Curriculum & Instruction

GadflyWhen a Michigan House committee approved a measure that would allow students to skip Algebra 2 if they instead take a technical-education course, the Wolverine State became the latest to question the necessity of that much-debated high school course. Last month, Florida created two paths to a high school diploma, one of which excludes Algebra 2 altogether. The arguments in favor of such moves are persuasive—but what will this mean for Common Core, which requires all students to meet math objectives that include the substance of Algebra 2? This is certainly a matter to watch.

The UFT hosted a veritable panderpalooza last weekend, featuring five Democratic candidates for mayor of New York City taking turns praising the union and blasting charter schools in a shameless effort to win the union’s support. Dennis Walcott, the city’s schools chancellor, announced that he was “appalled” at their remarks. Still, while Gadfly finds such events distasteful, he cannot claim to be surprised when New York politicians resume their traditional habits.

Two excellent Wall Street Journal opinion pieces got down to the core of why conservatives ought to support the Common Core. Edward Frenkel and Hung-Hsi Wu, both professors of mathematics, praised the Core for setting tough benchmarks in that key subject. Sol Stern and Joel Klein commended the standards...

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Our second installment of the testing-consortia series is a conversation with Smarter Balanced. Formed and federally funded in 2010, the consortium boasts an expert staff and set of advisory committees. Its members include the nation’s largest state, one of the first Race to the Top winners, and a number of states attempting to advance nation-leading reforms.

After my ominous prediction about the consortia’s fates, Smarter Balanced quickly responded in private. Their counter was both courteous and forceful. I was impressed by the initial case they made, and I’m very glad that they swiftly agreed to participate in this public Q&A.

Could you please briefly describe the process (including the challenges) of creating “next-generation” assessments aligned with new standards via a multi-state consortium?

The process Smarter Balanced is using is very similar to the processes that states have been using for over a decade to create assessments for NCLB accountability. Using a widely regarded conceptual approach called Evidence-Centered Design, and working in partnership with an array of private sector companies, work groups comprising assessment leadership from Smarter Balanced states have developed the various components necessary for a next-generation assessment system. Among the major elements are:

  • IT architecture and open-source software to deliver, score and report on assessments
  • Content and item specifications and a test blueprint to govern the content and format of the assessment
  • Accommodations and accessibility features and policies
  • Achievement-level descriptors, college content-readiness policy and plans for standard-setting
  • Reporting system design
  • Validity
  • ...
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Today marks the inaugural installment of By the Company It Keeps, an interview series with some of education reform’s most important contributors.

We’re launching with a three-day conversation with the primary players in the nation’s progression toward new, common assessments. Tomorrow, we’ll hear from Smarter Balanced, and Wednesday’s anchor leg will be run by the United States Department of Education.

But today, we have PARCC, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, one of two consortia of states funded by the federal government to develop “next-generation” assessments aligned with the Common Core State Standards.

Its governing board is comprised of some of the nation’s most prominent state chiefs, and it is supported by Achieve, a national nonprofit known for its “college- and career-ready agenda.” While working for the New Jersey Department of Education, a PARCC member, I got to know and admire its leadership and staff. Those relationships and my participation in various PARCC meetings and activities contributed greatly to my appreciation for the enormous complexity of assessment and the critical role of the testing consortia.

So with no further ado: PARCC.

Could you describe the process (including the many challenges) of creating “next-generation” assessments aligned with new standards via a multi-state consortium?

It is a rigorous process that requires 22 states to work together every day to drive towards consensus about a range of policies and assessment practices that support a positive and strong learning environment for every student. States...

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On Monday, we kick off By the Company It Keeps in what I think is an exciting and important way.  (It’s also going to be out of the norm, but more on that below.)

Three very influential organizations working on one of our field’s most important topics participated in a revealing Q&A.

I’ve been writing about the Common Core–aligned testing consortia for some time now, occasionally raising concerns about how things were progressing and what that meant for the future of high-quality assessments and the standards themselves.

Then a couple weeks ago, I wrote a short piece raising the ante, in effect wondering if we had reached a serious turning point. Independently, Checker, reading the same tealeaves, wrote a longer, more detailed piece drawing the same conclusion.

In short, we both suggested that an exodus from the consortia might be on the horizon.

Whether you’re a CCSS supporter or opponent, this should matter to you.  Assessments are an essential part of meaningful standards-and-accountability systems. Their results tell us a whole lot about our schools, districts, teachers, and kids. And they are expensive.

These assessments are particularly important. They are supposed to be aligned with new common standards. They are supposed to be “next generation.” They are supposed to generate data that can be compared across states. They are supposed to give us a true reading on our students’ college- and career-readiness. They are being created by consortia of states. And the federal government has...

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Dear Deborah,

Thanks for inviting me to join you on your blog. Even though we disagree on many issues, I have great respect for you and the work you've done in your career.

