Curriculum & Instruction

Clearing the air

Dara and Daniela fume over the RNC’s Common Core action, consider the implications of Alabama’s move to the ACT, and clear the air over Florida’s teacher-evaluation mess. Amber probes Caroline Hoxby’s plan to close the college-admissions information gap facing high-achieving, low-income youngsters.

Amber's Research Minute

Expanding College Opportunities for High-Achieving, Low Income Students by Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Turner (Stanford, CA: Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, 2013).

Count us as among those surprised and alarmed by the Republican National Committee’s ill-considered decision to adopt a resolution decrying the Common Core standards as a “nationwide straitjacket on academic freedom and achievement.” There’s little doubt that this action will bestow a degree of legitimacy upon the anti-standards coalition—and put pressure on Republican governors and legislators to fall in line.

Which is something approaching tragedy. It was Republicans, even conservatives, who first blazed the trail toward higher standards and rigorous accountability in education—the likes of Ronald Reagan, Bill Bennett, Lamar Alexander, and Jeb Bush. To cede this ground to Democrats is an enormous policy and political mistake.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: The Common Core standards are worth supporting because they’re educationally solid. They are rigorous, they are traditional—one might even say they are “conservative.” They expect students to know their math facts, to read the nation’s founding documents, and to evaluate evidence and come to independent judgments. In all of these ways, they are miles better than three-quarters of the state standards they replaced—standards that hardly deserved the name and that often pushed the left-wing drivel that Common Core haters say they abhor.

No, they’re not perfect. They can be undermined by curriculum directors who assign teeny-bopper romances, sports bios, and car-repair manuals instead of the good stuff. (So can every single set of state...


This prediction will puzzle, upset, and maybe infuriate a great many readers—and, of course, it could turn out to be wrong—but enough clues, tips, tidbits, and intuitions have converged in recent weeks that I feel obligated to make it:

Common Core assessment consortia to be replaced?
Will PARCC and Smarter Balanced be eclipsed by longer-established, fleeter-footed testing firms like the College Board and ACT?
Image by Benjamin Chun.

I expect that PARCC and Smarter Balanced (the two federally subsidized consortia of states that are developing new assessments meant to be aligned with Common Core standards) will fade away, eclipsed and supplanted by long-established yet fleet-footed testing firms that already possess the infrastructure, relationships, and durability that give them huge advantages in the competition for state and district business.

In particular, I predict (as does Andy Smarick) that the new ACT-Aspire assessment system, which is supposed to be ready for use in 2014 (a full year earlier than either of the consortium products) and which some states are considering as their new assessment vehicle, will be joined by kindred products to be developed and marketed by the College Board. And the two of them will dominate the market for new Common Core assessments.

One straw in the wind: Alabama’s announcement last week that...


GadflyThe National Education Association is suing Florida for its teacher-evaluation policy; specifically, the fact that the Sunshine State engages in the shady practice of evaluating teachers based on students or subjects that they don’t teach. Florida state superintendent Tony Bennett noted that there is currently a law under consideration that would call for “evaluating teachers only on the students and subjects they teach”; this should certainly pass.

Tennessee governor Bill Haslam, for the second time in as many years, killed his own voucher proposal when it became clear that his state’s legislators were interested in taking it to scale. The Wall Street Journal, in a scathing rebuke, accused Haslam of cynically trying to “appease unions while claiming to support school choice.” That’s about right—and as foolish a move by a Republican official to throttle choice as is the RNC’s assault on standards.

On Tuesday, New York students completed their first day of new Common Core–aligned tests, after controversy over whether they had been taught the necessary content (a legitimate beef) and a blitz of advertisements from the NYC education department forewarning parents about lower test scores to come. That last action made sense; too bad the ads are misleading about the Common Core’s intent.

After the GED was redesigned to reflect the Common Core standards, it had double the passing points (one to...


I think there’s now a one in three chance that we’ll look back in a year and say that this story was the beginning of the end of the Common Core testing consortia.

PARCC and Smarter Balanced were designed to serve as the cornerstone of the new standards: They were to ensure that the new standards were actually taught, that we collectively set the expectations bar at college- and career-readiness, that states lost the incentive to lower their cut scores, and so on.

Alabama’s decision to drop out of both consortia and choose a battery of ACT exams is enormous. This is the “Plan B” that many states—concerned about the reliability and cost of the consortia-developed tests—have been looking for. It enables a state to remain committed to tough standards and rigorous assessments without putting all of their eggs in the basket of a fragile multi-state entity.

From this point forward, more and more states may reason that ACT is likelier to have its tests ready to go come spring 2015 at a price that is certain and without all of the potential problems inherent in a multi-state procurement-practice-policy initiative.

Translation: There’s a nontrivial chance that we’re about to see an exodus from PARCC and SB. If that happens, the implications will be profound and the questions numerous.

