Standards, Testing, & Accountability

The Common Core is at a critical juncture. While many surveys show that support for the standards themselves remains strong, implementation has not been without major challenges.

State Accountability in the Transition to Common Core, a new policy brief from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, provides cautionary advice about what key policymakers and influentials in a handful of states now see as transition challenges. In August and September 2013, the research team at Fordham interviewed officials and policy advocates in five states (Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, and New York) to glean how they are approaching accountability in the transition to the Common Core. While we found nuances in each state, four trends emerged.

  1. The accountability moratorium is here. Punitive consequences associated with accountability are largely being put on hold during the transition to the Common Core.
  2. Overall, states are treading carefully and strategically with assessments, since the quality of the forthcoming tests is still unknown.
  3. While state education agencies express conviction that teachers are being adequately prepared to teach the new standards, the quality and effectiveness of Common Core trainings and professional development is unclear.
  4. Though ESEA waivers were granted to give states additional flexibility, states are now finding themselves locked into a set of new, yet still restrictive federal policies.

Download the policy brief here....

The #Kimye edition

After discussing what the research says young North West’s likelihood of educational success are, Mike and Michelle get down to brass tacks on Oklahoma’s possible Common Core repeal, the value of a college degree, and what makes Boston’s charter sector so high quality. Amber grades America’s public pension plans.

Amber's Research Minute

The State of Retirement: Grading America's Public Pension Plans by Richard W. Johnson, Barbara Butrica, Owen Haaga, and Benjamin G. Southgate, (Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute, 2014).

Renaissance Learning’s annual look at what books students choose when they read for pleasure found high school students reading “far fewer words” than younger students and middle and high school students choosing books that are below grade level.

That first finding might well be troubling, but it will surprise no one who interacts with adolescents (or who has ever been one themselves)—the thinner, bigger-font book seems to reach out and grab us rather than the other way around.

But students may unwittingly be getting help from their teachers when it comes to picking below grade-level books.

In a national survey of English, language arts, and reading teachers released last year by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the subgroup of teachers who said they do not assign novels for the whole class to read were asked, “When you help individual students pick a novel to read, which of these are you more likely to consider: a student’s reading level or the grade level of the class?” The vast majority of elementary school teachers (83 percent), a majority of middle school teachers (57 percent), and more than one-third of high school teachers (36 percent) picked the former; barely handfuls (between 3 and 7 percent) said they mostly rely on “the grade level of the class.”

This is not to say that teachers don’t care about grade level. Larger numbers of middle and high school teachers chose the “something else” category, which included a combination of both ability and appropriate grade level, as...

Common Core State Standards have had quite a year in Michigan.

After a near-death experience in the spring of 2013, when a handful of legislators delayed their implementation via a budget provision despite strong support from the state’s business and education community, they sprang back to life in October when bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate voted to proceed full speed ahead.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that another major challenge lurks for the Great Lakes State and its education reform efforts: the misguided desire by some to move away from rigorous, Common Core–aligned student assessments, assessments that allow us to see progress, identify problems, and measure Michigan against other states in the nation—critical in our global economy.

Those of us who support standards-based reforms like the Common Core understand that standards alone are just words on paper. That’s why scholars such as Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution have found that states with stronger standards in the pre–Common Core era didn’t necessarily perform better on national tests of student achievement. That’s not surprising; it would be like thinking that developing countries that adopt better constitutions would automatically have better-functioning governments or economies. Constitutions, like standards, can lay a strong or weak foundation, but their success will depend on many other factors.

In the world of school reform, the most important complement to good standards is an aligned, challenging...

The F-AIR-Y Conspiracy

After considering whether their support of the Common Core has turned them gay, Mike and Checker get serious, discussing how young teachers are getting the short end of the stick with regard to teacher pensions and why so many low-income students drop out of college. Amber wonders why well-off U.S. students do poorly on internationally benchmarked exams.

Amber's Research Minute

Not just the problem of other people’s children: U.S. student performance in global perspective by Eric A. Hanushek, Paul E. Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann, (Program on Education Policy and Governance andEducation Next, May 2014).

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...

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...

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...

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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