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.

Common Core watchers out there have probably heard this one before: All the teachers I know hate the Common Core.

There are undoubtedly some teachers who dislike the Common Core, but recent polls suggest that most teachers support the new standards. During my three years of teaching (completed a month ago), most of my colleagues and I liked the Common Core. One reason we supported the new standards was because they gave us more freedom. Detractors claim that standards tell teachers how to teach. But I taught Common Core after teaching Tennessee’s state standards, and while Common Core did give me expectations for what my students should know and be able to do by the end of the year (just like the previous standards did), it allowed me to decide what and how to teach.

Let’s consider, for example, the first literature standard for ninth graders (the grade I taught), which states, “Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.” Most would agree that using evidence to support the analysis of a text is crucial. Students ought to know how to cite evidence instead of simply writing about their opinions and feelings.

That’s all the standard says, though. Nothing more, nothing less.

The standard didn’t tell me when in the year I should teach the skill. I could spend as much or as little time as I wanted on it and make that determination...

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Bad ideas in education are like horror movie monsters. You think you’ve killed them, but they refuse to stay dead.

A generation ago, the infamous “reading wars” pitted phonics-based instruction in the early grades against “whole language,” which emphasized reading for meaning instead of spelling, grammar, and sounding words out.

In 1997, the National Reading Panel was tasked to settle the fight once and for all. Phonics won. That should have been the end of it, but whole language never really died. It morphed, grew a new head called “balanced literacy,” and lived on. In New York City, it grew even stronger.

Finally, last year, there was hope: Balanced literacy was left for dead yet when the city Education Department recommended two reading programs for elementary schools as they prepare to meet the rigorous new Common Core State Standards in English: New York State’s Core Knowledge Language Arts curriculum and Pearson’s ReadyGen.

The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project—the balanced-literacy program developed by Prof. Lucy Calkins, which had dominated city classrooms for more than a decade—notably failed to make the cut.

Why? Under the shift to Common Core standards, reading programs are explicitly expected to teach strong foundational skills, including phonics in the early grades, while building background knowledge and vocabulary, which are especially important for low-income children most at risk of reading failure.

To match the Common Core, reading programs must also encourage students to grapple with challenging texts that are worth reading.

None of these is emphasized in...

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Last week, I had the privilege to speak in front of a group of education journalists convened by the Poynter Institute and the Education Writers Association about identifying strengths and weaknesses in curriculum.

This is a heavy lift for journalists. It’s simply asking too much for even the most seasoned education reporters to develop a discerning eye for curriculum; it’s not their job, and it makes their job covering the instructional shifts taking place under Common Core uphill work.

I referred my listeners to a recent NPR effort to get “super-specific about what makes a good Common Core–aligned lesson.” The reporter enlisted the aid of Kate Gerson, who works with EngageNY, a New York State Education Department’s web site. She’s one of the leaders of New York State’s transition to Common Core; NPR asked her to walk through a supposedly exemplary ninth-grade lesson—a close reading of a short story by Karen Russell entitled, “St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised By Wolves.”

Great idea! I’m all for reporting that sheds light on Common Core. I’ll admit that I’m not familiar with Russell or this particular story, but no matter. Standards are not curriculum. Common Core isn’t top-down and lock step. Local control and teacher choice rules! This is gonna be great!

NPR’s report continues,

Russell’s work meets recognized benchmarks for literary quality—her debut novel was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and she’s the winner of a 2013 MacArthur grant. Being new is good, too. “The phrase ‘contemporary authors’ is

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After nearly a decade of research, the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) released in May the first outcomes of its efforts to use the results of the 2013 12th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to report on the academic preparedness of U.S. 12th graders for college. It found that only 38% of 12th graders meet its preparedness benchmark in reading, and 39% meet its preparedness benchmark in math. NAGB’s efforts to track college readiness in the United States is uniquely important as it has the only assessment program that reports on the academic performance of a representative national sample of high school students.

