The Common Standards Mousetrap

by Robert Pondiscio
February 24th, 2010

Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door, said Ralph Waldo Emerson.  He did not say “states will not be considered for federal dollars for rodent extermination that have not pledged to follow common state standards for mousetraps.” 

Will the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) represent a better mousetrap?  Fordham’s Checker Finn is concerned that the initiative is already being laden with heavier and heavier burdens.  Only states that are on board are eligible for Race to the Top dollars.  Now President Obama now says he wants to link states’  Title I funding to the new standards and assessments.  Why are the DOE, the White House, the Gates Foundation and others  are “sounding and acting as if these standards and assessments had already proven themselves,” Finn wonders.  It’s “enormously risky and, frankly, hubristic,” he writes.

A little humility would seem to us to be in order. If these standards and assessments end up representing a huge improvement over those in use in most states today, then much that’s good may reasonably follow from their installation and use. But what if they don’t? And even if they do, what about those (few) states that have done a creditable job on their own and for which CCSSI may represent either a lateral move or a step backward? In any case, would it not be prudent to appraise their safety and efficacy before demanding that they become the center of America’s new education universe?


  1. Robert-

    You should update this story with a link to the Pioneer Institute report “Why Race to the Middle? First Class State Standards are Better than Third-Class National Standards”.

    It is by Ze’ev Wurman and Sandra Stotsky. It describes a national disaster in the making.

    Comment by Student of History — February 24, 2010 @ 2:29 pm


    Comment by Student of History — February 24, 2010 @ 3:25 pm

  3. My concern is that all this rush and pressure will undermine even the best aspects of the standards. People will ridicule the standards out of resentment if nothing else.

    Truly voluntary standards have much to offer. If they are good, they can serve as an example and an inspiration. If they are lacking, we can improve on them. In any case, we can regard them thoughtfully.

    But if states must adopt them in order to receive RttT and Title I funding, then the emphasis will be on compliance, and there will be little room to sort out their merits from their flaws.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — February 24, 2010 @ 4:10 pm

  4. All 50 states have had state standards, many have even amended theirs, some more than once. They’re now going to be faced with adopting a different set of “common” standards in an attempt to federalize our schools?

    Don’t get me wrong. I am completely in favor of one set of common standards for all fifty states (as long as they’re high quality). Only then should they be allowed to become the center of our education universe.

    Unfortunately, our approach appears to be back-asswards. The original NCLB should have developed a set of common standards for all fifty states to go along with the adoption of the new legislation. We’re now stuck in an awkward predicament. If the states decide to go with the new common standards they’re all going to have to absorb significant cost increases because of the publication of the new document(s) as well an entirely new set of assessments that correspond to the new standards. What a mess!

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 24, 2010 @ 4:44 pm

  5. Student of History,

    Thank you for the reference to the Pioneer Institute White Paper. Both of the authors can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time. Their critique of the development of the Common Core standards is nothing short of scathing.

    Let’s hope Duncan and the the folks at the USED read it and heed their advice.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 24, 2010 @ 6:44 pm

  6. @Diana, In adopting the Common Core Standards, states are not supposed to change/adapt (more than 15%) so it is unlikely that the states could both adopt and improve upon them.

    @Paul, I am not sure why you think that we should have common standards at all. Whitehurst was rather definitive in his study that standards have had no effect on improving schools (curricula on the other had does). Why should we keep pursuing standards based ed reforms when curricular reforms have a greater impact on learning?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — February 24, 2010 @ 8:42 pm

  7. Elected officials aren’t properly qualified to make assessments about education standards. More of the decision-making power needs to be in the hands of those qualified to wield it properly.

    Comment by Glenn H — February 24, 2010 @ 10:32 pm

  8. AJ,

    Good question. I used to have the same confusion. Standards are merely loose blueprints. They leave out a LOT of the details about how to actually translate their goals into day-to-day practice. California standards charge me with the task of showing how bushido manifests itself in 20th century Japan. OK, but how? Read the sole paragraph on that subject in the Prentice Hall textbook? Study up on the subject and lecture about it? Find a documentary that addresses the topic? A curriculum, I gather, spells out in finer detail what should be taught and with what materials and assessments. But I’m kind of guessing –I’ve never worked at a school that had a true curriculum (as opposed to a textbook adoption).

    Comment by Ben F — February 25, 2010 @ 12:06 am

  9. @AJ, In theory, standards-based-ed-reforms should be equivalent to curricular reforms. In practice, the two are largely incompatable. Because standards are based upon a consensus of disinterested parties (e.g. written by people who have hardly been in a classroom, nor could ever survive 15 minutes in front of real kids), standards tend to be rather vague, abstract and dominated by non-controversial process skills (no content to be seen )), leaving gaping holes so that most “curricula” (good, bad or ugly) can rightly claim that they “satisify the standards”. The large publishing companies do a exhaustive job of explaining how their existing curricula satisfy/comply with the standards.

    Because standards try to be all things to all people they truly fail to prioritize and delineate what elements are essential to learning. (In all fairness, it is possible that the standards writers do not know what is essential for students to learn and so they throw everything in for good measure.)

    Curricula is what we use everyday in the classroom. It is the nitty-gritty of what we want students to learn and how we want them to approach the content, something that standards writers are reluctant to address. So we get guidances like: “Contribute knowledge to class discussion in order to develop a topic for a class project. MA K-2″ Who wouldn’t want that for their classes? And yet that standard provides no guidance, no prioritization, and worse yet, no content about what students should be learning, what knowledge they should be discussing nor even what a good classroom discussion should be about.

    Contrast that description with the AP Biology course description: “students will investigate the processes of diffusion and osmosis in a model of a membrane system. They will also investigate the effect of solute concentrationon water potential as it relates to living plant tissues.” This is highly detailed, contains the concepts/knowledge/abilities that students should learn and prioritizes what students should learn.

    As Whitehurst demonstrated, a 50,000 ft view of education, as espoused by the standards movement, makes no impact either upon teaching nor learning. The only impact that he could see on improving student learning was using specific curricula: that is what happens day-to-day in the classroom using high quality curricula is essential for quality student learning. Vague, abstract goals (as espoused by all current standards) do not translate into real improvements in the curricula used in the classroom. Compliance with the standards is not equivalant to the quality curricula needed for the foundation of great student learning.

    Standards only espouse what we believe to be good ideals and can never promote what could be better. One of the best math programs ever, Singapore math, fails to match current standards because it introduces concepts in earlier grades than typically seen in American schools. It fails to match our standards because it exceeds them. And it does so in a very child friendly manner. Should our standards be more important than the curricula? If Singapore math is so much better, why is it that our standards are designed to reject this substantially better program?

