Standards, Testing, & Accountability

Catherine Gewertz reports today that New Hampshire Republicans have introduced a bill that would, it seems, all but undo the State Board of Education's decision to adopt the Common Core last July. She explains:

If approved, the measure would require the state legislature, called the "general court" in New Hampshire, to approve any changes the state board of education makes in academic standards. It specifies that the common standards, approved by the state board last July 8, "shall not be adopted" without the general court's consent. Both chambers of the New Hampshire legislature are controlled by Republicans, but the state's governor is a Democrat.

It seems strange to require legislative approval for something that doesn't seem to have needed it before, but one presumes they know what they're doing.

Either way, this is a terrible sign for Common Core implementation in New Hampshire. And it comes on the heels of eerily similar bills in Minnesota and Texas. (Of course, the MN and Texas bills explicitly forbid adoption of ?common? and ?national? standards.) And it also makes me wonder how many other states have groups working to unravel Common Core adoption before implementation has even begun?

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Liam Julian

?Today's NAEP results confirm that we have a crisis on our hands when it comes to civics education,? said former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, responding to results released today showing that, according to the New York Times, ?fewer than half of American eighth graders knew the purpose of the Bill of Rights? and ?only one in 10 demonstrated acceptable knowledge of the checks and balances among the legislative, executive and judicial branches.?

Crisis? Here are the test results, reported by the Times:

Average fourth-grade scores on the test's 300-point scale rose slightly since the exam was last administered, in 2006, to 157 from 154. Average eighth-grade scores were virtually unchanged at 151. The scores of high school seniors?students who are either eligible to vote or about to be?dropped to 148 from 151. Those scores mean that about a quarter of 4th- and 12th-grade students, and about one-fifth of 8th graders ranked at the proficient or advanced levels.

It's not great. But again:?is it, as O'Connor says, a crisis? Allow me to answer the question with a question: Is there a?time in?history to which O'Connor can point at which young Americans' knowledge of civics was at a level she would describe as not a crisis?

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Markets are a tool with many uses, and we employ them broadly in our society because on balance they create a lot of good. Kevin Welner doesn't see it that way, however, especially in education (PDF):

This points to what should be the fundamental progressive response?the critique that many progressives seem hesitant to seize: that educational opportunities should be among the most precious public goods. While public education does provide an important private benefit to children and their families, it also lies at the center of our societal well-being. Educational opportunities should therefore never be distributed by market forces, because markets exist to create inequalities?they thrive by creating ?winners? and? ?losers.?

Progressives may be hesitant to seize this critique because it's wrong and misunderstands markets. First, Welner ignores consumers. If Wal-Mart and another retailer compete, in a well-functioning market the consumer wins by paying lower prices, enjoying higher quality, or both, regardless of whether Wal-Mart or its competitor wins a given customer's business. Markets don't exist for the sake of competition, or to provide wealth for "winning" competitors. Competition is intended to serve end users.

Second, education markets, unlike the ones in business, are not usually tasked with allocating profits. Even in places where for-profit charter operators are permitted, profits for those operators should not be a primary or even secondary concern of the education system. Instead, markets provide a mechanism for empowering parents, decentralizing decision-making, and fostering a variety of educational approaches.

Best of all...

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In his most recent missive (published today in Ed Week), Alfie Kohn decries "the pedagogy of poverty," i.e.: the way many poor children are taught in traditional public and public charter schools around the nation. He complains:

Policymakers and the general public have paid much less attention to what happens inside classrooms—the particulars of teaching and learning—especially in low-income neighborhoods. The news here has been discouraging for quite some time, but, in a painfully ironic twist, things seem to be getting worse as a direct result of the “reform” strategies pursued by the Bush administration, then intensified under President Barack Obama, and cheered by corporate executives and journalists.

In an article published in Phi Delta Kappan back in 1991, Martin Haberman, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, coined the phrase “pedagogy of poverty.” Based on his observations in thousands of urban classrooms, Haberman described a tightly controlled routine in which teachers dispense, and then test students on, factual information; assign seatwork; and punish noncompliance. It is a regimen, he said, “in which learners can ‘succeed’ without becoming either involved or thoughtful,” and it is noticeably different from the questioning, discovering, arguing, and collaborating that is more common (though by no means universal) among students in suburban and private schools.

This description is misleading on so many levels. First of all, it seems to suggest that having tight classroom management and routines is antithetical to creating classrooms where students can think deeply about issues. Nonsense....

