High Achievers

For almost a year now, many states have been engulfed in a raucous debate about the Common Core State Standards. Mostly the to-and-fro isn’t about the standards themselves, but related issues: The Obama Administration’s role in their adoption, concerns about data privacy, pushback on teacher evaluation reform—the list goes on.

In our view, these issues are distractions from the serious work at hand: implementing solid standards that, by our lights, are better than those they replaced in three-fourths of the states, and more-or-less on par with the rest.

In an effort to nudge the conversation back to the standards and (yes, we know this is crazy!) teaching and learning—and as part of a years-long research effort to track implementation—we’re pleased to present a new Fordham study: Common Core in the Schools: A First Look at Reading Assignments.

This report presents the findings of a survey of English language arts (ELA) teachers from Common Core states, asking them to answer questions about the texts their students read and the instructional techniques they use in the classroom. This year’s data are meant to serve as a baseline that shows where we were in the very early stages of CCSS implementation. We plan to do a follow-up study in 2015, whereupon we will comment on whether the instructional shifts have taken hold.

But first, let’s define those instructional shifts—ways in which the Common Core standards expect practice to differ significantly from what’s been the norm in most American classrooms:

  1. Build knowledge through content-rich nonfiction and informational texts
  2. Focus student work on reading and writing grounded in evidence from text
  3. Encourage regular practice with complex text and its academic vocabulary

These shifts have profound implications for ELA curriculum and instruction. The Common Core State Standards are among the first standards to stress the crucial link between knowledge and reading comprehension—something that will, if faithfully implemented, force many teachers to rethink whether their preferred reading programs meet the content and rigor demands of the CCSS. And this important shift serves to correct the fact that, for too many years, students have had little access to the kinds of literary nonfiction and informational texts they need to prepare them for the rigor of advanced coursework in college and beyond.

The Common Core unambiguously expects “regular practice” with suitably complex texts. In the past, state ELA standards tacitly called for students to be able to read and understand grade-appropriate text by year’s end. The Common Core, by contrast, recognizes that the only way to achieve that goal is to expose students to complex texts throughout the year.

What’s more, the Common Core emphasizes reading (and writing) “grounded in evidence from the text.” Whereas students in the past may have read something, then moved immediately to write personal responses and narratives, the Common Core pushes them and their teachers to stay with the text—to use the author’s words and other evidence within the text to answer questions and to support analysis. This is precisely the kind of close reading and analytical practice that students need to push comprehension and deepen “critical thinking” skills.

But will these shifts make their way into American classrooms? That is the question we sought to examine through the present study.

Even today, at this early phase, we found some hopeful signs. Most teachers believe that the new standards promise better learning for their students, and a majority say that their schools have already made progress toward implementing the standards, including relevant curriculum changes and professional development. Some teachers say that they are already teaching with grade-level-appropriate texts, and that they already include at least some informational texts in their English language arts curriculum.

But findings from this survey also showed that the heavy lifting of aligning curriculum and instruction to the rigor of the CCSS mostly still lies ahead:

  • The CCSS emphasize the centrality of text in the English language arts curriculum. Yet the majority of teachers still say their lessons are dominated by skills; they are more likely to try to fit texts to skills than to ground their skills instruction in what is appropriate to the texts they are teaching. Indeed, an astonishing 73 percent of elementary and 56 percent of middle school teachers place greater emphasis on reading skills than the text; high school teachers are more divided, with roughly equal portions prioritizing either skills or texts.
     
  • The Common Core asks teachers to assign texts that provide language complexity appropriate to the grade level, but significant proportions of teachers—particularly in the elementary grades—are still assigning texts based on students’ present reading prowess. Specifically, the majority of elementary teachers (64 percent) choose to match students with books presumed to align with their instructional reading levels. This happens less often in middle and high school, with approximately two in five middle school teachers selecting texts this way. This means that many youngsters are not yet working with appropriately complex language in their schoolbooks.
     
