Common Core Watch

Catherine Gewertz (via John Fensterwald of the "Educated Guess" blog) has a post today about a group of seven California districts who are coming together to draft Common Core-aligned curriculum resources for their teachers.

?a group of school districts in California isn't waiting around for the state to build curriculum frameworks...[instead] CORE, a group of seven districts that pushed forward California's Race to the Top application, is rallying teachers to build instructional materials and formative assessments for the standards, which California and most other states have adopted.

At last! Districts taking the lead on curriculum and instructional decisions rather than waiting for the state to tell them what to do. Hopefully other districts across the country will follow suit.

Of course, let's also hope that the assessment consortia start releasing some more specific details (sample assessment items, perhaps?) about their summative assessments so that teachers can be sure that standards, curriculum, instruction, and formative and summative assessments are all properly aligned in terms of both content and rigor.

--Kathleen Porter-Magee


The CCSS ELA standards are, as you may remember, heavily (though certainly not exclusively) skills driven. The choice to focus on skills rather than content was deliberate and the standards authors themselves acknowledged that states would likely want to enhance these skills-driven standards with additional content. In fact, adoption states were told that the existing CCSS standards could comprise 85 percent of the total standards, giving the states the flexibility to add ?15 percent? atop of the final standards.

To date, it doesn't seem like too many states have taken seriously the charge of fleshing out this additional ?15 percent.? It's no wonder, then, that folks are looking to curriculum to provide teachers with more specific details about what content students should learn.

I've already argued against making curriculum decisions at the state or national level. I remain convinced that it would be a mistake to do so for lots of reasons. Among them, in this debate over curriculum, one thing that we shouldn't lose sight of is the important distinction between standards and curriculum. Done right, standards define the outcomes?the knowledge and skills that students must master. Curriculum, on the other hand, helps shape the process through which students will learn that content. In other words, curriculum helps shape (among other things) how the content should be organized, how it should be taught, etc. (Pedagogy gets at this as well, of course.)

We all know how long it takes for states to change...


Catherine Gewertz has a piece in this week's Education Week describing a New York City pilot program that has teachers analyzing the complexity of the texts they will be assigned in their classrooms. As you probably remember, text complexity features prominently in the Common Core standards. In lay terms, text complexity measures help teachers understand at what age- or grade-level particularly texts are best taught.

Most people agree that current measures of text complexity are imperfect. They are frequently quantatitve measures that rely on rudimentary scores of word length, sentence length, or paragraph length and structure to assign appropriate age and grade levels. As part of the Common Core standards initiative, the CCSS authors are seeking to improve these measures of text complexity so that they include both quantitative and qualitative measures (such as themes) to give a more accurate picture of when particular texts should be taught. This is part of a larger effort to help ensure that students across grade levels are exposed to appropriately rigorous literary and informational reading that will help better prepare them for the reading that will be required of them in college.

According to the article, there is a pilot program in New York City where teachers are coming together to analyze texts using quantitative and their own qualitative metrics of text complexity.

This work is welcome if it leads more students to read more rigorous texts across all levels, but particularly in high school.

But before we...


Robert Pondiscio over at Core Knowledge wrote a very thoughtful response to my post the other day. He says that my point?which was that states would do better to focus their attention on standards and assessments, and allow curriculum decisions to be made as closely to the classroom level as possible?was a bit of a ?strawman-fest.? He argues:

She confuses the core curriculum manifesto's?call for guidance on what students should learn with?a call to?pick winners and losers among published curricula, or?prescribe the methods by which?children should be taught.? The Call for Common Content is merely a sensible proposal to?describe the?common, knowledge-building content that all children must have in order to be fully literate.

While I will admit to being confused about what, precisely, the Shanker Institute's ?call? is actually advocating (particularly after the latest round of blog posts about it), that may have more to do with the way the manifesto is written than with my larger point. So let me be clear: Prescribing scope and sequence from the state or national level is a mistake. If that is what the manifesto is trying to achieve, then it's a step in the wrong direction.

The details matter in this debate, since they have the potential to impact classroom practice very directly and deliberately. I do think it's entirely appropriate for states to define the scope of content that students should learn. States have for many years defined what students should know and be able to...


There continues to be a lot of discussion around the idea of creating a ?common? curriculum to supplement the Common Core State Standards. Robert Pondiscio over at Core Knowledge applauds the move, arguing that, while the CCSS are ?praiseworthy,? they are ?not a curriculum?and are unlikely to amount to much?in the absence of a shared curriculum.? ?Tom Vander Ark cautions that moving to adopt a traditional curriculum is a mistake and that we should be thinking not about common curriculum, but rather about ?uncommon? delivery system that provides ?fully customized engaging learning sequences for every student.? (If you haven't already, it's also worth reading Pondiscio's scathing take-down of Vander Ark's idea.)

Unfortunately, I still think that these debates are missing the point, and potentially distracting states from allocating their now very scarce resources towards policies that have the potential to much more dramatically impact student achievement.

