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.

“Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.”

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

I vividly remember a seventh-grade English teacher telling our class, with great solemnity, “Small minds use big words.”

For years, this guided my writing.

Until I figured out how wrong, how profoundly wrong, she had been.

And that’s why I’m so concerned about the new SAT’s approach to vocabulary—namely cutting “obscure” and “arcane” words. According to the Times,The SAT’s rarefied vocabulary challenges will be replaced by words that are common in college courses, like ‘empirical’ and ‘synthesis.’”

Over the last 25 years, I’ve come to the conclusion that maximizing the words at one’s disposal is indispensable for two reasons.

First, words enable us to explain, and an infinitely complex world requires an expansive vocabulary so we can be clear and precise.

Jane Austen is known for her extensive vocabulary, which can cause eye rolling: “blowsy,” “solicitude,” “diffident,” “abstruse,” and “licentiousness.”

But as I read her books, dictionary always nearby, I found that every single time she used an unfamiliar word, it was because that word was exactly right; it captured the nuance she intended to convey.

For example, in one famous case, she might’ve used “shy” but chose “diffident” instead.

Why?...

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Duplication is not always a good thing. Think about it, most of us don’t carry two cell phones. In a world with limited pants-pocket space, two phones would be senseless, right? Ohio’s school report cards have two essentially-the-same achievement components, both of which receive an A-F letter grade. It’s time to toss one of them for parsimony’s sake.

The first, the indicators-met component, is determined by whether 75 percent of a school’s test-takers reach proficiency on the state’s twenty-four assessments (85 percent for eleventh grade). The second, the performance-index component (PI), is a composite score weighted by the proportion of test-takers who attain each of the state’s five achievement levels.

Though the two indicators differ slightly, they produce very similar results for any given school. In other words, if a school gets a low PI letter grade, it is nearly assured that it will receive a low indicators-met grade. The same is true in the reverse—high PI schools will likely get a high indicators-met grade. Here’s the evidence.

Table 1 shows the letter grades of Ohio’s 3,089 schools by indicators met and PI. As you can tell, the grades correspond closely. For example, 99 percent of schools that received an A for indicators met received either an A or B on PI. One-hundred percent of schools that received a B on indicators met received a B or C on PI. Well over one-thousand schools received an A/B grade combination. There are very few schools that received mixed, high-low ratings:...

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Discussions about current education-reform efforts are typically focused on three separate topics: the Common Core standards, the new tests, and the curriculum. The alignment among the three seems to receive little attention—though it is a critical matter, as the degree of alignment will determine the validity of student test scores. One may presume that the tests currently being prepared by the two consortia of states are closely aligned with the standards. But in cases where states are making or buying their own tests, there is less assurance.

The creation of a curriculum, the provision of instructional materials, and the training of teachers is the purview of the states. This will lead to what I call “the delivered curriculum”—what the students are taught in the classroom. The degree to which the delivered curriculum matches the standards, as well as the alignment of the test, will determine the degree to which the test results are valid. This would seem to be elementary, but getting it to happen is a daunting challenge.

It is daunting because the standards are considered higher than those now in most states. New pedagogies are required. The training is expensive and time consuming—and there is a question of how many qualified instructors are available to provide the training, as well as how much time already-busy teachers are being allocated for the training. Another question concerns what funds can be made available in cash-strapped states. The degree to which teachers are prepared will inevitably vary among states and school...

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Warnings have been issued. Schools, both district and charter, are scurrying to get prepared. This spring, Ohio’s third-grade students will take a reading assessment, and those students unable to achieve a minimum score will have one more chance to remediate and pass in the summer—or repeat third grade.

This policy, known in Ohio as the “third-grade reading guarantee,” was adopted in 2012 as a result of Senate Bill 316 and was expected to generate some controversy when implemented. That prospect for most, however, was little more than an expected storm on day ten of a ten-day weather forecast. It could be bad, but who knows! Maybe the storm would miss us.

In October, the state administered a reading assessment to third graders across the state. The results weren’t good, with more than one-third of students failing to reach the score necessary to advance to the fourth grade. The ten-day forecast grew into a storm “warning” overnight, but the correctness of the prediction is not a cause for celebration. As with most storms, it’s important to follow a few simple steps.

First, stay calm. There have been times when the reaction to a storm is almost as intense and as big of a story as the storm itself. In some places, this buildup has begun with stories questioning the ability of districts to implement the third-grade reading guarantee. It’s important to focus on the facts of the situation. KidsOhio.org released a report last week that does just that....

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Ohio has the third-largest number of students enrolled in virtual education in the country. And many of the purveyors of online education are, apparently, not producing strong results for their students. It seems imperative that parents, legislators, taxpayers, and virtual-schooling advocates take action to ensure accountability for these schools, which are now expanding again in Ohio after a moratorium borne out of previous quality concerns. Public Impact has published a new report suggesting that what is needed is not anything new or unusual in terms of accountability measures—in fact, the same sorts of accountability mechanisms and processes we insist upon for brick-and-mortar schools can easily be adapted to help assess virtual schools, as well. And it may even be easier with virtual schools, as electronic data is readily available and easily portable in most areas of measurement and reporting. Where it seems that accountability for virtual schools does break down is in their unique structure. For example, on the input side, many teacher-prep programs don’t deal with the needs of virtual education, yet teachers are licensed the same for online and brick-and-mortar schools. Fully online schools are uniquely unsuited to site visits, a staple element of best practice for charter-school authorizing. Student enrollment, grading, and tracking processes may be very different for virtual schools, but they may also represent new ways that brick-and-mortar schools could address these very same issues. In the end, the authors’ findings include a need to focus accountability for all schools on outcomes; to...

