Standards-Based Reforms

Nationally and in Ohio, we press for the full suite of standards-based reforms across the academic curriculum and throughout the K–12 system, including (but not limited to) careful implementation of the Common Core standards (CCSS) for English language arts (ELA) and mathematics as well as rigorous, aligned state assessments and forceful accountability mechanisms at every level.

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Call it the Iron Law of Pedagogy: Every good teaching idea becomes a bad idea the moment it hardens into orthodoxy.

The latest example might be “close reading,” which has become yet another hot-button issue among Common Core critics. But complaints about it bother me less than its potential overuse, or the creeping notion that close reading is what all reading instruction should look like under Common Core. That would be bad for the standards, and even worse for reading achievement in the U.S.

Close reading is “an intensive analysis of a piece of text, in order to come to terms with what it says, how it says it, and what it means,” writes literacy expert Tim Shanahan of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Common Core expects students to “read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.”

Sounds simple, benign, even obvious. Would anyone not want students to be able to do this? Close reading for evidence and to support inferences is a far more rigorous and academically useful standard to meet than, for example, expecting student to produce a “personal response” to literature—the kind of content-free literacy practice Common Core is intended to...

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Though the occasional political firecracker still flares across the night sky, as of mid-2014 it seems likely that most of the forty-six jurisdictions that originally embraced the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) will stick with them.

That’s a seismic development for American public education, but whether it produces a 1.0 or an 8.0 on the Richter scale remains to be seen. It depends on (1) the thoroughness of implementation, (2) the selection (and scoring) of assessments, and (3) perhaps most of all, the ways in which results revealed by those assessments affect the lives of real people and their schools.

Today, all three are up for grabs.

The most important thing to know about the Common Core standards is that learning what they say you should learn is supposed to make you ready for both college and career, i.e., for a seamless move from twelfth grade into the freshman year at a standard-issue college, where you will be welcomed into credit-bearing courses that you will be ready to master.

That’s the concept. It’s a really important one and the main justification for the heavy lifting and disruption that these standards will occasion.

Today, far less than half of U.S. twelfth graders are “college ready.” (Never mind those who have already dropped out of high school.) The National Assessment Governing Board estimates that not quite 40...

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The 2013-14 school year marked the first year of the Third Grade Reading Guarantee (TGRG), a law that requires the retention of children not reading on grade level to be retained. This initiative was modeled after similar legislation in Florida and other states. The policy is also based on research that shows that students who can’t read on grade level by third grade are four times less likely to graduate than a child who reads proficiently. These numbers are even higher for children who live in poverty, particularly Black and Hispanic students.

In a TGRG document posted on its website, the Ohio Department of Education notes that approximately 24,000 students drop out of Ohio high schools each year. They go on to say that most of the students who drop out do not have the reading skills necessary for future success, and that the Third Grade Reading Guarantee is a way of ensuring support for struggling readers early in life.  At Fordham, we’ve long said that reading is important to long-term success, and research shows that third grade is a pivotal year. But with all this focus on third grade, we could be missing another pivotal year that’s just as deserving of our attention—ninth grade.

In the past few years, education researchers have begun to label ninth grade as the “make or break” year for students. Research shows that more students fail ninth grade than any other grade in high school, and a disproportionate number of students who are held...

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Since the beginning of the No Child Left Behind era, most schools in all 50 states have been given an evaluation of student performance and an overall rating. While crafting a thoughtful and nuanced accountability system is a frequent topic of discussion on The Gadfly (and is really what matters most), here I simply want to discuss the label that sums up a school's overall evaluation. Some might say it's wrong on principle to label schools. Others worry (and sometimes justifiably so) that a nuanced view of schools get lost when we attempt to boil it all down to a single school rating. Moreover, some may see these labels as nothing but a value judgment about "good" schools and "bad" schools when it's clear that parents value many different things about a school. From academics and facilities to safety and course offerings, even the "best" school might not be best for all kids. 

However, we can make objective judgments in some areas.  In addition, use of these labels is not only widely supported, it's also ingrained in federal policy through both NCLB and waivers. So the question is: If we're going to put schools into categories, what should those categories be called?  A few ideas to consider:

1.       States should avoid too few or too many categories - One of the major gripes about No Child Left Behind at the time of passage was that it treated similar schools very differently. The law initially set a bar for schools to clear called Adequate...

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For over a year, I’ve been encouraging Common Core advocates to stop endlessly re-litigating the standards and instead to focus on getting implementation right. Taking my own advice last week, I traveled to Reno to see first-hand the work of the Core Task Project, the initiative driving implementation of the standards in Washoe County, Nevada.

It was a refreshing and invigorating visit. Common Core is not without controversy anywhere. But Reno seems to have largely sidestepped some of the more heated battles. Washoe County’s implementation has become something of a national model—being one of four case studies highlighted in Fordham’s report Common Core in the Districts, published in February 2014.

Reno’s relative peace can be explained, I think, by several factors. First and foremost, under the leadership of curriculum and instruction specialist Aaron Grossman, implementation has focused on the right things—including building a coherent body of knowledge across and within grades (one of the broad “instructional shifts,” along with reading for evidence and a greater focus on complex and nonfiction text)—that are easy to rally around and hard to dismiss as unimportant.

But more importantly, Washoe County’s work simply gainsays many of the criticisms leveled at Common Core. Far from a top-down initiative, driven from afar by nationalizers, privatizers and moneyed interests, the Core Task Project is homegrown, teacher-led, and the...

