Common Core Watch

While political fireworks are grabbing most of the Common Core headlines these days, the real story is how teachers and leaders—particularly those within the reform community—are changing their daily practice in light of the content and rigor demands of the CCSS.

Out of sight but hard at work, leaders of the “No Excuses” schools are taking the adoption of the Common Core as a challenge to refocus their reading instruction in ways that will help their students make greater gains in reading and writing than they have historically been able to do. Central to that challenge is the question of how to help students—a majority of whom are struggling readers who often lack basic reading skills and vocabulary—meet the content and rigor demands of the CCSS.

Reading in the Common Core era

As longtime readers of this blog know, my support for the Common Core literacy standards stems from three things: (1) the emphasis on building knowledge to improve comprehension, (2) the focus on close reading and using evidence to support answers and analysis, and (3) the push to give all students regular practice with complex texts.

It's the combination of all three—working together—that holds the promise of finally helping students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, master the reading skills needed to succeed in college.

While each of the three changes poses its own special challenge to the status quo, it’s the last piece—the emphasis on text complexity—that is most threatening to the conventional wisdom driving reading instruction in American classrooms, traditional and reform-minded alike.

And the pushback against this particular CCSS directive is growing. For example, self-described “small-town English teacher” Peter Greene likened assigning texts based on grade level “without regard for the student’s reading level” to “educational malpractice.” This pushback is backstopped by an entire industry built...

For no current-affairs commentator do I have greater respect than Peggy Noonan, whose sagacity, common sense, plain-spokenness, and “big picture” view of things are as welcome—and rare—as the clarity and persuasiveness of her prose.

When it comes to the Common Core State Standards, however, she’s only about 60 percent right.

She’s right that the architects and promoters of these standards had—and have—the best of intentions, both with respect to millions of kids who now receive a mediocre-to-dismal education and to the long-term vitality and competitiveness of the nation itself.

She’s right that the “proponents’ overall objective—to get schools teaching more necessary and important things, and to encourage intellectual coherence in what is taught—is not bad, but good.”

She’s right that, as with every ambitious effort to reform every large, complex system in the history of the world, those proponents—I’m one of them—underestimated the implementation challenges.

She’s right that they—we—haven’t always been as thoughtful and respectful as we should regarding the concerns and convictions of parents and others on the ground. (She uses the word “patronizing” and that’s also right, at least in part.)

But she’s not right to offer absolutely no alternative—unless, of course, she’s content with American K–12 education the way it is, which I know she isn’t.

And she’s not right to fail to note that the Common Core would have been—at least at this point in time—a sort of ambitious pilot program involving a smallish number of states that were serious about the implementation challenges, until the feds blundered into the middle of it with “incentives” that turned it into a sort of national piñata. (It does, however, remain absolutely voluntary for states, and I will shed no tears when those that don’t really want to put it into conscientious operation in their schools stop pretending...

Sarah Rosenberg

Today, the next wave of states will begin field-testing the Common Core–aligned assessments after a largely successful first phase. While Common Core critics like Valerie Strauss already declared the administration of the new field tests as “not so great,” journalists reported only a few technology glitches and a couple unclear directions—as was expected during this trial period. Overall, the field testing has served its purpose of providing students, teachers, schools and districts with the opportunity to give these next-generation assessments a test drive.

Libby Nelson with Vox recently reported, “In state after state, education officials say the same thing: There have been forgotten passwords, frozen computers, or discrepancies in how different browsers handle the test. On the whole, though: so far, so good.” For instance, the official blog of the Idaho State Department of Education posted a glowing story about the field tests earlier this month: they even quoted a fifth-grader from Blaine County who walked out of the testing room and said, “That test was fun!” While it might be tempting to dismiss the post as part of a carefully executed PR campaign, stories from local newspapers back it up. Cindy Johnstone, director of curriculum and assessment at Vallivue School District, told the Idaho Press-Tribune that some test administrators were particularly worried about technology capacity but that those concerns largely subsided after a successful administration. “Whenever there’s a new system in place, there’s a learning curve for everyone involved, but we feel it has gone very smoothly,” Johnstone said. “We anticipated slow Internet speeds and more technical issues, but we really just have not seen that.”

A similar story emerges in New Jersey. With over 60,000 students taking part in the PARCC field test, the Garden State had some of the highest levels...

Among cyclists, there is a joke that “I had the right of way” makes a good epitaph. The point is obvious: being right is cold comfort if you’re dead.

