Standards, Testing, & Accountability

The funny thing about eras is that it’s hard to know which one you are in until it is coming to an end. As the fighting among conservatives heats up over the Common Core, the era of standards-driven reform that has defined conservative education policy for the past three decades is brought into sharper relief.

But the approach that President Reagan and his secretary of education Bill Bennett helped set in motion in the 1980s is under increasing assault from a resurgent libertarian movement and the coopting of many of the most popular ideas by a reform-minded Democratic president and his own energetic secretary of education. Is 2014 the year the conservative push for curricular and instructional excellence comes to an end?

Those looking for answers would be wise to track the increasingly acerbic discussion over the Common Core State Standards. What began as a conversation about the quality, content, and rigor of the standards has evolved into an increasingly polarized political debate that is fracturing support for one of the most enduring conservative reforms.

Just last week, University of Arkansas professor and longtime conservative education-policy researcher Jay Greene admitted that his position on standards and accountability has changed. “Simply put,” Greene acknowledge, “I am no longer a supporter of top-down school accountability regimes.” (Though Greene also acknowledged that, “until we have expanded choice further, I see no practical alternative to continuing state testing for schools not subject to meaningful choice accountability.”)

This represents a remarkable shift for...

The Smack-Talk Edition

Kathleen and Mike talk Richard Sherman–level smack in this special video edition of the podcast. They tackle Core Knowledge, Rick Hess’s nasty-gram, and Florida’s Common Core two-step. Amber measures teacher-performance trajectories.

Amber's Research Minute

Teacher Performance Trajectories in High and Lower-Poverty Schools,” by Zeyu Xu, Umet Özek, and Michael Hansen, Working Paper 101 (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, American Institutes for Research, July 2013).

Our slim new book Knowledge at the Core: Don Hirsch, Core Knowledge, and the Future of the Common Core has three large aims. First, it pays tribute to three decades of scholarship and service to American education by E. D. (Don) Hirsch, Jr., author of Cultural Literacy (and three other prescient books on education reform) and founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation. Second, it restates the case for a sequential, content-rich curriculum for America’s elementary and middle schools. Third, it strives to chart a course for the future, a future in which many more schools embrace Hirsch’s Core Knowledge program—or...

Pop quiz! Which of the following statements is in the Common Core State Standards?

(a) Through extensive reading of stories, dramas, poems, and myths from diverse cultures and different time periods, students gain literary and cultural knowledge.

(b) 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.

(c) At a curricular or instructional level, texts—within and across grade levels—need to be selected around topics or themes that systematically develop...

While presenting his 2014–15 budget for New York State, Governor Andrew Cuomo outlined his education priorities, proposing (among other things) a $1.5 billion pre-Kindergarten expansion to be funded—without a tax increase (as per his repeated pledges to reduce taxes). That didn’t satisfy New York City’s new super-liberal mayor Bill de Blasio, who said “no dice”; he too wants to expand pre-school, but insists on doing so by raising taxes on the wealthy (as per his own campaign promise). It’s all about the kids, right?

In Texas, opening statements were made on Tuesday in the...

As the Common Core debate rages on in blogs and statehouses, educators are getting on with the business of putting these standards into practice. In these three issue briefs, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) offers direction to charter authorizers navigating the challenges posed by CCSS implementation. The first brief provides a simple introduction to CCSS and CCSS-aligned assessments, including a list of questions that authorizers can ask themselves to self-diagnose exactly how the Common Core will affect them and their schools. (For example: “How do my state’s implementation requirements apply to charter schools?” and “Does...

Does the poverty level of a school impact how much a teacher improves (or not) over time? Analysts at CALDER sought the answer by studying elementary-school math teachers (at the fourth- and fifth-grade levels) in self-contained classrooms in North Carolina and Florida over time (eleven years for North Carolina and eight for Florida). The bottom line: They found no systematic relationship between school-poverty rates and how teachers performed over time as measured by value-added scores. In both high-poverty schools (over 60 percent students receiving a free or reduced-price lunches) and lower-poverty schools (fewer than 60 percent), teacher performance improves fastest during...

