How to Avoid Dumbing High Schools Down in Re-authorizing ESEA

February 22, 2011

(Guest Post by Sandra Stotsky)

President Obama wants all states to adopt Common Core’s standards for mathematics and English language arts and reading . He also wants states to use tests based on these standards in the re-authorization of ESEA. The feds are also funding development of not only these tests but also curriculum and instructional resources tied to these standards.  Despite the questionable legal basis for all of this, it is hard to find legislators commenting on the implications of the language the feds want in a re-authorized ESEA, perhaps because they have been mesmerized by the glib phrase that states should use standards “that prepare all students for college and career”?  Who would oppose that?  Yet, there are good reasons why Congress should remove wording in the re-authorization of ESEA that implicitly requires states to adopt or use Common Core’s standards, or leaves states no choice but to adopt or use them.

At present, states must report student scores yearly to USDE to show Adequate Yearly Progress.  States now use scores from state assessments based on their own state standards and cut scores.  However, most states’ standards and tests are of poor quality, embed low academic expectations, and do not allow comparison of results.  As a result, about 44 states have already adopted CCS as their own state standards (some enticed by the prospect of RttT funds), even though many fear the loss of local control of curriculum and instruction, and are worried about the costs they will incur from administering the high-tech tests USDE wants.   Beggars can’t be choosers.  USED promises to make the tests free to all states (though not the costs of administering them).  Texas, Virginia, Minnesota, and a few other states have not officially adopted the CCS because they judge their own state standards in math or reading to be better or also fear losing  local control of curriculum and instruction.

The USDE makes a reasonable case for standardizing academic expectations across all states and using the same tests across states to enable us to compare results. We have a highly mobile school population.  Having national standards and assessments sounds like the way to address 50 sets of mostly low quality standards and tests. However, national standards and tests do not necessarily lead to high academic expectations and a high-achieving population. Most countries already have national standards, but most do not have high-achieving students.  Much depends on the quality of their national standards and tests (as well as the quality of their teachers).  If standards and the tests based on them are not first-rate, they guarantee mediocrity for the whole country at the same time that they remove local control of curriculum and instruction.

The blackest mark CCS gets is for the low level of the academic expectations built into their definition of, and standards for, college-readiness.  Besides the legal questions, Common Core’s “college- and career-readiness standards” are not rigorous enough to prepare American high school students for authentic college-level coursework.  Nor can they make this country competitive in mathematics and science.  Despite the claims of the many organizations that were funded by the Gates Foundation to develop, praise, promote, and evaluate them positively, CCS are neither internationally benchmarked nor research-based.

Readers can find this out in critiques by independent researchers or content experts, such as Diane Ravitch and William Mathis’s report for the National Education Policy Center on the lack of a research base for CCS, R. James Milgram’s explanation of why, as a member of the Validation Committee, he could not sign off on Common Core’s mathematics standards; and (3) Sandra Stotsky’s explanation of why, as a member of the Validation Committee, she could not sign off on Common Core’s secondary English language arts and reading standards (all public documents).

It is not surprising that CCS do not prepare high school students for authentic college-level, credit-bearing freshman courses. They were shaped chiefly by the same special interests that gave us the poor state standards they were designed to replace. CCS were deliberately not built on the best state standards, those once in California, Indiana, or Massachusetts. The people who had shaped those standards were purposely kept at arm’s length.

Language for a re-authorized ESEA has not yet been finalized, but it will be hard for legislators to oppose using scores from tests based on “standards that prepare all students for college and career” for accountability.  How many legislators know that the only set of standards that would satisfy this wording would be Common Core’s?  Who remembers that state high school standards have never been designed to prepare students for credit-bearing college freshman courses.  Their legitimate mission has always been to prepare students for a meaningful high school diploma.

By law, a state test must be based on state standards. ERGO, those states that have not adopted CCS would be compelled to do so in order to use tests based on standards with such a description.  On the other hand, those 44 states that have already adopted CCS would feel compelled to use the common tests for financial reasons because the standards on which these tests are based are now their state standards and there are no other tests readily available. If states must use tests based on standards claimed to “prepare all students for college and career” in order to get their Title I money, USDE would end up in control of public education in every state in this country.

