Standards, Testing, & Accountability

Just because some criticisms of Common Core standards are over the top and dripping with misinformation doesn’t make them all so. Plenty of valid concerns exist, and the estimable Peggy Noonan recently homed in on several of them. She acknowledges “that Core proponents’ overall objective—to get schools teaching more necessary and important things, and to encourage intellectual coherence in what is taught—is not bad, but good.” But she raised a lot of questions for “eggheads” like us who have pushed for these ambitious new academic standards:

Proponents are now talking about problems with the rollout. Well, yes, and where have we heard that before? One gets the impression they didn’t think this through, that they held symposia and declared the need, with charts and bullet points, for something to be done—and something must be done, because American public education is falling behind the world—and then left it to somebody, or 10,000 somebodies, to make it all work….How was implementation of the overall scheme supposed to work?

Did we think this through? A major reason we support the Common Core is because we’re confident that it will bring greater “intellectual coherence,” in Noonan’s words, to America’s curricular and instructional approaches. That’s sorely needed because the textbooks and other materials that most schools use are dreadful and have been for decades.

Why so bad? Partly it’s due to the textbook oligopoly. (As behemoth Pearson has purchased many of its competitors in recent years, it’s approaching an outright monopoly.) Partly...

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The following is a response to Gary Rubinstein’s post, “Open Letters To ‘B-List’ Reformers I Know. Part 3: Michael Petrilli

Dear Gary,

I don’t mind you calling me a wonk you know if you don’t mind me calling you a teacher I know. For all of its bombast, social media has helped to put me in touch with real teachers like you in real classrooms in the real world. Becoming disconnected from the daily work of education is a significant risk for those of us who long ago crossed into policy analysis. We’re lucky at the Fordham Institute that our Ohio team gets down and dirty with real schools in Dayton and elsewhere, but I’m willing to say it: thank goodness for Twitter.

Now, what I’m not so happy about is your calling me a “B-list” reformer!

But I digress.

I appreciate your comments about my various blog posts. We take our role as “Education Gadfly” very seriously at Fordham. We are fortunate—thanks to our mission, our fantastic board, and our endowment, which gives us a measure of independence—that we can feel uninhibited to raise the red flag when we see reforms going awry. I would be bored to death if I had to stick to talking points.

Thankfully, we’re not the only ones willing to speak honestly about problems as they arise. I think a fair-minded observer would see that the vast majority of...

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While political fireworks are grabbing most of the Common Core headlines these days, the real story is how teachers and leaders—particularly those within the reform community—are changing their daily practice in light of the content and rigor demands of the CCSS.

Out of sight but hard at work, leaders of the “No Excuses” schools are taking the adoption of the Common Core as a challenge to refocus their reading instruction in ways that will help their students make greater gains in reading and writing than they have historically been able to do. Central to that challenge is the question of how to help students—a majority of whom are struggling readers who often lack basic reading skills and vocabulary—meet the content and rigor demands of the CCSS.

Reading in the Common Core era

As longtime readers of this blog know, my support for the Common Core literacy standards stems from three things: (1) the emphasis on building knowledge to improve comprehension, (2) the focus on close reading and using evidence to support answers and analysis, and (3) the push to give all students regular practice with complex texts.

It's the combination of all three—working together—that holds the promise of finally helping students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, master the reading skills needed to succeed in college.

While each of the three changes poses its own special challenge to the status quo, it’s the last piece—the emphasis on text complexity—that is most threatening to the conventional wisdom driving reading instruction in American...

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Managing in a fishbowl

Mike and Nina Rees take on the federal charter-school bill that passed in the House last week, what traditional public schools can learn from charters, and the pros and cons of KIPP’s character-education model. Amber wades into teacher-evaluation research.

Amber's Research Minute

Evaluating Teachers with Classroom Observations: Lessons Learned in Four Districts by Grover J. Whitehurst, Matthew M. Chingos, and Katharine M. Lindquist, (Washington, D.C.: Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings, May 2014).

I’ve long argued that there is a meaningful and important difference between standards and curriculum. Pick your metaphor: The standards set the destination; they don’t define the journey. Or they describe the “what” but not the “how.” While a good set of K–12 academic standards can foster tremendous innovation and real choice for teachers and students, instructional flexibility is essential. There is no one “right” way to teach content and skills to all students. The right path depends on the strengths and needs of the students and the teachers as much as it does on the content itself.

It’s exactly because I see the potential—the necessity, even—for classroom-level innovation that I shudder when people argue that Common Core adoption is tantamount to the imposition of a single, national curriculum. In my mind, that is simply not what Common Core is meant to do. (In fact, more than three years ago, when some pushed for a common curriculum to match the common standards, I argued forcefully against it. I wrote that mandating state or national curriculum—either directly or indirectly—was “one of the least effective ways” of driving effective curriculum choices. Teacher buy-in is too important to curriculum implementation, and teachers are unlikely to feel bought into a curriculum that was forced upon them from state bureaucrats, no matter how well intentioned they are.)

But what happens when the lines between setting standards and mandating curriculum are blurred?

That is what I see happening...

