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.

Mayor Bloomberg is justifiably proud of the big gains New York City made in boosting the high-school graduation rate on his watch, with about two-thirds of students now graduating in four years, up from half a decade ago. This appears to be the result of a whirlwind of creative efforts, including expanding educational options for teenagers via the creation of hundreds of brand-new high schools.

Yet Mayor Mike’s good work for big kids is matched by lackluster results for the city’s younger students. Eighth-grade reading scores, for instance, barely budged from 2003 to 2011, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (2013 scores are due out next week).

Perhaps this is one reason that de Blasio wants to expand the city’s pre-K offerings. In theory, giving low-income students a head start at age four will help them become better readers and better learners.

But de Blasio needs to come to grips with a simple truth: Any gains provided by a massive new investment in preschool will quickly fade away if he doesn’t also tackle New York City’s mediocre elementary schools.

What makes them mediocre? It’s the curriculum, stupid — or the lack thereof. When Bloomberg and Joel Klein exploded on the scene in the early 2000s, they were famously agnostic about what kids actually learn in the classroom day to day. To Klein’s credit, he eventually came to see the errors of his ways, and in his last years as chancellor he embraced the Core Knowledge program—a coherent, content-rich curriculum that is a model for...

In this blog series, we’re examining how five states—Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, and New York—are approaching accountability in the transition to Common Core. Earlier this week, we explained that an accountability moratorium is already in place, at least in the states we’ve studied.

One reason that state education officials are hitting the pause button on accountability is that the tests used to assess student achievement are still in flux. State-consortia-designed tests will not be operational until next school year (2014–15), but time does not stand still for test developers. So we wanted to know, how are states approaching assessment during the transition?

Overall, states are treading carefully and strategically, since the quality of the forthcoming tests is still unknown.

One approach we observed is to modify existing state exams to cover the content of both the old state standards and the Common Core. In Massachusetts, the state’s new MA 2011 standards are actually a combination of the pre-existing state standards and CCSS; each year, additional Common Core content is being integrated into MCAS. In Colorado, the state is using TCAP, a transitional exam bridging its old standards and the Common Core standards. Officials explain that this paced approach is intended to ease students in to the new, more rigorous content, rather than to assess the entirety of the standards in one fell swoop.

A second strategy, used in Massachusetts, Colorado, and Arkansas, is piloting Common Core–aligned exams by introducing them to select students or districts first before administering...

The world of education is no stranger to controversy. The most recent kerfuffle centers on Ohio’s use of the Common Core State Standards which were adopted by the Ohio State Board of Education in 2010.

Opposition to Ohio’s latest academic standards in math and English language arts has sprung up based on half-understood ideas of what standards are, what they’re for, and how they came into being. In an instant, and several years after the fact, the undoing of the Common Core has become a zealous calling for folks urging their school boards and their state legislators to stop the implementation of Ohio’s duly adopted academic standards.

But the Common Core isn’t new for Ohio’s educators, who have been implementing these deeper and more rigorous standards over four school years. Superintendents, principals, and teachers are not only fully aware of but also have been actively engaged in implementing what is required of them and their students under the state’s new academic content standards.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s recent eye-opening series of articles depict how educators are embracing the challenge of the Common Core. These articles should serve to ameliorate the fears of those who oppose the Common Core, while heartening parents, educators, and policymakers who want more rigorous learning expectations in their schools. These articles describe in detail the on-the-ground and in-the-classroom realities of Common Core implementation in Northeast Ohio. These reporters have done a masterful job looking at how education professionals in 26 different districts – from working class...

Long before the Common Core State Standards were on anyone’s radar, the “reading wars” raged furiously. They began as a fight about the best way to teach children how to read in the early grades, and the camps were divided between advocates of “whole language” and “phonics.” Today, the battles continue, though the issues have grown increasingly complicated and their implications extend well beyond the early grades and the phonics/whole-language divide.

