Common Core Watch

This is the third post on how a handful of states are approaching accountability during the transition to the Common Core State Standards. We’ve learned that most are putting high-stakes accountability on hold and are treading carefully when it comes to assessments.

But real implementation occurs at the school and classroom level. So what do state officials say about their efforts to prepare educators to teach to the new standards?

They express conviction that teachers are being adequately prepared to teach the new standards (no surprise!). Yet the quality and effectiveness of Common Core trainings and professional development is unclear (ditto!).

In our interviews, stakeholders frequently referenced state-sponsored and state-recommended professional-development opportunities, trainings, and resources for teachers. They expressed confidence that teachers were being prepared adequately through these offerings. Yet missing was any discussion of whether and how states are assessing the effectiveness of these offerings. And if the quality of these supports is unclear, so is overall educator readiness.

In Massachusetts, for instance, officials stressed that educators were heavily involved in efforts to revise the state’s standards, curriculum, and assessments, all of which meld the Common Core and the state’s prior content standards. As was the case in other states, officials pointed to the copious support and training sessions made available to teachers and instructional leaders. They reported favorable responses from educators but nil about the quality of the trainings and resources. Fortunately, since Massachusetts’s prior standards are comparable in rigor to the Common Core...

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Long before the Common Core State Standards were on anyone’s radar, the “reading wars” raged furiously. They began as a fight about the best way to teach children how to read in the early grades, and the camps were divided between advocates of “whole language” and “phonics.” Today, the battles continue, though the issues have grown increasingly complicated and their implications extend well beyond the early grades and the phonics/whole-language divide.

Recent debates over reading instruction in the Common Core era have included skirmishes among three helpful—and ultimately complementary—approaches: “close reading,” “knowledge first,” and “skills and strategies.” All three of these are miles better than a fourth (but increasingly popular) approach: “just right texts.”

Let’s examine them.

Close Reading

One flashpoint in the reading debate emerged in 2011, after a lead author of the Common Core ELA standards, David Coleman, challenged teachers with a new vision for reading instruction. It entailed ratcheting up the complexity of texts that students read—something the Common Core explicitly demands—and encouraging students to plunge directly into the text itself, rather than spending time pre-teaching background content and vocabulary (an approach about which the standards themselves are silent). This version of close reading focuses on three things: (1) selecting appropriately complex texts that are worthy of close reading and analysis, (2) sequencing texts thoughtfully, with an eye toward building student content knowledge and vocabulary, and (3) guiding students through the text carefully with thoughtfully developed, text-dependent questions that encourage readers to return to the author’s words...

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In this blog series, we’re examining how five states—Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, and New York—are approaching accountability in the transition to Common Core. Earlier this week, we explained that an accountability moratorium is already in place, at least in the states we’ve studied.

One reason that state education officials are hitting the pause button on accountability is that the tests used to assess student achievement are still in flux. State-consortia-designed tests will not be operational until next school year (2014–15), but time does not stand still for test developers. So we wanted to know, how are states approaching assessment during the transition?

Overall, states are treading carefully and strategically, since the quality of the forthcoming tests is still unknown.

One approach we observed is to modify existing state exams to cover the content of both the old state standards and the Common Core. In Massachusetts, the state’s new MA 2011 standards are actually a combination of the pre-existing state standards and CCSS; each year, additional Common Core content is being integrated into MCAS. In Colorado, the state is using TCAP, a transitional exam bridging its old standards and the Common Core standards. Officials explain that this paced approach is intended to ease students in to the new, more rigorous content, rather than to assess the entirety of the standards in one fell swoop.

A second strategy, used in Massachusetts, Colorado, and Arkansas, is piloting Common Core–aligned exams by introducing them to select students or districts first before administering...

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Long before the Common Core State Standards were on anyone’s radar, the “reading wars” raged furiously. They began as a fight about the best way to teach children how to read in the early grades, and the camps were divided between advocates of “whole language” and “phonics.” Today, the battles continue, though the issues have grown increasingly complicated and their implications extend well beyond the early grades and the phonics/whole-language divide.

