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.

Officials at the Department of Education have requested public comments by January 21 about areas in the new Every Student Succeeds Act where regulation might be “helpful or necessary.” My recommendation to the feds: Tread very lightly.

That’s not an ideological plea (though I am ideologically disposed to a limited federal role). It’s because there’s no one best system for school accountability, and there never will be. Uncle Sam has to be damn sure not to smother good ideas that the states might develop, now or in the future.

That’s not to say that anything goes. ESSA established “guardrails,” in D.C. parlance, to ensure that states don’t eviscerate results-based accountability. They cannot decide to judge schools by nothing but student engagement, or teacher happiness, or the number of hugs a kid receives each day.

But Congress did give the green light to the states to come up with new approaches to rating school quality. It’s critical that John King and his colleagues don’t put on the red light before the process even begins.

Let me offer a few examples of novel approaches that deserve to be permissible, and even embraced, under the law—but that the micromanagers at...

Let’s just stop pussyfooting around and say it out loud: The “historic” peak in the country’s high school graduation rate is bullshit.

According to federal data released late last year, and dutifully trumpeted ever since (including in last night’s State of the Union address), the nation’s high school graduation rate has hit an all-time high, with 82 percent of the Class of 2014 earning a diploma. “As a result, many more students will have a better chance of going to college, getting a good job, owning their own home, and supporting a family,” crowed then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Isn’t it pretty to think so?

In fact, Secretary Duncan might be right for now. Confidence and good will are baked into a high school diploma. It is an academic promissory note that signals to college admissions staffers, employers, and others that the holder has achieved some reasonable level of academic proficiency. But it’s also a faith-based system. It only works if people believe it stands for something tangible.

Regarding the recent spike in graduation rates, good luck figuring out what it stands for. Not improved student proficiency, certainly. There has been no equally dramatic spike in SAT scores. Don’t look for a parallel uptick...

I encountered a bit of advice this week that my dear mother would have welcomed during her brief and inglorious career as my pre-Algebra tutor: When it comes to assisting kids with their math assignments, parents can afford to do less.

After struggling to help her first grader with some unfamiliar addition and subtraction formats, the Hechinger Report’s Kathleen Lucadamo sought advice from teachers and parents on how to cope with changing curricular materials and methods. The group recommendation was basically to act as the highway patrol rather than a chauffeur—that is, be on the lookout for breakdowns and give directions when necessary, but don’t pick the route and do the driving yourself. In the words of Jason Zimba, a physicist and the lead writer of the Common Core math standards, “The math instruction on the part of parents should be low. The teacher is there to explain the curriculum.”

This consensus is more than just a remedy for the brain-melting feuds erupting at American kitchen tables over the spiffiest way to factor a polynomial. It also offers a shortcut around one of the least enlightening discourses of modern education politics, which is the squabble over why none of us can...

Civics is at or very close to the top of my education priority list. I’ve often lamented how far we’ve strayed from the founding ideals of public education, which had more to do with preparing young people for effective self-government than college and career readiness. NAEP results reinforce just how badly starved for oxygen civics and history are in our schools. If reading and math proficiency are at crisis levels, civics and history have reached a state of advanced decay. Fewer than one in four eighth graders score “proficient” in civics; in history, it’s even worse—just 18 percent at or above proficient. We don’t even bother to test in twelfth grade anymore. Perhaps we just don’t want to know.

From the Education Commission of the States comes a new brief, “Youth Voting: State and city approaches to early civic engagement.” The report notes that opportunities for youth participation in city and state elections “are becoming part of the policymakers’ toolkit to create engaged citizens and lifelong voters.” Specific initiatives—preregistration to vote of individuals as young as sixteen in twelve states and the District of Columbia; allowing seventeen-year-olds to vote in primaries, municipal races, and school...

The Apple App Store and Google Play are chocked-full of educational apps for your kids, some excellent and some schlock. Separating the wheat from the chaff is no small task; thankfully Graphite (a spin-off from Common Sense Media) does an excellent job highlighting and reviewing the better ones. This list from Education Next is super-helpful too.

But in both cases, the focus is overwhelmingly on apps that teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. Maybe because that’s what schools are most focused on, or maybe those subjects present fewer design challenges for app builders.

But that leaves a gaping hole: The teaching of history, geography, science, art, and music, what you might otherwise call “content knowledge.”

This is a big problem for three reasons:

  1. Those subjects are important in their own right;
  2. They are treated as after-thoughts by most elementary schools, making them even more critical to cover in out-of-school time;
  3. They are essential if kids are going to actually learn how to read.

That last point is worth lingering on. As E.D. Hirsch, Jr. has argued for thirty years—and cognitive scientists have since proven in the research lab—teaching content is essential to teaching reading. While it’s important for...

