Common Core

This post has been updated with the full text of "Wanna opt out of tests? Try this instead"

There’s a bracing moment early in the 1991 movie Grand Canyon. A tow truck driver played by Danny Glover miraculously appears to rescue a stranded motorist played by Kevin Kline, who is being terrorized by thugs on a deserted Los Angeles street. Glover’s character appears, calmly hooks up the disabled car to his rig, and appeals to the gun-toting gang leader to let him and Kline go on their way.

“I'm gonna grant you that favor, but tell me this,” the gang leader says after a tense standoff, reminding the tow truck operator that he’s calling the shots. “Are you asking me as a sign of respect? Or are you asking because I've got the gun?”

“You ain't got the gun,” Glover replies, “we ain't having this conversation.”

I think of this scene every time I read a story about the “opt-out movement”—parents and others protesting the distorting effects of standardized testing in schools by refusing to let their children take the tests. Opt-out parents believe they have a gun pointed at testing. They might be right. But the opt-out movement...

Part II of the latest Brown Center report is called “Measuring Effects of the Common Core.” Loveless creates two indexes of Common Core State Standards implementation by using data from two surveys of state education agencies. The 2011 index is based on a survey from that year, which reports how many activities—such as conducting professional development or adopting new instructional materials—states had undertaken while implementing the CCSS. “Strong” states are those that pursued at least three implementation strategies. The 2013 index uses survey data asking state officials when they plan to complete CCSS implementation. In this case, “strong” indicates full implementation by 2012–2013.

Analyzing the relationship between survey results and fourth-grade NAEP data for reading, Loveless finds little difference between “strong” states and the four states that never adopted Common Core. According to the 2011 index, strong implementers outscored the four states that didn’t adopt the Common Core by a little more than a scale point between 2009 and 13 (yet the small comparison group makes for less reliable findings). Strong states did a bit better relative to the 2013 index, but still outdid non-implementers by less than two NAEP points.

More interesting than these preliminary correlation studies, however, is...

There used to be a wry and mildly provocative blog called “Stuff White People Like.” Briefly popular in its heyday, it was described by the New Republic as a “piquant satire of white liberal cultural mores and hypocrisies.” The site’s creator stopped updating it a few years back after landing a book deal. But if it were still active, “opting out of tests” might have been right up there with craft beer, farmers’ markets, NPR, and Wes Anderson movies on that list of mores. Maybe hypocrisies, too.

A list compiled by the teachers’ union in New Jersey, where PARCC testing began earlier this month, claims that there have been more than thirty-five thousand test refusals statewide. On the order of one million young New Jerseyans are supposed to take the test, yet the state data documenting how many of them opted out won’t be available for at least a month. An informal analysis of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA)’s list, however, shows that the highest numbers of test refusals are concentrated in communities that are affluent, left-leaning, and heavily white. 

A blue state with a Republican governor, New Jersey features a mix of affluent suburbs...

Last week, I complained that Eva Moskowitz and other reformers weren’t being fair when they described schools as “persistently failing” because they didn’t get many of their students to the ambitious levels built into the Common Core. This is how I concluded:

The move to higher standards means that we need to recalibrate our rhetoric and, more importantly, our approach to school accountability. In the low-standards days, it was perfectly legitimate to call out schools that couldn’t get all or most of their students to minimal levels of literacy and numeracy. It simply doesn’t work to similarly defame schools that don’t get all of their students “on track for college and career.” It’s a much higher bar and a much longer road.

But reform critics aren’t any better when it comes to playing games with the new standards. Diane Ravitch and Valerie Strauss, for example, continue to peddle the notion that the Common Core is developmentally inappropriate because it expects all students to be able to read simple passages by the end of kindergarten. Perhaps without knowing it, they’re making the same mistake as Moskowitz and...

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in a slightly different form at Tim Shanahan's blog, Shanahan on Literacy.