  • The CCSS call for students to have substantial experience reading informational texts (including literary nonfiction such as speeches and essays). Despite some public controversy over this, teachers indicated that they are already devoting significant proportions of time to teaching such texts in their classrooms. Nevertheless, many English language arts teachers (including 56 percent at the middle school level) assign none of the literary or informational texts listed in the survey, which represented both CCSS exemplars and other high-quality texts.

The vast majority of teachers appear cautiously optimistic about the Common Core. Most (62 percent) indicated that, when surveyed in 2012, they thought the standards would have at least some positive learning benefits for their students (from a little bit to a great deal), while 11 percent thought that no learning gains would result and 18 percent said it was “too soon to tell.” These responses were consistent across the grades; elementary, middle school, and high school teachers characterized the standards similarly.

The promise and potential of standards- and accountability-driven reform is that, by setting clear and rigorous expectations for what students should know and be able to do, teachers can better prepare students for the more advanced work that they will be asked to do in later grades, in college, and beyond. In order for standards to have any impact, however, they must change classroom practice. In Common Core states, the shifts that these new expectations demand are based on the best research and information we have about how to boost students’ reading comprehension and analysis and thereby prepare them more successfully for college and careers. Whether those shifts will truly transform classroom practice, however, remains to be seen. Please stay tuned.

Throughout much of 2013, a colleague and I worked on a project related to America’s highest-potential boys and girls, students colloquially known as “gifted.” Though I learned a great deal, it was mostly a discouraging enterprise.

In short, this country gives the impression that it doesn’t much care about such kids. We have an astonishingly under-resourced, deprioritized, and inchoate system of school supports for kids on the right side of the academic distribution.

Though the project was designed to identify what’s happening in this field, I spent much of my time studying the dog that seldom barks—trying to figure out why there is so little activity in this field. I’m now of the mind that American-ness might be at the heart of the problem.

There is something quintessentially American about beating the odds, bootstrapping your way to success. Think of the waves of penniless immigrants who came to our shores and made their marks, the hardy souls who crossed the plains and mountains to realize their destinies. This is the stuff of The American Dream.

But something important seems to go hand-in-hand with our rooting for the underdog—what might be described as the chip on our collective shoulder, a bit of disdain for those seen as undeservingly advantaged. Our Founders cast off the crown, the nobility, and the haughty pretentions that go along with class privilege. We rebel against not only tyranny but the Platonic idea of “philosopher-kings”—persons groomed from youth, told they are crafted from precious metals, and guided into positions of power and lives of advantage.

As a still-mostly-meritocratic country, we seem to respect what people become, but we reserve our reverence for the process of rising, Horatio Alger style. As for those blessed with advantages from the get-go, well, we have no intention of holding them back. But we are inclined to just let them be. In all of our research, what we heard most frequently was that people believe major efforts aimed at high-performing students aren’t all that important because these kids will do fine without any additional “favors” from the rest of us.

In Closing America’s High-achievement Gap, recently published by the Philanthropy Roundtable, I argue that the “let-them-be” approach is deeply flawed and that public education policy and practice pay far too little attention to helping gifted students reach their full potential. 

First, this form of benign neglect is based on a false assumption. Most of America’s ostensibly “self-made” leaders enjoyed all sorts of essential support along their paths to greatness. Frederick Douglass received surreptitious reading lessons during his childhood. Thomas Edison was home-schooled by an attentive mother. Robert Goddard was given a telescope, microscope, and subscription to Scientific American. America’s position on the global stage would look markedly different today if generations of political, industrial, and scientific leaders had not been cultivated and nurtured by the adults in their lives.

Unfortunately for today’s gifted students, however, when a Fordham Institute survey recently asked teachers which students were most likely to get one-on-one attention, 81 percent said struggling students and only 5 percent said advanced students. Some knowledgeable, insistent, well-resourced parents can deflect some of these problems by finding special schools, hiring tutors, and so on. But the talented, low-income child often pays the price, depending as she does on whatever supports her neighborhood school has to offer.

