Standards, Testing & Accountability

Every sentence in Sir Ken Robinson’s Creative Schools begins with a capital letter. There is also a punctuation mark at the end of each, without exception. I have made a careful study of his nearly three-hundred-page manuscript, and can now report conclusively that its author employs—precisely and exclusively—the twenty-six letters of the standard English alphabet. 

Normally, this would not be worth remarking upon. Most of us have come to expect standard English in books written for general readers. But most of us are not Sir Ken Robinson, Ph.D. He is “one of the elite thinkers on creativity and education,” whose TED talk on how schools kill creativity in children is “the most watched in TED history.”  Sir Ken intensely dislikes standardization in all its forms. So it is at least somewhat disappointing that he has chosen to eschew interpretive dance, semaphore flags, or other means to argue against standards and for creativity in education.

It is not uncommon for education gurus to lack the courage of their convictions.  So allow me to be creative on Sir Ken’s behalf: Don’t think of Creative Schools as a book; think of it as a jukebox cranking out all of the anti-reform hits. Nod...

John Kasich announced today that he’s running for president. The current governor of Ohio is the sixteenth Republican to join the crowded GOP primary, dwarfing the five-person field on the other side of the aisle. He’s also the twenty-first subject of our Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling presidential candidates’ stances on education issues.

Kasich entered politics in the late 1970s, when he was elected to the Ohio Senate. He moved on to the House of Representatives in 1983, representing the state’s Twelfth Congressional District until 2001. After taking a break from public life, he returned to take Ohio’s helm in 2011. During his time as the state’s sixty-ninth governor, Kasich has made education a priority, and his efforts have produced some positive results. Here’s a sampling of his views:

1. Common Core: “[The idea behind the standards was for] students in every state to be given the opportunity to compete with every other student….I want kids to jump higher….I’m going to make sure, at least in my state, that standards are high and local control is maintained….Now, some may call that Common Core. I don’t really know, but I’m telling you the way it is in my...

Scott Walker announced today that he’s running for president. The governor of Wisconsin is the fifteenth Republican candidate and the twentieth overall. He’s also the latest subject of our Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling presidential candidates’ stances on education issues.

Walker has been involved in state politics for over twenty-two years. He was a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly from 1993 to 2002, when he was elected executive of Milwaukee County. After serving in that office for eight years, he took the helm as governor in 2011. During his tenure, Walker has focused heavily on education reform—and hasn’t shied away from controversial decisions. Here’s a sampling of his stances:

1. Teacher tenure and pay: “In 2011, we changed that broken system in Wisconsin. Today, the requirements for seniority and tenure are gone. Schools can hire based on merit and pay based on performance. That means they can keep the best and the brightest in the classroom.” June 2015.

2. School choice: “[W]e increased the number of quality education choices all over Wisconsin. Over the past four years, we expanded the number of charter schools, lifted the limits on virtual schools, and provided more help for families choosing to...

Vladimir Kogan

The dire findings on the performance of Ohio’s charter schools published by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) have provided the badly needed political impetus to reform the state’s charter school laws. Now, however, it appears that not only are these reforms at risk, but lawmakers are actually considering steps to weaken one of the few aspects of the existing accountability system that works.

If existing measures show that charter schools are underperforming, it seems that some charter operators have decided that it would be easier to change the yardstick used to assess them than to improve student achievement.

As the Columbus Dispatch reported recently, at least one charter school operator is pushing Ohio lawmakers to replace the state’s current “value-added” accountability framework with a “Similar Students Measure” (SSM), similar to metrics used in California. Doing so would be a gigantic step back in accountability and would make charter school student achievement look better than it really is.

Here is some background: The state of California ...

  • Defined benefit pension packages: Love ‘em if they’re sending you a check each month, hate ‘em if you have to think too hard about their consequences. That’s probably the reason we just don’t give them much consideration (well, part of the reason; they’re also slightly less gripping than you may have been led to believe). Good thing the National Council on Teacher Quality put together an informative, concise fact sheet on the realities of our teacher retirement processes. The short version isn’t pretty—backloaded plans with lengthy vesting periods typically penalize teachers who leave the profession early, enter it late, or move to a different state mid-profession. Their escalating costs are also threatening to overwhelm cash-strapped districts. Painful though it may be, we may have to start dedicating more thought to the subject.
  • The Foundation for Excellence in Education has released a fantastic tool that accomplishes two purposes: explaining what we actually mean when we talk about student “proficiency” and clarifying which jurisdictions actually measure anything close to it. Users can see how students are performing in their states, and whether those states’ reporting practices give a picture that resembles reality—or just an illusion.
  • It wasn't
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In the last four years, thirty states have transformed their teacher evaluation systems to improve student outcomes—and fourteen more are expected to follow suit by 2017. Too often, however, states focus more on the design of the systems than on how schools will and should implement them. This report from Education First argues that this is a mistake. We ought to also provide teachers the feedback and support they need to succeed. The report identifies five districts (Aldine, Texas; Greene County, Tennessee; Salem-Keizer, Oregon; Fulton County, Georgia; and St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana) that seem to be doing this right—a collection that’s diverse enough in location, racial makeup, and student body size to be applicable to myriad locales across the country.