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Sonja Brookins Santelises

While the New York State United Teachers and the National Education Association have withdrawn their support for the Common Core State Standards, it’s important to recognize that the teachers’ actions had nothing to do with the standards themselves. This blowback is yet another example of how concerns about implementation are being conflated with the actual merit of the standards.

Even among educators committed to serving children in poverty and kids already performing far below their potential, there is widespread agreement that these rigorous standards will help move more of our young people toward true college and career readiness. The recently released Primary Sources survey found that nearly 75 percent of teachers expressed enthusiasm for the Common Core. Further, more than half said they thought the standards would be positive for most students.

What many object to are the rushed timelines for implementing the standards and tests, a lack of adequate support for teaching the standards, and the simultaneous rollout of new educator evaluation systems based partly on student performance on these brand new tests.

These are valid concerns. Expecting educators and young people to adjust to such sweeping changes within a year or two, as do current federal and state policies, is unrealistic. But our response to these concerns can’t be abandoning the standards themselves, for in doing so we would abandon the best chance we have had in a very long time to focus all of our schools on the things that will...

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Now Look What You’ve Done

Mike and Michelle acknowledge that school board members, for better and sometimes worse, affect student outcomes in their districts. But they don’t have to accept the misleading headlines on Indiana’s standards debacle (a case study in the hazards of politicization if there ever was one), nor must they wholeheartedly back Arizona’s ESA program. Amber wonders if high-flyers maintain their altitude—and has déjà vu all over again.

Amber's Research Minute

The Icarus Syndrome: Why Do Some High Flyers Soar While Others Fall?” by Eric Parsons, Working Paper, July 2013.

In the Hoover Institution’s Defining Ideas journal, Tom Loveless has a brief, measured examination of today’s curriculum debates. Entitled “The Curriculum Wars,” the essay reviews age-old disputes between traditionalists and progressives in the 80s, 90s, and 00s, then reframes them in light of two recent developments: technology in education and Common Core. 

Loveless recalls the whole-language vs. phonics battle in reading instruction; project-based learning vs. content-oriented instruction in science; problem solving vs. computation skills in math; and multiculturalist, “national-sins” history vs. Eurocentric versions (He doesn’t use the term “Eurocentric,” but it’s implied). While the former (progressivist) approaches dominated education through the 90s, the “rise of accountability systems” that focused on basic literacy and numeracy skills, plus research showing the ineffectiveness of whole-language theories, blunted those approaches in reading and math and marginalized science and social studies/history debates.

We are now in a state of “relative calm” in curriculum matters, Loveless asserts, but technology and Common Core threaten to revive the controversies. In customizing instruction to each student, he warns, we may find the curriculum fragmenting to the point that students “no longer learn a common body of knowledge and skills at approximately the same time.” We might extend that concern to the outcome that there would no longer be any common body of knowledge and skills. (Loveless has a nice comment, too, on the “romantic ideology” of those we might call the “disruptivists,” who rely on doubtful theories of learning styles in their effusive advocacy of customization.)

The threat that Common Core poses...

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Yesterday, National Review Online posted an article entitled, “The Eleven Dumbest Common Core Problems.” This is the latest in a series of posts making their way around the internet aimed at demonstrating how the Common Core ELA and math standards are “forcing” low-quality, fuzzy math and politically charged English passages on our nation’s elementary students. But that’s like saying wet roads caused it to rain—it’s got the causation all mixed up.

The posts and the pictures of awful curriculum have parents, teachers, and community members rightly concerned. We should be teaching important content, free of political biases and agendas, and we should be teaching that content in the most effective and efficient way possible.

But we can blame the Common Core only if we have some evidence that pro-environmentalist reading passages—or otherwise low-quality elementary reading and math materials—are a new phenomenon. Or that they account for a significantly higher proportion of texts read than before CCSS. Or if opponents can demonstrate a clear link between the poor curriculum and the demands of the standards.

Thus far, very little (if any) such evidence has been presented, so it isn’t clear why the CCSS—or any standards that don’t explicitly demand fuzzy math or environmentalist literature—are to blame. Is choice to blame for charlatan school leaders? Because there is financial mismanagement of some charter schools, should we eliminate privately managed public schools? Hardly. But that is the same line of argument being advanced by opponents of the Common Core,...

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As followers of the Common Core debate know all too well, when it comes to the veracity of publishers’ claims of “Common Core alignment,” the most we supporters have been able to offer in the way of advice is: “...

Fordham goes mad for March Madness

Mike and Brickman consider whether “college for all” is the right goal, whether a competitive assessment marketplace will be good for Common Core implementation in the long run, and whether Wyoming is better off without the Next Generation Science Standards. Amber drops a line about online learning.

Amber's Research Minute

"The Relative Benefits of Live versus Online Delivery: Evidence from Virtual Algebra I in North Carolina," by Jennifer Heissel, Working Paper, Association for Education Finance and Policy. (Please email us for the link: ptatz@edexcellence.net.)

Digital Learning: The Future of Schooling? Session 1

Join us for this important, nonpartisan event about digital learning and where it will take education in Ohio -- and the nation -- in the years to come. National and state-based education experts and policymakers will debate and discuss digital learning in the context of the Common Core academic standards initiatives, teacher evaluations and school accountability, governance challenges and opportunities, and school funding and spending.

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