Standards, Testing, & Accountability

Our slim new book Knowledge at the Core: Don Hirsch, Core Knowledge, and the Future of the Common Core has three large aims. First, it pays tribute to three decades of scholarship and service to American education by E. D. (Don) Hirsch, Jr., author of Cultural Literacy (and three other prescient books on education reform) and founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation. Second, it restates the case for a sequential, content-rich curriculum for America’s elementary and middle schools. Third, it strives to chart a course for the future, a future in which many more schools embrace Hirsch’s Core Knowledge program—or something akin to it—en route to successful attainment of the Common Core State Standards for English language arts/literacy and mathematics.

Five of the essays included in the volume were first presented at a December 2013 conference in Washington, D.C., cohosted by the Fordham Institute and the Manhattan Institute. Video from that event, and a terrific documentary about Don and his contributions to American education, are available on our website at edexcellence.net/hirsch.

That day left us hopeful—not a word that often comes to mind amidst the rancorous debates now swirling about education in general and the Common Core in particular. Yet Don himself is, by admission, an unwavering optimist; his enthusiasm is as contagious as his ideas are bracing. So in that spirit, let us make the hopeful case that many more of America’s schools are on the precipice of finally embracing those ideas—and thereby boosting their students’ chances of achieving...

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As the Common Core debate rages on in blogs and statehouses, educators are getting on with the business of putting these standards into practice. In these three issue briefs, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) offers direction to charter authorizers navigating the challenges posed by CCSS implementation. The first brief provides a simple introduction to CCSS and CCSS-aligned assessments, including a list of questions that authorizers can ask themselves to self-diagnose exactly how the Common Core will affect them and their schools. (For example: “How do my state’s implementation requirements apply to charter schools?” and “Does my state have a federal accountability waiver?”) In the second brief, NACSA stresses the importance of maintaining charter schools’ autonomy during the transition to CCSS and the new assessments: The authors remind authorizers that the Common Core is a set of learning standards, not a curriculum (“Although the framers have developed suggested reading lists, and some states have adopted them as menus for school districts’ convenience, the new standards do not dictate what textbooks or instructional methods schools must use”), and that schools should avail themselves of their freedom to use whatever materials will help their students reach the standard. (Of course, as explained above, that doesn’t mean “anything goes.” Some materials work much better than others, indeed some are apt to defeat the Common Core.) The third (and most extensive) brief digs into maintaining accountability, warning authorizers that school performance may drop significantly with the new tests. NACSA offers...

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Lisa Hansel

Pop quiz! Which of the following statements is in the Common Core State Standards?

(a) Through extensive reading of stories, dramas, poems, and myths from diverse cultures and different time periods, students gain literary and cultural knowledge.

(b) By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas.

(c) At a curricular or instructional level, texts—within and across grade levels—need to be selected around topics or themes that systematically develop the knowledge base of students.

(d) Having students listen to informational read-alouds in the early grades helps lay the necessary foundation for students’ reading and understanding of increasingly complex texts on their own in subsequent grades.

(e) All of the above.

The answer is e, all of the above. Knowledge is the key to reading comprehension. It’s the key to college, career, and citizenship readiness. It’s the key to meeting the Common Core standards. (see pages 10 and 33 of the standards—and for even more on building knowledge, see page 6 and Apendix A page 33).

To be even more blunt, the standards require a “content-rich curriculum” (page 6) that is “intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades” (page 10).

If you are a master teacher with a supportive administrator and collaborative colleagues, the standards give...

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The rumor around the water coolers in D.C. is that President Obama plans to mention the Common Core State Standards in his State of the Union Address next week—for the third year running. He should reconsider, for three reasons.

First, it will feed the narrative that Common Core is, in fact, a federal takeover of public education.

Many Common Core opponents I debate on talk-radio shows or speak with in person eventually get around to admitting they have very few problems with the standards themselves and think they are better than what their state had in place before (we think so too). But, as Andy Smarick wrote earlier this week,

They are skeptical of big promises and big government. They are skeptical of centralized solutions. And they are skeptical of enlightened national leaders who pat them on their heads.

Remember, they were told by such enlightened leaders that if they liked their insurance, they could keep it. They are once bitten, twice shy.

Why would an administration that has already insulted Common Core opponents give them another reason to claim that this is true?

Second, the President is deeply unpopular; associating himself with the Common Core is simply unhelpful. As of writing, Gallup put the President’s approval rating at 39 percent. His approval among Republicans, like those who will be determining the fate of the Common Core in the states where the issue is most contentious, is likely dipping near or into the single digits. Even if...

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Two months ago, a group of Catholic university professors signed a letter urging Catholic bishops and diocesan school leaders to reject the Common Core. “We believe that implementing Common Core would be a grave disservice to Catholic education in America,” they argued.

…we are convinced that Common Core is so deeply flawed that it should not be adopted by Catholic schools which have yet to approve it, and that those schools which have already endorsed it should seek an orderly withdrawal now.