Recent debates over reading instruction in the Common Core era have included skirmishes among three helpful—and ultimately complementary—approaches: “close reading,” “knowledge first,” and “skills and strategies.” All three of these are miles better than a fourth (but increasingly popular) approach: “just right texts.”

Let’s examine them.

Close Reading

One flashpoint in the reading debate emerged in 2011, after a lead author of the Common Core ELA standards, David Coleman, challenged teachers with a new vision for reading instruction. It entailed ratcheting up the complexity of texts that students read—something the Common Core explicitly demands—and encouraging students to plunge directly into the text itself, rather than spending time pre-teaching background content and vocabulary (an approach about which the standards themselves are silent). This version of close reading focuses on three things: 1. Selecting appropriately complex texts that are worthy of close reading and analysis, 2. Sequencing texts thoughtfully with an eye towards building student content knowledge and vocabulary, and 3. Guiding students through the text carefully with thoughtfully developed, text-dependent questions that encourage students to...

Many states across the nation are well underway with the challenging work of implementing the Common Core State Standards. But what does a thoughtful transition from existing to new standards look like? And what are the implications for accountability systems in the interim?

This past August and September, the research team at Fordham interviewed officials and policy advocates in five states—Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, and New York—to get a sense of how they are approaching accountability in the transition to the Common Core. We asked stakeholders about their plans for using student data during this transition period, and in particular what the “stakes” would be for schools, educators, and students. While we found nuances in each state, four patterns emerged across our small sample. The first is discussed in this post, with three to follow over the next few weeks.

Punitive consequences associated with accountability are largely being put on hold during the transition to Common Core.

Policymakers and educators alike are grappling with the reality that the inputs (for example, state tests) used in accountability measures are changing—and they seem resistant to using student test data to trigger negative consequences usually associated with poor performance. Of particular concern is how to calculate growth as students transition from one exam to another and what to do about growth-based accountability and evaluation systems in the interim. So policymakers are, by and large, planning to pause the consequences associated with these systems.

Proponents of this tempered approach stress that it is simply...

“Fewer, clearer, higher”: These were the words that guided the crafting of the Common Core State Standards. In concise and clear-eyed prose, the Alliance for Excellent Education’s Robert Rothman lays out exactly how the new standards could change current instructional practices—and aims to speak directly to educators, whose efforts will determine whether or not these changes will occur. After providing a brief history of the Common Core (which he covered at length in his previous book), Rothman describes nine facets of the standards that mark a significant change from current practice, four of which pertain to math instruction and five to English language arts. In one math-related example, Rothman discusses the “math wars,” a long-standing battle over whether math instruction should emphasize procedural fluency, conceptual understanding, or problem-solving abilities, and how the Common Core—by emphasizing all three—seeks to find peace. Rothman concludes with a look at the road ahead and impending challenges—like funding, politics, and implementation in the years to come. Still, Rothman remains hopeful—as do we.

SOURCE: Robert Rothman, Fewer, Clearer, Higher: How the Common Core State Standards Can Change Classroom Practice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2013)....

Fordham's Mike Petrilli testifies before the House Education Committee at midnight on November 21. Photo credit: Fordham Institute

On November 20, the Ohio House Education Committee heard testimony on House Bill 237, legislation that would prevent the state board of education from continuing its efforts to implement the Common Core State Standards. The committee previously entertained sponsor testimony on the legislation from Representative Andy Thompson, but this was the first opportunity for the public to testify on this bill.

Hundreds of concerned Ohioans, both supportive of and in opposition to the Common Core, descended upon the Statehouse to make their thoughts known, some arriving up to two hours before the 5 PM hearing. As the hearing time approached, the crowd outside the committee room swelled, and frustration grew as it became apparent that the committee room, the largest in the Statehouse, would not be able to accommodate everyone in attendance. To make matters worse, debate on the House floor ran late, delaying the start of the committee until almost 7 PM.