How many and which states remain? Will the consortia be financially sustainable? Will we be able to compare state results? Do states also start to fragment when it comes to...


During construction of the continental railroads in the 1860s, workers dug from both ends to tunnel through the Rocky Mountains. When they met in the middle, the tunnel was finished and the trains could roll. This is how America became a great continental power. This image of the tunnel bored from two directions is an apt metaphor for what needs to happen with Governor Kasich’s biennial budget proposal (House Bill 59) and the very different plan emerging from the Ohio House this week.

Governor Kasich’s “Achievement Everywhere” plan has three main things going for it. First, it actually tries to target children and the schools they actually attend as the loci of public funding, as opposed to just spreading money across school districts. Traditionally, school funding has been about simply spreading the money around so far more districts feel like winners than losers. The House version does this by reducing the number of districts receiving no new money from nearly 400 to 175. But in doing so the House version loses some of the worthy Kasich reforms. 

Specifically, Kasich’s plan proposed reducing one-size fits all spending restrictions by removing a number of minimum operating standards.  This would free up educators but the House puts those standards back in place. They mandate practices like assignment of personnel and the use of specific instructional materials (especially odd considering the speed at which blended learning is spreading across the state). The House version also requires fixed staffing ratios...


This is Jurassic Park

Mike and Dara go beyond the Triassic in this week’s podcast, discussing a pre-K tax on tobacco, the new NGSS, and Texas’s two-step on graduation standards. Amber gets competitive with a discussion of school choice in Milwaukee.

Amber's Research Minute

Principals’ perceptions of competition for students in Milwaukee schools,” by Susanna Loeb and Matthew Kasman, Education Finance and Policy 8 (1): 43-73

It was one thing—and a legitimate thing—for Texas to opt out of the new Common Core academic standards for English language arts and math that forty-five other states have embraced. Although the rigorous and generally admirable Common Core is the work of states themselves, Governor Perry and then-commissioner Robert Scott viewed it as federally inspired mischief and an assault on the educational sovereignty of the Republic of Texas. They chose instead to adhere to the Lone Star State’s own expectations for what schools must teach and children should learn.

If the Texas Senate passes the ill-conceived rollback measure that cleared the House last week, it may return the Lone Star State to a pre-reform era of educational mediocrity.
Image by DaveWilsonPhotography.

Well and good—because at the time of those decisions (and still today), Texas could boast strong standards in English language arts; so-so ones in math; solid assessments; and a forceful, results-based accountability system, including the tough part that state after state (including top-scoring Massachusetts) has shown to be key to actual achievement gains: requiring kids to pass the tests and meet the standards in order to graduate.

Then and now, Texas has a “default” high school curriculum designed to prepare students for college-level work and modern careers—the kind with futures—as well as a comprehensive set of end-of-course...


The “Next Generation Science Standards” are now out for inspection—though some remaining bits won't appear until later in the month—and Fordham's expert science team has just begun its review. In a few weeks, we'll have an appraisal. Later in the spring, we expect to produce some comparisons with individual states' present standards.

It's no secret that many of those are mediocre or worse—sometimes far worse. But it's also no secret that a few states have outstanding science standards, so devising such isn't impossible.

States that are already grappling with the challenges of implementing and assessing the Common Core standards for English language arts and math will, of course, need to determine just how many unfamiliar foods they can swallow and digest at once. And it's already evident that the new science standards will elicit some degree of controversy, not least because some topics covered therein are inherently contentious, beginning with evolution and climate change. (Climate change "activists" are already declaring that their side has "won" in the science standards.)

How science should be taught and learned is also certain to be tussled over. The NGSS emphasizes “doing” it. We'll await our reviewers' judgment of whether these new standards also pay sufficient attention to “knowing” it.

RELATED ARTICLE: Justin Gillis, “New Guidelines Call for Broad Changes in Science Education,” New York Times, April 9, 2013....


GadflyThe Obama administration’s budget proposal was late to the party and is mostly a big yawn—at least when it comes to K–12 education. The big-ticket items, such as they are: level-funding for Title I and IDEA; new efforts to promote STEM education and tweak American high schools; and a Race to the Top for higher education. The real firepower is reserved for the President’s well-designed Pre-K plan, which would be the biggest federal expansion into early childhood since the creation of Head Start, to be financed by a huge increase in cigarette taxes. Were it not for Congressional realities, it might even be something to get excited about.

After changing part of the exam it uses to determine which four-year-olds are eligible for the coveted gifted-and-talented slots in its public schools, New York City has (very slightly) reduced the number of children who qualify. Yet most of the high scorers still came from the city’s richer areas—a problem, given that they altered the test precisely in order to combat the influence of income-related factors, such as test-prep programs. And (at the risk of sounding like a broken record) there still aren’t enough suitable options for gifted children.

Researchers from Yale, MIT, USC, and Stanford, with a little pocket change (i.e., a $10 million grant) from the National Science Foundation, are experimentally placing...