Standards, Testing & Accountability

You may have missed it over the holidays, but NPR ran a fascinating profile of Jason Zimba, one of the primary architects of the Common Core math standards. The piece, by the Hechinger Report’s Sarah Garland, an exceptionally thoughtful education reporter, traces Zimba’s career from Rhodes scholar and David Coleman’s business partner to “obscure physics professor at Bennington College” and unlikely standards bearer for the math standards that he had so much to do with creating.

Garland makes much of the fact that Zimba spends Saturday mornings tutoring his two young daughters in math. We’re told he feels the math his kids are getting at their local Manhattan public school is subpar, and that’s even after the school began implementing Common Core. “Zimba, a mathematician by training, is not just any disgruntled parent,” Garland notes. “He's one of the guys who wrote the Common Core.”

Some will surely see irony in Zimba feeling compelled to supplement what his kids learn in school with breakfast-table math lessons—more schadenfreude for Common Core critics—but there is no irony. As my Fordham colleague Kathleen...

Editor's note: This post was originally published in a slightly different form as an op-ed in the Washington PostIt was subsequently republished in the Denver PostTampa Bay TimesSalt Lake TribuneTampa TribunePhiladelphia InquirerCommercial AppealPost and CourierPost-StandardNews TribuneNews Journaland Capital Times.

In November, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush suggested to hundreds of lawmakers and education reformers gathered for his foundation’s annual summit that “the rigor of the Common Core State Standards must be the new minimum.” Furthermore, he said, to “those states choosing a path other than Common Core, I say this: That’s fine. Except you should be aiming even higher and be bolder and raise standards and ask more of our students and the system.” Several Republican politicians, including Louisiana Senator (and gubernatorial hopeful) David Vitter and Mississippi Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves, promptly took up his suggestion, calling on their states to replace the Common Core with standards that are even more challenging.

In theory, this position is exactly right. Academic standards are the province of the states; it’s within their rights to have their own standards if that’s what their leaders and residents want. Furthermore, though there are benefits to having common standards...

Previously, I posted about the perils of applying standards-driven instruction to reading classrooms. The point was that reading standards typically don’t articulate the content that students need to learn to become good readers; they merely list the skills and habits exhibited by already good readers. Therefore, using standards to plan lessons results in ineffective reading instruction—those skills and habits can’t really be taught, practiced, and mastered in the abstract.

The truth is that while the problems are most acute in reading, standards for any subject are most effective when used not to drive lesson planning on any given day, but rather the selection of a clear, teacher-friendly, coherently developed curriculum. That’s because even the best standards don’t help teachers figure out how to ensure that all students master the requisite content and skills. They describe the destination, but they don’t provide a roadmap. Curriculum is the missing link.

One might then ask why we are even talking about standards. Rather than debating the Common Core State Standards why not debate a “Common Curriculum”? In fact, that is how it works in many countries. Even Finland—the country that most reform critics want us to...

Just in time for Christmas, my Fordham colleague Mike Petrilli has left a present under the tree for inquisitive children and busy parents who don’t think the sky will fall if the kids get a little screen time now and again (it won’t).

Over the course of a year’s blog posts, and with the help of several able Fordham interns, Mike curated some of the best streaming web videos on Netflix, Amazon, and elsewhere. He then aligned them with the Core Knowledge Sequence, a robust list of subjects from pre-K to eighth grade that undergirds the curriculum at some of the nation’s most successful schools. These have now been repackaged into a neat little website he’s calling “Netflix Academy.” Homeschoolers for whom Core Knowledge is a subject of near-religious devotion will also be grateful for this resource. 

You’ll find videos on science, literature, and U.S. and world history. Click on “Science,” for example, and you’ll see a drop-down menu organized by knowledge domains (aquatic life, mammals, insects, outer space, etc.). Within each domain are direct links to streaming videos from Netflix, National Geographic, PBS, YouTube, and others sources. You’ll also find movie versions of classic children’s...

The one about Christmas cookies

John King’s tenure in New York, more ESEA reauthorization efforts, and the big stories of 2014.
 
Amber's Research Minute

SOURCE: Soohyung Lee, Lesley J. Turner, Seokjin Woo, and Kyunghee Kim, “All or Nothing? The Impact of School and Classroom Gender Composition on Effort and Academic Achievement,” National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 20722 (December 2014). 