Ladies and gentlemen, we're quickly sinking into the quicksand of yet another presidential campaign. I'm writing to help with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) issue. I don't want any of you tripped up by a feeble or foolish argument, and there are lots of ways of doing that. I'm sure you all know not to rely on your thirteen-year-old kids for policy advice—and not to sigh audibly and roll your eyes, since it will look like you sent your thirteen-year-old to debate in your place. If you can't stare down a callow opponent successfully, how will you ever convince voters that you can handle Putin or ISIS?

I won't be so bold as to suggest what your position should be on Common Core, but I do have advice as to which arguments to avoid.  

1. Previous educational standards were better.

Don't make this claim. It can only embarrass you (it's as bad as not being able to spell "potato"). Past standards were so low, they were the educational equivalent of everyone getting a tee-ball trophy. Many U.S. students met...

In the pre-Common Core era, we had a big problem. Most state tests measured minimal competency in reading and math. But we failed to communicate that to parents, so they reasonably thought a passing grade meant their child was pretty much where they needed to be. Little did they know that their kid could earn a mark of “proficiency” and be reading or doing math at the twentieth or thirtieth percentile nationally. Frankly, we lied to the parents of too many children who were well below average and not at all on a trajectory for success in college or a well-paying career.

Playing games with proficiency cut scores provided much of the impetus behind Common Core. States raised standards and started building tests pitched at a much higher level. Most states are giving those tests for the first time right now, though New York and Kentucky made the transition two years ago. As of 2013, New York’s tests were the toughest in the country, according to a new analysis by Paul Peterson and Matthew Ackerman in Education Next, matching—if not exceeding—the performance standards of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.  

That may solve the “proficiency illusion”...

This post has been updated with the full text of "Shifting from learning to read to reading to learn."

Spring means high-stakes tests in America’s schools, and this year’s test season is already proving to be a particularly contentious one. The number of parents choosing to “opt out” of tests remains small but appears to be growing. Anti-testing sentiment will likely sharpen as rigorous tests associated with Common Core are rolled out in earnest this year. Parents who have been lulled into complacency by their children’s scores on low-bar state tests may not react well when their children are measured against higher standards.

Testing—who should be tested, how often, and in which subjects – is also one of the most contentious issues in the pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (the most recent iteration of which is better known as No Child Left Behind). At present, the feds require states to test every student every year in math and reading from grades 3–8. However, if we are serious about improving reading—and education outcomes for children at large—we might be better off if we stopped testing reading in third grade rather than started it.

There are two big problems with existing test-driven...

Nearly five years into Common Core implementation, educators across the country continue to struggle to identify and access high-quality instructional materials aligned to the new academic standards, often relying on outdated textbooks or cobbling together multiple sets of materials to get by.

A valuable resource is now available for educators., a new nonprofit organization reviewing materials for alignment to the Common Core, last week released findings from its initial round of evaluations. The consumer reports-style reviews (conducted by experienced educators, including classroom teachers, principals, and instructional coaches) evaluate curricular materials against three sequential categories, or "gateways"—“focus and coherence,” “rigor and the mathematical practices,” and “instructional supports and other usability indicators”—with only those meeting the first gateway advancing to the second and third. On the whole, findings are not promising. Of the twenty K–8 mathematics instructional series reviewed to date, only one met's criteria for alignment at all grade levels (Eureka, grades K–8), with a second series meeting the alignment criteria in two grades (My Math, grades 4–5). Eureka’s strong showing is particularly impressive, as it didn’t exist five years ago—it was originally created from scratch for the EngageNY website, whose combined math and ELA curriculum modules have...

The language of standards—even relatively straightforward ones like Common Core—can easily flummox the layperson (and more than a handful of professionals). What does it mean if a third grader is supposed to “use multiplication and division within 100 to solve word problems in situations involving equal groups, arrays, and measurement quantities?” Common Core might say a fifth grader should be expected to “write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons and information.” But—on a good day at least—so should a columnist for the New York Times. What’s the difference?

Parents cannot be faulted if they look at the standards, find them less than helpful, and want to know simply, “What should my child be able to do at this age?” That’s the goal of an interesting new project from GreatSchools, the school information megasite for parents. “Milestones” seeks to demystify the standards with a free and engaging collection of short videos in English and Spanish showing what grade-level work looks like in grades K–5. Each short clip shows students with their teachers “demonstrating what success looks like in reading, writing and math, grade by grade.”

