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.

Fordham has long been a supporter of results-based accountability for private-school choice programs. In January, we released a “policy toolkit” that recommended, among other measures, that all students who receive a voucher (or tax-credit scholarship) be required to participate in state assessments and that those results be made publicly available at the school level (except when doing so would violate student privacy).

This rustled a few libertarian and conservative feathers: the folks at Cato called this “the Common Coring of private schools,” James Shuls yelled “Don’t Test Me, Bro!,” and Jay Greene reversed his lifelong commitment to standards-based reform.  (Many wonks opined in support of our accountability recommendations, too.)

While we didn’t agree with the all of the arguments forwarded by our friends, we did come to see the risk to private-school autonomy and innovation that a test-based accountability system could create. We also understood the particular sensitivity around using Common Core tests for this purpose. So in April, in the National Review, we offered an olive branch:

Without backing away from our commitment to the inseparability of the two tracks of education reform, we see room for compromise on specifics. Yes, some degree of transparency and accountability is essential for all choice schools. We don’t buy the argument that we should leave it to “parental choice alone”; experience in the real world demonstrates (here as in every other market that we know of) that some external quality control is needed if

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Vicki Phillips, Hanna Skandera, and Patricia Levesque

Here follow the opinions of four experts on whether states should consider “pressing the pause button” for a couple of years before taking Common Core–aligned assessment results into account in high-stakes decisions on teacher evaluation, school accountability, and student promotion.

Let’s give students and teachers time

Vicki Phillips

As the school year comes to a close and we have a chance to reflect on the successes and challenges of the past nine months, I wanted to write to you about our work together to make sure the Common Core State Standards help teachers prepare their students for success. It’s been inspiring this past year to hear from teachers and educators in many states and school districts who are excited about the standards and the new lessons and materials they’ve been able to develop. Some are already seeing clear advances from their students.

An assistant superintendent in a Kentucky school district wrote to tell me that “reading and writing scores have increased across the board in our middle and high school....We see results not only in classroom visits, but on our state assessment, which is based on the common core.”

It is especially thrilling to hear about these students’ gains because we know they’re performing against rigorous standards. They’re taught to analyze and apply information, not just gather it and remember it. They’re encouraged to ask questions, solve problems, and think for themselves; they are becoming strong learners who can succeed in college or career; and they are gaining the skills...

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The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is thrilled to welcome Robert Pondiscio as our senior fellow and vice president for external affairs, effective today. Here's his first of many posts he will pen as a member of the Fordham Institute team. Look for his posts on topics besides Common Core on Flypaper.

Frank Bruni of the New York Times worries that the pressure of selective college admissions is forcing kids to do “stagy, desperate, disturbing things to stand out.” He tells the story of a would-be Yalie with good grades and test scores but whose personal essay described a conversation with a teacher she admired—a conversation too important and stimulating to interrupt. “During their talk, when an urge to go to the bathroom could no longer be denied, she decided not to interrupt the teacher or exit the room. She simply urinated on herself,” he writes. 

In Bruni’s telling, today’s college applicants have grown up in the era of oversharing, “a tendency toward runaway candor and uncensored revelation, especially about tribulations endured and hardships overcome.”

Certainly this trend of uncensored oversharing is disconcerting. But the fault, dear Bruni, is not in our scars but in our schools. To a significant degree, this awkward, uninhibited narcissism is aided, abetted, and even encouraged by what passes for writing instruction as far back as elementary school.

New York City’s schools, for example, have long been have long been in the thrall of the Teachers College ...

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Earlier this week, Gates Foundation education chief Vicki Phillips wrote a “letter to our partners” urging that states give students and teachers time to adjust to the new Common Core standards before using those standards as factors “in high-stakes decisions on teacher evaluation or student promotion for the next two years, during this transition.”

Earlier today, writing on behalf of the reform-minded “Chiefs for Change” group (seven current and six past state superintendents), New Mexico education secretary Hanna Skandera politely disagreed. Common Core implementation is well begun in many places, she noted, with some states having already worked at this for as long as four years, and states should decide for themselves whether they’re ready to attach consequences to student and school performance vis-à-vis the Common Core. “We must uphold our commitment to our students,” she wrote, “by ensuring the standards are measured and results are used to build a world-class education system….”

Call me a wimp, caught between two powerful women whom I like and respect, but honestly, they’re both right, albeit in different ways.

Attaching consequences to student achievement is always touchy, tricky, and technically complex, whether we’re talking about promoting and graduating kids, evaluating and rewarding (and retaining/dismissing) those who teach them, or giving grades (and interventions) to entire schools and districts. The data may be shaky, the analyses precarious, and the consequences almost inevitably unfair to some.

Change the standards, the curriculum and instruction, the tests and cut scores, and...

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What follows is the text from State Superintendent John White’s opening comments at the 2014 Teacher Leader Summit in New Orleans, Louisiana.

On behalf of the state of Louisiana, on behalf of its 50,000 educators, its 1,400 schools, and its 800,000 school children, welcome to the 2014 Teacher Leaders Summit.

Over the next two days, we will immerse ourselves in a special kind of community, one with great diversity but also a powerful and common bond: belief in the great potential of young people and in the ability of educators to unlock that potential.

This Teacher Leader event is truly led by teachers. Louisiana teachers designed this event. Louisiana teachers created each session. Louisiana teachers will be leading each session. And I’d like to take a minute to thank all of the Louisiana educators who made this day happen. If you are a Teacher Leader Advisor or if you’re leading a session today or tomorrow, would you please stand and be recognized so that we can thank you for your efforts here today.