It was the best of times…

…for the Republican Party. Election Day 2014 was a rout, with the GOP winning full control of Congress and its largest House majority since World War II. Republican governors were re-elected in Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan, Kansas, and Maine. Democrat Pat Quinn was booted out of office in President Obama’s home state of Illinois. Republican now control two-thirds of state legislatures too. The GOP groundswell “will be good for education reform, especially reforms of the school-choice variety,” predicted Fordham’s Mike Petrilli

It was the worst of times…

...for teachers’ unions. “It’s open season on teacher employment protection laws in U.S. state courts,” noted Fordham’s Brandon Wright on the heels of June’s Vergara v. California verdict holding California’s tenure laws unconstitutional. And the hits just kept on coming. In October, the commission that runs the financially troubled Philadelphia public school system unilaterally canceled the union’s contract and ruled teachers must contribute to their health insurance to free up money for classrooms. (A good decision to avoid the big squeeze.) Election Day made the annus horribilis complete. The $60 million...

Senator Lamar Alexander, Representative John Kline, and their respective staffs have successfully freaked out sizable portions of the education-reform crowd—especially those who spend our days inside the Beltway bubble—by threatening to eliminate No Child Left Behind’s annual testing requirement. I’m hoping that this is just a bluff or feint—a way to strengthen their negotiating position—because the idea is so insane.  Do Republicans really want to scrap the transparency that comes from measuring student (and school and district) progress from year to year and go back to the Stone Age of judging schools based on a snapshot in time? Or worse, based on inputs, promises, and claims? Are they seriously proposing to eliminate the data that are powering great studies and new findings every day on topics from vouchers to charters to teacher effectiveness and more?

I suspect they’ll come to their senses. But I do appreciate the impulse—both the reaction to a dozen years of Washington micromanagement (taken to new heights by Arne Duncan’s conditional waivers) and the very real concern about over-testing in the classroom. If the...

Jack Schneider

Editor's note: This post is the fourth entry of a multi-part series of interviews featuring Fordham's own Andy Smarick and Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at Holy Cross. It originally appeared in a slightly different form at Education Week's K-12 Schools: Beyond the Rhetoric blog. Earlier entries can be found herehere, and here.

Schneider: We ended our last post with a question about school funding. You seem to be more concerned with the issue of accountability than I am. And I appear to be more concerned with equal funding.

So it seems like maybe we have a chicken and egg issue here.

I don't think you can begin to talk accountability seriously until you have a relatively equal playing field. You seem hesitant to channel funds to organizations that can't meet accountability targets. Can you talk through your position for me?

Smarick: My position on funding in a nutshell is: I want every school in America to have the money necessary so every child can succeed, but we need to appreciate that more funding won't necessarily generate better results. 

So let's first put some basic facts on the table.

The U.S. now spends close to $700 billion annually on K–12...

The one where Mike and Robert agree on everything

The importance of vocabulary, ESEA reauthorization efforts, school discipline, and how school environment affects teacher effectiveness.

Amber's Research Minute

Matthew A. Kraft and John P. Papay, “Can Professional Environments in Schools Promote Teacher Development? Explaining Heterogeneity in Returns to Teaching Experience,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Vol. 36, No. 4 (December 2014).

Before the age of standards and tests, teachers generally taught the textbook. They began on page one and got as far as they could before the end of June, sometimes racing through the last four chapters in less time than they devoted to the first.

Standards, testing, and accountability changed that. Now there are clearly defined goals that all students must meet, and teachers are asked to ensure not just “coverage,” but that all students master a predetermined set of content and skills.

That means today’s curriculum and instruction are driven not by where you began but by where you want to end up. In a data-driven, results-oriented classroom, good teachers begin with the standards and “backmap” from June to September to ensure that the most critical or difficult topics get the instructional time they deserve.

This approach makes sense for most subjects, where the standards describe the actual content that students need to master within and across grades. Math, for instance, is a hierarchical subject with a logical progression of skills and content. Yearlong curriculum plans can be devised and focused on ensuring adequate time to master all of the key standards. And teachers who themselves are math experts...

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