Common Core Smackdown

January 13, 2011

Actually it was much more civilized than that.  You can see below my discussion with Mike Petrilli on the pros and cons of Common Core (national) standards.

Now The Wheels Are Really Coming Off the National Standards Train

November 17, 2010

Back in March I predicted, prematurely, that the wheels were coming off of the national standards train.  Andy Rotherham had declared that the adoption of national standards was “close to a done deal,” but then the Wall Street Journal came out with an editorial strongly opposing national standards.

I thought that would derail the Gates-fueled and Obama/Duncan enforced train, but it did not.  As it turns out, states in the midst of a severe budgetary pinch are inclined to promise a lot in exchange for federal and Gates dollars now.

But all of those state promises to revise their standards, change their curriculum, change their professional development, and adopt new tests were all about steps that would occur far in the future.  Now that the federal money was already handed out and new money is unlikely to be forthcoming given the midterm election, the states may change their tune.  The states are like the kind of person who, when you stop buying her all of those flowers and expensive dinners, may not keep telling you how handsome and smart you are — and the wedding plans are probably in jeopardy.

To see how the tide is turning, check out this piece by Jim Stergios of the Pioneer Institute in the Boston Globe.  As Jim writes:

With Rick Perry said to be a shoo-in for the head of the Republican Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), which was one of a handful of lead groups pushing states to adopt national standards, may find itself in deep trouble. In fact, Perry, as the head of the RGA, may force the National Governors Association, which together the CCSSO, Achieve Inc., and the Gates Foundation, acted as cheerleaders for national standards, to revisit its position in support of national standards….

The opening that Governor Perry has on this issue is obvious and rumor has it that he is thinking very seriously about actions that reassert state control over the education agenda (and leverage the RGA to do so). The clearest place for Perry to begin is with the dozens of states that did not participate in Race to the Top. There are also key states that did participate, and in the case of New Jersey, California and Indiana even adopted the national standards, but did not win any RTT money.

The key states to watch are California, Indiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, Texas and Virginia. In addition to being states that either did not adopt the national standards, or adopted them and did not win federal funds, they have one additional and important commonality among them: They have had higher standards than most other states in the nation.

I think Jim Stergios is spot-on.  And as I’ve written before, getting agreement on national standards is almost politically impossible given that we are a large and diverse country with legitimate and competing visions of what schools should look like.  You could get states to pledge their support but as we are now seeing, getting the details in place is inevitably very difficult.

Hemisphere Fallacy Sighting

October 21, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

In a new Flypaper post, Checker and Mike argue that the federal government takeover of schools implementation of common standards can follow one of three paths:

1.      “Let’s Become More Like France.” Here, we picture a powerful governing board—probably via a new compact among participating states—to oversee the standards, assessments, and many aspects of implementation, validation, and more.

2.       “Don’t Rock the Boat.” We keep the Common Core footprint as small as possible. An existing group is charged with updating the standards when the time comes, but everything else stays with states, districts, and the market.

3.      “One Foot before the Other.” This middle ground foresees an interim coordinating body that promotes information sharing, capacity building, and joint-venturing among participating states. By the time the Common Core needs revising, this interim body may evolve into something more permanent or may recommend a long-term governance plan.

In other words, our options are:

  1. Too big, strong, and heavy handed.
  2. Too weak, limited and complacent.
  3. Just right!

Guess which one they favor. No hints!

JPGB readers will recognize Fordham’s longstanding addiction to the hemisphere fallacy – making themselves look good by oversimplifying the landscape into two extreme errors held by the extreme extremists on either side of them, and the reasonable middle ground occupied by reasonable middle grounders like themselves.

Some people say the earth is flat and others say it’s round, so the reasonable middle ground is to say it’s a hemisphere.

Personally, I’d rephrase those three Fordham options as follows:

  1. So big and bold that the federal government takeover of schools becomes obvious, provoking an inevitable backlash from Americans who have repeatedly made it clear they don’t want any such thing.
  2. So weak and limited that the federal government won’t actually be able to take over the schools.
  3. Just strong enough to hand all schools over to federal control, but not so strong that the handover becomes obvious.

