Common Core

Writing in his always-entertaining blog a few weeks ago, Whitney Tilson gave a nice nod to Dan Willingham’s New York Times op-ed addressing the sorry state of American teacher preparation. Amid effusive praise of the piece, Whitney writes, “I think morphemes and phonemes matter too but maybe not as much as Willingham does.”  
This gently stated but dismissive view of the importance of reading instruction troubles me because I think it captures a viewpoint widely shared by many education reformers.
I don’t think it’s because there are many education reformers who reject the science here (unlike many in teacher preparation). Researchers long ago identified the reading methods that would reduce the current deplorable rate of reading failure from 30 percent to somewhere well south of 10 percent, if only schools would take that step. Teacher preparation programs that fail to impress upon elementary teacher candidates the integral connection between spoken sounds and written words are essentially committing malpractice.
Instead, I think the issue for some education reformers is that other reforms seem much more important. I can’t figure out why there are still perfectly reasonable, rational people who aren’t willing to embrace the 2 + 2...

The Seventy Four had a simple goal: to make the 2016 presidential election season one in which candidates could pause in their frenzy of backstabbing and baby kissing to talk about education. In a first-of-its-kind education forum, the site (with the help of sponsor and cohost the American Federation for Children) invited presidential candidates to discuss their vision for public schools. Republicans spoke in August, and Democrats were supposed to take their turn later this month.

But as Politico recently reported, the Democrats declined their invitations. It’s a missed opportunity. Worse, nobody seems to know why the candidates backed out.

Campbell Brown, the Seventy Four’s co-founder and would-be forum moderator, says it’s due to pressure from teachers’ unions (both the AFT and NEA have publically endorsed Hillary Clinton). “What happened here is very clear: The teachers’ unions have gotten to these candidates,” Brown told Politico. “All we asked is that these candidates explain their vision for public education in this country, and how we address the inequality that leaves so many poor children behind.” Representatives from the unions, unsurprisingly, won’t verify her claim. More troubling, the candidates won’t comment on their refusal to join in the debate. They’re remaining...

What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all its children. – John Dewey

The intuitive appeal of this oft-quoted maxim is obvious. It speaks to the conviction that all of the children in a community or a country are “our kids” and that we should want the very best for them just as we do for our own flesh and blood.

Taken literally, however, it is also problematic, for it equates “sameness” with “equity.” That’s an error in part because what “the best and wisest parents” want varies—some seek traditional schools, others favor progressive ones, etc.

But it’s also a mistake because children’s needs vary. Kids growing up in poverty and fragile families, and dysfunctional communities need a whole lot more than kids living with affluence and stability. And when it comes to their schools, poor kids may need something a whole lot different. That’s why I’m a big fan of No Excuses charter schools, which are showing great promise for low-income children—even if they might not be a good fit for many of their upper-middle class peers.


  • In the entire tortured lexicon of bureaucratese, no two words can inspire more dread in the hearts of academic administrators than “Dear Colleague” (well, maybe “NAEP scores,” but that’s a separate issue). President Obama’s Office of Civil Rights has issued a fusillade of “Dear Colleague” letters to educators at every level of schooling over the past few years, relying on the magic of governmental coercion to solve such diverse ills as campus rape, inequitably applied discipline, and the existence of languages besides English. In both the Wall Street Journal and Education Next, R. Shep Melnick has picked apart the legal rationale behind yet another pernicious edict, first disseminated late last year; this one pushes schools to shrink the nationwide racial achievement gap by providing their students with equal access to “resources” (read: funding, and everything else). The policy breezes past two Supreme Court rulings that explicitly reject its legal foundations, forcing schools to meticulously chronicle the “intensity” of their extracurricular activities and the condition of their carpeting if they wish to avoid a federal investigation. Educational disparities among ethnic groups are seriously concerning, but policymakers should consider whether the best way to counter them is
  • ...

Remember all those pitched battles and screaming matches over Common Core? The furious charges of federal overreach? The demands to "repeal every word" of it? As children return to school across the country this week, Common Core remains largely intact in more than forty states. At the same time, new evidence suggests that the much tougher Common Core challenges—the ones emanating from inside classrooms—have only just begun.

Results from the initial round of Common Core-aligned tests (administered last spring) have been trickling out for the past few weeks in more than a dozen states. The results have been sobering, but not unexpected. Recall that the No Child Left Behind years were an era of rampant grade inflation. States whose students performed poorly on the benchmark National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) routinely rated the vast majority of their students on or above grade level, simply because states were allowed to set their own bar for success and thus had a perverse incentive to declare ever-greater numbers of kids proficient. The result was a comforting illusion of student competence that was shattered when "proficient" kids got to college and needed remediation,...