Kathleen and Mike talk Richard Sherman–level smack in this special video edition of the podcast. They tackle Core Knowledge, Rick Hess’s nasty-gram, and Florida’s Common Core two-step. Amber measures teacher-performance trajectories.

Children cannot be truly literate without knowing about history, science, art, music, literature, civics, geography, and more. Indeed, they cannot satisfactorily comprehend what they read unless they possess the background knowledge that makes such comprehension possible. Yet most American primary schools have been marching in the opposite direction: treating reading only as a “skill” and pushing off history, science, art, and music “until later.”

This problem grows more serious with the advent of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts, which take for granted that children expected to meet those standards are being supplied with a content-rich curriculum. In far too many U.S. schools, however, that is simply not happening.

So what should we do?

Commit to implanting a sequential, content-rich curriculum in the country’s elementary and middle schools.

Learn about E. D. Hirsch in this short video that follows his career, how he came to develop the Core Knowledge curriculum, and his thoughts on the future of the Common Core. Featured in the video are prominent education reformers such as David Coleman, Joel Klein, Chester E. Finn, Jr., Tom Birmingham, Randi Weingarten, Valarie Lewis, Sol Stern, Kati Haycock, and Dan Willingham.

With all the controversy regarding the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), it’s easy to forget that there is another piece to the puzzle: the new standards are surely important and an improvement for most states, but in addition to strong state standards, the assessments aligned to the standards need to be of high quality if the standards are to achieve their aim of graduating students ready for college or a career. This fact sheet from Education First provides state policymakers and education advocates with a wealth of information on the tests being developed by the two leading test consortia, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced, as well as the competing test offered by ACT Aspire. The first half of the primer uses a combination of maps, tables, and infographics to systematically present the similarities and differences between the assessments. The compilation of this information into a single, easily readable document should prove to be a valuable resource to anyone looking to learn more about the next generation of assessments being adopted alongside the CCSS. The rest of the document explores a variety of topics, including what constitutes a high quality assessment; how assessment items on each test vary (with examples); the use of assessments for college readiness, admissions, and placement; and factors to consider when evaluating an assessment. Overall, the information in this primer nicely frames the testing options and allows state leaders to move around the assessment...

Our slim new book Knowledge at the Core: Don Hirsch, Core Knowledge, and the Future of the Common Core has three large aims. First, it pays tribute to three decades of scholarship and service to American education by E. D. (Don) Hirsch, Jr., author of Cultural Literacy (and three other prescient books on education reform) and founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation. Second, it restates the case for a sequential, content-rich curriculum for America’s elementary and middle schools. Third, it strives to chart a course for the future, a future in which many more schools embrace Hirsch’s Core Knowledge program—or something akin to it—en route to successful attainment of the Common Core State Standards for English language arts/literacy and mathematics.

Five of the essays included in the volume were first presented at a December 2013 conference in Washington, D.C., cohosted by the Fordham Institute and the Manhattan Institute. Video from that event, and a terrific documentary about Don and his contributions to American education, are available on our website at edexcellence.net/hirsch.

That day left us hopeful—not a word that often comes to mind amidst the rancorous debates now swirling about education in general and the Common Core in particular. Yet Don himself is, by admission, an unwavering optimist; his enthusiasm is as contagious as his ideas are bracing. So in that spirit, let us make the hopeful case that many more of America’s schools are on the precipice of finally embracing those ideas—and thereby boosting their students’ chances of achieving...

As the Common Core debate rages on in blogs and statehouses, educators are getting on with the business of putting these standards into practice. In these three issue briefs, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) offers direction to charter authorizers navigating the challenges posed by CCSS implementation. The first brief provides a simple introduction to CCSS and CCSS-aligned assessments, including a list of questions that authorizers can ask themselves to self-diagnose exactly how the Common Core will affect them and their schools. (For example: “How do my state’s implementation requirements apply to charter schools?” and “Does my state have a federal accountability waiver?”) In the second brief, NACSA stresses the importance of maintaining charter schools’ autonomy during the transition to CCSS and the new assessments: The authors remind authorizers that the Common Core is a set of learning standards, not a curriculum (“Although the framers have developed suggested reading lists, and some states have adopted them as menus for school districts’ convenience, the new standards do not dictate what textbooks or instructional methods schools must use”), and that schools should avail themselves of their freedom to use whatever materials will help their students reach the standard. (Of course, as explained above, that doesn’t mean “anything goes.” Some materials work much better than others, indeed some are apt to defeat the Common Core.) The third (and most extensive) brief digs into maintaining accountability, warning authorizers that school performance may drop significantly with the new tests. NACSA offers...