ESEA should give states a choice of the high school standards and tests they use for accountability–but insist that those they use are internationally benchmarked and research-based. Language could be inserted wherever needed to allow all states to use standards  and tests based on them that satisfy state high school graduation requirements so long as they are internationally benchmarked and research-based.  Such a qualification could be used instead of language requiring use of standards “that prepare all students for college and career.”  In this way, states would maintain control of curriculum and instruction and decide what tests satisfy their high school diploma requirements.  They may prefer objective end-of-course tests in algebra I, geometry, algebra II, U.S. history, chemistry, physics, and biology instead of “performance-based” subjective tests.  Policies built  into ESEA wording should strengthen, not weaken, the high school curriculum and prevent federal control of the content of public education.

Education’s Long Forgotten Vision

January 28, 2011

(Guest Post by Sandra Stotsky)

An illuminating essay titled “Education’s Forsaken Vision,” by Avner Molcho, an Israeli historian, appeared in the Autumn 2010 issue of Azure, a publication of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. In it he presents an assessment of the shift in educational philosophy he has observed in Israeli public education since Israel’s founding. Evolving from a mission to serve the civic needs of a new nation as well as the mathematical, scientific, and other intellectual needs of a modern society—a mission that enhanced social cohesion despite wide differences in student achievement–the reigning view he sees today emphasizes student rights instead of shared civic values and promotes upward social mobility for students from low-income families as the chief purpose of public education.

Molcho’s purpose is to suggest that Israeli society would benefit from a revival of the central features of a classical education—its stress on intellectual goals and civic virtues. As justification, he points to the failure of the new mission for education to stimulate academic achievement in poor students or their upward mobility, despite increasing resources dedicated to these ends. In fact, he notes, achievement gaps between children of low- and high-income parents seem to have grown even as they all learn less, according to international test scores.

However, Molcho omits mention of the most recent expression in U. S. public policy of this problematic mission for public education, an expression that is likely to have undreamed-of negative effects on the school curriculum, academic achievement, and American society as a whole. U.S. educators have long looked for ways to improve the academic achievement of students from low-income families and, hence, their social mobility. The American public needs to learn what signposts U.S. education policy makers are following on the yellow-brick road to Oz. Otherwise, “Education’s Forsaken Vision” may soon become “Education’s Long Forgotten Vision” in both countries.

As is well-known, the original formulation of “equal educational opportunities” did not imply equal outcomes or the repudiation of intellectual and civic goals by the schools. Equity was understood to mean a fairer distribution of resources to raise poor children’s achievement. But as it became clear by the late 1990s that the increasing flow of federal and other funds to improve their “basic skills” was not changing the demographic profile of low achievers quickly, if at all, U.S. educators and policy makers redefined equity to mean equal outcomes for all demographic groups (except for boys and girls) and altered the goal line.

Stressing the “closing of demographic gaps” as the supreme goal of the schools, the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act set forth a utopian goal: proficiency for all students by 2014 as determined by state assessments. An additional accountability criterion required “adequate yearly progress” for each demographic group. However, no practically significant increases in achievement at higher grade levels resulted for low-performing groups after accountability was added to the formula (although there has been progress on basic skills in the early grades). And serious problems elsewhere were ignored by policy makers.

Not unexpectedly, schools focused on what mattered to NCLB–getting low-performing students to pass state tests. But NCLB offered no reward at the same time for, for example, increasing the number or percentage of students, regardless of demographic category, who moved from Proficiency to Advanced, or completed an authentic Algebra I course in grade 8, or passed more advanced mathematics courses in high school. Yet, the need to pay attention elsewhere was clear. On TIMSS 2007, only 6% of U.S. students were at the advanced level in grade 8 mathematics, compared to, e.g., 40% of the students in South Korea. As a November 2010 report noted, “the U.S. trails other industrialized countries in bringing its students up to the highest levels of accomplishment in mathematics.”[1] The report did not identify “any single cause of the relatively small percentage of students in the U.S. who are performing at a high level of accomplishment,” although the shortage of academically qualified mathematics teachers looms as a major cause.