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Winning RTT states got a lot of points for promising to adopt CCSS and implement the standards by adopting some fairly bold reforms. Now the rubber meets the road and it's time to look at whether states are beginning to do what they promised. (And, perhaps, to evaluate whether those promises made any sense in the first place.) To that end, I have begun to read the RTT applications from the winning states, beginning with DC. My plan is to learn more about the strengths and weaknesses of each state's implementation plan and eventually to track how states are progressing against their own implementation goals.

Washington, DC

Overview

I think that I may have started by reading the gold standard CCSS implementation plan because the District's RTT application outlines a plan that is as thoughtful as it is comprehensive. States and districts that are looking for smart CCSS implementation advice would do well to read and adapt DC's plan.

Strengths

There are essentially three areas of the RTT application that deal directly with CCSS implementation: standards and assessment, data, and great teachers and leaders. What impressed me most about DC's plan was how well integrated these areas were. It seems clear that the ?state? officials had a unified and clear theory of action and aligned all elements of their reform plan around particular goals. Even better, they are clearly using assessment and data as the driving force behind CCSS implementation. To that end, DC plans:...

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In science, statisticians must frequently grapple with interaction effects. Let's say, for example, that a scientist wants to study the impact of diet and exercise on lowering cholesterol. They have one group follow a low-fat diet, another a new running regimen, and a third group both. It's possible that both the diet group and the exercise group see a modest dip in cholesterol. But it's also possible that the third group will see a drop that is more than double what could have been achieved by diet or exercise alone?meaning that diet and exercise are ?interacting? in some way to affect cholesterol more powerfully. But, at what levels do participants see this interaction effect? When you follow a strict diet and exercise once a week? Twice? Etc.

In education, interaction effects are everywhere. As I've argued before, a strong curriculum implemented by skilled instructor often yields amazing results. The same curriculum implemented by a weak teacher may yield no (or negative) student achievement gains. That's because, as anyone who's ever worked in a school knows, outstanding student achievement results are the product of many different interacting elements within schools, not just of standards or curriculum alone.

For policy makers, it's challenging because no policy can control all of the (school-based) factors that will determine whether their programs succeed or fail in boosting student achievement.

So it is with Common Core. While the standards themselves are far more rigorous than what existed in most states previously,...

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This article originally appeared in the April 21 edition of The Education Gadfly newsletter. You can sign up for The Education Gadfly or read an overview of the latest newsletter.

Along with paralysis over the budget (and so much else), there's enduring paralysis on Capitol Hill?over federal education policy. While 2011 has brought a flurry of promising reform activity at the state level, we detect barely a heartbeat in Washington when it comes to updating the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, currently NCLB), even though an overhaul is at least four years overdue and just about everyone agrees that it's not working very well.

A year ago, the Obama Administration offered a decent ?blueprint? for reauthorization; but in Congress there are major fissures within each party?and little evidence of desire to cooperate across the aisle. Most commentators agree?and staffers privately admit?that chances are slim for an update before the 2012 elections. Sadly, they are probably right. It's a major abdication of responsibility by our nation's lawmakers.

Click to read our ESEA briefing book

And what makes it especially painful is that there's a pretty obvious path forward, not too different from the Administration's proposal. We sketch it out in a new ESEA reform proposal released this week. It capitalizes on some key realities:

First, NCLB has done a pretty good job of sensitizing the country to the...

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Former Bush White House adviser (and NCLB drafter) Sandy Kress turned in a very compelling New York Daily News op-ed on Monday arguing that President Obama has gone "wobbly" on education accountability. [quote] In the piece, Kress presented impressive NAEP data illustrating the big gains that minority and special needs students have made since the late 1990s.

What has caused these and other similar gains? Most researchers say the biggest factor was that in the late 1990s, states began to implement policies holding schools accountable for improving education for children. Further, in 2001, the Congress extended those policies to schools in all states through the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act.

Today, if schools shortchange students, especially subgroups of disadvantaged students, improvement in the operation of the school is required. Student problems can no longer be swept under the rug. Because of "consequential accountability," business as usual is no longer acceptable....

Now, here's the second big secret: For all of its promise to bring about education reform early in the term, the Obama administration wants to turn back the clock on accountability...

Under the framework being proposed for the reform of the law, the administration would require that, unless a school is among the very worst in the nation, it would no longer be required to improve even if it continues to fail its black, Hispanic and other disadvantaged kids. Further, in the case of schools that do not improve, special tutoring and public school choice

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