Standards, Testing & Accountability

Today, Jay Greene has an Ed Next column arguing against government mandated standards and curriculum. ?Most of the important elements of American education are already standardized,? he argues.

No central government authority had to tell school districts to divide their schools into grades or start in the Fall and end in the Spring. Even details of the curriculum, like teaching long division in 4th grade or Romeo and Juliet in 9th grade, are remarkably consistent from place to place without the national government ordering schools to do so.

Schools arrived at these arrangements through a gradual process of market competition and adaptation?.Of course, not everything is synced, but the items that are most important to consumers often are.

That's how standardization in market settings works and we have a lot of positive experience with this in industry. ?VHS became the standard medium for home entertainment because the market gravitated to it, not because some government authority mandated it. ?If we followed the logic of Gates-Fordham-AFT-USDOE we would want some government-backed committee to decide on the best format and provide government subsidies only to those companies that complied.

Instead of ending up with VHS, they may well have imposed Betamax on the country?

Of course, many people agree that Betamax had the superior technology (the picture was sharper, the cassettes were smaller, it was better at high-speed duplication, etc.). So, in effect, market forces standardized the inferior...

One of the many reasons I think that states should get out of the curriculum- and textbook-adoption business is that, when state governments start to dive too deep into the implementation weeds, they tend to do far more harm than good.

Take, California for example. In response to the 2009 budget crisis, the state passed a law that suspended all work related to the updating or adoption of instructional materials, including textbooks, for five years. (According to ?California Watch,? a bill currently awaiting Gov. Brown's signature would delay the adoption of new textbooks even longer.)

Unfortunately, while the intention of these bills?to save money during a fiscal crisis?is good, the execution is a disaster.

Now the state had adopted new standards for its schools?standards that will begin to inform statewide assessment in 2014. But, thanks to the state's convoluted textbook adoption laws, teachers won't have access to CCSS-aligned instructional materials until after their students begin taking CCSS-aligned assessments. (That is, unless districts are able to buy such materials with something other than state money.)

This is, of course, absurd. And, while this may be an extreme case of state incompetence, it's a good warning for anyone looking to mandate a ?shared curriculum? at the state or national level.

Decisions made in the statehouse are inevitably protracted. If states really want to help districts and schools implement the Common Core effectively, they should learn from California's mistakes and look for ways to simplify, not complicate,...

Catherine Gewertz (via John Fensterwald of the "Educated Guess" blog) has a post today about a group of seven California districts who are coming together to draft Common Core-aligned curriculum resources for their teachers.

?a group of school districts in California isn't waiting around for the state to build curriculum frameworks...[instead] CORE, a group of seven districts that pushed forward California's Race to the Top application, is rallying teachers to build instructional materials and formative assessments for the standards, which California and most other states have adopted.

At last! Districts taking the lead on curriculum and instructional decisions rather than waiting for the state to tell them what to do. Hopefully other districts across the country will follow suit.

Of course, let's also hope that the assessment consortia start releasing some more specific details (sample assessment items, perhaps?) about their summative assessments so that teachers can be sure that standards, curriculum, instruction, and formative and summative assessments are all properly aligned in terms of both content and rigor.

--Kathleen Porter-Magee

Liam Julian

Barack Obama was at Bell Multicultural High School in Washington, D.C., today, answering education-related questions at an event organized by Univision. Responding to a question about standardized exams, the president said that pupils are currently tested too frequently and are under too much pressure to perform well on the high-stakes exams they're given. According to the Washington Post, Obama said that he never wants to see ?schools that are just teaching the test because then you're not learning about the world, you're not learning about different cultures, you're not learning about science, you're not learning about math. All you're learning about is how to fill out a little bubble on an exam and little tricks that you need to do in order to take a test and that's not going to make education interesting.? The president said that students need to be taught interesting information in interesting ways because young people are ?not going to do as well? if their classes are ?boring.?

?Liam Julian, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

The CCSS ELA standards are, as you may remember, heavily (though certainly not exclusively) skills driven. The choice to focus on skills rather than content was deliberate and the standards authors themselves acknowledged that states would likely want to enhance these skills-driven standards with additional content. In fact, adoption states were told that the existing CCSS standards could comprise 85 percent of the total standards, giving the states the flexibility to add ?15 percent? atop of the final standards.

To date, it doesn't seem like too many states have taken seriously the charge of fleshing out this additional ?15 percent.? It's no wonder, then, that folks are looking to curriculum to provide teachers with more specific details about what content students should learn.

I've already argued against making curriculum decisions at the state or national level. I remain convinced that it would be a mistake to do so for lots of reasons. Among them, in this debate over curriculum, one thing that we shouldn't lose sight of is the important distinction between standards and curriculum. Done right, standards define the outcomes?the knowledge and skills that students must master. Curriculum, on the other hand, helps shape the process through which students will learn that content. In other words, curriculum helps shape (among other things) how the content should be organized, how it should be taught, etc. (Pedagogy gets at this as well, of course.)

We all know how long it takes for states to change...