Despite the stunning comparisons of percentages at the highest performance level, no alarm bells were set off and no policies incentivizing increases in mathematics and science achievement at higher performance levels were forthcoming. Instead, the new mission for education drove public policy in the Obama administration to higher utopian heights than the Bush administration had aimed for, with an even more intense focus on low-achievers and little attention to anyone else.

While early advocates of “equal educational opportunities” wanted more poor students reaching high academic goals, not a change in these goals, supporters of the goal of social justice were quick to see an idiosyncratic and shrunken secondary curriculum (as content-free as possible), accompanied by changes in pedagogical practices and classroom organization, as a quicker means to their desired ends. If academic credentials (i.e., a college degree) are what promote social mobility, then what needed fairer distribution to get low-achieving groups moving upward were the credentials, not necessarily what they were designed to reflect.

The first step in facilitating a more equitable allocation of academic credentials was development of national standards in English and mathematics loosely tethered at the secondary level to their traditional content. That step was completed with the help of the Gates Foundation, which paid for the development, review, post-facto validation, and promotion of the reading and mathematics standards Common Core released in June 2010, and which also influenced the selection of most of the personnel involved. Public officials and the media were repeatedly told by the developers of the standards that they were research-based and internationally benchmarked, even though independent subject matter experts and researchers indicated this was not the case.[2] To clinch the first step, the U.S.D.E. ensured state adoption of these skills-oriented standards (about 45 states so far) with the lure of Race to the Top competitive funds.

The next crucial step is the development of tests based on Common Core’s standards and the working out of important matters such as the quality and difficulty of the test items and the level of the passing scores. The U.S.D.E. is funding and supervising this step directly. So far as we now know, the U.S.D.E. also wants, in a re-authorization of NCLB, schools to ensure that all their high school graduates are “college ready” as determined by the passing score on high school level tests. If so, schools will be held accountable for a greater utopian reach than was expected in 2001.

Efforts are already underway to make sure that all “college ready” students can be successful in their freshman college courses. Public colleges are being asked to “align” entrance requirements and the content of freshman courses to Common Core’s secondary standards, not the other way around. And, to ensure that “college ready” students can graduate from a college degree program in record time, all of their freshman courses must be credit-bearing, not tagged as remedial. (Otherwise, these students could not be called “college ready.”)

This means, in effect, that those who pass the national high school tests, which are to be first given at the end of grade 10, can go right to a college that accepts them and earn college credit for the content of the grade 11 or 12 courses they skipped, if the content is deemed necessary for their degree program.

Does anyone doubt that public colleges will be under pressure to admit “college ready” students and produce equal group outcomes in retention and graduation rates? Like high school teachers, public college instructors will find it in their interest to produce equal group outcomes no matter how the outcomes are related to the content of what individual students know.

Once upon a time, making students “college ready” meant strengthening, not weakening, the high school curriculum. Selective colleges in the U.S. will likely be able to fill their freshman classes with students from schools in, say, South Korea, Japan, and Singapore. But how long can any modern society sustain itself if it ignores both the intellectual and civic goals of public education and believes that able students come only in a few colors.


[2] See for a critical review of the research base for Common Core’s standards, by Diane Ravitch and William Mathis for the National Education Policy Center.

See also the letter sent by Sandra Stotsky explaining why, as a member of the Validation Committee, she could not sign off on the final draft of Common Core’s secondary English language arts and reading standards, at;

See also Appendix B, an analysis by mathematician R. James Milgram of the problems he sees in the final draft of Common Core’s mathematics standards, at

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.

The Ascent of America’s Choice and the Continuing Descent of America’s High Schools

August 5, 2010

(Guest Post by Sandra Stotsky)

With an additional $30,000,000 to come to Marc Tucker’s NCEE from the USED’s “competition” for assessment consortia grants, his hare-brained scheme for enticing high school sophomores or juniors deemed “college-ready” by the results of the Cambridge University-adapted “Board” exams that he plans to pilot in 10 states (including Massachusetts now) comes closer to reality.  The problems are not only with this scheme (and the exams NCEE will use to determine “college-readiness”) but also with the coursework NCEE’s America’s Choice is busy preparing to sell to our high schools to prepare students for these “Board” exams.  (Try to find some good examples of the reading and math items and figure out their academic level.)

