Common Core Watch

The following testimony was prepared for delivery on July 23, 2013, to the Arkansas House and Senate Interim Committees on Education.

Senators and Representatives: It’s an honor to be with you today. My name is Mike Petrilli; I’m the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-of-center education-policy think tank in Washington, D.C., that also does on-the-ground work in the great state of Ohio. We promote education reforms of all stripes, with a particular focus on school choice and standards-based reform. I was honored to serve in the George W. Bush Administration; my boss, Chester Finn, served in the Reagan Administration. Perhaps most importantly, I was raised up the road in suburban St. Louis, where I attended public schools. (Go Cardinals!)

I suspect that not all of my friends agree with me, but I am glad that you are holding this hearing and debating the issue of whether Arkansas should stick with the Common Core. These standards were developed by the states, and to be successful, they need to be owned by the states. Our educators are all too familiar with the “flavor of the month”—reforms that come and go. They are wondering if they should wait this one out too. By having this open debate on the Common Core, you can settle the issue once and for all—and either change course or move full speed ahead.

I am here today to urge you to stay the course with the Common Core. I will start...

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Despite the tireless marriage-wrecking efforts of Common Core opponents and their acolytes and funders, few states that initially pledged their troth to these rigorous new standards for English and math are in divorce mode. What’s far more fluid, unpredictable, and—frankly—worrying are the two elements of standards-based reform that make a vastly greater difference in the real world than standards themselves: implementation and assessment.

Implementation and assessment
Standards are not self actualizing; unless thoroughly implemented and properly assessed, they have scant traction.
Photo by Ginnerobot

Don’t get me wrong. Standards are important, because they set forth the desired outcomes of schooling and it’s obviously better to aim for clear, ambitious, and academically worthy goals than at targets that are vague, banal, easy, or trendy. Standards are also supposed to provide the framework that shapes and organizes the rest of the education enterprise: curricula, teacher preparation, promotion and graduation expectations, testing and accountability, and just about everything else. (Kindergarten standards, for example, should affect what happens in preschool just as twelfth-grade standards should synch with what gets taught to college freshmen.)

But standards are not self-actualizing. Indeed, they can be purely symbolic, even illusory. Unless thoroughly implemented and properly assessed, they have scant traction in schools, classrooms, and the lives—and futures—of students.

California is the woeful...

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Paul Bruno

Most people agree that a well-rounded science education must provide students with both content knowledge and facility with the practices of scientific inquiry. That is why both facts and skills should be clearly represented in the science standards adopted by states.

As the Fordham Institute demonstrated in its evaluation of the final draft of the Next Generation Science Standards, however, by giving “undue prominence” to scientific skills and practices, the NGSS ultimately underemphasize content knowledge. As a result, the NGSS are an inadequate guide for science teachers—like me—who need to know what is expected of our students and us.

What form, then, should practices take in science standards? There may be numerous ways of integrating practices into standards documents, but as a science teacher I appreciate in them at least two qualities.

First, clearly and specifically articulate the practices in which students should be able to engage.

This may seem obvious, but even the skills-heavy NGSS often fall short in this regard.

For example, the NGSS’s middle school “waves and electromagnetic radiation” standards require that students “[d]evelop and use a model to describe that waves are reflected, absorbed, or transmitted through various materials.” This does sound vaguely scientific, but since it is unclear what would make an adequate model—or even what is meant by “model” —this provides little practical guidance for teachers.

In contrast, consider California’s “Investigation and Experimentation” standards for sixth graders, which demand that students “[c]onstruct appropriate graphs from data and develop qualitative statements about the...

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“When the law is on your side,” the saying goes, “argue the law. When the facts are on your side, argue the facts. When neither the facts nor the law are on your side, pound the table.”

Sandra Stotsky pounds the table
The Pioneer Institute is at it again. 

Writing for the Pioneer Institute’s blog, University of Arkansas professor Sandy Stotsky does a lot of table pounding in her latest post, subtly titled, “Why Do They Lie? And Why Do Others Believe Them?