Created in collaboration with Student Achievement Partners and...

Aging action hero edition

Single parenthood and ed reform, moral truths and the Common Core, and Republicans’ federal education policy paradox.

Amber's Research Minute

SOURCE: Charles L. Baum and Christopher J. Ruhm "The Lasting Benefits of Early Work Experience," Employment Policies Institute (August 2014).


Mike:               Hello, this is your host Mike Petrilli at Thomas B. Fordham Institute here at The Education Gadfly Show and online at, and now please join me in welcoming my co-host the Harrison Ford of education reform, Robert Pondiscio.

Robert:            Crashing and burning using a golf course in way in which it was not indented.

Mike:               I was thinking that you have a sort of aging action figure look going on.

Robert:            Oh, no, there again with the aging, thanks.

Mike:               Harrison Ford crashes a small plane into a golf course. I saw the image, it looked like the Millennium Falcon crashing into a golf course.

Robert:            Apparently, this is not his first time on the golf course or in at least a plane crash.

Mike:               Didn't he break his leg recently on the set of star wars?

Robert:            Let me just say if I walk away from two plane crashes, there will not be a third. I'm not sure what he was thinking.

Mike:               Because you learn from experience!

Robert:            Some of us would like to think so.

Mike:               If only the same could be said of so many of our colleagues in this education reform debate! Lots to cover, lots to cover, let's do it gang. We're going to play pardon of the Gadfly. Ellen, get us started.

Ellen:               Is single parenthood a legitimate topic for education reform?

Mike:               Yes!

Robert:            Absolutely.

Mike:               There you go. This been a bit of a debate lately. As you may know, "Education Next," has a special issue out marking the 50th anniversary of the Moynihan Report, which was controversial back then and remains controversial today.

Robert:            A hardy perennial.

Mike:               Here’s what I've been trying to explain, I am not particularly interested in whether kids today have single parent families. We know there's all kinds of evidence, and the Ed Next articles get into this, that those kids tend to on average do worse than kids from two parent families. Which is shocking to probably nobody. 

Mike:               All kinds of relationships, one thing is we know single parent families are much more likely to be in poverty for obvious reasons. It's hard to both make a living and care for children when you're doing it by yourself. What I care about are single parent families tomorrow. What I care about saying, we've a lot of debate in education reform about on ramps to upward mobility the number one, one being college. We've had debates for them about whether we're too focused on college, that is one good on ramp, but we have to be worried about the off ramps as well. There are some clear off ramps from the evidence, prison.

Robert:            Substance abuse.

Mike:               Substance abuse, thank you, and early parenthood especially on your own. This isn't controversial, nobody would say, "Hey, do you want to climb a latter to the middle class? Teenage pregnancy is a great idea." We've even made great progress on teenage pregnancy, the problem is it's been delayed from say 16, 17, 18 now to 20, 21, 22. Many of those young women have still not finished their education, and they have still not established themselves in the work place, they haven't gotten married. As a result they still struggle to make it out of poverty and their children then end up growing up in poverty.

Robert:            Given how difficult it is why would you want to have any more obstacles placed in front of you, right? You and I have talked about this before, this so called success sequence, this is Ron Haskins and this is Isabel Sawhill. You have something like a 95% to 98% chance of escaping poverty if you graduate from high school, if you get a full time job, if you get married, and delay parenthood until you've done those three things.

                        Now, what's interesting is we aren't exactly shy in schools about running kids lives for them, shall we say. The school where I teach when I'm not here at Fordham. At Democracy Prep, you walk down the halls, and a lot like other no excuses charters, it is awash in college banners and awash in these aspirational statements that reinforce certain character traits that we want to see in students. For some reason, I don't mean to single out my school, all of us in this line of work are just a bit cherry about doing that extra thing of saying, "Hey, you know what, stay in school, get married, get a job, don't have kids until you do that," when it may be the most important thing kids need to know to actually escape intergenerational poverty.

Mike:               Well said. Topic number 2, Ellen.