First, some background.  NCEE’s scheme was originally financed by a $1,500,000 pilot grant from the Gates Foundation.  It will now benefit from a sweetheart deal of $30,000,000–all taxpayers’ money. Having Gates pay for both NCEE’s start-up and the development of Common Core standards certainly helped America’s Choice to put its key people on Common Core’s ELA and mathematics standards development and draft-writing committees to ensure that they came up with the readiness standards Gates had paid for and wanted NCEE to use. NCEE has a completely free hand to “align” its “Board” exams exactly how it pleases with Common Core’s “college-readiness” level and to set passing scores exactly where it wants, since the passing score must be consistent across piloting states.

The first problem is that the exams NCEE will give are to be aligned to the academic level of Common Core’s mysterious “college-readiness” standards.  Their academic level was apparently perceived as such a minor aspect of “rigor” by Fordham’s latest report that it was never mentioned in its evaluation design, rating system, or grades. Even though that academic level (where it was, what it was mathematically or in terms of cultural literacy, and where the research evidence and international benchmarks were to support it) was at the heart of the debate over Common Core’s standards ab initio.

The second problem is that the coursework that NCEE’s America’s Choice is to develop to prepare students for its “Board” exams is not at all clear, although its partner to profit from the development of the coursework now is <>.  NCEE coincidentally announced a partnership with Pearson publishers just after California’s Board of Education on August 2, and Massachusetts’ Board of Education on July 21, voted to dump their superior standards for Common Core’s inferior standards.

The California and Massachusetts votes were clearly helped along by Fordham’s report, as will be the votes in many other states.  Although Fordham trumpeted that “nearly a dozen states have ELA or math standards in the same league as Common Core,” the implicit message was not that these states should keep their own standards but the opposite. Since the “A” that Fordham had awarded California in math was not that much better than the “A-” it has awarded Common Core in math, and since the “B+” that Fordham had awarded Massachusetts in math was actually below the “A-”it had given Common Core in math, why shouldn’t both states fall in line and adopt Common Core’s math standards, especially if other reports like Achieve’s or WestEd’s made the case that Common Core’s standards were of about equal quality if not better than what these states already had.  Similarly, since the “A-” that Fordham had awarded Massachusetts’s ELA standards was  “too close to call” in relation to the “B+” that Fordham had awarded Common Core’s ELA standards, there was clearly no reason for Massachusetts to hold out for its own ELA standards, either.  Even though, with forked tongue, Fordham also suggested that these states might want to keep their own good standards, it was clear to state board members, newspaper editorial writers, and reporters that these two states did not have much to lose, according to Fordham’s grades.  Beautifully orchestrated!

It remains to be seen how close the new coursework that NCEE proposes to develop is to the “intervention” programs America’s Choice imposes on high schools (Ramp Up Literacy and Ramp Up Mathematics) as part of the package when a state agency has forced “underperforming” school districts (according to NCLB’s criteria) to contract with AC as a “turnaround” partner, a model we now know has no research evidence showing its effectiveness

We mention America’s Choice’s programs for high school remediation for several reasons—but mainly as a caveat emptor to piloting states.  First, there is no body of research evidence supporting the effectiveness of its programs at the high school level (and there has been research). or

Second, the pedagogy used in its intervention programs (with texts judged at the grade 5 or 6 level by teachers using these programs) is imposed on every single English class in a high school (except AP courses, which are mostly safeguarded by teachers’ syllabi, all earlier approved by the College Board). Because so many negative comments were made by high school English teachers in Arkansas under the yoke of America’s Choice to three researchers at the University of Arkansas as part of their research on literary study in the state’s high schools in 2009, their report, completed in March 2010 and posted on the University of Arkansas’ website, provides a brief summary of the research on AC and the teachers’ comments. See pages 38-42 here.  Perhaps the coursework NCEE is planning to develop with Pearson will not be like the intervention programs America’s Choice has used in states across the country to little effect.  But with such a track record, it is amazing that AC has been given such a free pass by the USED.

Further References

Consortium for Policy Research in Education.  (2009). A study of instructional improvement. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.

