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.

The opt-out-of-state-testing movement has notched more wins lately. “Thousands,” we read, are refusing to take the tests in New York alone. And tons more interest and attention are being devoted to this topic in states and communities far and wide.

Tough questions urgently arise: Is it legal to opt your child out of state tests? Should it be legal? And if it’s not—and ought not be—legal, is it a legitimate act of civil disobedience to refuse to obey such a law?

The recent surge of activity has more than one source. Partly it’s a response to broad concerns about too much testing and disquiet over curricular narrowing and test-prep overkill. Partly it’s a reaction against the Common Core standards, which have lately become controversial. And partly it’s just old-fashioned Rousseauian romanticism about the ends of education and the proper metrics by which to determine whether the right ends are being attained.

Yes, it’s understandable. But is it acceptable?

The legal status of testing opt-out is a bit murky. “Required by state law but not consistently enforced” seems to be the rule in most places. Colorado statutes, for instance, declare that “Every student enrolled in a public school is required to take the assessments in the grade level in which the student is enrolled.” New York requires participation in the tests but also has an administrative procedure in place for those who refuse....

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The mainstream media has been hyping bills lately (one passed in Indiana and one pending in Oklahoma) that would demand a review of the Common Core State Standards. The typical story features a headline declaring Common Core “repealed” in Indiana, while the rest of the article details why that’s not necessarily the case. In short, these laws do not prevent the state from adopting the Common Core or something substantially similar. But an amendment slipped into the state budget last night by the Kansas Senate would repeal the Common Core...and replace it with nothing.

First, some background. The Kansas Supreme Court recently ruled that the states funding formula is flawed and disproportionately sends funds to property-rich areas of the state at the expense of the property-poor ones. To remedy that situation, and with its legislative session quickly coming to a close, the legislature is scrambling to find about $129 million to put into aid for schools.

During this process, however, Senator Forrest Knox from Altoona introduced a provision that would prevent the state and local school districts from expending any state funds, “to implement the common core standards or any portion of such standards, including any assessments affiliated with common core standards unless the legislature expressly consents to the use of the common core standards.” The amendment passed 27–12.

Unlike bills in other states that call for review and maybe some tweaks to the standards, this provision is clear: Common Core would be no more in Kansas (at least until the legislature assented). The key provision...

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While I won't say I'm glad that Indiana (or any other state) is reversing its earlier embrace and spitting in the eye of the Common Core, it grieves me not at all that they now seem to be exiting.

Well, it grieves me that they may be consigning Hoosier schools and teachers and kids to a worse fate—the state's draft alternative standards aren't just educationally inferior to the Common Core, they're also worse than Indiana's own previous K–12 academic expectations—but it doesn’t upset me one bit that legislators are now pulling this plug. For it's been abundantly clear for months that their heart wasn't in the Common Core standards, which means they would have done a lame job of implementing and assessing performance in relation to them. (Be mindful that Indiana did a lame job of putting its own old standards into practice, which is at least part of why the state's academic results have been thoroughly mediocre.)

I've argued for years now that the forty-five-state number (original sign-ups for Common Core) was inflated, unrealistic, and implausible and that many of those states were never—are never—going to lift their hands to operationalize the standards. (One finger, maybe, but taking any set of new standards seriously means heavy, heavy lifting from many, many buckets. You can't do that with one finger.)

Far better for a smaller number of states that are serious about this implementation, assessment, and accountability challenge to stick with the...

