Common Core Watch

Every so often educators and reformers think, if we're educating kids for the future, we need to do a better job of adapting our education system to meet the needs of tomorrow. That our education systems needs to, in some sense, ?get with the times? so that we can better serve our students today.

The latest argument to that effect comes from a book (Now You See It) written by Cathy N. Davidson and related blog post from Virginia Heffernan of the New York Times. In her piece, Heffernan argues:

??fully 65 percent of today's grade-school kids may end up doing work that hasn't been invented yet?For those two-thirds of grade-school kids, if for no one else, it's high time we redesigned American education.?

And so, because today's students will be doing things that we can't imagine, we need to rethink the kinds of work we're assigning today. Including research papers, which Heffernan argues have outlived their usefulness:

Teachers and professors regularly ask students to write papers. Semester after semester, year after year, ?papers? are styled as the highest form of writing. And semester after semester, teachers and professors are freshly appalled when they turn up terrible.

Ms. Davidson herself was appalled not long ago when her students at Duke, who produced witty and incisive blogs for their peers, turned in disgraceful, unpublishable term papers. But instead of simply carping about students with colleagues in the great faculty-lounge tradition, Ms. Davidson questioned the whole form


I've already wondered aloud (see here) whether states' quick adoption of the Common Core was more an example of people seeing what they wanted to see than evidence of some broad consensus about what the actual standards meant for curriculum, instruction, and assessment. An article in last week's Education Week does little to assuage those concerns.

The article focused on the CCSS ?publishers' criteria? that was recently released by David Coleman and Sue Pimentel. (See here and here for more.) For those who want to see the Common Core faithfully implemented, it raised two chief concerns.

First, Barbara Cambridge, the state director of NCTE's Washington chapter, criticized the publishers' criteria because she feels that they ?signal a usurpation of teacher judgment in ways that are alarming? and because she believes the document shortchanges ?the value of children's own experiences in responding to what they read.?

?The way we learn something new is to attach it to something we already know,? she said. ?So of course what kids bring to school isn't sufficient, but it's important. And to imply we shouldn't spend time on it, with 1st and 2nd graders, is just bad advice.?

Second, Barbara A. Kapinus of the NEA felt that the criteria veered too far into the world of pedagogy. Kapinus argued that, by saying that ?fluency should be a particular focus? of second grade reading programs,

?teachers [may] put a premium on it, despite the developmental variations in when children


Within weeks of the release of the Common Core State ELA and math standards, textbook publishers had already launched marketing campaigns for their ?CCSS-aligned? curriculum materials. What that label really meant, exactly, was open for much debate.

Enter David Coleman and Sue Pimentel. Last week, the two lead ELA writers for the CCSS ELA standards released ?Publishers' Criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy? for grades K-2 and 3-12 in an attempt to guide the curriculum writers who are genuinely trying to align their materials to the CCSS. It will also be an invaluable resource for teachers, schools, and districts who are trying to navigate the already crowded space of CCSS-aligned materials.

Coleman and Pimentel are careful to note that these criteria ?are not meant to dictate classroom practice,? but instead are ?intended to direct curriculum developers and publishers to be purposeful and strategic in both what to include and what to exclude in instructional materials.? In short, Coleman and Pimentel attempt to clarify what materials would be worthy of the ?CCSS-aligned? label.

While the guidelines do include criteria for everything ranging from writing and grammar to research, the bulk of the guidance is focused on reading. The authors note that, in order to be truly CCSS-aligned, reading materials must:

  • Include texts that are appropriately complex. The guidelines note that ?far too often, students who have fallen behind are given only less complex texts rather than the support they
  • ...

Film critic Roger Ebert penned a damning critique of the too-often-used practice of giving struggling students a retold version of a more complex literary classic. He talks in particular about The Great Gatsby. The entire article is worth reading, but his most salient point is this

There is no purpose in "reading" The Great Gatsby unless you actually read it. Fitzgerald's novel is not about a story. It is about how the story is told. Its poetry, its message, its evocation of Gatsby's lost American dream, is expressed in Fitzgerald's style--in the precise words he chose to write what some consider the great American novel. Unless you have read them, you have not read the book at all. You have been imprisoned in an educational system that cheats and insults you by inflicting a barbaric dumbing-down process. You are left with the impression of having read a book, and may never feel you need return for a closer look.

Ebert illustrates this point brilliantly by comparing, side-by-side, several parts of the book, including the conclusion, which in the "retold" version, is boiled down to this:

Gatsby had believed in his dream. He had followed it and nearly made it come true.
Everybody has a dream. And, like Gatsby, we must all follow our dream wherever it takes us.
Some unpleasant people became part of Gatsby's dream. But he cannot be blamed for that. Gatsby was a success, in the end, wasn't he?

As Ebert succinctly notes, "this is an...

About two weeks ago, a new Twitter hashtag was born: #povertymatters. For a little over a week, hundreds of people came up with 140-character tweets that were essentially one-line zingers aimed at the policymakers?they believe are ?blaming? teachers for ?low achievement in urban schools, while ignoring the impact poverty has on students' lives and learning. Two examples:

The crux of the argument is that, because we have so many children living in poverty, we can't possibly expect schools to close the achievement gap. Instead, we need to eliminate poverty?or treat the symptoms of poverty?first.

The implication, in short: stop asking so much of schools and teachers, these problems run deeper than they can be expected to solve.

Of course, the link between student achievement and socioeconomic status is unmistakable. Students who come from middle class or affluent families tend to start school ahead of their more disadvantaged peers. And, without serious, direct, and deliberate intervention, that gap only grows wider over time.

But saying we need to fix poverty before we can fix schools is like a doctor saying that he's going to wait until you get better before he treats...