Ellen:               A recent New York Times editorial accused the common core for promoting moral relativism by ignoring moral facts. Is this accurate?

Mike:               As our colleague Kathleen said, "Just when you thought they'd run out of every argument, they came up with a new one." How did she respond Robert, what's this all about?

Robert:            You saw the piece, I think she's not having very much of it, but there's a larger issue here and frankly it's not unrelated to the issue of single parenthood. Let's dispense with the Common Core comment argument. I have to confess I read the original New York Times piece and I can't remember the author's name who was talking about ...

Mike:               A philosopher.

Robert:            A philosopher. It seems a little bit nitpicky, and I hate to wave the bloody shirt, it's a particle matter when you're teaching facts and opinion at the level of elementary school, even middle school, you're just not concerning yourself with questions of moral relativism.

Mike:               Let's back up here. He was worried that kids are being taught in school that there are facts and there are opinions. Facts are things that you can prove and opinions are things that you can't. He wanted there to be a third category for moral facts. That killing somebody isn't just saying, I think it's wrong to kill somebody, that's not just an opinion, that is a moral fact. That was the whole point. I think he certainly has some truth that there is a fair amount of moral relativism in our society, a fair amount of people being shy about saying no, there are things that some things are true with a capital "T".

Robert:            Kathleen made the point in the essay that you referenced, if this is your concern, the Common Core is a really bad straw man to attack because it actually does create a third possibility that it's not just fact or opinion. There is, I believe the phrase is, “reasoned judgement,” in analyzing a piece of writing. This should be exactly what, if this what you're concern about moral relativism, exactly what you want to see in your standards.

Mike:               That's right, actually, he would have written a great piece if he'd said, "This is a problem in our school, I see it as a college professor. However, I'm encouraged because finally the Common Core Standards at least call for a third way, not just facts, not just opinions, but reasoned judgement."

Robert:            My experience, require having read them. Don't get me started.

Mike:               Again, there's his view on the Common Core is that fact, opinion, or reasoned judgement or un-reasoned judgement, we'll leave that up to you. Topic number three.

Ellen:               Federal education policy currently presents a paradox for Republicans, particularly Republicans governors who want to be president. Please explain.

Robert:            Mike you have at it.

Mike:               Well, in fact it was really Rick Hess and Andrew Kelly at a Yahoo Explain this week, they had a piece on this and it was very well put. I think it's important because many of our friends on the left are just so confused when us Republicans call for a limited federal role in education. They say, "How can it be that Republicans on the Hill are saying that they don't want accountability for title one funds." The point is not that we don't believe in accountability, we still believe in a limited federal role in education.

The paradox is that Republicans care both about education reform but also about federalism, and so there's always been this debate at the federal level, which takes precedent, usually it's been federalism. There was been a slight detour, actually huge detour, under the No Child Left Behind Act when the educational reform instincts won out. What Rick and Andrew are wondering is now with George W. Bush's brother, Jeb, in the race: where is he going to fall? He was a very aggressive education reform governor. Does that mean he's going to do like his brother did and take those reforms to Washington or is he going to acknowledge: I did those things at the state level and what I want to do in Washington is empower other governors to do the same.

Robert:            What you're saying, to translate, is that Republicans should just not talk about education when they’re running for President.

Mike:               That’s a great question Robert, the problem is that's a really bad political strategy because the public actually wants to hear Republicans talk about education. It's one of the reasons George W. Bush did it. He was making the case that he was a different kind of Republican, he was a compassionate conservative. This was especially appealing to independents, especially women. They had all kinds of polling data on this, every time he talked about education his poll numbers went up in those groups. They want to hear that you care about schools, you care about kids, you care about poor kids, you care about upward mobility. It's tricky because you want to say I care about all those things but I don't think the federal government has much to do with it.

Robert:            So you take care of it at the state level.

Mike:               Which is a paradox.

Robert:            It is, well look it is entirely possible that you may be called upon at some point in your role on the right to advise the would be nominee, let's say it is Jeb, what are you going to tell him?

