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.

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...

[Editor's note: This is part two of a multi-part series on the use of prior knowledge in literacy. It originally appeared in a slightly different form at Tim Shanahan's blog, Shanahan on Reading. The first post can be found here.]

 In my first post, I focused on the controversy over prior knowledge. Common Core has discouraged enhancing reading comprehension through the introduction of information external to a text.

That challenges the most popular ways of introducing texts in schools—telling students information about the text topic or exploring student knowledge relevant to the topic. CCSS proponents bridle at such practices. They want students to become independent readers, which means they’d be able to read texts effectively without extra information.

They also blanch at the idea of students constructing text meanings without sufficiently accounting for the author’s input; texts should mean something closer to what the author intended than what a reader might choose to make it mean.

The problem with de-emphasizing existing knowledge is that reading comprehension depends on reader knowledge. We use what we know to draw inferences, clarify ambiguity, and store information in memory. Banning explicit attention to student knowledge can’t “level the playing field” between rich and poor because...

[Editor's note: This is part one of a multi-part series on the use of prior knowledge in literacy. It originally appeared in a slightly different form at Tim Shanahan's blog, Shanahan on Reading.]

An idea heavily promoted in Common Core (CCSS) discussions is the notion that we shouldn’t talk about students’ “prior knowledge,” and that avoiding such discussions somehow “levels the playing field” when it comes to learning to read. Researchers in the cognitive sciences rediscovered the importance of people’s knowledge in learning and comprehension back in the 1970s (revisiting ideas previously explored by Bartlett, Kant, Plato, etc.).

Research findings were very clear: Readers comprehend more when a text overlaps with their knowledge of the world, and they comprehend less when there is less such information in their minds.

Research also has shown benefits from increasing students’ prior knowledge (it is “prior” in the sense that readers knew it before the author told them). And even reminding students that they have relevant knowledge prior to reading can bear fruit.

Why is prior knowledge so useful to readers? There are many reasons, but certainly a basic one is that the availability of such information reduces how painstaking reading...

Fordham Institute to evaluate Common Core assessments on quality and content alignment

PARCC, Smarter Balanced, ACT Aspire, and Massachusetts participating in landmark study

Media Contact:
Michelle Lerner

Washington, D.C. (November 19, 2014) — The Thomas B. Fordham Institute has launched a new study to evaluate the quality and content alignment of PARCC, Smarter Balanced, and ACT Aspire to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Fordham’s study will be published in summer 2015.

As part of the effort, Fordham will also evaluate the 2014 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), a high-quality state assessment, for Common Core alignment under an agreement with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“The promise of the Common Core State Standards, implemented faithfully, is improved education and life outcomes for millions of American children,” noted...

Common Core has the potential to shift and drastically improve math instruction in American schools, but its detractors have marshalled a raucous opposition to its proposed changes. We’ve already examined the questionable arguments against Common Core literacy standards; now we’re turning our sights to math.

September’s Intelligence Squared U.S. debate pitted Fordham President Michael J. Petrilli and the Center for American Progress’s Carmel Martin against the American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess and New York principal Carol Burris. Hess and Burris are two of Common Core’s most eloquent and energetic critics, but the position they mounted against the initiative’s math standards is not a strong one. It can essentially be boiled down to three points:

1.) The standards confuse children.

This is perhaps the most common critique of Common Core math. As the new standards have been implemented (seldom perfectly) in participating states, districts, and schools, children have sometimes been assigned math problems that would make a structural engineer scratch her head. Parents accustomed to the “classic style” of teaching math—long worksheets of standard algorithms with one or two word problems...

There’s apprehension in some ed-reform circles that things have gone sideways.

There’s the resistance to Common Core coming from the right and the left. There’s frustration with ESEA waivers. There’s the mess in Newark. There are twelve students demanding Harvard divorce Teach for America.

But each of these is, of course, an anecdote, and “data” is not the plural of “anecdote.” So are these chapters in a larger backlash-to-reform narrative, or are they just well-publicized exceptions to the reform-is-winning rule?

