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.

Last week, I complained that Eva Moskowitz and other reformers weren’t being fair when they described schools as “persistently failing” because they didn’t get many of their students to the ambitious levels built into the Common Core. This is how I concluded:

The move to higher standards means that we need to recalibrate our rhetoric and, more importantly, our approach to school accountability. In the low-standards days, it was perfectly legitimate to call out schools that couldn’t get all or most of their students to minimal levels of literacy and numeracy. It simply doesn’t work to similarly defame schools that don’t get all of their students “on track for college and career.” It’s a much higher bar and a much longer road.

But reform critics aren’t any better when it comes to playing games with the new standards. Diane Ravitch and Valerie Strauss, for example, continue to peddle the notion that the Common Core is developmentally inappropriate because it expects all students to be able to read simple passages by the end of kindergarten. Perhaps without knowing it, they’re making the same mistake as Moskowitz and others: misunderstanding the standards’ aspirational nature.

The core problem is the assumption that, by simply setting standards, policymakers expect “all students” to meet them. That might have been the case in the past, when we set the standards bar at an extremely low level—and yes, it was signaled by NCLB’s...

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in a slightly different form at Tim Shanahan's blog, Shanahan on Literacy.

Ladies and gentlemen, we're quickly sinking into the quicksand of yet another presidential campaign. I'm writing to help with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) issue. I don't want any of you tripped up by a feeble or foolish argument, and there are lots of ways of doing that. I'm sure you all know not to rely on your thirteen-year-old kids for policy advice—and not to sigh audibly and roll your eyes, since it will look like you sent your thirteen-year-old to debate in your place. If you can't stare down a callow opponent successfully, how will you ever convince voters that you can handle Putin or ISIS?

I won't be so bold as to suggest what your position should be on Common Core, but I do have advice as to which arguments to avoid.  

1. Previous educational standards were better.

Don't make this claim. It can only embarrass you (it's as bad as not being able to spell "potato"). Past standards were so low, they were the educational equivalent of everyone getting a tee-ball trophy. Many U.S. students met those standards and still needed basic reading, writing, and math instruction in the workplace or university—expensive places to obtain an elementary or secondary education. Anyone who argues against the CCSS should be able to explain why they want lower educational standards or else embrace a viable alternative. (Note to campaign...

A torrent of complaints has been levelled against testing in recent months. Some of the criticism is associated with the PARCC exams, Ohio’s new English and math assessments for grades 3–8 and high school. The grumbling over testing isn’t a brand new phenomenon. In fact, it’s worth noting that in 2004, Ohioans were grousing about the OGTs! In the face of the latest iteration of the testing backlash, we should remember why standardized tests are essential. The key reasons, as I see them, are objectivity, comparability, and accountability.

Reason 1: Objectivity

At their core, standardized exams are designed to be objective measures. They assess students based on a similar set of questions, are given under nearly identical testing conditions, and are graded by a machine or blind reviewer. They are intended to provide an accurate, unfiltered measure of what a student knows.

Now, some have argued that teachers’ grades are sufficient. But the reality is that teacher grading practices can be wildly uneven across schools—and even within them. For instance, one math teacher might be an extraordinarily lenient grader, while another might be brutally hard: Getting an A means something very different. Teacher grading can be subjective in other ways, including favoritism towards certain students, and it can find its basis in non-achievement factors like classroom behavior, participation, or attendance.

But when students take a standardized exam, a much clearer view of academic mastery emerges. So while standardized exams are not intended to (and should not) replace...

In the pre-Common Core era, we had a big problem. Most state tests measured minimal competency in reading and math. But we failed to communicate that to parents, so they reasonably thought a passing grade meant their child was pretty much where they needed to be. Little did they know that their kid could earn a mark of “proficiency” and be reading or doing math at the twentieth or thirtieth percentile nationally. Frankly, we lied to the parents of too many children who were well below average and not at all on a trajectory for success in college or a well-paying career.

