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.

For two decades now, education reformers have promoted a two-track strategy for improving our schools. The first track is standards-based: Set clear, high expectations in core academic subjects; test students regularly to see which schools and students are clearing the bar; and hold schools (and perhaps also educators and pupils) to account for the results.

The second reform track is school choice: Allow parents to select among a wide array of education providers, encouraging innovation along the way.

We have argued for years that these two tracks are interdependent — even codependent. Let us explain:

Standards-based reform got underway in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in part as a reaction to A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report by President Reagan’s Commission on Excellence in Education. This reform track offered what Lamar Alexander called a “horse trade”: more autonomy for schools in return for stronger academic results. Previous waves of reform had focused on inputs, intentions, and regulation: boost the credentials and pay of teachers; increase course requirements for high-school graduation; mandate lower class sizes; etc. When that yielded paltry success, policymakers flipped the equation: less regulation but more focus on outcomes.

That only works, however, when the desired outcomes are clear. That’s the role of academic standards, which, if well crafted, provide guidance to teachers, parents, textbook writers, and test designers about what students are expected to know and be...

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In the waning days of 2013, I highlighted five big issues to keep an eye on in 2014. Ohio’s new teacher-evaluation system was number two on the list. In terms of predictions mine was anything but bold; after all, this is the first school year that the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System (OTES) has been implemented. Any new system, especially one as important and controversial as OTES, is going to make headlines.

Last fall, Senator Randy Gardner introduced legislation (Senate Bill 229) to make minor modifications to the evaluation system. Most notably, he proposed reducing from 50 to 35 percent the amount of a teacher’s performance evaluation that is based on student achievement and lengthening the time between evaluations to three years for many teachers. The bill sailed through the Senate in less than a month, but it stalled in the House Education Committee until recently.

The House last week unveiled a substitute bill (legislative comparison document) that clarifies some ambiguities in the law and offers helpful tweaks. Other modifications are more substantive and could help school leaders to more accurately determine a teacher’s performance level. The most substantial among the House’s proposed changes include the following:

  • Incorporate student surveys into teacher ratings. Borrowing from the recent Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) study sponsored by the Gates Foundation, it would allow (not require) school districts to use student surveys as 20 percent of a teacher’s evaluation and would reduce the emphasis on the teacher-observation
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Recognizing the contribution of schools and teachers to their students’ learning is a key element of a performance-based accountability system. Yet determining how to measure such contributions remains unsettled science. Two approaches—student-growth percentile (SGP) and value added (VAM)—have emerged as the most rigorous ways to measure contributions to growth. Even within the value-added category, there are several ways to specify the statistical model. (Ohio, along with a few other states, uses a proprietary model that was developed by William Sanders and is run by statisticians at SAS.) But does the model actually matter, as it pertains to teacher-level ratings? In this paper, researchers compare SGP to VAM, using longitudinal student data from public schools in Washington, D.C.. Interestingly, the authors specify a teacher-level VAM (not the Ohio model) that includes student background characteristics and an SGP model that excludes them.[1] Generally speaking, the researchers found strong correlations between the models (greater than 0.9 for both math and reading). However, the analysts found a number of outlying teachers whose growth estimates were substantially different across the two models. As a result, a minority of teachers (14 percent) would have landed in a different rating category depending on the model. The analysts, however, attribute very little of the differences to the inclusion-exclusion of background variables. So is one model superior? The authors can’t say—there’s no “magic model” to compare them with—but their research demonstrates that different models can alter some teachers’ ratings. Ohio’s state-level policymakers should...

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I’ve long argued that there is a meaningful and important difference between standards and curriculum. Pick your metaphor: The standards set the destination; they don’t define the journey. Or they describe the “what” but not the “how.” While a good set of K–12 academic standards can foster tremendous innovation and real choice for teachers and students, instructional flexibility is essential. There is no one “right” way to teach content and skills to all students. The right path depends on the strengths and needs of the students and the teachers as much as it does on the content itself.

