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Discussions about current education-reform efforts are typically focused on three separate topics: the Common Core standards, the new tests, and the curriculum. The alignment among the three seems to receive little attention—though it is a critical matter, as the degree of alignment will determine the validity of student test scores. One may presume that the tests currently being prepared by the two consortia of states are closely aligned with the standards. But in cases where states are making or buying their own tests, there is less assurance.

The creation of a curriculum, the provision of instructional materials, and the training of teachers is the purview of the states. This will lead to what I call “the delivered curriculum”—what the students are taught in the classroom. The degree to which the delivered curriculum matches the standards, as well as the alignment of the test, will determine the degree to which the test results are valid. This would seem to be elementary, but getting it to happen is a daunting challenge.

It is daunting because the standards are considered higher than those now in most states. New pedagogies are required. The training is expensive and time consuming—and there is a question of how many qualified instructors are available to provide the training, as well as how much time already-busy teachers are being allocated for the training. Another question concerns what funds can be made available in cash-strapped states. The degree to which teachers are prepared will inevitably vary among states and school...

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Japanese classroom by Angie Harms

Rationalizing America’s lackluster academic performance is something of a cottage industry. One of the most popular ways people explain away our low test scores is to claim that they don’t matter much anyway. “Let others have the higher test scores. I prefer to bet on the creative, can-do spirit of the American people,” says Diane Ravitch. Or there’s Alfie Kohn’s take: self-disciplined students are “likely conflicted, unhappy, and perhaps less likely to succeed (at least by meaningful criteria) at whatever they’re doing.”

But what if these rationalizations are questionable? Or worse, what if they’re simply bunk? What if super hardworking students in, say, South Korea and Japan are scoring worlds better than us on international tests and are more innovative and happy?

In a sobering twist, that might be the case.

Bloomberg News recently published its 2014 list of the most innovative countries in the world. Seven weighted factors go into the metric.* Here are the top five nations, along with their scores:

  1. South Korea (score: 92.10)
  2. Sweden (score: 90.80)
  3. United States (score: 90.69)
  4. Japan (score: 90.41)
  5. Germany (score: 88.23)

The chart-topper is a real doozy. South Korea—often ridiculed for working its students too hard and robbing them of creative, independent thought—might be the most innovative country in the world. Japan, subject...

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Note: This post is part of our series, "Netflix Academy: The best educational videos available for streaming." Be sure to check out our previous Netflix Academy posts on dinosaursaquatic lifeinsectsfrogs and other amphibiansAncient Asian Cultures; the early American civilizations; Ancient Greece; Native American culturesChristopher Columbus and the Age of Discovery; Colonial America and the Revolutionary War; the American founders;  movie adaptations of classic children’s books; and American folk heroes.

If you’ve got little kids, you won’t take much convincing that reptiles are just plain cool. Alligators! Crocodiles! Snakes! And cute turtles, to boot! Not only are these animals an important part of our biological heritage (been in touch with your reptilian brain lately?), but they are also major players in our cultural heritage, from the Garden of Eden to Aesop’s fables and classic children’s literature. So enjoy these videos with your kids, which help our reptile cousins come alive. (Note: videos about dinosaurs are available here.)

The Best Streaming Videos on Reptiles

1. Nature Adventures: Behind the Scenes at Reptile Gardens

Nature AdventuresTerri and Todd visit the Reptile Gardens, where they go behind the scenes and get “hands on” with various reptiles, including alligators, crocodiles, a timber rattlesnake, and more!

Length: 27 minutes

Rating: NR

PBS

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A first look at today's most important education news

The Brookings Institution releases two new papers on public-pension reform—one on political lessons learned in the reform efforts of Utah, Rhode Island, Illinois, and New Jersey and one on their recommendations for a model pension structure. (Brookings)

Mayor Bill de Blasio contends that with his proposed higher income tax, New York City will be able to add up to 29,000 new pre-K seats. (New York Times)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, for the first time ever, has issued guidelines regulating how food is marketed in schools, with the intention of cracking down on widespread junk-food advertising and teaching kids to make healthier eating choices. (NPR and Washington Post)

A new report out of the Center for Community College Student Engagement finds that black and Latino males attending community college have some of the highest educational ambitions of any other subgroups—but are also the least likely to realize those aspirations. (Hechinger Ed)

The latest in a string of concerns over student-data privacy, a recent study finds that cloud computing services used by some schools and districts to transfer student data are vulnerable to data mining for commercial purposes. In response to these and other concerns, the Department of Education is issuing new guidance on student data. (Digital/Ed and Politics K–12)

The Charters & Choice blog rounds up charter-school policy changes taking place in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia....

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The Common Core State Standards are in place in forty-five states—and in many of those jurisdictions, educators are hard at work trying to bring them to life in their schools and classrooms.

But how is implementation going so far? That’s what this new study explores in four “early-implementer” school systems. Common Core in the Districts: An Early Look at Early Implementers provides an in-depth examination of real educators as they earnestly attempt to put higher standards into practice.

To learn more, download the report and read about it on Common Core Watch.

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The COMMENTARY blog is my absolute favorite, so I was more than a little crestfallen when I read Seth Mandel’s recent entry. “Wherever you stand on the Common Core,” he declared, “it can’t be good news for the program that it has begun to so resemble the disastrous process and rollout of this administration’s last federal reform, ObamaCare. Yet the opposition to the Common Core has followed a familiar pattern.”

