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.

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...

While the merit and politics of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have been much debated and discussed, one topic has been virtually ignored: What do the standards portend for America’s high-ability students?  In a new brief from Fordham, Jonathan Plucker, professor of education at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education, provides guidance for districts and schools implementing the Common Core.

1. Common Core is no excuse to ditch gifted services.
2. State and local officials should get rid of policies that hurt gifted students and strengthen those that help them.
3. Schools should work hard to make differentiation "real."
4. Schools should make use of existing high-quality materials that help teachers adapt the Common Core for gifted students.

Download the brief, read “Can gifted education survive the Common Core?” by Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Amber M. Northern, and watch today’s event to learn more.

What does the Common Core portend for America’s high-achieving and gifted students? Quite a kerfuffle has erupted in many parts of the country, with boosters of these rigorous new standards declaring that they’re plenty sufficient to challenge the ablest pupils and boosters of gifted education fretting that this will be used as the latest excuse to do away with already-dwindling opportunities for such children.

Previous research by Fordham and others has made clear that the pre-Common Core era has not done well by high achievers in the United States. Almost all the policy attention has been on low achievers, and, in fact, they’ve made faster gains on measures such as NAEP than have their high-achieving classmates. Gifted children, in our view, have generally been short-changed in recent years by American public education, even as the country has awakened to their potential contributions to our economic competitiveness and technological edge. It would therefore be a terrible mistake for the new Common Core standards, praiseworthy as we believe they are, to become a justification for even greater neglect.

We asked gifted education expert Jonathan Plucker of the University of Connecticut to help us and others understand what lies ahead, particularly with regard to how the opportunities presented by the Common Core can benefit high-ability students as well as others. In a new brief, Common Core and America’s High-Achieving Students, he addresses these challenges and provides guidance for CCSS-implementing districts and schools as they seek to help these...

J. Richard Gentry

This post originally appeared in a slightly different form at Psychology Today.

There is much wrong with American kindergartens—but the Common Core State Standards are not to blame. If interpreted correctly, the Common Core standards for literacy enable us to help enhance the kindergarten experience for all kindergarten children—from the underprepared to the most gifted and advanced. Here’s how the literacy standards can be interpreted to support reading and writing in kindergarten without harming any child.

A recent report by early childhood experts amplified by the Washington Post says that “requiring kindergartners to read—as Common Core does”—may harm children. The position paper, written by early childhood experts, states that many kindergartners aren’t developmentally ready to read. While well intended, both the media report and the recommendations of the early childhood experts lead us down the wrong path.

What’s the Harm in Common Core Kindergarten Literacy Standards?

Both the Washington Post report and the research report, which was issued jointly by the Defending the Early Years and the Alliance for Childhood organizations, call for the kindergarten Common Core State Standards (CCSS) to be withdrawn. Six of the literacy standards are deemed “harmful.” In this post, I un-complicate the six CCSS kindergarten standards and ask you to decide if each of the standards would be an appropriate expectation for your child in kindergarten. You may find that the standards are reasonable and desirable once they are demystified and interpreted correctly.

Not only are my interpretations based on cognitive development and socio-cultural theory, but also on a tried and true...

We at Fordham are big fans of Jason Riley, a Wall Street Journal columnist who just joined the team at the Manhattan Institute. So we were doubly disappointed to see him parrot the Russ Whitehurst/Tom Loveless argument that “standards don’t matter.”

Of course they don’t—in isolation. On their own, content standards are just words on paper (or, as Rick Hess likes to say, akin to restaurants’ mission statements). We’ve acknowledged as much for years.

The question is whether they can spark instructional change. That’s no sure thing; as we’ve argued forever, it takes a ton of hard work at the state and local levels. First, it requires developing tests that assess the full range of the standards, including the challenging ones; this is something that arguably no state save for Massachusetts actually did in the pre-Common Core era. Second, it means investing in high-quality curricular materials and allowing time for teachers to master them. (No, the curricular materials need not be—and should not be—“national.” But surely we can do better than the schlock that textbook companies have been peddling for years.)

