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.

As a Relinquisher, I’m weary of broad government mandates. I believe educators should run schools, parents should choose amongst these schools, and government should hold schools accountable for performance and equity.

So what to make of the Common Core—which will be the broadest combination of federal- or state-initiated regulatory overhaul that we’ve seen in decades?

Admittedly, it took me a while to sort through my competing impulses. But here’s the path I followed:

Skepticism: The research on standards

1.    There’s very little evidence that higher standards lead to higher achievement. As Tom Loveless notes, states with better standards do not show more growth on NAEP.

2.    There’s also a financial, political, and labor-opportunity cost to working on standards over other things more directly related to Relinquishment (charter expansion, human-capital pipelines, etc).

Pragmatic hope: The research, logic of assessments

1.    All states have standards, and experts seem to agree that the Common Core standards are better than most existing state standards—so if we’re going to have standards, we might as well make them higher quality.

2.    Why? Because I think this standards shift will include something that has not consistently happened under the NCLB standards shift: assessments will become more rigorous.

3.    Great standards can sit on shelves. Great assessments must be dealt with—and there is some evidence that increasing rigor of assessments in fourth-grade math and reading (by raising cut scores) is correlated to achievement gains. While causation is difficult to prove, this finding...

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Politics aside, the fate of the Common Core begins and ends with implementation. Particularly during this initial transition, it is critical that educators have sufficient support and guidance to successfully teach these standards. Unfortunately, much existing information focuses on content rather than instructional strategy, leaving educators baffled as to how to navigate the shift to Common Core in their own classrooms. Enter the Achievement Network (ANet), a nonprofit serving low-income schools. (Check out Education Next for great background.) Released as part of a collection of Common Core resources published by the Aspen Institute, this paper was informed by substantial on-the-ground work with 460 partner schools in seven states and the District of Columbia. It’s structured around three rubrics: one for “Leader Actions,” one for “Teacher Actions,” and one for “School Structures.” Each is designed to help on-the-ground educators diagnose their school’s current practices and details how to shift from basic to innovative practices in key areas. The report includes specific strategies ranging from how leaders can help teachers understand and plan from the new standards to how to improve teachers’ analysis and use of student data. For example, school leaders are urged to work closely with teachers to set goals based on individual students’ growth potential and to assist them in selecting one or two priority standards and instructional shifts on which to focus. The guide also includes sample questions upon which leaders can frame school-level discussions and provides case studies as examples of how other schools and...

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Does school accountability boost students’ long-term prospects? That’s the question this new study by David Deming, Sarah Cohodes, Jennifer Jennings, and Christopher Jencks seeks to answer by examining the impact of accountability pressure in the Texas public high schools in the 1990s. (Jennings, you might recall, once assumed the moniker “Eduwonkette.”) Most agree that the series of tough policies that the Lone Star State instituted during this era, whereby school performance on state tests was made public and tied to various awards and sanctions, was the foundation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The system had several components: 1) Districts received accountability ratings based on their lowest rated schools, which was intended to pressure them to improve those schools; 2) schools were rated based on the percentage of students who received passing scores; 3) the overall rating was based in part on the lowest scoring subgroup, incentivizing school leaders to focus on the worst performing students; and 4) students were required to pass tenth-grade exams in math, reading, and writing in order to graduate. Because math pass rates were nearly always the stumbling block to underperforming schools obtaining a higher rating, how students performed on the tenth-grade math test can be considered a test of the influence of accountability. The analysts tracked five cohorts of first-time ninth-grade students from Spring 1995 to Spring 1999, comparing similar students within the same schools but across cohorts. The upshot: Schools at risk of receiving a low rating responded by increasing the math...

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Journalist and author Amanda Ripley has received well-deserved attention for her book The Smartest Kids in the World—but we’re not sold on her case against high school sports, which headlines this month’s Atlantic. Check out this week’s Education Gadfly Show for an informed debate.

On Monday, Florida governor Rick Scott issued an executive order withdrawing the Sunshine State from PARCC. Bobby Jindal and Scott Walker—governors of Louisiana and Wisconsin, respectively—have also expressed “reservations” about the Common Core of late. As Margaret Thatcher would say, “This is no time to go wobbly!” On the brighter side, earlier today, the Michigan House of Representatives voted 85–21 to adopt a resolution authorizing funding for Common Core implementation.

A Wall Street Journal editorial blasted Philadelphia’s teacher union for dragging its feet on Governor Corbett’s proposal to bail out the failing district, which—if accepted—would be conditional on the elimination of teacher seniority rights and basing future pay increases on achievement-based teacher evaluations. (For more on the roots of Philadelphia schools’ sticky financial situation, see Paying the Pension Price in Philadelphia.) In this week’s podcast, Dara urges Philly’s teacher union, and unions everywhere, to take a more active role in pushing teacher quality....

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Shael Polakow-Suransky

New York State took a major step toward implementing the Common Core State Standards this spring with new assessments designed to better measure critical thinking and problem solving. While the new tests certainly leave room for improvement, the new assessments are an important milestone in the shift towards pushing teachers to assign more cognitively challenging and engaging work.

This has been a long time coming.

Seven years ago, Mayor Bloomberg, writing in the Washington Post at the inception of New York City's accountability system, argued that it was critical for states across the country to set a higher standard and align expectations more closely to the rigorous National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

As we continue to translate the promise of these new standards into deep changes in what and how we teach, it's critical that we also reflect on what we've learned and consider ways to strengthen the system that is currently in place.

Our accountability system in New York City was designed to promote equity and strengthen the quality of our schools. It was crafted to push schools to make the right instructional decisions for all students and to inform the supports, interventions, and rewards provided to schools. This system is rooted in four core principles:

1.     Schools are compared to other schools serving similar students, providing a fair sense of what schools can achieve;

2.     Schools’ contribution to student learning is the primary emphasis—we use multiple measures that look at both absolute performance and growth,...