As I write this, I'm returning from the Education Writers Association annual conference, held this year at Stanford. I spoke on a panel about the "opportunity gap" with professors Sean Reardon and Prudence Carter. Reardon, as you know, recently published a fascinating but sobering study about the growing income achievement gap. (ASCD's Educational Leadership has an accessible version of the study available online.) And Carter co-edited the new volume, Closing the Opportunity Gap.

What Professor Reardon's research shows is that, over the last 60 years, the achievement gap between the nation's poorest and richest students has widened dramatically. That's true of both test scores and college attainment.

Opportunity gap
It's not that poor children are falling behind the middle class. It's that the richest students are breaking away from everybody else.
Photo by John-Morgan

This finding is not surprising for people who have been paying attention, but what is surprising is where the gap lies. It's not that poor children are falling behind the middle class—they're not. It's that the richest students are breaking away from everybody else.

Why is this happening? Here...

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Interval training for ed-policy wonks

Mike and Dara chat about the open-source school district, mayoral hopeful Quinn’s G&T proposal, and teacher equivocation on Common Core preparedness. Amber’s got some bad news about the nation’s community colleges.

Amber's Research Minute

What Does It Really Mean to Be College and Work Ready? The Mathematics and English Literacy Required of First Year Community College Students by National Center on Education and the Economy, (Washington, D.C.: National Center on Education and the Economy, May 2013)

Community colleges, which educate 45 percent of the country’s college students, are a key source of vocational education and a launching pad for students headed off to four-year institutions—and according to this report from the National Center on Education and the Economy, they are in crisis. A group of English language arts and math experts examined course materials (including syllabi, textbooks, graded exams, and assignments) in seven randomly selected community colleges in seven states. The authors found that most programs demand little to no use of math—and when they do, the math is almost exclusively at a middle school level. This finding flies in the face of the common reckoning that Algebra 2 is a prerequisite for success in college and career. They also find that instructors in applied math programs frequently devise their own materials, since students are so often not taught in elementary or secondary schools the specific skills needed to succeed in those courses. Further, math tests mainly focused on mastery of facts and procedures, rather than applying concepts and thinking mathematically. The ELA findings were equally grim: While the reading complexity of texts used in introductory courses hovers around the eleventh- and twelfth-grade level, these courses have high failure rates, suggesting that these texts are still too complex. What’s more, the instructors make little use of the texts verbatim, opting instead to use videos, outlines, and PowerPoint presentations to convey the critical points of the texts. Students are asked to do very little writing; and when...

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The Reynoldsburg City School District, just east of Columbus, is far down the “portfolio management” path – further than probably any suburban school district of its size. This feature article discusses portfolio management and takes readers behind the scenes in Reynoldsburg.

Introduction

One of the most exciting developments in American education during the last decade has been the reconceptualization of school districts and how they should be organized and managed. Neerav Kingsland, CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, describes this as a movement of “relinquishers.”¹ Relinquishers, according to Kingsland, are superintendents who use their authority to transfer power away from the central office to individual schools – and, most important, to their principals and teachers.

Education researchers Paul Hill, Christine Campbell, and Betheny Gross at the Center on Reinventing Public Education in Seattle have written for more than a decade about “portfolio school districts.” Like Kingsland’s relinquishers, portfolio school district leaders see their role not as running the schools, but rather as creating the conditions for a “tight-loose” system of school management – “tight” as to results, but “loose” with regard to operations. Superintendents are no longer owner-operators of schools, but rather “quality control agents” for portfolios of different types of schools in their districts.

Portfolio school district managers, according to Hill and his colleagues, think like savvy financial managers who build a diverse portfolio to ensure overall financial success even if parts of the portfolio underperform. A successful portfolio manager:

…avoids betting everything on one investment, knowing that some holdings will perform much better than expected and some much worse. This manager is agnostic as to which companies are represented but knows that diversity is key...
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The quality of teacher professional development (PD) can be described as abysmal at worst and dubious at best. Linda Darling-Hammond remarks that “American teachers say that much of the professional development available to them is not useful.” Stephen Sawchuk of Education Week writes that “perhaps no other aspect of the teacher-quality system in the United States suffers from an identity crisis as severe as that of professional development.”

The research bears out the wary comments above. Two recent PD studies, conducted by the American Institutes for Research (AIR), found no effect in student achievement when teachers participate in PD. The first, a middle school math study, administered two years of PD to 92 teachers, and found no effect on teachers’ knowledge or student achievement. The second, an elementary reading study, administered PD to 270 teachers for one year. The study found no effect on student achievement, either at the end of the year-long PD program or the year after.

So, PD is ineffective. What, then, of the cost?

The cost of PD has ballooned in the past two decades, such that today, Ohio spends upwards of $400 million per year on PD. The chart below shows the average per-pupil PD expenditure for Ohio’s traditional public schools—the black dashed line—and the average expenditures for three groups of schools. (There’s considerable variation in districts’ PD expenditures—major urban districts spend the most; rural districts the least).[1] To get a taste of the variation, I display three groups:...

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