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.

Robin Sparkles

Recent visitors to a local D.C. high school were greeted with a remarkable sight—a room full of high school seniors silently reading classic literature. The featured book was Emoji-Dick, a line-by-line translation of Herman Melville’s celebrated novel into emoji, the picture symbols now ubiquitous in modern digital communications. Unfortunately, A Nation at Risk, Again: Emoji Illiteracy in the Twenty-First Century claims that this classroom is the exception, not the rule. The timely report reveals a number of dire findings, but worst of all is the revelation that, according to researchers, an astoundingly low 62 percent of American students were proficient in ELA (Emoji Language Arts)—a full thirty-seven points behind their Japanese peers.

According to authors, most American students can’t grasp such basic distinctions  as when to use the “smiling face with heart-shaped eyes” versus the “face throwing a kiss.” These same kids are also frequently the target of online bullying. “Our only comfort regarding these students is that their emoji illiteracy actually shields them from understanding the vast majority of these aggressive online attacks,” says Mike Petrilli,...

Kessington A. Bennett Waldorf IV

Photo credit: Me at 6" by Chris Gladis is licensed under  CC BY-ND 2.0.

For years, so-called “no excuses” charter schools have cultivated student perseverance, grit, and “growth mindsets” in the belief that such traits are essential to adult success. The theory seemed right, but it turns out to be completely wrong. New research indicates that the planet’s richest and most powerful denizens demonstrate altogether different character traits: arrogance, zealotry, self-promotion, narcissism, and an unwavering willingness to run roughshod over others.

This startling but unimpeachable analysis arose from recently uncovered videos of Stanford’s famous “marshmallow experiment.” In one riveting 1979 clip, three-year-old Travis arches an eyebrow when a marshmallow is placed on the table in front of him. When asked if he can wait for ten minutes before eating it, he snaps, “Do I look like a poopy-face? I wouldn’t wait 10 minutes for an entire #$&% bag of marshmallows. I specifically said white truffles!” The child then throws the marshmallow at the cowering researcher and...

Xavier Zinn

Clearly undeterred—and perhaps even spurred onward—by the backlash over its recent interventions in schools’ disciplinary practices and access to advanced courses, the Education Department’s proactive Office for Civil Rights is again moving into new territory: student lockers and alphabetical order. In the first instance, government enforcers have determined that high schoolers often have bigger lockers than second graders and now threaten punitive action if any school system does not give every student access to an equally capacious locker. Even more draconian is the fate awaiting districts in which little kids presently have “cubbies” rather than proper lockers.

As for alphabetical order, OCR has surfaced two problems that outrage their sense of fairness. It seems that teachers and schools routinely sort and categorize their students by the beginning letters of their surnames, which means that, 93 percent of the time,the Aarons and Adamses go first, while the Youngners and Zimmermans are relegated to lives at the end of the line. This blatant discrimination must be rectified. On some occasions, and perhaps half the time, the last must be first.


George Feeny

Three years ago, we came out with a “kindergarten canon” of the best books for your early readers. In light of the Common Core, however, we now recognize that the list lacks rigor and, most lamentably, informational options. There will be no more mollycoddling of students—even those just setting foot in schoolhouses. Though not from any standard Common Core list, these books are the best of those that align closely with the kindergarten standards. (How closely is anyone’s best guess.) I’m sure you and your young’uns will enjoy them as much as I do with my kids. War and Peace

While they probably won’t finish reading this epic before starting the third grade (if ever), this classic includes romance, war, death, abortion, and just about every human emotion your little guy or gal has no idea about. They’ll be learning about Russia—perfect knowledge-building for when Czar Putin ascends to power—both while reading the book and during the nightmares that are sure to follow.

Last week, I complained that Eva Moskowitz and other reformers weren’t being fair when they described schools as “persistently failing” because they didn’t get many of their students to the ambitious levels built into the Common Core. This is how I concluded:

The move to higher standards means that we need to recalibrate our rhetoric and, more importantly, our approach to school accountability. In the low-standards days, it was perfectly legitimate to call out schools that couldn’t get all or most of their students to minimal levels of literacy and numeracy. It simply doesn’t work to similarly defame schools that don’t get all of their students “on track for college and career.” It’s a much higher bar and a much longer road.

But reform critics aren’t any better when it comes to playing games with the new standards. Diane Ravitch and Valerie Strauss, for example, continue to peddle the notion that the Common Core is developmentally inappropriate because it expects all students to be able to read simple passages by the end of kindergarten. Perhaps without knowing it, they’re making the same mistake as Moskowitz and...

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in a slightly different form at Tim Shanahan's blog, Shanahan on Literacy.