DeForge, J. (2010). Holyoke touts school gains. The Republican. Tuesday, January 19.

Slavin, R., Cheung, A., Groff, C. & Lake, C. (2008). Effective reading programs for middle and high schools: A best-evidence synthesis. Reading Research Quarterly, July-September 43 (3), 290-322.

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]

Stop the National Standards Train

November 16, 2009

As I’ve said before (here, here, and elsewhere), I can’t understand the enthusiasm of education reformers for national standards and testing.  Advocates for the status quo and/or pure nonsense are much better positioned to control the process of national standard-setting and test-writing than are advocates for meaningful reform grounded in evidence-based approaches.

In case you had any doubts, the current round of national standards and testing craze is once again being hijacked by the Dark Side.  My colleague, Sandra Stotsky, has an excellent piece in the current issue of City Journal ringing the alarm bells:

A distinct lack of interest in allowing mathematicians a major voice in determining the content of the high school mathematics curriculum isn’t confined to educational research publications or presentations. A new effort is under way to develop national math standards for K–12. The two organizations running the effort—the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, with support from both the Department of Education and the National Education Association—have not yet invited a single mathematical or science society to ensure that the high school mathematics standards and “college-readiness” standards they propose in fact prepare American high school students for the freshman calculus courses that serve as the basis for undergraduate majors in engineering, science, and mathematics (as well as other mathematics-dependent majors and technical/occupational programs). The effort, which is being pushed very quickly, seems determined to do an end run around the country’s mathematical and scientific organizations and the panel’s recommendations on the major topics for school algebra.

Who controls this process?  Advocates of “constructivism” and  “cultural-historical activity theory” do.  If you don’t know what this gobbledy-gook means, Sandy helpfully explains: 

Two theories lie behind the educators’ new approach to math teaching: “cultural-historical activity theory” and “constructivism.” According to cultural-historical activity theory, schooling as it exists today reinforces an illegitimate social order. Typical of this mindset is Brian Greer, a mathematics educator at Portland State University, who argues “against the goal of ‘algebra for all’ on the grounds that . . . most individuals in our society do not need to have studied algebra.” According to Greer, the proper approach to teaching math “now questions whether mathematics as a school subject should continue to be dominated by mathematics as an academic discipline or should reflect more fully the range of mathematical activities in which humans engage.” The primary role of math teachers, constructivists say in turn, shouldn’t be to explain or otherwise try to “transfer” their mathematical knowledge to students; that would be ineffective. Instead, they must help the students construct their own understanding of mathematics and find their own math solutions.

We need to stop this national standards train before we all go off the rails.

More 21st Century Skills

September 14, 2009

I’ve written before about Tony Wagner and the 21st Century Skills movement, here, here, here, and here.  My colleague Sandra Stotsky has an excellent review in the current issue of The Weekly Standard of Tony Wagner’s book, The Global Achievement Gap.

Here’s the money quote:

It is disingenuous to imply that the development of analytical thinking and effective oral and written communication (goals of the lyceum in ancient Greece) are new to the 21st century. American education schools and their satellite networks of professional development providers heavily promoted such “21st-century skills” as critical thinking, problem solving, and small group work throughout the 20th century.
If our teaching corps hasn’t yet been able to figure out how to translate these buzzwords into effective classroom lessons, what does this tell us about the teaching skills of our very expensive standing army of teacher-educators, either to prepare teachers properly in the first place or to get them up to snuff after they’ve failed in the field?…
Evidence-free rhetoric in support of reducing academic content in the schools, diluting academic standards for K-12, and eliminating large-scale academic testing, has found a receptive audience across the country among those who don’t want any form of real accountability. Unfortunately, the valuable skills misidentified as 21st-century skills cannot be taught and assessed without a strong emphasis on academic substance, standards, and objective assessments–as academic researchers know.
Wagner is the latest in a long line of educational pied pipers leading an uncritical and growing mass of school administrators and teachers into a curricular wilderness. And this latest book is just the current manifestation of the goal driving most of our education schools and professional development providers–how to reduce the academic content of the curriculum while claiming to enhance it–this time in the name of closing the “gap,” or providing worker bees for this century’s employers.