While we’re on the subject, Neal McCluskey notices something interesting in the new Fordham report:

All that said, there is one, small part of the report that I find quite satisfying. A few months ago, Fordham President Chester Finn called people like me and Jay Greene “paranoid” for arguing that national standards would be hollowed out by politics. Well, in the report, while it is not explicitly identified as such, you will find what I am going to take as an apology (not to mention a welcome admission):

How will this Common Core effort be governed over the long term?…This issue might seem esoteric, almost philosophical in light of the staggering amount of work to be done right now to make the standards real and the assessments viable. But we find it essential—not just for the long-term health of the enterprise, but also to allay immediate concerns that these standards might be co-opted by any of the many factions that want to impose their dubious ideas on American education. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to worry about this possibility [italics added]…

No, you don’t.

I’m not sure I would take it as an apology. If Checker wanted to apologize, he would. But he hasn’t.

Which leads me to wonder why he’s suddenly so anxious to make sure there’s something out there in print that shows him expressing exactly the same doubts we do. Something he could point to later, perhaps?

Mark Your Calendars

September 13, 2010

Mark your calendars.  September 9 was the date that Checker Finn and the Fordham Institute began to turn against the national standards movement they so enthusiastically championed.  We’ve been predicting this reversal on JPGB, but who knew it would happen so soon?

Last week Checker noticed that the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), which directs the current national standards push fueled by Gates Foundation money and financial rewards and threats from the U.S. Department of Education, is merging with P-21, the 21st century skills nonsense organization.  Checker noted that the incorporation of P-21 into CCSSO could provide “additional traction for the organization’s current agenda [which] would be bad for the country, bad for the new ‘Common Core’ standards and the assessments being developed around them, and possibly bad for CCSSO as well.”

Checker also suddenly became aware that even good standards may well be undermined by bad assessments:

Indeed, P-21 isn’t the only risk here. At least one of the two new assessment-development consortia could—probably in the name of “performance assessment” and “career readiness”—easily drown in the soft stuff, in which case the tests it is building may not do justice to the academic standards with which they are meant to be aligned. Which would also mean that implementation of the Common Core by states and districts could be distorted in the direction of the soft stuff that will be on the tests and for which schools and educators will be held to account.

And Checker has finally focused on the fact that the federal government might make mischief with the national standards machinery for which he and Fordham provided right-wing cover:

One hopes that Secretary Duncan is mindful of this risk, but his big assessment speech last week wandered all over the 21st century terrain. And those straying off the cognitive reservation can also invoke Duncan’s boss, whose March 2009 denunciation of “bubble tests” called for a new generation of assessments that would address not only “problem-solving and critical thinking” but also “entrepreneurship and creativity.” Yes, there is reason to believe that President Obama has drained more than a few steins of P-21 propaganda. Maybe his education secretary has, too.

Of course, Checker still holds out hope that vigilance could keep these negative forces at bay.  But he is clearly laying the groundwork for his complete reversal, which will come as these negative forces gain control over the national standards infrastructure that Checker and Fordham helped create by down-playing these very dangers.

National Standards Metastasize

August 13, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Below, Sandra Stotsky observes that the new national standards demand a reduction in the amount of literature taught in K-12 in order to facilitate more reading of nonfiction.

Stotsky makes a strong case that this demand is equally unnecessary (since schools have already pushed out literature in favor of nonfiction), unjustified (since there are no grounds for the view, being adopted in the name of national standards, that assigning more nonfiction in K-12 English classes will help prepare students to read college textbooks in math, economics, physics, psychology, etc.) and disastrous for real education (because literary and imaginative education is as essential to decent human life as it is neglected by the government school monopoly).

But let’s not overlook a more fundamental point: when we decided to have national standards, nobody told us that it would mean forcing schools to assign less literature. But that’s what’s happening.

Why? Friedrich Hayek outlines it in The Road to Serfdom. Even a small amount of government planning must – must – inevitably either metastasize both quantitatively and qualitatively, or else fail to accomplish its purpose.