That said, the group that issues the Nation’s Report Card deserves a grade of “Incomplete” for its work. Reading and math are obviously necessary indicators of academic preparation for college and careers after high school, but higher education and employers say it’s not enough. When it comes to the ability to complete college level work (and to being career ready), writing skills are essential. Yet, despite the fact that NAGB also administers a 12th grade writing test, it inexplicably chose not to include writing as an indicator of readiness.

If NAEP wants to remain the “gold standard” for assessment, NAGB must remedy this situation quickly. Postsecondary institutions and systems throughout the nation assess writing in order to determine whether students have the academic skills to succeed in first year courses. According to ACT, approximately one third of ACT test takers do not meet its readiness...

Students who cannot read early in life are barreling toward dropping out, adult illiteracy, and perhaps the welfare rolls. Someone has to intervene in these young lives—and the earlier, the better. Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee requires schools to take early action, including retaining youngsters who do not pass their standardized reading exam. This isn’t punitive, as some critics claim, or unnecessarily harmful to kids. Rather, such interventions could be the force that knocks these kids off the dreaded “school-to-prison pipeline.”

And they’re sorely needed, as witnessed by the recently released data revealing that more than 16,000 Buckeye third graders are in serious jeopardy of not entering fourth grade, as a result of failing their reading exams. Many of these children are from Ohio’s poorer areas (over one-quarter of them live in the “Big Eight” urban districts), but thousands more reside in middle-class communities. These youngsters did not earn the minimum score on their reading exam for either the Fall 2013 or Spring 2014 rounds of testing.[1] Now they have one last chance—if they want it—to take the state’s assessment this summer or to pass an alternative one.

The fact that 10 percent of Ohio’s third graders need heavy-duty summer remediation or will probably have to repeat third grade—and that hundreds more barely passed—should give us pause. Granted, many schools are struggling valiantly to help young readers, and hats off to Ohio’s educators for upping their attention on early literacy.

But...

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Greg Harris

In our last Ohio Gadfly, we analyzed recent changes to Ohio’s Teacher Evaluation System (OTES) and suggested ways it could be improved. This guest commentary by Greg Harris, Ohio State Director of StudentsFirst, emphasizes the critical importance of evaluations.

Ohio’s new Teacher Evaluation System (OTES) is a significant step forward in improving the quality of instruction for our K–12 students. For the first time, teachers will be evaluated, at least in part, on their impact on student learning gains. (Traditionally, teachers have been evaluated only through observation.) OTES also elevates the role of principals by having them play a more active role in observing and developing their teachers—hence, reconnecting them to classrooms and making teacher quality their priority. In creating such a process, Ohio has established a robust framework for identifying its strongest teachers, as well as spotting and improving the performance of its less effective teachers.

But with the sudden emergence and quick passage by the Senate of Senate Bill 229 in December 2013, OTES was unexpectedly put on trial only half way through its first year of implementation. The bill actually seemed reasonable at first glance. Its sponsors maintained that by exempting teachers rated in the top two categories (“Accomplished” or “Skilled”) from annual evaluation, schools could focus their energies on developing weaker teachers. The problem, however, is that under previous evaluation systems, the majority of Ohio teachers had been rated in the top two tiers. If this trend held true, SB 229...

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The recent repeal of the Common Core State Standards in Indiana, South Carolina, and Oklahoma has given renewed the hopes of Ohio’s Common Core detractors. During the just-completed Mid Biennium Review (MBR) process, the legislature agreed to a number of compromises to address their concerns, but critics remain unsatisfied. This small but vocal minority is now agitating on behalf of a discharge petition for House Bill 237, which would repeal the state’s adoption of the Common Core.

A discharge petition is a little-used legislative tactic that, if the petition is signed by fifty House members, allows a bill that fails to get committee approval to move directly to the floor for consideration by the whole chamber. Supporters for HB 237 have, thanks to the leadership of Chairman Stebelton and other members, found little success in the Education Committee and have resorted to the discharge petition process.

