Common Core Watch

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...

Perhaps the most seductive trap in all of education reform is the idea of replication. A charter school is high achieving? Turn it into a CMO! A curriculum is achieving big results? Bring it to every classroom in its district! An instructional strategy is clicking with teachers? Take it nationwide! In theory, this makes sense. We should, after all, learn from the best, and if something is working, why not replicate it?

copier
Copying success doesn't always lead to success.
Photo by Andre W.

Too often, though, replication falls short of these high expectations. It ends up more like an old-fashioned Xerox, where each new copy is a little worse than the one that came before.

In education, the Xerox effect often stems from a shift in focus. In the high achieving schools and classrooms so many seek to copy, teachers and leaders work together with their eyes firmly focused on the goal of improving student achievement. In replication schools, however, that focus is too often diverted from student outcomes to the faithful implementation of “proven” programs, systems and tools.

What’s more, feedback in replication schools too often becomes unidirectional and is aimed at how well the program is being implemented, rather than on whether—faithful to the program or not—teachers are driving outstanding achievement. Unfortunately, when fidelity to...

The premise of Paul Tough’s excellent new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character—that cognitive ability matters, but character traits like tenacity, curiosity, and optimism matter more—is a strong challenge to my long-held notion that, when students struggle, whether in high school or college, much of that is attributable to their lack of academic preparedness. How Children Succeed largely argues otherwise, but there is a brief but fascinating account late in the book that suggests we shouldn’t be too quick to worship at the altar of grit alone.

playing black
Is school just like chess? Perhaps not. 
Photo by Adam Raoof.

The first half of Tough’s book unpacks clinical research that demonstrates the importance of parents protecting children from adversity in the first years of life. But it is the ability to persist in difficult tasks that ultimately seems to lead to success. Tough’s book, broadly speaking, makes the case that, insofar as there is any formula for success in life, it starts with a child’s need for protective, nurturing parenting, followed by independence and challenge to develop resiliency and “grit.”

A chapter entitled “How to Think” describes in vivid detail the remarkable success of the chess team at IS...

Robert Pondiscio, a vice president at the Core Knowledge Foundation and editor of its blog, posed an interesting question on Twitter this week:

I’ve seen bad schools with good test scores before. Any good schools with bad test scores?

It’s a timely and important question that gets to the heart of the emerging debate over whether standardized tests can fairly and accurately measure student learning, and whether accountability systems based on their results are too often mislabeling successful teachers and schools as “failures.”

Obviously, no accountability system is perfect, but we can all agree that one that gets it wrong as often as it gets it right is in need of serious reform. But is there any proof that is happening?

No accountability system is perfect, but we can all agree that one that gets it wrong as often as it gets it right is in need of serious reform.

Enter Kristina Rizga, a Berkeley-educated muckraking journalist who recently took the reins as the education reporter at Mother Jones after stints at Wiretap Magazine and AlterNet. In preparation for her new article, “Everything You’ve Heard About Failing Schools Is Wrong,” Rizga spent a year “embedded” in Mission High School in San Francisco. Her goal was to seek a “grassroots view of America’s latest run at school reform,” with an eye towards how we know “when schools are failing,” and whether “the close to $4.4 billion spent on testing since 2002…[is] getting results.” The culmination of her work at...

A version of this post originally appeared on the Shanker Institute blog.

Up until now, the Common Core (CCSS) English language arts (ELA) standards were considered path-breaking mostly because of their reach: This wasn’t the first time a group attempted to write “common” standards, but it is the first time they’ve gained such traction. But the Common Core ELA standards are revolutionary for another, less talked about, reason: They define rigor in reading and literature classrooms more clearly and explicitly than nearly any of the state ELA standards that they are replacing. Now, as the full impact of these expectations  starts to take hold, the decision to define rigor—and the way it is defined—is fanning the flames of a debate that threatens to open up a whole new front in America’s long-running “Reading Wars.”

Game of Risk
A new front opens on a war worth waging. 
Photo by Ben Stephenson.

The first and most divisive front in that conflict was the debate over the importance of phonics in early-reading instruction. Thanks to the 2000 recommendations of the National Reading Panel and the 2001 “Reading First” portion of No Child Left Behind, the phonics camp has largely won this battle. Now, while there remain curricula that may marginalize phonics and phonemic...

Children Lose Out” was the title of an editorial penned by The Salt Lake Tribune in response to last week’s State Board of Education decision to withdraw from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). Nationally, Common Core (CCSS) advocates worry that this move will not only hurt Utah’s kids, but also that it represents a weakening of support for the new expectations, and they worry that it could fuel even more anti-CCSS fire across the country.

Perhaps.