Undeterred, the mostly anti–Common Core crowd remained and filled the committee room and the Statehouse Atrium (an overflow area that received audio of the committee proceedings). More than forty people signed up to testify before the committee and were split roughly evenly between Common Core supporters and opponents. In the more than six hours of testimony—the hearing ended just after 1 AM—legislators were treated to a good...

Welcome to the new Common Core kerfuffle.

Recently, School Achievement Partners, the nonprofit created by the authors of the Common Core standards (CCSS), featured a set of “model” close-reading lessons focused on the Gettysburg Address that were initially published in 2011.

The backlash against the approach to close reading outlined in the Gettysburg lesson was fast and furious. Are these the kinds of lessons that should be touchstones in American classrooms? Or are they more what you try to ward off by wearing garlic around your neck?

I first heard of the lessons not from an educator but from a Lincoln scholar. (We take Mr. Lincoln seriously here in Illinois). This colleague sent me a link to a recent post published on Valerie Strauss’s The Answer Sheet blog with a note that said, simply: “I hope the linked story from the Washington Post is inaccurate.”

Strauss’s post focused mainly on the fact that the Gettysburg Address lesson encouraged teachers to read the speech “cold,” without giving students historical context and without engaging in pre-reading. The post suggested that such an approach was “odd” and “baffling.”

Of course, like most things in education and in the increasingly politicized debate over the Common Core, the reality is far more complicated.

These lessons raise at least two important issues about reading instruction and the Common Core. First, whether there is—or should be—a difference between...

The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice recently released a study that seeks to better understand the decision-making processes of parents who send their children to private schools. The authors hypothesize that if state and local governments empower parents to choose the schools of their choice, a “spontaneous education order”—a state in which parents seek information about schools and in which schools make available the necessary information without public officials’ intentional intervention—will arise. Accountability, they speculate, will take care of itself.

To test this theory, they use survey data from 754 parents whose children received scholarships through the Georgia GOAL Scholarship Program (GOAL). The survey sought to identify the factors involved in parents’ decisions and the types of data that informed those decisions.

GOAL was established in 2008 under Georgia’s Education Expense Credit Program. Under the law, taxpayers may receive a state income tax credit for contributions made to qualified “Student Scholarship Organizations” (SSOs). SSOs use these funds to award private school scholarships to families.

The law places no limits on recipients’ household incomes (i.e., it’s not “means-tested” for low-income families), and in fact the average adjusted gross income of recipient families was $51,923, slightly higher than the state’s 2012 median income. Scholarship recipients are approximately 60 percent white, 25 percent black, 5 percent Hispanic/Latino, and 10 percent unknown/other.

Of the 2,685 families who had at least one child receiving a GOAL scholarship in 2013, only 754 provided complete data (a response rate of 28 percent). Survey respondents were...

It seems the largest battle in education policy today centers on the question of whether or not the Obama administration cheerleading for the Common Core State Standards, a state-led initiative, represents an existential threat to federalism. Serious Common Core supporters concede that the federal government (unwisely) dangled incentives for swift state adoption of the standards, while pointing out that the vast majority of instructional decisions will now, as before, remain with local school boards and educators. On the other hand, serious opponents admit as much but worry that locals will have to make significant changes to meet these higher targets and say it is only a matter of time before we see a proposal for a national curriculum. I, for one, think even casual observation of the current debate over standards shows the possibility of a national curriculum to be so remote as to make it not worth discussing, except to say that if it were proposed, many Common Core supporters (myself included) would strongly oppose it.

The “federal overreach” argument used by Common Core opponents is quite perplexing, not only because some claims are so wildly exaggerated, but also because they all but ignore (and thereby excuse) actual and obvious examples of overreach with much larger potential consequences for federalism. If the Common Core debate is truly just a principled stand for states’ rights, why haven’t we heard a word about the specific requirements on school turnaround or teacher quality within the Race to the Top competition? Where was the conservative backlash against the clear disrespect shown to...

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