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 had the privilege to speak in front of a group of education journalists convened by the Poynter Institute and the Education Writers Association about identifying strengths and weaknesses in curriculum.

This is a heavy lift for journalists. It’s simply asking too much for even the most seasoned education reporters to develop a discerning eye for curriculum; it’s not their job, and it makes their job covering the instructional shifts taking place under Common Core uphill work.

I referred my listeners to a recent NPR effort to get “super-specific about what makes a good Common Core–aligned lesson.” The reporter enlisted the aid of Kate Gerson, who works with EngageNY, a New York State Education Department’s web site. She’s one of the leaders of New York State’s transition to Common Core; NPR asked her to walk through a supposedly exemplary ninth-grade lesson—a close reading of a short story by Karen Russell entitled, “St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised By Wolves.”

Great idea! I’m all for reporting that sheds light on Common Core. I’ll admit that I’m not familiar with Russell or this particular story, but no matter. Standards are not curriculum. Common Core isn’t top-down and lock step. Local control and teacher choice rules! This is gonna be great!

NPR’s report continues,

Russell’s work meets recognized benchmarks for literary quality—her debut novel was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and she’s the winner of a 2013 MacArthur grant. Being new is good, too. “The phrase ‘contemporary authors’ is

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After nearly a decade of research, the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) released in May the first outcomes of its efforts to use the results of the 2013 12th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to report on the academic preparedness of U.S. 12th graders for college. It found that only 38% of 12th graders meet its preparedness benchmark in reading, and 39% meet its preparedness benchmark in math. NAGB’s efforts to track college readiness in the United States is uniquely important as it has the only assessment program that reports on the academic performance of a representative national sample of high school students.

That said, the group that issues the Nation’s Report Card deserves a grade of “Incomplete” for its work. Reading and math are obviously necessary indicators of academic preparation for college and careers after high school, but higher education and employers say it’s not enough. When it comes to the ability to complete college level work (and to being career ready), writing skills are essential. Yet, despite the fact that NAGB also administers a 12th grade writing test, it inexplicably chose not to include writing as an indicator of readiness.

If NAEP wants to remain the “gold standard” for assessment, NAGB must remedy this situation quickly. Postsecondary institutions and systems throughout the nation assess writing in order to determine whether students have the academic skills to succeed in first year courses. According to ACT, approximately one third of ACT test takers do not meet its readiness...

Students who cannot read early in life are barreling toward dropping out, adult illiteracy, and perhaps the welfare rolls. Someone has to intervene in these young lives—and the earlier, the better. Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee requires schools to take early action, including retaining youngsters who do not pass their standardized reading exam. This isn’t punitive, as some critics claim, or unnecessarily harmful to kids. Rather, such interventions could be the force that knocks these kids off the dreaded “school-to-prison pipeline.”

And they’re sorely needed, as witnessed by the recently released data revealing that more than 16,000 Buckeye third graders are in serious jeopardy of not entering fourth grade, as a result of failing their reading exams. Many of these children are from Ohio’s poorer areas (over one-quarter of them live in the “Big Eight” urban districts), but thousands more reside in middle-class communities. These youngsters did not earn the minimum score on their reading exam for either the Fall 2013 or Spring 2014 rounds of testing.[1] Now they have one last chance—if they want it—to take the state’s assessment this summer or to pass an alternative one.

The fact that 10 percent of Ohio’s third graders need heavy-duty summer remediation or will probably have to repeat third grade—and that hundreds more barely passed—should give us pause. Granted, many schools are struggling valiantly to help young readers, and hats off to Ohio’s educators for upping their attention on early literacy.

But...

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Greg Harris

In our last Ohio Gadfly, we analyzed recent changes to Ohio’s Teacher Evaluation System (OTES) and suggested ways it could be improved. This guest commentary by Greg Harris, Ohio State Director of StudentsFirst, emphasizes the critical importance of evaluations.

Ohio’s new Teacher Evaluation System (OTES) is a significant step forward in improving the quality of instruction for our K–12 students. For the first time, teachers will be evaluated, at least in part, on their impact on student learning gains. (Traditionally, teachers have been evaluated only through observation.) OTES also elevates the role of principals by having them play a more active role in observing and developing their teachers—hence, reconnecting them to classrooms and making teacher quality their priority. In creating such a process, Ohio has established a robust framework for identifying its strongest teachers, as well as spotting and improving the performance of its less effective teachers.

But with the sudden emergence and quick passage by the Senate of Senate Bill 229 in December 2013, OTES was unexpectedly put on trial only half way through its first year of implementation. The bill actually seemed reasonable at first glance. Its sponsors maintained that by exempting teachers rated in the top two categories (“Accomplished” or “Skilled”) from annual evaluation, schools could focus their energies on developing weaker teachers. The problem, however, is that under previous evaluation systems, the majority of Ohio teachers had been rated in the top two tiers. If this trend held true, SB 229...

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The recent repeal of the Common Core State Standards in Indiana, South Carolina, and Oklahoma has given renewed the hopes of Ohio’s Common Core detractors. During the just-completed Mid Biennium Review (MBR) process, the legislature agreed to a number of compromises to address their concerns, but critics remain unsatisfied. This small but vocal minority is now agitating on behalf of a discharge petition for House Bill 237, which would repeal the state’s adoption of the Common Core.

A discharge petition is a little-used legislative tactic that, if the petition is signed by fifty House members, allows a bill that fails to get committee approval to move directly to the floor for consideration by the whole chamber. Supporters for HB 237 have, thanks to the leadership of Chairman Stebelton and other members, found little success in the Education Committee and have resorted to the discharge petition process.

It’s worth noting that even if the discharge petition is successful (i.e., if it gets fifty signatures and removes the bill from the Education Committee), HB 237 would still need to secure approval from the House, Senate, and governor to become law. Although these chances are slim, consider the potential consequences.

Consequence #1: If the Common Core standards are repealed, Ohio must find something to replace it. Shockingly, shortly after South Carolina chucked the Common Core, a state administrator admitted, “We don’t have time to do that [i.e., write new standards].” It seems like the Palmetto State will substitute...

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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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