The authors pinpoint a handful of essential teacher evaluation practices that hold the promise to improve student outcomes. First, schools need to make feedback and support a top priority and treat it as an ongoing process, including regular conversations centered on teachers’ professional development goals. Educators must be an integral part of the process, which creates an environment in which feedback is an expected and positive aspect of the job rather than a punitive one. For example, teachers and evaluators...

Lisa Hansel

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form at the Core Knowledge Blog.

Education Week noted recently that there is an increasing demand for bites of curriculum, as opposed to comprehensive programs: Instead of selecting one comprehensive program, “districts are asking to...mix and match with selections from other content providers, material that teachers and students have created, and open educational resources.” That’s awesome—and a disaster.

It’s awesome for schools that have a coherent, cumulative, grade-by-grade, topic-specific curricula. Teachers will have the curriculum as a scaffold, and they can search for materials that best meet their students’ needs on each topic. Assuming that scaffold is well developed, the topics will build on each other, giving all students an equal opportunity to acquire broad knowledge and skills.

It’s a disaster for schools that don’t have such curricula. In schools that aim to instill skills without realizing that a broad body of knowledge is necessary to cultivate them, a tapas-style curriculum will only lead to malnutrition. No matter who is choosing the small plates, we’ll end up with some students getting bacon-wrapped sausage and others getting mostly sautéed spinach and grilled chicken.

A well-rounded education is much like a well-balanced diet....

In the reauthorization debate, civil rights groups are pressing to have ESEA force states to "do something" in schools where students as a whole are making good progress but at-risk subgroups are falling behind. Their concerns are not unreasonable, to be sure. Schools should ensure that all students, especially those who are struggling academically, are making learning gains.

Yet it’s not clear how often otherwise good schools fail to contribute gains for their low-achievers. Is it widespread problem or fairly isolated? Just how many schools display strong overall results, but weak performance with at-risk subgroups?

To shine light on this question, we turn to Ohio. The Buckeye State’s accountability system has a unique feature: Not only does it report student growth results—i.e., “value added”—for a school as a whole, but also for certain subgroups. Herein we focus on schools’ results for their low-achieving subgroups—pupils whose achievement is in the bottom 20 percent statewide—since this group likely consists of a number of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, including from minority groups.

(The other subgroups with growth results are gifted and special needs students, who may not be as likely to come from disadvantaged families or communities. The state does not disaggregate...

It wasn't cool to be a "no-excuses," tough-love teacher for poor minority kids in the 1970s. That was the era of access centered "equity" for one and all, and most educators fretted more about kids struggling in school than about boosting their achievement. So academic standards (to the extent that there were any) were dumbed down, and lots of folks just took for granted the idea that environment was destiny. Kids from tough backgrounds, some thought, couldn't be expected to do all that well in school. 
 
Marva Collins thought otherwise. She believed—and said—that "kids don’t fail. Teachers fail, school systems fail. The people who teach children that they are failures—they are the problem.”
 
Then she put her own money and reputation on the line to prove that it didn't have to be that way. Along with a handful of other education renegades of the era (Jaime Escalante comes immediately to mind), she demonstrated that poor minority kids from inner-city environments could succeed just fine if given the right kinds of expectations, encouragement, and instruction. Today, we have plenty of these "proof points" in programs like KIPP, Achievement First, Success Academy, and many more. Most educators now understand that...
  • Teachers have been complaining about it for years: American students are just too hopelessly infatuated with Sophocles, Shakespeare, and George Eliot to buckle down and read nonfiction. Oh wait, no one ever actually complained about that. But schools are nonetheless attempting a shift in reading instruction away from fiction and toward journalism, essays, legislation, and speeches. The move is a signature feature of the Common Core State Standards, which set out to shift the classroom focus to the kinds of informational texts that students will be faced with in college and beyond. Though pairing Romeo and Juliet with articles about teen suicide may seem quixotic, the new method has its proponents. Susan Pimentel, who helped author the standards, claims that “there is enough great literary nonfiction out there that there shouldn’t be a forced fitting” between novels and newspapers. And traditionalists can take heart in the fact that eighth graders will hate reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as much as they used to hate reading Silas Marner.
  • When it comes to all the really sweet gigs, high school ends up being a little like Highlander—there can be only one prom queen, one first-chair piccolo, one class treasurer,
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