Mandel is right that the debates have unmistakable parallels. But, as he acknowledges, “none of this is to suggest that the Common Core is nearly the disaster–or constitutionally suspect power grab–that ObamaCare is.”

Lest that point get lost, let me reiterate the vast differences between ObamaCare and the Common Core when it comes to federal involvement.

ObamaCare is a federal program through and through. Created by an act of Congress, it puts federal bureaucrats in charge of one-sixth of the economy, overrules state regulatory bodies (regarding insurance and much else), involves a massive redistribution of public and private dollars, and excludes any sort of “opt out” provision for states. (Thanks to the Supreme Court, states can refuse the Medicaid expansion, but they are stuck with everything else.)

The contrast with the Common Core could not be starker. This was an initiative launched by the governors and state school leaders well before Barack Obama was even a serious contender for the presidency, much less seated in the White House. It had momentum prior to the 2008 election as state policymakers...

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Frustration and misinformation on the Common Core State Standards abound. But two cheers for Fox News for featuring Fordham trustee Mike Kelly to set the record straight.

Kelly not only quizzes Fox commentators on their math skills, but also makes it clear: The standards are not the problem; it’s implementation that’s messy. Some districts are choosing bad textbooks; some teachers aren’t communicating the changes as effectively as they could be. Of course, that’s all been true since the beginning of time. (Stay tuned for a report coming Wednesday that looks at these sorts of district-level Common Core challenges.)

And yes, Kelly stuck around to chat on Facebook.

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A first look at today's most important education news.
  • In a letter issued to members of the House Budget Committee, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon claimed the education budget for the current fiscal year overestimates the revenue actually available. Meanwhile, in Mississippi, critics claim the $2.15 Billion education budget will not be enough. (Missouri Net and Mississippi Public Broadcasting)
  • Obama’s forthcoming budget will include funding for early childhood education programs (The New York Times)
  • Although Support for Common Core is at a‘critical juncture’, the Georgia Senate committee unanimously voted for legislation that will force the state to retreat from the Common Core. (Politico Proand Online Athens)
  • There is no easy fix for the California's teacher pension fund which faces a $71-billion shortfall. (The Los Angeles Times)
  • Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe plans to veto a school prayer billwhich codifies students’ right to pray in school; wear religious clothing or accessories; and express religious viewpoints at school forums. (Politico Pro)
  • Major companies contribute $750 million worth of products and free high-speed Internet services to schools as part of Obamasschool Internet initiative. (Politico Pro)
  • There are fears that schools are promoting vocational education in lieu of more academic subjects.  (Politico Pro)
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Morgan Polikoff

Of all the current political threats to the Common Core, the most dangerous is the brewing backlash from the teachers' unions. To be sure, the GOP-Tea Party rebellion against federal intrusion is also threatening and holds the possibility of leading to repeal in several states. However, I don't view that threat as particularly solvable—there's no policy tweak or line of argument that would convince those folks to change their minds in any major way. In contrast, the threat from teachers and the unions is relatively easily solved.

Both major unions have been vocal advocates of the Common Core so far, including conducting polls showing most teachers support the standards and building partnerships with tech companies to spur implementation. However, there are signs that support is wavering. In particular, Randi Weingarten (head of AFT) has been treading an increasingly fine line on Common Core—supportive of the standards, but also saying their implementation is 'far worse' than the Obamacare rollout and bashing teacher-evaluation policies in the same breath as she critiques Common Core. (Just yesterday, the NEA’s Dennis Van Roekel piled on with harsh words of his own.)

Let's be clear—the growing union pushback is to some extent about teacher evaluation. (How much one thinks it's really about evaluation probably depends on where one stands on the unions more generally.) But there is no inherent reason why Common Core and new teacher-evaluation policies have to be linked with one another. One need not have common standards to redesign teacher evaluation, and vice versa. The major unforced...

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The tough letter that senior House Republicans sent last week to Arne Duncan and Eric Holder should have been even tougher. For the “guidance” that their agencies issued to U.S. schools in the guise of improving school discipline can only make it harder for educators to create safe, serious, and effective learning environments.

Education Committee chairman John Kline and several colleagues politely wrote that this guidance could “have a chilling effect on teachers and school leaders working to address discipline issues with students; potentially leading to unruly and unsafe classrooms that could adversely affect student learning.”

That’s putting it mildly. University of Colorado political scientist Josh Dunn was blunter “The consequences for schools and particularly for minority students,” he wrote, “will be nothing short of disastrous if actually implemented.”

In the increasingly Orwellian language of our federal government, the “supportive school discipline initiative,” a joint undertaking of the Education and Justice Departments, began in mid-2011. Its declared purpose was “to support the use of school discipline practices that foster safe, supportive, and productive learning environments while keeping students in school.”

Sounds great, yes? And there’s no denying that some of the advice the feds proffered for “improving school climate” and establishing effective discipline codes is worth following. The “Guiding Principles” document that emerged from the Education Department alone contains some useful if often self-evident suggestions, such as “train all school staff to apply school discipline policies and practices in a fair and equitable manner.”

And if...

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