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.

Sending an e-mail to ed-reformers and asking for their two cents results in a many responses, as Michael Petrilli learned when he shared his article “The Problem with Proficiency” and asked, “Who’s with me?”

Here’s a small snapshot of the thoughtful, respectful, and fifty-eight-round (!) conversation that included forty-some opinionated edu-thinkers.

  • “I would argue we need a different accountability system,” writes Randi Weingarten. “One that :

1. Pressures all of us to do better, by shining the spotlight particularly on our most vulnerable children, and what we are doing to help them succeed;

2. Credits improvement appropriately;

3. Defines success (and frankly, proficiency) radically differently than by a test score; and

4. Includes accountability for what we value—and for managerial steps that must be taken such as the provision of supports, not simply outcomes.”

  • “The big question to me is not who holds the bag on the end of year test result, but how we transform the quality of daily work,” asked David Coleman, president of College Board. “How can teachers and students engage in excellent work on a far larger scale?”
  • Frequent Flypaper blogger Andy Smarick tunes in on the state aspect: “The entity that SHOULD be held most accountable, but is actually LEAST accountable, is the state. State constitutions empower/require state governments to ensure kids are educated. If we're displeased with results, and the state is ultimately responsible, we need to hold state governments to account...meaning change how they
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This study of Teach For America (TFA) and Teaching Fellows secondary math teachers explores how their students compare to peers taking the same course, in the same school, from teachers who entered the profession through traditional certification programs (or other programs not as rigorous as TFA or Teaching Fellows). Conducted by Mathematica and the federal Institute of Education Sciences, the report is the first look at this question using random assignment, the gold standard for empirical research: Students in each participating school, 9,000 overall taught by 300 secondary math teachers, were randomly assigned to their instructors. The upshot? First, students who had TFA teachers performed better on end-of-year assessments than students in the comparison classrooms, scoring an average of 0.07 standard deviations higher, which is equivalent to 2.6 additional months of school or moving from the 27th to 36th percentile. Second, students who had Teaching Fellows teachers did not do any better or worse than students in comparison classrooms. However, students of novice Teaching Fellows did better than those instructed by novice comparison teachers. To be sure, these findings are not necessarily reflective of the programs alone. They also reflect differences in the people who choose to enter them. Finally, a bit on the characteristics of these teachers: Both TFA and Teaching Fellows have less experience than their peers, are less likely to be minorities, more likely to have graduated from more selective colleges, less likely to be math majors but more likely to score higher on tests of math...

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Among the provisions of Indiana’s so-called Common Core “pause” legislation was a requirement that the state’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) provide an estimate of the cost of implementing these standards and their assessments. The results are in, along with OMB’s conclusion: “Local schools had already or were capable of transitioning to new standards with existing levels of funding.” The report examined a number of scenarios for assessment implementation, comparing annual costs for adoption of PARCC tests ($33.2M); Smarter Balanced tests ($31.4M); a hypothetical state-developed, CCSS-aligned assessment ($34.8M plus $23.5M in one-time development costs); and a hypothetical state-developed assessment not aligned to the CCSS ($34.7M plus $19.1M in one-time development costs). Yes, you added correctly: Sticking with the Common Core and its assessments is the cheapest option. This analysis, we suspect, may turn the tide in Indiana and help convince wobbly policy makers to stay the course. But the impact of this “fiscal impact” study should really be much broader. Leaders in any state with a raging Common Core controversy should give it a look.
SOURCE: Chad Timmerman, Amy Pattinson, and Parvonay Stover, Indiana Common Core Implementation: Fiscal Impact Report (Indianapolis, IN: Indiana Office of Management and Budget, August 2013).

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For the past year, much of the ed-reform world has been concerned about the (seemingly) growing opposition from the right to the Common Core standards. But the closer you look at these critiques of Common Core, the weaker their case appears. Can something as solid as CCSS really be stopped by such an intellectually flimsy attack?

