Common Core Watch

The last year has found critics and advocates of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) duking it out in the political arena. That a common set of high expectations for K–12 students would catalyze such fierce fisticuffs reminds us of both the ugliness and beauty of democracy. Indeed, we at Fordham, ardent supporters of high standards for some seventeen years, have lurched out of the safe haven of think tankery and into the boxing ring. It is not a role that we asked for—or particularly relish—but, confident that the interests of America’s children and its future are worth fighting for, we laced up our gloves.

Yet wherever one stands on the merits of the Common Core, one thing is certain: all of the political posturing and mudslinging distract attention and energy from the crucial work of implementation. Like it or not, the Common Core State Standards are in place in forty-five states—and in many of those jurisdictions, educators are hard at work trying to operationalize them in their schools and classrooms.

We wanted to know how it was going, so we sought answers via an in-depth examination of real educators in real districts as they earnestly attempt to put the CCSS into practice. The result is our new study, Common Core in the Districts: An Early Look at Early Implementers. Our goal was to peer into this void via an up-close look at...

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Joe Wilhoft

I began my career as an inner-city elementary teacher because I was dedicated to helping students succeed. Listening to them and helping them improve to meet their goals was at the heart of my work. Today, as the executive director of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, I feel that passion more deeply than at any point in my career. This is a big moment for our schools—a moment in which we can deliver a system of tools that will help teachers and parents truly understand where students are excelling and more clearly identify where they need help.

We will not—and cannot—create a world-class assessment system in isolation. We have the privilege of working with educators and experts across our member states to craft an assessment system aligned to the Common Core State Standards that will measure where students are on their path to success. These new assessments will provide an “academic checkup” by measuring real-world skills like critical thinking and problem solving. In addition, they will provide information during the year to give teachers and parents a clearer picture of where students are succeeding and where they need help.

More than 2,000 educators across our member states have contributed to building the assessment system, with more than 500 teachers doing the painstaking work of writing and reviewing assessment questions and performance tasks. Our member states and their educators have done an incredible job of keeping the needs of students at the center of our work, and we have learned together...

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The funny thing about eras is that it’s hard to know which one you are in until it is coming to an end. As the fighting among conservatives heats up over the Common Core, the era of standards-driven reform that has defined conservative education policy for the past three decades is brought into sharper relief.

But the approach that President Reagan and his secretary of education Bill Bennett helped set in motion in the 1980s is under increasing assault from a resurgent libertarian movement and the coopting of many of the most popular ideas by a reform-minded Democratic president and his own energetic secretary of education. Is 2014 the year the conservative push for curricular and instructional excellence comes to an end?

Those looking for answers would be wise to track the increasingly acerbic discussion over the Common Core State Standards. What began as a conversation about the quality, content, and rigor of the standards has evolved into an increasingly polarized political debate that is fracturing support for one of the most enduring conservative reforms.

Just last week, University of Arkansas professor and longtime conservative education-policy researcher Jay Greene admitted that his position on standards and accountability has changed. “Simply put,” Greene acknowledge, “I am no longer a supporter of top-down school accountability regimes.” (Though Greene also acknowledged that, “until we have expanded choice further, I see no practical alternative to continuing state testing for schools not subject to meaningful choice accountability.”)

This represents a remarkable shift for...

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Lisa Hansel

Pop quiz! Which of the following statements is in the Common Core State Standards?

(a) Through extensive reading of stories, dramas, poems, and myths from diverse cultures and different time periods, students gain literary and cultural knowledge.

(b) By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas.

(c) At a curricular or instructional level, texts—within and across grade levels—need to be selected around topics or themes that systematically develop the knowledge base of students.

(d) Having students listen to informational read-alouds in the early grades helps lay the necessary foundation for students’ reading and understanding of increasingly complex texts on their own in subsequent grades.

(e) All of the above.