The National Standards Sausage-Making

June 9, 2009

Every decade or so we have to debate the desirability of adopting national standards for education.  People tend to be in favor of them when they imagine that they are the ones writing the standards.  But when everyone gets into the sausage-making that characterizes policy formulation, it generally becomes clear that no one is going to get what they want out of national standards.  What’s worse is that the resulting mess would be imposed on everyone.  There’d be no more laboratory of the states, just uniform banality.

Of course, some people always hope that they’ll somehow manage to sneak their preferred vision into place without having to go through the meat grinder.  That’s what is happening now with the National Governor’s Association effort at “voluntary” national standards.  In a process completely lacking in transparency and open-debate, some are rushing to announce a national standards fait accompli.

My colleague Sandra Stotsky tells us what’s what:

“If another country wanted other countries to respect its educational system and the reforms it was trying to make, who would it choose to lead such an important professional project as the development of its national standards in mathematics and in the language of its educational system itself?  In any other country in the world, one would expect a distinguished mathematician at the college level to be asked to chair the mathematics standards-writing committee–someone who commands the respect of the mathematics profession (and obviously is an expert on mathematics).   For the language standards-writing committee, one would likewise expect an eminent scholar in a college-level department–someone whose command of the language and understanding of the texts that inform the development of this language could not be questioned.   If the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers had thought about national pride (and national need) as well as academic/educational expertise, then all of us would respect the Common Core Initiative and look forward with eagerness to the drafts the NGA and CCSSO have promised to make public in July.

 These two organizations could have followed, for example, the exemplary procedures followed by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, on which I had the privilege to serve.  The Panel was chaired by the former president of one of the major universities in the country, all Panel members were identified at the outset, their qualifications were made known to the pubic, their procedures were open to the public and taped as well, and the final product was hammered out in public, after dozens of reviewers provided critical comments. 

 But instead of choosing nationally known scholars to chair and staff these committees–to assure us of the integrity and quality of the product–the NGA and the CCSSO have, for reasons best known to themselves,  treated the initiative as a private game of their own.  The NGA and the CCSSO haven’t even bothered to inform the public who is chairing these committees, who is on them, why they were chosen, what their credentials are, and why we should have any confidence whatsoever in what they come up with. 

 One person has announced on his own to the press and to a state department of education that he is chairing the mathematics standards-writing committee. He has not been contradicted by anyone at NGA or CCSSO, so we must assume he’s for real.  It turns out he is an English major with no academic degrees in mathematics whatsoever.  No one has yet announced on his/her own that he/she is chairing the English standards-writing committee.   One wag has already wondered whether this person might be a mathematics major with no academic degrees in English.  But it’s possible the sad joke in mathematics is not being repeated in English. 

 This country deserved better for a project of such national importance.”

Sandy Kress added these words of wisdom (pardon the capitalization since this was a comment on a post at Eduwonk):

“i suspect after the good feelings wear off, other governors and chiefs will begin to ask whether they can or should consider new standards at this time. once they learn about how hard it is to write new standards, they will ask even more questions. when we get to the controversies around whole language vs. phonics, they will ask more questions still. then comes computation vs. concepts. then comes all the many questions that arise once you get below the level of 30,000 feet. then – God forbid – you might even get to the place where you might possibly find the new standards under consideration to be no better than (or even possibly worse than) the standards you have! could it be that the tradeoffs that happen nationally will be the same as those that occur in the states? could the same interest groups intervene? could this nice dream be interrupted by the demons that bedevil state standard setting? could these interests be the problem as much as variation? oh no, could it be there’s no santa… no, i won’t go there.

and, oh yes, what about performance standards? if we ever get to detailed precise standards in each grade for reading and math, do the participants agree to common performance standards? if they don’t, who’s kidding whom? the real problem today is not so much that some states have vastly higher standards than other states; it’s more that their performance standards are greatly different. have the states, or will the states, commit to making those the same? if not, this will be utterly fruitless.

listen – DO NOT GET ME WRONG – i’m all for higher, fewer, clearer standards. i’ve spent a lot of time working on improving texas’ standards over the past 20 years. i’ve spent a lot of time with the hunt institute pushing more common standards. this is indeed the right thing to do.