It’s worth noting that even if the discharge petition is successful (i.e., if it gets fifty signatures and removes the bill from the Education Committee), HB 237 would still need to secure approval from the House, Senate, and governor to become law. Although these chances are slim, consider the potential consequences.

Consequence #1: If the Common Core standards are repealed, Ohio must find something to replace it. Shockingly, shortly after South Carolina chucked the Common Core, a state administrator admitted, “We don’t have time to do that [i.e., write new standards].” It seems like the Palmetto State will substitute...

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Fordham has long been a supporter of results-based accountability for private-school choice programs. In January, we released a “policy toolkit” that recommended, among other measures, that all students who receive a voucher (or tax-credit scholarship) be required to participate in state assessments and that those results be made publicly available at the school level (except when doing so would violate student privacy).

This rustled a few libertarian and conservative feathers: the folks at Cato called this “the Common Coring of private schools,” James Shuls yelled “Don’t Test Me, Bro!,” and Jay Greene reversed his lifelong commitment to standards-based reform.  (Many wonks opined in support of our accountability recommendations, too.)

While we didn’t agree with the all of the arguments forwarded by our friends, we did come to see the risk to private-school autonomy and innovation that a test-based accountability system could create. We also understood the particular sensitivity around using Common Core tests for this purpose. So in April, in the National Review, we offered an olive branch:

Without backing away from our commitment to the inseparability of the two tracks of education reform, we see room for compromise on specifics. Yes, some degree of transparency and accountability is essential for all choice schools. We don’t buy the argument that we should leave it to “parental choice alone”; experience in the real world demonstrates (here as in every other market that we know of) that some external quality control is needed if

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Vicki Phillips, Hanna Skandera, and Patricia Levesque

Here follow the opinions of four experts on whether states should consider “pressing the pause button” for a couple of years before taking Common Core–aligned assessment results into account in high-stakes decisions on teacher evaluation, school accountability, and student promotion.

Let’s give students and teachers time

Vicki Phillips

As the school year comes to a close and we have a chance to reflect on the successes and challenges of the past nine months, I wanted to write to you about our work together to make sure the Common Core State Standards help teachers prepare their students for success. It’s been inspiring this past year to hear from teachers and educators in many states and school districts who are excited about the standards and the new lessons and materials they’ve been able to develop. Some are already seeing clear advances from their students.

An assistant superintendent in a Kentucky school district wrote to tell me that “reading and writing scores have increased across the board in our middle and high school....We see results not only in classroom visits, but on our state assessment, which is based on the common core.”

It is especially thrilling to hear about these students’ gains because we know they’re performing against rigorous standards. They’re taught to analyze and apply information, not just gather it and remember it. They’re encouraged to ask questions, solve problems, and think for themselves; they are becoming strong learners who can succeed in college or career; and they are gaining the skills...

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The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is thrilled to welcome Robert Pondiscio as our senior fellow and vice president for external affairs, effective today. Here's his first of many posts he will pen as a member of the Fordham Institute team. Look for his posts on topics besides Common Core on Flypaper.

Frank Bruni of the New York Times worries that the pressure of selective college admissions is forcing kids to do “stagy, desperate, disturbing things to stand out.” He tells the story of a would-be Yalie with good grades and test scores but whose personal essay described a conversation with a teacher she admired—a conversation too important and stimulating to interrupt. “During their talk, when an urge to go to the bathroom could no longer be denied, she decided not to interrupt the teacher or exit the room. She simply urinated on herself,” he writes. 

In Bruni’s telling, today’s college applicants have grown up in the era of oversharing, “a tendency toward runaway candor and uncensored revelation, especially about tribulations endured and hardships overcome.”

Certainly this trend of uncensored oversharing is disconcerting. But the fault, dear Bruni, is not in our scars but in our schools. To a significant degree, this awkward, uninhibited narcissism is aided, abetted, and even encouraged by what passes for writing instruction as far back as elementary school.

New York City’s schools, for example, have long been have long been in the thrall of the Teachers College ...

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