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:

OK, everyone, back away from the ledge. With the release of NAEP data this week, the predictable deluge of commentary is well underway—mainly of the gnashing-of-teeth, rending-of-garments variety. NAEP may be the nation’s report card, but it is also the nation’s Rorschach test. Perception is in the eye of the beholder, and many see darkness and misery: “A Decade of Academic Progress Halts,” says the Los Angeles Times. “Student Score in Reading and Math Drop,” says U.S. News & World Report.

One of the frequent criticisms of NAEP punditry is “misNAEPery”—the sin of attributing fluctuations to particular policies, for example. One particularly virulent form of this fallacy—failure to account demographic changes in states over time—has become slightly less tenable this week, courtesy of this illuminating analysis by Matthew Chingos of the Urban Institute.

Not every state is the same. States with higher concentrations of black and Hispanic children, low-income families, and English language learners (ELLs) have a harder time rising to the top because they have more students mired at the bottom. But when you adjust for these demographic realities, a different NAEP emerges. There’s Massachusetts, still sitting pretty atop the tables. But Texas and...

Over the weekend, President Barack Obama received high praise from parents and teachers for acknowledging that testing is taking too much time away from teaching, learning and fostering creativity in schools, and recommending that standardized tests take up no more than 2 percent of total school instructional time. Frankly, this is arrant nonsense.

From time to time, I'm asked to give a talk about education. If I look at how I spend my time over the course of a year, giving presentations and speeches is a very small part of my job—less than 2 percent. However, if my effectiveness were to be judged on the audience response to the handful of talks I give each year, I'd spend a lot more time writing and practicing speeches. I'd fret endlessly over my PowerPoint slides and leave-behinds. I'd sprinkle in more jokes to be entertaining; I'd probably say whatever I thought would get audiences to like me more, rather than challenging my listeners. I'd definitely spend a lot more on suits and dry cleaning than I do now.

But most critically, I'd spend far less time on all the other things I do—writing, reading,...

Unfortunately, the rumors, predictions, and surmises were correct: Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are mostly down or flat. The worst news came in eighth-grade math, where twenty-two states saw declines. One of the only bright spots is fourth-grade reading, where ten states (as well as Washington, D.C., Boston, Chicago, and Cleveland) posted gains.

Why this happened will be combed over and argued. So far, it feels like anyone’s guess (more on that below). But there’s no denying that it’s bad news. It had come to seem like NAEP scores would always go up, at least over the long term, just like it had come to seem like murder rates would always go down. Now the real world has intervened to remind us that social progress is not inevitable. Let’s not sugarcoat it: This is deeply disheartening for our country, our K–12 system, and especially our kids.

As our friends in the research community like to remind us, it’s impossible to draw causal connections from changes in NAEP data; doing so is “misNAEPery.” Yet we can’t help but search for explanations. And we can certainly float hypotheses about the trends—educated guesses that can then be tested using...

President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan deserve credit for acknowledging this weekend that there’s too much testing in our schools today and that “the administration bears some of the responsibility.”

Indeed it does. That’s because its decision to condition ESEA flexibility on state adoption of teacher evaluation systems has not only raised the stakes of reading and math tests (making them less popular and potentially more damaging to the educational enterprise). It’s also led to a proliferation of tests in “non-tested subjects”—everything from P.E. to social studies and beyond—for the sole purpose of collecting data to judge teachers’ effectiveness.

Yet, as Matt Barnum argues persuasively at the Seventy Four, the feds aren't willing to actually fix this problem:

The new report did not capture a precise measure on what proportion of tests were required by teacher evaluation, but it does point out that many states have put in place new assessments “to satisfy state regulations and laws for teacher and principal evaluation driven by and approved by U.S. Department of Education policies.”

But an initial reading of the department’s guidance suggests it is sticking to these policies: “The Department will work with states...

The French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal famously posited that whether or not one believes in God, it behooves us to behave as if he exists. What have you got to lose? If you’re right, you wind up heaven and spare yourself eternal punishment in hell. And if not, well, what did it cost you apart from a few earthly pleasures here and there? Pascal’s Wager basically suggests that your upside is infinite, while your downside is relatively small. So do the right thing.

We need a Pascal’s Wager of curriculum. Schools are going to teach something, so it behooves us to ensure that the textbooks, workbooks, and software we put in front of students are coherent and of high quality. As this report from the Center for American Progress shows, crappy curriculum costs every bit as much as the good stuff. The authors found “little relationship” between the cost and quality of instructional products. And switching to a more rigorous math curriculum, for example, can deliver far greater returns on investment than other reforms. “The average cost-effectiveness ratio of switching curriculum was almost forty times that of class-size reduction in a well known randomized experiment,” the report notes.