Listeners of the Education Gadfly Show Podcast may recall my segment from February 24th highlighting the decision of Rockingham County, North Carolina to ban corporal punishment. Following some internal debate that took place afterward, I took it upon myself to do some more research on the matter.

Admittedly, some psychologists have found that the use of gentle physical punishment can help maintain discipline in schools. While this may be the case, allowing the variance in what individual teachers and school districts define as ?gentle? is simply too great a risk to our children. These beatings or ?paddlings? can occur for reasons well beyond correcting bad behavior. Examples of such include failing an exam, dress code violations, and forgetting a pencil, among others. School is a place for learning, exploration, and personal growth; it should never be a place where children fear being beaten.

In conducting this research, I was thrilled to discover the efforts of fashion designer Mark Ecko, who recently launched a campaign to end corporal punishment in the United States. My hat goes off to people such as Mark who are willing to use their influence achieved outside of the education community to help put an end to this archaic practice.

  • Every 20 seconds of the school day, a child is beaten by an educator.
  • Every 4 minutes of the school day, a child is beaten by an educator so severely that he or she seeks medical attention.
  • The United States is the only
  • ...

Today, in advance of this week's International Summit on the Teaching Profession, Fordham is releasing a little paper by Janie Scull and me, American Achievement in International Perspective. We analyzed the recent PISA results in reading and math a number of ways, and came up with some interesting (and surprising) insights. Among them:

  • In raw numbers, the United States produces many more high-achieving students than any other OECD nation. In both reading and math, the U.S. produces more high achievers than France, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined. (This is of course due to our large size?but explains why Americans continue to dominate prestigious universities, leading corporations, etc.)
  • Proportionally, Asian American students are the best readers in the world, and white Americans are bested only by Finns and New Zealanders.

Now for the bad news:

  • In both reading and math, the U.S. produces more low achievers than France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom combined.
  • Approximately 50 percent of black American students are low-achieving in math?a higher proportion of students than is found in any OECD country save Chile and Mexico. In reading, only Mexico does worse.

And a few interesting tidbits:

  • In both reading and math, in raw numbers, the United States produces more high-achieving Hispanic students than Asian students.
  • In both reading and math, the U.S. produces about the same number of low-achieving white students as
  • ...

Robert Pondiscio over at Core Knowledge wrote a very thoughtful response to my post the other day. He says that my point?which was that states would do better to focus their attention on standards and assessments, and allow curriculum decisions to be made as closely to the classroom level as possible?was a bit of a ?strawman-fest.? He argues:

She confuses the core curriculum manifesto's?call for guidance on what students should learn with?a call to?pick winners and losers among published curricula, or?prescribe the methods by which?children should be taught.? The Call for Common Content is merely a sensible proposal to?describe the?common, knowledge-building content that all children must have in order to be fully literate.

While I will admit to being confused about what, precisely, the Shanker Institute's ?call? is actually advocating (particularly after the latest round of blog posts about it), that may have more to do with the way the manifesto is written than with my larger point. So let me be clear: Prescribing scope and sequence from the state or national level is a mistake. If that is what the manifesto is trying to achieve, then it's a step in the wrong direction.

The details matter in this debate, since they have the potential to impact classroom practice very directly and deliberately. I do think it's entirely appropriate for states to define the scope of content that students should learn. States have for many years defined what students should know and be able to...

Liam Julian

The president said today he wants a No Child Left Behind rewrite before students' summer vacations end this September. And he wants other things, too. According to the Washington Post, Obama ?wants a more flexible system that focuses on preparing graduating students for college and career and he wants better assessments to understand whether kids are meeting that goal.? He wants ?skills such as critical thinking and creativity? to be reintegrated into math, science, and reading lessons, and he wants teachers to be both supported and judged to some degree by the rate of their students' academic progress. And he wants education to be funded robustly: ?Let me make it plain: We cannot cut education. We can't cut the things that will make America more competitive.? Quite the wish list.

?Liam Julian, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

Over in the more feverish corners of the blogosphere, and sometimes even in saner locales, the Shanker Institute's call for "common content" curriculum to accompany the Common Core standards has triggered a panic attack. There's talk of "bait and switch," of double-cross, of treacherous inconsistency, of blah blah blah?all associated with what is depicted as the dire threat of a "national curriculum."

And yes, I signed onto it, so am said to be personally culpable.

For Pete's sake, people, this is an effort to help teachers do a better job of getting their pupils to a higher standard of achievement in English and math, not to repeal local control, eliminate autonomy and choice, or impose the federal government on state and local education agencies.

Let's keep a few important "knowns" in mind.

First, we know that many teachers crave better curricular guidance aligned with?quality academic standards that in turn are (one hopes) in alignment with the assessments that?their students will be taking and their performance will be judged on.

Second, we know that, absent such guidance and materials, some gifted teachers are willing and able to develop sound curricula for themselves?and some others are able to borrow (often, nowadays, from websites, bulletin boards, and such) from?curricula developed by other teachers who have already done the heavy lifting.

But, third,?we also know that?far too many teachers, unsupplied with decent curricular specifics and materials by their schools, districts, and states, wind up using crummy...