Ladies and gentlemen, we're quickly sinking into the quicksand of yet another presidential campaign. I'm writing to help with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) issue. I don't want any of you tripped up by a feeble or foolish argument, and there are lots of ways of doing that. I'm sure you all know not to rely on your thirteen-year-old kids for policy advice—and not to sigh audibly and roll your eyes, since it will look like you sent your thirteen-year-old to debate in your place. If you can't stare down a callow opponent successfully, how will you ever convince voters that you can handle Putin or ISIS?

I won't be so bold as to suggest what your position should be on Common Core, but I do have advice as to which arguments to avoid.  

1. Previous educational standards were better.

Don't make this claim. It can only embarrass you (it's as bad as not being able to spell "potato"). Past standards were so low, they were the educational equivalent of everyone getting a tee-ball trophy. Many U.S. students met...

A torrent of complaints has been levelled against testing in recent months. Some of the criticism is associated with the PARCC exams, Ohio’s new English and math assessments for grades 3–8 and high school. The grumbling over testing isn’t a brand new phenomenon. In fact, it’s worth noting that in 2004, Ohioans were grousing about the OGTs! In the face of the latest iteration of the testing backlash, we should remember why standardized tests are essential. The key reasons, as I see them, are objectivity, comparability, and accountability.

Reason 1: Objectivity

At their core, standardized exams are designed to be objective measures. They assess students based on a similar set of questions, are given under nearly identical testing conditions, and are graded by a machine or blind reviewer. They are intended to provide an accurate, unfiltered measure of what a student knows.

Now, some have argued that teachers’ grades are sufficient. But the reality is that teacher grading practices can be wildly uneven across schools—and even within them. For instance, one math teacher might be an extraordinarily lenient grader, while another might be brutally hard: Getting an A means something very different. Teacher grading can be subjective...

In the pre-Common Core era, we had a big problem. Most state tests measured minimal competency in reading and math. But we failed to communicate that to parents, so they reasonably thought a passing grade meant their child was pretty much where they needed to be. Little did they know that their kid could earn a mark of “proficiency” and be reading or doing math at the twentieth or thirtieth percentile nationally. Frankly, we lied to the parents of too many children who were well below average and not at all on a trajectory for success in college or a well-paying career.

Playing games with proficiency cut scores provided much of the impetus behind Common Core. States raised standards and started building tests pitched at a much higher level. Most states are giving those tests for the first time right now, though New York and Kentucky made the transition two years ago. As of 2013, New York’s tests were the toughest in the country, according to a new analysis by Paul Peterson and Matthew Ackerman in Education Next, matching—if not exceeding—the performance standards of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.  

That may solve the “proficiency illusion”...

Nearly five years into Common Core implementation, educators across the country continue to struggle to identify and access high-quality instructional materials aligned to the new academic standards, often relying on outdated textbooks or cobbling together multiple sets of materials to get by.

A valuable resource is now available for educators., a new nonprofit organization reviewing materials for alignment to the Common Core, last week released findings from its initial round of evaluations. The consumer reports-style reviews (conducted by experienced educators, including classroom teachers, principals, and instructional coaches) evaluate curricular materials against three sequential categories, or "gateways"—“focus and coherence,” “rigor and the mathematical practices,” and “instructional supports and other usability indicators”—with only those meeting the first gateway advancing to the second and third. On the whole, findings are not promising. Of the twenty K–8 mathematics instructional series reviewed to date, only one met's criteria for alignment at all grade levels (Eureka, grades K–8), with a second series meeting the alignment criteria in two grades (My Math, grades 4–5). Eureka’s strong showing is particularly impressive, as it didn’t exist five years ago—it was originally created from scratch for the EngageNY website, whose combined math and ELA curriculum modules have...

The language of standards—even relatively straightforward ones like Common Core—can easily flummox the layperson (and more than a handful of professionals). What does it mean if a third grader is supposed to “use multiplication and division within 100 to solve word problems in situations involving equal groups, arrays, and measurement quantities?” Common Core might say a fifth grader should be expected to “write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons and information.” But—on a good day at least—so should a columnist for the New York Times. What’s the difference?

Parents cannot be faulted if they look at the standards, find them less than helpful, and want to know simply, “What should my child be able to do at this age?” That’s the goal of an interesting new project from GreatSchools, the school information megasite for parents. “Milestones” seeks to demystify the standards with a free and engaging collection of short videos in English and Spanish showing what grade-level work looks like in grades K–5. Each short clip shows students with their teachers “demonstrating what success looks like in reading, writing and math, grade by grade.”

Created in collaboration with Student Achievement Partners and...