Playing games with proficiency cut scores provided much of the impetus behind Common Core. States raised standards and started building tests pitched at a much higher level. Most states are giving those tests for the first time right now, though New York and Kentucky made the transition two years ago. As of 2013, New York’s tests were the toughest in the country, according to a new analysis by Paul Peterson and Matthew Ackerman in Education Next, matching—if not exceeding—the performance standards of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.  

That may solve the “proficiency illusion” issue. But now we have a new problem. Some education reformers and media outlets are already using the results of the new, tougher tests to brand schools as “failing” if most of their students don’t meet the higher standards. Note, for instance, the Daily News’s special report, “Fight for their...

Nearly five years into Common Core implementation, educators across the country continue to struggle to identify and access high-quality instructional materials aligned to the new academic standards, often relying on outdated textbooks or cobbling together multiple sets of materials to get by.

A valuable resource is now available for educators. Edreports.org, a new nonprofit organization reviewing materials for alignment to the Common Core, last week released findings from its initial round of evaluations. The consumer reports-style reviews (conducted by experienced educators, including classroom teachers, principals, and instructional coaches) evaluate curricular materials against three sequential categories, or "gateways"—“focus and coherence,” “rigor and the mathematical practices,” and “instructional supports and other usability indicators”—with only those meeting the first gateway advancing to the second and third. On the whole, findings are not promising. Of the twenty K–8 mathematics instructional series reviewed to date, only one met EdReport.org's criteria for alignment at all grade levels (Eureka, grades K–8), with a second series meeting the alignment criteria in two grades (My Math, grades 4–5). Eureka’s strong showing is particularly impressive, as it didn’t exist five years ago—it was originally created from scratch for the EngageNY website, whose combined math and ELA curriculum modules have been downloaded nearly eighteen million times. Take that, commercial publishers!

Michigan State University’s Dr. William Schmidt comes to similar conclusions in his reviews of thirty-four commonly used math textbook series for alignment to the Common Core math standards, also released last week. While overall alignment results are disheartening, the ...

The language of standards—even relatively straightforward ones like Common Core—can easily flummox the layperson (and more than a handful of professionals). What does it mean if a third grader is supposed to “use multiplication and division within 100 to solve word problems in situations involving equal groups, arrays, and measurement quantities?” Common Core might say a fifth grader should be expected to “write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons and information.” But—on a good day at least—so should a columnist for the New York Times. What’s the difference?

Parents cannot be faulted if they look at the standards, find them less than helpful, and want to know simply, “What should my child be able to do at this age?” That’s the goal of an interesting new project from GreatSchools, the school information megasite for parents. “Milestones” seeks to demystify the standards with a free and engaging collection of short videos in English and Spanish showing what grade-level work looks like in grades K–5. Each short clip shows students with their teachers “demonstrating what success looks like in reading, writing and math, grade by grade.”

Created in collaboration with Student Achievement Partners and the Vermont Writing Collaborative, the videos aren't comprehensive—not every single standard is represented (the audience is parents, not teachers). But each segment is tightly focused, clear, and explicit: “Does your second grader read smoothly like this?” asks one. “Does your fourth grader understand how to compare fractions?” And so on....

As Ohio marches through testing season, concerns continue to surface over whether the state's New Learning Standards are in the best interests of Buckeye students. Though Ohioans are understandably focused on what these standards mean for their home, the relative success neighboring Kentucky is having with the standards might calm Ohio’s fears—and perhaps inspire it to make its implementation more effective.

In February 2010, Kentucky was the first state to adopt the Common Core State Standards and incorporate them into the Kentucky Core Academic Standards (KCAS). Common Core was widely seen as a huge step up for Kentucky—Fordham called Kentucky’s prior standards “among the worst in the country” and gave both the language arts and mathematics standards a D grade. Much like Ohio, Kentucky played a significant role in the drafting process for the Common Core. Teachers, the public, administrators, higher education officials, and the staff from three agencies (the Council on Postsecondary Education, the Education Professional Standards Board, and the Kentucky Department of Education) gave input and feedback on the standards.