Recent debates over reading instruction in the Common Core era have included skirmishes among three helpful—and ultimately complementary—approaches: “close reading,” “knowledge first,” and “skills and strategies.” All three of these are miles better than a fourth (but increasingly popular) approach: “just right texts.”

Let’s examine them.

Close Reading

One flashpoint in the reading debate emerged in 2011, after a lead author of the Common Core ELA standards, David Coleman, challenged teachers with a new vision for reading instruction. It entailed ratcheting up the complexity of texts that students read—something the Common Core explicitly demands—and encouraging students to plunge directly into the text itself, rather than spending time pre-teaching background content and vocabulary (an approach about which the standards themselves are silent). This version of close reading focuses on three things: 1. Selecting appropriately complex texts that are worthy of close reading and analysis, 2. Sequencing texts thoughtfully with an eye towards building student content knowledge and vocabulary, and 3. Guiding students through the text carefully with thoughtfully developed, text-dependent questions that encourage students to...

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Many states across the nation are well underway with the challenging work of implementing the Common Core State Standards. But what does a thoughtful transition from existing to new standards look like? And what are the implications for accountability systems in the interim?

This past August and September, the research team at Fordham interviewed officials and policy advocates in five states—Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, and New York—to get a sense of how they are approaching accountability in the transition to the Common Core. We asked stakeholders about their plans for using student data during this transition period, and in particular what the “stakes” would be for schools, educators, and students. While we found nuances in each state, four patterns emerged across our small sample. The first is discussed in this post, with three to follow over the next few weeks.

Punitive consequences associated with accountability are largely being put on hold during the transition to Common Core.

Policymakers and educators alike are grappling with the reality that the inputs (for example, state tests) used in accountability measures are changing—and they seem resistant to using student test data to trigger negative consequences usually associated with poor performance. Of particular concern is how to calculate growth as students transition from one exam to another and what to do about growth-based accountability and evaluation systems in the interim. So policymakers are, by and large, planning to pause the consequences associated with these systems.

Proponents of this tempered approach stress that it is simply...

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Welcome to the new Common Core kerfuffle.

Recently, School Achievement Partners, the nonprofit created by the authors of the Common Core standards (CCSS), featured a set of “model” close-reading lessons focused on the Gettysburg Address that were initially published in 2011.

The backlash against the approach to close reading outlined in the Gettysburg lesson was fast and furious. Are these the kinds of lessons that should be touchstones in American classrooms? Or are they more what you try to ward off by wearing garlic around your neck?

I first heard of the lessons not from an educator but from a Lincoln scholar. (We take Mr. Lincoln seriously here in Illinois). This colleague sent me a link to a recent post published on Valerie Strauss’s The Answer Sheet blog with a note that said, simply: “I hope the linked story from the Washington Post is inaccurate.”

Strauss’s post focused mainly on the fact that the Gettysburg Address lesson encouraged teachers to read the speech “cold,” without giving students historical context and without engaging in pre-reading. The post suggested that such an approach was “odd” and “baffling.”

Of course, like most things in education and in the increasingly politicized debate over the Common Core, the reality is far more complicated.

These lessons raise at least two important issues about reading instruction and the Common Core. First, whether there is—or should be—a difference...

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The following is the text of testimony on NGSS delivered by Kathleen Porter-Magee to the D.C. Board of Education on November 20, 2013.

My name is Kathleen Porter-Magee; I’m a Bernard Lee Schwartz policy fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning education-policy think tank here in Washington, D.C., that also leads ground-level work in the state of Ohio. We support a variety of education reforms, with a particular focus on school choice and standards- and accountability-driven reform. In addition to my own policy work, I’ve spent several years working to implement rigorous standards in urban Catholic and charter school classrooms.

