Common Core Watch

In the world of standards-based and data-driven instruction, knowing precisely how the Common Core will be assessed is critical. After all, while standards help explain what students should know and be able to do, it’s the assessments that clarify how student mastery will be measured. And that information is critical to ensuring that what is taught in the classroom matches—in terms of both content and rigor—what is articulated in the standards and measured by the assessments.

Knowing precisely how the Common Core will be assessed is critical.

Yet, both federally funded assessment consortia have only given glimpses of how they plan to measure student mastery of the Common Core—which of course makes the information communicated and sample items shared by the consortia all the more critical to classroom-level Common Core implementation efforts.

Most recently, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium released a small handful of web-based English language arts and math sample test items, which are available for public comment and feedback until November 2. While useful for painting a picture of how a few standards will be assessed and how technology will be used, the quality and rigor of the questions themselves are a mixed bag. While some help demonstrate just how different instruction aligned to a standard needs to be to meet the content and rigor demands of the CCSS, others seem poorly constructed, or misaligned to the demands of the new standards.

The Good

To begin, several questions are quite strong and very clearly demonstrate how SBAC...

In education, the quickest way to get approving head-nods from a crowd is to talk about the perils of rote and repetition. Students can’t learn “how to think,” after all, if they’re forced to memorize facts or repeat skills to automaticity. And teachers are not widgets merely implementing basic skills; they’re artists.

Practice Perfect

Perhaps no applause line has done more damage to effective teaching than these attacks on repetition. This is something that Doug Lemov knows intimately, thanks in part to the thousands of hours he spent observing outstanding teachers in action. What he learned was that great teaching is born not of spontaneous and unpracticed excellence, but rather of spending more time than seems to make sense mastering seemingly mundane but crucially important knowledge and skills. In his first book, Teach Like a Champion, Lemov described 49 of the fundamental techniques that great teachers incorporated into their daily practice.

Lemov builds upon these insights in his latest book, Practice Perfect (coauthored with Erica Woolway and Katie Yezzi). The book is, at its core, a damning critique of the multi-billion dollar teacher professional development industry, which focuses almost no time and attention on actually helping teachers focus on and hone the skills they need to be effective. Teachers, Lemov suggests, are being served up the equivalent of art appreciation courses and then...

Guest blogger Andy Smarick posts regularly (although generally with fewer acronyms) on Fordham's Flypaper blog.

A recent Common Core-sympathetic article carried by the WSJ begins with an anecdote about a too-seldom mentioned potential upside of tougher standards: that fewer parents will need to pay for remedial courses when their kids reach college (“something parents of about a quarter of all New York students entering college now do”).

It’s a lot easier to say “Common Core implementation” than to do it.

But what really comes through in this article is that it’s not completely clear what “Common Core implementation” actually means. This is something I’ve been fretting about since my time at the New Jersey Department of Education.

Though the reporter and numerous sources quoted throughout the article use buzz words (“rigorous,” “complex texts,” “ready for college and career success,” “mapping backward,” “analytical reading and writing skills,” and “text-based instruction.”), their translation into real-life practice is garbled English at best, ancient Greek at worst.

It seems to me that many of the Common Core’s most strident defenders don’t understand or appreciate that state and local leaders don’t know exactly what they should be doing. That confusion trickles down to teachers, preparation programs, and lots of other players.  In short, it’s a lot easier to say “Common Core implementation” than to do it.

This is why Checker Finn’s piece about “How the Common Core changes everything” is so valuable. And scary. Finn lists twenty areas of practice and...

Keeping up with up with the inaccuracies and distortions in the Common Core debate can sometimes feel like the classic arcade game Whack-a-Mole. As soon as you finishing knocking down one half-truth or mischaracterization, another pops up somewhere else. Publishers have, for instance, scrambled to claim alignment when none exists or to actively co-opt the standards for their own ends. Now political ideologues have gotten into the game, adding a whole new level of difficulty.