In this study, authors Jonathan Smith (of the College Board) and Kevin Stange (University of Michigan) use PSAT scores from 2004 and 2005 and enrollment and completion data from the National Student Clearinghouse to estimate the contribution of “peer effects” to community college outcomes and to the documented gap between the bachelor’s degree completion rates of students who enroll at two-year versus four-year institutions.

Interestingly, they find considerable overlap between average PSAT scores at two- and four-year colleges (though the study doesn’t include older students or those attending for-profit institutions), suggesting that many students choose the former for financial reasons rather than academic ones. This is unfortunate, because they also find that students are thirty percentage points less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree if they enroll at a two-year college—even after their academic abilities and those of their peers are taken into account. This means that our current policy of making two-year colleges cheaper than their four-year counterparts may inadvertently lower some students’ odds of earning a bachelor’s degree.

According to the authors, roughly 40 percent of the degree attainment gap can be explained by average peer quality (which is lower at two-year schools); the rest is attributable to...

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form on the Seventy Four; that one also lambasted Arkansas for backpedaling on its cut scores. Since then, Arkansas acknowledged that it had erred in how it described the state’s performance levels and clarified that it would use the rigorous standards suggested by PARCC.

Way back in 2007, we at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute published a landmark study with experts from the Northwest Evaluation Association: The Proficiency Illusion. It found that state definitions for reading and math “proficiency” were all over the map—and shockingly subpar almost everywhere. In Wisconsin, for instance, eighth graders could be reading at the fourteenth percentile nationally and still be considered proficient.

This was a big problem—not just the inconsistency, though that surely made it harder to compare schools across state lines. Mostly, we worried about the signals that low proficiency standards sent to parents: the false positives indicating that their kids were on track for success when they actually weren’t. How were parents in Madison or Duluth supposed to know that their “proficient” son was really far below grade level, not to mention way off track for success in...

A reader recently posed this question:

The Atlantic just published an article about the mistake American educators make by teaching reading in kindergarten. Shouldn’t we do what the Finns do: let kids learn to read when they want to and end up with high achievement?

This article is from the “Whistle a Happy Tune” School of Philosophy. It links one cultural input with one achievement output and assumes both a causal connection (not teaching reading in kindergarten will result in higher achievement) and that if this cultural input were adopted elsewhere, the same outcome would result there as well. This is the third or fourth such article that I have read about Finland in the Atlantic, and the tone of the pieces has been pretty consistent—they’re feel-good fantasies to help us ward off the blues as the days grow shorter and the verdant earth seems to die yet again. It sure is fun to think about how easily we could remake our society.

The problem with this dream, however, is that cultural change doesn’t work that way.

America, unlike Finland, is not a relatively simple society, small in population and low in diversity. Of...

Writing in his always-entertaining blog a few weeks ago, Whitney Tilson gave a nice nod to Dan Willingham’s New York Times op-ed addressing the sorry state of American teacher preparation. Amid effusive praise of the piece, Whitney writes, “I think morphemes and phonemes matter too but maybe not as much as Willingham does.”  
This gently stated but dismissive view of the importance of reading instruction troubles me because I think it captures a viewpoint widely shared by many education reformers.
I don’t think it’s because there are many education reformers who reject the science here (unlike many in teacher preparation). Researchers long ago identified the reading methods that would reduce the current deplorable rate of reading failure from 30 percent to somewhere well south of 10 percent, if only schools would take that step. Teacher preparation programs that fail to impress upon elementary teacher candidates the integral connection between spoken sounds and written words are essentially committing malpractice.
Instead, I think the issue for some education reformers is that other reforms seem much more important. I can’t figure out why there are still perfectly reasonable, rational people who aren’t willing to embrace the 2 + 2...

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan deserves the many plaudits he received on Friday from President Obama and his friends in the reform community—and even from his sometime-foes in the teachers’ unions. As everyone remarked, he’s a good and decent man, a fighter for disadvantaged kids who’s passionate about his work and loyal to his team. That was certainly my personal experience with him; he was more gracious toward me than I probably deserved, considering the many swipes I’ve taken at his policy decisions over the years.

So please bear with me one more time: Even at this moment of celebration, congratulation, and reflection regarding Arne’s time at the helm, the Obama administration can’t seem to help itself. It almost seems determined to poison the well with Congress and play to the stereotype of a government unwilling to abide by constitutional limits.

I’m referring, of course, to the decision to appoint John King (another smart, committed reformer and all-around great guy) as “acting” education secretary for an entire year rather than putting him through the Senate confirmation process.

It’s certainly true that the confirmation process has slowed to an agonizing pace over the past few decades. And the Bush 43 administration also opted...