Curriculum & Instruction

The World Cup vs. Underwear Models

Amber and Michelle talk teacher tenure, selective high schools, and the stunning upset of Eric Cantor. Dara takes over the Research Minute with a study on whether vouchers "cherry pick" the best students.

Amber's Research Minute

Contexts Matter: Selection in Means-Tested School Voucher Programs,” by Cassandra M. D. Hart, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 26(2), June 2014: 186–206.

Lisa Hansel

My Brother’s Keeper, a new Obama-administration initiative focused on boys and young men of color, appears to be off to a strong start. The ninety-day report features six “universal milestones” that are the heart of the task force’s work and recommendations:

  1. Entering school ready to learn
  2. Reading at grade level by third grade
  3. Graduating from high school ready for college and career
  4. Completing postsecondary education or training
  5. Successfully entering the workforce
  6. Reducing violence and providing a second chance

I have one more to place on that list: learn from ACT and the Common Core standards. Specifically, recognize that meeting the six milestones will require a much greater emphasis on building knowledge and vocabulary in early childhood and the early grades.
Let’s start with ACT, which offers both grim data and doable recommendations, and then move to the Common Core standards, which—if properly understood—offer sound guidance.

Many of us think of ACT as just a testing company, but it has a research arm that mines ACT test-score data and the broader literature to figure out how to improve educational outcomes. Chrys Dougherty, ACT senior research scientist, has produced three must-read briefs showing just how difficult it is for youth who are...

Here’s a puzzler: Why are the Common Core math standards accused of fostering “fuzzy math” when their drafters and admirers insist that they emphasize basic math, reward precision, and demand fluency? Why are CC-aligned curricula causing confusion and frustration among parents, teachers, and students? Is this another instance of “maximum feasible misunderstanding,” as textbook publishers and educators misinterpret the standards in ways that undermine their intent (but perhaps match the interpreters’ predilections)?  Or are the Common Core standards themselves to blame?

My take is that the standards are in line with effective programs, such as Singapore Math, but textbook publishers and other curriculum providers are creating confusion with overly complex explanations, ill-written problems, and lessons that confuse pedagogy with content.

Many of the “fuzzy math” complaints seem to focus on materials that ask students to engage in multiple approaches when tackling arithmetic problems. But to understand whether the confusion stems from the standards or the curriculum, let’s start by recalling what the CCSS actually require.

1. The Common Core explicitly demand student mastery of the standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division for both whole numbers and decimals.

Any honest reading of the standards must recognize that in grades...

Now Look What You’ve Done

Mike and Michelle acknowledge that school board members, for better and sometimes worse, affect student outcomes in their districts. But they don’t have to accept the misleading headlines on Indiana’s standards debacle (a case study in the hazards of politicization if there ever was one), nor must they wholeheartedly back Arizona’s ESA program. Amber wonders if high-flyers maintain their altitude—and has déjà vu all over again.

Amber's Research Minute

The Icarus Syndrome: Why Do Some High Flyers Soar While Others Fall?” by Eric Parsons, Working Paper, July 2013.

Peter Cunningham

In a provocative piece in Slate recently, Fordham’s executive vice president Mike Petrilli asked why Euro-style tracking isn’t a better strategy for high-school students who are significantly below grade level. Here’s one response.

I do some work with a nonprofit organization in Chicago called Manufacturing Renaissance, which trains high-school students and ex-offenders for manufacturing jobs in the area. Austin Polytech Academy (APA) was founded in 2007 as a small high school to replace a larger underperforming school. Of the student body, 95 percent are low income, 13 percent are homeless, and 30 percent have diagnosed learning needs. The school’s graduation rate is 60 percent, and the average ACT score is just 14.5 on a scale of 36, well below the level deemed “college ready.” The students are precisely the ones who would be tracked toward career programs in a European-style education system.

APA is also surrounded by hundreds of small and medium-sized manufacturing companies desperately in need of trained workers to replace an aging workforce. By some estimates, there are 20,000 unfilled manufacturing jobs in the Chicago region alone and 600,000 nationwide.

To meet this need, APA began offering a career-education program that offers students work-ready credentials from...

Sean Lynch

Upon reading Michael J. Petrilli’s recent article, “Kid, I’m Sorry, but You’re Just Not College Material,” I was encouraged to see a major publication shining light on some of the many benefits that career and technical education (CTE) has to offer. Petrilli’s facts are absolutely correct: CTE programs open doors to new career-exploration opportunities, lower high-school dropout rates, and can engage at-risk students with interesting curriculum.

