Common Core Watch

As opposition to the Common Core State Standards has gained momentum in parts of the land, it’s important to ask what happens if a state changes its mind and renounces those standards—which, as we’ve long said, states have every right to do. But then what? Does the state revive its old academic standards, be they good, bad, or average? Does it rewrap the Common Core and affix its own label thereon? (That’s happened already in several places, including some states where the Common Core wasn’t particularly controversial but state pride and sense of ownership are intense.) Does it keep the substance of the Core but add some content of its own—as Common Core authors always expected? (This has occurred, inter alia, in MassachusettsFlorida, and California.) Does it come up with something altogether new and better? Or does it come up with something new and worse?

Last month, when Governor Mike Pence signed a bill officially repealing his state’s 2010 adoption of the CCSS, Indiana became the first Common Core state to formally repudiate the standards. Unfortunately, it appears that, in its haste to reject and replace the CCSS, Indiana seems poised to adopt a set of Potemkin Standards—expectations built with a façade that impresses but with very little enduring substance.

Repealing the Common Core left the state’s teachers and school districts with no curricular or instructional guidance, and it left the state Department of Education little time to finalize a new set of K–12 English and math standards or to develop a workable implementation...

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While I won't say I'm glad that Indiana (or any other state) is reversing its earlier embrace and spitting in the eye of the Common Core, it grieves me not at all that they now seem to be exiting.

Well, it grieves me that they may be consigning Hoosier schools and teachers and kids to a worse fate—the state's draft alternative standards aren't just educationally inferior to the Common Core, they're also worse than Indiana's own previous K–12 academic expectations—but it doesn’t upset me one bit that legislators are now pulling this plug. For it's been abundantly clear for months that their heart wasn't in the Common Core standards, which means they would have done a lame job of implementing and assessing performance in relation to them. (Be mindful that Indiana did a lame job of putting its own old standards into practice, which is at least part of why the state's academic results have been thoroughly mediocre.)

I've argued for years now that the forty-five-state number (original sign-ups for Common Core) was inflated, unrealistic, and implausible and that many of those states were never—are never—going to lift their hands to operationalize the standards. (One finger, maybe, but taking any set of new standards seriously means heavy, heavy lifting from many, many buckets. You can't do that with one finger.)

Far better for a smaller number of states that are serious about this implementation, assessment, and accountability challenge to stick with the...

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I’ve long argued that there is a meaningful and important difference between standards and curriculum. Pick your metaphor: The standards set the destination; they don’t define the journey. Or they describe the “what” but not the “how.” While a good set of K–12 academic standards can foster tremendous innovation and real choice for teachers and students, instructional flexibility is essential. There is no one “right” way to teach content and skills to all students. The right path depends on the strengths and needs of the students and the teachers as much as it does on the content itself.

It’s exactly because I see the potential—the necessity, even—for classroom-level innovation that I shudder when people argue that Common Core adoption is tantamount to the imposition of a single, national curriculum. In my mind, that is simply not what Common Core is meant to do. (In fact, more than three years ago, when some pushed for a common curriculum to match the common standards, I argued forcefully against it. I wrote that mandating state or national curriculum—either directly or indirectly—was “one of the least effective ways” of driving effective curriculum choices. Teacher buy-in is too important to curriculum implementation, and teachers are unlikely to feel bought into a curriculum that was forced upon them from state bureaucrats, no matter how well intentioned they are.)

But what happens when the lines between setting standards and mandating curriculum are blurred?

That is what I see happening...

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In the Hoover Institution’s Defining Ideas journal, Tom Loveless has a brief, measured examination of today’s curriculum debates. Entitled “The Curriculum Wars,” the essay reviews age-old disputes between traditionalists and progressives in the 80s, 90s, and 00s, then reframes them in light of two recent developments: technology in education and Common Core. 