The post is aimed at exposing Common Core supporters to be the charlatans she believes we are. Unfortunately, Stotsky’s piece is itself so riddled with misinformation and falsehoods that it ends up more effectively proving that her case against the Common Core is, at its core, substantively weak.

In between the name calling and cheap shots, Stotsky advances an argument that rests on three weak claims: 1) The Common Core are not internationally benchmarked, 2) they are really about curriculum and not about standards, and 3) the standards themselves aren’t rigorous.

First, Stotsky insists that the Common Core were not internationally benchmarked. Never mind that Fordham’s comprehensive study found that the CCSS math and ELA were a strong match to the best international assessments, including NAEP, TIMSS, PISA, and PIRLS. Or research conducted...

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Peter Cunningham

This Sunday’s New York Times piece on Common Core standards, Queens College political-science professor Andrew Hacker and Columbia University adjunct professor Claudia Dreifus contribute greatly to the confusion and misinformation surrounding the issue of learning standards.

The piece conflates standards, which are agreed-upon expectations for what children should know in certain subjects by certain ages, with curricula, which are the materials and the approaches that teachers use to help kids learn. It also confuses assessments, which are tests to determine what students know, with accountability, which are systems of tracking student performance, determining which schools and teachers are succeeding or struggling, and providing support or intervening where necessary.

They open with an anecdote about some parents opting out of a new test in New York City as an indication that Common Core may face a broad national backlash. But the backlash—to the extent it exists—is about testing, not standards.

The authors wrongly suggest that the “uniformity of the standards” is what appeals to Common Core supporters. Actually it is the richness and rigor of the standards that appeals to supporters. The uniformity is a bonus. No one really expected forty-six states to adopt.

In their attempt to portray serious debate around the issue, they quote conservative pundit Glenn Beck (who is paid to stir the pot) to counter conservative education scholars (who are paid to actually think it through and get it right).

They suggest that Tea Party resistance to the Common Core comes from the...

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Common Core debate
Jay has been the victim of black helicopter-itis
Photo by Marshall Astor on Flickr

Jay Greene's slightly Churchillian recent post conflates two Common Core issues that are better understood if they're kept apart. One involves the role of the federal government vis-a-vis the Common Core, and on this one I really do think Jay is a victim of black helicopter-itis. Of course he's right that Messrs. Obama and Duncan should have kept the Common Core at arm's length. But he's not right that a successful Common Core is inseparable from a more intrusive, controlling federal government. One of the virtues of the American system is how many nation-spanning ventures we have that do not hinge on or get controlled by the federal government: The American Red Cross. The American Cancer Society. The National PTA. The National Association of Manufacturers. One could easily extend this list quite a distance, and so it could and should be with the Common Core.

The other issue, a very different one, is whether common standards are in opposition to school choice, parent control, and such. This is not so much about the Common Core (the multi-state version) as about any sort of academic standards beyond the school's own doing. This goes to the heart of whether states should have standards, assessments, accountability, etc., in...

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Following yesterday’s release of #10–#6, here are my top five takeaways from my Q&A sessions with USED, PARCC, and Smarter Balanced (most important is #1).

5.   The P is for prudence

The most noticeable aspect of PARCC’s response was its the-dog-that-didn’t-bark-ness. I expected, but didn’t get, more discussion of big successes to date.

Maybe they have gobs to peacock about but chose not to, wanting later results to speak for themselves (more on that in #4). People I trust say they are on the way to getting content, alignment, and rigor right. Maybe my questions didn’t set them up to brag about that stuff?

Or maybe my reaction is just a matter of relativity. When compared to SB’s earnest, 3,000-word, front-of-the-classroom response, heck, almost anything would’ve paled.

But maybe my affection for PARCC’s board and team has softened me. A cynic might say PARCC’s limited discussion of wins is a red flag.