However, there is a key point that my colleagues at the Association for Career and Technical Education and I feel is important to emphasize in this discussion: CTE is a component of academically challenging, rigorous education for all students, be they high fliers or at risk. It’s important to balance our attention between acknowledging CTE’s benefits in engaging struggling students with their coursework and ensuring that every student has the knowledge and skills needed for success in both college and careers.

Students should work with their mentors at home and in school to identify their ideal career path and obtain the education they will need to succeed, regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds. School counselors play a crucial role here by building bridges between...

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...

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...

It’s an article of faith in the school-reform community that we should be striving to prepare all students for success in college—if not a four-year degree, then some other recognized and reputable post-secondary credential. The rationale is clear and generally compelling; as a recent Pew study reiterated, people who graduate from college earn significantly more than those who do not. Other research indicates that low-income students in particular benefit from college completion, becoming nearly three times more likely to make it into the middle class than their peers who earn some (or no) college credits. And it’s not just about money: College graduates are also healthier, more involved in their communities, and happier in their jobs.

Thus, in the reformers’ bible, the greatest sin is to look a student in the eye and say, “Kid, I’m sorry, but you’re just not college material.”

But what if such a cautionary sermon is exactly what some teenagers need? What if encouraging students to take a shot at the college track—despite very long odds of crossing its finish line—does them more harm than good? What if our own hyper-credentialed life experiences and ideologies are blinding us to alternative pathways to the middle class—including some that might be a lot more viable for a great many young people? What if we should be following the lead of countries like Germany and Singapore, where “tracking” isn’t a dirty word but a common-sense way to prepare teenagers for respected, well-paid work?

Here’s a stark fact: according to research by Georgetown’s Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl, less than 10 percent of poor children now graduate with a four-year college degree. Imagine, then, that all our reform efforts prove successful, from initiatives to bolster the prenatal health of disadvantaged babies and high-quality early-childhood experiences to dramatic improvements in K-12 education and serious interventions and supports at the college level. Push the pedal to the metal and assume that nothing crashes. Where do we get? Maybe in the course of a generation, we could double the proportion of poor children making it to a college diploma. Tripling it would be a staggering accomplishment. Anything approaching that would be an enormous achievement, unprecedented in the annals of social progress. Yet that would still leave two-thirds or more of low-income youngsters needing another path if they’re truly going to access the middle class.

Let’s see how this works from the perspective of a student. Imagine that you’re finishing ninth grade at a large, comprehensive urban high school. The year hasn’t gone very well; because you are reading and doing math at a sixth-grade level, much of your coursework is a struggle. Nor have you had much of an opportunity to develop the “non-cognitive skills” that would help you to remediate the situation. You are foundering, failing courses, and thinking about dropping out.

Though we should be working hard to improve elementary and middle schools so that you don’t reach this point, the fact remains that you have reached it. A rational system would acknowledge that, with just three years until graduation, the likelihood of you getting to a true “college-readiness” level by the end of twelfth grade is extremely low. Even if all the pieces come together in dramatic fashion—you get serious help with your basic skills, someone finds you a great mentor, your motivation for hitting the books increases significantly—you probably aren’t going to make it. You need another pathway, one with significantly greater chances of success and a real payoff at the end, a job that will allow you to be self-sufficient. You need high-quality career and technical education, ideally the kind that combines rigorous coursework with a real-world apprenticeship and maybe even a paycheck.

To be sure, your long-term earnings will probably be lower than if you squeak out a college degree. But that’s a false choice, because you’re almost surely not going to get that college degree anyway. The decision is whether to follow the college route to almost certain failure or to follow another route to significant success.

But our system isn’t rational, and it doesn’t like to acknowledge long odds. Perhaps it used to, but this sort of realism was judged to be deterministic, racist, and classist. And for sure, when judgments were made on the basis of ZIP code or skin color, the old system was exactly that. Those high school “tracks” were immutable, and those who wound up in “voc-ed” (or, at least as bad, the “general” track) were those for whom secondary schooling, in society’s eyes, was mostly a custodial function.

But making sure there are real options for our young people—options that include high-quality career and technical education—is an altogether different proposition. We shouldn’t force anyone into that route, but we also shouldn’t guilt kids with low odds of college success—regardless of their race or class—to keep trudging through academic coursework as teens. Yet it appears that we are doing just that; according to Kate Blosveren Kreamer of the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education, only 20 percent of high school students “concentrate” in career and technical education, even though that’s a better bet for many more of them. Then, even when students graduate high school with seventh-grade skills, we encourage them to enroll in college, starting with several semesters of “developmental” education.

