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, Mike Petrilli issued a “stump speech challenge” asking his fellow education wonks to come up with talking points that members of Congress might use to bolster the case for annual testing.

Be careful what you wish for, Mike. Challenge accepted. Here’s my bid:

When you and I think back on our school days, we remember football games and school dances, the high school musical, and—if we’re lucky—that unforgettable teacher who put just the right book in our hands at just the right time. One who inspired us or opened our eyes to our own potential—and what was waiting for us in the world right outside the classroom window.

What will our children remember when they think back on their school days? I fear too many will just remember taking tests.  

And that’s not right.

At the same time, I hear an awful lot of cynicism about the efforts we’ve been making in the last few years to make our schools better. Some people say that all this testing is just a big game to label our schools a failure, privatize education, demonize teachers, and line the pockets of testing companies and textbook publishers. 

And that’s not right either.

So it’s time to have an honest, no-nonsense conversation about our schools, teaching, and, yes, testing. But let me warn you in advance: If you’re involved in education—whether you’re a teacher, parent, policymaker, or union leader—you might not like some of what I’m going to say. But it’s...

Karen Vogelsang

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form in The Tennessean.

My name is Karen Vogelsang, and I am the 2014–15 Tennessee Teacher of the Year. I am a supporter of the Common Core State Standards, which we have adopted as our own state standards and which are taught in classrooms across the state. I am ill at the thought that these standards could be repealed.

As Tennesseans, we sought Race to the Top funds to make sweeping changes—not only to benefit our state but, more importantly, to benefit our students.

We have data showing that our students are performing at a rate faster than any other state in the nation. We (Tennesseans, not the federal government) made decisions about how the standards would be implemented and how our educators would be trained.

As educators, we have received top-quality training from experts in the fields of math and reading, and Tennessee is the only state that has provided consistent, focused training in the standards from the state’s Department of Education on down. No one has mandated the curriculum or instructional practices teachers use in their classrooms, and districts have selected the materials they want to use to best support their students.

Critical thinking skills prevail

When I began my career as a teacher, my focus was teaching a skill so my students could pass a test. If they did, I figured I was doing a good job. I would ask questions; a student would answer correctly; I replied, “Good...

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form at RegBlog.

Most public policy issues fit roughly into one of three categories. The first contains fundamental matters of principle—what we generally call “social issues,” such as abortion, gay marriage, and gun rights. The second bucket includes topics that are more technical in nature: how to make various systems or sectors work better. Here we might put nuts-and-bolts issues like infrastructure or procurement reform. The third category is for issues that have elements of the first two, both fundamental matters of principle and technocratic questions of implementation. Health care reform certainly belongs there.

Category three is also where education reform in general, and Common Core in particular, belongs. There are clear matters of principle: Should all American children have equal access to challenging coursework? Do states have the right, perhaps even the responsibility, to set standards for their public schools, or should all such control remain with local school boards, educators, or parents? But technical questions are important too: Are the standards high enough? Are the tests properly aligned with them—and also psychometrically valid and reliable? Who is responsible for helping schools develop the capacity to teach to the new expectations? How should we respond to implementation struggles, as with the current confusion around some math topics?

This dual nature of Common Core as an educational and political issue is important to keep in mind over the coming months as state lawmakers debate whether to “stay the course” or “turn...

Jason Zimba

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form on the Tools for the Common Core Standards blog.

Standards shouldn’t dictate curriculum or pedagogy. But there has been some criticism recently that the implementation of the Common Core State Standards may be effectively forcing a particular pedagogy on teachers. Even if that isn’t happening, one can still be concerned if everybody’s pedagogical interpretation of the standards turns out to be exactly the same. Fortunately, one can already see different approaches in various post-CCSS curricular efforts. And looking to the future, the revisions I’m aware of that are underway to existing programs aren’t likely to erase those programs’ mutual pedagogical differences, either.

Of course, standards do have to have meaningful implications for curriculum, or else they aren’t standards at all. The Instructional Materials Evaluation Tool (IMET) is a rubric that helps educators judge high-level alignment of comprehensive instructional materials to the standards. Some states and districts have used the IMET to inform their curriculum evaluations, and it would help if more states and districts did the same.

The criticism that I referred to earlier comes from math educator Barry Garelick, who has written a series of blog posts that aims to sketch a picture of good, traditional pedagogy consistent with the Common Core. The concrete proposals in his series are a welcome addition to the conversation math educators are having about implementing the standards. Reading these posts led me to consider the following question:...

The ed-policy world is abuzz: ESEA now probably stands a better chance of being reauthorized than at any time since NCLB’s signing, thirteen years ago yesterday.

Given the statute’s scope, today’s debate could include countless issues, such as possible changes to Title II rules on educator effectiveness, the expansion of the charter school grant program, the introduction of a private school choice initiative, reconsideration of competitive grant programs (RTTT, TIF, i3), and much more.

But the question consuming virtually all oxygen is what will become of NCLB’s calling card, namely its tough rules on standards, assessments, and consequences?

Based on reporting as well as whispers, tea-leaf reading, and blind speculation, folks believe federal accountability is in serious jeopardy. In short, the Right wants to eliminate the "federal," and the Left wants to eviscerate the "accountability."

To better understand where things go from here, it’s worth pinpointing where we are in the order of operations. Typically, when the passage of federal legislation is on the docket, there’s a several-month-long window during which the views of the most important stakeholders are put on the potter’s wheel for molding. Advocates’ top targets all reside on Capitol Hill: Most important are the chairs of the relevant committees, committee members, party leaders, and all other members (and, not incidentally, the key staff to all of the above).

But since ESEA reauthorization is now overdue by the age of third grader, with lots of false starts along the...

