Curriculum & Instruction

For over a year, I’ve been encouraging Common Core advocates to stop endlessly re-litigating the standards and instead to focus on getting implementation right. Taking my own advice last week, I traveled to Reno to see first-hand the work of the Core Task Project, the initiative driving implementation of the standards in Washoe County, Nevada.

It was a refreshing and invigorating visit. Common Core is not without controversy anywhere. But Reno seems to have largely sidestepped some of the more heated battles. Washoe County’s implementation has become something of a national model—being one of four case studies highlighted in Fordham’s report Common Core in the Districts, published in February 2014.

Reno’s relative peace can be explained, I think, by several factors. First and foremost, under the leadership of curriculum and instruction specialist Aaron Grossman, implementation has focused on the right things—including building a coherent body of knowledge across and within grades (one of the broad “instructional shifts,” along with reading for evidence and a greater focus on complex and nonfiction text)—that are easy to rally around and hard to dismiss as unimportant.

But more importantly,...

In many school districts, classroom observations make up as much as 75 percent of teachers’ evaluation scores, according to a new study published in Education Next. And these scores predict a teacher’s ability to raise student test scores the following year, as measured by value-added models. With that in mind, analysts did a deep dive into the observation practices of four school districts. They found that score stability and the quality of the information gathered improved as the number of individual observations increased, and that evaluations by trained, independent, outside evaluators (instead of principals) were more predictive of the following year’s value-added gains. The report recommends that districts observe teachers at least two or three times annually, using an outsider at least once. Moreover, the study draws attention to the latent bias against teachers with lower-achieving students or who teach in struggling schools. Although value-added models are careful to control for students’ backgrounds and achievement levels, there’s often no such adjustment for classroom observations. (Simply put, it can be much harder to teach a great lesson when the kids are below grade level or unruly.) Unchecked, this can push teachers to avoid these roles, widening the achievement gap. The authors...

In The Teacher Wars, reporter Dana Goldstein offers a stirring account of the 175-year history of the public school teaching profession. The book, which ought to be required reading for education reformers and status-quo defenders alike, notes some obvious but oft-overlooked realities. Namely, we need a lot of teachers, and men and women of ordinary abilities will have to fill these jobs. Goldstein points out that even if every graduate of Ivy League institutions went into teaching, there would still be a significant staffing shortfall. Most striking are the familiar themes that recur throughout the history of teaching. (Indeed the conversations in 2014 aren’t that different from the ones in 1924.) First, the demands and goals placed on teachers and education have always been nearly impossible to meet—such as the mandates to integrate races or to end poverty. Second, teacher prep has always been mediocre. Third, political and social tensions in the rest of the country, not surprisingly, infiltrate the teaching profession. Goldstein calls teaching “the most controversial profession in America.” And she endorses both misguided and useful reforms: Dramatically reduce the stakes attached to standardized tests (misguided) and end outdated union protections (useful). In all, Goldstein, with a self-described...

photo credit: roberthuffstutter via photopin cc

Much of the criticism recently leveled at the College Board’s new framework for its Advanced Placement United States history course and exam is hysterical and undeserved. There’s also reason to suspect that some of the harshest critics may be motivated at least in part by the riches they have reaped by prepping high school kids for the old version of the test.

That’s not to say the new framework has no flaws. Both Rick Hess and Jeremy Stern have responsibly pointed them out. But the College Board has agreed to undertake revisions. And the sample exam they recently released is pretty good. Among its short questions, I spotted a few that were poorly worded and one that I judged unfair to Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy, but the overwhelming majority looked fine and the medium- and long-answer questions are plenty challenging, well-conceived, and unlikely to be answered successfully without a fair command of the essentials of American history.

But AP framework builders are caught between a rock and a hard place. The fundamental concept of Advanced Placement,...

Hoping to gather lessons from recent teacher-evaluation reforms, a new report by Bellwether Education Partners analyzes four years of teacher-evaluation data from seventeen states and D.C. It is more a policy analysis than an empirical study. Keeping that in mind, these are the four key findings: First, states have largely moved away from binary ratings of teachers to four- and five-tier ratings. Second, states are using more extensive protocols for teacher observations, like the Charlotte Danielson framework that provides more detailed, formative feedback. Third, overall, districts are not factoring student growth into evaluation ratings. Many states vaguely mandated the inclusion of value-added models, but didn’t specify how or when districts should use growth in teacher evaluations. Further, some states allow district administrators to change certain teachers’ growth ratings from the state, causing very uneven implementation. In Delaware, for example, 12 percent of teachers statewide in 2012–13 were deemed “unsatisfactory” but eligible for an upgrade to a higher “satisfactory” label; the percentage of teachers subsequently receiving such an upgrade ranged widely from 32 to 90 percent across districts. Fourth, districts in the seventeen states studied generally don’t use evaluation results to inform staffing decisions. Only a tiny percentage of teachers are...

