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.

Renaissance Learning’s annual look at what books students choose when they read for pleasure found high school students reading “far fewer words” than younger students and middle and high school students choosing books that are below grade level.

That first finding might well be troubling, but it will surprise no one who interacts with adolescents (or who has ever been one themselves)—the thinner, bigger-font book seems to reach out and grab us rather than the other way around.

But students may unwittingly be getting help from their teachers when it comes to picking below grade-level books.

In a national survey of English, language arts, and reading teachers released last year by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the subgroup of teachers who said they do not assign novels for the whole class to read were asked, “When you help individual students pick a novel to read, which of these are you more likely to consider: a student’s reading level or the grade level of the class?” The vast majority of elementary school teachers (83 percent), a majority of middle school teachers (57 percent), and more than one-third of high school teachers (36 percent) picked the former; barely handfuls (between 3 and 7 percent) said they mostly rely on “the grade level of the class.”

This is not to say that teachers don’t care about grade level. Larger numbers of middle and high school teachers chose the “something else” category, which included a combination of both ability and appropriate grade level, as...

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Common Core State Standards have had quite a year in Michigan.

After a near-death experience in the spring of 2013, when a handful of legislators delayed their implementation via a budget provision despite strong support from the state’s business and education community, they sprang back to life in October when bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate voted to proceed full speed ahead.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that another major challenge lurks for the Great Lakes State and its education reform efforts: the misguided desire by some to move away from rigorous, Common Core–aligned student assessments, assessments that allow us to see progress, identify problems, and measure Michigan against other states in the nation—critical in our global economy.

Those of us who support standards-based reforms like the Common Core understand that standards alone are just words on paper. That’s why scholars such as Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution have found that states with stronger standards in the pre–Common Core era didn’t necessarily perform better on national tests of student achievement. That’s not surprising; it would be like thinking that developing countries that adopt better constitutions would automatically have better-functioning governments or economies. Constitutions, like standards, can lay a strong or weak foundation, but their success will depend on many other factors.

In the world of school reform, the most important complement to good standards is an aligned, challenging...

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Just because some criticisms of Common Core standards are over the top and dripping with misinformation doesn’t make them all so. Plenty of valid concerns exist, and the estimable Peggy Noonan recently homed in on several of them. She acknowledges “that Core proponents’ overall objective—to get schools teaching more necessary and important things, and to encourage intellectual coherence in what is taught—is not bad, but good.” But she raised a lot of questions for “eggheads” like us who have pushed for these ambitious new academic standards:

Proponents are now talking about problems with the rollout. Well, yes, and where have we heard that before? One gets the impression they didn’t think this through, that they held symposia and declared the need, with charts and bullet points, for something to be done—and something must be done, because American public education is falling behind the world—and then left it to somebody, or 10,000 somebodies, to make it all work….How was implementation of the overall scheme supposed to work?

Did we think this through? A major reason we support the Common Core is because we’re confident that it will bring greater “intellectual coherence,” in Noonan’s words, to America’s curricular and instructional approaches. That’s sorely needed because the textbooks and other materials that most schools use are dreadful and have been for decades.

Why so bad? Partly it’s due to the textbook oligopoly. (As behemoth Pearson has purchased many of its competitors in recent years, it’s approaching an outright monopoly.) Partly...

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The following is a response to Gary Rubinstein’s post, “Open Letters To ‘B-List’ Reformers I Know. Part 3: Michael Petrilli

Dear Gary,

I don’t mind you calling me a wonk you know if you don’t mind me calling you a teacher I know. For all of its bombast, social media has helped to put me in touch with real teachers like you in real classrooms in the real world. Becoming disconnected from the daily work of education is a significant risk for those of us who long ago crossed into policy analysis. We’re lucky at the Fordham Institute that our Ohio team gets down and dirty with real schools in Dayton and elsewhere, but I’m willing to say it: thank goodness for Twitter.

Now, what I’m not so happy about is your calling me a “B-list” reformer!

But I digress.

I appreciate your comments about my various blog posts. We take our role as “Education Gadfly” very seriously at Fordham. We are fortunate—thanks to our mission, our fantastic board, and our endowment, which gives us a measure of independence—that we can feel uninhibited to raise the red flag when we see reforms going awry. I would be bored to death if I had to stick to talking points.

Thankfully, we’re not the only ones willing to speak honestly about problems as they arise. I think a fair-minded observer would see that the vast majority of...

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While political fireworks are grabbing most of the Common Core headlines these days, the real story is how teachers and leaders—particularly those within the reform community—are changing their daily practice in light of the content and rigor demands of the CCSS.

Out of sight but hard at work, leaders of the “No Excuses” schools are taking the adoption of the Common Core as a challenge to refocus their reading instruction in ways that will help their students make greater gains in reading and writing than they have historically been able to do. Central to that challenge is the question of how to help students—a majority of whom are struggling readers who often lack basic reading skills and vocabulary—meet the content and rigor demands of the CCSS.

Reading in the Common Core era

As longtime readers of this blog know, my support for the Common Core literacy standards stems from three things: (1) the emphasis on building knowledge to improve comprehension, (2) the focus on close reading and using evidence to support answers and analysis, and (3) the push to give all students regular practice with complex texts.

It's the combination of all three—working together—that holds the promise of finally helping students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, master the reading skills needed to succeed in college.

While each of the three changes poses its own special challenge to the status quo, it’s the last piece—the emphasis on text complexity—that is most threatening to the conventional wisdom driving reading instruction in American...

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It’s true that many conservatives (and liberals, too!) have employed pretty outlandish rhetoric in their effort to discredit the Common Core. It’s also true that many of the things these opponents say are either factually untrue or unrelated to the standards themselves. But the Southern Poverty Law Center’s recent attempt to push back against some of this rhetoric is done in an unnecessarily divisive way.

