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.


Our many standards-based blog posts are listed below.

Fordham’s experts on standards-based reforms:

Jennifer Bay-Williams

The Fordham Institute’s recent study, Common Core Math in the K-8 Classroom: Results from a National Teacher Survey, took a close look at how educators are implementing the Common Core math standards in classrooms across the nation. Using focus groups and a survey of teachers, Ann Duffett, David Griffith, and I gleaned valuable insights that ranged from good to bad to ugly. As we approach the forthcoming school year and 150,000 teachers prepare to teach math to students from kindergarten through eighth grade, it’s worth taking stock of what we’ve learned.

Let’s start with the good. With few exceptions, educators are very knowledgeable about what content is considered “grade-level” for the grades they teach, and they are prioritizing content that the standards designate as “critical areas.” Teachers are also paying closer attention to applications, student use of language in the math classroom, and increased use of the number line. Across CCSS states, rigor, consistency, and cohesion in K–8 mathematics has increased—a very good (and necessary) thing!

Teachers are also spending more time collaborating, especially with their grade-level colleagues. Working together leads to better curriculum design (e.g., how much time to spend on a particular topic), better instruction, and more consistency across teachers...

One of my greatest failures in my first year as a teacher was my inadequate communication with parents. Upon reflection, I can see that that this failure arose from many sources. Most obviously, I lacked experience and the kind of relationships that come from spending years working in the same community. That’s not to mention the discomfort I felt when calling low-income parents during dinner hours, often to tell them that their children were misbehaving. Which led to procrastination (to be clear, this was all on me). To make things more difficult, many of the families I served lacked email addresses. As much as I’d like to say I did everything I could, it wouldn’t be the truth. Then again, you can always do more. That’s the soul-crushing thing about teaching.

If you’ve never been a teacher, it’s almost impossible to understand the time demands of the job. But here’s how I put it when I’m trying to make the point: Remember the last presentation you made for work, and all the time and effort you put into preparing for it (organizing the handouts, putting together the slideshow, rehearsing your introduction)? Now imagine that you must give three such presentations on the...

As a chubby girl at Treakle Elementary School (Mom said it was just “baby fat”), one thing I remember having to do was memorize my times tables. My well-meaning Dad and I sat at our kitchen table after dinner as he called out multiplication problems to me at lightning speed: six times six, twelve times eleven, eight times nine, ten times three. On and on it went. When I got one wrong (aargh!), he went back to it again (and again). Unnerving, to be sure, but I felt great pride at (eventually) memorizing the entire lot and I relished the ritual that Dad and I shared as Mom finished the dishes and my near-teen sister chatted forever on the phone.

I’ve since learned that not all teachers, kids, and parents are as smitten with memorizing fundamental math facts. Yes, some are adamant that kids must memorize the basics or they’ll fall ever farther behind. But others are just as convinced that memorization in elementary school damages youngsters academically and emotionally, stunting their genuine understanding of math concepts and leaving them frustrated, stressed, and math-averse.

Part of the rationale for academic standards is to standardize essential elements of...

In 2010, when the final Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were unveiled, our content experts found them worthy of praise, awarding the math standards an A-minus and the English language arts standards a B-plus. That meant that CCSS was “clearly superior” to the standards in the vast majority of states—and that the vast majority of American children would be better off if their schools taught them the content and skills they set forth.

Since then, we’ve remained steadfast in our belief that the standards, if adequately implemented and supported, could improve the educational trajectories and life prospects of all students. Yet our earnest, unequivocal support of the CCSS does not mean that we’re wearing rose-colored glasses. In fact, we’ve not been shy at all about exposing implementation warts over the last six years.

Our latest study, Common Core Math in the K-8 Classroom: Results from a National Teacher Survey, also doesn’t pull any punches. It seeks to offer relevant, honest, and—we hope—practical findings on CCSS implementation. We examined whether teachers responsible for elementary and middle school math instruction in Common Core states have changed what and how they teach—and whether they’re seeing improvements in students’ math understanding as a result. (This...

In Common Core Math in the K-8 Classroom: Results from a National Teacher SurveyJennifer Bay Williams, Ann Duffett, and David Griffith take a close look at how educators are implementing the Common Core math standards in classrooms across the nation. A nationally representative survey of over one thousand teachers reveals that they are increasingly familiar with the Common Core and believe that it will benefit students. Yet our findings also point to several areas that warrant mid-course corrections if we’re going to fulfill the standards’ more rigorous expectations.

Here are a few key takeaways: 

  1. Teachers like the Common Core but they don’t think all of their students and parents are equally enamored. Most teachers view the standards positively, believing that they will enhance their students’ math skills and prepare them for college and beyond. But they add that students’ and parents’ views are considerably less rosy. Some of their students have “math anxiety,” they say, and 85 percent believe that “reinforcement of math learning at home is declining because parents don’t understand the way that math is being taught.”
  2. Teachers know what’s in the Common Core—and they’re teaching it at the appropriate grade level. Though it may seem unsurprising,
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In this survey, ACT asked thousands of K–12 teachers, college instructors, and workforce supervisors and employees about their views on current educational practices and “college and career readiness expectations.” According to ACT, these expectations rightly include not only “core academic skills” in English, reading, mathematics, and science, but also “cross-cutting capabilities” like technological literacy and collaborative problem solving, “behavioral skills” related to self-regulation, and “education and career navigation skills.” (No one could accuse the organization of having a narrow perspective.)