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One of the few things that nearly all sides of the education policy debate can agree on is that student achievement in urban schools and districts across the nation is distressingly low.

But that is where the agreement ends.

There is a complicated, rolling debate about the problem itself: whether this low level of achievement should be described as a failure of schools or a consequence of poverty, whether things are actually getting better and how, and whether our expectations about what schools can do are too high.

But even when we can reach some consensus on the scope of the problem, there is an even more hotly contested discussion about its solutions. Interestingly, though, conversations about how to improve achievement and reduce gaps seem almost myopically focused on systems and governance—how schools or districts are organized, how to hold them accountable, who should hold them accountable, and on. At the same time, claims about the potential of system-level and governance changes seem to both overestimate the impact system-level changes can have on student achievement at scale and studiously avoid what happens every day in the classroom.

It’s as if we were trying to improve cancer treatment with debates about how insurance companies reimbursed hospitals or whether states should provide financial oversight over billing rates, but without talking about how to improve the detection and treatment of the disease itself.

And the reality is that while we undoubtedly have school-governance challenges that need to be overcome, we also have a...

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Chad Aldeman

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has just drawn a very confusing line in the sand over standardized testing. A new announcement this week allowing states flexibility to avoid double-testing students on both existing state assessments and the coming field tests for new PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments is likely to have far-reaching and not entirely positive implications.

Let us explain. The new flexibility allows any state (and any district in those states) to count field tests toward NCLB’s annual testing requirement in the spring of 2014 as long as all students are tested on some assessment. However, those field tests will not result in student-, school-, district-, or state-level scores, so theoretically a state could administer the field test to all of its students and have no transparent or actionable data. At the same time, Duncan has threatened to withhold money from California for its legislation limiting testing in the spring of 2014 only to districts with the technical capacity to administer the field tests. California’s plan would also not result in actionable testing data next spring.

The only difference between the two is that California doesn’t care if some students are given a one-year testing reprieve. Both Duncan’s waiver and California’s plan would result in large numbers of students, schools, districts, and (potentially) entire states without testing data for this school year. In fact, Duncan’s plan could result in testing kids solely for the sake of testing them—little to no actionable information for...

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The following is the text from Mike Petrilli's testimony to the Tennessee Senate Education Committee on the Common Core, delivered on September 20, 2013.

Senators and Representatives: It’s an honor to be with you today. My name is Mike Petrilli; I’m the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-of-center education-policy think tank in Washington, D.C., that also does on-the-ground work in the great state of Ohio. We promote education reforms of all stripes, with a particular focus on school choice and standards-based reform. I was honored to serve in the George W. Bush administration; my boss, Chester Finn, served in the Reagan administration.

I suspect that not all of my friends agree with me, but I am glad that you are holding this hearing and debating the issue of whether Tennessee should stick with the Common Core. These standards were developed by the states, and to be successful, they need to be owned by the states. Our educators are all too familiar with the “flavor-of-the-month” reforms that come and go. They are wondering if they should wait this one out too. By having this open debate on the Common Core, you can settle the issue once and for all, either by changing course or moving full-speed ahead.

I am here today to urge you to stay the course with the Common Core. Those of us at Fordham sincerely believe that the faithful implementation of these standards will help many more young people—including Tennesseans—be prepared for success...

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"If you're comfortable with mediocrity, fine." – Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush

Sharper words could not have been spoken in the face of torrential criticism against the Common Core nationally and here in Ohio. For those unaware, the Common Core are new, rigorous academic standards in English and math that Ohio and 44 other states have voluntarily adopted and are in the process of implementing. The data below suggest that the Buckeye State's K-12 education system, taken as a whole, is still mired in “mediocrity.” As such, these data should provide ample reason for Ohioans to back a full-throttled implementation of the Common Core.

ACT Scores

Ohio’s main college admissions exam is administered by the ACT, an organization that has established “College Readiness” benchmarks in the four subject areas it tests (English, reading, math, science). The benchmarks are tied to the probability a test taker will obtain a B or C in a corresponding freshman-level college course (50 percent chance of getting a B, or a 75 percent chance of getting a C). In 2013, 92,813 Ohio graduates took the ACT exam—and less than a third of them (31 percent) reached all four subject-matter benchmarks. Grads performed best in English (71 percent made the benchmark, or a score of 18). But, in the other three content areas, far fewer graduates made it. Barely half of Ohio’s graduates hit the reading benchmark (51 percent, score of 22), while less than half reached the math (49 percent, score of 22)...

Many of today’s reform critics see standardized testing as education’s greatest evil, arguing that it forces a dull, routinized and stifling learning culture. However, in this new book by William J. Reese, a professor of educational-policy studies and history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, we learn that pen-and-paper exams were, in fact, created in order to reform an uncreative and stifling system—one characterized by testing via “public exhibitions” of well-rehearsed oratories and parades. Reese centers his story on how education reformers Horace Mann (Massachusetts’s first secretary of education) and Samuel Gridley Howe (a member of the state’s School Committee) fought tooth and nail to bring about this transformation. In 1845, the School Committee issued the first written test at Boston’s grammar schools and towns outside of Boston—and the results were abysmal. Nearly half of the test questions were left unanswered, resulting in extremely low average scores: The highest scoring subject was grammar with 39 percent; history reaped an embarrassing 26 percent. (Unfortunately for Howe, parents blamed Howe for this miserable showing and voted him out at the next election.) More than a century and a half later, the testing wars continue. Indeed, Howe’s fate may be on the minds of officials who fret about the failure rate that is apt to follow the new Common Core–aligned assessments. The rest of us, however, should at least understand that these issues aren’t new.

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