P1010037
Correcting inaccuracies about the Common Core is like playing Whack-A-Mole—only less fun.
Photo by Julia Rubinic.

The political opponents of the Common Core—like the self-interested publishers and consultants—are quick to make broad and often inaccurate claims about the new standards. Though their intent is different, the impact may be equally damaging, particularly since they hope to bury the standards entirely, not just make a buck off the coming wave of CCSS implementation. The great irony, though, is that, by pitching the Common Core as something that it isn’t, CCSS opponents may inadvertently end up promoting exactly the kind of content-less, skills-driven instruction that they claim to be fighting against.

Take, for example, Phyllis Schlafly. Godmother of the modern conservative advocacy movement, Schlafly burst onto the scene in the 1970s with her successful campaign to stop the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). She...

When charter schools first emerged twenty years ago, they represented a revolution, ushering in a new era that put educational choice, innovation, and autonomy front and center in the effort to improve our schools. While charters have always been very diverse in characteristics and outcomes, it wasn’t long before a particular kind of gap-closing, “No Excuses” charter grabbed the lion’s share of public attention. But in this rush to crown and invest in a few “winners,” have we turned our back on the push for innovation that was meant to be at the core of the charter experiment?

It’s become increasingly obvious that charters have hit a wall in their quest to put their students on the path to college.

Of course, the top charter management organizations got this level of attention the old fashioned way: they earned it. The best CMOs—like KIPP, Uncommon Schools, and Achievement First—have done amazing work. The teachers work long hours and do—often quite literally—whatever it takes to give students the kinds of opportunities they’ve had.

But, while charters have made important strides, it’s become increasingly obvious that they’ve also hit a wall in their quest to put their students on the path to college. While the best among them have been able to get more and more students to hit proficiency targets, there are no charter schools—to my knowledge—that have figured out how, at scale, to prepare all students for the rigors of college and careers. Yet, over the next few years, as statewide...

A famous workplace adage goes: “The boss is coming, look busy!” It is a recognition that far too often people are judged not just by what they produce, but by how hard they work to produce it.

Nearly every state is working hard to look busy, lest they be accused of not taking the Common Core seriously.

Many education reforms are designed to shift away from this thinking, placing the emphasis on outcomes instead of inputs, encouraging the use of objective data to drive judgments about performance, to shift the conversation to one grounded in genuine productivity and effectiveness. The crucial insight of these efforts is that management styles that prioritize “busy-ness” over effectiveness encourages people to make grand, often complicated plans that may not be well suited to drive the kind of change we need.

Yet, isn’t this exactly what we’re seeing in our rush to implement the Common Core?

Since its inception—and with the exception of the development of the actual K-12 expectations—the Common Core has encouraged haste. Four states (Kentucky, Hawaii, Maryland, and West Virginia) adopted the standards before they were even final.

Twenty states adopted them within one month of their release. All but six states had, in their Round 1 Race to the Top applications, developed plans to transition to the Common Core five months before the final CCSS were released. And districts have begun to align curriculum and instruction to the standards with very little guidance about how the expectations will be...

In 2005, Achieve and the National Governors Association hosted a National Education Summit on High Schools where forty-five governors came together with business leaders to address an ongoing challenge in American education: the gap between what students need to master to earn high school diplomas, and the knowledge and skills they need to be prepared for college and careers. Every year since, Achieve has released its annual “Closing the Expectations Gap” report, aimed at highlighting the progress states have made—and need to make—to better align K-12 and postsecondary education expectations.

The challenge is that tracking implementation is tricky.

The first report, released in 2006, focused primarily on whether high school academic standards and graduation requirements were aligned to “college and workplace expectations.” (In all but two states, they hadn’t been, though as many as thirty-five states were working towards it.) This year, the landscape has obviously shifted dramatically: Thanks in part to the Common Core, schools in every state and the District of Columbia are guided by standards that are aligned to College and Career Ready (CCR) expectations.