We seemed to have welcomed good manners back to the Common Core debate. That doesn’t mean we’ve seen more advocacy either on behalf of the standards or knocking them, only that the tenor appears to have changed for the better. At least for the time being, detractors are no longer paranoid Neanderthals, and supporters have ceased to be communists on the federal or Gates Foundation dole.

Whether this détente will prove to be ephemeral or lasting is anyone’s guess, but some credit should go to one CCSS advocate and one foe. In a Washington Times op-ed, Fordham’s Mike Petrilli and Neal McCluskey of Cato, hoping to tamp down the “raucous debate,” sought to re-ground the conversation in a number of facts.

Their piece argues, among other things, that both sides have good intentions; that much Common Core activity began before President Obama was elected, that much of that activity has been led by non-government bodies; and that federal policy—stretching from 1994 to this administration’s Race to the Top and ESEA waivers—has played a meaningful role in the standards’ adoption and implementation.

There are other clear signs of restraint. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee recently told a crowd that the...

In NRO today, Rick Hess explores “five half-truths” that he says supporters of the Common Core like to propagate. These spurred five questions of my own:

  1. You dispute that the Common Core standards are “evidenced based” because “what the Common Core’s authors did falls well short of what ‘evidence-based’ typically means.” By your definition, would any set of standards be considered evidence-based? Such as those previously in place in the states? Or any set of education standards one might develop in the future? (Or, for that matter, in myriad other fields?) If no, then what’s your point? Do you think we should abandon standards-based reform?
  2. Relatedly, would you consider elements of the Common Core to be evidence-based? Such as their focus on scientifically-based reading instruction in the early grades, or the demand for fluency in arithmetic, or the admonition to delay calculator use? Would you disagree that those decisions were based on evidence? Do you think states should go back to standards that don’t include these evidence-based expectations?
  3. You complain that the Common Core standards don’t include calculus. Do you think states should expect all students to learn calculus? If not, where would you set the bar for “college and
  4. ...

photo credit: Night Owl City via photopin cc

Many of our recent ed-reforms—e.g. Teach for America, alternative certification, the Hamilton Project, and various “new teacher” projects—implicitly subscribe to the idea that great teachers are born, not made. Ed schools, too, largely consider “training” teachers to be beneath their dignity. Hence the path to instructional excellence is to welcome all sorts of smart people into the classroom via all sorts of entry paths, then weed out those who don’t cut it.

In her new book, Building a Better Teacher, veteran education journalist Elizabeth Green sets out to dismantle this notion.

If she’s right and the reformers are wrong it would be good news, for then we could devise purposeful strategies for improving classroom instruction at scale—and not subject kids to a trial-and-error process of teacher selection. This possibility makes Building a Better Teacher an important book. Alas, Green offers scant evidence to support the made-not-born thesis. Indeed, her biggest proof point—a lengthy examination of the teaching techniques pioneered by a small cadre of math teachers in Michigan—comes perilously close to undermining the case she sets out to build....

Hitting pause on testing, vouchers, and union solidarity

Michelle and Robert applaud Secretary Duncan’s reasonableness, question a North Carolina trial judge (but have a solution), and disparage union agency fees. Amber tells us how classroom peers affect the achievement of students with special needs.

Amber's Research Minute

Peer Effects in Early Childhood Education: Testing the Assumptions of Special-Education Inclusion,” by Laura M. Justice, et al., Psychological Science (2014): 1-8


Michelle G:               Hello. This is your host Michelle Gininger of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute here at the Education Gadfly Show and online at Now please join me in welcoming my co-host the Seth Meyers of education reform, Robert Pondiscio.

Robert P:                    I'm not even sure what that means and hello Michelle.

Michelle G:               Hello. I guess you unlike everyone else in America with not watching the Emmy's.

Robert P:                    No, no, I have a 16 year old daughter so of course my daughter.

Michelle G:               You know more about this than anyone.

Robert P:                    I describe this as the cultural equivalent of secondhand smoke, you're close it. You absorb some of it unintentionally but does that mean I'm focusing on it, no. Were you happy with who won?

Michelle G:               I've heard some of these reviews. I thought it was funny. I thought Seth Meyers did a pretty good job. There are some jokes that I laughed. I felt ...

Robert P:                    Okay. He's a funny guy.