It’s exactly because I see the potential—the necessity, even—for classroom-level innovation that I shudder when people argue that Common Core adoption is tantamount to the imposition of a single, national curriculum. In my mind, that is simply not what Common Core is meant to do. (In fact, more than three years ago, when some pushed for a common curriculum to match the common standards, I argued forcefully against it. I wrote that mandating state or national curriculum—either directly or indirectly—was “one of the least effective ways” of driving effective curriculum choices. Teacher buy-in is too important to curriculum implementation, and teachers are unlikely to feel bought into a curriculum that was forced upon them from state bureaucrats, no matter how well intentioned they are.)

But what happens when the lines between setting standards and mandating curriculum are blurred?

That is what I see happening...

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Sonja Brookins Santelises

While the New York State United Teachers and the National Education Association have withdrawn their support for the Common Core State Standards, it’s important to recognize that the teachers’ actions had nothing to do with the standards themselves. This blowback is yet another example of how concerns about implementation are being conflated with the actual merit of the standards.

Even among educators committed to serving children in poverty and kids already performing far below their potential, there is widespread agreement that these rigorous standards will help move more of our young people toward true college and career readiness. The recently released Primary Sources survey found that nearly 75 percent of teachers expressed enthusiasm for the Common Core. Further, more than half said they thought the standards would be positive for most students.

What many object to are the rushed timelines for implementing the standards and tests, a lack of adequate support for teaching the standards, and the simultaneous rollout of new educator evaluation systems based partly on student performance on these brand new tests.

These are valid concerns. Expecting educators and young people to adjust to such sweeping changes within a year or two, as do current federal and state policies, is unrealistic. But our response to these concerns can’t be abandoning the standards themselves, for in doing so we would abandon the best chance we have had in a very long time to focus all of our schools on the things that will...

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In the Hoover Institution’s Defining Ideas journal, Tom Loveless has a brief, measured examination of today’s curriculum debates. Entitled “The Curriculum Wars,” the essay reviews age-old disputes between traditionalists and progressives in the 80s, 90s, and 00s, then reframes them in light of two recent developments: technology in education and Common Core. 

Loveless recalls the whole-language vs. phonics battle in reading instruction; project-based learning vs. content-oriented instruction in science; problem solving vs. computation skills in math; and multiculturalist, “national-sins” history vs. Eurocentric versions (He doesn’t use the term “Eurocentric,” but it’s implied). While the former (progressivist) approaches dominated education through the 90s, the “rise of accountability systems” that focused on basic literacy and numeracy skills, plus research showing the ineffectiveness of whole-language theories, blunted those approaches in reading and math and marginalized science and social studies/history debates.

We are now in a state of “relative calm” in curriculum matters, Loveless asserts, but technology and Common Core threaten to revive the controversies. In customizing instruction to each student, he warns, we may find the curriculum fragmenting to the point that students “no longer learn a common body of knowledge and skills at approximately the same time.” We might extend that concern to the outcome that there would no longer be any common body of knowledge and skills. (Loveless has a nice comment, too, on the “romantic ideology” of those we might call the “disruptivists,” who rely on doubtful theories of learning styles in their effusive advocacy of customization.)

The threat that Common Core poses...

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Yesterday, National Review Online posted an article entitled, “The Eleven Dumbest Common Core Problems.” This is the latest in a series of posts making their way around the internet aimed at demonstrating how the Common Core ELA and math standards are “forcing” low-quality, fuzzy math and politically charged English passages on our nation’s elementary students. But that’s like saying wet roads caused it to rain—it’s got the causation all mixed up.

The posts and the pictures of awful curriculum have parents, teachers, and community members rightly concerned. We should be teaching important content, free of political biases and agendas, and we should be teaching that content in the most effective and efficient way possible.

But we can blame the Common Core only if we have some evidence that pro-environmentalist reading passages—or otherwise low-quality elementary reading and math materials—are a new phenomenon. Or that they account for a significantly higher proportion of texts read than before CCSS. Or if opponents can demonstrate a clear link between the poor curriculum and the demands of the standards.