Mike:               I'm going to tell him to definitely talk about sending authority back to the states. What I would tell him is this, you could talk about education reform. Talk about it, talk about it, talk about it and then when somebody ask what should the federal government do and you say I want to empower states to do these kinds of reforms. I think that you can make distinction between the bully pulpit part, of saying what's best for kids, what's right for all things that are working around the country, and saying that we're going to therefore get into states business from Washington.

Robert:            I think there's a lot of wisdom to the idea that the proper federal role is sunshine, as opposed to sanctions.

Mike:               Or rain.

Robert:            Or rain.

Mike:               Definitely sunshine, not rain.

Robert:            Not rain.

Mike:               Okay, that's all the time we've got for pardon the Gadfly. Now it's time for everyone's favorite, Amber's Research Minute! Amber, welcome back to the show.

Amber:            Thank you, Mike.

Mike:               We were talking about Harrison Ford earlier, I guess his wife Calista Lockhart—

Robert:            Calista Flockhart.

Mike:               Flockhart, not Lockhart. Oh yeah, Ally Mcbeal. She said to him you're not flying those planes anymore. Is that the right approach as the wife?

Amber:            Is he better? I haven’t heard. He’s better now?

Mike:               He's okay, but I guess he's done this a couple times.

Robert:            Three crashes.

Amber:            Three crashes.

Robert:            That's God's way of telling you are not a pilot.

Amber:            I think that's kind of right.

Mike:               He was so good flying the Millennium Falcon!

Amber:            And he's seventy- how many now?

Mike:               Seventy-two.

Amber:            Wow, he's not invincible. Who'd he play, I just had a brain freeze ...

Robert:            Han Solo.

Amber:            No, he plays, his biggest role of all time.

Mike:               Star wars, no Indianan Jones.

Amber:            Indiana Jones!

Mike:               It’s certainly my favorite role ...

Amber:            Biggest role.

Mike:               I don't know if that's bigger than Star Wars.

Amber:            I didn't watch Star Wars.

Mike:               What?!

Amber:            I know, don't tell anyone.

Mike:               That's almost Un-American. That is like culture literacy.

Amber:            I've seen it, but not into it.

Mike:               We'll leave that for another day. What do we have first?

Amber:            We have got a new study out by a couple of economist that examined the impact of having a job in high school. A long term labor market benefit such as employment and earning. The study called, "The Lasting Benefits of Early Work Experience," uses data from the 1979 and 1997 national longitudinal survey of youth which tracks students from high school up to several decades later.

Robert:            I had a job at Taco Bell on Saturday night.

Amber:            We all start thinking about our first job. The sample comprises roughly 13,000 students who were between 14-21 in 1979, and roughly 9,000 students who were aged 12-16 in 1997. They look at impact after graduating ten years in the more recent cohort and thirty years in the earlier cohort. Such as the 1997, cohort are 26-30 year olds in 2010, when they stopped tracking them, and the 1979, cohort are ages 45-51.

Robert:            Thanks for reminding me.

Amber:            The control for gender, race, age, marital status, family size, region of residence, urban city,  family background, student abilities, student characteristics, a lot.

Robert:            Do they control for unemployment?

Amber:            That said, this is just a little bit of my opinion here, some of the control variables aren't that robust. For student ability, all they had was 8th grade GPA and military test results like, ASVAB. The key finding was that part time work by high school seniors during the school year and during the summer, so it's okay to do work in the summer too, translate to higher hourly wages, increased annual earnings, and less time spent out of work. Further, the differences in earnings between employed and unemployed high school seniors held up 10-30 years later, for the most part.

Mike:               Say that again.

Amber:            The differences in the earnings between the kids who were employed in high school and weren't employed actually held up, so they didn't fade.

Amber:            It’s a little example, a young adult in high school in early 2000's who spent 20 hours a week of part time work as a senior, was linked to earnings 20% higher 6-9 years after they graduate.

Robert:            All other things being equal.

Amber:            Right, compared to the peers who didn't work. For those in high school in the late 70's and early 80's 20 hours of senior year work experience per week was linked today to annual earnings about 7% higher compared to those who didn't work. Yet, here's the downside, because you go through all this positive stuff, in the report which was not called out in the summary, 20 hours per work in one's senior year verses not working decreases college graduation rates from 49% to 22%.

