have converged in recent weeks that I feel obligated to make it:

Common Core assessment consortia to be replaced?
Will PARCC and Smarter Balanced be eclipsed by longer-established, fleeter-footed testing firms like the College Board and ACT?
Image by Benjamin Chun.

I expect that PARCC and Smarter Balanced (the two federally subsidized consortia of states that are developing new assessments meant to be aligned with Common Core standards) will fade away, eclipsed and supplanted by long-established yet fleet-footed testing firms that already possess the infrastructure, relationships, and durability that give them huge advantages in the competition for state and district business.

In particular, I predict (as does Andy Smarick) that the new ACT-Aspire assessment system, which is supposed to be ready for use in 2014 (a full year earlier than either of the consortium products) and which some states are considering as their new assessment vehicle, will be joined by kindred products to be developed and marketed by the College Board. And the two of them will dominate the market for new Common Core assessments.

One straw in the wind: Alabama’s announcement last week that it...

The industrial economy that typified the twentieth century has been replaced by what has been dubbed the “knowledge” economy. And experts agree that while the industrial economy was driven by productivity, the knowledge economy is and will be driven by ideas. 

Yet, conventional wisdom is—perhaps ironically—that, in the knowledge economy, what you know isn’t all that important. At least not compared with what you can do with that knowledge. Just this week, New York Times contributor Thomas Friedman shared the “wisdom” of Tony Wagner who argued:

Because knowledge is available on every Internet-connected device, what you know matters far less than what you can do with what you know.

In other words, we needn’t overmuch trouble ourselves with making sure students know a lot. Indeed, because we have mobile encyclopedias at our finger tips, skills development should be the focus of American schools, and content should be used in service of honing the “twenty-first century skills”—creativity, innovation, collaboration, critical thinking—that the knowledge economy demands.

Unfortunately, Wagner and Freidman get it exactly backwards for three reasons.

1. Knowledge is cumulative.

People’s ability to learn new information depends entirely on what they already know. That is why, absent intensive intervention, achievement and knowledge gaps grow exponentially, not linearly. This is seen clearly in the early years with what the “vocabulary gap,” which starts small but grows to as many as 30 million words by the time children reach age three.

In a twenty-first-century context, that means, essentially, that...

The new “Common Core” math and reading standards have come under a firestorm of criticism from tea-party activists and commentators like Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin. Beck calls the standards a stealth “leftist indoctrination” plot by the Obama administration. Malkin warns that they will “eliminate American children’s core knowledge base in English, language arts and history.” As education scholars at two right-of-center think tanks, we feel compelled to set the record straight.

English language arts
Photo by susivinh

Here’s what the Common Core State Standards are: They describe what children should know and the skills that they must acquire at each grade level to stay on course toward college- or career-readiness, something that conservatives have long argued for. They were written and adopted by governors—not by the Obama administration—thus preserving state control over K–12 education. And they are much more focused on rigorous back-to-basics content than the vast majority of state standards they replaced.

The Common Core standards are also not a curriculum; it’s up to state and local leaders to choose aligned curricula. The Fordham Institute has carefully examined the new expectations and compared them with existing state standards: They found that for most states, Common Core is a great improvement in rigor and cohesiveness.

For decades, students in different states have been held to radically different...

Morgan Polikoff
Test
In spite of poor policy design and implementation, NCLB has kids learning more.
Photo by Old Shoe Woman

The anti-testing and accountability drumbeat is constant: A once-rich curriculum has been narrowed to English and math. The arts have been squeezed out. Teachers are teaching to the test. There's no time for recess. And No Child Left Behind is to blame.

These claims are coming not only from the typical anti-test crowd but, increasingly, also from state legislators, governors, and even reformers.

That’s because while some of these claims are probably overblown, many of them are true. Our failure to evolve NCLB and its accountability policies has led to a host of negative unintended consequences, including the aforementioned, the myopic focus on "bubble kids" just below the proficiency cut, and the endless gaming of state tests. But what too few leaders seem willing to admit is that these problems are eminently fixable.

Even more importantly, they are worth fixing. While many would have us believe that there is no value in standards- and accountability-driven reform, the reality is this: In spite of poor policy design and implementation, the vast majority of the high-quality research on standards and accountability policies in general and NCLB in particular finds they've had some positive intended consequences. Chiefly, ...

This post is adapted from comments delivered at the Manhattan Institute’s Curriculum Counts! event.

Classroom
If Common Core is really going to "change everything," we must focus on what these standards mean for teaching and learning.
Photo by horizontal.integration

Broadly speaking, there are two categories of school reform: systemic reform and classroom-level reform.

Systemic reforms are those aimed at reimagining school systems, and they include things like charter schools, vouchers, portfolio districts, and even accountability and some systemic teacher-evaluation policies. Classroom-level reforms, by contrast, are those aimed at actually changing what happens in the classroom. They focus, for example, on changing what is taught, how it is taught, or even how student mastery of essential content and skills is measured.