I’m honored to be with you here today, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to talk to you about the District of Columbia’s science standards as you weigh the decision to stay the course or adopt the Next Generation Science Standards.

Let me preface this by saying that we at the Fordham Institute have been broadly supportive of the Common Core State Standards. We believe the Common Core standards, which outline what students should know and be able to do in English language arts and math, are clearer and more rigorous than the vast majority of ELA and math standards they’ve replaced.

But let me also say that our support for the Common Core stems first and foremost from their quality. Of course, there are benefits to adopting a set of common standards. In ELA and math, for instance, teachers in states that have adopted similar...

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Stefanie Sanford

This post is adapted from comments prepared by Stefanie Sanford for the Manhattan Institute event on Civic Education and the Common Core.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1816, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free…it expects what never was and never will be.” It was his strong belief in education as the bedrock of democracy that made Jefferson one of our earliest and strongest champions of public education.

In later writings, he elaborated that among the core functions of this education system should be to ensure that each student understands “his duties to his neighbors and country” and will “discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either.” He concluded, “The qualifications for self-government in society are not innate. They are the result of habit and long training.”

The Problem

We are gathered here for today’s conversation because of a growing concern that our schools have failed this basic test. As the invitation warned, “Most high-school students are unacquainted with the Gettysburg Address. Many cannot even identify the century in which the Civil War was fought.”

Results from the 2010 civics test showed fewer than a quarter of all students scoring at or above proficiency in eighth or twelfth grade. In U.S. history, the results are even worse: only 18 percent of eighth graders and 13 percent of twelfth graders scored at or above proficient.

Worse still, only 1 percent of...

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It’s been a long and twisty road since the Common Core State Standards were first released in June 2010. What began more than three years ago as a highly technical debate over the details of the expectations themselves has evolved into a far-reaching philosophical and political debate over the value of setting K–12 academic standards at all.

After two decades of broad bipartisan agreement in the education-reform community on the importance of standards as part of a comprehensive approach to improving our schools, many opponents—bolstered by the work of analysts such as Tom Loveless, Russ Whitehurst, and Eric Hanushek—now oppose the Common Core on grounds that standards don’t really matter anyway, so it isn’t worth expending political capital on a bruising fight to install new ones.

The drumbeat began even before the Common Core standards were finalized, in October 2009, when Russ Whitehurst published a paper in October 2009 challenging the importance of state standards. In brief, Whitehurst compared the “effect sizes” of a variety of reforms—on charter schools, standards, preschool, teacher quality, and curriculum—and found that curriculum had a greater impact than any other reform. He also found that there was no statistically significant correlation between the quality of a state’s standards, as judged by the grades that Fordham assigned, and that state’s student achievement, as measured by NAEP. Rick Hanushek ran a similar analysis using standards...

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In the debate over Common Core, there may be only one certainty: Both advocates and opponents spend inordinate amounts of time trying to undermine their opponents by pointing to the perceived underhanded and manipulative actions of their foes. The hope, I suppose, is that if you can undermine the credibility of your opponents, you can win the day—facts be damned.

Unfortunately, by trying to make the conversation about intentions rather than about facts, important debates can be easily overlooked or obscured.

Take Jay Greene’s latest blog post, “Fordham and CC Backers Need To Get Their Stories Straight.” In it, Greene argues that we at Fordham were being inconsistent—perhaps even disingenuous—in our description of what Common Core standards are and are not. On the one hand, Greene argues, we’ve said that Common Core do not prescribe curriculum. But, he goes on,

“[those were] the promises the Fordham folks made when they were courting us on adopting Common Core, but now that we’re married, they’ve changed their tune … No longer do they bring us flowers, write love-poems, or assure us that Common Core in no way dictates how schools should teach or what they should teach—their pedagogy and curriculum.”

It's an odd line of argument, particularly given the simple and straightforward position Fordham has taken on this subject from before the existence of the Common Core. In short, we have always said that the only way for rigorous standards to lead to higher achievement is for state and...

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