Common Core Watch

Diana Senechal wrote a thoughtful response to my post Private School Idolatry and the Case of the Missing Solution. In it, she argues that

Many children in urban schools are not on the brink of failure; they desperately need more challenge. They are placed in classes with students who lag them by several years. I'm not saying tracking is the solution?but these students should at least be acknowledged.

Because of the belief that urban students in general must be yanked into success, some reformers assert that every moment of the lesson should be directly tied to its objective and that the lesson should be swift, purposeful, and productive. This precludes the sort of discussion that allows for tangents and open questions and that does not lead to a physical product or concrete result.

First, I agree that there are many urban students who do not come in behind?or at least not as far behind as many of their peers.

That said, I think we do need to deal with the reality that we face in far too many urban classrooms. Here are a few fast facts (gathered together by the Education Equality Project) that we should remember when we're debating the tough choices and tradeoffs that urban schools face every day:

Catherine Gewertz reports today that New Hampshire Republicans have introduced a bill that would, it seems, all but undo the State Board of Education's decision to adopt the Common Core last July. She explains:

If approved, the measure would require the state legislature, called the "general court" in New Hampshire, to approve any changes the state board of education makes in academic standards. It specifies that the common standards, approved by the state board last July 8, "shall not be adopted" without the general court's consent. Both chambers of the New Hampshire legislature are controlled by Republicans, but the state's governor is a Democrat.

It seems strange to require legislative approval for something that doesn't seem to have needed it before, but one presumes they know what they're doing.

Either way, this is a terrible sign for Common Core implementation in New Hampshire. And it comes on the heels of eerily similar bills in Minnesota and Texas. (Of course, the MN and Texas bills explicitly forbid adoption of ?common? and ?national? standards.) And it also makes me wonder how many other states have groups working to unravel Common Core adoption before implementation has even begun?

I've already weighed in on Alfie Kohn's ?pedagogy of poverty? article that appeared in Ed Week last week. (See here.) The debate sparked by Kohn's article rages on?in blogs and on Twitter?and my colleague, Mike Petrilli, weighed in today, arguing:

The question of whether affluent and disadvantaged kids need a different kind of education?different instructional strategies, different curriculum, maybe even different kinds of teachers?is a serious one. This discussion is easily demagogued (particularly on Twitter). But it's not racist to say that poor kids?who generally come to school with much less vocabulary, exposure to print, and much else?might need something different?more intense, more structured?than their well-off, better-prepared peers.

On some level, we're overcomplicating this. In the end, the ?achievement gap,? as we now call it, is really little more than a practice gap. And schools that are succeeding in closing it are simply better at creating a culture that makes time for that practice.

In his bestselling book, The Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues that, across divergent fields (athletics, music, business, academia), the people who rose to the top had two things in common:

  1. They had been exposed to and given the opportunity to learn, and
  2. They had logged at least 10,000 hours of practice.

That's because extraordinary achievement is a function of extraordinary practice. Unfortunately, the sad truth for too many of America's poor children is that they are never given the opportunity to learn. ?And they are even more rarely given...

In his most recent missive (published today in Ed Week), Alfie Kohn decries "the pedagogy of poverty," i.e.: the way many poor children are taught in traditional public and public charter schools around the nation. He complains:

Policymakers and the general public have paid much less attention to what happens inside classrooms—the particulars of teaching and learning—especially in low-income neighborhoods. The news here has been discouraging for quite some time, but, in a painfully ironic twist, things seem to be getting worse as a direct result of the “reform” strategies pursued by the Bush administration, then intensified under President Barack Obama, and cheered by corporate executives and journalists.

In an article published in Phi Delta Kappan back in 1991, Martin Haberman, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, coined the phrase “pedagogy of poverty.” Based on his observations in thousands of urban classrooms, Haberman described a tightly controlled routine in which teachers dispense, and then test students on, factual information; assign seatwork; and punish noncompliance. It is a regimen, he said, “in which learners can ‘succeed’ without becoming either involved or thoughtful,” and it is noticeably different from the questioning, discovering, arguing, and collaborating that is more common (though by no means universal) among students in suburban and private schools.

This description is misleading on so many levels. First of all, it seems to suggest that having tight classroom management and routines is antithetical to creating classrooms where students can think deeply about issues. Nonsense....

Winning RTT states got a lot of points for promising to adopt CCSS and implement the standards by adopting some fairly bold reforms. Now the rubber meets the road and it's time to look at whether states are beginning to do what they promised. (And, perhaps, to evaluate whether those promises made any sense in the first place.) To that end, I have begun to read the RTT applications from the winning states, beginning with DC. My plan is to learn more about the strengths and weaknesses of each state's implementation plan and eventually to track how states are progressing against their own implementation goals.

Washington, DC

Overview

I think that I may have started by reading the gold standard CCSS implementation plan because the District's RTT application outlines a plan that is as thoughtful as it is comprehensive. States and districts that are looking for smart CCSS implementation advice would do well to read and adapt DC's plan.

Strengths

There are essentially three areas of the RTT application that deal directly with CCSS implementation: standards and assessment, data, and great teachers and leaders. What impressed me most about DC's plan was how well integrated these areas were. It seems clear that the ?state? officials had a unified and clear theory of action and aligned all elements of their reform plan around particular goals. Even better, they are clearly using assessment and data as the driving force behind CCSS implementation. To that end, DC plans:...