Government planning, however small, must metastasize quantitatively. Government gets our consent to plan A. But if A must be planned, that requires control of B. And that requires control of C…

It must also metastasize qualitatively. For government to plan A, government must determine the scheme of values that governs A. This requires not only a mandatory, government-imposed view of the value of A; it requires a mandatory, government-imposed view of the value of everything. In order to plan A you must determine where A stands relative to everything else, and that means government controls not just your view of A but your view of everything.

To the extent that we prevent planning from metastasizing, it fails. To the extent that metastasizes, it succeeds – and we lose our freedom.

Image HT Ukuleleman

What Can Parents Expect To See in English Language Arts Classrooms After Common Core’s Standards Begin To Be Implemented? A Worst Case Scenario—But Probably Not Far from Reality

August 12, 2010

(Guest Post by Sandra Stotsky)

In June 2010, the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) offered the nation two sets of English language arts standards: one set called “college and career readiness anchor standards,” and the other, grade-level standards that build towards these anchor standards. With few exceptions, both sets of standards consist of content-empty and culture-free generic skills. Why are they so bereft of substantive content? In large part because they reflect a faulty diagnosis of why many American students are unprepared for authentic college-level work. The misdiagnosis comes from CCSSI’s reliance on the results of ACT surveys to guide the development of its standards.

Several years ago, ACT surveyed thousands of post-secondary instructors to find out what they saw as the chief problems in their freshman students. Not surprisingly, the chief complaint was that high school graduates cannot understand the college texts they are assigned to read. Without an explanation for its reasoning, ACT leaped to two conclusions: (1) college students are not expected to read enough complex texts when they are in high school; and (2) they are not given enough instruction in strategies or skills for reading complex texts in high school.

However, ACT’s survey did not (nor could it) show that most college students had not been assigned complex texts to read when they were in high school.  Nor did it (or could it) show that more instruction in comprehension strategies or skills when in high school would have helped them to read complex texts then or later, in college. With much greater justification, ACT might have conjectured that inappropriate teaching methods, an incoherent and undemanding high school literature and reading curriculum, poor study habits, and/or perhaps an unwillingness to put in much time reading or studying on a regular basis were contributing to high school graduates’ inability to read their college texts. But ACT did not consider any of these quite reasonable hypotheses.

Nor did CCSSI question the validity or logic of ACT’s two unwarranted conclusions. Instead, it went one step further: it concluded that English teachers should be chiefly responsible for assigning nonfiction or informational texts, regardless of subject area, and for teaching students how to read them. Yes, it admitted that teachers of other subjects had a responsibility to assign and teach students how to read texts in their disciplines.  But it still placed the major burden on English teachers: over 50% of what they assign should be nonfiction or informational texts.

The national sales pitch seems to be that the use of Common Core’s ELA standards will increase the number of high school graduates who can read the texts their college instructors assign. It is more likely that college instructors will find themselves compelled, for the sake of survival, to adopt texts at the middle and high school level of difficulty in order to ensure that the “college-ready” students our high schools will now be required to graduate (according to proposed US Department of Education regulations) can read what is assigned in college. So long as “college-ready” high school students must be placed in post-secondary credit-bearing freshman courses (another USDE requirement), their instructors (at least those who want to keep their jobs) will want to do whatever is necessary to enable these students to pass their college freshman courses.

Is it really the case that English teachers over-emphasize literary texts to the exclusion (or near-exclusion) of nonfiction? In fact, the National Council of Teachers of English’s own widely criticized “standards,” issued in the mid-1990s, revealed a strong de-emphasis on literary study even then. Many English teachers, often urged on by their own professional journals, began to downgrade literary study on their own several decades ago, assigning their students more non-literary reading, such as diaries, family chronicles, newspaper articles, biographies, and autobiographies, on the grounds that students needed more exposure to a greater diversity of nonfiction genres. Diversity in nonfiction genres is quite visible in major literature anthologies.

