Common Core Watch

Leonie Haimson—a vocal ed-reform critic—helped generate a media firestorm about testing recently when she posted about an absurd passage that was included on this year’s New York State eighth grade ELA test. The post itself generated more than 2,000 hits in its first few hours and led to a New York Daily News article entitled “Talking pineapple question on state exam stumps ... everyone!

pineapple
The citrus fruit that rocked education reform.
 Photo by Richard North.

The passage on the exam needs to be read in full to be believed. It’s a perfect storm of bad writing, poor structure, and inexplicable questions. If you haven’t read it—and you should—it’s enough to know that the moral of the story—included in bold at the end—is this:

Moral of the story: Pineapples don't have sleeves.

Haimson and her fellow testing foes are right to call out this passage as ridiculous. And critics of accountability can and should play this role, helping surface problems and draw attention to the need for change.

But the real outrage among those of us who care deeply about accountability is why these problems aren’t being caught earlier. For too long, we have been focusing our attention on expanding the use of tests to more grades and more subject areas and increasing the consequences tied to...

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In the 1990s, much of the fireworks in the education policy debate centered around a “reading war” where supporters of whole language squared off against the forces of phonics. Now, in the Common Core era, I predict a similar firestorm is on the horizon. Only this time, the debate will not be about how to teach students to read in the first place, but rather how to help them build knowledge and improve comprehension over time. More specifically: It’s about how to choose the books you are asking students to read. And the outcome of this debate could go a long way towards deciding the long-term impact of CCSS ELA standards.

Books
"What to read?" will become the next debate in education policy.
 Photo by Duncan Harris

There are two camps in debate over how to select and assign texts. The first is what I’ll call the “Just Right” or “Goldilocks” books approach. The second I will call the “Grade Appropriate” approach.

The prevailing view among many educators in the United States today is that the best way to improve student reading comprehension is to assign lots books that are “just right” for individual students. The theory is that every student has three reading levels: an independent reading level (what the student can read without teacher scaffolding or support), an instructional reading...

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As the Texas Board of Education weighs revisions to the state's math standards, it must also consider strong criticism from the business community and the media over the proposed changes. Fordham's new review of the draft math standards, by W. Stephen Wilson, adds another reason for the board to think twice before approving the changes. As Wilson writes,

The new standards are an improvement. Some content that was previously missing from the [existing] standards has been included, the standards remain clear and well organized, and the high school content remains strong.
Unfortunately, Texas has overcorrected its minimalist problem by adding too many standards—many of which descend inappropriately into pedagogy—and including a lot of unnecessary repetition. Worse, the new draft standards overemphasize process, and arithmetic is not given suitable priority.

By going it alone, Texas had hoped to do better than the Common Core. Unfortunately, it missed the mark. Check out to full report to learn more.

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Guest bloggers Kate Walsh and Arthur McKee are the president and managing director of teacher preparation studies, respectively, at the National Council on Teacher Quality. This post was originally published on NCTQ's Pretty Darn Quick blog.

You might not expect us to champion this great new report from Brookings, but we are. Russ Whitehurst and his new colleague, former Harvard professor Matt Chingos, not only decry the nation's excessive focus on teacher quality—at the expense of curriculum—but also provide some neat evidence of the cost of that imbalance to student performance.

Brookings
Source: "Choosing Blindly: Instructional Materials, Teacher Effectiveness, and the Common Core," by Matthew M. Chingos and Grover J. Whitehurst, (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 2012).

One might quibble over the source of data for this little chart, given that the big impact from a better curriculum is derived from just a single study (though a very good one), but we think their point is still valid. Curriculum can and does move student performance. To quote the authors: "To focus education reform policy on selecting and retaining effective teacher while ignoring the role of instructional materials is to pay too much attention to the aspects of teacher quality that are set in stone and too little attention to ways that the effectiveness of all teachers might be improved...

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Is it intellectually inconsistent to promote common standards while advocating for school choice?

Bruce Baker—Rutgers professor by day, anti-reform gadfly by night—thinks so, and took Fordham to task for either inconsistency between its goals or harboring a “weird, warped agenda.” He explains:

Collectively what we have here is a massive effort on the one hand, to require traditional public school districts to adopt a common curriculum and ultimately to adopt common assessments for evaluating student success on that curriculum and then force those districts to evaluate, retain and/or dismiss their teachers based on student assessment data, while on the other hand, expanding publicly financed subsidies for more children to attend schools that would not be required to do these things (in many cases, for example, relieving charter schools from teacher evaluation requirements).

This is a helpful way to frame it because I think Baker has gotten it precisely wrong.

Adopting common standards does not mean forcing a common curriculum on all schools.

For starters, adopting common standards does not mean forcing a common curriculum on all schools. And the difference between standards and curriculum is more than mere semantics. Standards define a baseline set of knowledge and skills that all students should learn. How students should learn that content—the curriculum—is up to the district/school/teacher to decide. And suggesting that holding all schools to the same standards somehow limits “any potential for real innovation,” as Bruce does, is misguided. Innovation stems not from different schools defining different ends, but instead from schools reaching those goals...

