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.

Everyone knows that the Common Core State Standards initiative has turned into a political football. But a more apt analogy might be baseball—spring training, to be exact. That’s because, for all the colorful commentary, the Common Core is still in the very earliest phases of implementation. It isn’t yet time to pay much attention to the score; instead, we ought to work out the kinks and improve the fundamentals.

And to be sure, tons of progress is needed before states, districts, and schools are ready for game day. That’s the upshot of Common Core in the Districts: An Early Look at Early Implementers, a new in-depth study from our think tank. Along with analysts at the group Education First, we examined initial implementation efforts in four districts that are ahead of the curve: Kenton County (KY), Metro Nashville (TN), Illinois’s School District 54 (Schaumburg and vicinity), and Washoe County (Reno, NV).

Here are three major challenges they are facing and what they are doing to overcome them:

1. In the absence of externally vetted, high-quality Common Core materials, districts are striving to devise their own—with mixed success.

Curriculum publishers were suspiciously quick to proclaim that what they are selling is aligned with the Common Core, and districts are rightly wary of such claims. It takes time to develop and vet high-quality textbook series and other curriculum. All four districts expressed caution about spending limited dollars on materials that were not truly aligned to the Common Core and are delaying at least...

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Bill Porter

Yesterday, Kathleen discussed the relationship between standards and choice, ultimately arguing that these two movements ought to operate as complements, rather than antagonists.

Many critics on the Right reject the intrusion of standards-based reforms from the very basic tenets of economic theory.  A truly free-market approach, they argue, would obviate the need for standards because competition and universal choice would identify excellent and poor schools (and educators) more efficiently and effectively than centrally imposed standards ever could.

This position resonates with free-market purists and conservative education reformers alike (and as an unabashed free marketeer, to me as well). Yet, fidelity to economic principles without a realistic discussion of the world within which they operate is problematic for a number of reasons.

First, even the most ardent Chicago economists would agree—whether regarding education policy, drinking water, or anything in between—that the ideal free market with no distortions is both unattainable and undesirable.  We could reduce rent-seeking behavior and deadweight losses across almost every industry by eliminating things like the FDA, federal antitrust laws, statewide insurance commissions—even state speed limits or (gasp) lawyers.   Eliminating clinical trials would allow large pharmaceutical drug companies to move innovative new compounds quickly to market with minimal cost, and the resulting successes (cured cancer patients) and failures (horrific side effects for the patients who managed to survive substandard drugs) would almost assuredly be closer to the true definition of “efficient” than our current processes.

Similarly, the Constitution secures to inventors exclusive rights to their inventions,...

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Just because the label on that pint of ice cream says it’s “fat free” doesn’t mean it won’t expand your waistline—and just because a textbook is labeled “Common Core aligned” doesn’t mean it actually covers the material it’s supposed to. In this new study (which has already garnered some serious attention from the press), USC assistant professor (and alum of Fordham and AEI’s EEPS program) Morgan Polikoff studied seven math textbooks aimed at fourth graders, including their work samples and practice exercises. Polikoff found that the content of the textbooks ranged from 27 percent to 38 percent aligned—dismal results. Further, he found that one-sixth to one-seventh of the material in the Common Core standards was not covered in the analyzed textbooks. However, though these findings highlight important Common Core implementation concerns, we would be remiss if we did not point out a significant methodological issue: Polikoff compared the textbooks and the standards using the Survey of Enacted Curriculum, which—while, granted, one of the very few tools available—doesn’t measure content coherence. What’s more, the analysis assumes equal weight for all standards, though school districts, assessments, and common sense dictate that some should receive greater attention than others. For a more nuanced look, stay tuned for a Fordham review of leading “Common Core” curricular materials in the months ahead.

SOURCE: Morgan S. Polikoff, “How Well Aligned Are Textbooks to the Common Core Standards in Mathematics?” to be presented...

