Standards, Testing & Accountability

Here's a new problem facing American education policy: Something we're doing seems to be working.

You wouldn't know it from the ?we're all going to hell in a hand basket? rhetoric surrounding today's education debates, but the last fifteen years have seen tremendous progress for poor, minority, and low-achieving students?the very children that have been the focus of two decades of reform. Curiously, both sides of the education battle want to sweep this news under the carpet.

Namibian students with their Dream book

First the facts. In both the ?basic skills? of reading and math, and in the social studies subjects of history, civics, and now geography, African-American, Latino, and low-income fourth- and eighth-graders have posted huge gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) since the early 1990s. For instance, between 1990 and 2009, black fourth graders made 35 points of progress on the mathematics NAEP exam; black eighth-graders gained 24 points. The corresponding numbers for Latino children were 28 and 21 points respectively. In reading, black fourth-graders gained 13 points between 1992 and 2009; black eighth graders gained 9 points. In the just-released geography exam, black fourth-grade students gained 28 points between 1994 and 2010; Latino fourth-graders gained 21 points. Similar progress was seen in history and civics.

To put this in perspective, 10 points is roughly equivalent to a grade level on the...

Dan Ariely has a provocative but mostly wrong-headed article in today's Washington Post roundtable on the Atlanta testing scandal. He claims that it's inevitable that teachers will respond to high-stakes tests by cheating just as corporate executives act in ethically challenged ways to please their bosses and investors.?But business people all behave differently, some ethically and some not. What drives the difference?

Take Johnson & Johnson during the 1980s Tylenol scare as an example. For decades, J&J has operated based on a credo that permeates the organization. These values have real relevance in the company, and personnel are promoted and developed based on their adherence to the credo. Business school students read cases on Johnson & Johnson's success at developing this corporate culture. When tragedy struck with the Tylenol murders, J&J acted responsibly, even though they weren't responsible for the deaths. Given the culture there at the time, it's hard to imagine them doing otherwise. Yet J&J also measures its profitability and expects employees to contribute to that bottom line.

Ariely glides over this in his "history lesson," suggesting that measuring and evaluating using a specific criterion necessarily causes people to focus only on what's being measured. That's nonsense, and the proof is in the innovative products and services American corporations have developed on the way to creating trillions of dollars of wealth. There are undoubtedly bad actors in the business world, but there are also a lot of leadership teams that successfully balance measuring...

Within weeks of the release of the Common Core State ELA and math standards, textbook publishers had already launched marketing campaigns for their ?CCSS-aligned? curriculum materials. What that label really meant, exactly, was open for much debate.

Enter David Coleman and Sue Pimentel. Last week, the two lead ELA writers for the CCSS ELA standards released ?Publishers' Criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy? for grades K-2 and 3-12 in an attempt to guide the curriculum writers who are genuinely trying to align their materials to the CCSS. It will also be an invaluable resource for teachers, schools, and districts who are trying to navigate the already crowded space of CCSS-aligned materials.

Coleman and Pimentel are careful to note that these criteria ?are not meant to dictate classroom practice,? but instead are ?intended to direct curriculum developers and publishers to be purposeful and strategic in both what to include and what to exclude in instructional materials.? In short, Coleman and Pimentel attempt to clarify what materials would be worthy of the ?CCSS-aligned? label.

While the guidelines do include criteria for everything ranging from writing and grammar to research, the bulk of the guidance is focused on reading. The authors note that, in order to be truly CCSS-aligned, reading materials must:

  • Include texts that are appropriately complex. The guidelines note that ?far too often, students who have fallen behind are given only less complex texts rather than the support they
  • ...

The Republican presidential field is beginning to take shape, and candidates and maybe-candidates are figuring out where they stand and what to say. Sooner or later, they will need to say something about education. May we suggest a few talking points? Or, better yet, a potential speech for a GOP candidate?

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[caption id="" align="alignright" width="250" caption="Photo by Josh Berglund 19"][/caption]

Folks, you know that our education system is tattered. Some of it is fine, but too much is mediocre or worse. Once the envy of the world, American schools are losing ground to those in Europe and Asia. Today, many countries are out-teaching, out-learning, and out-hustling our schools?????????and doing it for a fraction of the cost.