    The Core Knowledge sequence is outstanding, and yet when compared to current standards it looks irrelevant as the standards focus more on process skills and not on content. So in evaluating curricula vis-a-vis the state standards why would Core Knowledge do any better than say, Houghton-Mifflin. Houghton-Mifflin is explicit in delineating how each lesson satisfies the standards. Houghton-Mifflin aligns very well with most state standards. But I would argue that CK provides a better education than H-M that is not captured by in standards documents,despite their documented alignment.

    It would be great if the standards focused on curricular reforms. So far, that is not the case.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — February 25, 2010 @ 4:33 am

  10. Erin,

    That is part of my point. These standards should be voluntary, and there should be room for improvement.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — February 25, 2010 @ 9:18 am

  11. I mean, it should be possible to improve upon them.

    Comment by Anonymous — February 25, 2010 @ 9:18 am

  12. Erin,

    Massachusetts standards are the ones I’d like to see in all fifty states but of course that’s going to happen. The Mass standards are content specific enough to qualify as outstanding.

    BTW have you read the Pioneer Institute White Paper cited above? Sandra Stotsky did a terrific job with our state standards and apparently California’s standards, under the help of Ze’ev Wurman, are also quite good.

    These two individuals are recommending the whole process be done over for Common Core standards over several years. From there they’re recommending states be allowed to select from several sets of common standards as to which one they think would best match up with what they’re trying to do in their schools. Read it. It’s not a kind evaluation of what the two committees working on this project have developed to this point. as well, they get very specific about what needs to be done.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 25, 2010 @ 2:35 pm

  13. I meant to say:

    …but of course that’s NOT going to happen.

    Sorry about that.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 25, 2010 @ 8:22 pm

  14. Paul, If high quality state standards would have had an impact on student learning then there should have been a differential in the NAEP scores between states with high-quality and low-quality standards. This has not been the case.

    From Whitehurst:
    “The absence of a correlation between ratings of the quality of standards and student achievement and between the difficulty of state standards and student achievement raises the possibility that better and more rigorous content standards do not lead to higher achievement – perhaps standards are such a leaky bucket with respect to classroom instruction that any potential relationship dissipates before it can be manifest.”

    Curricula, on the other hand, did have a substantial effect on student learning. So where is the drum-beat and funding for developing better curricula?

    So even if Common Core did adopt the MA standards, what then? The evidence suggests that nothing will happen. Schools will continue to teach as they have for years; probably not getting worse, but certainly not improving. Isn’t the point of ed reform to improve student learning?

    Should we keep spending time trying to find the best standards when in reality they will have little/no effect on student learning?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — February 25, 2010 @ 10:13 pm

  15. AJ,

    Go to: and look up whatever subject you teach. I believe what you’re looking for will be easily transferable to whatever it is they want you to teach in the Land of Lincoln.


    “…the difficulty of state standards and student achievement raises the possibility that better and more rigorous content standards do not lead to higher achievement.” Whitehurst could have been looking at the standards for Alabama, Mississippi, or Oklahoma to come up with this statement but he certainly was not referring to Massachusetts. Raises the possibility that…?

    Massachusetts has not accomplished all its academic successes with smoke and mirrors or a ouija board. Our content rich and specific state standards combined with the MCAS tests and the demand for accountability from all stakeholders has us leading the country as well as the world academically. People in this state aren’t entitled to any success because this is where Harvard and MIT are located. We’ve worked for everything we’ve accomplished and most Bay Staters are proud of it all. Any state that wanted to challenge their students academically could duplicate what Massachusetts has done and we’d be glad to lead them through it step by step.

    We’ve also fought some relatively formidable opposition along the way attempting to derail our now successful schools. From the clowns at Fair Test to the convoluters at the Massachusetts Teachers Association (largest teacher union in the state and the NEA affiliate), as well as state and local politicians, Massachusetts has taken them all on and turned them all back at the border. The insanity about all this: they’re still out there, trying as best they know how to dumb down our schools and our students.

    You continue to tout the success of homogeneous provinces like Finland and Singapore. Heck Texas (my favorite reference lately) has almost as many students as either of these two have citizens. How could the US ever model its schools after places like this? It’s apples and oranges.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 26, 2010 @ 2:16 pm

  16. AJ,

    Exactly. The Whitehurst link:


    Whitehurst’s point was not that MA didn’t improve (they did mostly in math, with modest changes in reading, science and writing) but that it wasn’t just standards alone that drove that improvement:
    “Massachusetts, for instance, has high standards according to both the Fordham Foundation and the AFT and high NAEP scores. However, New Jersey has low quality content standards on both the Fordham Foundation and on the AFT scales, but scores comparably to Massachusetts on NAEP. Likewise, for gains in NAEP scores from 2000 to 2007, there is no systematic relationship between the “high” standards and the “low” standards states. California is given the highest Fordham Foundation rank and has high gains in NAEP scores. Arkansas, which receives a very low Fordham Foundation rank, has almost identical gains to California on NAEP from 2000 to 2007.”

    Incidentally, the MA math standards are not that much different than the Singapore math standards. What is different is the curricula and instruction. And also the level of achievement on the TIMSS. Singapore out scores MA both in the averages and on the number of advanced students (Singapore 40% vs. MA 16% at 8th grade).

    Barry Garelick did a great job of highlighting the difference in math curricula between Singapore math and typical US texts.

    Singapore, while known for their exceptional math, has only just recently improved their early English reading instruction, resulting in substantial gains on the PIRLS (4th grade reading from 2001 to 2006). Considering that 75%+ of their students are English Language Learners and they were able to outscore the US and almost every other native English speaking country is rather notable.

    Their MOE did it by 1)developing better curricula and 2)extensive professional development in explaining their new curricula and providing examples/demonstrations of novel instructional methods.

    Perhaps more interesting, the Singapore MOE had tried the standards approach previously in their 1999 English language syllabus. In that syllabus, the MOE gave teachers a detailed list of what they should be doing and allowed teachers great latitude in finding ways to implement those goals. The teachers tried but without concrete examples of what could be better or specific materials/approaches, the fall-back was to use tried-and-true methods. Student reading stayed unchanged from 1999 to 2001.

    Changes in student learning isn’t going to come about by just asking teachers to try harder but by developing more effective curricula and instructional approaches that make the most of that new curricula, while communicating those better materials/approaches to the broader teaching community. It is these approaches that the top-performing school systems have taken to improve student learning.

    I don’t think that just copying the educational systems of Singapore (Finland, Netherlands, et al…) would be easy nor desirable. But the international comparisons can highlight all the implicit assumptions in American education that we take for granted and thus do not see. The curricular approaches and instructional techniques are more different across cultures than within one.

