USA Today ran a story Saturday entitled, “Common Core Standards Driving a Wedge in Education Circles.” The article comes after a week of exceptionally bad press for standards- and accountability-driven reform, capped off by the tale of a talking pineapple and his apparently cannibalistic friends.
Of course, it wasn’t always this way. In fact, it was just two short years ago that a remarkably broad and bipartisan coalition that united union leaders and market reformers helped secure passage of the new standards.
What a difference a couple years makes.
What’s interesting, though, is that, with some limited exceptions, the debate over the Common Core standards has very little to do with the standards themselves. In fact, on all sides of the ed reform aisle, people seem to agree that these particular standards are rigorous, clear, and better than the vast majority of the state standards that were in place previously.
Instead, the debate over the Common Core is now caught up in a larger fight about the merits of education reform writ large. In this increasingly toxic environment, Common Core has become one more conspiracy to uncover, one more grand scheme for the fringe on the right and left to fight against.
Every day brings a new line of attack, each less comprehensible than the last. Some believe the standards are part of a giant corporate plot, the main goal of which is to pad the pockets of testing companies. Others believe they’re
Last week, Tom Loveless penned an Education Week op-ed where he (again) argued that the Common Core standards don’t matter—that the quality of a state’s standards has little correlation with how well students in that state fare on the NAEP.
Loveless’s main point—which is mostly right—is that statewide standards implementation has not led to dramatic student achievement gains. He notes, for instance, that “from 2003 to 2009, states with terrific standards raised their National Assessment of Educational Progress scores by roughly the same margin as states with awful ones.”
It’s not easy to get right, but when effectively implemented this playbook gets results.
Yet, we do know that teachers, schools, and even districts that set high standards for student learning, hold teachers and principals accountable for reaching specified goals, align curriculum and instruction to the standards, and intentionally use short- and long-term data to drive instruction are able to make significant gains for kids. It’s not easy to get right, but when effectively implemented this playbook gets results. At least on the school and district level.
Therein lies the challenge: we have yet to see equally dramatic results on the state level.
Of course, we at Fordham have long argued that standards alone won’t drive achievement—they need to be linked to meaningful implementation and accountability to have any hope to impact student learning.
Loveless does try to address this by arguing that existing standards—good and bad—have been implemented. He reasons:
Past standards-setters were neither as naive
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!”
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
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.
"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
About the Editor
Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow
Kathleen Porter-Magee is a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow and the Senior Director of the High Quality Standards Program at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where she leads the Institute’s work on state, national, and international standards evaluation and analysis.
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