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.

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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A study out of Britain’s Institute of Education (IOE) has found that children who read for pleasure made more progress in mathematics, vocabulary, and spelling between the ages of ten and sixteen than their peers who rarely read. In fact, the study found that whether or not a child likes to read is a greater predictor of classroom success than parents’ educational levels.

A Chicago Tribune article follows Jailyn Baker, a teenager in Chicago, on her seven-leg, hour-and-a-half-long commute to the Josephinium Academy, her school of choice and one of the few private schools in the city that her family can afford. Her story illustrates not only the lengths to which folks will go to exercise school choice but also a great irony: Jailyn lives closer to Indiana, a state that has one of the “most liberating” school-voucher programs in the land, than she does to Josephinium; were she living in Indiana, she would be eligible for a voucher worth nearly $6,000, which could allow her to attend a private school that she didn’t have to torture herself to get to.

Kudos of the week go to Jeb Bush, who—in what seemed like a moment of frustration—struck back at Common Core critics: “If you’re comfortable with mediocrity, fine.” He followed his comments, made at an appearance in Washington in support of Louisiana’s school-voucher program, by calling opposition “purely political.” Read more here.

A month after publishing two pieces blasting the National Council on...

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Among the many arguments raging—and more than a little mud-slinging—around the Common Core State Standards, perhaps the most arcane involves the blurry border between academic standards and classroom curricula.

Begin with the fact that neither term has a clear definition. Most people hazily understand that standards involve the destination that students ought to reach—i.e., the skills and knowledge (and sometimes habits, attitudes, and practices) that they should have acquired by some point in their educational journey. Often it’s the end of a grade (“by the end of fifth grade, students will know how to multiply and divide whole numbers”), sometimes the completion of a grade band (“by the end of middle school…” or “during ninth and tenth grade”).

Curriculum, on the other hand, is what Ms. Robertson teaches on Tuesday, in week 19, or during the “fourth unit,” and it generally consists of scopes and sequences, actual lessons, textbooks, reading assignments, and such.

Over a stated period of time, curriculum combined with pedagogy, properly applied by teachers and ingested by students, is supposed to result in the attainment of standards.

But it’s blurry. Standards range from vague to specific and from few to numerous. Curriculum ranges all over the place, from a forty-seven-minute lesson to a yearlong, even multi-year scope and sequence.

In general, in the U.S. in 2013, states prescribe standards, at least in core school subjects, but they...

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No, I’m not suggesting that social studies kill people, but the recent emission by the National Council for the Social Studies of “guidance for enhancing the rigor of K–12 civics, economics, geography, and history” does have this in common with the agreement that the U.S. and Russia reached in Geneva on Saturday regarding Syria’s chemical weapons: both are termed “frameworks” and neither will do any good unless many other people do many other things that they are highly unlikely to do.

The Syrians must itemize, declare, and dismantle their chemical weapons. All of them. Fast. Who really thinks that’s going to happen?

And for the College, Career and Civic Life Framework for Social Studies State Standards to have any positive influence on this woebegone realm of the American curriculum, states and districts (and textbook publishers, teachers, etc.) must supply all the content. For this framework is avowedly, even proudly, devoid of all content.

Nowhere in its 108 pages will you find Abraham Lincoln, the Declaration of Independence, Martin Luther King (or Martin Luther), a map of the United States, or the concept of supply and demand. You won’t find anything that you might think children should actually learn about history, geography, civics or economics.

Instead, you will something called an “Inquiry Arc,” defined as “as set of interlocking and mutually supportive ideas that frame the ways students learn social studies content.”...

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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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