Common Core Watch

Tony Bennett
Inequality for All: The Challenge of Unequal Opportunity in American Schools

This wonky but important (and exceptionally timely) book by Bill Schmidt, a Michigan State “university distinguished professor,” and Curtis McKnight, an emeritus math professor at the University of Oklahoma, is a distinctive, deeply researched, and amply documented plea for full-scale implementation of the Common Core math standards. The authors reach that destination after taking readers on a fascinating curricular journey.

They closely examine the extent to which young Americans in various states, districts, schools, and classrooms have equal opportunities to learn the same high-quality math content in grades K–8—and find grievous gaps and injustices.

One might suppose that this most hierarchical and standardized of core subjects would yield the greatest uniformity from place to place within the United States. Critics of national curricula (and the Common Core) periodically declare that NAEP, the textbook oligopoly, the NCTM, and college-entrance exams have caused math curricula to be very similar across the land.

Schmidt and McKnight, however, show conclusively that this presumption is false. And they link the variation they identified in content coverage and delivery to the country’s vexing achievement gaps, its deteriorating social mobility, and its generally weak educational performance. Here are a few excerpts from the book’s alarming—and stirring—final chapter:

The inequalities in content coverage begin with the state...
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Everywhere you look these days, someone is running down the Common Core. One of the most frequent critiques comes from those who argue that the CCSS “mandate” the percent of time that English teachers must spend on nonfiction and who worry that this requirement will force educators to replace Shakespeare and Twain with technical manuals and bus schedules. It’s one of those lines that’s apparently “too good to fact check” because the deeper you dig, the more it unravels. Here are the facts:

First, it’s literally wrong. Nowhere do the CCSS “mandate” the percent of time ELA teachers need to spend on nonfiction. In fact, the reference to the balance of fiction and nonfiction in the classroom specifically warns,

The percentages on the table reflect the sum of student reading, not just reading in ELA settings. Teachers of senior English classes, for example, are not required to devote 70 percent of reading to informational texts. Rather, 70 percent of student reading across the grade should be informational.

It’s hard to imagine the authors being clearer on this point. Yet commentators on all sides of the debate regularly—and mistakenly—claim that the CCSS wants to see literature in ELA classrooms go the way of the dinosaur. Even as recently as this weekend, New York Times education writer Sara Mosle wrongly claimed that the Common Core pushes for up to 70 percent of time in 12th grade English classrooms be devoted to reading nonfiction titles. (To Mosle’s great credit, she subsequently corrected and edited...

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The American Legislative Exchange Council, a useful group of mostly conservative state legislators, wrestled for months over the "Common Core" state standards for English language arts and math. Critics of those standards feared homogenization of curriculum and excessive federal interference in K-12 education. Supporters noted that adopting and implementing the Common Core is up to individual states in any case, that greater rigor in what American kids learn in school is desirable, and that comparability and predictability across state lines in these two core subjects has much to be said for it in a mobile society situated on a shrinking and ever more competitive planet.

After due deliberation, this past weekend ALEC's "Legislative Board of Directors" voted to remain neutral on the issue, thereby not pressuring its members and states in either direction. This was the logical outcome for a group that generally respects state sovereignty in realms such as education. Many questions remain to be answered about Common Core implementation and the as-yet-unseen assessments (and "cut scores") now under development, and it's absolutely proper for individual states to handle this differently. As ALEC's high command eventually concluded, it would not be proper for a national organization to try to sway them—any more than it's proper for Uncle Sam to do so. He hasn't always resisted the temptation. It's good that ALEC did.

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In 1972, Yale sociologist Irving Janis coined the term “groupthink.” It was a way of describing the group dynamics that occasionally lead smart, thoughtful, and well-intentioned people to make catastrophically bad decisions. What I have often wondered is, what would Janis make of the decisions being made by today’s education reform leaders?