Overall, survey respondents identified “acting honestly” and “sustaining effort” as the most important “non-academic characteristics” for young people to develop. And in a separate set of questions, “content knowledge” and “conscientiousness” were ranked highly by every group, from elementary school teachers to workplace supervisors. However, two skill areas were ranked highly only by workforce respondents: technology (by employees) and collaboration with peers (by supervisors).

Based on these results, the authors recommend that state and local education agencies track the development of students’ non-academic skills and incorporate them into instruction. They also suggest that states and districts invest in technology training for teachers. Both suggestions might be sensible in a world of perfect information and implementation, but as matters stand, they...

My friend Tom Loveless is right about most things, and he’s certainly right that scoring “proficient” on NAEP has nothing to do with being “on grade level.” He’s also right that Campbell Brown missed this point.

But Tom, alas, is quite wrong about the value of NAEP’s trio of “achievement levels” (basic, proficient, advanced). And he’s worse than wrong to get into any sort of defense of “grade level,” as if that concept had any valid meaning or true value for education reform.

In his words, Tom’s post sought “to convince readers of two things: One, proficient on NAEP does not mean grade-level performance. It’s significantly above that. Two, using NAEP’s proficient level as a basis for education policy is a bad idea.”

We agree on the first point, not on the second—and not on his implicit argument that there is merit in basing education policy on “grade-level” thinking.

Unless one is talking about academic standards—Common Core or otherwise—or about the cut scores on high-stakes, end-of-year, criterion-referenced exams like PARCC and Smarter Balanced, “grade level” has no meaning at all. It’s a misnomer that we adopted during decades of using norm-referenced tests. These were “normed” such that the average...

  • Education reformers are right to prioritize the closing of “achievement gaps”—the disparities in academic outcomes separating comparatively advantaged (and primarily white) students from their low-income and minority peers. But there’s such a thing as prosecuting the achievement gap beyond its proportion, as this Hechinger Report story on Kentucky schools illustrates. While surveying the state’s testing progress since its (propitiously early) adoption of the Common Core, author Luba Ostashevsky focuses heavily on the fact that white third graders have increased reading proficiency by twice the amount that their black classmates have (4 percent vs. 2 percent). It’s certainly true that we’d like to see those gains realized equitably, but it’s also worth highlighting—and celebrating—the fact that both groups are doing better than they were previously. Regardless of their background, most elementary schoolers know enough math to understand that achievement isn’t a zero-sum proposition.
  • The political challenges around reform can be enough to make you pine for a benevolent education dictator to establish rigorous academic standards, ample choice in schooling, and unlimited recess for all. But put down that scepter, Jefe Duncan—most of the truly important policy decisions are still made at the state level, and that’s why it’s so
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  • At the same time we wrapped up our Wonkathon on parental choice under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the Washington Post’s Jay Mathews published a column on the new law’s implications for school accountability. With authority ostensibly withdrawn from the Department of Education, he wonders which measures—particularly non-academic ones—state-level officials will use to determine whether schools and districts doing right by their students. It’s a question that we originally asked in our accountability system design competition this February, yielding novel proposals for student satisfaction questionnaires, school climate surveys, and the tracking of chronic absenteeism, among others. Mathews’s take is no less rewarding.
  • Meanwhile, developments in Denver are also providing a real-time examination of issues we’ve been exploring this month in our national commentary. District officials there have unveiled a new, three-phase framework for initiating the shuttering of underperforming schools, echoing the recent debate between Fordham’s Mike Petrilli and the University of Arkansas’s Jay Greene on the utility—or futility—of relying on test data for closures. (Jay struck a deeply skeptical note on “distant authorities” using such information to overrule parental demand, while Mike was more bullish on what regulators can learn from test scores.)
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  • The heroic journalism of the Boston Globe in exposing pedophilia enabled by the Catholic Church was the focus of last year’s Oscar-winning Spotlight. Now the paper has trained its attention on New England preparatory schools, where some allegations of misconduct date back a half-century or more. Its survey of the claims is penetrating and comprehensive: Nearly seventy such schools have faced complaints of sexual harassment or abuse in the last twenty-five years, with accusations lodged by two hundred alleged victims. And we have no reason to believe that the exploitation is limited to private schools; as a 2004 literature synthesis undertaken by the Department of Education makes clear, sexual misconduct plagues schools across the country and in every sector.
  • At one point, forty-four states were affiliated with one of the two next-generation testing consortia (PARCC and Smarter Balanced) that arose with the widespread adoption of the Common Core. This spring, just twenty-one of those states will be administering the tests. Chalkbeat has published a thorough account of the political machinations that overtook the assessments, as well as the efforts of legislators to pull away from them. In dozens of states, what followed was chaos. Curricular experts were
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