The Pioneer Institute is a leader in the conservative anti–Common Core brigade, launching reports, op-eds, and testimony in a seemingly unending effort to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the standards. They are nothing if not fanatical in their opposition to the Common Core; even when they acknowledge the facts aren’t on their side, they simply refuse to change their story.

Take, for instance, Pioneer’s recently released white paper, written by former Texas Commissioner of Education Robert Scott and entitled, “A Republic of Republics: How the Common Core Undermines State and Local Control over K–12 Education." In terms of criticism of the Common Core, there is very little substantively new in the report—the arguments are all very familiar to anyone who’s been following the backlash over the past several months. What makes the report so curious is that they actually accept four facts about the Common Core that leave little of their argument intact.

Fact #1: Local Control. On page 2, Scott acknowledges that, across all states—even those that have adopted the Common Core—it is state and local leaders, not the federal government, who will make decisions about curriculum and instruction.

Fact #2: Not...

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Arne Duncan was right to call attention to 9/11 as an important opportunity for teaching children about the heinous events of that day twelve years ago, about honoring those who perished, and about the value of "coming together" as Americans.

But he missed a terrific opportunity to remind American educators that kids need context and background knowledge if they're to make sense of 9/11—or, frankly, of much else, right down to and including what's going on in Syria today. That calls for a solid, content-centric K–12 curriculum, including lots and lots of history, geography, and civics, the great neglected subjects of the typical "social studies" curriculum. E.D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge sequence would be a swell place to start.

For the benefit of teachers (and high school/college students) who want to understand 9/11 in context, over the past dozen years we at Fordham have also produced three collections of terrific essays by thoughtful, eminent Americans on how to make sense of those events and what children need to know about them. You (and Secretary Duncan) can find this guidance here, here, and here.

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As many states move toward full implementation of the Common Core State Standards this school year, discussions have been heating up about their merit. To no one’s surprise here at Fordham, we have found ourselves in the thick of things as a strong conservative voice in favor of these more rigorous standards. Misinformation and myths abound, so we’ve found it necessary to jump into the conversation and make some clarifications. Here are a few highlights of our recent efforts to share our view that the Common Core are a big win for conservatives:

  • In several red states (including Alabama, Idaho, and South Carolina), Checker and Mike urged policy makers not to abandon the Common Core. The pair cite several conservative arguments in support of the core: fiscal responsibility, accountability, school choice, competitiveness, innovation, and traditional education values.
  • Amber Winkler reacts to this viral video on Fox and Friends, calling these and other misinterpretations of the solid Common Core “a bunch of hooey!
  • In a lively debate with radio host Rich Girard, Mike strikes down connections between NCLB and the Common Core and reminds listeners that the Common Core was in fact started by states, not the federal government. He brings the argument back to high standards, not national standards.
  • In New Hampshire, Kathleen Porter-Magee demystifies common misconceptions of the standards and how they will
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So far, I am leery of both sets of official tests for the Common Core, at least in English language arts (ELA). They could endanger the promise of the Common Core. In recent years, the promise of NCLB was vitiated when test prep for reading-comprehension tests usurped the teaching of science, literature, history, civics, and the arts—the very subjects needed for good reading comprehension.

In an earlier Huffington Post blog, I wrote that if students learned science, literature, history, civics, and the arts, they would do very well on the new Common Core reading tests—whatever those tests turned out to be. To my distress, many teachers commented that no, they were still going to do test prep, as any sensible teacher should, because their job and income depended on their students’ scores on the reading tests.

The first thing I’d want to do if I were younger would be to launch an effective court challenge to value-added teacher evaluations on the basis of test scores in reading comprehension. In the domain of reading comprehension, the value-added approach to teacher evaluation is unsound both technically and in its curriculum-narrowing effects. The connection between job ratings and tests in ELA has been a disaster for education.