    I deeply sympathize with the efforts that many in the Bay State have expended to try and keep high quality instruction within the classroom. And the efforts that have resulted in student learning improvements are to be highly commended. But this current paradigm of “high-standards with accountability” does not capture all the elements of how school systems can/do change. Content-rich curricula, instruction and tests-aligned-directly-to classroom instruction all are significantly more important than standards. (Lots of international data available to support this statement.)

    My concerns are that if we keep expending this tremendous amount of effort into developing high-quality standards without any specifics on how to improve classroom practice, we will be both wasting significant time and possibly souring public opinion to the point that no one believes that our schools can be improved.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — February 26, 2010 @ 7:55 pm

  17. Erin,

    “Most state standards were windy rhetoric, devoid of concrete descriptions of what students should know and be able to do. One exception was Massachusetts, which produced stellar state standards in every subject.” (Ravitch, pg 19)

    “…most states seemed to understand that avoiding specifics was the best policy; that standards were best if they were completely noncontroversial; and that standards would survive scrutiny only if they said nothing and changed nothing.” (Ravitch, pg 19)

    “Perhaps not coincidentally, students in Massachusetts have the highest academic performance in the nation on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and rank near the top when compared to their peers in other nations. When Massachusetts participated in the TIMSS international assessment in 2007, its fourth graders placed second in the world in science, surpassed only by Singapore, and its eighth graders tied for first in the world in science with students in Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Japan and South Korea.” (Ravitch, pg 237)

    Content rich and specific state standards combined with the MCAS tests and the demand for accountability from all stakeholders got us to where we are. Greater demand on the state teacher licensure test was also key to improving the caliber of instruction in our classrooms. No longer could someone simply with a pulse and a room temperature IQ qualify to teach in a Massachusetts public school classroom.

    As for improving classroom practice, my chapter on individualized instruction on this blog in December is where I believe we could go, but I’m just one voice in a wilderness of theory. I have emphasized time and again my feelings about pedagogy in US classrooms on this blog and Bridging Differences. You have been exposed to it ad nauseum over the past several years. Beyond that…

    We’re probably not going to agree on this, but I witnessed quality education reform, first hand, in a Massachusetts public school over the past two decades. I saw it, and I believe it could work in any state across America.

    Ravitch, Diane; “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Tseting and Choice Are Undermining Education”; Basic Books; New York; 2010.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 27, 2010 @ 10:59 am

  18. Paul,

    Hypothetically, what if the critical element to student success in MA was not the standards and MCAS, but the change in licensure testing? By promoting standards+accountability then, that critical element of school reform would get lost in translation to other states.

    Finding what the critical elements to improving student learning are essential for enabling lasting changes in our schools. The state standards data unequivocally demonstrates that standards + testing + accountability (alone) does not result in any sustained improvements.

    Checker Finn, arguably one of the strongest proponents of the standards movement, stated:
    “…despite all the reforming, U.S. scores have remained essentially flat, graduation rates have remained essentially flat, and our international rankings have remained essentially flat. You can find some upward blips but you can also find downward blips. Big picture, over 25 years, is flat, flat, flat. In other words, all the reforming has yielded little or nothing by way of stronger outcomes.”

    As for Science: the US hasn’t done that poorly on the TIMSS and did improve its standings from 1999 to 2007. Interestingly, in this era of standards and accountability using reading/math tests, science is the one area that it appears that the US is improving on. Go figure.

    So if not standards+testing+accountability, what then? The international/domestic data point to reforms that are centered on changing classroom practice, elements of student learning that you have previously discussed.

    If in finding your approach to teaching you had started with the standards documents, do you think that your insight into individualized student learning would have been so strong? When I read the MA standards, I see nothing of your insights into student learning. In fact I see the opposite; I see a uniformity that needs to be imposed on every student, whether they are capable/ready or not.

    The standards didn’t invent the individualized learning approach, you did. Committees (in particular standards committees) can only codify what is being done, they can’t develop something new/better.

    So besides the blogs, how is your great insight ever going to translate into other schools? How will it improve other students’ learning (besides the few lucky students that were in your class)? Our schools have almost no methods of discussing what works/doesn’t work/what is better, unlike many top school systems (e.g. Japan’s lesson study).

    We would probably both agree that content-rich curricula is essential to great student learning. But there are more than one way to skin the cat. If standards+testing+accountability isn’t going to do it for us, should we not be looking for better options?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — February 27, 2010 @ 7:25 pm

  19. Erin,

    Massachusetts debunks Checker’s “flat” theory. Our scores are not flat. They have improved and our graduation rates are finally being accurately calculated. Our reforms have yielded improvements and should not be confused with the likes of the fraudulent efforts of so many other states.

    I see Massachusetts as the experimental charter school that has succeed, that’s working, and making progress. We have something positive to share with the rest of the country. We have been the lab experiment that has succeeded.

    So where are the traditional public schools willing to duplicate our methods? Are they that adamant they’re going to do it their way, regardless of the results? Is state sovereignty really that entrenched, that obstinate, that blind?

    If better options are published and/or disseminated nationally, what then? We’re both aware of how difficult it is to sell another fad, one more educational panacea, to the educational establishment. All they have to do is wait a few years until the transient administrator pedaling this contemporary cure-all moves on or retires. Then it’s back to business as usual in the predominant number of US classrooms.

    Talk about civil disobedience. Talk about the circle of life. No wonder our schools are in the shape they’re in today.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 28, 2010 @ 9:01 am

  20. Erin, you make a lot of sense. Indeed, what if the cause of success is actually B, but everyone thinks it’s A?

    So what is the cause of Massachusetts’ success? I haven’t a clue. I know nothing about education in Massachusetts, or Massachusetts. If Paul says success in Massachusetts is due to standards, I obviously cannot prove him wrong. However I can say I am not convinced. I’ve never been much of a believer in standards. Standards tell us what we should do, for what that’s worth. I’ve never noticed a shortage of people telling each other what they should do.

    I think we have drifted into the bad mental habit of thinking that if standards are not codified into a document and adopted by some legal process then we don’t have standards, that without standards teachers will do little more than take roll and draw their paycheck. That is not what my teachers did when I was a kid. They had standards, their standards. When I was a young teacher in the sixties, I had standards, my standards. Both my teachers’ standards and my standards could be accurately described, I think, as cultural standards. There were societal expectations back then, and I presume there still are. Teachers, parents, the general public, even kids, had ideas of what should be taught in the various grades and subjects. These standards were not uniform everywhere, of course. They could vary by locality and they could vary by social class, and other variables. But that does not mean they were not strong standards. It’s hard to say how they compare to cultural standards today, but I would say that the joke of a fast food cashier who can’t make change when the cash register breaks down would not be a joke back then.