It’s not hard to imagine that, if we Common Core advocates don’t chart a better implementation course, we’ll be standing at its funeral in more than a few states saying to each other in hushed tones, “But standards aren’t curriculum.”

We see this clearly in how the debate over the Common Core has evolved in places where implementation is fully rolled out and where the unintended consequences of standards- and accountability-driven reform (curriculum narrowing, test prep, etc.) haven’t been well anticipated or corrected. We’ve seen it as parents who’ve never before engaged in education debates write letters and post pictures that go viral about impossibly confusingCommon Core” lessons and worksheets. And we saw it this week when comedian and New York City public school parent Louis C.K. took to Twitter to complain about New York’s standardized tests, the curriculum that the state and district has chosen to implement the new standards, and the inordinate amount of time that gets siphoned away from instruction for test prep and tests.

Of course, I’ve long argued that standards are not curriculum (they aren’t) and that curriculum decisions are made by local schools and districts (they are).

But the reality is that Louis C.K., like many parents across New York, doesn’t much care about the difference between standards and curriculum. He’s disinterested in the debate over whether there’s a better way to implement these standards—not because he doesn’t care about education our outcomes but rather because, from his perspective, the “Common Core” is not a set of standards that he’ll...

As the drumbeat to roll back the Common Core State Standards gets louder, some people are starting to question the value and purpose of academic standards in the first place. Do states really need to set expectations for what all students should learn? Are state standardized tests necessary? Why not return to an age when Americans simply trusted their children's teachers to craft curricula and appraise student progress?

Good questions, but perhaps more wishful than informed. Teachers should indeed be in charge of classroom instruction, but quality standards are an important piece of a comprehensive effort to boost student achievement. That effort also depends on quality assessments, clear information for parents and teachers to find out whether students have mastered the knowledge and skills they need, and some way to hold schools accountable for meeting the needs of the students they serve.

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As opposition to the Common Core State Standards has gained momentum in parts of the land, it’s important to ask what happens if a state changes its mind and renounces those standards—which, as we’ve long said, states have every right to do. But then what? Does the state revive its old academic standards, be they good, bad, or average? Does it rewrap the Common Core and affix its own label thereon? (That’s happened already in several places, including some states where the Common Core wasn’t particularly controversial but state pride and sense of ownership are intense.) Does it keep the substance of the Core but add some content of its own—as Common Core authors always expected? (This has occurred, inter alia, in MassachusettsFlorida, and California.) Does it come up with something altogether new and better? Or does it come up with something new and worse?

Last month, when Governor Mike Pence signed a bill officially repealing his state’s 2010 adoption of the CCSS, Indiana became the first Common Core state to formally repudiate the standards. Unfortunately, it appears that, in its haste to reject and replace the CCSS, Indiana seems poised to adopt a set of Potemkin Standards—expectations built with a façade that impresses but with very little enduring substance.

Repealing the Common Core left the state’s teachers and school districts with no curricular or instructional guidance, and it left the state Department of Education little time to finalize a new set of K–12 English and math standards or to develop a workable implementation plan for those standards. (Indeed, there was so much confusion that state leaders proposed administering two entirely different summative assessments this year, considered adding a third in September, then scrapped plans for the second and third tests—and are still wondering what tool to use to measure student achievement as they transition away...

While I won't say I'm glad that Indiana (or any other state) is reversing its earlier embrace and spitting in the eye of the Common Core, it grieves me not at all that they now seem to be exiting.

Well, it grieves me that they may be consigning Hoosier schools and teachers and kids to a worse fate—the state's draft alternative standards aren't just educationally inferior to the Common Core, they're also worse than Indiana's own previous K–12 academic expectations—but it doesn’t upset me one bit that legislators are now pulling this plug. For it's been abundantly clear for months that their heart wasn't in the Common Core standards, which means they would have done a lame job of implementing and assessing performance in relation to them. (Be mindful that Indiana did a lame job of putting its own old standards into practice, which is at least part of why the state's academic results have been thoroughly mediocre.)

I've argued for years now that the forty-five-state number (original sign-ups for Common Core) was inflated, unrealistic, and implausible and that many of those states were never—are never—going to lift their hands to operationalize the standards. (One finger, maybe, but taking any set of new standards seriously means heavy, heavy lifting from many, many buckets. You can't do that with one finger.)

Far better for a smaller number of states that are serious about this implementation, assessment, and accountability challenge to stick with the Common Core and for the rest to bail instead of pretending that they're going to do this. Then we'll really know whether kids in Common Core schools—real Common Core schools, not lip-service schools—and their districts and states do any better than kids in non–Common Core jurisdictions. And that is truly...