This might be the greatest crime. How do low-income students who start community college in remedial courses fare? According to the college-access advocacy group Complete College America, less than 10 percent of them complete a two-year degree within three years. Most won’t ever get past their remedial courses. Almost certain failure.

College-access advocates look at those numbers and want to double down on reform, seeking to boost the quality of remedial education or skip it entirely, encourage unprepared students to enroll directly in credit-bearing courses, and offer heavy doses of student support. All are worth trying for those at the margin. But few people are willing to admit that perhaps college just isn’t a good bet for people with seventh-grade reading and math skills at the end of high school—whether those young people are rich or poor, black or white or Latino.

Unfortunately, federal education policy encourages schools and students to ignore the long odds of college success. Pell Grants, for instance, can be used for remedial education; institutions are more than happy to take the money, even if they are terrible at remediating student deficits, which is why I’ve proposed making remedial education ineligible for Pell financing. On the other hand, Pell Grants can only be used for vocational education that takes place through an accredited college or university; job-based training, and most apprenticeships, do not qualify. That should change.

I have no desire to punish students or deprive them of opportunity. Quite the contrary. My aim is to stop pretending that high-school or college students with very low basic skills have a real shot of earning a college degree—so that they might follow an alternative path that will lead to success. A college graduate will generally out-earn a high-school graduate, to be sure. But a worker with technical skills will out-earn a high-school or college dropout with no such skills. That’s the true choice facing many students.

Furthermore, for kids facing the toughest challenges of poverty, it makes sense to think about opportunity and mobility developing over multiple generations. College might catapult prepared low-income kids into the middle class in one fell swoop, but using high-quality career and technical education to give low-income youngsters who are not ready for college a foothold on the ladder to success is a victory as well. If they can escape poverty and all the social ills that come with it, their children have a significantly better shot at the college path. After all, that’s how upward mobility in America has generally worked: not in one bounce but slowly and surely over decades.

Happily, this sort of common sense is starting to re-enter the conversation (thanks, in part, to the persistence of the folks at Harvard’s Pathways to Prosperity initiative, who called in 2011 for a broader approach to education reform, one that includes high-quality career and technical education). In a very important recent Politico piece, Stephanie Simon shows how lawmakers, especially in red states, are starting to worry that the “college-for-all” ideology is doing material harm to students. Asking all students to pass Algebra II makes a ton of sense if you expect all of them to go to college. But when you are willing to acknowledge that that’s a fool’s errand, you start to see such mandates as barriers to opportunity—the opportunity to pursue career and technical programs that are likely to produce better long-term outcomes for young people.

It’s particularly urgent that those of us who support the Common Core be willing to speak honestly about these issues. If the new Common Core assessments set the high-school graduation bar at true college readiness—meaning students are on track to take credit-bearing courses from day one—the country is likely to learn that scarcely one-third of all students, and many fewer low-income students, are at that level now. Even Massachusetts, our shining star, gets just half its young people to that level. By all means, we should do everything we can to boost those numbers, starting as early as possible, including making common-sense reforms such as reintroducing serious academic content to the elementary- and middle-school curriculum and replicating “no-excuses” charter schools like KIPP.

At the same time, however, rather than pretend that we’re going to get “all students” to “climb the mountain to college,” we should build a system that helps many students find another road to the middle class—a path that starts with a better prekindergarten-through-eighth-grade education and then develops strong technical and interpersonal skills in high school and at community colleges. This is an honorable path, and one that’s much sturdier than the rickety bridges to failure that we’ve got now.

This article first appeared in a slightly different form on Slate.

As followers of the Common Core debate know all too well, when it comes to the veracity of publishers’ claims of “Common Core alignment,” the most we supporters have been able to offer in the way of advice is: “buyer beware.” You need only know that publishers slapped “Common Core Aligned!” stickers on previously published materials—almost before the standards themselves were finalized and definitely before any serious curriculum reviewing and rewriting could have been done—to realize that teachers were going to be faced with the unenviable task of wading through a morass of materials of varying degrees of quality and alignment in their attempt to find quality, well-aligned materials for their classrooms.

Because there is no agency tasked with trademark enforcement, any company can say its books and resources are Common Core aligned. And publishers seem determined to take advantage of this Wild West environment. Against this backdrop, someone needs to step in as sheriff—a role state departments of education are well suited to fill.