Second, leaving them alone overlooks the opportunity costs—both to individual students and to society—when a gifted child does not reach her potential. For low-income and minority students, this gap has negative implications for the cause of social justice and civil rights. But for all high-potential kids who get too little attention, the child, her community, and the nation all pay a large price. A natural resource was squandered—great accomplishments never came to be. The damage inflicted can last far beyond the year (or years) she was under-challenged. She will have missed the opportunity to acquire skills and knowledge but also invaluable attributes like grit and perseverance, which will be essential when she faces difficulties in higher education or the workforce.

In fact, a 2011 Fordham Institute study found that somewhere between 30 percent and 50 percent of early-grade “high-flyers” descend and no longer achieve at the most advanced levels. A similar study in the United Kingdom found the same result. This adds up to lots of kids and lots of lost potential. In the best of cases, a high-potential student will have a fine personal and professional life, but the delta between what is and what could have been will be significant in terms of both her personal sense of fulfillment and her contributions to society.

Third, benign neglect assumes that raising the floor is the best and fastest route toward equity. Over the last two decades, policymakers, compelled by the demands of equal opportunity and aghast at widening achievement gaps—particularly for poor and minority youngsters—have focused resources on the neediest kids. The “achievement gap,” the difference between the proficiency rates of different groups of students, appears to be closing slowly. This is invaluable.

However, the “excellence gap,” the difference in performance at the “advanced level,” is large and growing. Low-income, minority, and English-language-learning students are terribly under-represented at the highest levels of achievement.

Our short book offers lots of suggestions. For example, new accountability systems should pay more attention to “advanced” and less to “proficient,” or they should calculate the “value-added” gains of gifted children (as Ohio’s does). We should create more specialty schools for high-potential kids (like those identified in Finn and Hockett’s superb Exam Schools). We need to do a much better job of identifying gifted kids and developing policies requiring that they receive attention. We need more out-of-school supplements, such as distance-learning opportunities and university-based programs. And we need to seriously reconsider how we recruit, train, certify, and compensate those who teach gifted kids. These boys and girls desperately need very, very smart educators.

But leaving possible solutions aside, I’d like to return to the fundamental problem—that we seem not to care very much about these boys and girls. If you doubt this, ask yourself: What is my organization doing for the highest-potential students? What is our reform movement doing for them?

We should care about all boys and girls. Morally, it’s the right thing to do. Politically, too: If we want education reform to be sustainable, we have to broaden our base. But we should also help high-achievers for the sake of our nation. Our brightest kids have the potential to become our future presidents, judges, diplomats, business leaders, scientists, and artists. If we’re to remain competitive internationally and prosperous and free domestically, we must start investing more in high-talent kids. It’ll pay big dividends, and future generations will thank us for patriotically leaving them this nest egg.

The results of New York’s hard-fought, revamped, and supposedly tougher teacher-evaluation system are in: 91.5 percent of teachers were rated either highly effective or effective, 4.4 percent were rated “developing,” and just 1 percent were rated “ineffective.” This appears to be a continuation of a trend: After a huge push for rigorous teacher evaluations tied to achievement, the results are mostly the same. These outcomes are especially interesting when juxtaposed with those from the recently lauded D.C. IMPACT system [link to SR]. Mike Petrilli, unsurprised, notes that the natural local response to top-down mandates is to resist.

A thoughtful article in National Review Online profiled the battle against “progressive education” over the last half century and, in particular, the contributions of E.D. Hirsch Jr. to the cause. It is a must-read for anyone those who wish to understand more clearly the philosophical underpinnings of the education-reform movement.

New York Times op-ed columnist Bill Keller highlighted the move to reform teacher preparation, noting in particular the calls for greater selectivity in admissions (a key point in Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World), better training in content knowledge (as quoted in the article, researcher William Schmidt reckoned that about 60 percent of America’s future middle school math teachers were being trained at “Botswana-level teacher programs”), and the introduction of “sustained, intense classroom experience” into prep programs.