Michelle G:               I felt like a real American. Usually I don't want all the award shows are doing any of that but I thought I was participating in what America does. Maybe I'll watch a football game this season.

Robert P:                    All I know is what I heard in the background blah, blah, blah, Game of Thrones, blah, blah, blah, Game of Thrones, blah, blah, blah, Game of Thrones.

Michelle G:               Isn't that all you need to know about TV?

Robert P:                    Pretty much.

Michelle G:               All right, with that we're going to play part in the Gadfly with our Com. Dev. intern Ellen. Ellen, take it away.

Ellen Alpaugh:          Last week Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared that states with NCLB waivers could wait until the 2015 - 2016 school year to tie test scores to teacher evaluations. Is this just one year delay and nothing more or does this say something bigger about the testing over the long run?

Michelle G:               Both. Robert, you want to elaborate.

Robert P:                    Lordy, this is such a complicated question and no I don't think it goes away. I think it ... This delays it but I think a hard rain is going to fall on this. There was some polling data out last week that we talked about. A PDK poll on education next poll and you should never I suppose paint with two broader brush based on any particular finding. Look, let's be honest, testing is not popular. I was a teacher for several years and you can't blind yourself to the deleterious impact that testing is having on our classrooms.

                                    Curriculum narrowing, anxiety, lots of push back against testing. What's interesting when you look at the polling numbers is that testing itself is not necessarily unpopular. Something that jumped out to me ... At me in the ed next poll is that things like SAT testing, AP testing are really popular or as popular as a test is going to be. It's when you start looking at these accountability test in grade three through eight under whether there's no child left behind or common core.

                                    The people have lost track of why we do this. You have this kind of conundrum which is the ed reform movement is still largely popular. People like things like charter schools and choice and even vouchers but testing is really unpopular right now. Testing you could or it has created the momentum for these things at the same time it's almost threatening to turn on itself. Arne Duncan thanks for giving us a year off, buy us some time for common core and all these other good things but at some point we're going to have to decide what is exactly the role of testing in K-12 education and in ed reform.

Michelle G:               I completely agree. Yes, testing is no fun, it's awful, it's an imperfect measure, all of those things but if you look at what we support in education or what the public supports in education. A lot of it is because we have evidence that it work and we have evidence that it works because of test. Voucher programs even some school choice supporters don't like the independent evaluations that we've had on the DCPS program and the program in Milwaukee. Yet, those same folks are using those testing results to show that school choice work. You can see this across the issues. Why do we like charter schools? Probably because we're seeing some data that they are educating students better.

Robert P:                    When you say data, you mean?

Michelle G:               Results from test.

Robert P:                    There you go.

Michelle G:               It's sort of like dieting. It's not fun, no one likes eating rice cakes and celery and exercising but if you want to stay slim and fit you got to these things.

Robert P:                    Sure.

Michelle G:               It's just the way it is. It's not fun thing but guess what, it's life.

Robert P:                    Yeah, and I wrote a piece about this early this week and I describe this using Jefferson's quote from 1820's about slavery. Our relationship with testing is like holding a tiger or a wolf by the ears, you don't much like it but you can't let go.

Michelle G:               A lot of people on Twitter were liking your analogy there, bravo on that.

Robert P:                    Bravo Mr. Jefferson.

Michelle G:               All right, Ellen.

Robert P:                    A steal from the best.

Michelle G:               Question number two.

Ellen Alpaugh:          On Thursday a North Carolina trial court judge held unconstitutional a state voucher law that allowed public money to pay tuition at private and religious school. How big of blow is this for voucher proponents and how should they respond?

Michelle G:               All right, I'll say that this is a moderate blow to voucher proponents but a big blow to families in North Carolina.

Robert P:                    Especially when they're starting school and they got to write a tuition check.

Michelle G:               Yes, just over ... Almost 2,000 scholarships have been issued for this program and private schools started this week for a lot of student in North Carolina. That just puts a lot of upheaval in many families lives. That's what the first issue but the second is this is a program that was means tested. Families qualified if they were at or below 133% of the poverty level and according to the Alliance for School Choice which I worked for, full disclosure there.

                                    They hit seven of the eight accountability measures for voucher programs. It's very, very, very high on the accountability spectrum. In all intent and purposes this was a great program. Why it was ruled unconstitutional? I'm not a lawyer. The North Carolina does not have a blind amendment but this is a blow to families. I think they'll go back at it and they'll try to pass the program in the slightly different way. Perhaps changing the funding mechanism or whatever is needed but it's just a longer wait time.