Thus far, very little (if any) such evidence has been presented, so it isn’t clear why the CCSS—or any standards that don’t explicitly demand fuzzy math or environmentalist literature—are to blame. Is choice to blame for charlatan school leaders? Because there is financial mismanagement of some charter schools, should we eliminate privately managed public schools? Hardly. But that is the same line of argument being advanced by opponents of the Common Core,...

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As followers of the Common Core debate know all too well, when it comes to the veracity of publishers’ claims of “Common Core alignment,” the most we supporters have been able to offer in the way of advice is: “buyer beware.” You need only know that publishers slapped “Common Core Aligned!” stickers on previously published materials—almost before the standards themselves were finalized and definitely before any serious curriculum reviewing and rewriting could have been done—to realize that teachers were going to be faced with the unenviable task of wading through a morass of materials of varying degrees of quality and alignment in their attempt to find quality, well-aligned materials for their classrooms.

Because there is no agency tasked with trademark enforcement, any company can say its books and resources are Common Core aligned. And publishers seem determined to take advantage of this Wild West environment. Against this backdrop, someone needs to step in as sheriff—a role state departments of education are well suited to fill.

On March 5, the Louisiana Department of Education did just that with their release of a suite of tools aimed at supporting teachers as they align curriculum and instruction to the Common Core. Among those tools is a series of rubrics that leaders and teachers can use to evaluate ELA and math curricula, and tiered ratings of a number of the most popular and widely used CCSS-aligned English and math curricula.

While there are a number of other “alignment” tools teachers can...

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For many years, Indiana has been a leader in providing rigorous, content-rich K–12 expectations. But lately, the state seems to be taking worrying and entirely unnecessary steps backward. First, under pressure from Common Core opponents, the Board of Education released updated ELA and math standards that are widely considered a step down from both the CCSS and the Indiana standards they replaced.

And now, the state has adopted history standards that are a far cry from the clear, content-rich U.S. history expectations that earned the Hoosier state a top-tier score in Fordham’s most recent analysis of state U.S. history standards (which I coauthored). While these two standards revisions were not purposefully linked, they demonstrate a worrying pattern: a move away of the kind of specific content standards that earned Indiana a reputation for having standards among the best in the nation.

Last fall, Andrea Neal, a middle-school history teacher and a member of Indiana’s Board of Education, contacted me with concerns about the new drafts then emerging from the state’s Department of Education. Given my role in the 2011 review, she asked the head of the DoE to seek my input. But, she tells me, she was informed the department “would not welcome” such a review. The Education Roundtable, an appointed body that advises the Board of Education on standards, also rejected her suggestion. This month, with the revisions complete and a vote approaching, Neal commissioned my review on her own.

My analysis, unfortunately, fully confirmed...

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Student Achievement Partners

The Fordham Institute’s new report Common Core in the Districts paints a vivid picture of four different school districts’ efforts to implement the Common Core State Standards. Each district follows a comprehensive strategy, developed in relation to its own particular portfolio of resources and constraints, and each district has had its own particular successes and failures—but all four share a passionate dedication to the goal. The authors of Common Core in the Districts draw upon these districts’ experiences to make valuable recommendations for educators across the country who are also trying to implement the standards.

The four districts studied intensively by Fordham’s researchers—Kenton County School District in Kentucky; Metropolitan Nashville Public School District in Tennessee; Elementary School District 54 in Schaumberg, Illinois; and Washoe County School District in Nevada—are not alone. At Student Achievement Partners, we have been inspired by our work with educators at the district level.

For example, educators we’ve worked with in Reading, Pennsylvania, discovered that newly purchased reading anthologies didn’t lead students back to the text to search for evidence, nor were the classroom activities sufficiently challenging. The district, however, had recently lost 10 percent of its Title I funds and could little afford new teaching guides at a cost of $400 per classroom. Professional-development director Sue Vaites recounted how the district turned this challenge into an opportunity. Seeing little possibility of new funding, and refusing to use subpar materials, the district and its teachers took charge of creating their own resources. Like educators...

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