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The modern education-reform movement is essentially made up of two distinct but complementary strands: one focuses primarily on raising K–12 academic expectations, particularly for poor and minority students, who have long been held to lower standards than their middle-class and affluent peers. The second is aimed at expanding education choice through various mechanisms, chiefly charter schools and vouchers.

Unfortunately, these reforms have often been pursued in isolation, with advocates pushing for one or the other but not both together. Some even claim that the two strategies are competitors, if not antagonists. But the reality is that, in order to see real progress and avoid the most vexing unintended consequences of either reform pursued alone, each needs the other in order to deliver on its promise. And therein lies a challenge.

Over the past 25 years, both standards-based and choice-based reforms have moved forward, but standards/assessment/accountability has grown faster than choice. Today, it’s fair to say that every public-school student in the country is impacted in one way or another by his or her state’s standards. By comparison, the number of youngsters benefiting from choice programs is much smaller. In 2014, only 16 states offer tax credits to assist with private-school tuition, while just 13 have voucher programs of any kind; and although 43 jurisdictions have...

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Lisa Hansel

Having observed, and occasionally weighed in on, the Common Core standards debates, I’m sure of one thing: no one is paying enough attention to the good work educators across the country are doing as they attempt to bring these new standards to life. Journalists, op-ed writers, and bloggers are doing a fine job of gathering quotes from educators to represent pretty much every possible attitude toward the standards, but so far there has been little research or reporting on the day-to-day work of implementation.

So I was heartened to read Fordham’s new report, Common Core in the Districts: An Early Look at Early Implementers; it gets inside schools in Kenton County, KY; Metropolitan Nashville, TN; District 54, IL; and Washoe County, NV. Early adopters always face the greatest challenges. It’s much easier to sit back and let others do the hard work—but if everyone had that attitude, nothing would ever be accomplished. These districts should be congratulated for their willingness to lead the way and to serve as case studies for Fordham’s report. No doubt they expect to learn along the way, and our commentary on their work should be in the spirit of helping.

Reading this report, the one way I can help is by encouraging these districts to carefully consider the extent to which they are meeting the academic literacy goals of the standards. As best I can tell...

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Aaron Grossman

The recently released Fordham report on the implementation of the Common Core State Standards includes the work of Washoe County, my district. Naturally, a report like this cannot include every detail, and what follows is how my peers and I concluded that reorienting instructional practice, to emphasize building a coherent body of knowledge through content-rich nonfiction, was paramount.

If you can remember way back to the spring of 2011, you will recall that states and districts were developing their first implementation efforts around the CCSS. Popular approaches involved crosswalking previous state standards to the new standards. (e.g., personification was in the fifth-grade Nevada Standards and now could be found in the sixth-grade CCSS); employing the assistance of national experts who could describe strategies and schemes for implementation; and buying from publishers their new “CCSS materials.”.

It was against this backdrop that my colleagues and I in Washoe found a video of David Coleman, one of the contributing authors to the ELA CCSS, emphasizing something entirely different then the aforementioned. Instead of a strategy, a new set of materials, or crosswalking, he suggested that educators focus on the instructional shifts. The first of these encouraged teachers to build knowledge through content-rich nonfiction.

In a particularly provocative moment from the speech, Coleman accurately describes what happens in too many elementary classrooms: the literacy block is extended to account for the reading tests, and because of this, little or no time is left for social studies, history,...

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Angelica Blanchette

If the latest Indiana draft standards for English language arts are any indication, rewriting the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for reading seems to be an exercise in futility. I’m not claiming that the standards are perfect—no standards are—but they are strong, particularly in the early grades, where the Common Core Reading: Foundational Skills standards for grades K–2 clearly articulate the early reading skills that students must master to become fluent and proficient readers.

Unfortunately, a careful comparison between the Common Core Reading: Foundational Skills standards for K–2 and the new Indiana draft standards reveals little in the way of meaningful changes.

In short, if Indiana leaders wanted to use this standards review process to improve on the standards, they would have done better to create a companion guide to the CCSS that interprets and extends the standards in ways specific to the state.