I don’t find anything worrisome in PARCC’s response, so I won’t speculate. So I’ll say this: PARCC’s modest response about past activities probably won’t change too many Insiders’ right-track/wrong-track vote in either direction.

4.   Confidence about the future

Reports of the consortia’s death have been greatly exaggerated! Or so they argue: Both come across as sanguine about the days ahead.

Are their tests going to be on time?

  • PARCC: We are “on-track to deliver high quality computer-based summative assessments for mathematics
  • ...
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The three-part series of interviews on the nation’s move to Common Core–aligned assessments was as edifying as I could’ve hoped. USED, PARCC, and Smarter Balanced offered meaningful information on the current state of play and clear indications of what’s on the horizon.

I’ve pulled out a “Top Ten Takeaways” from the exchange. Today, we’re posting #10–#6 (they’re in rank order so #1 is most important). Tomorrow, we’ll post #5 - #1.

10.   Competition with the testing industry is GAME ON!

In ways subtle and not, the responses sought to differentiate the consortia’s efforts from the testing industry.

It seemed like the Department’s interest was in drawing a line between the old and the new. Why’d they spend $330 million on new tests? Because, USED says, governors and state chiefs asked them to do so.

Why did states make that ask? “Because the market was not meeting their needs.”

According to the feds, the consortia are building “next-generation” tests that “will offer significant improvements directly responsive to the wishes of teachers and other practitioners: they will offer better assessment of critical thinking, through writing and real-world problem solving, and offer more accurate and rapid scoring.”

“We expect the consortia to develop assessment systems that are markedly better than current assessments.”

The implication is that the testing industry had come up short.

SB said its new tests would offer a “quality benefit”; SB’s transparency is “antithetical to the competitive nature of commercial test publishing”; states will now have...

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The following is the text of Kathleen Porter-Magee's testimony to the Wisconsin State Legislature's Committee on Education, delivered on May 22, 2013.

My name is Kathleen Porter-Magee; I’m a senior director and Bernard Lee Schwartz policy fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning education-policy think tank in Washington, D.C., that also leads ground-level work in the great 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 public charter school classrooms. Fordham’s president, Chester Finn, served in the Reagan Administration, and its executive vice president, Mike Petrilli, served under George W. Bush. Both are also affiliated with the Hoover Institution in California.

I’m honored to be with you here today, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to talk to you about what I believe is one of the most important education initiatives of the past decade: the development and adoption of the Common Core State Standards.

I hope to help explain why the Common Core holds such promise, to demystify what the standards are all about, and to debunk some of the most common myths and misconceptions.

For nearly two decades, state standards have been a cornerstone of our modern education system. State governments have long set minimum expectations for each grade level or grade band across all grades, K through 12. These are...

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This revealing back-and-forth with the United States Department of Education is the third and final installment in our testing-consortia series.

“The Department,” like any hulking, beltway-bound federal agency, can seem like a cold, faceless leviathan—this imposing force, issuing impenetrable regulations from a utilitarian, vaguely Soviet, city block–sized building in the shadow of the Capitol.

But those who interact with it regularly, especially those of us fortunate enough to have worked there, know that it is made up of hundreds and hundreds of very fine people.

During my tenure there, I found both the career staff and the political appointees to be knowledgeable public servants and excellent colleagues. While working for a state department of education, I found the Department’s team to be thoughtful, accessible, and accommodating. And in my loyal-opposition think-tank stints, during which I sometimes find myself poking and prodding the Department, they’ve been patient, respectful, but understandably steely adversaries.

I’m appreciative that they took the time to answer these questions so thoroughly, and I’m flabbergasted that they did so at—in terms of agency timelines—Guinness-Book speed.

What would the U.S. Department of Education (ED) like people to know about the testing consortia?

The consortia are designing the next generation of assessment systems, which include diagnostic or formative assessments, not just end-of-the-year summative assessments. Their systems will assess student achievement of standards, student growth, and whether students are on-track to being college and career ready. These new systems will offer significant improvements directly responsive to the wishes of teachers and...

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