    Paul didn’t invent individualized instruction, by the way. I remember the idea, with that wording, from the 1970′s, and I think in the 60′s as well. I remember it because I took a stab at individualized instruction in my teaching, with mixed results. I wrote it up at

    Here is something to consider. I think educational improvement will come more from description and analysis than from data and analysis. This is not to put down data. The idea of the controlled experiment is deeply embedded in modern science, as indeed it should be, but I think it sometimes crowds out other equally valid and effective ways of investigating. The “count something and do stats” approach needs to be complemented by the “observe, describe, and reflect” approach. Indeed, I think it’s more the other way around. If we don’t do a good job first with the observe-describe-and-reflect approach, our data, no matter how mountainous, will be mostly irrelevant. I have developed my ideas on how this applies to education at

    You bring up the possibility that Massachusetts’ success might have more to do with the change in licensure testing than with the standards for students. That is indeed critical. If we get that wrong the stakes are enormous. Will data or description better enable us to make that call correctly?

    Comment by Brian Rude — February 28, 2010 @ 9:28 pm

  21. Erin and Paul,
    I am not surprised that the Common Core standards are intensely debated internally. This is the way it should be. This should result in a better standard. When the MA standards were debated the atmosphere was equally incensed. The minutes of the MA Education Board from the time (1997-98) are posted here:

    It was very good that their debates were preserved. I could only wish that the Common Core deliberations will also be preserved for posterity.

    Since we are singing the praise here of the MA standards, we should also look at what is not working well in MA.

    1). However good people may think the MA standards are – they are not detailed enough. They do not specify content, and do not detail the various class tracks that start in middle school.

    2). There are standards that are simply ignored by the school districts. For example, MA requires schools to teach at least a foreign language starting with the earliest grade – Kindergarten or 1st grade, depending on school district. This requirement is simply ignored by the vast majority of the schools, some of which start teaching foreign languages in middle school.

    3). The curricula used in MA are picked by individual school districts with little direction from the Board of Education. As a result, the most popular elementary math curricula used in MA are, you guessed, Everyday Math in the suburbs and TERC Investigations in the inner cities. These curricula are, however, not aligned well with the MA standards.

    What is missing, in addition to the standards, is a study done under the aegis of the MA Board of Education of the multitude of commercially available curricula in the US. The Board should recommend between one and three curricula for each grade, for each track in each discipline.

    This curriculum review should be designed specifically so that
    - it involves academic specialists in the respective disciplines, educations, parents and other stake holders
    - it is insulated from conflicts of interest with the publishers and the testing companies

    When Washington State upgraded its math and science standards in 2008-09, it also performed such a curriculum review. School districts that use one of the recommended curricula are supposed to be reimbursed for the curriculum cost. Of course, districts are free to still use other curricula, to not abide by the WA state standards, etc – but that will be costly, and it will reflect poorly in the state tests.

    So here is what I would recommend to Common Core:
    a) Keep written minutes of the debates
    b) Be specific about content and track alignment in the standards
    c) When standards are released, set up a review of commercially available curricula available in the US – to review quality and alignment with the standards.

    Comment by andrei radulescu-banu — February 28, 2010 @ 11:18 pm

  22. I spoke too early, before seeing the Wurman-Stotsky report “Why Race to the Middle?”, posted by Student of History.

    This is very scary, because Stotsky and Wurman know very well what they are talking about, and they point to huge flaws in the coming Common Core standards. I’ll summarize.

    There are first the process problems:
    1) The Standards Development Work Group have been kept secret for many months until membership was released July 1st 2009
    2) The group is dominated by testing industry representatives. This represents a clear and blatant conflict of interest.
    3) “Not one of the three ELA team members [that visited the MA Dept of Education in Oct 2009 and are presumably responsible for drafting grade-level standards] has majored in English or has ever taught secondary English so far as can be determined.”
    4) “Although the ELA lead has had much experience developing state ELA standards, the lead for mathematics, a mathematics professor, has no experience in developing K-12 mathematics standards.”

    Then there are the problems with the grade-level standards themselves.
    1) The standards are developed for “college and career readiness”, and clearly will be either too tough as a graduation requirement for all students, or will be insufficient as a college admission benchmark. As they stand, according to Stotsky and Wurman, the standards are both too tough for all students, and not tough enough for college admission.
    2) The math standards:
    a) “use a never-before-used scheme for organizing and classifying the mathematics standards”
    b) Geometry and Algebra II are very poorly represented (p. 8)
    c) “The Math Draft teaches fewer topics in elementary grades than even the highest-achieving countries on the 1995 TIMSS” (Fig 1, p. 11)
    d) “Students are not expected to master the standard algorithms for the four arithmetic operations, contrary to the recommendation of the National Advisory Mathematics Panel”
    e) There are subject ordering issues – operations on fractions are started before children are supposed to be comfortable with operations on whole numbers. Division is started in Kindergarten, before multiplication is sufficiently mastered.
    f) “The Math Draft jeopardizes the teaching of Algebra 1 in grade 8.”
    g) “It is our understanding that work is taking place to partition that content into both traditional single-subject courses and a grade-by-grade sequence of integrated mathematics courses, presumably with identical overall content by the end of the sequence to the content in the traditional single-subject courses. Certainly, the single-subject course sequence needs to be offered. The National Mathematics Advisory Panel found no research evidence showing that integrated mathematics coursework as implemented in this country produces better results than the traditional single-subject course sequence does.”

    3) The English Language grade by grade standards are apparently in even worse shape than the math standards. In fact, they don’t even look like standards. I’ll be brief – here is an example:

    Integrating information and evaluating evidence, grades 4-5
    Core Standards — Students can and do:
    - Explain and use information presented graphically or visually in print, videos, or electronic texts.

    … Grades 6-8:
    - Interpret information presented graphically or visually in print, videos, or electronic texts and explain how this information clarifies and contributes to the text.

    … Grades 9-10:
    - Interpret information presented graphically or visually in print, videos, or electronic texts and explain how this information clarifies and contributes to the text.

    This is very scary stuff. Stotsky is a very influential MA State School Board member, she is their top specialist in curriculum and standards, and you can rest assured that if this is what she has to say, then MA will toss out such a problematic Common Core standards.

    She is also a member of the Common Core Validation Committee, and if she felt she had to speak up publicly about these issues, this means that Common Core cannot internally solve these issues ‘under the wraps’. Here are the most striking of her and Wurman’s conclusions:

    “At present, what CCSSI calls standards in both mathematics and ELA are not standards, and drastic changes need to be made in their organization. Future drafts need to go through multiple iterations over the next several months, with public drafts made available so that progress can be discerned.

    CCSSI needs to appoint people with relevant academic credentials as well as experience in writing mathematics or English language arts standards as the major draft writers.”

    Comment by Anonymous — March 1, 2010 @ 1:05 am

  23. PS. The blog client is playing games with me, and may have listed my summary of the Wurman-Stotsky report as ‘Anonymous’.