This trend—increasingly less time on imaginative literature in the high school English class—was confirmed by the surveys used in two reports completed in 2010: Literary Study in Grades 9, 10, and 11: A National Survey and its Arkansas counterpart, Literary Study in Grades 9, 10, and 11 in Arkansas.  These two research projects found that high school English teachers spend much less time on literary study in 2010 than they did 40 years ago, according to the last national study published by the National Council of Teachers of English on this question. By requiring English teachers to spend over 50% of their reading instructional time on informational reading, not literary reading, CCSSI’s ELA standards will drastically accelerate a decline that has been taking place for almost half a century.

Nor is it the case that English teachers do not give students instruction in reading nonfiction. In both Literary Study in Grades 9, 10, and 11: A National Survey and its Arkansas counterpart, teachers report giving students instruction in reading nonfiction or informational texts and indicate that they draw on a range of approaches. The problem is that they mostly prefer the wrong kind of instruction. Teachers surveyed in both studies prefer non-analytical approaches (such as reader response or contextual approaches) to the study of literature and nonfiction.  Students may well be asked to think “critically” about the texts they are assigned, but their critical thinking is unlikely to be based on a careful analysis of what is in them.

What changes are parents apt to see in English language arts classrooms as states implement Common Core’s ELA standards?

  1. Teachers assigning more informational reading—over 50% required by ELA standards alone—and less imaginative literature for children or secondary students.
  2. Teachers using lower quality texts because there are fewer high quality informational texts available at each grade level—and very few that are relevant to what is being taught in other subjects.
  3. Teachers giving more reading comprehension exercises to practice skills-based standards.
  4. Teachers giving shorter reading selections to accommodate the enormous amount of required summary writing in Common Core’s standards.
  5. Teachers doing less vocabulary study because Common Core’s 6-12 vocabulary standards are weak, misleading, or uninterpretable.
  6. Teachers giving inappropriate grammar lessons; they may be useful to English Language Learners but many make no sense for native English-speaking children.

Common Core’s ELA standards assume that if English teachers are compelled to assign a lot of informational texts, students will learn how to read them.  They won’t if these teachers don’t teach close, analytical reading.  Moreover, students may not find them as enjoyable to read as a good story, novel, or play and may want to read even less than they now do. Nor is it at all clear that if English teachers assign high school students a variety of informational texts with no necessary substantive connection to what is being taught in other subject areas, students will acquire the vocabulary and content knowledge they need for authentic college work.

Does Fordham Support a National Curriculum?

August 5, 2010


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

For weeks, Checker has been calling us “paranoid” for worrying that the national standards machine Fordham has helped create will be hijacked by the teacher unions.

Today, there lands in my inbox the new Gadfly from Fordham, featuring a guest editorial by Eugenia Kemble of the Shanker Institute. Kemble’s argument, in a nutshell: Now that we have national standards, the next thing we need is a national curriculum. That way we don’t just ensure that all schools set outcome targets and measurements in the one best way that’s right for everyone regardless of their individual needs; all schools will do everything in the one best way that’s right for everyone regardless of their individual needs. And we’ll have a benevolent dictator who will make sure that everyone will do everything in the one best way, and who will never abuse that power.

I paraphrase.

On Kemble’s list of the heroic, wonderful people she admires who have been pushing not just for national standards but a national curriclum are Bill Schmidt and Randi Weingarten at the AFT; teacher union shill Diane Ravitch; and . . . Checker Finn.

Inquiring minds want to know:

  1. Does the Fordham Foundation support a national curriculum?
  2. Given that Fordham is offering up the Gadfly as a platform from which Kemble can advocate using national standards as the first step toward broader federal control of schools, does the Fordham Foundation still consider it “paranoid” to be worried that national standards will be used as a first step toward broader federal control of schools?

I’ll hold my breath and wait for Checker to give us a clear, unambiguous answer.