I’ve long argued that there is a meaningful and important difference between standards and curriculum. Pick your metaphor: The standards set the destination; they don’t define the journey. Or they describe the “what” but not the “how.” While a good set of K–12 academic standards can foster tremendous innovation and real choice for teachers and students, instructional flexibility is essential. There is no one “right” way to teach content and skills to all students. The right path depends on the strengths and needs of the students and the teachers as much as it does on the content itself.

It’s exactly because I see the potential—the necessity, even—for classroom-level innovation that I shudder when people argue that Common Core adoption is tantamount to the imposition of a single, national curriculum. In my mind, that is simply not what Common Core is meant to do. (In fact, more than three years ago, when some pushed for a common curriculum to match the common standards, I argued forcefully against it. I wrote that mandating state or national curriculum—either directly or indirectly—was “one of the least effective ways” of driving effective curriculum choices. Teacher buy-in is too important to curriculum implementation, and teachers are unlikely to feel bought into a curriculum that was forced upon them from state bureaucrats, no matter how well intentioned they are.)

But what happens when the lines between setting standards and mandating curriculum are blurred?

That is what I see happening right now in New York—the line between the state-adopted Common Core standards and the supposedly voluntary (but state-sponsored) Common Core curriculum has become so blurry, the distinction between the two is virtually meaningless.

Back in 2010–11, New York leaders hoped to support teachers in their implementation of the CCSS...

In the Hoover Institution’s Defining Ideas journal, Tom Loveless has a brief, measured examination of today’s curriculum debates. Entitled “The Curriculum Wars,” the essay reviews age-old disputes between traditionalists and progressives in the 80s, 90s, and 00s, then reframes them in light of two recent developments: technology in education and Common Core. 

Loveless recalls the whole-language vs. phonics battle in reading instruction; project-based learning vs. content-oriented instruction in science; problem solving vs. computation skills in math; and multiculturalist, “national-sins” history vs. Eurocentric versions (He doesn’t use the term “Eurocentric,” but it’s implied). While the former (progressivist) approaches dominated education through the 90s, the “rise of accountability systems” that focused on basic literacy and numeracy skills, plus research showing the ineffectiveness of whole-language theories, blunted those approaches in reading and math and marginalized science and social studies/history debates.

We are now in a state of “relative calm” in curriculum matters, Loveless asserts, but technology and Common Core threaten to revive the controversies. In customizing instruction to each student, he warns, we may find the curriculum fragmenting to the point that students “no longer learn a common body of knowledge and skills at approximately the same time.” We might extend that concern to the outcome that there would no longer be any common body of knowledge and skills. (Loveless has a nice comment, too, on the “romantic ideology” of those we might call the “disruptivists,” who rely on doubtful theories of learning styles in their effusive advocacy of customization.)

The threat that Common Core poses lies not in the standards themselves but in the uses to which the initiative may be put. Specifically, Loveless says, teachers and school officials may cite it as justification for “questionable approaches to learning.” When challenged for a controversial reading assignment or dubious constructivist math exercises, people may respond, “But...

Yesterday, National Review Online posted an article entitled, “The Eleven Dumbest Common Core Problems.” This is the latest in a series of posts making their way around the internet aimed at demonstrating how the Common Core ELA and math standards are “forcing” low-quality, fuzzy math and politically charged English passages on our nation’s elementary students. But that’s like saying wet roads caused it to rain—it’s got the causation all mixed up.

The posts and the pictures of awful curriculum have parents, teachers, and community members rightly concerned. We should be teaching important content, free of political biases and agendas, and we should be teaching that content in the most effective and efficient way possible.

But we can blame the Common Core only if we have some evidence that pro-environmentalist reading passages—or otherwise low-quality elementary reading and math materials—are a new phenomenon. Or that they account for a significantly higher proportion of texts read than before CCSS. Or if opponents can demonstrate a clear link between the poor curriculum and the demands of the standards.

Thus far, very little (if any) such evidence has been presented, so it isn’t clear why the CCSS—or any standards that don’t explicitly demand fuzzy math or environmentalist literature—are to blame. Is choice to blame for charlatan school leaders? Because there is financial mismanagement of some charter schools, should we eliminate privately managed public schools? Hardly. But that is the same line of argument being advanced by opponents of the Common Core, with very few commentators pushing for evidence.

It’s true that some of the assignments posted on NRO and elsewhere—not all of which are as stupid as the post’s title suggests—have “Common Core” stamped on the bottom. This makes it clear that the publishing market has not yet responded to states’...