    Comment by andrei radulescu-banu — March 1, 2010 @ 1:07 am

  24. Brian,

    No, I did not invent individualized instruction. As I stated back in December…


    My strategy was influenced primarily by Benjamin Bloom from the University of Chicago and his theory of “mastery” learning. It became popular about the time I first started teaching in the early seventies. Bloom reasoned that there was a difference between eighty percent of the students in a class mastering the material in a lesson and one hundred percent of the kids mastering eighty percent of the material. He believed the attainment of the goal (learning) was more important than comparing the progress of one student versus another. Bloom also considered it irrational to believe that all students needed the same amount of time to learn a new skill or concept.

    So he developed mastery learning, at least as he saw it. Students had to demonstrate they had “mastered” the skill or concept before he moved them along to the next unit in the sequence. Of course subjects such as math and foreign languages adapted well to this theory because they were sequential in nature, one skill needed as the prerequisite for the next skill in the sequence.

    Bloom presented a series of brief lessons to the entire class and at the end of the unit gave a formative assessment to determine which students had learned the material. He then assigned enrichment or extension activities to those students who mastered the initial lesson. All other students were individually tutored and/or given related assignments from the initial lesson to get them to the mastery level for that unit. This latter cohort of students was then given a different formative assessment to determine their degree of mastery.

    This is where my model differed. In my individualized model, students who mastered the initial lesson were immediately moved on to the next skill or concept in the sequence. They were not put on hold, waiting (as in a traditional classroom) for the rest of the class to “catch up.” In my model, what some might construe as “busy” work did not exist. I found it imperative to keep each student at their respective instructional level, not at the level of other students in the room. The kids who did not master the initial lesson were given related lessons in the initial lesson until they were able to demonstrate mastery on a second or even a third assessment. This created an ad hoc learning climate, a meritocracy, where the faster learners were allowed to progress at a more rapid rate while the other students were afforded the necessary time to get to mastery. The aim of this model was for no students to be bored and no one should be overwhelmed. Every student should be working at their pace.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 1, 2010 @ 8:06 am

  25. Andrei-

    Isn’t the Washington State process you described what resulted in the “mathematically unsound” rating for the Discovering series and led to the Seattle “arbitrary and capricious” ruling?

    That is a good summary. You can see why I wanted that link to be part of this discussion.

    I would add that the report says these are not standards at all but mere statements of “generic skills”.

    In addition the report sees CCSSI as so weak that adopting it in its present form “might damage the entire fabric of public education in this country.”

    Given the groups involved in developing the assessments like CRESST, I wonder if CCSSI is not an attempt to dictate that inquiry oriented, NSF funded math textbooks will be what is used nationwide.

    No more ports in the storm for protesting districts or states. If you want federal funds going forward, these are the textbook series that must be used.

    Comment by Student of History — March 1, 2010 @ 1:43 pm

  26. Student of History, I hope it is not the case that Common Core is a venue for the discovery-oriented NSF curricula like TERC Investigations that has done so much damage. Hopefully there is enough of an academic spotlight on the Common Core development to prevent that from happening. The secrecy in which Common Core is developed is very concerning to me precisely because it may be construed as preventing an honest academic review.

    I am also very concerned by the potential conflict of interest reported by Wurman and Stotsky – that Common Core standards developers may have with testing companies:

    “Eventually responding to the many charges of a lack of transparency, from professional organizations like NCTM to parent groups, the names of the 24 members of the “Standards Development Work Group” were revealed in a July 1 news release. The vast majority, it appeared, work for testing companies.”

    The recent book of Diane Ravitch, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System”, describes at great length the troubles we could run into by paying too much attention to standardized test results, and too little to curriculum and instruction.

    Comment by andrei radulescu-banu — March 1, 2010 @ 5:00 pm

  27. Paul and Brian,

    Unless we know exactly what happened (or didn’t) in MA, it is difficult to determine what the essential differences are. Anecdotes can be wonderful stories and help us to understand a little better, but difficult to act on.

    By using cross state studies, we can say definitively that it was not due to just high quality standards+tests (or else their implementation in other states (e.g. CA and IN) would have resulted in similar benefits. This did not happen.

    Cross-system studies (PISA, TIMSS, PIRLS, etc..) can be helpful in teasing out what the essential learning elements may be. While correlation studies can never give us definitive results, they can point us in a better direction. The international data is fairly consistent: 1) Quality curricula: sequential and aligned from grade to grade, 2)Instructional techniques that is curriculum specific and 3)External exams. Tracking is associated with lower student performance. And the top countries are able to have SES status contribute less than 10% to student learning variation (the US has ~20% contribution from SES).

    What we should do next is still to be invented/articulated. But trying again and again to make standards+testing+accountability work is a waste of time and effort.

    Andrei, If standards do not affect classroom practice and improve student learning, why does it matter if the CCSSI is of low or high quality?

    The whole process in which we assume standards affect classroom instruction is critically flawed, at pretty much every juncture.

    Process: Standards –> textbook alignment –> textbook adoption –> classroom —> teacher figuring out what the real learning goals are and how to use the text to that end –> student learning.

    Even if we had outstanding standards it is:

    1) easy for publishers to game the system and allow horrific programs to “align” with the standards. Publishers need only overload the text with more material than a teacher could possibly use in a single year and rightly claim alignment, even if this makes for a chaotic, incoherent program. In the recent WA state textbook alignment TERC’s Investigation was more aligned with the state standards than Singapore math. Does this mean that TERC is better than Singapore?

    2)Textbook adoption committees look for many things; efficacy is rarely one of those elements. How the book looks, how popular it is, how integrated it is into technology, does it have differentiated instruction, etc… are significantly more important than quality materials. Adoption committees all assume that “no single program works (because it never has, and if it had someone would have told them)” and so these other elements matter significantly more than they should.

    3)Once a textbook is in a classroom, is it used? How is it used? What is the fidelity of implementation? No one knows. Teachers do what they feel is right (as they should). If the book is inadequate, there is no mechanism for feedback to the program developers. Good teachers just adjust and find other materials to fill in the gaps. Less adept teachers use the materials as is and we wonder why they don’t obtain the same results as the teachers that found better materials to use.

    4) Do students really learn from the materials? Teachers who have been through lots of trial-and-error (e.g. the experienced ones) can usually tell if their students are getting the grade level material. So what about the novice teachers, or the teachers that aren’t so strong in a particular field? How are they to know if the texts are of good quality or not?

    5) What about vertical alignment? Does this grade level material support what students need in future grades? (Students often hit a wall in Algebra I. They were doing okay in arithmetic, but algebra goes beyond them. Great math programs embed the knowledge needed for a smooth transition to algebra within their arithmetic. Embedded future knowledge is not usually seen in US textbooks.)