Stotsky on the Common Core Vote in MA

July 29, 2010

(Guest Post by Sandra Stotsky)

As the nation knows, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to adopt Common Core’s English language arts and mathematics standards on July 21.  At least one Bay State English teacher is aghast at what the Board has imposed on the state’s English teachers.  A member of the Blue Mass Group, she immediately blogged an open letter to Governor Deval Patrick, Secretary of Education Paul Reville, and Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester the day after the vote, explaining: “There is no way that I, as a high school English teacher with a Master of Arts in English Literature, am going to be either interested or particularly successful in teaching kids to read primary documents in American history or assessing the content of Physics II papers (after I’ve had my intensive five-year retraining program). The idea is simply preposterous.”

Apparently, none of the reviews generated by the Commissioner of Education’s own staff and appointed committees, or funded indirectly by the Gates Foundation to elevate the quality of Common Core’s standards and demote the quality of the Bay State’s own standards, addressed this teacher’s overarching question: Do Common Core’s ELA standards reflect what English teachers typically teach or are trained to teach?  At any rate, the Board never saw fit to discuss the matter on July 21 or earlier, after I called national attention to the problem in an invited essay published by the New York Times online on September 22, 2009.

We don’t know if most Board members even took the time to read Common Core’s ELA standards, in addition to the barrage of  “crosswalks” sent to the Board within a week of the vote.  The one Board member who called me before the July 21 meeting to talk about them (the night before the vote, as a matter of fact) said he had read them all but had not looked at Common Core’s mathematics or ELA standards themselves!  Although he commented that Achieve, Inc.’s material read like propaganda, he unhesitatingly voted to adopt Common Core’s standards the next morning.

Achieve’s materials, however, were not the only problematic materials the Board received.  The effort to elevate the quality of Common Core’s ELA standards and demote the quality of the Bay State’s current standards is apparent in Fordham’s report.  Anyone reading the pages of critical comments on Common Core’s ELA standards would wonder how such a deficient document ever merited the B+ it was given, which meant that Fordham could say that the differences between Common Core’s ELA standards and those of Massachusetts (whose document was graded A-) were “too close to call.”

On the other hand, the only critical comments on Massachusetts’ ELA standards are as follows:

“Unfortunately, some of these excellent standards are difficult to track, due to a somewhat confusing organizational structure. As discussed above, the 2001 document provides standards by grade band only. The 2004 supplement provides additional standards, but only for grades 3, 5, and 7. While the intent of this supplement is to help teachers piece together grade-specific expectations for grades 3-8, the state doesn’t provide explicit guidance about how these standards fit together, leaving some room for interpretation.

Furthermore, no grade-specific guidance is provided for grades Pre-K-3 or 9-12. While the standards are clear and specific, the failure to provide specific expectations for every grade, coupled with a complicated and difficult-to-navigate organizational structure, earn them two points out of three for Clarity and Specificity.”

In fact, however, Massachusetts does provide explicit guidance in the supplement itself because these additional grade-level standards were developed for testing purposes for NCLB and have been used every year since 2004.  There is no wiggle-room for interpretation and there has been nothing confusing to the Bay State’s elementary teachers about what standards were for MCAS and for them to teach.

Moreover, because of the supplement, there are specific grade-level standards for 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 in the Massachusetts document.  Fordham demoted the Bay State’s ELA standards not only by setting forth an outright error in its critique but also by using a double standard. Massachusetts has standards for PreK-K, 1-2, and 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8, as well as for high school, which are organized in two-year grade spans exactly as Common Core’s are: 9-10 and 11-12.  But, Common Core’s standards were not criticized for not providing Pre-K standards or grade-level standards in high school—in either ELA or mathematics.

It is worth noting that, for full credit for “organization” in earlier Fordham reviews, standards had to be presented for every grade or two-year grade span. This definition for organization no longer appears in the criteria used by Fordham in 2010.

It should also be noted that the abandonment of this definition for “organization” as well as a puzzling approach to “rigor” clearly contributed to the rating of A- for Common Core’s mathematics standards. By themselves, its high school standards do not warrant that grade. They are not organized by grade level, by grade span, or by course. Instead, they are listed in five unordered categories of mathematical constructs, leaving it totally unclear which standards belong to each of the three basic courses of: Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II.  Moreover, its high school geometry standards reflect a new approach with no record of effectiveness to support it.  Thus one cannot say that they are rigorous because we don’t even know that they can be taught in grade 8 and high school.  In fact, there is some evidence to the contrary.