Robert P:                    Sure. I'm reading for the decision here and it says that, "General assembly fails that children of North Carolina when they're sent with public tax payer money to private schools that have no legal obligation to teach them anything. I guess you could argue that but I'm not sure that's a credible argument. Look as Brandon Wright our colleague in Legal Expert says, "If that's the test, well then you just need to go back to the drawing board. Pass a law that says that private schools will give out the accountability measures, the test, etcetera and then problem solved.

Michelle G:               Yeah, and I think that proponent should have seen this coming. I looked back there's a great study that the Institute of Justice put out many years ago that I still go back to which looks at the ... State Constitutions in all 50 states and says whether school choice programs, whether vouchers or scholarship, text credit programs would be constitutional and it says yes, no depending on the program. For North Carolina it did say vouchers and scholarship text credit programs were constitutional but it did say that if a bill was to be ... Law was to be passed it should not draw from the public school funding stream which is basically what they did. No surprise in the long run.

Robert P:                    Of course there'll be an appeal.

Michelle G:               It's America, there you go. Ellen, question number three.

Ellen Alpaugh:          New York City's United Federation of Teachers supported a Saturday march against police brutality. Pitting one city union against another and angering many teacher union members. Teachers in NYC can choose not to be a member and avoid dues but all teachers still have to pay agency fees. What does such union activity say about these mandatory contributions?

Michelle G:               Mr. New Yorker?

Robert P:                    Man, the contributions is not withstanding. This is such a good old fashion New York City style food fights. Some of the stuff that's coming out with the police just the outrage from that the UFT would take this on and that Michael Mulgrew would participate in this protest is just amazing. I heard one teacher say, "Would we want cops protesting in our schools over low test scores?" The head of the PBA said something, I got it right here in front of me, "How would Mulgrew like it if police officers with the activist who oppose his efforts to shield bad teachers and undermine effective charter schools?" This is quite ... The fur is flying here.

Michelle G:               Only in New York it seems.

Robert P:                    Sure but you have to wonder what was Mulgrew thinking. This is ... Look, you can't make light with this, this is serious incident somebody died but if you're deciding where to spend your political capital and your members capital capital. I'm not sure this was the wisest decision.

Michelle G:               I think this is what happens when you work outside of your very narrow issue. On one hand you're building a strong coalition on the other hand when you go outside of your one issue for us education or for the unions education you're going to get people who's ... Your own members here are going to say, "I don't quite agree with that," and that just what happens. I think it's a decision that you have to make and in this case it looks like it was a messy one.

Robert P:                    Yeah, and Mulgrew ... Push back by saying, "Look, we have a history as a union of getting involved in these kinds of issues. You invoked union, activism around the freedom riders many, many years ago. Sure you can understand the process that got him from A to B but still the police are institution in New York City and as many police officers have been saying, "Look, you know, our sons and daughters and wives and husbands are teachers." It just feels this was a little bit of a third rail that did not need to be touched.

Michelle G:               Couldn't agree more. That's all the time we have for Pardon the Gadfly and now it's time for Amber's Research Minute. Welcome to the show Amber.

Amber Northern:      Thank you, Michelle.

Michelle G:               You were on Fox and Friends this weekend weighing in on this very issue [UFT police brutality protest]. What do you have to say about?

Amber Northern:      I was. I start out with it's outrageous. It's outrageous and teachers know ... Teachers always know, "Well, some of our donations, some of our fees go to politics," but wow this was right in their face. I loved it. I was like, "You know what, they finally get it." They finally get it because this was ... The zebra was showing it stripes, we just went off on Fox. They call me the next day and said, "You want to do it again tomorrow." My families called me like, "You are riled up," I'm like, "I know, like it just got me," and I dug into the contributions.

                                    Because Doug and I write a report about teacher union strength what seem hasn't been that long but it's ... I think it was two years ago. Anyway, and then when Doug back in the contributions and year after year after year they we giving donations to Al Sharpton's National Action Network along with plan parenthood and a host of other liberal leaning causes. Teachers need to dial like, "Hey, this is where some of our money goes to, like it or not."

Robert P:                    My money, $35 a paycheck for five years. Never joined the union but they got my money.

Amber Northern:      I think they knew this intuitively but then it was just out there blatant. I thought it was good that it happened. I didn't know how it works, you don't get a lot of time to go into the new ones. I didn't even get to talk about ...

Michelle G:               You don't get ... I can go in TV to go into new ones, I'm shocked.

Amber Northern:      I was, "I didn't get to take the agency fees," and all that stuff but anyway it was fun.

Michelle G:               You got riled up and you got your pay across.