Over the past decade, education reformers have focused the lion’s share of our attention on systemic reform—to the point where conversations about Common Core implementation are often even dominated by how the standards will impact things like state accountability, teacher evaluation, certification, and on.

Of course, those are all important. But if Common Core is really going to “change everything,” we need first and foremost to focus on what these new standards mean for teaching and learning.

Yet, in many ways, the classroom is a black box to systemic reformers. While many leaders have made it their business...

Donald Campbell was an American social psychologist and noted experimental social science researcher who did pioneering work on methodology and program evaluation. He has also become—posthumously—an unlikely hero of the anti-testing and accountability movement in the United States. In the hands of accountability critics, his 50 years of research on methodology and program evaluation have been boiled down to a simple retort against testing: Campbell’s Law. But a deeper reading of his work reveals a more complicated and constructive message: Measuring progress (using both quantitative and qualitative indicators) is essential; when using quantitative data for evaluation, the indicators can become distorted or manipulated; and there are concrete steps we can—and must—take to minimize data manipulation and distortion.

Campbell’s December 1976 article, “Assessing the Impact of Planned Social Change,” has become a flashpoint in the educational accountability debate. There, he argued,

The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor."

Foes of testing and accountability frequently evoke this “Law” to argue against the use of standardized tests and test-based accountability. In a May 25 blog post, for example, Diane Ravitch explained:

Campbell’s Law helps us understand why No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are harmful to education…As high-stakes testing has become the main driver of our nation’s education policy, we will see more cheating, more narrowing of...

A new report on state-level implementation of Common Core merits some attention—but less for its top-line findings and more for how it confirms what I’m now calling the “Common Core Implementation Gap.”

That’s the miles of daylight between the platitudes about the new standards’ “dramatic,” “transformational” nature and the distressing reality of implementation.

The report’s upside is that we now know more about state-level planning. The downside is that we know nothing more about the quality of that planning—and this is the whole ball of wax.

We’ve made the necessary oblations to Common Core, and now it’s time to get serious about the seriousness of implementation.

This might sound like the classic unfair criticism of a research project—point out what you wanted a study to answer and then shame the authors for looking into something else.

I’m succumbing to this temptation because I’m troubled by all of the Common Core cheerleading going on. Apart from a still relatively small band criticizing the standards for stealing fiction and states’ rights, most reformers contend that Common Core is just shy of avert-your-eyes miraculous.

Tom Loveless had the temerity to wonder if the standards would improve achievement, and the response from their incredulous supporters was, said Loveless, “like putting my hand in a hornet’s nest.”

We’ve made the necessary oblations to Common Core, and now it’s time to get serious about the seriousness of implementation. That means no longer marveling at the shiny hubcaps and supple leather interior or, worse, just...

Jennifer Borgioli
Teaching
Standardized testing and engaging pedagogy are not mutually exclusive.
Photo by woodleywonderworks

Across the United States and beyond, the anti-testing movement seems to be reaching its crescendo. Yet the case against testing is remarkably weak, resting on a foundation of four fundamental misunderstandings of the role that assessments play in our schools.

Myth #1: Teachers’ instincts should guide instruction

Perhaps the most common anti-testing refrain is that we should get out of the way and just “let teachers teach.” The idea is that teachers know best and that standardized testing—or any kind of testing, really, other than the teacher-built kind—is a distracting nuisance that saps valuable instructional time, deflects instructors from what’s most essential, and yields very little useful information about student learning.

What you don’t often hear is how research has consistently demonstrated that, absent independent checks, many teachers hold low-income and minority students to different standards than their affluent, white peers. This bias is rarely intentional, but it has been found time and time again.

Standardized tests not only help us unearth these biases but also put the spotlight on achievement gaps that need to be closed, students who need extra help, schools that are struggling, and on. And by doing so, they drive critical conversations about the curriculum, pedagogy, and state and district policies that we need to...

Reading
Photo by Pesky Library.

While the lion’s share of the Common Core ELA implementation debate has focused on the precise proportion of time teachers should spend teaching fiction v. nonfiction in reading classes (see here and here), there is a far more critical discussion that has largely flown under the radar: the conversation about what the CCSS text-complexity guidance means for curriculum, instruction, and standards implementation.

Leveled literacy programs—like Lucy Calkins’s famed Reading and Writing Workshop—focus on assessing students’ reading levels and giving them “just right” books (those whose difficulty matches their independent or instructional reading level). Classrooms using leveled literacy programs typically have libraries with book bins labeled with a letter that corresponds with a reading level, and students choose from the “appropriate” bin for independent reading or instruction.

Such programs are wildly popular—as evidence by the growing number of classrooms with leveled libraries and the growing number of teachers who use “guided reading” programs or who follow the “workshop” model.

Unfortunately for students, the popularity of these programs is not driven by convincing research proving their effectiveness. In fact, as noted literacy expert Tim Shanahan discussed in a series of must-read posts on his blog nearly two years ago,

I have sought studies that would support the original contention that we could facilitate...

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