Common Core Watch

Science
While nobody should be satisfied with America's overall performance in science education, it's possible to make it even worse.
Photo by Atli Harðarson

(Updated February 7, 2013 for the Education Gadfly Weekly)

The public-comment period ended last week on draft 2.0 of the forthcoming “Next Generation Science Standards,” under development by Achieve, umpteen other organizations, and some two dozen states and promised for release in final form next month. Once released, states will be invited to consider adopting them, much like the Common Core for English and math.

Now ‘til March is not much time to repair this important, ambitious, but still seriously troubled document. The drafters might be wise to take more.

We at the Fordham Institute have a long history of reviewing state science standards, and last week, we submitted our review, feedback, and comments on NGSS 2.0. A team of nine eminent scientists, mathematicians, and educators, prepared our analysis. You can find the full review here, including team members’ bios on page 8. (We previously reviewed Draft 1.0, and Dr. Paul R. Gross, the distinguished biologist who heads the team, also reviewed the National Research Council “framework” on which NGSS is based.)

If states are going to make rational decisions to replace their own science standards with NGSS, it’s only right...

Assessments
Tests in use from Kindergarten through eleventh grade need to have cut scores that denote true readiness for the next grade and that culminate to "college and career readiness."
Photo by albertogp123

As the U.S. education world eagerly awaits more information about the new assessments that two consortia of states are developing to accompany the Common Core standards, dozens of perplexing and important questions have arisen: Once the federal grants run out, how will these activities be financed? What will it cost states and districts to participate? Who will govern and manage these massive testing programs? What about the technology infrastructure? The list goes on.

The assessment questions that weigh most heavily on my mind these days, however, involve “cut scores.” For if the Common Core is truly intended to yield high school graduates who are college and career ready, its assessments must be calibrated to passing scores that colleges and employers will accept as the levels of skill and knowledge that their entrants truly need to possess. Adequately equipping young people cannot wait ‘til twelfth grade, nor can the assessment sequence. The tests in use from Kindergarten through eleventh grade need to have passing scores that denote true readiness for the next grade and that cumulate to “college and career readiness.”

That’s a daunting challenge for any test maker, but it’s further...

Reindeer
Finland: Land of reindeer, snow, and a world-class education system.
Photo from RukaKuusamo.com via photopin cc.

Finland—the tiny land of reindeer, snow, and more snow—burst onto the scene in the past decade as the unlikely poster child for the anti-reform movement in the United States. Hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t implore reformers to learn from Finland—a nation with low poverty, high achievement, and virtually no standardized tests—and abandon our support for standards- and accountability-driven reform. After all, Finland’s education system today is characterized by loose central regulations, broad teacher curricular and instructional autonomy, and virtually no centralized accountability. Given Finland’s success on international assessments, it must follow that American schools would do better if we Xeroxed the Finland model.

Right?

Not exactly.

First, there has been at least some evidence of late suggesting that Finland’s successes may not be as miraculous as once thought. But more than that, to understand what is going on in Finland, its perhaps important to start not with a snapshot of their test scores and existing education structures but, rather, with a November 2010 McKinsey study entitled, “How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better.”

As part of their research, McKinsey studied twenty school systems from around the world that had seen “significant,...

Earlier this year, the GE Foundation awarded an $18 million, four-year grant to Student Achievement Partners—the group co-founded by the chief CCSS architects David Coleman, Sue Pimentel, and Jason Zimba—to support (among other things) the development of Common Core–aligned curriculum and instructional resources. In addition to being developed under the careful guidance of the lead authors of the standards themselves (and all signs seem to suggest that these materials will be top-notch), SAP-developed resources will be open source and provided at no cost to teachers around the country.

This week, Student Achievement Partners announced a new partnership with the NEA and AFT, which will be funded with a three-year, $11 million grant from The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, “to jointly design tools and digital applications to support teachers in their practice.”

Here’s what Sue Pimentel told Education Week:

…The New York City–based nonprofit would be "the engine room" for the new project, but teachers would be the fuel behind it. It will cover both ELA and math.
SAP will meet regularly with teachers to find out what they need most in the classroom, and come back to them with early versions that can then be reviewed and revised, Pimentel said. Teachers from the two unions will also play a key role by piloting the tools in their classrooms next year, she said. The tools will be available on SAP's website, Achieve The Core, and NEA and AFT websites, she said.

Given...

Great books
The claim that Common Core will be the death of great literature wilts under scrutiny.
Photo by Zitona via photopin cc.

To believe the latest criticisms of the Common Core is to believe that these rigorous new standards for English language arts, despite their focus on increasing the quality and complexity of the books read in English classes across grades K–12, signal the death of great literature in American schools. Like many arguments against the Common Core, however, this latest one wilts under scrutiny.

At the heart of this critique is a two-paragraph section found on page 5 of the introduction to the CCSS that mentions the NAEP assessment framework, shows the distribution of literary and informational texts across the grades (50/50 in 4th grade, 45 percent literary to 55 percent informational in 8th, and 30 percent literary to 70 percent informational in 12th), and suggests that teachers across content areas should “follow NAEP’s lead in balancing the reading of literature with the reading of informational texts, including texts in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects.”

Never mind that the document immediately clarifies—no fewer than three times!—the fact that “a significant amount of reading of informational texts take place in and outside the ELA classroom.” Denizens of the anti-Common Core fever swamps choose not to read that bit...

Bedtime story
Research has long shown that reading comprehension and vocabulary are well correlated.
Photo by Јerry via photopin cc.

