Common Core Watch

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

Several years ago, then superintendent Roy Romer mandated that elementary teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District use Open Court?a proven literacy program that he believed would help drive reading achievement in the district.

According to an LA Times article, because the program was both unpopular with teachers and didn't yield the student achievement results district officials had hoped for?there were gains, but they plateaued ?in upper classes? and weren't uniform across district schools?the LAUSD school board voted this week to replace it with another program called ?California Treasures.?

While I don't know much about the new program, I worry that, by simply replacing one program with another, the board hasn't learned two critical lessons.

The first is that, when you mandate a district-wide curriculum in a district the size of LA, school and leaders will inevitably begin to focus their management on compliance rather than student achievement. That is precisely what happened in Los Angeles, according to an article in the Los Angeles Daily Breeze.

[District officials] treated it like the Bible and if you deviated in any way ... you were subjected to an inquisition," said Janet Davis, an LAUSD teacher adviser and former elementary school teacher.

Davis recalled that she was once reprimanded for using the wrong Open Court puppet for a reading lesson.

In education, such compliance-focused management is absurd. It's no wonder that student achievement gains didn't persist over time.

Second, there is no...

One of the many reasons I think that states should get out of the curriculum- and textbook-adoption business is that, when state governments start to dive too deep into the implementation weeds, they tend to do far more harm than good.

Take, California for example. In response to the 2009 budget crisis, the state passed a law that suspended all work related to the updating or adoption of instructional materials, including textbooks, for five years. (According to ?California Watch,? a bill currently awaiting Gov. Brown's signature would delay the adoption of new textbooks even longer.)

Unfortunately, while the intention of these bills?to save money during a fiscal crisis?is good, the execution is a disaster.

Now the state had adopted new standards for its schools?standards that will begin to inform statewide assessment in 2014. But, thanks to the state's convoluted textbook adoption laws, teachers won't have access to CCSS-aligned instructional materials until after their students begin taking CCSS-aligned assessments. (That is, unless districts are able to buy such materials with something other than state money.)

This is, of course, absurd. And, while this may be an extreme case of state incompetence, it's a good warning for anyone looking to mandate a ?shared curriculum? at the state or national level.

Decisions made in the statehouse are inevitably protracted. If states really want to help districts and schools implement the Common Core effectively, they should learn from California's mistakes and look for ways to simplify, not complicate,...

Today, Jay Greene has an Ed Next column arguing against government mandated standards and curriculum. ?Most of the important elements of American education are already standardized,? he argues.

No central government authority had to tell school districts to divide their schools into grades or start in the Fall and end in the Spring. Even details of the curriculum, like teaching long division in 4th grade or Romeo and Juliet in 9th grade, are remarkably consistent from place to place without the national government ordering schools to do so.

Schools arrived at these arrangements through a gradual process of market competition and adaptation?.Of course, not everything is synced, but the items that are most important to consumers often are.

That's how standardization in market settings works and we have a lot of positive experience with this in industry. ?VHS became the standard medium for home entertainment because the market gravitated to it, not because some government authority mandated it. ?If we followed the logic of Gates-Fordham-AFT-USDOE we would want some government-backed committee to decide on the best format and provide government subsidies only to those companies that complied.

Instead of ending up with VHS, they may well have imposed Betamax on the country?

Of course, many people agree that Betamax had the superior technology (the picture was sharper, the cassettes were smaller, it was better at high-speed duplication, etc.). So, in effect, market forces standardized the inferior...

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