Seven states—Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Washington—will participate in a two-year pilot program aimed at improving teacher preparation and licensure. The reforms will increase selectivity in teacher-prep programs, make licensure provisional upon whether or not candidates can demonstrate specific skills, and revamp the process by which programs are approved. The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), which created the program, will provide technical and financial assistance to the participating states. This is a worthy, and necessary, undertaking.

IMPACT—the District of Columbia’s controversial teacher-evaluation system, ushered in by former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee—offers robust incentives and sanctions for teachers and links them to multiple measures of performance, such as test scores, classroom observations, and collaboration with colleagues. And according to this new study, it is working. Analysts studied teacher-level administrative and demographic data for DCPS’s general-education teachers in grades K–12, and their students, over the first three years of IMPACT (2009–10 through 2011–12), including their scores on IMPACT, which placed them into four categories of effectiveness ranging from highly effective to ineffective. Teachers in the latter category were immediately dismissed, while those in the next lowest category (called minimally effective) were subject to a dismissal threat—meaning they could be fired the following year if their rating did not improve. On the other hand, those who were rated as highly effective were eligible for a one-time bonus of up to $25,000, as well as increases in their base pay if they scored at the highest rating for at least two consecutive years. When comparing these two “threshold” groups, the low-performers (whose ratings placed them near the threshold of a dismissal threat) and the high performers (whose rating placed them near the threshold for the big pay bump), the analysts found that the threat of dismissal increased the voluntary attrition of low-performing teachers by 11 percentage points (or more than 50 percent) and improved the performance of teachers who remained by 0.27 of a standard deviation. They also found that the financial incentives further improved the performance of high-performing teachers; specifically, teachers who originally scored at or above the highest rating in the first year scored roughly 10 percentage points higher in the second year. Commentary on these results abounds in the blogosphere, essentially boiling down to one point: IMPACT is a unique program with a lot of factors—political, geographical, and so on—that converged to make it successful, meaning it is not easily replicated.

SOURCE: Thomas Dee and James Wyckoff, “Incentives, Selection, and Teacher Performance: Evidence from IMPACT,” NBER Working Paper No. 19529 (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, October 2013).

Drawing on classroom visits, teacher training observations, and interviews with multiple education stakeholders, this special reporting project by the Hechinger Report and the Education Writers Association succeeds in bringing lofty notions of Common Core implementation down to an easily consumable level. In-depth profiles of seven states—New York, Tennessee, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Colorado, California, and Florida—illustrate key successes and challenges that educators are experiencing, teacher perspectives on the standards themselves, and mounting political pushback at the state level as Common Core–implementation efforts accelerate. In addition to the profiles, the report includes a piece on the rationale behind Common Core, a discussion of how the CCSS compare to international standards, an overview of Common Core math and ELA content and controversies, a video in which David Coleman highlights key instructional shifts, and a state-by-state synopsis of how seven states are navigating the transition to Common Core (whew!). Embedded throughout the profiles and articles is information clarifying frequent misconceptions about Common Core. For example, the report stresses that “the Common Core lays out overarching education principles and specific skills students should master in different grade levels,” but is not a federal or state takeover of curriculum decisions. (For more on Common Core controversies, watch the video of our event on the topic this past week.) This is not to say the report presents its observations of Common Core implementation through overly rosy glasses; rather, it offers a realistic view of educator frustrations and hurdles alongside widespread feelings of optimism and the belief that rigorous, higher standards are the right thing for our students. At the end of the day, as one eighth-grade math teacher in Nashville concludes, “It is about setting high expectations and believing that [the students] can do it.”

SOURCE: The Hechinger Report and Education Writers Association, National Reporting Project on the Common Core (The Hechinger Report, October 2013).