While there are achievement gaps between low-income and affluent students across content areas, none seem more vexing to close than the reading gap. While the enormous investment of time and resources that was poured into the Reading First initiative resulted in modest gains, particularly at the elementary level, we have not made the progress we had hoped for in either improving reading achievement or closing the comprehension gap.

There are no doubt a host of factors that contribute to this gap in reading, not least of which the fact that low-income students are far less likely to be read to and talked to in the early years, or to be exposed to the kind of content-rich curriculum they need to build knowledge and expand vocabulary—both critical drivers of reading comprehension.

Research has long shown that reading comprehension and vocabulary are well-correlated. The results from the latest NAEP vocabulary assessment provide additional ammunition to those who argue that if we ever hope to address the reading gap, we must find a way to address the language and knowledge gap between our lowest- and highest-performing students. Specifically, the NAEP results show the following:

  • Fourth-grade students performing
  • ...
Tony Bennett
Inequality for All: The Challenge of Unequal Opportunity in American Schools

This wonky but important (and exceptionally timely) book by Bill Schmidt, a Michigan State “university distinguished professor,” and Curtis McKnight, an emeritus math professor at the University of Oklahoma, is a distinctive, deeply researched, and amply documented plea for full-scale implementation of the Common Core math standards. The authors reach that destination after taking readers on a fascinating curricular journey.

They closely examine the extent to which young Americans in various states, districts, schools, and classrooms have equal opportunities to learn the same high-quality math content in grades K–8—and find grievous gaps and injustices.

One might suppose that this most hierarchical and standardized of core subjects would yield the greatest uniformity from place to place within the United States. Critics of national curricula (and the Common Core) periodically declare that NAEP, the textbook oligopoly, the NCTM, and college-entrance exams have caused math curricula to be very similar across the land.

Schmidt and McKnight, however, show conclusively that this presumption is false. And they link the variation they identified in content coverage and delivery to the country’s vexing achievement gaps, its deteriorating social mobility, and its generally weak educational performance. Here are a few excerpts from the book’s alarming—and stirring—final chapter:

The inequalities in content coverage begin with the state...

Everywhere you look these days, someone is running down the Common Core. One of the most frequent critiques comes from those who argue that the CCSS “mandate” the percent of time that English teachers must spend on nonfiction and who worry that this requirement will force educators to replace Shakespeare and Twain with technical manuals and bus schedules. It’s one of those lines that’s apparently “too good to fact check” because the deeper you dig, the more it unravels. Here are the facts:

First, it’s literally wrong. Nowhere do the CCSS “mandate” the percent of time ELA teachers need to spend on nonfiction. In fact, the reference to the balance of fiction and nonfiction in the classroom specifically warns,

The percentages on the table reflect the sum of student reading, not just reading in ELA settings. Teachers of senior English classes, for example, are not required to devote 70 percent of reading to informational texts. Rather, 70 percent of student reading across the grade should be informational.

It’s hard to imagine the authors being clearer on this point. Yet commentators on all sides of the debate regularly—and mistakenly—claim that the CCSS wants to see literature in ELA classrooms go the way of the dinosaur. Even as recently as this weekend, New York Times education writer Sara Mosle wrongly claimed that the Common Core pushes for up to 70 percent of time in 12th grade English classrooms be devoted to reading nonfiction titles. (To Mosle’s great credit, she subsequently corrected and edited...

The American Legislative Exchange Council, a useful group of mostly conservative state legislators, wrestled for months over the "Common Core" state standards for English language arts and math. Critics of those standards feared homogenization of curriculum and excessive federal interference in K-12 education. Supporters noted that adopting and implementing the Common Core is up to individual states in any case, that greater rigor in what American kids learn in school is desirable, and that comparability and predictability across state lines in these two core subjects has much to be said for it in a mobile society situated on a shrinking and ever more competitive planet.

After due deliberation, this past weekend ALEC's "Legislative Board of Directors" voted to remain neutral on the issue, thereby not pressuring its members and states in either direction. This was the logical outcome for a group that generally respects state sovereignty in realms such as education. Many questions remain to be answered about Common Core implementation and the as-yet-unseen assessments (and "cut scores") now under development, and it's absolutely proper for individual states to handle this differently. As ALEC's high command eventually concluded, it would not be proper for a national organization to try to sway them—any more than it's proper for Uncle Sam to do so. He hasn't always resisted the temptation. It's good that ALEC did.

In 1972, Yale sociologist Irving Janis coined the term “groupthink.” It was a way of describing the group dynamics that occasionally lead smart, thoughtful, and well-intentioned people to make catastrophically bad decisions. What I have often wondered is, what would Janis make of the decisions being made by today’s education reform leaders?

JFK
Does education reform, like JFK's White House, suffer from groupthink?
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Janis, who passed away in 1990, focused much of his research on the meetings and conversations that preceded several key presidential decisions, including those that led President Kennedy and the best and brightest “whiz kids” he brought into his administration to move forward with the Bay of Pigs invasion—an American-supported attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro in Cuba that was, by all accounts, a spectacular failure. In the end, Janis concluded that Kennedy’s biggest failure was not the final decision, but rather the process he and his advisors followed to get there. Most importantly, he felt that they failed to have open, critical conversations that might have pushed them to rethink their assumptions, and that individuals within the group failed to either voice their own concerns, because they felt there was already consensus, or listen to objections that would have helped them reshape the invasion plan.

Of course, education isn’t warfare and ed reform doesn’t...

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