JFK
Does education reform, like JFK's White House, suffer from groupthink?
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Janis, who passed away in 1990, focused much of his research on the meetings and conversations that preceded several key presidential decisions, including those that led President Kennedy and the best and brightest “whiz kids” he brought into his administration to move forward with the Bay of Pigs invasion—an American-supported attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro in Cuba that was, by all accounts, a spectacular failure. In the end, Janis concluded that Kennedy’s biggest failure was not the final decision, but rather the process he and his advisors followed to get there. Most importantly, he felt that they failed to have open, critical conversations that might have pushed them to rethink their assumptions, and that individuals within the group failed to either voice their own concerns, because they felt there was already consensus, or listen to objections that would have helped them reshape the invasion plan.

Of course, education isn’t warfare and ed reform doesn’t...

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While people may disagree over the importance of standards in driving student achievement, virtually nobody disagrees that selecting the right curriculum—one that artfully balances content and rigor and that gives teachers a clear instructional roadmap—is critical to driving student learning. In fact, research released in 2009 by Russ Whitehurst found that the most effective curricula had dramatically larger effect sizes than just about any other reform strategy.

Yet, there is a dearth of good, independent research that can help state, local, and school-level leaders determine which programs are most effective and which are most likely to meet the needs of the students they serve. That is why the results from a just-released report, published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, deserve some attention.

The study, “Large-Scale Evaluations of Curricular Effectiveness: The Case of Elementary Mathematics in Indiana,” focused on district-level curriculum adoption in the Hoosier state, mostly because Indiana is one of very few states that collects and tracks information about district-level curriculum adoption. This information allowed the researchers to investigate the relationship between curriculum and student achievement (as measured by the state’s ISTEP test).

Of course, the authors acknowledge that there are several limitations of the study, and the results don’t point to a clear “winner” or “loser” when it comes to elementary math curriculum. But, there are, in my opinion, three important take-aways.

1. States can exert enormous influence over curriculum decisions.

Every six years, the Hoosier State develops a list of “approved” programs...

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For some strange reason it had to be.
He guided me to Tennessee.
—Arrested Development

When looking for a model of smart Common Core implementation, it’s easy to get depressed. Most state plans are confusing, their guidance buried deep in government websites (usually in hard to read documents full of jargon), their tactics difficult to follow, and their policies disconnected, compliance-oriented, and unlikely to set educators up for success.

I know what you are thinking: “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”

But there is some hope amidst the noise. And fittingly enough for these voluntary common standards, that hope is in the Volunteer State. Tennessee has been quietly developing what might be the most thoughtful, cohesive, and outcomes-driven state CCSS implementation plan in the nation.

There are three areas, in particular, where Tennessee seems to be outshining the rest of the states: leading with outcomes; clarity of communication and smart prioritization; and growing leaders, as opposed to micromanaging teachers. 

Leading with outcomes

Far too often, Common Core implementation efforts are an amalgam of compliance-oriented activities and programs masquerading as thoughtful and effective implementation plans.

Tennessee’s approach seems refreshingly different. The state has set specific goals for each of its first four years of CCSS implementation. In 2012-13, for instance, they expect a 4 point scale score growth for all students on the NAEP 4th grade math, and a 5 point scale score growth for students on the NAEP 8th grade math test. Next year, they...

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In the world of standards-based and data-driven instruction, knowing precisely how the Common Core will be assessed is critical. After all, while standards help explain what students should know and be able to do, it’s the assessments that clarify how student mastery will be measured. And that information is critical to ensuring that what is taught in the classroom matches—in terms of both content and rigor—what is articulated in the standards and measured by the assessments.

Knowing precisely how the Common Core will be assessed is critical.

Yet, both federally funded assessment consortia have only given glimpses of how they plan to measure student mastery of the Common Core—which of course makes the information communicated and sample items shared by the consortia all the more critical to classroom-level Common Core implementation efforts.