Meanwhile, failed education systems in our cities worsen the odds that the next generation will climb out of poverty into decent jobs and a shot at the American dream. And as much as many of us prefer not to notice, way too many of our suburban schools are just getting by. They may not be dropout factories, but they're not preparing anywhere near enough of their pupils to revive our economy, strengthen our culture, and lead our future.

Turning this situation around has been the work of education reform for the past two decades. We've spent a lot of money on it. We've had any number of schemes and plans and laws and pilot programs. And we've seen some modest success. Graduation...

Laurent Rigal

Over at The American Interest, Walter Russell Mead asserted a few weeks back that ?when it comes to education, red states rule.? He bases this finding on data collected for Newsweek's recently released high school rankings.? (As it turns out, three of the top ten schools in the country are in right-to-work Texas?and two more are in Florida, also a right-to-work state.) Unfortunately, this article is just more evidence of an increasingly common education-policy trend. Far too often, statistics, scores, and school rankings are flaunted as proof of grandiose policy victories, no matter how thin the ties are or valid the original data collected is. Looking at Jay Matthews's rankings of the best-performing high schools in the nation, for example, the top five schools (which draw from wealthy communities or have rigorous admissions standards) cannot validly be compared to run-of-the-mill neighborhood schools. And to assert, as Mead does, that the existence of these top-tier schools settles the debate on whether right-to-work states provide better education is a bridge way too far. (To be clear, my gripe isn't with Texas's or Florida's education systems, which are generally solid, but with the cherry-picking of data.) Using these rankings to draw conclusion on the quality of an educational system of a state as a whole has absolutely no validity. There is no demonstrated causality between the level of achievements of the top high schools in a state and the overall quality of the public education system.

It's not just the Meads...

The June issue of The American Spectator carries a thoughtful--though ultimately unpersuasive--article by Lewis Andrews, "Meet the Suburban Parents." Like legions of activists and analysts before him, he ponders why upper-middle-class parents haven't rallied to the cause of school reform. [quote]

Suburban parents have always been ready to mob a school board meeting to agitate for improved athletic facilities, but never for teacher evaluations or merit pay. The PTA will mobilize families and schools to support the most controversial social movements, from gay rights and gun control to affirmative action and costly accommodations for the disabled, but not a peep about the pressing need to save urban children from failing schools.

In places like Marin County north of San Francisco, Fairfax County in Virginia, the affluent suburbs north of Chicago, and Fairfield County, Connecticut, even very modest reforms that could save taxpayers money while improving the quality of education--giving credit for courses taken at community college or online, for example--are either ignored or downplayed.

It's a provocative argument, and a worthy topic. But Andrews, like most of us in the education commentariat, isn't careful enough to keep two very different issues distinct: First, whether affluent parents should be satisfied with the public schools to which they send their own children. And second, whether those same parents can be energized to fight on behalf of school reform for the poor.

The second question, it seems to me, will soon be answered by Michelle Rhee's new endeavor, Students...

I wanted to offer a curricular observation about Mike's Understanding upper-middle-class parents since he raised the issue of whether ?different kids need different schools.?? It's a great question and an especially loaded one in a socio-economic context because, of course, most of the modern reform movement is premised on the assumption that too many poor kids already go to different schools ? lousy ones ? and that rich kids, by definition, go to good ones.

At the extremes, I think, it's easier to see "good" and "bad" schools -- or "rich" and "poor" ones -- and make decisions about how best to educate your children.?It's tougher in the middle, where most of us live ? or think we live -- but the sociology of the thing, no matter where you are, is a huge factor; all parents have an eye on "future happiness" or "future success" for their kids and run that through their own metrics, which usually include schooling. Lavish spending masks lots of academic problems just as the lack of spending can exacerbate them.? But even in the dark cave of ?adequacy and equity,? the good school / different school shadows are dancing. ?Even the rich want ?good? schools.

In this context I believe that E.D. Hirsch's insight about "background knowledge" provides the best guide for educators and policymakers.? Despite the new noise that the "college isn't for everyone? crowd is making, I think most of us have a pretty good idea of what we...

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