With Common Core implementation in full swing, states are, for the most part, reaching for the same academic achievement goals. Yet according to this new report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), the accountability structures being developed in state and local jurisdictions continue to be disparate in scope and quality. Must this be the case? Policymakers, private funders, charter authorizers, or others might create a national system that “could offer the primary advantage of providing a consistent and comprehensive measure of charter school quality to inform parent choice and authorizer decisions,” argue the authors. Looking for inspiration, the analysts study state and local accountability systems as well as private ones, such as the high school rankings provided by U.S. News and World Report. They found that each used different reporting formats and a variety of means to measure student achievement, growth, college and career readiness, and subgroup performance. Logistics, costs, and our fears of federal intervention in education will likely ensure that a multi-state evaluation system does not move much beyond the kind offered by U.S. News. Nevertheless, the report calls for better data and offers a number of steps that states could take to make their results more comparable, such as including student-growth measures or using simplified reporting formats.

SOURCE: Lyria Boast and Tim Field, Quality School Ratings: Trends in Evaluating School Academic Quality (Washington, D.C.: National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, October 2013).

Are states making progress towards implementing the Common Core ELA standards? Did New York waste its time revamping its teacher-evaluation system? Is Teach For America getting too big for its britches? And what exactly is the anti-blob? Mike and Michelle ponder these questions, while Amber lays out the impact of IMPACT.

Does three times four equal eleven? Will "fuzzy math" leave our students two years behind other countries? Will literature vanish from the English class? Is gifted-and-talented education dying? A barrel of rumors and myths about curriculum has made its way into discussions of the Common Core State Standards for math and English language arts. Experts will tackle these fears and claims at Fordham on October 23, 2013. Hear from Jason Zimba on math myths, Tim Shanahan on the texts that teachers may assign, and a panel of practicing K--12 educators for an early look at Common Core implementation in their states and districts.
 
Common Core math myths: A conversation with Jason Zimba
 
Are teachers assigning Common Core aligned texts? A conversation with Tim Shanahan
 
An early look at Common Core implementation: A panel discussion
 
Moderated by Michael Petrilli

Throughout much of 2013, a colleague and I worked on a project related to America’s highest-potential boys and girls, students colloquially known as “gifted.” Though I learned a great deal, it was mostly a discouraging enterprise.

In short, this country gives the impression that it doesn’t much care about such kids. We have an astonishingly under-resourced, deprioritized, and inchoate system of school supports for kids on the right side of the academic distribution.

Though the project was designed to identify what’s happening in this field, I spent much of my time studying the dog that seldom barks—trying to figure out why there is so little activity in this field. I’m now of the mind that American-ness might be at the heart of the problem.

There is something quintessentially American about beating the odds, bootstrapping your way to success. Think of the waves of penniless immigrants who came to our shores and made their marks, the hardy souls who crossed the plains and mountains to realize their destinies. This is the stuff of The American Dream.

But something important seems to go...

Lottery systems are too common in education. And while it’s the fairest way to allocate a limited number of seats at, say, an oversubscribed, high-performing charter school, it’s not the way forward when it comes to Advanced Placement (AP) courses.

Unfortunately, that’s the direction some California school districts may be heading.

Teresa Watanabe of the Los Angeles Times reported last week that as some schools move to open access for AP courses, it allows students unprepared for the college-level rigor to sign up. And by enrolling students via lottery—because there aren’t enough AP seats to go around—schools may be shutting out high-achieving students entirely.

"While expanding access is generally a good thing, we need to make sure we're not watering down the experience for the high achievers," said Michael Petrilli in the story.

Mike reiterated that sentiment yesterday when he spoke to Larry Mantle of KPCC’s AirTalk, noting the unintended consequences of expanding AP courses.

Everyone agrees that more access to advanced-level work is a good thing for our students, but the evidence is mixed on...

Today’s whiz kids are those most apt to become tomorrow’s leaders. Our ablest students will hatch ideas for products that satisfy the needs and wants of future generations. They’ll be the engineers, investors, teachers, lawyers, and civic leaders that form the backbone of a strong 21st century economy.

Columbus’ public school system, however, by and large neglects its gifted students. This jeopardizes the city and region’s future prosperity and the diversity of its workforce.