Most recently, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium released a small handful of web-based English language arts and math sample test items, which are available for public comment and feedback until November 2. While useful for painting a picture of how a few standards will be assessed and how technology will be used, the quality and rigor of the questions themselves are a mixed bag. While some help demonstrate just how different instruction aligned to a standard needs to be to meet the content and rigor demands of the CCSS, others seem poorly constructed, or misaligned to the demands of the new standards.

The Good

To begin, several questions are quite strong and very clearly demonstrate how SBAC...

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In education, the quickest way to get approving head-nods from a crowd is to talk about the perils of rote and repetition. Students can’t learn “how to think,” after all, if they’re forced to memorize facts or repeat skills to automaticity. And teachers are not widgets merely implementing basic skills; they’re artists.

Practice Perfect

Perhaps no applause line has done more damage to effective teaching than these attacks on repetition. This is something that Doug Lemov knows intimately, thanks in part to the thousands of hours he spent observing outstanding teachers in action. What he learned was that great teaching is born not of spontaneous and unpracticed excellence, but rather of spending more time than seems to make sense mastering seemingly mundane but crucially important knowledge and skills. In his first book, Teach Like a Champion, Lemov described 49 of the fundamental techniques that great teachers incorporated into their daily practice.

Lemov builds upon these insights in his latest book, Practice Perfect (coauthored with Erica Woolway and Katie Yezzi). The book is, at its core, a damning critique of the multi-billion dollar teacher professional development industry, which focuses almost no time and attention on actually helping teachers focus on and hone the skills they need to be effective. Teachers, Lemov suggests, are being served up the equivalent of art appreciation courses and then...

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Guest blogger Andy Smarick posts regularly (although generally with fewer acronyms) on Fordham's Flypaper blog.

A recent Common Core-sympathetic article carried by the WSJ begins with an anecdote about a too-seldom mentioned potential upside of tougher standards: that fewer parents will need to pay for remedial courses when their kids reach college (“something parents of about a quarter of all New York students entering college now do”).

It’s a lot easier to say “Common Core implementation” than to do it.

But what really comes through in this article is that it’s not completely clear what “Common Core implementation” actually means. This is something I’ve been fretting about since my time at the New Jersey Department of Education.

Though the reporter and numerous sources quoted throughout the article use buzz words (“rigorous,” “complex texts,” “ready for college and career success,” “mapping backward,” “analytical reading and writing skills,” and “text-based instruction.”), their translation into real-life practice is garbled English at best, ancient Greek at worst.

It seems to me that many of the Common Core’s most strident defenders don’t understand or appreciate that state and local leaders don’t know exactly what they should be doing. That confusion trickles down to teachers, preparation programs, and lots of other players.  In short, it’s a lot easier to say “Common Core implementation” than to do it.

This is why Checker Finn’s piece about “How the Common Core changes everything” is so valuable. And scary. Finn lists twenty areas of practice and...

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Keeping up with up with the inaccuracies and distortions in the Common Core debate can sometimes feel like the classic arcade game Whack-a-Mole. As soon as you finishing knocking down one half-truth or mischaracterization, another pops up somewhere else. Publishers have, for instance, scrambled to claim alignment when none exists or to actively co-opt the standards for their own ends. Now political ideologues have gotten into the game, adding a whole new level of difficulty.

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Correcting inaccuracies about the Common Core is like playing Whack-A-Mole—only less fun.
Photo by Julia Rubinic.

The political opponents of the Common Core—like the self-interested publishers and consultants—are quick to make broad and often inaccurate claims about the new standards. Though their intent is different, the impact may be equally damaging, particularly since they hope to bury the standards entirely, not just make a buck off the coming wave of CCSS implementation. The great irony, though, is that, by pitching the Common Core as something that it isn’t, CCSS opponents may inadvertently end up promoting exactly the kind of content-less, skills-driven instruction that they claim to be fighting against.

Take, for example, Phyllis Schlafly. Godmother of the modern conservative advocacy movement, Schlafly burst onto the scene in the 1970s with her successful campaign to stop the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). She...

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