In a quarterly meeting that took place late last week, the PARCC Assessment Consortium Governing Board has decided to eliminate the previously required "through-course" assessments. (States would have been required to administer two "through-course" assessments at different times during the year in addition to one end-of-year summative assessment.) The consortium had come under fire earlier this year by critics who feared that requiring "through-course" assessments was tantamount to prescribing a scope and sequence for all schools--traditional public and charter.

The through-course assessments have been replaced by two optional tests:

  1. An early assessment, that would be given early in the year and would be designed "to provide teachers with information that can serve as an early indicator of student status relative to the CCSS. It may be possible to design this component to also include information about whether students who did not achieve proficiency in their previous grade have made progress towards or have attained proficiency on those standards in their current year."
  2. A mid-year assessment that would include performance-based assessments that are designed to give "instructionally useful feedback to? teachers and students and help prepare them for the innovative assessment tasks" they will see on the required end of year assessment.

While both of these components are optional and the scores will not initially count towards a student's summative score, the consortium notes that "over time, states may consider including results of the mid-year assessments in summative scores."

The consortium will continue to require end-of-year...

Pam Allyn, a literacy expert and executive director of LitWorld, penned an opinion piece in Education Week entitled ?Against the Whole-Class Novel.? The crux of the article is that teachers should no longer assign one book to all students in a class but instead allow students to select books that are both at their individual (or instructional) reading level and that cover topics that most interest them.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="240" caption="Photo by Sarah Kennon"][/caption]

Allyn's argument?which is becoming a widely-held belief among literature teachers?is seductive in an age where ?individualized learning plan? is the watch phrase and blended-learning models aim to let students move at their own pace.

To underscore her point, Allyn shares an example of one of her struggling readers, Sam.

Sam, a 12-year-old student in one of my LitWorld programs for struggling readers, had a breakthrough moment recently. It happened at 3:30 p.m., after school hours, when he picked up Horton Hears a Who! and the volunteer smiled at him, and said, ?That's the perfect book for you, Sam. Dr. Seuss is one of the world's greatest, most brilliant writers of all.? The book was the perfect level for him as an emerging reader, the perfect pitch of humor and art; in short, the perfect book for Sam.

Back in his classroom, Sam was required to read To Kill a Mockingbird. He struggled against this book every day. He could not


Last year, many marveled at how quickly states moved to adopt the Common Core State Standards. Just over a month after the final draft of the standards were released, more than half of the states had adopted them. Barely five months later, 43 states and the District of Columbia had adopted the standards. (Most state standards adoption processes take far longer and incite much more debate.)

Common Core supporters heralded the speedy adoption as a testament to how hard the NGA and CCSSO worked to get input and garner support for the standards. (They did.) But I now wonder whether the lack of debate is more a reflection of the fact that some interested parties may not have known exactly what they signed themselves up for.

Take, for example, the National Education Association. After reading an article published in NEA Today last week, I am certain that Senior Policy Analyst Barbara Kapinus and I are seeing two very different versions of the Common Core standards. In her version, Kapinus explains that implementation of the standards would encourage ?real world? over ?knowledge based? learning.

?Rather than reading drills, we'll ask students to apply reading skills in a broader, ?real world' context.?

So gone are the days of summary book reports ? students will have to analyze the story rather than rehash the plot???

To my eyes, that looks like a gross mischaracterization of how these standards should be implemented. Not least of which because the second...

William Shakespeare penned the famous line in Henry the Sixth: ?The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers,? setting off a wave of lawyer jokes that continues 400 years later.

Had Shakespeare had the opportunity to witness the infighting and special interest politics of state textbook adoption processes, he might have found a better target for his ire.

According to the Tampa Tribune, Florida lawmakers have introduced a bill that includes, among other things, a provision that would change the state's textbook adoption process.

The [provision] would replace the state's formal review committees?which include lay citizens, teachers, teacher supervisors and a school board member?with a trio of subject-matter experts appointed by the state education commissioner.

School districts would appoint teachers and content supervisors to rate the practical usability of the texts recommended by the state's experts.

Opponents of the bill??Tea Party? conservatives chief among them?are outraged.

"'We the People' should have a say on what textbooks OUR CHILDREN read," Tea Party activist Shari Krass wrote recently in a letter to Scott.

Krass and activists like her believe some texts used by Florida schools are slanted to favor Islam over Judaism and Christianity?

?"This legislation 'ties our hands'?where we will be restricted in our ability to influence our children's education," she wrote.

Of course, battles over textbook adoption seem, on some level, beside the point. If a state has set clear expectations for what students should know and be able to do,...

Albert Einstein once famously noted that we should ?make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.?

In spite of the string of policy victories we have seen this year (see here and here), he might be disheartened to see what has happened to the education reform debate of late.

Changing complicated systems?and there are few more complicated than our patchwork quilt of overlapping federal, state and local education policies?is necessarily iterative and incremental. Politically, you can't change everything at once, and everything you do change impacts other areas of education in ways that are often hard to predict.

Yet, in the era of 140-character debates and multi-million dollar ad buys, people on all sides often boil complex ideas down into pithy soundbytes and oversimplifications. But it's the ed reformers?the people trying to build something new?who will suffer the most from this trend because we're trending towards trading a comprehensive vision for a new kind of education system for a series of bold but isolated changes that will sell in state legislatures.

This year's ?message discipline? seems to have translated into a nearly myopic focus on teacher quality as the antidote for our student achievement woes. (In a blog post last week, Robert Pondiscio pooled together a drumbeat of soundbytes from notable reformers who touted the importance of teacher quality in the effort to close the achievement gap.)

Reformers are, of course, using this rhetoric to push important (and necessary) reforms such...