In sum, one cannot discern the rigor of Common Core’s mathematics standards “for the targeted grade level(s)” in grades 9-12 since there are no grade level standards for grades 9 to 12.  Nor, more important, can one readily discern the academic level, or rigor, of the high school standards addressing Common Core’s goal of “college readiness.” Nevertheless, Common Core’s mathematics standards as a whole received full credit on the “Content and Rigor Conclusion”

“The Common Core standards cover nearly all the essential content with appropriate rigor. In the elementary grades, arithmetic is well prioritized and generally well developed. In high school, there are a few issues with both content and organization, but most of the essential content is covered including the STEM-ready material. The standards receive a Content and Rigor score of seven points out of seven.”

There needs to be more public attention to the quality of Common Core’s ELA (and mathematics) standards.  There also needs to be public attention to the methodology of the reports of several national organizations all claiming to show that Common Core’s ELA standards are among the best in this country, all being used to sway the vote of our state boards of education.

[Updated to correct typos]

Checker Finn Comes Out Against National Standards and Assessments

July 26, 2010

As Neal McCluskey revealed (and Greg highlighted), Checker made an excellent case against national standards… in 1997.  The Weekly Standard has now allowed non-subscribers to link to the piece, so everyone can read it for him or herself.

Many of Checker’s arguments against national standards and assessments  back in 1997 are remarkably similar to those of current critics.

Here’s the money quote:

… anything so sensitive as these tests must be run at arm’s length from the government and education-establishment tar babies. It also seemed that Congress should have something to say about the arrangements for so momentous a shift in American educational federalism….

As often in education-reform efforts, the procedure has been hijacked by the tar babies. The hijacking takes the form of contracts that are already being signed with neither congressional approval nor independent oversight.

The main contract so far is with the Council of Chief State School Officers to develop test specifications. “The chiefs,” as they’re known in educator- land, are the Washington-based association of state superintendents, and they form one of the establishment’s most change-averse crews. The chief of the chiefs, Gordon Ambach, is a former New York state commissioner of education, staunch advocate of a larger federal role in education — a key backer of Goals 2000, for example — and a veteran federal grant-getter. He and his group have an ancient and cozy relationship with the Education Department and can be counted on to do its bidding, down to such particulars as Spanish- language math tests and other worrisome wrinkles in the Clinton plan.

The current national standards and assessment craze has similarly not been authorized by Congress and is being spear-headed by the very same Council of Chief State School Officers that Checker denounced as “one of the establishment’s most change-averse crews.”

It’s hard to see what about the current national standards push is fundamentally different to justify Checker’s change of mind.  I suppose people are entitled to change their views, but when they do so without being able to articulate the reasons for the change we might have to worry about how much we would trust their policy opinion.

Why was Congressional support essential then but not now?  Why was the Council of Chief State School Officers unreliable back then but wonderful now?

Forget “Who’s Fickle?” Who’s Paranoid?

July 26, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Earlier this year, Checker Finn went through a brief period where he was tying himself in knots, sounding a whole lot like he was both for national standards and against them. Mike Petrilli chose that moment to take potshots at Arne Duncan for being “Fickle on Federalism.” I had a little fun asking “Who’s Fickle?

Since then, Checker has finally decided where he stands (at least for now). He’s accused those of us who ask embarrassing questions about whether national standards will be hijacked by the blog blob of “paranoia.”

[Update: Hijacked by the “blob,” of course. This was totally not a Freudian slip. The blog doesn’t hijack anything – as far as you know. Nothing to see here, folks…]

Well, the game just changed. Neal McCluskey has dug up a 1997 Weekly Standard article in which Checker makes the same arguments against national standards we are now making. None of the relevant facts on the ground has changed. So today I get to ask, “Who’s Paranoid?”

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