This is where Riley’s argument falls apart. He quotes Whitehurst saying that teachers are what matter most—and it’s true that researchers have long found big differences in teacher effectiveness both within schools and across schools. But there’s no law of physics stating that such huge differences are inevitable. It’s arguably America’s uneven, amateurish approach to curriculum...

Last week, writer Laura McKenna took to the Atlantic to try to understand why some suburban moms (yes, many of them white) have turned against the Common Core. She settles on misinformation as a driving force, which is certainly a factor. For example, if these parents understood that their own local schools still have complete control over curriculum and textbooks, perhaps they wouldn’t be so frustrated with standards set so far away.

But this is still an unsatisfactory answer. My own sense from watching this debate play out is that many of the “white suburban moms” who oppose Common Core also share a romantic, progressive view of education that is at odds with traditional schooling in general. We will never convince them of Common Core’s value, nor should we expect to. Instead, we should allow them to opt their kids out of traditional public schools and into schools (including charters) that are proudly progressive.

This conclusion is informed by a groundbreaking study we at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute published in 2013, What Parents Want: Education Preferences and Trade-Offs. Its major (and surprising) finding was that most parents actually want pretty much the same things from their schools: a solid core curriculum in reading and math, an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, and the development in students of good study habits, strong critical thinking skills, and excellent verbal and written communication skills. That list matches up pretty darn well with the Common...

A report last month from a pair of advocacy organizations, the Alliance for Childhood and Defending the Early Years, argued that “there is a widespread belief that teaching children to read early will help them be better readers in the long-run,” but that there is “no scientific evidence that this is so.” The Washington Post and its Common Core-averse education blogger, Valerie Strauss, have been particularly aggressive in highlighting this report and running pieces from both parents and teachers arguing that “forcing some kids to read before they are ready could be harmful.”

The report, titled Reading in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose sounds an alarm over a perceived shift “from play-based, experiential approaches to more academic approaches” in early-childhood classrooms starting in the 1980s. “Under the Common Core State Standards (CCSS),” the authors claim, “the snowball has escalated into an avalanche which threatens to destroy appropriate and effective approaches to early education.”

The authors make much of the fact that no one involved with writing the standards was a K–3 teacher or early-childhood professional. The more important issue, however, isn’t who wrote it, but whether Common Core is beyond the abilities of five-year-olds or the expectations we should have for them. The short answer, I think, is “no.” But let’s look at some of the report’s specific complaints.

Expecting kindergarteners to read is “developmentally inappropriate.”

The much-used phrase “developmentally appropriate” (or inappropriate)...

Student learning gains ought to be a component of teacher evaluations. Measures such as value added are a useful and important complement to classroom observations. But not all models are created equal, as illustrated by a new lawsuit in Tennessee that reveals a rather preposterous policy.

Last week, the Volunteer State’s largest teacher union sued the state in federal court over a law that ties student test scores to evaluations of educators who teach such non-core subjects as art, French, and gym. Teachers in Tennessee receive annual scores between one and five, with five being best. Those scores determine all manner of high-stakes administrative decisions affecting teachers, including bonuses, termination, and tenure. Approximately half of the metric is based on classroom observations, the rest on student test scores. For a teacher in a core subject such as math, and in a grade in which students are tested, this model makes sense. The bulk of the test-based portion of her rating is based on how well her students do on the math portions of the state’s standardized tests. That’s rational. A smaller portion, 15 percent, is based on “school-wide” performance—how well all the schools’ students do in all subjects tested. That also makes at least some sense as a strategy for encouraging teacher collaboration.

Yet for non-core instructors—the focus of the lawsuit—the law becomes rather absurd. Aside from a few questionable alternative assessments that aren’t widely used in Tennessee, no standardized assessment data exist for the subjects and pupils...

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