The following issues are pervasive in the Reading K–2 standards of the Indiana draft.

·      To echo Kathleen Porter-Magee’s recent Common Core Watch post, one issue Indiana’s educators will face if these draft standards are adopted is weak organization. The CCSS make a distinction between higher-level “anchor” standards (e.g., “RF.2.3 Know and apply grade-level phonics and word analysis skills in decoding words”) and grade-specific supporting standards (e.g., “RF.2.3a Distinguish long and short vowels when reading regularly spelled one-syllable words”). The Indiana draft standards do not retain this distinction. Instead,...

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“Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.”

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

I vividly remember a seventh-grade English teacher telling our class, with great solemnity, “Small minds use big words.”

For years, this guided my writing.

Until I figured out how wrong, how profoundly wrong, she had been.

And that’s why I’m so concerned about the new SAT’s approach to vocabulary—namely cutting “obscure” and “arcane” words. According to the Times,The SAT’s rarefied vocabulary challenges will be replaced by words that are common in college courses, like ‘empirical’ and ‘synthesis.’”

Over the last 25 years, I’ve come to the conclusion that maximizing the words at one’s disposal is indispensable for two reasons.

First, words enable us to explain, and an infinitely complex world requires an expansive vocabulary so we can be clear and precise.

Jane Austen is known for her extensive vocabulary, which can cause eye rolling: “blowsy,” “solicitude,” “diffident,” “abstruse,” and “licentiousness.”

But as I read her books, dictionary always nearby, I found that every single time she used an unfamiliar word, it was because that word was exactly right; it captured the nuance she intended to convey.

For example, in one famous case, she might’ve used “shy” but chose “diffident” instead.

Why?...

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Duplication is not always a good thing. Think about it, most of us don’t carry two cell phones. In a world with limited pants-pocket space, two phones would be senseless, right? Ohio’s school report cards have two essentially-the-same achievement components, both of which receive an A-F letter grade. It’s time to toss one of them for parsimony’s sake.

The first, the indicators-met component, is determined by whether 75 percent of a school’s test-takers reach proficiency on the state’s twenty-four assessments (85 percent for eleventh grade). The second, the performance-index component (PI), is a composite score weighted by the proportion of test-takers who attain each of the state’s five achievement levels.

Though the two indicators differ slightly, they produce very similar results for any given school. In other words, if a school gets a low PI letter grade, it is nearly assured that it will receive a low indicators-met grade. The same is true in the reverse—high PI schools will likely get a high indicators-met grade. Here’s the evidence.

Table 1 shows the letter grades of Ohio’s 3,089 schools by indicators met and PI. As you can tell, the grades correspond closely. For example, 99 percent of schools that received an A for indicators met received either an A or B on PI. One-hundred percent of schools that received a B on indicators met received a B or C on PI. Well over one-thousand schools received an A/B grade combination. There are very few schools that received mixed, high-low ratings:...

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Discussions about current education-reform efforts are typically focused on three separate topics: the Common Core standards, the new tests, and the curriculum. The alignment among the three seems to receive little attention—though it is a critical matter, as the degree of alignment will determine the validity of student test scores. One may presume that the tests currently being prepared by the two consortia of states are closely aligned with the standards. But in cases where states are making or buying their own tests, there is less assurance.

The creation of a curriculum, the provision of instructional materials, and the training of teachers is the purview of the states. This will lead to what I call “the delivered curriculum”—what the students are taught in the classroom. The degree to which the delivered curriculum matches the standards, as well as the alignment of the test, will determine the degree to which the test results are valid. This would seem to be elementary, but getting it to happen is a daunting challenge.

It is daunting because the standards are considered higher than those now in most states. New pedagogies are required. The training is expensive and time consuming—and there is a question of how many qualified instructors are available to provide the training, as well as how much time already-busy teachers are being allocated for the training. Another question concerns what funds can be made available in cash-strapped states. The degree to which teachers are prepared will inevitably vary among states and school...

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