Amber Northern:      I got riled up and I then I have a friend of mine taped it because I hadn't watched. My whole face was contorting. I was mad, I was, "Wow. It was really ugly doing that segment," but that what happens when you're riled up but anyway ...

Robert P:                    She's riled up again right now.

Amber Northern:      Riled up about our new study this week. It is a new study out in psychological science that's called peer effects in early childhood education, kind of a boring title but this is interesting study. It examines the performance of preschoolers both those without and with disabilities and how they are impacted by their peers when they're in a mainstream classroom. This is actually according to the authors and I think they're right. This is the first study of peer effects an inclusive classroom that serves preschoolers with disability.

                                    We've got a lot of peer effect research but never on the preschool level and never with kids in the mainstream classrooms. Anyway, they study the language skills of 670 preschoolers average age of four in multiple school districts in a single mid western over the course of a year about half of the kids had high EP's. Three key findings, number one there was indeed evidence of peer effects in the classroom have shown by the strong relationship between kids spring language scores and the language skills of their peers. Definitely a strong relationship between the two.

                                    Number two, the impact of peer effects varied based on whether the child had a disability. Specifically peer effects were stronger for kids with disabilities than those without. Preschoolers in classroom of kids with high language skills tended to have better language scores than preschoolers in classes of kids with lower skills. The lowest skilled kids, if you got that, made the greatest gains. This is what we've seen in other studies.

Robert P:                    Yeah, no surprise there.

Amber Northern:      Kids at the bottom make the greater gains. Kids with disabilities are more influenced by their classrooms language skills than children without. Last bottom line, children with the highest skills were not adversely impacted by the lower performing kids whether they had disabilities or not which is what everybody is always searching for, right? Like, "What about the kids on the other end of the spectrum.?" The study was correlational, it's not causal.

                                    It was one year, it's not a trend study and they also ... The instrument they use which I was kind of dug in. It was a teacher report instrument ... It's a dibble or something.

Robert P:                    It's squishy.

Amber Northern:      Which you typically have to do with young kids you have to deal one on one measure but it wasn't really standardized in a way. A little bit of clumsy there but I think it was encouraging because it showed us once again that peer effects matter and they matter greatly when we mainstream these kids. Which it's not an argument for against mainstreaming but it's interesting stuff.

Robert P:                    Persuasive because the kids at the high end so to speak no adverse effect.

Amber Northern:      They were harmed, right. Why do I want help? They weren't harmed either. They still scored at the end of the year higher than ... Their post test was still higher than a pretest. It wasn't a bad thing.

Michelle G:               Is your recommendation more research?

Amber Northern:      Wow. In my case I won't do it. Anyway, it was a needed area to do research. I think it's a neat idea because they're really striving for balance. On this half the kids with IP's. It's not like you've go 90% of the kids with Ip's you know what I mean. They're really striving to get what set up optimal affect and impact on kids. Half and half seems to be interesting, seems to be a positive outcome. I don't know if they change the percentages whether we would have see the same thing.

Michelle G:               Exciting stuff.

Robert P:                    Is it my imagination or we seeing a lot more pure effects research lately?

Michelle G:               I feel I've been reading more. It's also one of my sort of ... What do we call that, sew boxes if that's the word again. I tend to pay more intention to it just because he's interested in it. He wrote a lot about it in his book. Yeah, I don't know saying more as maybe just we just cover it more.

Robert P:                    You're paying attention. Fair enough.

Michelle G:               Either way both a good thing I think. All right. Thank you, Amber. That's all the time we have for the Education Gadfly Show till next week.

Robert P:                    I'm Robert Pondiscio.

Michelle G:               I'm Michelle Gininger for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute signing off.

Most reformers know there’s no cure-all for American education. Nevertheless, in The Science and Success of Engelmann’s Direct Instruction, the authors argue that a panacea not only exists but has been around for half a century. The book is a collection of essays about different aspects of “Direct Instruction” (DI), a teaching method developed in the 1960s by Siegfried Engelmann, which holds that clear instruction and eliminating misconceptions can drastically improve and accelerate learning. Part I, “The Scientific Basis of Direct Instruction,” comprises four essays, including one by Engelmann himself about DI’s theory and development. The other three include a summation of studies examining its effectiveness, an explanation of why the results of supportive research have been ignored (it must be noted that a What Works Clearinghouse review found insufficient evidence to determine whether Direct Instruction was an effective method for teaching beginning reading), and a third-party perspective of Engelmann’s long career. The second part, “Translating the Science to Schools,” tackles the practicalities of application. There are essays about efficient DI implementation, how DI fosters good behavior, and possible futures of education with and without the teaching method. Although authors make a good case for Engelmann’s theory by showcasing the...