Between 2010 and 2012, more than forty states adopted the Common Core standards in reading and math, setting dramatically higher expectations for students in our elementary and secondary schools. Now comes a critical milestone in this effort. In the coming weeks, parents in most states will receive for the first time their children’s scores on new tests aligned to the standards. The news is expected to be sobering, and it may come as a shock for many. Parents shouldn’t shoot the messenger.

It is important to remember why so many states started down this path in the first place. Under federal law, every state must test children each year in grades 3–8 to ensure they are making progress. That’s a good idea. Parents deserve to know if their kids are learning, and taxpayers are entitled to know if the money we spend on schools is being used wisely.

But it is left to states to define what it means to be “proficient” in math and reading. Unfortunately, most states have historically set a very low bar (often called “juking the stats”). The result was a comforting illusion that most of our...

Most of the sturm und drang over Common Core has centered on the politics of the standards’ creation and adoption. The bigger problem—much bigger—was always going to be implementation. This new brief from the Education Trust offers a glimpse of how it’s going. Alas, the answer is not very well.

An analysis of middle school classroom assignments finds that most “do not reflect the high-level goals” set by Common Core. This, the report suggests, demonstrates where teachers are in their understanding of the higher standards. Among the sobering data points: A mere 6 percent of the assignment fell into the high range of Education Trust’s analysis framework, and fewer than 40 percent of assignments were aligned with grade-appropriate standards at all. “It’s time for an honest conversation about where we are in implementing the standards,” the report concludes.

Hear, hear—but some important caveats must be noted. The study was conducted at six middle schools spread across two urban districts in two states. Given Education Trust’s focus on equity and the achievement gap, this is not surprising; however, it may not be representative of K–12 education at large. It’s also interesting that more than half of the assignments reviewed came from...

Natalie Wexler

Standardized tests are commonly blamed for narrowing the school curriculum to reading and math. That’s one reason Congress is considering changes in the law that could lead states to put less emphasis on test scores. But even if we abolished standardized tests tomorrow, a majority of elementary schools would continue to pay scant attention to subjects like history and science.

Consider this: In 1977, twenty-five years before No Child Left Behind ushered in the era of high-stakes testing, elementary school teachers spent only about fifty minutes each day on science and social studies combined. True, in 2012, they spent even less time on those subjects—but only by about ten minutes.

The root cause of today’s narrow elementary curriculum isn’t testing, although that has exacerbated the trend. It’s a longstanding pedagogical notion that the best way to teach kids reading comprehension is by giving them skills—strategies like “finding the main idea”—rather than instilling knowledge about things like the Civil War or human biology.

Many elementary students spend hours practicing skills-based strategies, reading a book about zebras one day and a story about wizards the next.

That’s a problem for all students:...

On Wednesday, the American Federation for Children sponsored and cohosted with the Seventy Four a first-of-its-kind summit at which six Republican presidential candidates talked about American education. They discussed hot-button K–12 education issues—Common Core, teachers’ unions, school choice—but struggled to name the exact role a president should play in that arena.

“A president can do many things; it doesn’t mean it should,” former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina said.

Most candidates questioned the purpose of the Department of Education and favored state control of schools. Fiorina said the amount of money flowing through Washington does not correlate with student improvements.

“The federal government is the last place in the world I want holding states and local school districts accountable,” said Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. But when pressed by Seventy Four editor-in-chief and summit host Campbell Brown, candidates agreed that presidential influence is the most useful tool for a president to move the needle on education.

“The bully pulpit needs to be used,” former Florida Governor Jeb Bush said. “This is crisis. Hundreds of thousands of kids can’t get jobs because of the skills gap….This has got to be the highest priority for the next president of...



The poll results that Education Next released yesterday carry mildly glum news for just about every education reformer in the land, as public support has diminished at least a bit for most initiatives on their agendas: merit pay, charter schools, vouchers, and tax credits, Common Core, and even ending teacher tenure. That dimming enthusiasm for change is apt to dominate coverage of the survey findings and the debates that follow.

Yet two other big-picture tendencies are also visible in these data, and it strikes me that they matter more over the long run than any one year’s blips around particular reform ideas.

First, when it comes to fundamental principles and practices regarding K–12 education, the American public is generally pretty sensible and steadfast. More on this below.

Second, when it comes to important basic facts regarding that very same K–12 education system, the American public is stunningly ignorant. This is especially true on the fiscal side. Poll respondents underestimated by half how much money is spent per pupil in their local schools. They’re...