Of course, that means that the report must shift to match the changing landscape. To that end, this year’s report has, for the first time, begun to track state progress towards implementation of the standards. According to the authors, the report “provides an overview of the progress states are making” and it “draws attention to key issues states should consider as adoption and implementation work continues.”

The challenge is that tracking...

The Pioneer Institute released a report last week entitled How Common Core’s ELA Standards Place College Readiness At Risk. As the title suggests, this is the latest in a series of Pioneer broadsides against the Common Core. Readers who find their way through the reflexive criticism and confusing presentation will be rewarded with some genuine insights into how to get implementation right. Unfortunately, because that guidance is buried deep amidst a sea of misrepresentations and sometimes inflammatory rhetoric, it is unlikely to further the discussion of how best to implement the CCSS.

The authors hammer home their message with all the subtlety of a wrecking crew.

The authors hammer home their message with all the subtlety of a wrecking crew: The Common Core English language arts expectations are poor—far lower in terms of content, clarity, and rigor than the Massachusetts English language arts standards, they clearly believe—and their adoption in states across the country “places college readiness at risk.”

The reality—as evidenced by the substance of the report, if not its title—is far more nuanced. And the authors of this report, Mark Bauerlein and Sandra Stotsky, have much to contribute to the discussion of how best to implement the CCSS.

For starters, and despite the promotional material Pioneer has issued surrounding this publication and its associated event, Huck Finn is not in at risk of disappearing from high school English class. At least not any more so today than it was the day before forty-six states and the District...

Thanks in part to the requirements of the Federal Race to the Top program, since 2010 states and districts across the country have adopted teacher evaluation systems that use student achievement as part of the assessment of individual teachers’ performance. Given the amount of energy and political capital the education-reform community has put into developing, negotiating, and implementing these plans, you would think it’s a sure fire way to boost student achievement. Unfortunately, the top-down nature of these changes may very well be undercutting any chance they have to make a real difference for kids.

Top-down systems that bypass or undermine school leaders rarely produce excellence in the classroom.

The problem is not about the details of these evaluation systems—although clearly some are better than others—but rather who should be in the driver’s seat in making the decisions about how to hire, fire, and evaluate teachers. And the reality is that teacher-evaluation reforms are unlikely to succeed for reasons education reformers should know well: Top-down systems that bypass or undermine school leaders rarely produce excellence in the classroom.

It wasn’t that long ago that education reform was driven forward by a commitment to freeing determined principals who had a vision for excellence from the constraints that prevented them from developing the teams and practices they needed to drive school-wide change. Today, by contrast, reformers seem to have lost faith in the transformative power of school leadership and are now pushing teacher-quality reforms directly from district offices and statehouses through a...

Thanks to the Chicago Teachers Union strike, 350,000 of some of our nation’s neediest children have missed school this week. While it sounds like the strike may be close to an end, its impact will likely be far reaching and linger long after the teachers go back to work.

According to the unions, the fact that Chicago children have been denied the education they deserve is unfortunate but necessary to stop what they perceived as an unfair and unjust evaluation system that “would rely heavily on student standardized test scores.” One of key talking points being thrown around by the media is that student performance on standardized tests would account for as much as 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, something that even many reformers can’t stomach.

However, a close read of the final teacher-evaluation proposal from the Chicago Public Schools reveals a very different picture. In fact, the CPS proposal is more thoughtfully crafted and balanced than the rhetoric suggests, using a well-developed and tested teacher evaluation rubric, peer evaluation from master teachers, and student performance on teacher-created and teacher-scored performance assessments.

In fact, according to the final proposal, student achievement on standardized tests will never account for more than 25 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. And, even then, the district ensures that the often-derided state assessments—which, as critics note, are in desperate need of improvement—will not be used to judge a teacher’s effectiveness.

According to the CPS proposal, there are four essential elements of...

Pages