I sympathize with some Common Core opponents, especially parents who feel that the Common Core standards are the reason their children are not getting the education they deserve. Moreover, there are certainly principled skeptics at places like Cato or AEI on the Right or education-establishment groups on the Left who justifiably worry about a sometimes-flawed process or fret that all this work on standards isn’t necessarily going to make a whole heck of a lot of difference when it comes to student achievement. My view has always been that if you are going to spend a ton of public money on education, there should be some expectation that students will actually learn something. And if you’re going to have such expectations, they should be meaningfully high and aligned with the expectations of employers and colleges.

Distinct from this reasonable opposition, though, are people and groups who cynically stir up opposition to further unrelated political goals. These groups are intentionally misdirecting righteous anger about textbooks, pedagogy, and the general state of our education system.

Yet another small but extremely vocal group of Common...

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For no current-affairs commentator do I have greater respect than Peggy Noonan, whose sagacity, common sense, plain-spokenness, and “big picture” view of things are as welcome—and rare—as the clarity and persuasiveness of her prose.

When it comes to the Common Core State Standards, however, she’s only about 60 percent right.

She’s right that the architects and promoters of these standards had—and have—the best of intentions, both with respect to millions of kids who now receive a mediocre-to-dismal education and to the long-term vitality and competitiveness of the nation itself.

She’s right that the “proponents’ overall objective—to get schools teaching more necessary and important things, and to encourage intellectual coherence in what is taught—is not bad, but good.”

She’s right that, as with every ambitious effort to reform every large, complex system in the history of the world, those proponents—I’m one of them—underestimated the implementation challenges.

She’s right that they—we—haven’t always been as thoughtful and respectful as we should regarding the concerns and convictions of parents and others on the ground. (She uses the word “patronizing” and that’s also right, at least in part.)

But she’s not right to offer absolutely no alternative—unless, of course, she’s content with American K–12 education the way it is, which I know she isn’t.

And she’s not right to fail to note that the Common Core would have been—at least at this point in time—a sort of ambitious pilot program involving a smallish number of states that were serious about the implementation challenges, until...

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I keep up on Common Core news religiously. In the last few weeks, I’ve amassed a stack of 30 articles and reports, trying to come up with a clever, cogent argument for what they mean when considered together.

With so many tangled veins in the debate—and with so much venom coursing through each—I almost gave up. But this morning, while reading a new account of supposedly mounting state-level opposition, it hit me: at least for the moment, the common element of recent Common Core news is the resilience of the standards themselves.

When I looked across all of the news, I was struck by the cacophony of political sound and fury amounting, in the end, to almost nothing. The coverage reminded me of the well-orchestrated pre-fight hype of a heavyweight championship bout—a match ultimately memorable not for the dramatic or unexpected outcome but for the staged antics at the weigh-in or the endless jawboning from both camps.

My allusion to debate qua entertainment isn’t metaphor. One of the moment’s top CCSS critics is, well, a professional entertainer. Some public supporters haven’t exactly elevated the debate either, resorting to name-calling; see this piece referring to opposition as “incredibly stupid” and the normally levelheaded David Brooks accusing opponents of partaking in a political circus.

Major news outlets have predictably picked up the mano a mano motif. The New York Times ran a front-page story on the GOP’s internecine battle. Time magazine covered...

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Sarah Rosenberg

Today, the next wave of states will begin field-testing the Common Core–aligned assessments after a largely successful first phase. While Common Core critics like Valerie Strauss already declared the administration of the new field tests as “not so great,” journalists reported only a few technology glitches and a couple unclear directions—as was expected during this trial period. Overall, the field testing has served its purpose of providing students, teachers, schools and districts with the opportunity to give these next-generation assessments a test drive.

Libby Nelson with Vox recently reported, “In state after state, education officials say the same thing: There have been forgotten passwords, frozen computers, or discrepancies in how different browsers handle the test. On the whole, though: so far, so good.” For instance, the official blog of the Idaho State Department of Education posted a glowing story about the field tests earlier this month: they even quoted a fifth-grader from Blaine County who walked out of the testing room and said, “That test was fun!” While it might be tempting to dismiss the post as part of a carefully executed PR campaign, stories from local newspapers back it up. Cindy Johnstone, director of curriculum and assessment at Vallivue School District, told the Idaho Press-Tribune that some test administrators were particularly worried about technology capacity but that those concerns largely subsided after a successful administration. “Whenever there’s a new system in place, there’s a learning curve for everyone involved, but we feel it...

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Among cyclists, there is a joke that “I had the right of way” makes a good epitaph. The point is obvious: being right is cold comfort if you’re dead.

It’s not hard to imagine that, if we Common Core advocates don’t chart a better implementation course, we’ll be standing at its funeral in more than a few states saying to each other in hushed tones, “But standards aren’t curriculum.”

We see this clearly in how the debate over the Common Core has evolved in places where implementation is fully rolled out and where the unintended consequences of standards- and accountability-driven reform (curriculum narrowing, test prep, etc.) haven’t been well anticipated or corrected. We’ve seen it as parents who’ve never before engaged in education debates write letters and post pictures that go viral about impossibly confusingCommon Core” lessons and worksheets. And we saw it this week when comedian and New York City public school parent Louis C.K. took to Twitter to complain about New York’s standardized tests, the curriculum that the state and district has chosen to implement the new standards, and the inordinate amount of time that gets siphoned away from instruction for test prep and tests.

Of course, I’ve long argued that standards are not curriculum (they aren’t) and that curriculum decisions are made by local schools and districts (they are).

But the reality is that Louis C.K., like many parents across New York,...

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