In science, statisticians must frequently grapple with interaction effects. Let's say, for example, that a scientist wants to study the impact of diet and exercise on lowering cholesterol. They have one group follow a low-fat diet, another a new running regimen, and a third group both. It's possible that both the diet group and the exercise group see a modest dip in cholesterol. But it's also possible that the third group will see a drop that is more than double what could have been achieved by diet or exercise alone?meaning that diet and exercise are ?interacting? in some way to affect cholesterol more powerfully. But, at what levels do participants see this interaction effect? When you follow a strict diet and exercise once a week? Twice? Etc.

In education, interaction effects are everywhere. As I've argued before, a strong curriculum implemented by skilled instructor often yields amazing results. The same curriculum implemented by a weak teacher may yield no (or negative) student achievement gains. That's because, as anyone who's ever worked in a school knows, outstanding student achievement results are the product of many different interacting elements within schools, not just of standards or curriculum alone.

For policy makers, it's challenging because no policy can control all of the (school-based) factors that will determine whether their programs succeed or fail in boosting student achievement.

So it is with Common Core. While the standards themselves are far more rigorous than what existed in most states previously,...

Last September, Minnesota Commissioner of Education Alice Seagren adopted the Common Core standards in ELA but not in math, arguing that the state's existing math standards were far superior than the CCSS. With a new Commissioner, Brenda Cassellius, selected by the new Democratic governor, Republican lawmakers are now working to ensure that that decision cannot be revisited.

An education bill introduced last week specifically prohibits the Commissioner ?from adopting common core standards in the subject and school year listed in the revision cycle in paragraphs (a) to (f).?? (See here and here.) Translated, that means that, when the state's math standards are up for revision in 2015, the state will not be permitted to adopt the Common Core.

Even more troubling, though, the sweeping statement has implications that go well beyond math, because the revision cycles outlined in ?paragraphs (a) to (f)? include science, social studies, technology and information literacy, the arts, and language arts. That means that, if passed, this bill would prevent the state from adopting common standards in any content area?no matter how much better than the state's existing standards they may be.

It also calls into question what's going to happen the next time the state's ELA standards are up for revision in 2018. Will the state be forced to replace the CCSS with different standards because this short-sighted provision prohibits the Commissioner from adopting any common core standards? I assume--perhaps naively--that wasn't the lawmakers' intent. Let's hope it doesn't become...

When Sheldon and Jeremy Stern reviewed the Minnesota social studies standards earlier this year, there was certainly much room for improvement. (See here for the full review.) Unfortunately, if a description of the changes by the Minneapolis Star Tribune is right, it sounds like the state may be moving in exactly the wrong direction. According to the article,

a key goal for this year's social studies committee, which is made up of citizens and teachers, is to shrink the standards to more manageable lengths, which means far fewer examples than are contained in the current standards.

Note first that the committee is made up of ?citizens and teachers.? Does that mean to imply that the state isn't deliberately soliciting the input of historians? Let's hope not. While there would certainly be tension between what the historians wanted to include and what the teachers felt was manageable, such tension is a healthy way to ensure the pendulum doesn't swing too far in one direction or another.

Further, it's disheartening to hear that the state is moving to remove content from the standards, given that the Sterns felt the inclusion of so much substantive content was the best part about the standards.

On the other hand, they felt the standards were ?poorly organized, chronologically confused, and divorced from context,? and that ?political bias also makes unwelcome intrusions at all levels, at the expense of balanced historical perspectives.? Addressing those problems doesn't appear to have been the...

?Good teaching cannot fall victim to budget cuts,? a post on Ed Week's ?PD Watch? blog implored last week.

This year many states will make dramatic cuts to their education budgets?I would urge that those budget cuts not come at the expense of improving teaching. Furloughing teachers on professional development days, or ridding school systems of professional development departments, instructional coaches, and other forms of support altogether, will erode the knowledge, skills, and abilities teachers need to meet students' learning needs, and, as a result, will have a dramatic negative impact on student achievement for years to come.

The post is grounded in the dubious (but all too common) assumption that less is inevitably worse. ?As if it's impossible to streamline spending in education?or, in this case, in professional development?without negatively impacting quality.

Nonsense.

For starters, regardless of their quality, most professional development consultants are astronomically expensive. I can remember being *shocked* that a one-day training with unheard of (and untested) trainers who knew nothing of our schools and teachers, but who worked for a well known and well respected organization charged $20,000 for a one day training. That's more than $3,000 an hour to deliver a presentation that had been pre-packaged and delivered many times before. And the quality of the trainers was so poor that we fired them by lunch.

Of course, in PD, since there is no money-back-guarantee, we never saw that $20K again. Nor were the teachers able to...

This post was a part of our April Fool's Day edition of The Gladfly! Please don't think we're serious about this.

Napoleon had his Waterloo. Harding had his Teapot Dome. And now the Gates Foundation has its ?conflict of interest? clause. Let's back up. For more than a year, education groups, states, and local districts have been busily updating curricula, altering assessment blueprints, and writing new state tests as they ready themselves for implementation of the new Common Core state standards. Yet in March, the Gates Foundation completely sidelined all efforts by introducing a ?conflict of interest? policy that prevents any grantee from discussing the work of a fellow grantee publicly or privately. As soon as Gates made the decision public, all work on Common Core standards implementation promptly ground to a halt. When asked about the consequences of the new policy, Stefanie Sanford said, ?Huh. Interesting.? She later when on to reassure grantees by explaining that Gates has created a National Commission that will look into the policy and its ramifications. A report on their findings and recommendations is due out this summer.

In related news, the Liberty Institute released a report today praising the conflict of interest policy. ?At last,? the release said, ?a Gates policy recommendation we can get behind!?

?Kathleen Porter-Magee

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