    Ed Reform Experiment

    Hypothesis: State standards + testing + accountability (alone) will improve student learning to that comparable to the best school systems in the world.

    Results: Standards + testing + accountability (alone) = no improvements in student learning.

    (In every experiment there may be outliers/exceptions. But if this model was correct, better learning would be the norm, not the exception.)

    Shouldn’t we accept the results, even/especially if they are negative?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — March 1, 2010 @ 6:35 pm

  28. Erin,

    Are the successes in Massachusetts on MCAS, NCLB, TIMSS, PISA, etc., simply aberrations? State, national, and international accomplishments, together are now meaningless? Go figure.

    While California and Indiana might have reputable standards, standards alone don’t get the job done. Their testing and accountability do not measure up to what we’ve done in Massachusetts.

    In Massachusetts, improved learning is the norm, not the exception.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 1, 2010 @ 9:42 pm

  29. Paul,

    My point is not refute what happened in MA (increases in Math, flat on Reading), but to point out that standards+testing+accountability is an unreliable model for school improvement. If MA was able to improve can anyone definitively say why? If standards+testing+accountability was a robust model it would have translated to other states with high quality standards/test (e.g. CA and IN). It did not.

    That does not mean that nothing happened in MA, but it does mean that this ed reform model is unreliable and unlikely to translate to other states. If there were additional critical elements to the MA reforms that are missing from those other states then what are they?

    Accountability for all states was done with substantial fed guidance. Was MA different?

    Additionally, are you familiar with Singapore math? When I see the dramatic differences between the Singapore approach and conventional US math, it makes the assertion that curricula matters all the more clear. Singapore math doesn’t match MA standards (fewer concepts, introduced earlier, more problem solving, little/no probability). Does failing to match the standards make it an inferior curricula?

    If Singapore math is so superior to conventional US math (as many expert mathematicians have asserted), how would this substantially better curricula ever become adopted with widespread use in the US if it doesn’t match the standards? Standards in this case are being used to stifle innovation/improvements into better curricula.

    Curricula (the day-to-day stuff we use in the classroom) matters substantially more than 50,000 ft level standards (vague, specific or otherwise). If there is more to the MA story, please share. Otherwise, if we don’t have the complete story how will US school districts ever know what reforms to prioritize/focus on?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — March 2, 2010 @ 12:05 am

  30. Erin,

    The following is from the Boston Globe, February, 2009:


    Kathleen A. Madigan
    The Boston Globe
    A repackaged education proposal
    By Kathleen A. Madigan
    February 14, 2009

    A DEBATE is raging about the future of academic standards in American public education. On one side, University of Virginia Professor E.D. Hirsch and organizations like Democrats for Education Reform are working to extend standards-based reforms. On the other side is Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, once considered a top candidate to be President Obama’s education secretary. She blames detailed standards testing and their focus on discrete facts for wide achievement gaps and the nation’s failure to perform better on international assessments. Instead, she proposes allowing teachers to interpret broad curriculum guidelines and develop their own student assessments.

    Darling-Hammond’s approach largely reflects where Massachusetts was prior to the enactment of education reform in 1993. The only statewide high school graduation requirements were a year of American history and four years of physical education. State SAT scores were barely at the national average.

    Today, the picture is much brighter. Bay State students were the country’s best on “the nation’s report card” – the National Assessment of Educational Progress – the last two times the tests were given. They shook up the education world when results released in December showed the Commonwealth outperforming most of the international competition on the Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) tests.

    Massachusetts achieved success by following the rich academic content and objective testing espoused by E.D. Hirsch and Democrats for Education Reform.

    Research on reading comprehension test results shows that knowledge of the subject referenced in a passage is the key to students’ understanding. Similarly, the most effective way to get students to master important “real-world” skills is to teach them the knowledge that is prerequisite to those skills.

    Just a decade ago, Massachusetts had lower reading scores than Connecticut. But while the Commonwealth’s reading scores improved more than any state’s between 1998 and 2005, Connecticut experienced some of the nation’s most significant declines.

    Leaders in Hartford chose to focus on “how to” skills like critical thinking and problem-solving over academic content; Massachusetts chose rich content and objective assessments. Connecticut has recently seen the error of its ways. It has discarded the focus on how-to skills and joined the growing number of cities and states adopting Massachusetts’ academic standards as their model.

    Importantly, research also shows a strong correlation between raising verbal scores and narrowing achievement gaps. The states that saw the most significant gains in reading scores during the 1998-2005 period – Massachusetts, Delaware, and Wyoming – also made the most progress at narrowing achievement gaps. Conversely, achievement gaps widened in states like Connecticut and West Virginia that saw the largest reading score declines.

    According to Hirsch, that’s because the achievement gap is really a knowledge gap. Advantaged students have access to far more of it outside school than do less-fortunate ones. Massachusetts’ focus on exposing all students to the same rich liberal-arts content is the surest way to narrow the knowledge gap.

    We still need to do better. That means introducing more specificity to the grade-by-grade academic content students learn in core subjects, particularly in the early grades.

    Further narrowing achievement gaps will also require urban districts to align their curricula with state frameworks. A sobering 2006 study from the Pioneer Institute found that more than a decade after education reform, curriculum in a majority of the Commonwealth’s urban districts still wasn’t aligned with the frameworks, which means urban students are being tested on content they haven’t been taught.

    At a recent event that featured Professor Hirsch, former Senate president and co-author of education reform Thomas Birmingham sounded the alarm, saying he is worried that Patrick administration proposals to shift the focus from clear standards and objective assessments to how-to skills threaten to “drive us back in the direction of vague expectations and fuzzy standards.” He added that he fears “a watering down of clear expectations with vague aspirations.”

    Darling-Hammond’s proposals repackage the skills-over-content approach Massachusetts employed for decades prior to 1993. Fifteen years of moving in a different direction have yielded historic academic gains. By passing over Darling-Hammond as education secretary, Obama has correctly decided not to turn his back on standards-based reform. In Massachusetts, Governor Patrick would be wise to follow that lead.

    Kathleen A. Madigan, founder and former president of the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, is a member of the Pioneer Institute’s Center for School Reform Advisory Board.
    © Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company.


    Bottom line: I’m siding with Hirsch, not Darling-Hammond.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 2, 2010 @ 3:35 pm

  31. Paul & Erin-

    Let’s point out too that according to LDH, who EdWeek reported chaired the CCSSI assessment presentation last week to the governors, the CCSSI test being designed will be more open ended, subjective questions that will have to be graded manually by teachers.

    If she’s in charge of how to test, what are the chances any of us will be comfortable with what is in the Standards or the curricular materials? The Gates Foundation announced grants within the last 2 weeks to start writing the instructional materials.