On March 5, the Louisiana Department of Education did just that with their release of a suite of tools aimed at supporting teachers as they align curriculum and instruction to the Common Core. Among those tools is a series of rubrics that leaders and teachers can use to evaluate ELA and math curricula, and tiered ratings of a number of the most popular and widely used CCSS-aligned English and math curricula.

While there are a number of other “alignment” tools teachers can use—including Achieve’s EQuIP rubric and the Tennessee state alignment tool—Louisiana is, I believe, the first state to review and provide summary judgments on the quality and alignment of curricula. State officials reviewed materials according to the appropriate rubric, provided detailed, annotated analyses of the resources, and rated each resource as Tier 1 (exemplifies quality), Tier 2 (approaching quality), or Tier 3 (not representing quality).

What’s perhaps most impressive is that state officials didn’t pull any punches. Some of the biggest names publishers—including McGraw Hill, Glencoe, and Pearson—were listed as Tier 3 resources.

This is a bold and important step forward and shows how state leaders can send powerful signals to the marketplace about what teachers and students in their states need to meet the demands of state standards.

That said, this work should be seen not as an end product but as an important first step. The rubrics and ratings, for instance, focus on curricular alignment rather than effectiveness. That is an appropriate starting point, but eventually teachers will need states to provide good information about curricular effectiveness in addition to standards alignment.

And in grades 3–12 ELA, the Louisiana rubric minimizes one of the most important shifts embedded in the CCSS ELA standards—an oversight that should be corrected if and when these resources are updated.


Despite a few shortcomings, discussed in greater detail below, the Louisiana Department of Education deserves praise for their efforts. Their curricular and CCSS-implementation guidance is emerging as a model that other states would be wise to follow. By both developing curricula and reviewing and rating externally created resources, Louisiana is providing educators with a range of options while leaving decisions over curriculum and instruction to local leaders and teachers. This is as it should be.

Most critically, the ELA rubrics clearly show that state officials understood critical ELA shifts and that publishers needed to demonstrate alignment to those shifts to earn top marks.

The rubric for grades 3–12 includes four “non-negotiable” criteria—all of which had to be met to earn a Tier 1 or Tier 2 rating:

  1. Text complexity: Materials had to fall within grade-level complexity bands, and texts needed to increase in complexity across grade bands.
  2. Text quality: The rubric requires that “Texts are of sufficient scope and quality to provide text-centered and integrated learning that is sequenced and scaffolded to advance students toward independent reading of grade level texts and build content knowledge (ELA, social studies, science and technical subjects, and the arts). The quality of texts is high—they support multiple readings for various purposes and exhibit exceptional craft and thought and/or provide useful information.”
  3. Foundational reading skills: “Materials provide instruction and diagnostic support in concepts of print, phonics, vocabulary, development, syntax, and fluency in a logical and transparent progression.”
  4. Text-dependent questions: “Text-dependent questions and tasks reflect the requirements of Reading Standard 1 by requiring use of textual evidence in support of meeting other grade-specific standards.”

These are important indicators of alignment and do clearly reflect the requirements of the Common Core literacy standards.


That said, there are at least two drawbacks to the Louisiana classroom support toolkit for ELA.

First, the Louisiana rubric judges the alignment of reviewed material to the Common Core but claims to provide information on the quality of the programs themselves. There is a critical difference, and judging the quality or effectiveness of a curriculum requires more than a subjective rubric—even a good one.

Second, the rubric gives only a brief head nod to the importance of building content and vocabulary to improving reading comprehension. Robert Pondiscio has argued that the Common Core literacy standards include the “57 most important words written in education reform. Ever.” Those are as follows:

By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.

This issue is important for a number of reasons, chiefly that one of the most significant lessons about reading instruction in the NCLB era is that we, perhaps unintentionally, focused elementary reading instruction on skills-heavy, content-light curricula that forced systematic content development in literature, history, science, and the arts to the take a back seat to instruction and practice of isolated reading skills.

In the Common Core era, it’s critical that we signal to educators and to publishers that CCSS alignment means not that we are focusing on different skills but rather that we are refocusing our attention on systematically building content knowledge through the grades.

There are some references to content in the ELA rubric—for instance, the requirement for “quality texts” asks that those texts help “build content knowledge.” But such references are insufficient. It would be better to include a separate “non-negotiable” for grades K–5 (or K–8) that specifically requires coherent text selection aimed at building content and vocabulary. (One wonders how many of the Tier 1 and 2 curriculum would remain if coherent content building were explicitly required under a separate criterion?)