I come here today invigorated by one simple idea: that our children in Louisiana are as smart and capable as any in America, that God has bestowed on them gifts as great as those of any children on Earth, and that we owe it to them to provide an education that is as challenging and as fulfilling as they would be provided anywhere else.

I come here today inspired by the...

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Governor Mary Fallin is in an unenviable position. If she vetoes HB 3399, which would repeal the Common Core and revert back to Oklahoma’s old standards, she faces backlash from the Legislature that wrote and passed the bill as well as from the activists and others who spurred them on. If she signs it, on the other hand, the political price may be lower but the impact on Oklahoma schools could be significant.

In a document I coauthored with former Oklahoma Secretary of Education Dr. Phyllis Hudecki, we analyze the potential impact of this bill. First and foremost, if the governor signs the bill, Oklahoma’s old standards, which do not fully prepare students for college or career readiness, will be put back in place. If that happens, there is a real risk that Oklahoma could lose its waiver from provisions of the No Child Left Behind law. Ironically, this move to get away from mostly imagined federal interference in the Common Core would result in significantly more real intervention because Oklahoma, unlike other states that have made changes to the standards, would immediately revert back to a set of standards that most recognize as falling short of college and career readiness. If Oklahoma loses its waiver, perhaps 1629 Oklahoma schools could be closed, converted to a charter, have their principal and half of their staff replaced or taken over by the state Department of Education.

Here are some highlights from our impact analysis and, specifically, six potential consequences of signing the bill...

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Jim Peyser

Here follows the third entry in Fordham’s “Charter School Policy Wonk-a-Thon,” in which Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to take a stab at explaining why some charter sectors outpace their local district schools while others are falling behind.

Mike Goldstein’s explanation for Boston’s charter school success is thoughtful, provocative, and (mostly) right…as always. I especially like his focus on our fair city’s natural talent advantage and the important role played by various individuals (besides Linda Brown who Mike rightly praises, I would add a few others like Linda’s BES colleague Sue Walsh, prescient charter school apostles Steven Wilson and Bill Edgerly, former state education commissioner Dave Driscoll, early charter authorizers Scott Hamilton and Ed Kirby, Boston Foundation CEO Paul Grogan, and the late, great philanthropist and free-marketeer Pete Peters.). The bottom line is that people matter, and Boston has been blessed with a lot of great ones, full stop.

Having said that, I would add two other factors that Mike doesn’t mention. For most of the first decade or so of the charter movement in Massachusetts, we benefited from bipartisan, full-throated support for charters from the key political leaders in the Commonwealth—i.e., the governor (Bill Weld, Paul Cellucci, Jane Swift, and Mitt Romney), the Senate president (Bill Bulger, Tom Birmingham), and the House Speaker (Tom Finneran). As a result, the early charter schools were afforded a degree of political air cover that allowed them to concentrate on building great...

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Here’s a puzzler: Why are the Common Core math standards accused of fostering “fuzzy math” when their drafters and admirers insist that they emphasize basic math, reward precision, and demand fluency? Why are CC-aligned curricula causing confusion and frustration among parents, teachers, and students? Is this another instance of “maximum feasible misunderstanding,” as textbook publishers and educators misinterpret the standards in ways that undermine their intent (but perhaps match the interpreters’ predilections)?  Or are the Common Core standards themselves to blame?

My take is that the standards are in line with effective programs, such as Singapore Math, but textbook publishers and other curriculum providers are creating confusion with overly complex explanations, ill-written problems, and lessons that confuse pedagogy with content.

Many of the “fuzzy math” complaints seem to focus on materials that ask students to engage in multiple approaches when tackling arithmetic problems. But to understand whether the confusion stems from the standards or the curriculum, let’s start by recalling what the CCSS actually require.

1. The Common Core explicitly demand student mastery of the standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division for both whole numbers and decimals.

Any honest reading of the standards must recognize that in grades 4, 5, and 6, the Common Core demand that students master standard algorithms. In grade 4, students should “fluently add and subtract multidigit whole numbers using the standard algorithm.” By grade 5, they are expected to multiply whole numbers using the standard algorithm. And by grade 6, they are expected...

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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....

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A great deal of hand-wringing has occurred in recent years concerning the United States’ poor academic performance relative to other nations. The anxiety is no doubt justified, as students from countries like South Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong are beating the pants off American pupils on international exams. It’s not just the East Asian countries: even the Swiss, Canucks, and Aussies are cleaning our clocks. But what about Ohio’s students? How does its achievement look in comparison to other industrialized nations? Like most states, not well, according to this new PEPG/Education Next study. To determine how states rank compared to the rest of the world, researchers link 2012 PISA results—international exams administered in thirty-four OECD countries including the U.S.—and state-level NAEP results for eighth graders in 2011. The researchers discovered that Ohio’s students fall well short of the world’s highest performers. When examining math results, Ohio’s proficiency rate (39 percent) falls 15 to 25 percentage points below the highest-achieving nations. (Korea, the worldwide leader in math, was at 65 percent proficiency; Japan was at 59 percent; Massachusetts, the U.S. leader, was at 51 percent). In fact, Ohio’s proficiency rate places us somewhere between Norway’s and Portugal’s achievement rates in this grade and subject. Moreover, Ohio’s weak international performance isn’t just a matter of our students having lower family resources relative to other nations. For example, among students whose parents had a high level of education, Ohio’s math proficiency rate (50 percent) still fell twenty points below the international...

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