On the other hand, if Utah education leaders seize this moment as an opportunity to prove both that the CCSS is truly a state-lead initiative and to show how a state can take the reins to ensure that the aligned assessments are clear and rigorous and to give teachers the implementation tools they need, this move could do more to garner support for CCSS implementation than either consortium has done to date.

The reality is that, more than two years after the release of the final version of the CCSS, SBAC and the other assessment consortium, PARCC, have released scant information about what their assessments will look like—and how (if at all) they’ll differ from the mediocre tests we have now. Nor have they given teachers the information they need to guide lesson planning and instruction. Given the pressure that states are feeling to develop implementation plans, and that teachers are feeling to quickly align their practice to the new expectations, this lack of information is troubling. Assessments are, after all, where...

Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth, and Christopher Lehman—together with their colleagues at the Heinemann publishing house—have just released a new book entitled Pathways to the Common Core. The book sounds like a useful resource that ELA teachers can use to figure out how to align their instruction to the new standards. Unfortunately, it misses the mark. Part ideological co-opting of the Common Core (CCSS) and part defense of existing—and poorly aligned—materials produced by Heinemann, the book is the leading edge of an all-out effort to ensure that adoption of the new standards requires very few changes on the part of some of the leading voices—and biggest publishing houses—in education.

On page one, the authors explain the book’s mission:

Pathways to the Common Core will help you and your colleagues teach in ways that will bring your students to the Common Core State Standards’ level of work in literacy. This book will illuminate both the standards themselves and the pathways you can take to achieve those ambitious expectations. It will help you understand what is written and implied in the standards and help you grasp the coherence and central messages of them….

…Pathways to the Common Core is written for teachers, literacy coaches, and school leaders who want to grasp what the standards say and imply—as well as what they do not say—deeply enough that they can join in the work of interpreting the standards...

Since the release of the Common Core state math standards two year ago, math textbook writers and publishers have fallen over themselves to release new or “updated” curriculum resources that they declare to be “aligned” with the new expectations. Unfortunately, until recently there have been scant resources available to educators seeking to determine whether any of these ballyhooed instructional materials have truly been aligned with the content and rigor of the new expectations.

The criteria are clear, readable, and user-friendly.

Enter the lead authors of the CCSSM and their just-released “K-8 Publishers Criteria for the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics.” While ostensibly aimed at publishers earnestly struggling to align their resources with CCSSM, the ten criteria (and accompanying rubric) can also be used by math teachers, department heads, instructional specialists, principals, and superintendents who are wading through and trying to judge the quality and alignment of materials for their schools and classrooms. They can, in fact, be treated as a “buyer’s guide” that helps show which publishers have made the necessary changes for this big shift in math education. And here is hoping that is one way they get used.

The criteria are clear, readable, and user-friendly. For instance, one of the most critical aspects of the standards is their focus on essential content. “Focus,” the criteria explain, “requires that we significantly narrow the scope of content in each grade so that students more deeply experience that which remains.” To that end, the first criterion unambiguously states that,...

The introduction to the Common Core English language arts standards includes a page that articulates “what is not covered by the standards.” The first bullet notes that,

…while the Standards make references to some particular forms of content, including mythology, foundational U.S. documents, and Shakespeare, they do not—indeed, cannot—enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The Standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectations laid out in this document. [emphasis added]
Champagne on ice
Proponents of content-driven curricula would do well to keep the champagne on ice.
Photo by James Cridland.

An article penned by Sol Stern in the latest edition of the City Journal argues that this call for a content-based curriculum is perhaps the most important element of the standards and that is has led to at least one “undeniably positive development” in American education: “States are now having a serious discussion about the specific subject matter than must be taught in the classroom. And that’s a discussion that hasn’t happened in American schools for almost half a century.”

Yet, proponents of content-driven curricula would do well to keep the champagne on ice because, while the standards hint at this important restoration, they alone can’t deliver on it. Instead, it will be...

Terry Ryan of Fordham's Ohio team recently returned from the GE Foundation's Summer Business and Education Summit and provided a fascinating recap of the diverse groups rallying around the Common Core effort. Here are a few of the highlights:

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush captured the scale of the [Common Core implementation] challenge when he told the gathering on the first morning that states are heading for a “train wreck.” He noted that when the new standards and assessments come fully online in 2014-15 that many communities, schools and families are in for a rude awakening... He said, “My guess is there’s going to be a lot of people running for cover and they’re going to be running fast.”

The need for higher standards was brought home by business leaders:

During breakout sessions business leaders from some of the largest, most innovative and successful companies in the world – General Electric, IBM, Boeing, Disney World, Apple Inc., and Intel – lamented that they had good jobs in American factories and offices they couldn’t fill because they couldn’t find candidates with the required math and science skills to do the work.

Terry also recounts the remarks by NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, AFT President Randi Weingarten, and CCSS architect David Coleman. It's worth a read.

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