Standards, Testing, & Accountability

Yesterday afternoon my colleague Chris Irvine and I sat down with three of Denmark's most promising. They're elected leaders of the Association of Danish Pupils, the nation's student-run education-policy organization. (Think: a national student council, or a stellar group of model Congress participants, only the model Congress actually gets to influence policy.)

A few highlights stood out to me as we explained the American education system and federal and state policy, and heard a bit about the issues facing Denmark's schools:

  • The Danes are struggling with how to incorporate virtual learning into the classroom in much the same way that the United States is. For these intrepid youth, intent on discovering means of diversifying instruction and providing targeted, individualized instruction, digital learning wasn't really on their radar. According to the youth, Denmark is behind when it comes to virtual schooling. We commiserated over that fact?and I wondered silently how long it would be before each of our nations were so far behind in this domain that it is noticeably and negatively affecting our global competitiveness. Hopefully we push the throttle forward on digital learning and don't see that reality come to pass.
  • We talked briefly about how our two countries handle special education. The students raised an important issue?special education is extremely expensive in Denmark?and no one really knows how the money is being allocated, or if the money is being well-spent. Yet, while the high schoolers eagerly explained that the percentage of funding that goes to special-education
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When Sheldon and Jeremy Stern reviewed the Minnesota social studies standards earlier this year, there was certainly much room for improvement. (See here for the full review.) Unfortunately, if a description of the changes by the Minneapolis Star Tribune is right, it sounds like the state may be moving in exactly the wrong direction. According to the article,

a key goal for this year's social studies committee, which is made up of citizens and teachers, is to shrink the standards to more manageable lengths, which means far fewer examples than are contained in the current standards.

Note first that the committee is made up of ?citizens and teachers.? Does that mean to imply that the state isn't deliberately soliciting the input of historians? Let's hope not. While there would certainly be tension between what the historians wanted to include and what the teachers felt was manageable, such tension is a healthy way to ensure the pendulum doesn't swing too far in one direction or another.

Further, it's disheartening to hear that the state is moving to remove content from the standards, given that the Sterns felt the inclusion of so much substantive content was the best part about the standards.

On the other hand, they felt the standards were ?poorly organized, chronologically confused, and divorced from context,? and that ?political bias also makes unwelcome intrusions at all levels, at the expense of balanced historical perspectives.? Addressing those problems doesn't appear to have been the...

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Last September, Minnesota Commissioner of Education Alice Seagren adopted the Common Core standards in ELA but not in math, arguing that the state's existing math standards were far superior than the CCSS. With a new Commissioner, Brenda Cassellius, selected by the new Democratic governor, Republican lawmakers are now working to ensure that that decision cannot be revisited.

An education bill introduced last week specifically prohibits the Commissioner ?from adopting common core standards in the subject and school year listed in the revision cycle in paragraphs (a) to (f).?? (See here and here.) Translated, that means that, when the state's math standards are up for revision in 2015, the state will not be permitted to adopt the Common Core.

Even more troubling, though, the sweeping statement has implications that go well beyond math, because the revision cycles outlined in ?paragraphs (a) to (f)? include science, social studies, technology and information literacy, the arts, and language arts. That means that, if passed, this bill would prevent the state from adopting common standards in any content area?no matter how much better than the state's existing standards they may be.

It also calls into question what's going to happen the next time the state's ELA standards are up for revision in 2018. Will the state be forced to replace the CCSS with different standards because this short-sighted provision prohibits the Commissioner from adopting any common core standards? I assume--perhaps naively--that wasn't the lawmakers' intent. Let's hope it doesn't become...

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Rick Hess strongly implies that I'm a Finland lover just because I signed the AFT plea for better curricular materials for teachers to use in connection with the Common Core standards. Wrong. I don't believe the Shanker Institute folks even mentioned Finland. And all I like about Finland (saunas and reindeer aside) is that it's home to a lot of Finns.

?Chester E. Finn, Jr.

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Ohioans, for the most part, understand that strong teachers and good schools are a critical investment in our children's and our state's future. Consider that in 2010, the state invested more than $18.3 billion in K-12 public education ??? roughly $2,078 for every adult living in the Buckeye State.

In fact, school funding in Ohio has steadily increased over the past three decades. Just since 1991, when the first DeRolph lawsuit was filed, per-pupil revenue for Ohio's public schools has risen 60 percent (even accounting for inflation). After decades of steady growth in spending on its schools Ohio now faces a funding cliff. Education in the state is facing cuts of at least $1.3 billion.

The state's schools are being asked to do more with less. How do we do this smartly, without damaging children, especially our neediest? To answer this question it is prudent to look at the data. Where are we making gains? Where are we falling flat? Where do the investments pay off? Where don't they?

The Akron Beacon Journal jumped into the debate with a recent news story and follow-up editorial using NAEP test scores (commonly referred to as the Nation's Report Card) to show Ohio has made ???great improvements??? since the 1990s, especially in math. The paper went so far as to ask readers ???why haven't gains ??? especially for African Americans ??? been trumpeted from the rooftops????

Further, the paper insinuated that Ohio's small gains in math over...

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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...

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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,...

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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

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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

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