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.

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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,...

As legislatures wind down their spring sessions nationwide, Oklahoma is one of the few remaining states with an ongoing, unresolved debate over the Common Core State Standards. Unfortunately, it appears that the Sooner State may follow Indiana’s route and repeal the standards. As the Oklahoman points out in a powerful editorial today, that won’t solve any political problems for Oklahoma Republicans; the Tea Party opponents of the Common Core in Indiana are madder than ever.

But those political considerations are far from the best reasons for Oklahoma to stand strong and not revert back to its old standards (which is what local Common Core opponents are suggesting). The most important factor is that those old standards, while relatively solid, had significant shortcomings—shortcomings that make them incompatible with college and career readiness:

  1. Few objectives were devoted to informational texts. This is a problem for two reasons. First, informational texts—otherwise known as nonfiction—allow students to gain important content knowledge that will allow them to become proficient readers. It’s this focus on content knowledge that is one reason we at the Fordham Institute (and Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch, Jr.) are such strong supporters of the Common Core. Second, research demonstrates that many students struggle in college because they have not had enough exposure to informational texts in the K–12 system; addressing that preparation gap is a major goal (and positive feature) of the Common Core. What’s more, Oklahoma’s old standards were neither detailed enough about the literary genres students should
  2. ...

As anyone in education knows, the Common Core debate has become heavily politicized over the past year. What that means is that the true education issues at stake—for instance, whether the standards for English and math are challenging enough or, conversely, age appropriate—are taking a backseat to arguments over macropolitics and ideology.

Opponents on the right like to label the Common Core as “ObamaCore” and joke that schools were promised, “If you like your curriculum, you can keep your curriculum.”

As a conservative supporter of the Common Core who has racked up thousands of frequent-flier miles traveling to legislative hearings in state capitals nationwide, I find this fear of centralized control a misplaced, even willful false alarm sounded by people with other political agendas. To be sure, I don’t want the federal government meddling in curriculum issues and can point to many examples where Washington regulations—on matters of spending, “highly-qualified teachers,” and student discipline—have done more harm than good. I’m relieved the federal role in the Common Core has been relatively small.

Yet the history of education reform in the United States makes clear that efforts to foist top-down changes on the nation’s schools never get anywhere quickly and never produce real uniformity. Invariably, they’re met, for better or worse, with resistance and confusion—or, to say it more positively, with adaptation and customization.

The Common Core issue will prove no different. It won’t lead to...

Michael Brickman appeared on Fox News’ “Happening Now” to talk about standards and the Common Core with Joy Pullmann. Michael calls out anti–Common Core groups who offer false choices on standards vs. school choice, have no plan for the day after Common Core, and want standards that don’t require our students to read Shakespeare or our founding documents. Watch the segment to see Michael set the record straight.

A couple of years ago, Fordham held a contest to determine the most reformed state in the land. To almost no one’s surprise, Indiana—under the leadership of Governor Mitch Daniels and State Superintendent Tony Bennett—raced to victory. Indiana was held up as a model of education reform, and we encouraged other states to follow its path. Today, we again ask you to look to Indiana—but for precisely the opposite reason.

Hoosier State legislators, like those in Ohio, have come under increasing pressure from a small, vocal set of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) critics urging the state to repeal their adoption of the standards. Indiana acceded to their demands as Governor Mike Pence signed legislation on March 24 making Indiana the only state in the nation to formally withdraw its participation in the CCSS. And in what happened next, there are lessons to be learned for Ohio legislators who think there are political or educational benefits associated with exiting the CCSS.

First, states need to have standards in place, but good standards take time to develop. Indiana’s crash course in standards-writing over the past couple of months, aimed at having new standards in place this fall, has left almost everyone disappointed and frustrated. Critics of Indiana’s go-it-alone approach have suggested that the changes were nothing more than a rebranding of the CCSS. Educators, meanwhile, are also feeling the pressure: the Republic quoted Indiana State Teachers Association Vice President Keith Gambill as saying, “Any delay past that time...

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