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As of April 5, 2012, forty-five states plus the District of Columbia had adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). While they deserve plaudits for strengthening their previously lackluster expectations for students, nobody should expect standards-adoption alone to drive academic gains. Nor will the development of curriculum, adoption of new textbooks, and ramped up professional development—some of the “stuff” that folks refer to when they talk about “implementing” the CCSS—mean much unless accompanied by means of holding individuals and buildings accountable for progress. To get real traction from new standards, states must also install robust accountability systems that incentivize, support, reward, and sanction districts, schools, students, teachers, and other adults.

This is the perfect time for states to reboot their accountability systems, not only because of the opportunity presented by CCSS, but also due to the availability of waivers from some of the accountability shackles and oddities of No Child Left Behind. Moreover, most of the ESEA reauthorization bills now creaking through Congress would give states even wider latitude to design their own approaches to accountability.

But what do strong state accountability systems look like? And how strong are they today?

Defining Strong State Accountability Systems
The time is ripe for states to revamp their approaches to accountability. 

To examine those questions, Fordham probed the accountability systems of seven states as part...

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“You can never cross the ocean until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore” ― André Gide

As we’ve said numerous times before, for the vast majority of states, adoption of the Common Core standards was an enormous improvement. (Click for Fordham’s review of each state’s standards and the Common Core.) It’s equally clear that we have an enormous challenge on our hands to ensure that the Common Core is implemented in a way that makes the most of these stronger and more rigorous standards. Change is hard but Common Core, correctly implemented, has the potential to amp up expectations and instruction across American classrooms. 

I’ve already posted about the danger of curriculum publishers co-opting the Common Core to promote their own (relatively unchanged) materials. But there’s a second, and potentially even more troubling challenge that lies ahead: a resistance among teachers to changing their instruction.

As the time comes to start implementing Common Core some teachers are starting to dig in their heels.

Of course, for teachers, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. There has been no shortage of curriculum fads and reforms that have demanded instructional changes and promised improvements, but yielded very little in the way of student achievement gains. It’s no wonder, then, that as the time comes to start implementing Common Core some teachers are starting to dig in their heels.

Valerie Strauss, a Washington Post blogger who has created a cottage industry out of assuming the worst about...

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While the quick adoption of Common Core by 46 states was cheered by those who had been pushing for common standards for decades, the more jaded among us wondered: Do most states really understand what they signed up for?

Do most states really understand what they signed up for?

To find out, we would do better to ignore the philosophic debates among policy wonks and dig into the teacher-driven conversations happening in classrooms, on blogs, and in professional development sessions around the country. These debates will likely have a far greater impact on the success or failure of the new standards than much of the political noise happening inside the Beltway and in state legislatures.

A Gates-funded survey of teachers released last week included some results cheered by supporters of Common Core, including the finding that most teachers (78 percent) had heard of the standards, that nearly two thirds (64 percent) felt that the expectations were going to have a “strong” or “very strong” impact on student achievement, and that 73 percent of teachers felt “somewhat” or “very” prepared to teach to the standards.

In isolation, this sounds like good news. But consider the results from a separate report, released by the Center on Education Policy, which found that barely half of school districts in states that adopted the Common Core standards “are taking essential steps to implement them.”

One might wonder how teachers can feel so prepared to teach to standards that are so different from what they...

Paul Gross penned an editorial in yesterday’s Gadfly Weekly on the neglect of evolution in many state standards that’s definitely worth a read. While Dr. Gross notes that science standards are falling short in general,

Particularly dismaying is how rarely state standards indicate that evolution has anything to do with us, Homo sapiens. Even states with thorough coverage of evolution, like Massachusetts, avoid linking that controversial term with ourselves. Only four states—Florida, New Hampshire, Iowa, and Rhode Island—discuss human evolution in their current standards. This isn’t just a Bible Belt issue. Even the bluest of blue states don’t expect their students to know that humans and apes share ancestry.
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In January, with the release of our analysis of state K-12 science standards, we reported that the state of state science standards was very poor—the overall national average was a very low C, and 26 states earned a D or F. This news was unwelcome, if also unsurprising.

But, as many people already know, a group of 26 states have teamed up with Achieve to do for science what the NGA and CCSSO did for ELA and math—to create a rigorous set of common standards that states would have the option to adopt as their own.

Whether those standards will be worth adoption remains an open question, but insiders tell us that we can expect the first public draft to be released for comment later this spring.

Our advice to the drafters of these “Next Generation Science Standards” (NGSS) was to look to the model state standards—to places like D.C., California, and Massachusetts—to inform their work. But what about the most commonly used national international benchmarks for science achievement—the NAEP, PISA, TIMSS, and ACT? The results from these assessments are often used to describe how well (or how poorly) states and nations are doing in science education. But are the standards that undergird these assessments strong? And can they provide a roadmap for the authors of the NGSS?

To help answer this question, using the same criteria that we used to evaluate each state’s standards, we asked distinguished biologist (and veteran Fordham science reviewer) Paul Gross to analyze the...

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