Moving Forward

While Louisiana isn’t the first state to offer CCSS-aligned curriculum materials, or to develop rubrics that help educators wade through the morass of CCSS-aligned materials, they are the first to call out—clearly and unambiguously—publishers whose alignment claims do not match the reality of the material they offer. As the first into the breech, John White will no doubt get pushback from publishers whose bottom lines will suffer when word gets out that they have more work to do to meet the content and rigor demands of the Core. State leaders across the country would do well to share the work Louisiana has already done, to learn from it, and to build on it in the years and months to come.

The Common Core drama continues in Florida: after much coquetry, the Sunshine State has officially opted to abandon PARCC in favor of commissioning a new exam aligned to its new (Common Core-heavy) state standards. The contract went to American Institutes for Research (AIR), beating out overtures from the likes of ACT, Pearson, and McGraw-Hill. We’re all for a competitive assessment marketplace, but we’re also skeptical that anyone but PARCC and Smarter Balanced has had the time and resources to develop a truly Common Core-aligned test.

In an amendment to the state’s education budget, Wyoming became the first state to officially block adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards—ostensibly because the NGSS teach climate change. In our state-by-state analysis of the NGSS, we found that these new “national”  standards for science are not superior to enough states’ existing science standards to warrant full-throated support. However, they are certainly of higher quality than Wyoming’s existing science standards. The Cowboy State is shooting itself in the foot. (If they don’t like NGSS, they should Xerox California’s or D.C.’s science standards.)

2014 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning?Since 2000, the Brown Center has released an annual report taking on three important issues in education policy. In this thirteenth installment, author Tom Loveless presents analysis on the PISA-Shanghai controversy (in brief: by failing to take Shanghai’s Hukou laws into account, the test significantly overstates the city’s performance), Common Core implementation to date (Loveless finds that early-adopter states are showing bigger gains on NAEP, though we believe that it is far too early to draw conclusions), and homework in American schools (an update of a 2003 report on the same topic). The homework issue is particularly thorny, as anti-homework crusades—while in and out of the media spotlight—have maintained for the last decade that kids are being buried in piles of burdensome and ineffective homework. To discover if this is true, Loveless employs three methods. First, he looks at NAEP data from 1984–2012—specifically, at a survey question that asks nine-, thirteen-, and seventeen-year-olds how much time they spent on homework the day before. He found that the homework load has remained stable since 1984 (except among nine-year-olds, more of whom are doing some homework than were before) and that only a small percentage of students report more than two hours of homework per night (5–6 percent for age 9, 6–10 percent for age 13, and 10–13 percent for age 17). Second, Loveless looked at the Higher Education Research Institute’s annual survey of college freshmen, which has since 1986 queried students about how they spent their time in their final year of high school. The survey found that only 38.4 percent of students reported spending six or more hours per week on studying and homework, behind working for pay (40.9 percent), exercise or sports (53 percent), and socializing (66.2 percent). Third, he looked at the Met Life survey, which queried parents on their children’s homework loads in 1987 and 2007; he found that there was little change over the two-decade span in how parents perceived the quality and quantity of homework (the proportion giving poor ratings to either quantity or quality did not surpass 10 percent). In all, Loveless cautions that the “homework horror stories” in the press amount to nothing more than anecdotes that do not reflect the larger picture—and ought to be taken with a grain of salt.

SOURCE: Tom Loveless, 2014 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning? (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, March 2014).

Mike and Brickman consider whether “college for all” is the right goal, whether a competitive assessment marketplace will be good for Common Core implementation in the long run, and whether Wyoming is better off without the Next Generation Science Standards. Amber drops a line about online learning.

Join us for this important, nonpartisan event about digital learning and where it will take education in Ohio -- and the nation -- in the years to come. National and state-based education experts and policymakers will debate and discuss digital learning in the context of the Common Core academic standards initiatives, teacher evaluations and school accountability, governance challenges and opportunities, and school funding and spending.

Fordham goes mad for March Madness

Mike and Brickman consider whether “college for all” is the right goal, whether a competitive assessment marketplace will be good for Common Core implementation in the long run, and whether Wyoming is better off without the Next Generation Science Standards. Amber drops a line about online learning.

Amber's Research Minute

"The Relative Benefits of Live versus Online Delivery: Evidence from Virtual Algebra I in North Carolina," by Jennifer Heissel, Working Paper, Association for Education Finance and Policy. (Please email us for the link: