Common Core Watch

I liked Grant Wiggins more than just about anyone with whom I disagreed so much. On several occasions, he’d write something about teaching or curriculum I vehemently disagreed with, or vice versa. A sharply worded blog comment or tweet would follow. Then, invariably, there would be an email. Often lots of them. Nothing remarkable there; arguments begun in one venue often spill over into others. But what I came to value about those exchanges with Wiggins, who passed away suddenly and unexpectedly last week at age 64, is that they weren’t an attempt to win an argument or a convert. If you disagreed with him—if you looked at the same evidence and came to a different conclusion—he had to know why. 

Wiggins, the author of the influential curriculum planning guide Understanding by Design, held to his beliefs tightly and argued them passionately. He would never have embraced the label of education reformer—far from it—but he resisted the facile view of the education world as an “us versus them” proposition. He was adamant that instructional practices he railed against—dry lectures; activities divorced from big ideas and important skills; dutiful marches through content to be covered—were not a product of “reform,” but...

Lindsey Graham, the senior senator from South Carolina, joined the presidential race this week. He’s currently competing against eight other Republicans for the party’s nomination—a number that promises to grow as the year goes on. He’s also the subject of the thirteenth installment of the Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling presidential candidates’ stances on education issues.

Graham has served in the Senate since 2003. Before that, he was a four-term representative in the House and served one term in the state legislature. This, however, is his first time running for the White House. Over his long political tenure, he’s said much about education. Here are some of his views:

1. Common Core (2014): “The Obama administration has effectively bribed and coerced states into adopting Common Core....Blanket education standards should not be a prerequisite for federal funding. In order to have a competitive application for some federal grants and flexibility waivers, states have to adopt Common Core. This is simply not the way the Obama administration should be handling education policy.” February 2014.

2. Common Core (2013): “What's Common Core?...I'll address it. I don't know what it is. Sounds like a bad idea. I'll tell my staff, and I'll try...

Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland, announced over the weekend that he’ll be running for president. He’s only the third Democrat to announce, joining Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in a comparatively shallow race (the Republicans, on the other hand, already have nine confirmed candidates). He’s also the subject of the twelfth installment of the Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling presidential candidates’ stances on education issues.

O’Malley has been in politics most of his adult life. He helped on campaigns in his twenties, ran for state senate, got elected to the Baltimore City Council, served as the mayor of Baltimore for two terms, and was the Old Line State’s governor for eight years. During that time, he’s made education a priority—so much so that, according to his gubernatorial staff, he was “widely considered to be the ‘education governor.’” Here’re some quotes:

1. Common Core: “Our goal moving forward is to build the best public school system in not just America, but in the world. That's why we're choosing to adopt the Common Core standards, new curricula that will prepare our kids to be winners in a global economy, which is growing more knowledge-based by the day.” August...

I like the Common Core State Standards just fine, but let me confess a little secret: standards have never interested me very much. As a teacher, I would no sooner reach for state standards to decide what to teach than an architect would look to building codes for inspiration when sketching a skyscraper. Likewise, I suspect chefs never start with safe food handling procedures when planning a tempting menu. Of course, I want my students to be able to “determine two or more central ideas of a text” (that’s a standard). But deciding which texts are worth reading is far more interesting. And that’s not a standards question—it’s a curriculum question.

Much of my enthusiasm for Common Core has been predicated on the assumption that raising our game on teaching and testing can’t be accomplished without taking a long, hard look at curriculum—the course content and class materials we put in front of students. Curriculum is largely beyond the reach of Common Core; it’s strictly (and correctly) a local concern. But it’s been widely hoped the new standards would create a robust nationwide market for innovative new materials—especially in English language arts (ELA), where Common Core explicitly states the standards...

George Pataki, the former three-term governor of New York, announced today that he’s running for president. He’s the eighth Republican to do so and the second in two days (Rick Santorum declared yesterday). He’s also the subject of the eleventh installment of the Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling presidential candidates’ stances on education issues.

Pataki defeated Mario Cuomo back in 1994 to win the governorship of the Empire State, an office he held until 2006. In fact, he’s never lost an election. In 1982, he won the mayoral seat in Peekskill, NY. He was elected to the state assembly two years later, and to the state senate in 1992. He’s had a long, successful career—so long that if he wins in 2016, he’ll be the oldest American president in history. And during that time, he’s formed some strong opinions about education:

1. Common Core: “I oppose Common Core. I think it's a terrible idea.”...

Rick Santorum announced his second presidential bid on Wednesday. He joined six other candidates in the crowded GOP field—which sits in stark contrast to the Hillary Clinton-dominated Democratic race. He’s also the subject of the tenth installment of the Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling presidential candidates’ stances on education issues.

Santorum is a seasoned politician. He began his career in 1991 as a two-term congressman and went on to serve two terms in the Senate. In 2012, he ran for president for the first time and finished as the runner-up in the Republican primaries. He has homeschooled six of his children and voiced strong opinions about education. Here are some of them:

1. Common Core: “We need Common Sense not Common Core....From its beginning, the Common Core State Standards initiative has flown under the radar. Its funding, its implementation, and the substance of the standards it proposes have received little public attention, but all of them are wrong for families, wrong for...

Amid way too much talk about testing and the Common Core, not enough attention is being paid to what parents will actually learn about their children’s achievement when results are finally released from the recent round of state assessments (most of which assert that they’re “aligned” with the Common Core).

Ever since states adopted more rigorous standards—and the two assessment consortia began to develop next-generation tests that will faithfully gauge pupil performance in relation to those standards—there’s been vast anxiety about the bad news that’s apt to emerge. How will people react when informed that their kids aren’t doing nearly as well academically as the previous standards-and-testing regime had led them to believe? Will more parents “opt out” of testing? Will the political backlash cause more states to repudiate the Common Core, change tests yet again, or lower the “cut scores”?

We know the Common Core standards are more challenging than what preceded them in most places. That was the point. We know that the new assessments—at least those custom-built by PARCC and Smarter Balanced—are supposed to probe deeper and expect more. We understand that this reboot of America’s academic expectations is indeed like moving the goal posts. There’s ample...

Since we at Fordham began reviewing state academic standards in 1997, we’ve understood—and made clear—that standards alone are insufficient to drive improvements in student achievement. They describe the destination, but they don’t chart the journey for leaders, teachers, or schools. Which means that for standards to have any impact on what students actually learn, they must influence curriculum, assessment, and accountability. It’s far better to have a desirable destination than an unworthy one—better to aspire to reach the mountains than the recycling plant—but standards alone won’t get you there.

Plenty of educators understand this, but they often lack access to suitable vehicles by which to make the journey. The need for standards-aligned curricula is undoubtedly the most cited implementation challenge for states, districts, and schools. It’s also why “access to high-quality, standards-aligned curricular resources” comes up in nearly every discussion of the implementation challenges that teachers, schools, and districts face as they ramp up to meet the content and rigor demands of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

This near-universal need for properly aligned curricula and curricular materials is also why so many publishers rushed to slap shiny “CCSS-aligned!” stickers on their products, regardless of how much those products changed...

Since we at Fordham began reviewing state academic standards in 1997, we have understood—and made clear—that standards alone are insufficient to drive improvements in student achievement. Standards describe the destination, but they don’t chart the journey for leaders, teachers, or schools, which means that for standards to have any impact on what students actually learn, they must influence curriculum decisions, assessments, and accountability. Educators intuitively understand this, but not all policy makers and pundits appear to. The need for standards-aligned curricula is undoubtedly the most cited challenge for states, districts, and schools implementing the Common Core.

Yet five years into that implementation, teachers still report scrambling to find high-quality, standards-aligned instructional materials. Despite publishers’ claims, there is a dearth of programs that are truly aligned to the demands of the Common Core for content and rigor. Fixing America’s curriculum problem is no small challenge.

In Uncommonly Engaging? A Review of the EngageNY English Language Arts Common Core Curriculum, Fordham analyzes New York State’s Common Core-aligned ELA curriculum, built from scratch and made available online for all to use for free. How solid is this product? Is it well aligned to the Common Core? Is it teachable?

Here’s what we...

Editor's note: This post has been updated to include the entirety of "Knowledge is literacy."

In his best-selling book In Defense of a Liberal Education, Fareed Zakaria worried that in the era of technology and globalization, "an open-ended exploration of knowledge is seen as a road to nowhere." Defenders like Zakaria have argued that a liberal education is still the best preparation for a broad and unpredictable range of careers.

I agree, but I'd like to propose that we start by restoring the liberal arts tradition to where it can really do the most good: elementary school. A K–5 version of a liberal arts education would go a long way toward solving one of the most stubborn problems we face in American education: How to raise kids who love to read and are pretty good at it.

To be educated in the liberal arts is to have a broad grasp of literature, art, music, history, and the sciences. That's also a fair description of what it takes to be a good reader. Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia, has driven this point home with exceptional clarity in his outstanding new book Raising...

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