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Cole Farnum

I started teaching seven years ago, and I have worked in four different schools in three different states. I’ve always sought schools and environments with higher standards for what students should know and be able to do, as well as higher expectations for what teachers can accomplish.

What I’ve learned, though, is that the definition for these goals varies not only across states but also within school districts—and that’s is a problem for our students.

We need to ensure that regardless of their zip code, our students receive the core instruction that will lead them to successful careers in school and life. The need for a clear standard for what students know and when are why I believe the Common Core State Standards are essential.

Before launching into the now-familiar debate around the new state standards, consider this experience.

In my first week as a sixth grade math teacher at a high-performing New York City school, I met Ethan, a student recognized for his strong math skills. When asked to show me his skills, he beamed at his ability to correctly find the area of an irregular polygon.

I was surprised, not because Ethan could solve the problem but rather because I had taught it to my fourth grade students in Massachusetts years earlier. Still, in New York, that lesson was a part of the state’s curriculum for Ethan’s sixth grade level.

No, I did not lead my former students in math lessons two years ahead of their grade level....

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As the debate over education reforms like the Common Core rage across the country, policy makers, advocates, pundits, and wonks clamor to have their views heard. In the din, the voices of teachers—upon whose shoulders the success of education reform ultimately lies—are sometimes drowned out. The third iteration of Scholastic’s Primary Sources survey (the first two were released in 2009 and 2011) provides powerful insight into teachers’ attitudes towards their profession, Common Core implementation, and teacher evaluations. Of the 20,000 teachers who participated, most showed enthusiasm for the new Common Core standards. Indeed, 57 percent of teachers in Common Core states believe that the standards will have a positive impact on students, outweighing those who believe the opposite by an impressive seven-to-one ratio; 35 percent say they will not make much of a difference. (It’s interesting to note that this view contradicts the impression given by the National Education Association last week.) However, teachers do remain cautious: 73 percent reported that implementing the standards will be challenging, and the same proportion noted that it will force them to make changes to their current teaching practices. It is therefore unsurprising that almost all respondents asked for additional time to find curricular materials and quality CCSS-based professional development (this syncs with our new study). Perhaps the most interesting takeaway from this study is that fewer than 10 percent of teachers believe their voices are heard at the national and state level. Yet 98 percent see teaching...

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On February 18, the Indiana Department of Education released the first public draft of a set of new K–12 expectations for English language arts and math. The proposed changes take place against the backdrop of a rollercoaster debate about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) that has seen numerous ups and downs since the state first adopted the CCSS back in August 2010. This contentious debate culminated in passage of legislation in April 2013 that paused CCSS implementation and charged the state Board of Education with adopting new college- and career-readiness standards.

State officials hope these new standards will accomplish two things: build on the best of both the Common Core and of the state’s previous (highly regarded) ELA and math standards and put to rest the heated and polarizing debate over the Common Core.

It’s perfectly fine, and has been since the outset, for states to adapt, modify, and add to the Common Core in order to address singular interests, needs, or enthusiasms of their residents, leaders, and educators. The test is whether such changes yield improvements on the one hand without diluting the very considerable gains that the Common Core itself made over the status quo across most of the U.S.

In this post, I take a close look at the proposed ELA to understand how they stack up against the Common Core and the Indiana standards that came before them.

The short answer: not well at all. Both...

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The Common Core State Standards are in place in forty-five states—and in many of those jurisdictions, educators are hard at work trying to bring them to life in their schools and classrooms.

But how is implementation going so far? That’s what this new study explores in four “early-implementer” school systems. Common Core in the Districts: An Early Look at Early Implementers provides an in-depth examination of real educators as they earnestly attempt to put higher standards into practice.

To learn more, download the report and read about it on Common Core Watch.

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The last year has found critics and advocates of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) duking it out in the political arena. That a common set of high expectations for K–12 students would catalyze such fierce fisticuffs reminds us of both the ugliness and beauty of democracy. Indeed, we at Fordham, ardent supporters of high standards for some seventeen years, have lurched out of the safe haven of think tankery and into the boxing ring. It is not a role that we asked for—or particularly relish—but, confident that the interests of America’s children and its future are worth fighting for, we laced up our gloves.

Yet wherever one stands on the merits of the Common Core, one thing is certain: all of the political posturing and mudslinging distract attention and energy from the crucial work of implementation. Like it or not, the Common Core State Standards are in place in forty-five states—and in many of those jurisdictions, educators are hard at work trying to operationalize them in their schools and classrooms.

We wanted to know how it was going, so we sought answers via an in-depth examination of real educators in real districts as they earnestly attempt to put the CCSS into practice. The result is our new study, Common Core in the Districts: An Early Look at Early Implementers. Our goal was to peer into this void via an up-close look at...

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