Lisa Hansel

Pop quiz! Which of the following statements is in the Common Core State Standards?

(a) Through extensive reading of stories, dramas, poems, and myths from diverse cultures and different time periods, students gain literary and cultural knowledge.

(b) 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.

(c) At a curricular or instructional level, texts—within and across grade levels—need to be selected around topics or themes that systematically develop the knowledge base of students.

(d) Having students listen to informational read-alouds in the early grades helps lay the necessary foundation for students’ reading and understanding of increasingly complex texts on their own in subsequent grades.

(e) All of the above.

The answer is e, all of the above. Knowledge is the key to reading comprehension. It’s the key to college, career, and citizenship readiness. It’s the key to meeting the Common Core standards. (see pages 10 and 33 of the standards—and for even more on building knowledge, see page 6 and Apendix A page 33).

To be even more blunt, the standards require a “content-rich curriculum” (page 6) that is “intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades” (page 10).

If you are a master teacher with a supportive administrator and collaborative colleagues, the standards give...

The rumor around the water coolers in D.C. is that President Obama plans to mention the Common Core State Standards in his State of the Union Address next week—for the third year running. He should reconsider, for three reasons.

First, it will feed the narrative that Common Core is, in fact, a federal takeover of public education.

Many Common Core opponents I debate on talk-radio shows or speak with in person eventually get around to admitting they have very few problems with the standards themselves and think they are better than what their state had in place before (we think so too). But, as Andy Smarick wrote earlier this week,

They are skeptical of big promises and big government. They are skeptical of centralized solutions. And they are skeptical of enlightened national leaders who pat them on their heads.

Remember, they were told by such enlightened leaders that if they liked their insurance, they could keep it. They are once bitten, twice shy.

Why would an administration that has already insulted Common Core opponents give them another reason to claim that this is true?

Second, the President is deeply unpopular; associating himself with the Common Core is simply unhelpful. As of writing, Gallup put the President’s approval rating at 39 percent. His approval among Republicans, like those who will be determining the fate of the Common Core in the states where the issue is most contentious, is likely dipping near or into the single digits. Even if...

Two months ago, a group of Catholic university professors signed a letter urging Catholic bishops and diocesan school leaders to reject the Common Core. “We believe that implementing Common Core would be a grave disservice to Catholic education in America,” they argued.

…we are convinced that Common Core is so deeply flawed that it should not be adopted by Catholic schools which have yet to approve it, and that those schools which have already endorsed it should seek an orderly withdrawal now.

The content of the letter itself is not surprising to anyone following the debate over the CCSS. Indeed, perhaps the most interesting thing about it is how closely it sticks to the typical anti–Common Core talking points we’ve heard over and over again in the past year. The authors repeat the often-cited complaint that algebra is taught too late, point to the (misguided, in my opinion) concern that adopting the CCSS will sideline great literature in English classrooms, and argue that Common Core is aimed not at college readiness but, rather, at “standardized workforce preparation.” In short, the bulk of it looked less like a thoughtful and uniquely Catholic critique of the Core than a hastily composed form letter.

The problem is not that Catholics shouldn’t weigh in on the Common Core debate. Rather, the problem is that authentic Catholic concerns get sidelined when we take our cues from actors who don’t share our interests. And by bringing these political talking points uncritically into...

American Girls, the Common Core, and everything in between

Mike and American Girl Michelle tackle accountability in private-school-choice programs, whether people are more likely to favor reform once they know how mediocre their schools are, and how applying “disparate impact theory” to the enforcement of school-discipline rules will lead to nothing but trouble. Amber incentivizes us to learn more about teacher-transfer incentives.

Amber's Research Minute

Transfer Incentives for High-Performing Teachers: Final Results from a Multisite Randomized Experiment by Steven Glazerman, et al., (Washington, D.C.: Mathematica Policy Research and Institute of Education Sciences, November 2013).

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