I’ve spent some time going through four recent surveys of the views of the public, educators, parents, and insiders. They offer encouragement to the reform community, though with one important exception. In short, many of today’s most prominent reforms are quite popular, but it looks like folks are perturbed by a meddlesome Uncle Sam. (If you have time, I recommend your taking a gander at the data from Education Next, Phi Delta Kappan, Whiteboard Advisors, and Education Post.)

Consistent with public opinion data going back decades, today’s Americans think their local schools are doing fine, but they think schools in...

Ohio is moving to new standardized tests, the PARCC assessments, which are set to commence in spring 2015. These new and vastly different tests pose big challenges. For one, unlike the paper-and-pencil exams of the past, the PARCC is designed for online administration, leading to obvious questions about schools’ technical readiness to administer the exams.[1] In addition, as Cleveland’s Plain Dealer reported recently, PARCC test results may be released later than usual in 2015—likely delaying the release of school report cards. At the same time, no one knows exactly where PARCC will set its cut-scores for “proficiency” and other achievement levels.[2] Finally, expect political blowback, too, when lower test scores are reported under PARCC, perhaps even stronger than the ongoing skirmishes around Ohio’s new learning standards.

Despite these complications, Ohioans should give PARCC a chance. Ohio needs a higher-quality state assessment to replace its mostly rinky-dink tests of yesteryear. Take a look at PARCC’s test-item prototypes; they ask students to demonstrate solid analytical skills based on what they know in math and English language arts. The upshot: PARCC’s more-sophisticated approach to assessment could put an end to...

In his recent State of the Schools speech, Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) CEO Eric Gordon referred to a 2013 column in the Plain Dealer comparing him to the ancient Greek king Sisyphus. As every school kid used to know, Sisyphus rolled a boulder up a mountain each day, only to watch it roll back down. He was doomed to spend the rest of eternity repeating this pointless task as a punishment for his greed and deceit—a kind of Greek myth Groundhog Day

The comparison of Gordon and Sisyphus is unfair. The punishment of Sisyphus, at its heart, is one constructed to impose hopelessness and despair. There is certainly much work to be done in Cleveland, but as we at Fordham have pointed out before (see here) there are also reasons to be hopeful about Cleveland’s progress. There is no room for Sisyphus in the fight to improve Ohio schools.

That being said, the English teacher in me appreciates the allusion. It even got me thinking about other ancient figures who might better symbolize the Buckeye state’s struggle to give its kids the best education—an education that all students deserve, but far too few receive. There’s the...

I confess I’m somewhat bewildered by the passionate arguments over the Common Core State Standards. Getting in high dudgeon about K–12 learning standards, which say almost nothing about what kids do in school all day, makes no more sense to me than getting apoplectic about food-handling procedures, which I seldom think about when pushing my cart through the grocery store. In New York City, where I live, architects seem grimly determined of late to litter the skyline with strange new monstrosities, each a greater eyesore than the last. It had not occurred to me to blame Gotham’s building codes. 

I expect an argument when I assign my students Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Mill, and Hayek. But standards? They are dry, unlovely things.

But no matter. I come neither to praise nor bury the Common Core State Standards, now widely regarded as a “damaged brand” and a political piñata. But I do wish to point out that the standards enshrine several sound education ideas that have long been near and dear to conservatives. If Common Core disappears tomorrow, the considerable energy that has gone into fighting the standards ought to be redirected toward ensuring their survival. If not, conservatives may win a pyrrhic...

I’m writing this now in hopes I won’t have to write a future piece that starts: “Alas, a bad idea whose time has come…”

The bad idea is ending annual testing in grades 3–8, which may emerge as a consensus response to concerns about the state of standards, assessments, and accountability.

Clearly, testing is under fire generally. AFT head Randi Weingarten wants to do away with the federal requirement that students take annual assessments. Anti-testing groups are hailing state-based “victories” in rolling back an array of assessments and accountability provisions. Even Secretary Duncan recently expressed misgivings about the amount of time being dedicated to testing.

But the specific idea of returning—regressing—to “grade-span” testing might be gaining steam. Former President Bill Clinton recently said, “I think doing one in elementary school, one in the end of middle school and one before the end of high school is quite enough if you do it right.” At least two bills have been introduced in the House of Representatives to retreat to grade-span testing: One got public support from the NEA, and the other was saluted by the AFT.

What might be even more notable is the...