The scholarly proponents of the value-added approach have sent me a set of technical studies. My analysis of them showed what anyone immersed in reading research would have predicted: The value-added data were modestly stable for math but fuzzy and unreliable for reading. It...

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The Washington Post (and many others) roundly decried the Department of Justice’s petition to disallow Louisiana from awarding vouchers to students in public schools under federal desegregation orders. Surely it’s folly to block students (mainly black and all poor) from escaping failing schools to which they would otherwise be condemned—and it’s outrageous to claim that this is good for civil rights. As 90 percent of the kids benefiting from Louisiana’s voucher program are African American, Gadfly cannot help but suspect political motives. We join the chorus: Shame on the Department of Justice for standing between disadvantaged children and their education dreams.

Massachusetts, with the nation’s highest-performing school system, models the power of comprehensive standards-based reform. As noted by the New York Times, the Bay State’s standards—like the Common Core—refrain from prescribing curriculum and pedagogy, meaning that teachers decide how to get their pupils across the finish line. There’s far more to the Massachusetts story, of course, including a higher bar, more money, charter schools, individual student-level accountability and tougher requirements to enter teaching. But it’s a story worth telling and retelling.

As the time draws closer for Congress to focus on reauthorizing the federal Institute of Education Sciences, the New York Times did a decent job of profiling the difference that it has made, particularly its emphasis on randomized studies—i.e. research based on clinical trials that test, for example, whether particular education...

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The recently released Appendix C, intended to clarify key choices made by writers of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), addresses College and Career Readiness. It is lengthy and rich in self-praise and in repetition of claims made earlier in the evolution of the NGSS and their initiating Framework. The handling of one subhead—addressing mathematics and the alignment of these standards with the Common Core (CC) standards for mathematics—is a miniature of the Appendix as a whole: pious declarations of purpose for not-quite-compliant products. Our discussion below will serve as a critique of the whole.

Science Education
The slighting of mathematics in the actual NGSS standards does increasing mischief as grade level rises.
Photo by LianaAn

This section of the Appendix is entitled, “The Importance of Mathematics for College Readiness in Science.” The historic association of mathematics with science and science education is lauded and given robust support. An understanding is implicit throughout: that content-relevant mathematics is emphasized in the NGSS and aligned with the Common Core math standards. This section of the Appendix makes the observation that “calling for application of mathematics in a performance generally raises the level of rigor.” True. Hence we may ask, “Do the NGSS, in fact, call effectively for science-relevant math, and do those calls align, grade-wise, with CC-Math?”

Examination of mathematics in the NGSS was a key element of our reviews....

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For many years, my son Ted has been principal of the elementary grades of a K–12 public charter school in Massachusetts. It uses the Core Knowledge Sequence (a grade-by-grade outline of essential content) as a primary tool for developing its curriculum. His school ranks in the top-performing group of schools in the nation’s top-performing state. Needless to say, the school has long followed the rightly admired Massachusetts standards. Indeed, the Massachusetts standards are so good that some of the most vocal opponents of CCSS are claiming that the Common Core State Standards will represent a watering down. But Ted’s school justifies a very different inference. His Core Knowledge–based curriculum is consistent with both the Massachusetts standards and the CCSS. How so? It’s because both sets of standards set rigorous goals but don’t specify content for each grade level. In the course of actual implementation, therefore, a school can simultaneously fulfill both the Massachusetts standards and the CCSS, as Ted’s school so effectively does. 

This fall, Ted’s daughter, Cleo, will be teaching in a school in the Bronx, assigned to teach the American Revolution to seventh-grade public school students. Though hugely competent, she panicked and called me: “O my gosh. Granddad, are there any teaching guides for this?” Her school could offer no real support. I sent her one of the thick, grade-by-grade teacher handbooks produced by the Core Knowledge Foundation. These handbooks explain each topic and provide instructional suggestions. In addition, they also lay out the knowledge above and beyond the lesson topics that would...

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