    I did not see anyone like Core Knowledge on the list which reenforces that CCSSI is not about solid academics for all. It’s more about K-12 classroom activities that will be accessible to all.

    Big difference.

    Comment by Student of History — March 2, 2010 @ 6:42 pm

  32. Great! The dumbing down of America starts all over again.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 2, 2010 @ 7:19 pm

  33. Paul and SoH,

    It’s great that Kathleen Madigan is so pro-content, although her analysis of the MA improvements is not quite accurate (mentions the TIMSS results and then talks about content; but if content had really been implemented within the schools should we have not seen better reading scores?). Perhaps then, standards might justify their existence by being the only public way of calling the process-dominated educators to task.

    Certainly, LDH has long been an advocate for emphasizing process over content. The school of thought that she represents, if entrenched within the CCSSI standards, will make it quite difficult for content to be taught within our schools, and could quite reasonably used as an excuse to dumb down the curricula in the name of process. (It doesn’t matter if Johnny learns anything, he went through the right motions.)

    And as Prof. Hirsch has repeatedly pointed out these “open-ended tests” tend to be very expensive and unreliable and it would be quite tragic if the CCSSI w/ tests ended up being process-based standards coupled with open-ended subjective questions. (This type of testing was tried in WA state several years back. It enabled school districts to adopt the worst type of inquiry programs, was extremely expensive and did not result in improvements in student learning. Worse, yet, this approach increased the achievement gap.)

    Standards+tests may not be the way to *improve* schools, but the wrong/horrible standards (content-less and process-driven) coupled with poor/unreliable tests may very well be a quick road to erode what quality learning is left in our schools.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — March 2, 2010 @ 7:48 pm

  34. Erin, I’d like to go back to your paradigm, because it holds the key:

    “Standards –> textbook alignment –> textbook adoption –> classroom —> teacher figuring out what the real learning goals are and how to use the text to that end –> student learning.”

    Without clear, content specific standards, you will not have coherent text books, will not be able to judge text books objectively, and teachers will not know where to supplement imperfect textbooks.

    The Common Core standards need to be followed by a review of the available textbooks. Only the states pooled together can perform a review independent of potential conflicts of interest with publishers, and including both academic experts and educators. This review needs to be ongoing on a yearly basis, as publishers will change their texts based on review feedback.

    The standard – first step in the process – may be necessary, but without such a textbook review, it will be insufficient. That is why I insist to have the WA state math&science standard development and the subsequent textbook review as the process model.

    Why are MA schools perceived as good? It is certainly not the textbooks used in MA – because each district picks its textbooks, and the result is that they use pretty much the same textbooks used by the majority of US school districts. In elementary math, for example, Everyday Math and TERC Investigations dominate. The MA standards are used, however, by each district to supplement these fuzzy math curricula with specific exercises on multiplication and division algorithms, for fear of the MCAS test.

    The good MA standards have helped, but part of the reason schools do well may be demographic – anecdotal evidence indicates that the cost of living in MA shot up in the past 10-15 years, and many families were forced to move out of state.

    Take the example of my MA school district. I would like nothing better for my district to switch from Everyday Math to Singapore Math, or for that matter to switch to the Core Knowledge sequence for a rich, well developed History, Geography, Literature & Science sequence. The math sequence in Core Knowledge is just as good as Singapore Math.

    But I can tell it won’t happen:
    1) Very few people in the district know about the Singapore Math or the Core Knowledge curricula.
    2) There is a crust of people at the school district level that are committed to discovery curricula, despite the fact that they are not aligned with the MA standards
    3) Last time the question was asked openly to switch curricula we almost started Math WW3 in town.

    So realistically the only way for us to switch curricula is if Common Core, or the state education board, conduct a textbook review and decide to pay the towns that use one the recommended curricula, the way it was done in WA state.

    Comment by andrei radulescu-banu — March 3, 2010 @ 12:59 am

  35. About open-ended tests versus standardized bubble tests: we are one of the few nations to use the latter. Why does it work for them and not for us? Just curious, I have not really looked at all the nuances of this. A lot of troubles in math education stem from the too liberal use of standardized tests, which do not encourage students to write down the mathematical steps that led to the solution of a problem.

    Comment by Anonymous — March 3, 2010 @ 1:25 am

  36. Erin,

    Guess we’ll have to settle for the age old adage that we respectfully agree to disagree.

    I’ll still stand on the successful performance of Massachusetts students on the state, federal, and international assessments where they have more than demonstrated that what we’re doing here is not just working, it’s exceeding their peers everywhere. It’s also here for other states to duplicate, if they choose.

    Bottom line: If someone had their choice of raising their kids in any state in the country, how could they possibly overlook the success and the rich culture of Massachusetts public schools?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 3, 2010 @ 8:27 am

  37. You always know your discussion is on the right track when you lure in someone new who misrepresents the factual nature of the conflict.

    When I read Karin Chenowith’s insistence on Britannica Blog this week that Atlanta Public Schools could not be cheating because of how a few of its students performed on the NAEP (she didn’t say few; she would have you believe all took it) as the topic of her column after her EdTrust boss, Kati Haycock, had written a letter proclaiming the same to the Atlanta paper, you have to wonder why do they not care what the evidence is?

    The answer seems to be that certain school systems represent the model for where Common Core standards would like to take all K-12 classrooms. That would mean discovery math to the point of presentations on hula hoop math, writing up “hands on” group activities as your science, and mandating whole language techniques that leave phonics as something you infer from the leveled books provided.

    Lack of cultural capital matters less in the classroom centered around discussions about the personal and the ethnic and cultural backgrounds of the students. Is this the intended national vision? Is this why no amount of erasures on an academic measurement test really matters?

    When Dane Linn said at the December CCSSI presentation that “this document is an equity agenda as much as anything else”, what precisely did he mean? The Pioneer Report gives us troubling insights as does Ed Trust’s determined defense.

    History shows us repeatedly that when nations forcibly collectivize farms and take away private property in the name of justice and fairness, crop yields inevitably decline and people starve.

    We will see next week when the grade level standards are released as to whether CCSSI will likely lead us toward a “national famine of the mind” because of insufficient emphasis on academics and effective, increasingly difficult levels of instruction, skills, and expected content knowledge.

    Comment by Student of History — March 3, 2010 @ 8:52 am

  38. I’ve found more insider info on what is going on at CCSSI on the web site of the US Coalition for World Class Math:

    Comment by andrei radulescu-banu — March 3, 2010 @ 10:43 am

  39. More reading points about why Common Core’s assertion that career readiness equals college readiness can be ascribed to be the root of the problem:

    “My concern is the assertion in the draft that the standards for college and career readiness are essentially the same. This implies the answer is yes to the question of whether the same standards are appropriate for 4 year universities, 2 year colleges, and technical colleges. The burden of proof for this assertion rests with CCSSO/NGA, and the case is not proven from the evidence presented in the draft.” – says Prof. Michael W. Kirst of Stanford U.