Some say the world will end in fire. Some say in ice. But if you’re pressed for time and want to end all intelligent life quickly, nothing beats a task force.

In New York last week, a task force chosen by Governor Andrew Cuomo issued its report on Common Core. In a model of stunning governmental efficiency, the group managed to “listen” to 2,100 New York students, teachers, parents, and various other stakeholders. They then retreated to their chambers to write, edit, and publish a fifty-one-page report a mere ten weeks after they were impaneled. But clearly that was time enough for these solons to learn and thoughtfully consider what the Empire State needs: to adopt “new, locally driven New York State standards in a transparent and open process.” The report has twenty recommendations on how to bring this about.

It should be noted (speaking of governmental efficiency) that God himself was content with a mere ten modest suggestions to govern all known human activity. Cuomo’s task force has double that number—just for Common Core in a single state. But God acted alone. On a task force, every voice must be heard, every grievance aired. And they were, in all their...

In its 2015 state policy analysis, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) found that fourteen states (including Ohio) saw positive charter policy changes since its inaugural report last year. These wide-ranging improvements demonstrate the value of sizing up a state’s legal framework, diagnosing its structural problems, comparing it to peers, and using that information to press policymakers for change. In other words, rankings like this—and other seemingly wonky law and policy reviews—may actually pave the way for real improvements.

NACSA analyzed and ranked every state with a charter law (forty-three, plus the District of Columbia) against eight policy recommendations meant to ensure a baseline of authorizer quality and charter school accountability: 1) Can schools select from at least two authorizers? 2) Does the state require authorizers to meet endorsed standards (like NACSA’s)? 3) Does the state evaluate its authorizers? 4) Do poor authorizers face sanctions? 5) Do authorizers publish annual performance reports on schools? 6) Is every charter bound by a contract that outlines performance expectations? 7) Are there strong non-renewal standards, and can authorizers effectively close poor performers? 8) Does the state have an automatic closure law on the books?

Additionally, the report offers...

Laura Overdeck

We’ve seen a lot of hand wringing over math achievement in this country. Our students continue to underperform against their peers in other countries, lighting a fire under educators and politicians to push new STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programming in schools. While these panicked efforts have admirable intentions, they are mostly barking up the wrong tree. Kids spend vastly more time outside school than in it—four or five times as many waking hours—and one-on-one attention during that time is a major unpulled lever for generating change. Sadly, the large majority of our population misses out on that opportunity completely.

It begins with parents, who are their children’s first teachers. Kids respond to the in-person presence of their parents more strongly than to anyone else. Patricia Kuhl at the University of Washington's Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences (I-LABS) has shown that when a baby sees someone touch her mother’s hand, the same region of the baby’s brain lights up as when someone touches the baby’shand. But when the baby instead watches a video of the person touching her mom’s hand, those regions don’t light up. Nor do they light up when a stranger’s hand is touched. Moreover, babies respond more strongly...

This study examines whether information supplied about a student’s ability helps inform that student’s decision to enroll in Advanced Placement classes. Specifically, the information “signal” is the “AP Potential” message on the student’s PSAT Results Report, as written by the College Board. Students who score at a certain cut point on the PSAT get a message that says, “Congratulations! Your score shows you have potential for success in an at least one AP course!” or else a message that says, “Be sure to talk to your counselor about how to increase your preparedness.”

Students in Oakland Technical High School who took the PSAT in 2013 made up the sample of roughly five hundred sophomores. The intervention was as follows: Right before and after they received their PSAT results that included one of the AP Potential messages above, they were given a survey that asked them (1) how they perceived their academic abilities and their plans relative to attending college; (2) the number of AP courses they plan to take; (3) whether they would take the SAT; (4) the probability that they’d pass the exit exam; and (5) the probability that they’d graduate high school.

Analysts found that the AP signal...

Aided by a highly misleading New York Times article, the anti-Common Core crowd is pushing the narrative that Massachusetts’s recent testing decision (to use a blend of PARCC and its own assessment rather than go with PARCC alone) spells the end for the common standards effort. AEI’s Rick Hess and Jenn Hatfield called it a “bruising blow.” Bill Evers and Ze’ev Wurman described a testing system in “disarray.” Cato’s Neal McCluskey tweeted that Common Core is getting “crushed.”

It reminds me of my favorite Monty Python scene. I’m sorry, haters, but Common Core isn’t dead yet.


Sony Pictures Home Entertainment / Via here

First, let’s deal with Massachusetts, where the state board of education has decided to use a hybrid of PARCC and the Bay State’s own MCAS. In what must surely be a first, Commissioner Mitch Chester and Common Core opponent (and one-time senior associate commissioner) Sandra Stosky concur: This move is no repudiation of PARCC. As Chester wrote in a letter to the Times, “Neither my recommendation to the Massachusetts Board of...

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