The answer is e, all of the above. Knowledge is the key to reading comprehension. It’s the key to college, career, and citizenship readiness. It’s the key to meeting the Common Core standards. (see pages 10 and 33 of the standards—and for even more on building knowledge, see page 6 and Apendix A page 33).

To be even more blunt, the standards require a “content-rich curriculum” (page 6) that is “intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades” (page 10).

If you are a master teacher with a supportive administrator and collaborative colleagues, the standards give...

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Two months ago, a group of Catholic university professors signed a letter urging Catholic bishops and diocesan school leaders to reject the Common Core. “We believe that implementing Common Core would be a grave disservice to Catholic education in America,” they argued.

…we are convinced that Common Core is so deeply flawed that it should not be adopted by Catholic schools which have yet to approve it, and that those schools which have already endorsed it should seek an orderly withdrawal now.

The content of the letter itself is not surprising to anyone following the debate over the CCSS. Indeed, perhaps the most interesting thing about it is how closely it sticks to the typical anti–Common Core talking points we’ve heard over and over again in the past year. The authors repeat the often-cited complaint that algebra is taught too late, point to the (misguided, in my opinion) concern that adopting the CCSS will sideline great literature in English classrooms, and argue that Common Core is aimed not at college readiness but, rather, at “standardized workforce preparation.” In short, the bulk of it looked less like a thoughtful and uniquely Catholic critique of the Core than a hastily composed form letter.

The problem is not that Catholics shouldn’t weigh in on the Common Core debate. Rather, the problem is that authentic Catholic concerns get sidelined when we take our cues from actors who don’t share our interests. And by bringing these political talking points uncritically into...

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As Rick Hess and Michael McShane stress in their recent volume Common Core Meets Education Reform, it is foolhardy not to consider how the Common Core standards fit into the broader education-reform agenda. How these competing reforms and policies will impact one another remains to be seen.

In this final blog post on how states are handling accountability in the transition to the Common Core, we focus on one such external factor: ESEA waivers. To date, the vast majority of states have received permission to adjust their accountability systems and gain flexibility from NCLB’s stringent “adequate-yearly-progress” requirements. But how do existing accountability provisions affect Common Core implementation across our small sample of states?

Though ESEA waivers were granted to give states additional flexibility, states are now finding themselves locked into a set of new, yet still restrictive, federal policies.

States that adopted the Common Core and applied for ESEA waivers are now finding themselves in a difficult place. While most states have adopted more rigorous academic standards, they remain accountable to prior waiver commitments to improve student achievement and instructional quality. The U.S. Department of Education has permitted waiver states to postpone using student achievement to evaluate educators and make high-stakes personnel decisions, but whether the Department will be as flexible with other aspects of accountability remains unclear.

One example of the tension created by changing accountability inputs is that most states use student learning as a gauge of teacher performance. However, as states begin to implement CCSS, many...

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This is the third post on how a handful of states are approaching accountability during the transition to the Common Core State Standards. We’ve learned that most are putting high-stakes accountability on hold and are treading carefully when it comes to assessments.

But real implementation occurs at the school and classroom level. So what do state officials say about their efforts to prepare educators to teach to the new standards?

They express conviction that teachers are being adequately prepared to teach the new standards (no surprise!). Yet the quality and effectiveness of Common Core trainings and professional development is unclear (ditto!).

In our interviews, stakeholders frequently referenced state-sponsored and state-recommended professional-development opportunities, trainings, and resources for teachers. They expressed confidence that teachers were being prepared adequately through these offerings. Yet missing was any discussion of whether and how states are assessing the effectiveness of these offerings. And if the quality of these supports is unclear, so is overall educator readiness.

In Massachusetts, for instance, officials stressed that educators were heavily involved in efforts to revise the state’s standards, curriculum, and assessments, all of which meld the Common Core and the state’s prior content standards. As was the case in other states, officials pointed to the copious support and training sessions made available to teachers and instructional leaders. They reported favorable responses from educators but nil about the quality of the trainings and resources. Fortunately, since Massachusetts’s prior standards are comparable in rigor to the Common Core...