First, the neglect of gifted youngsters isn’t such a problem in suburban communities. In fact, parents there are more likely to be accused of “pushing” their kids too hard not too little. Many upper-middle-class parents make sure their children play, for example, violin (for Pete’s sake, first chair), star in a sport (if not three), join the Key Club (why not become president), and of course do well in school (straight A’s in at least three AP courses).

It is not the well-heeled students who win spelling bees and ace their standardized exams with which I’m concerned. On the whole, suburban parents—and schools when coaxed by parents—give their girls and boys ample opportunity to excel academically.

But what happens to talented youngsters who don’t have a...

Big Ideas Edition

With Mike beaching it in an undisclosed location, Dara and Daniela take on some big topics: If affirmative action were to end, how could colleges maintain diversity? Do teachers need convincing to use technology? All things considered, is college worth it? Amber charts a course to charter quality.

Amber's Research Minute

National Charter School Study 2013,” by Center for Research on Education Outcomes (Stanford, CA: Center for Research on Education Outcomes, June 2013).

The missed opportunity in the education of gifted students runs up and down the system, including into and beyond the college gate. Last December, Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery showed that there are far more high-achieving, low-income students than previously thought—but that these young people, unaware of their options, often do not even apply to selective colleges. Now, Hoxby and Sarah Turner report on a well-crafted intervention aimed at closing the information gap. It’s called the Expanding College Opportunities (ECO) Project. After sending and emailing customized informational packets (which consisted of college-specific information and application fee waivers, alongside guidance on how to apply to selective colleges, on the net cost of college, and on colleges’ varying graduation rates—all at $6 a pop) to high-achieving seniors (10,000 of them in 2010–11, with a control group of 2,500, and 15,000 in 2011–12, with a control group of 3,000), the authors saw positive results: Compared to the control group, recipient students were 20 percent more likely to apply to public and private schools with similarly high-achieving students. And in this Hamilton Project paper, the authors outline ways to bring this initiative to scale: First, in order to scale up the number of...

In which Terry celebrates cheating (sort of)

Terry livens up the airwaves, bantering with Mike about NCTQ’s blockbuster report, the Blaine Amendment, and Philly’s budget woes. Amber waltzes through the dance of the lemons.

Amber's Research Minute

Strategic Involuntary Teacher Transfers and Teacher Performance: Examining Equity and Efficiency,” by Jason A. Grissom, Susanna Loeb, and Nathaniel Nakashima, NBER Working Paper No. 19108 (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, June 2013).

Leaking all of our education-reform secrets

Mike and Kathleen catch the whistleblower spirit, giving the goods on NGSS, sparring over ability grouping, and decrying the latest Common Core distraction. Amber goes easy on Ed Sector.

Amber's Research Minute

The New State Achievement Gap: How Federal Waivers Could Make It Worse—Or Better by John Chubb and Constance Clark (Washington, D.C.: Education Sector, June 2013).

In the midst of a blooming field of research on how to serve high-achieving minority and lower-income youngsters, this report from Education Trust plants a welcome bud. Noting that the sturdiest predictor of college success is the richness of a student’s course of study in high school, and concerned about how few minority and low-income students opt to take challenging Advanced Placement (AP) courses, the authors set out to understand the extent of these inequities—and what can be done to reverse the trend. After determining that 71 percent of all U.S. high schools in 2009–10 had at least one student take an AP examination, providing 91 percent of all students with some AP access, they outlined the extent of the gap: 6 percent of African American students take AP courses, compared with 11.9 percent of white students and 25.1 percent of Asians; similarly, 5.5 percent of low-income students take AP courses, versus 15.6 percent of all other students. The authors go on to recommend a number of actions that district and high school educators can take, from simply expanding awareness among underrepresented student groups to creating a network of supports for students taking advanced courses. But...

You call that "flexibility"?

Mike and Dara discuss NCLB reauthorization, NYC’s teacher evaluations, and the relationship between poverty and educational outcomes. Amber revels in the glory of having finally gotten Fordham’s epic pensions report out the door.

Amber's Research Minute

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