It's worth noting that, as a former curriculum director, I am a strong believer in the transformative power of curriculum. It is essential.

But, I sincerely believe that making curricular decisions at the state or?even worse?national level is a mistake. States would do better to create or adopt rigorous assessments and a strong state accountability system, and then to devolve ownership over student achievement results?and that includes curricular decisions?as closely as possible to the classroom.

Heading up the curriculum and professional development team at Achievement First, one of our early missteps was to focus on mandating?or...


Today, education leaders from across the nation (including our own Checker Finn) came together to endorse the idea of creating a national, voluntary, common curriculum that would be designed to supplement the national, voluntary, Common Core ELA and math standards. (See here and here for more.) While well-intentioned, shifting the focus right now to a national curriculum?no matter how voluntary?is a mistake.

That's not to say that teachers aren't going to need rigorous and thorough curricula to help them effectively teach to the standards. They are.

Rather, it's a question of what is the proper role of the state in CCSS implementation. And unless the state wants to get in the business of policing schools' proper implementation of a curriculum?whether that ?curriculum? is as detailed as a script or as general as a pacing guide?they would do better to focus the lion's share of their time and attention elsewhere. Namely, on ensuring that there are rigorous, CCSS-aligned summative state assessments in all core content areas.

The easy answer is of course to say that's already being taken care of. Most states have joined one of two consortia and the work on those CCSS-aligned assessments is already well underway.

But there is still much assessment work that needs to be done. For starters, between now and when the consortia-created assessments are ready for prime-time, states be tweaking their existing assessment blueprints to ensure that essential content is being properly prioritized across the grades.



I downloaded Teach Like Champion 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College by Doug Lemov this weekend, and have scarcely been able to put it down. Too often in education reform, books are quickly pushed into one of two camps: policy or practice. This is a book so elegant in its simplicity that it has the power to transform the conversations in both worlds. That is, if enough people in both policy and practice read it, get past the "mundane" techniques Lemov proposes, and absorb its true message.

I use the word mundane not because the techniques are insignificant. On the contrary, they are essential, practical, and--done right--transformative in their power to drive student achievement, teacher training and professional development, and related policy decisions. But, some--for instance, the advice on how to train students to pass out papers efficiently--upon first glance seem so trivial that it hardly seems worthy of the pages devoted to it. That is until you realize that investing an hour up-front to getting this right can literally save as many as eight full instructional days. Eight days. In an age when school districts are being forced to cut valuable instructional days, such dramatic time-saving techniques should be the rule, not the exception.

Throughout the book, Lemov calls out 49 specific techniques that are equally simple, though not simplistic. Pragmatic, though at their core truly inspirational.

In fact, Lemov has included video clips that show the techniques in action,...


Conventional wisdom in many education circles (see here) tells us that multiple choice tests are the enemy of critical thinking and deep content mastery. Such tests, we're told, can't really assess student learning. What's worse, they ?encourage? teachers to teach test-taking tricks and strategies rather than to demand true mastery of essential content and skills.

I bought this rhetoric for a long time. As a teacher, I always felt like I was taking a shortcut if I chose multiple choice tests over short answer questions or essays.

That was, until I started actually writing network-wide interim assessments and helping teachers use the data from these tests to drive daily instruction, one-on-one tutoring, and small group instruction. It was only then that I really began to realize the power of these frequently-maligned assessment tools.

To be clear, I wholeheartedly agree that multiple choice tests cannot and should not be the only means of assessing student knowledge and skills. But, they rarely are. For example, I can't think of a single instance where open-ended response questions aren't part of the state assessment system. Or when the best teachers don't pair these assessments with projects, essay tests, and other measure of student learning.

But in reality, there is much teachers can learn about student progress toward mastery of essential content and skills from multiple choice questions. In fact, I sometimes believe that you can learn more about where student understanding is breaking down by analyzing data from...

There's a debate brewing about how much???if at all???great standards contribute to education reform. This week, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial saying that they are not as important to student achievement as universal choice. And recently, Cato's Neal McCluskey published a report (and yesterday a blog post) arguing, essentially, that standards don't really drive achievement and thus that the move to draft rigorous common standards is distracting us from pushing reforms that might actually drive student achievement. Namely, universal choice.

At face value, this argument just doesn't sit well with me. To be clear, I'm a huge proponent of school choice. In fact, in the nine years I've spent working directly in and with schools, I've only worked in schools of choice???both public charter and private schools that were part of the DC opportunity scholarship program.

But, to say that advocating for more rigorous standards is a distraction from reforms that will drive student achievement seems so far removed from everything I've ever experienced in education.

First, the DC Catholic Schools Consortium (now the Center City Consortium), which has served hundreds of at-risk students thanks to the Opportunity Scholarship Program, was able to realize the dramatic student achievement gains they've achieved in part because they made the bold choice to adopt Indiana's standards, which were far superior to their hometown DC and Maryland standards. And they very intentionally used these standards to drive curriculum, assessment, professional development, and consequently, student achievement across...