but this process is going to be much more difficult than some think. it won’t happen overnight, nor should it. and there will remain great variation at the end of the day. it is utterly naiive and/or foolish to expect states to jump track from their current gameplans, particularly where they’re reasonably well thought out.

be prepared for states to recognize this “the morning after.” texas just recognized it before “the drinking began.”

also be prepared to realize that a better approach might be for one or more of these organizations to begin by recruiting the best and the brightest and actually doing the hard work of developing a few sets of model standards and then shopping them to the states, with the political support of those who rightly want high, common standards as well as perhaps some incentives from the feds to take these steps.” 

(edited for typos)

Critical Thinking About Critical Thinking

January 27, 2009


Fayetteville Public Schools have been hypnotized by Tony Wagner’s The Global Achievement Gap.  They’ve bought 2,000 copies, which they’ve distributed to administrators, teachers, and members of the community.  They’ve organized three public discussions of the book.  They are bringing in Wagner himself.  And they’ve indicated that they would like to use this book as a guide for planning a new high school and other changes.

My colleague, Sandra Stotsky, applies her critical thinking skills in today’s Northwest Arkansas Times to Wagner’s call for more emphasis on “21st Century Skills,” like critical thinking, adaptability, and creativity, and less emphasis on subject content:

“Who can argue against teaching students ‘agility and adaptability’ or how to ‘ask good questions?’ Yet these ‘skills’ are largely unsupported by actual scientific research. Wagner presents nothing to justify his list except glib language and a virtually endless string of anecdotes about his conversations with high-tech CEOs.

Even where Wagner does use research, it’s not clear that we can trust what he reports as fact. On page 92, to discredit attempts to increase the number of high school students studying algebra and advanced mathematics courses, he refers to a ‘study’ of MIT graduates that he claims found only a few mentioning anything ‘more than arithmetic, statistics and probability’ as useful to their work. Curious, I checked out the ‘study’ using the URL provided in an end note for Chapter 3. It consisted of 17, yes 17, MIT graduates, and, according to my count, 11 of the 17 explicitly mentioned linear algebra, trig, proofs and/ or calculus, or other advanced mathematics courses as vital to their work – exactly the opposite of what Wagner reports! Perhaps exposure to higher mathematics is not the worst problem facing American students!

Similarly, while I agree with Wagner that too many public schools fail to teach ‘effective oral and written communication,’ I am utterly puzzled by his contention that teachers’ obsessions with teaching grammar, test-prep and teaching to ‘the test’ are the problem. Really? Which English teachers? A lot of parents would kill to get their children into a classroom where they knew the teacher cared about grammar, or at least was brave enough to try to teach conventional sentence structure and language usage.

As for too much testing in schools, another of his complaints, Wagner again cites no relevant research. On the other hand my colleague Gary Ritter finds that here in Arkansas public schools the most tested students – those in grades five and seven – spend only 1 percent of total instructional time being tested, probably less time than spent in class parties or on field trips. And without testing, how can we figure out what our students know, and which programs successfully teach them?

Wagner’s book is engaging and sometimes points to real defects in American schools. Yet it fails to use research objectively to ascertain what is truly happening in America’s 90,000 public schools. Moreover, like all too many education ‘reformers’ Wagner is simply hostile to academic content. Wagner does not seem to care if students can read and write grammatically, do math or know something about science and history – real subjects that schools can teach and policy-makers can measure.

Unfortunately, Wagner dismisses measurable academic content while embracing buzzwords like ‘adaptability’ and ‘curiosity,’ which no one could possibly be against, but also which no one could possibly measure. Do we really care if our students are curious and adaptable if they cannot read and write their own names? “

I have my own op-ed on Wagner pending at another local paper.  Meanwhile my colleague Stuart Buck has an excellent blog post on a related topic — Alfie Kohn’s attack on Core Knowledge.  Even worse, Stuart notes, Kohn accuses people who disagree with him of having bad intentions and not just being mistaken.

It is puzzling how this entire industry of education consultants, including Wagner, Kohn, Kozol, and Gardner, manage to have such large followings with such weak arguments.

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