The new standards were first taught in Kentucky schools in the 2011–12 school year. The state’s implementation of Common Core centered on leadership teams made up of content teachers from each grade level, special education teachers, instructional leaders, and administrators from all 173 school districts. Team members received in-depth training on the standards, and math and English teachers were charged with breaking down the standards into student learning targets....

Ever since I published my article in the special Education Next issue marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Moynihan Report, “How can schools address America’s marriage crisis?,” I’ve been hearing from friends—most of them liberal education reformers—questioning why I’d want to wade into such treacherous waters. It’s made me think that perhaps many of us on the Left and Right are talking past one another. Allow me to take another crack at explaining my intent.

First, let me clear: no purpose can be served by shaming single parents. There are millions of amazing single moms and dads out there, doing an incredible job raising their children.

Nor should we provide an excuse for schools—to help unions and others explain away the low performance of many children who come from one-parent families.

My concern isn’t with people who have already gone down the road to single parenthood. By all means, we should support them and cheer them on as they do the hard work of parenting. My concern is for the young people whose family formation decisions still lie ahead of them—those who might, in Isabel Sawhill’s memorable phrase, tend to “drift into parenthood.” My argument is that educators and reformers should worry as much about the future parenting decisions of their charges as they do about their future educational choices. That’s because the evidence is quite clear that single parenthood, in general, is related to diminished academic attainment and achievement. It is both one cause of America’s growing...

This post has been updated with the full text of "No time to lose on early reading"

I’m a fan of the Common Core State Standards, but I recognize there are many reasonable and honorable areas of disagreement about them, both politically and educationally. One recent thread of opposition, however, strikes me as quite unreasonable: the idea that Common Core demands too much by expecting children to be able to read by the end of kindergarten.

recent report from a pair of early childhood advocacy organizations (Defending the Early Years and Alliance for Childhood) makes the argument that “forcing some kids to read before they are ready could be harmful” and calls for Common Core to be dropped in kindergarten and “rethought along developmental lines.” It’s a really bad idea. Early reading struggles left unaddressed tend to persist, setting kids up for failure. Common Core is not without faults, but its urgency about early childhood literacy is not one of them.

The first red flag in the report is its insistence that Common Core is “developmentally inappropriate.” That sounds scientific and authoritative, but it’s a notoriously slippery concept, harkening back to the day when Piaget theorized that children go through discrete developmental stages. University of Virginia cognitive scientist Dan Willingham points out, “children's cognition is fairly variable day to day, even when the same child tries the same task.” What critics seem to be saying is that Common Core is simply too hard for kindergarten. But that’s...

I’d like to see Bobby Jindal use a teleprompter the next time he attacks Common Core. I’d like to be reassured he knows how to read.

Jindal continued his full-throated and disingenuous attack on Common Core for the benefit of the base at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last week. “The federal government has no right imposing curriculum,” he noted, “when these decisions have always been made by local parents, by teachers, by local leaders.” Needless to say (unless you’re saying it to the governor of Louisiana), Common Core comes nowhere near imposing curriculum; this the cynical Jindal surely knows—or at least would know if he actually took the time to read the standards. 

Jindal was the worst offender, but not the only one. At CPAC, Marco Rubio invoked the prospect under Common Core of “a national school board that imposes a national curriculum on the whole country.” What curriculum, Senator? 

Even National Review, no bastion of squishy liberalism, cringed at a CPAC panel on the standards, describing it as “a badly missed opportunity to educate conservatives about how Common Core has created tension between small-government principles and the priorities of one of the most successful right-of-center movements of the past couple decades, education reform.” As NRO’s Patrick Brennan noted,

The moderator focused one of her questions on the idea that one of the biggest problems with Common Core has been its “content,” listing sex education, evolution, and U.S. history as flashpoints. This is straight-up misinformation—Common Core...

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