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With Indiana making changes to the Common Core (and Oklahoma likely to follow), many are turning their attention to Louisiana. While some state legislative sessions began much earlier this year, the Bayou State is just getting started and has long been seen as a potential battleground in the fight over Common Core. Wednesday saw the battle get underway, with a marathon hearing to consider two bills: HB381 threatens to remove the Common Core standards, replace them with the old Louisiana standards, and begin the process of writing new ones, while HB558 would remove PARCC as the state assessment. This comes just days after a memorandum was issued pegging the cost of backing out of Common Core in the tens of millions of dollars. The bills were also probably more extensive than the previously referenced bills in Indiana and Oklahoma, due to the provision in HB381 that would have immediately reverted back to the old standards. After hours of testimony from both sides, including strong support for the standards from the education and business communities and strong opposition from activists and parents, there were two fairly major developments: First, Governor Jindal's office filed in support of the bills. And second, both bills failed by a 12–7 margin. Common Core foes have vowed to fight on, and it is likely we will see hearings on other bills to kill or modify Common Core.

RELATED ARTICLE: Julia O’Donoghue, “Education Department says scrapping Common Core would cost Louisiana,” Times-Picayune, March 28, 2014....

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For two decades now, education reformers have promoted a two-track strategy for improving our schools. The first track is standards-based: Set clear, high expectations in core academic subjects; test students regularly to see which schools and students are clearing the bar; and hold schools (and perhaps also educators and pupils) to account for the results.

The second reform track is school choice: Allow parents to select among a wide array of education providers, encouraging innovation along the way.

We have argued for years that these two tracks are interdependent — even codependent. Let us explain:

Standards-based reform got underway in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in part as a reaction to A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report by President Reagan’s Commission on Excellence in Education. This reform track offered what Lamar Alexander called a “horse trade”: more autonomy for schools in return for stronger academic results. Previous waves of reform had focused on inputs, intentions, and regulation: boost the credentials and pay of teachers; increase course requirements for high-school graduation; mandate lower class sizes; etc. When that yielded paltry success, policymakers flipped the equation: less regulation but more focus on outcomes.

That only works, however, when the desired outcomes are clear. That’s the role of academic standards, which, if well crafted, provide guidance to teachers, parents, textbook writers, and test designers about what students are expected to know and be...

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In the waning days of 2013, I highlighted five big issues to keep an eye on in 2014. Ohio’s new teacher-evaluation system was number two on the list. In terms of predictions mine was anything but bold; after all, this is the first school year that the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System (OTES) has been implemented. Any new system, especially one as important and controversial as OTES, is going to make headlines.

Last fall, Senator Randy Gardner introduced legislation (Senate Bill 229) to make minor modifications to the evaluation system. Most notably, he proposed reducing from 50 to 35 percent the amount of a teacher’s performance evaluation that is based on student achievement and lengthening the time between evaluations to three years for many teachers. The bill sailed through the Senate in less than a month, but it stalled in the House Education Committee until recently.

The House last week unveiled a substitute bill (legislative comparison document) that clarifies some ambiguities in the law and offers helpful tweaks. Other modifications are more substantive and could help school leaders to more accurately determine a teacher’s performance level. The most substantial among the House’s proposed changes include the following:

  • Incorporate student surveys into teacher ratings. Borrowing from the recent Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) study sponsored by the Gates Foundation, it would allow (not require) school districts to use student surveys as 20 percent of a teacher’s evaluation and would reduce the emphasis on the teacher-observation
  • ...
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Recognizing the contribution of schools and teachers to their students’ learning is a key element of a performance-based accountability system. Yet determining how to measure such contributions remains unsettled science. Two approaches—student-growth percentile (SGP) and value added (VAM)—have emerged as the most rigorous ways to measure contributions to growth. Even within the value-added category, there are several ways to specify the statistical model. (Ohio, along with a few other states, uses a proprietary model that was developed by William Sanders and is run by statisticians at SAS.) But does the model actually matter, as it pertains to teacher-level ratings? In this paper, researchers compare SGP to VAM, using longitudinal student data from public schools in Washington, D.C.. Interestingly, the authors specify a teacher-level VAM (not the Ohio model) that includes student background characteristics and an SGP model that excludes them.[1] Generally speaking, the researchers found strong correlations between the models (greater than 0.9 for both math and reading). However, the analysts found a number of outlying teachers whose growth estimates were substantially different across the two models. As a result, a minority of teachers (14 percent) would have landed in a different rating category depending on the model. The analysts, however, attribute very little of the differences to the inclusion-exclusion of background variables. So is one model superior? The authors can’t say—there’s no “magic model” to compare them with—but their research demonstrates that different models can alter some teachers’ ratings. Ohio’s state-level policymakers should...