The content of the letter itself is not surprising to anyone following the debate over the CCSS. Indeed, perhaps the most interesting thing about it is how closely it sticks to the typical anti–Common Core talking points we’ve heard over and over again in the past year. The authors repeat the often-cited complaint that algebra is taught too late, point to the (misguided, in my opinion) concern that adopting the CCSS will sideline great literature in English classrooms, and argue that Common Core is aimed not at college readiness but, rather, at “standardized workforce preparation.” In short, the bulk of it looked less like a thoughtful and uniquely Catholic critique of the Core than a hastily composed form letter.

The problem is not that Catholics shouldn’t weigh in on the Common Core debate. Rather, the problem is that authentic Catholic concerns get sidelined when we take our cues from actors who don’t share our interests. And by bringing these political talking points uncritically into...

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American Girls, the Common Core, and everything in between

Mike and American Girl Michelle tackle accountability in private-school-choice programs, whether people are more likely to favor reform once they know how mediocre their schools are, and how applying “disparate impact theory” to the enforcement of school-discipline rules will lead to nothing but trouble. Amber incentivizes us to learn more about teacher-transfer incentives.

Amber's Research Minute

Transfer Incentives for High-Performing Teachers: Final Results from a Multisite Randomized Experiment by Steven Glazerman, et al., (Washington, D.C.: Mathematica Policy Research and Institute of Education Sciences, November 2013).

Yesterday’s column by George Will condemning Common Core is a very bad sign for the standards’ advocates.

I suspect that many Common Core backers on the political left either don’t know much about George Will or reflexively dismiss him because he’s a conservative. As a general matter, that’s a shame, but in this particular case they should pay close attention.

And fast.

Will is trusted implicitly by many on the right for two important reasons. First, he is deeply learned. He is the son of a philosophy professor, earned a graduate degree from Oxford and a PhD from Princeton. He was a university professor and U.S. Senate aide. He has authored more than a dozen books, and he’s won a Pulitzer Prize.

Second, his conservatism is rooted firmly in time-tested principles. His are not knee-jerk politics; they are not spontaneously oppositional to any utterance by a Democrat—he reveres the late former Johnson administration official and liberal U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Nor are his views dependent on Rush Limbaugh’s or Bill O’Reilly’s talking points. He has publicly and harshly criticized prominent Republicans including Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and Ann Coulter.

Will believes in the virtues of longstanding institutions and the vices of well-meaning but naïve technocrats. He trusts well-regulated markets to more fairly and fluidly distribute capital, goods, and services than government-generated formulas. He is distrustful of an expansive federal government, because its appetite for money and power is voracious and its interventions are too often ineffective and...

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There were many important releases and developments this week—invaluable new SIG information from IES, Race to the Top audits, new Brookings “choice index”—and I couldn’t keep up! Those subjects and others will get fuller treatments from me next week. But until then, here are some worthwhile things to read over the weekend.

There has been much talk about the 50-year anniversary of The War on Poverty. Here’s the best stuff I’ve seen: This Gerson column smartly points out the federal government’s successes and failures (and though this superb Brooks column on evolving conservative policy thinking isn’t about The War on Poverty per se, it should be read in conjunction with Gerson’s). This short blurb by Checker Finn is terrific; the first-person narrative is compelling, and for history buffs and those fascinated by the intersection of politics and policy, it offers something special. This very good piece by my old high school friend (now at AEI) Josh Good echoes family-related arguments made by Finn’s mentor a half century ago.

If you care at all about Common Core, this Stephanie Simon article about conservative backlash is an absolute must read. There are several different strands in the piece worth thinking about (including the CCSS-as-a-stepping-stone strategy), but these two sentences speak volumes: “Still, (Common Core) supporters have struggled to counter the critics. They have had trouble even understanding the contours of the smoldering opposition.” As I told TNTP (see fifth paragraph),...

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Earlier this week, AFT president Randi Weingarten came out against the use of value-added measures in teacher evaluations, citing recent VAM shortcomings in D.C. and Pittsburgh and launching the catchy slogan, “VAM is a sham.” VAM certainly is not perfect. But as Dara Zeehandelaar reminds us in this week’s Education Gadfly Show, teachers decades ago were concerned about being capriciously fired by principals who didn’t like them, which in turn led to the movement for a more structured and quantifiable teacher-evaluation system. Does Randi want to go back to favoritism? Or simply no accountability at all?

In a fascinating exposé of the Common Core opposition movement, Politico’s Stephanie Simon describes how a sophisticated group of strategists took a grassroots campaign, mainly populated by “a handful of angry moms,” and is milking it for political gain. With everyone’s questionable motivations out in the open, Gadfly would like to see the debate return to whether the standards are right for kids.

In a speech at the Brookings Institution, Eric Cantor named school choice as the best hope for the poor to escape cyclical poverty. He took special aim at New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, for planning a moratorium on charter school co-locations in the Big Apple, arguing that this could “devastate the growth of education opportunity in such a competitive real estate market.” Cantor went on to chastise President Obama for (again) refusing to fund the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, a successful initiative that...

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The Arctic Vortex edition

Invigorated by the weather, Mike and Dara give cold shoulders to anti-Common Core strategists, California’s constitution, and Randi Weingarten’s “VAM sham.” Amber gets gifted.

Amber's Research Minute

Who Rises to the Top? Early Indicators,” by Harrison J. Kell, David Lubinski, and Camilla P. Benbow, Psychological Science 24 (2013), 2013: 648–59.

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