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School report cards arrived today. The good news is that Ohio has a waiver from No Child Left Behind’s (NCLB) “100 percent proficiency” mandate for 2013-14. Very few Ohio schools, I suspect, hit the 100 percent mark in math and reading in 2013-14. (A rough read of district and charter-school data, indicate that a couple high-achieving charters came close; for instance, in grades 3-8 Columbus Preparatory missed 100 percent proficiency in just fifth-grade reading. Menlo Park Academy, a charter for gifted students, came close too.)

A good first step to understanding state assessments is looking at student proficiency. Proficiency is a one-year snapshot of student performance, measured by state exams, not necessarily a clear indicator of the performance of their school per se. For a clearer understanding of the impact of a school on achievement, we’d want to look at student-growth measures, such as the state’s value-added data. (We’ll unpack the value-added results in more depth in the near future—so stay tuned.) But proficiency does give us a general sense of how students performed on state exams in 2013-14.

Statewide, around one-in-five students fell short of Ohio’s standard for proficiency, though there is some variation across grade and subject. (That variation could be a result of the mechanics behind the definition of "proficiency" across grades/subject, not necessairly a function of differences in actual achievement across grades.) Figure 1 shows the proficiency rates for grades 3-8 and 10 in math and reading. The chart displays the...

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On September 9th, the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli participated in an Intelligence Squared U.S. debate on the Common Core, along with Carmel Martin, Carol Burris, and Rick Hess. These are his opening comments, as prepared for delivery. Or watch the video, embedded below, starting at minute 07:15.

Let me tell you a bit about the game plan that Carmel and I have sketched out.

First, I’m going to talk about the motion. What does it mean to “embrace the Common Core”?

Then I’m going to discuss the problems that the Common Core is designed to address—the problems with our education system and, frankly, with some of our previous education reform efforts.

Carmel will take up the potential of the Common Core to help narrow the achievement gaps in this country; the role that evidence and educators played in the development of the standards; and the issue of implementation—how it’s going and how we can help it go better.

Let’s be clear: we’re not going to argue that the Common Core standards are perfect. They aren’t. They weren’t handed down from Mt. Sinai.

We’re not going to argue that the Common Core is going to solve all of our educational problems. It won’t. No one reform...

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We seemed to have welcomed good manners back to the Common Core debate. That doesn’t mean we’ve seen more advocacy either on behalf of the standards or knocking them, only that the tenor appears to have changed for the better. At least for the time being, detractors are no longer paranoid Neanderthals, and supporters have ceased to be communists on the federal or Gates Foundation dole.

Whether this détente will prove to be ephemeral or lasting is anyone’s guess, but some credit should go to one CCSS advocate and one foe. In a Washington Times op-ed, Fordham’s Mike Petrilli and Neal McCluskey of Cato, hoping to tamp down the “raucous debate,” sought to re-ground the conversation in a number of facts.

Their piece argues, among other things, that both sides have good intentions; that much Common Core activity began before President Obama was elected, that much of that activity has been led by non-government bodies; and that federal policy—stretching from 1994 to this administration’s Race to the Top and ESEA waivers—has played a meaningful role in the standards’ adoption and implementation.

There are other clear signs of restraint. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee recently told a crowd that the Common Core fight should be dialed back. Though her union is still frustrated with implementation, AFT head Randi Weingarten penned an op-ed lauding the promise of the standards. Common Core co-author David Coleman recently denounced insulting language directed at opponents, and Glenn Beck scaled back his...

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Over the past four years on this blog, I’ve strived to advance a substantive conversation around standards and assessment through complex (and hopefully interesting) policy arguments. But finding new things to advance a discussion sometimes means losing sight of large and obvious things that need to be said over and over again. So, in my first post since returning to the world of schools, I want to make a completely obvious point: standards-aligned, summative tests are really, really important to providing students—especially our most disadvantaged students—with the education they deserve.

Yet, in the increasingly acerbic debate over school reform, these kinds of state-driven standardized tests have become an easy scapegoat for everything that ails education policy broadly and standards-driven reform more specifically. Indeed, with all the political capital being spent to save Common Core, opponents of the accountability side of standards-and-accountability-driven reform have seized an opportunity to push back against statewide testing mandates—to throw the tests under the bus in order to “save” the standards.

Leading the charge are, perhaps unsurprisingly, the nation’s largest teachers unions, who’ve long pushed back on the notion that assessment data should be a factor in school and/or teacher accountability. This summer, the NEA capitalized on the anti-CCSS momentum to launch a targeted campaign against “toxic testing.” And NEA president Lily Eskelsen García went as far as saying that that state CCSS-aligned tests are “corrupting the Common Core” and that they are made by people who “don’t have a clue” what they’re doing.

Adding insult...

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One of the arguments I’ve long made in support of Common Core is that properly understood and implemented, it’s a delivery mechanism for the ideas and work of E. D. Hirsch, Jr., and the Core Knowledge curriculum he created.

It’s gratifying—and, alas, too rare—when others connect the dots. But here is Politico, out with its list of fifty “thinkers, doers and dreamers who really matter.” Sharing number eight on the list is Hirsch and David Coleman, the principal author of the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts.

Hirsch’s work and output span decades, but a principal thrust of his ideas can be summarized thusly: reading comprehension is not a “skill” we can teach directly, practice, or master. It is not like riding a bike, where if you learn on one you can ride another with ease. Once you learn to “decode” the words on a page, your ability to read with understanding is largely a reflection of how much knowledge and vocabulary you have and share with the writer.

If schools understood and embraced this well-grounded insight, American education—and elementary education specifically—would look very different. There would be a lot less “question the author” and “find the main idea.” Instead you’d see teachers (especially those who work with our poorest children) restored, in David Coleman’s lovely and apt phrase, “to their rightful place as guides to the universe.” You’d see big chunks of the K-5 school day handed over to science, history, geography, and the...

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