Robert:            Wow, that's huge.

Amber:            Less for the 1979, cohort. Analysts conclude, this is a direct quote, "Clearly, extensive early work experience has substantially larger harmful effects on academic outcomes then on labor market outcomes." Then they got this hypothesis where they discuss it and say, you know what, when you work your senior year, and we all think about what our job senior year, you learn more work ethic, self-reliance, time management, all these good things. Which could potentially bump your salary, but you could also potentially be taken away from studying.

Robert:            There's been a big shift ... I'd be curious if this was in the report. I feel like there's been a big shift in how we raise our children from when I was in high school to the way I raise my own high school aged daughter who has never had a job. I don't know if any of her friends have had jobs, all of my friends had jobs in high school.

Mike:               It’s interesting. I remember Lawrence Steinberg, we've talked about his work recently on adolescents, he used to be a crusader against these kinds of jobs because he was looking at the evidence on academic obtainment. How there was problems that these kids were going to the quote shopping mall high schools during the day which wasn't very interesting or challenging and literally work at the shopping mall at night and be tired in class and not have enough time for homework and all of that kind of stuff. Turns out that there is some positive aspects to this as well. There's kids ... I wonder if they go on to become entrepreneurs ... There's still selection bias.

Amber:            Absolutely. They do the best they can. Honestly, this are top notch economists, one's from UVA, so you know he's top notch. They go through 15 different test for robustness and they do the IV, the instrumental variables ... They did the best they could do.

Mike:               You would that think of course there's something different about kids who work and kids that do not. The kids that work may be more motivate by money for example and that's the case when they're 16 and want to buy a car or might be the case 15 years later when they want to buy a house. They make more money, they find a way.

Amber:            There's a sweet spot in there because once you start getting up past 20 the outcomes just get negative because the graduation rates get worse.

Mike:               One of the most interesting is the upward mobility conference in December was when Robert Swartz from Harvard said that poor kids were three times less likely to have part time job then affluent kids. There again that they aren't getting work experience, that they are getting that disadvantage as well. I wonder for the Democracy Preps and other no excuses schools would say of high school are they encouraging their students to have part time jobs or summer jobs.

Amber:            That was another finding, if you had no job at all or if you worked too many hours you were less likely to graduate from college. Both ends of the spectrum.

Robert:            There really is a sweet spot.

Mike:               I would say in the summer, you're 16 how do you spend your summer. I'm curious where the KIPP high schools are encouraging their kids to do during the summer. There's an argument that says look, part ... They should be helping their kids find jobs. We've talked about summer job programs before, that this is important.

Robert:            Does an internship count as a job? That materially affects their kinds of job you choose whether you're trying to get work experience or trying to get college experience or earn a few bucks.

Amber:            They didn't code it, by internship. First job, what was it?

Mike:               McDonalds.

Amber:            McDonalds! Wow.

Mike:               I lasted six weeks. I lasted until the day I had to wake up at 4am and help load stuff from the truck into the deep freezer in the middle of the summer.

Amber:            I was a cashier at Russell Home Shoes.

Mike:               No kidding. Selling shoes.

Amber:            Loved it.

Mike:               I’m impressed. That’s a good choice for you. 

Amber:            I remember, because all the guys were three years older than me and I was just smitten. Because I was a high school senior and they were 21, I was just like, I'm going to go into my little cashier job and bat my eyelashes.

Mike:               Where did you bat your eyelashes, Robert?

Robert:            I had a paper route, but my first real job was off the books, I was a bust boy at the Oasis Diner Jericho Turnpike Huntington Station, Long Island, from 6pm to 6am Fridays and Saturday nights. I went home with $40 in my pocket on Sunday morning and I thought I was rich.

Mike:               Pretty good.

Amber:            Awesome.

Mike:               You were too tired to do anything with the money.

Robert:            That's true.

Mike:               All right, good stuff. Thank you, Amber. That's all the time we've got until next week.

Robert:            I'm Robert Pondiscio.

Mike:               I'm Mike Petrilli, at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, signing off.