No love for Common Core? Why Tom misses the mark with his critique

According to Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institute, “The Common Core will have little to no effect on student achievement.” 

Standards—no matter how clear or
how rigorous—are not a panacea.

To
prove this, he draws on research from 2009 conducted by his colleague,
Russ Whitehurst. Essentially, Whitehurst found that the quality of state
standards (as judged by our own Fordham analyses as well as analyses
conducted by the AFT) did not correlate with state NAEP scores. More
specifically, he found that “states with weak content standards score
about the same on NAEP as those with strong standards.”

Q.E.D.?

Hardly.
What Loveless conveniently ignores is the second—and arguably more
significant—element of Whitehurst’s research. In short, Whitehurst
“concluded that the effects of curriculum on student achievement
are larger, more certain, and less expensive than the effects of popular
reforms such as common standards…” (Emphasis added.)

His
point is that setting standards alone does very little, but that a
thoughtfully and faithfully implemented rigorous curricula can move the
achievement needle, sometimes dramatically.

While
one could chose to pit those two policy advancements against it each
other (standards versus curriculum), a much more logically way to view
it is that while strong standards provide a solid foundation, you still
need to build the schoolhouse. For education reformers trying to drive
the needle on student achievement, the process should start by setting
clear and rigorous standards, but it certainly can’t end there.

That’s
the Fordham view. As we have long acknowledged, standards alone will do
little but adorn classroom bookshelves if not aligned to summative,
interim, and formative assessments in terms of both content and rigor,
and if not tied to meaningful district-, school-, and classroom-level
accountability.

This
is a point that Whitehurst himself acknowledges. In 2009, he argued that “high quality common standards” can affect student achievement, but
only

“in
a system in which there are also aligned assessments, and aligned
curriculum, and accountability for educators, and accountability for
students, and aligned professional development, and managerial autonomy
for school leaders, and teachers who drawn from the best and brightest,
and so on.”

That’s hardly the damning critique of common standards that Loveless portrays.

What’s
more, contrary to the picture Loveless paints, there is some evidence
that the right combination of clear and rigorous standards, thoughtful
implementation, and accountability can drive achievement. In
Massachusetts—a state that has had among the nation’s most rigorous
standards in place for more than a decade and that has aligned its
entire education system around implementation of those standards—great
standards seem to have jump started large gains in achievement for all
students.

But,
even more interesting than the fact that Massachusetts leads the nation
in terms of overall student achievement is the fact that the lowest
performing students from the Bay State outperform their peers around the
nation. As do the highest performing students. As I wrote in March of 2010:

“…students scoring in Massachusetts's bottom 25% [on
the 2009 Reading NAEP] score higher than students in the bottom 25% of
any other state in the nation. And students scoring in the top 25%
perform better than students in the top 25% of any other state.
In
other words, thanks in large part to adopting rigorous standards and to
using these standards to drive curriculum and instruction across the
state, Massachusetts has lifted all of its students.

That
said, Loveless is certainly right that standards—no matter how clear or
how rigorous—are not a panacea that will transform our education
system. But, setting clear and rigorous standards, as many states did by
adopting the Common Core, is a critical first step towards driving
achievement. Now it’s up to the states to commit themselves to properly
implementing them.

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