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I’ve long argued that there is a meaningful and important difference between standards and curriculum. Pick your metaphor: The standards set the destination; they don’t define the journey. Or they describe the “what” but not the “how.” While a good set of K–12 academic standards can foster tremendous innovation and real choice for teachers and students, instructional flexibility is essential. There is no one “right” way to teach content and skills to all students. The right path depends on the strengths and needs of the students and the teachers as much as it does on the content itself.

It’s exactly because I see the potential—the necessity, even—for classroom-level innovation that I shudder when people argue that Common Core adoption is tantamount to the imposition of a single, national curriculum. In my mind, that is simply not what Common Core is meant to do. (In fact, more than three years ago, when some pushed for a common curriculum to match the common standards, I argued forcefully against it. I wrote that mandating state or national curriculum—either directly or indirectly—was “one of the least effective ways” of driving effective curriculum choices. Teacher buy-in is too important to curriculum implementation, and teachers are unlikely to feel bought into a curriculum that was forced upon them from state bureaucrats, no matter how well intentioned they are.)

But what happens when the lines between setting standards and mandating curriculum are blurred?

That is what I see happening...

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Sonja Brookins Santelises

While the New York State United Teachers and the National Education Association have withdrawn their support for the Common Core State Standards, it’s important to recognize that the teachers’ actions had nothing to do with the standards themselves. This blowback is yet another example of how concerns about implementation are being conflated with the actual merit of the standards.

Even among educators committed to serving children in poverty and kids already performing far below their potential, there is widespread agreement that these rigorous standards will help move more of our young people toward true college and career readiness. The recently released Primary Sources survey found that nearly 75 percent of teachers expressed enthusiasm for the Common Core. Further, more than half said they thought the standards would be positive for most students.

What many object to are the rushed timelines for implementing the standards and tests, a lack of adequate support for teaching the standards, and the simultaneous rollout of new educator evaluation systems based partly on student performance on these brand new tests.

These are valid concerns. Expecting educators and young people to adjust to such sweeping changes within a year or two, as do current federal and state policies, is unrealistic. But our response to these concerns can’t be abandoning the standards themselves, for in doing so we would abandon the best chance we have had in a very long time to focus all of our schools on the things that will...

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In the Hoover Institution’s Defining Ideas journal, Tom Loveless has a brief, measured examination of today’s curriculum debates. Entitled “The Curriculum Wars,” the essay reviews age-old disputes between traditionalists and progressives in the 80s, 90s, and 00s, then reframes them in light of two recent developments: technology in education and Common Core. 

Loveless recalls the whole-language vs. phonics battle in reading instruction; project-based learning vs. content-oriented instruction in science; problem solving vs. computation skills in math; and multiculturalist, “national-sins” history vs. Eurocentric versions (He doesn’t use the term “Eurocentric,” but it’s implied). While the former (progressivist) approaches dominated education through the 90s, the “rise of accountability systems” that focused on basic literacy and numeracy skills, plus research showing the ineffectiveness of whole-language theories, blunted those approaches in reading and math and marginalized science and social studies/history debates.

We are now in a state of “relative calm” in curriculum matters, Loveless asserts, but technology and Common Core threaten to revive the controversies. In customizing instruction to each student, he warns, we may find the curriculum fragmenting to the point that students “no longer learn a common body of knowledge and skills at approximately the same time.” We might extend that concern to the outcome that there would no longer be any common body of knowledge and skills. (Loveless has a nice comment, too, on the “romantic ideology” of those we might call the “disruptivists,” who rely on doubtful theories of learning styles in their effusive advocacy of customization.)

The threat that Common Core poses...

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