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Long before the Common Core State Standards were on anyone’s radar, the “reading wars” raged furiously. They began as a fight about the best way to teach children how to read in the early grades, and the camps were divided between advocates of “whole language” and “phonics.” Today, the battles continue, though the issues have grown increasingly complicated and their implications extend well beyond the early grades and the phonics/whole-language divide.

Recent debates over reading instruction in the Common Core era have included skirmishes among three helpful—and ultimately complementary—approaches: “close reading,” “knowledge first,” and “skills and strategies.” All three of these are miles better than a fourth (but increasingly popular) approach: “just right texts.”

Let’s examine them.

Close Reading

One flashpoint in the reading debate emerged in 2011, after a lead author of the Common Core ELA standards, David Coleman, challenged teachers with a new vision for reading instruction. It entailed ratcheting up the complexity of texts that students read—something the Common Core explicitly demands—and encouraging students to plunge directly into the text itself, rather than spending time pre-teaching background content and vocabulary (an approach about which the standards themselves are silent). This version of close reading focuses on three things: (1) selecting appropriately complex texts that are worthy of close reading and analysis, (2) sequencing texts thoughtfully, with an eye toward building student content knowledge and vocabulary, and (3) guiding students through the text carefully with thoughtfully developed, text-dependent questions that encourage readers to return to the author’s words...

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In this blog series, we’re examining how five states—Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, and New York—are approaching accountability in the transition to Common Core. Earlier this week, we explained that an accountability moratorium is already in place, at least in the states we’ve studied.

One reason that state education officials are hitting the pause button on accountability is that the tests used to assess student achievement are still in flux. State-consortia-designed tests will not be operational until next school year (2014–15), but time does not stand still for test developers. So we wanted to know, how are states approaching assessment during the transition?

Overall, states are treading carefully and strategically, since the quality of the forthcoming tests is still unknown.

One approach we observed is to modify existing state exams to cover the content of both the old state standards and the Common Core. In Massachusetts, the state’s new MA 2011 standards are actually a combination of the pre-existing state standards and CCSS; each year, additional Common Core content is being integrated into MCAS. In Colorado, the state is using TCAP, a transitional exam bridging its old standards and the Common Core standards. Officials explain that this paced approach is intended to ease students in to the new, more rigorous content, rather than to assess the entirety of the standards in one fell swoop.

A second strategy, used in Massachusetts, Colorado, and Arkansas, is piloting Common Core–aligned exams by introducing them to select students or districts first before administering...

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Long before the Common Core State Standards were on anyone’s radar, the “reading wars” raged furiously. They began as a fight about the best way to teach children how to read in the early grades, and the camps were divided between advocates of “whole language” and “phonics.” Today, the battles continue, though the issues have grown increasingly complicated and their implications extend well beyond the early grades and the phonics/whole-language divide.

Recent debates over reading instruction in the Common Core era have included skirmishes among three helpful—and ultimately complementary—approaches: “close reading,” “knowledge first,” and “skills and strategies.” All three of these are miles better than a fourth (but increasingly popular) approach: “just right texts.”

Let’s examine them.

Close Reading

One flashpoint in the reading debate emerged in 2011, after a lead author of the Common Core ELA standards, David Coleman, challenged teachers with a new vision for reading instruction. It entailed ratcheting up the complexity of texts that students read—something the Common Core explicitly demands—and encouraging students to plunge directly into the text itself, rather than spending time pre-teaching background content and vocabulary (an approach about which the standards themselves are silent). This version of close reading focuses on three things: 1. Selecting appropriately complex texts that are worthy of close reading and analysis, 2. Sequencing texts thoughtfully with an eye towards building student content knowledge and vocabulary, and 3. Guiding students through the text carefully with thoughtfully developed, text-dependent questions that encourage students to...

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