You may have missed it over the holidays, but NPR ran a fascinating profile of Jason Zimba, one of the primary architects of the Common Core math standards. The piece, by the Hechinger Report’s Sarah Garland, an exceptionally thoughtful education reporter, traces Zimba’s career from Rhodes scholar and David Coleman’s business partner to “obscure physics professor at Bennington College” and unlikely standards bearer for the math standards that he had so much to do with creating.

Garland makes much of the fact that Zimba spends Saturday mornings tutoring his two young daughters in math. We’re told he feels the math his kids are getting at their local Manhattan public school is subpar, and that’s even after the school began implementing Common Core. “Zimba, a mathematician by training, is not just any disgruntled parent,” Garland notes. “He's one of the guys who wrote the Common Core.”

Some will surely see irony in Zimba feeling compelled to supplement what his kids learn in school with breakfast-table math lessons—more schadenfreude for Common Core critics—but there is no irony. As my Fordham colleague Kathleen Porter-Magee noted in another great piece you might have missed in recent days, even the best standards don’t help teachers ensure that all students master the content and skills set forth in those standards. That’s what a good curriculum does—a point pressed by Zimba in the NPR segment. "I...

Editor's note: This post was originally published in a slightly different form as an op-ed in the Washington PostIt was subsequently republished in the Denver PostTampa Bay TimesSalt Lake TribuneTampa TribunePhiladelphia InquirerCommercial AppealPost and CourierPost-StandardNews TribuneNews Journaland Capital Times.

In November, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush suggested to hundreds of lawmakers and education reformers gathered for his foundation’s annual summit that “the rigor of the Common Core State Standards must be the new minimum.” Furthermore, he said, to “those states choosing a path other than Common Core, I say this: That’s fine. Except you should be aiming even higher and be bolder and raise standards and ask more of our students and the system.” Several Republican politicians, including Louisiana Senator (and gubernatorial hopeful) David Vitter and Mississippi Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves, promptly took up his suggestion, calling on their states to replace the Common Core with standards that are even more challenging.

In theory, this position is exactly right. Academic standards are the province of the states; it’s within their rights to have their own standards if that’s what their leaders and residents want. Furthermore, though there are benefits to having common standards in terms of cost savings (for taxpayers) and continuity (for students who move across state lines, including the children of military families), most of Common Core’s upside stems from its rigor, not its sameness.

But if our fellow Republicans move to embrace standards that are even higher than Common Core,...

Perhaps the highest praise you can heap on another writer’s work is to acknowledge a tinge of professional jealousy. You read a blog post, column, or piece of reporting and think, “Damn, I wish I’d written that.” Here are some of the pieces—about Common Core and education at large—I wish I’d written in 2014.

Tim Shanahan of the University of Illinois at Chicago has long been indispensible on literacy—and never more so than in the era of Common Core. In November, he waded into the “close reading” thicket with a pair of clear-eyed posts on the importance of prior knowledge in reading. The second of Tim’s two-part post offered particularly useful guidance for teachers on dealing with knowledge deficits when teaching reading comprehension. A third installment is promised and hopefully coming soon. 

As long as I’m casting a jealous eye at posts about reading: I also wish I’d written this one, by my Fordham colleague Kathleen Porter-Magee, on how reading standards mislead teachers. I’ve said more or less the same thing for years, but Kathleen said it far better.

Math educator Barry Garelick is no fan of the Common Core. I simply don’t agree with his assertion that the standards demand “all math should be taught using the techniques of ‘reform math.’” But no matter. He did the field an enormous service with a series of posts at the Heartland Institute’s blog titled “A Common Sense Approach to Common Core,”...

Previously, I posted about the perils of applying standards-driven instruction to reading classrooms. The point was that reading standards typically don’t articulate the content that students need to learn to become good readers; they merely list the skills and habits exhibited by already good readers. Therefore, using standards to plan lessons results in ineffective reading instruction—those skills and habits can’t really be taught, practiced, and mastered in the abstract.

The truth is that while the problems are most acute in reading, standards for any subject are most effective when used not to drive lesson planning on any given day, but rather the selection of a clear, teacher-friendly, coherently developed curriculum. That’s because even the best standards don’t help teachers figure out how to ensure that all students master the requisite content and skills. They describe the destination, but they don’t provide a roadmap. Curriculum is the missing link.

One might then ask why we are even talking about standards. Rather than debating the Common Core State Standards why not debate a “Common Curriculum”? In fact, that is how it works in many countries. Even Finland—the country that most reform critics want us to emulate—began their now-famous transition to international education superpower by, first and foremost, writing and adopting a national curriculum.

In other nations, state-developed curricula go further than American standards. Here, states list content and skills, but stop short of defining pedagogy or prescribing curriculum. Abroad, governments prescribe a particular course...

Before the age of standards and tests, teachers generally taught the textbook. They began on page one and got as far as they could before the end of June, sometimes racing through the last four chapters in less time than they devoted to the first.

Standards, testing, and accountability changed that. Now there are clearly defined goals that all students must meet, and teachers are asked to ensure not just “coverage,” but that all students master a predetermined set of content and skills.

That means today’s curriculum and instruction are driven not by where you began but by where you want to end up. In a data-driven, results-oriented classroom, good teachers begin with the standards and “backmap” from June to September to ensure that the most critical or difficult topics get the instructional time they deserve.

This approach makes sense for most subjects, where the standards describe the actual content that students need to master within and across grades. Math, for instance, is a hierarchical subject with a logical progression of skills and content. Yearlong curriculum plans can be devised and focused on ensuring adequate time to master all of the key standards. And teachers who themselves are math experts may well be able to piece together a coherent program that meets their students’ needs using the standards as their guide.

Reading, however, is different.

Beyond the foundational reading skills, standards in this realm don’t articulate the content that students need to learn to become good readers. Instead, the standards...

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