Loveless recalls the whole-language vs. phonics battle in reading instruction; project-based learning vs. content-oriented instruction in science; problem solving vs. computation skills in math; and multiculturalist, “national-sins” history vs. Eurocentric versions (He doesn’t use the term “Eurocentric,” but it’s implied). While the former (progressivist) approaches dominated education through the 90s, the “rise of accountability systems” that focused on basic literacy and numeracy skills, plus research showing the ineffectiveness of whole-language theories, blunted those approaches in reading and math and marginalized science and social studies/history debates.

We are now in a state of “relative calm” in curriculum matters, Loveless asserts, but technology and Common Core threaten to revive the controversies. In customizing instruction to each student, he warns, we may find the curriculum fragmenting to the point that students “no longer learn a common body of knowledge and skills at approximately the same time.” We might extend that concern to the outcome that there would no longer be any common body of knowledge and skills. (Loveless has a nice comment, too, on the “romantic ideology” of those we might call the “disruptivists,” who rely on doubtful theories of learning styles in their effusive advocacy of customization.)

The threat that Common Core poses...

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Yesterday, National Review Online posted an article entitled, “The Eleven Dumbest Common Core Problems.” This is the latest in a series of posts making their way around the internet aimed at demonstrating how the Common Core ELA and math standards are “forcing” low-quality, fuzzy math and politically charged English passages on our nation’s elementary students. But that’s like saying wet roads caused it to rain—it’s got the causation all mixed up.

The posts and the pictures of awful curriculum have parents, teachers, and community members rightly concerned. We should be teaching important content, free of political biases and agendas, and we should be teaching that content in the most effective and efficient way possible.

But we can blame the Common Core only if we have some evidence that pro-environmentalist reading passages—or otherwise low-quality elementary reading and math materials—are a new phenomenon. Or that they account for a significantly higher proportion of texts read than before CCSS. Or if opponents can demonstrate a clear link between the poor curriculum and the demands of the standards.

Thus far, very little (if any) such evidence has been presented, so it isn’t clear why the CCSS—or any standards that don’t explicitly demand fuzzy math or environmentalist literature—are to blame. Is choice to blame for charlatan school leaders? Because there is financial mismanagement of some charter schools, should we eliminate privately managed public schools? Hardly. But that is the same line of argument being advanced by opponents of the Common Core,...

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As followers of the Common Core debate know all too well, when it comes to the veracity of publishers’ claims of “Common Core alignment,” the most we supporters have been able to offer in the way of advice is: “buyer beware.” You need only know that publishers slapped “Common Core Aligned!” stickers on previously published materials—almost before the standards themselves were finalized and definitely before any serious curriculum reviewing and rewriting could have been done—to realize that teachers were going to be faced with the unenviable task of wading through a morass of materials of varying degrees of quality and alignment in their attempt to find quality, well-aligned materials for their classrooms.

Because there is no agency tasked with trademark enforcement, any company can say its books and resources are Common Core aligned. And publishers seem determined to take advantage of this Wild West environment. Against this backdrop, someone needs to step in as sheriff—a role state departments of education are well suited to fill.

On March 5, the Louisiana Department of Education did just that with their release of a suite of tools aimed at supporting teachers as they align curriculum and instruction to the Common Core. Among those tools is a series of rubrics that leaders and teachers can use to evaluate ELA and math curricula, and tiered ratings of a number of the most popular and widely used CCSS-aligned English and math curricula.

While there are a number of other “alignment” tools teachers can...

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For many years, Indiana has been a leader in providing rigorous, content-rich K–12 expectations. But lately, the state seems to be taking worrying and entirely unnecessary steps backward. First, under pressure from Common Core opponents, the Board of Education released updated ELA and math standards that are widely considered a step down from both the CCSS and the Indiana standards they replaced.

And now, the state has adopted history standards that are a far cry from the clear, content-rich U.S. history expectations that earned the Hoosier state a top-tier score in Fordham’s most recent analysis of state U.S. history standards (which I coauthored). While these two standards revisions were not purposefully linked, they demonstrate a worrying pattern: a move away of the kind of specific content standards that earned Indiana a reputation for having standards among the best in the nation.

Last fall, Andrea Neal, a middle-school history teacher and a member of Indiana’s Board of Education, contacted me with concerns about the new drafts then emerging from the state’s Department of Education. Given my role in the 2011 review, she asked the head of the DoE to seek my input. But, she tells me, she was informed the department “would not welcome” such a review. The Education Roundtable, an appointed body that advises the Board of Education on standards, also rejected her suggestion. This month, with the revisions complete and a vote approaching, Neal commissioned my review on her own.

My analysis, unfortunately, fully confirmed...

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Student Achievement Partners

The Fordham Institute’s new report Common Core in the Districts paints a vivid picture of four different school districts’ efforts to implement the Common Core State Standards. Each district follows a comprehensive strategy, developed in relation to its own particular portfolio of resources and constraints, and each district has had its own particular successes and failures—but all four share a passionate dedication to the goal. The authors of Common Core in the Districts draw upon these districts’ experiences to make valuable recommendations for educators across the country who are also trying to implement the standards.

The four districts studied intensively by Fordham’s researchers—Kenton County School District in Kentucky; Metropolitan Nashville Public School District in Tennessee; Elementary School District 54 in Schaumberg, Illinois; and Washoe County School District in Nevada—are not alone. At Student Achievement Partners, we have been inspired by our work with educators at the district level.

For example, educators we’ve worked with in Reading, Pennsylvania, discovered that newly purchased reading anthologies didn’t lead students back to the text to search for evidence, nor were the classroom activities sufficiently challenging. The district, however, had recently lost 10 percent of its Title I funds and could little afford new teaching guides at a cost of $400 per classroom. Professional-development director Sue Vaites recounted how the district turned this challenge into an opportunity. Seeing little possibility of new funding, and refusing to use subpar materials, the district and its teachers took charge of creating their own resources. Like educators...

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Bill Porter

Yesterday, Kathleen discussed the relationship between standards and choice, ultimately arguing that these two movements ought to operate as complements, rather than antagonists.

Many critics on the Right reject the intrusion of standards-based reforms from the very basic tenets of economic theory.  A truly free-market approach, they argue, would obviate the need for standards because competition and universal choice would identify excellent and poor schools (and educators) more efficiently and effectively than centrally imposed standards ever could.

This position resonates with free-market purists and conservative education reformers alike (and as an unabashed free marketeer, to me as well). Yet, fidelity to economic principles without a realistic discussion of the world within which they operate is problematic for a number of reasons.

First, even the most ardent Chicago economists would agree—whether regarding education policy, drinking water, or anything in between—that the ideal free market with no distortions is both unattainable and undesirable.  We could reduce rent-seeking behavior and deadweight losses across almost every industry by eliminating things like the FDA, federal antitrust laws, statewide insurance commissions—even state speed limits or (gasp) lawyers.   Eliminating clinical trials would allow large pharmaceutical drug companies to move innovative new compounds quickly to market with minimal cost, and the resulting successes (cured cancer patients) and failures (horrific side effects for the patients who managed to survive substandard drugs) would almost assuredly be closer to the true definition of “efficient” than our current processes.

Similarly, the Constitution secures to inventors exclusive rights to their inventions,...

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The modern education-reform movement is essentially made up of two distinct but complementary strands: one focuses primarily on raising K–12 academic expectations, particularly for poor and minority students, who have long been held to lower standards than their middle-class and affluent peers. The second is aimed at expanding education choice through various mechanisms, chiefly charter schools and vouchers.

Unfortunately, these reforms have often been pursued in isolation, with advocates pushing for one or the other but not both together. Some even claim that the two strategies are competitors, if not antagonists. But the reality is that, in order to see real progress and avoid the most vexing unintended consequences of either reform pursued alone, each needs the other in order to deliver on its promise. And therein lies a challenge.

Over the past 25 years, both standards-based and choice-based reforms have moved forward, but standards/assessment/accountability has grown faster than choice. Today, it’s fair to say that every public-school student in the country is impacted in one way or another by his or her state’s standards. By comparison, the number of youngsters benefiting from choice programs is much smaller. In 2014, only 16 states offer tax credits to assist with private-school tuition, while just 13 have voucher programs of any kind; and although 43 jurisdictions have...

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