    “The college-readiness standards for math perhaps should be called community-college readiness standards”, says Barry Garelick in a comment underneath the link below:

    “As we move down a path of a one-size-fits-all curriculum for success in college, we might look at the performance of countries that have various kind of occupational education in their secondary systems—something the US has been moving away from. Twenty-four percent of Japan’s secondary students are in vocational programs, as are 29 percent in Korea, and a whopping 72 percent in the United Kingdom. All of these countries had higher average scores than the US had.6 A recent article in Education Week described how Singapore is upgrading its vocational education program.”, says Paul E. Barton, former Director of the ETS Policy Information Center

    Comment by Anonymous — March 3, 2010 @ 11:54 am

  40. Sorry I am having troubles again with the blogging software – the Anon comment above with three more URL pointers is mine.

    Comment by andrei radulescu-banu — March 3, 2010 @ 11:55 am

  41. Andrei,

    Your three reasons why your school district will not adopt Singapore math and Core Knowledge pretty much sum up why standards have failed (and will continue to fail) to improve student learning.

    Perhaps content-rich standards can hold back the fuzzy tide, but they will never enable student learning to improve, the way that they would if schools embraced curricula like Singapore or Core Knowledge.

    No matter how the standards are written, Everyday Math et al. will always align better than Singapore math thus securing the position of fuzzy math within our schools, because the publishers will ensure that they technically comply with each and every standard even if those programs do not capture the intent of the standards.

    The Singapore MOE had the same difficulty with publishers when they started with their school improvements. It wasn’t until they brought the curricula development in-house that that they were able to effectively translate their intent into practice.

    Student learning will not improve unless reforms are focused on classroom practice (curricula, instruction, etc..). It is entirely possible to do that (and much easier than the standards fight as most teachers would welcome the support instead of the blame-game) but that would require ed reformers to switch their focus from fighting-for-good-standards to changing-what-happens-in-the-classroom.

    Re: the open-ended tests versus standardized bubble tests question:

    There is a big disconnect about what the purpose of testing is. This wrong-headed idea that we could use tests to evaluate teaching has warped the purpose of standardized testing. (Statistically, it is impossible to get a reliable measure of teaching ability from test scores. Why the US DoE and the current crop of ed reformers didn’t pay attention to the statisticians who stated that is quite beyond me.)

    Large-scale testing is summative, that is it is used to evaluate what students have already learned (or not). That purpose needs to generate data that is reliable. Multiple choice questions are the most reliable (and least expensive and timely) tool to do that.

    But as a learning tool, multiple choice questions are horrible for the formative assessments (tests to see what kids still need to learn) that teachers use in the class. In their attempt to get kids to become comfortable with the bubble format used on the state tests, publishers have included in their programs and teachers now routinely use that same assessment format in the classroom. Huge mistake. Students need to write papers, show their work in math, and do tremendously more written work while they are learning. What is essential for good learning is not essential for summative exams.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — March 3, 2010 @ 1:03 pm

  42. Erin, I can however point you to where standards have improved the situation:

    a) In places like MA, standards and the MCAS test put together have forced school districts to supplement their preferred curricula, Everyday Math and TERC Investigations with more mastery-based sets of exercises in multiplication and division

    b) In places like WA state, they have allowed an objective basis for the independent review of commercially available curricula.

    Here is the WA state curricula situation before the state review:

    Elementary K-5: of 290 WA school districts:
    - ~34% were using Everyday Math
    - ~32% TERC Investigations
    - ~9% Growing with Mathematics

    Middle 6-8:
    - 65% were using Connected Math Projects (CMP)
    - 6% Math Tematics

    High school 9-12: of 184/246 districts with a high school:
    - 56% were using a traditional series
    - 36% were using a curriculum with an integrated approach
    Highest usage: ~16% were using Core Plus Mathematics

    (source of this info is )

    Here are the curricula recommended instead by the WA state review:

    Elementary K-5: Math Connects and Math Expressions

    Middle 6-8: Holt Mathematics, Math Connects, and Prentice Hall Mathematics

    High school 9-12: Holt Mathematics A1/G/A2

    The process was of such a nature that it allowed Math Prof. Stephen Wilson and Guershon Harel to weigh in with their own individual ‘reviews of the review’

    (see under

    Comment by andrei radulescu-banu — March 3, 2010 @ 4:30 pm

  43. You ask an excellent question: why was a curriculum of the quality of Singapore Math not selected at the end of the WA state independent curriculum review? I do not have the insider story on this, but I can make an educated guess because WA state has posted their independent review notes on the web for each curriculum.

    See around p. 50

    Here is one reviewer for Singapore Math 1st grade:

    “- Focus is skill building, conceptual understanding; application is limited.
    - Few tasks with multiple solutions; options for open ended thinking; student
    - No evidence of technology.
    - No index in the TG [Teacher Guide]!
    - Little evidence of non routine problems or real world problems.
    - Teacher directed lessons; little evidence of opportunity for student discourse or
    - No evidence of multi-step problems.
    - Little evidence of connecting disciplines to real world contexts.
    - Limited reference to “misconceptions”
    - Assessments unavailable for review; no evidence of “self assessments”, no mention
    of formative, summative, or diagnostic in TG.
    - No evidence in TG of differentiation opportunities for any group; no evidence of
    intervention strategies.
    - No references to “multiple languages” or to parent support in TG.”

    And another reviewer:
    “Very little use of hands-on manipulatives to build conceptual understanding. Even 3-D
    geometry was taught using workbook (2D) pages.”

    And another:
    “Students only taught to view numbers as tens and ones in one way (82=8 tens, 2 ones –
    never 7 tens 12 ones).”

    As you can tell, the quality of these individual reviews is very varied. There is no concern for mastery of the material, for cross-grade coherence. The concern that “application is limited” is entirely misleading, as the Singapore Math 1st grade text does contain plenty of applied problems.

    It would appear from the Singapore Math that no mathematician actually was tasked to review it, with a view of mathematical correctness and of how K-12 material is all tied together. In summary, the state of WA itself, with all the expense it put up, could not enforce reviewer quality very well.

    This is not an argument for not doing independent textbook reviews at the state or federal level in the future – but for setting up better quality control in the process.

    Comment by andrei radulescu-banu — March 3, 2010 @ 4:30 pm

  44. Where the standards themselves are weak, is there any instance where the curricular materials are strong?

    Can any state have solid student achievement if any graduate of an ed school who can pass a PRAXIS exam or its equivalent is certified to teach? Content knowledge may not be sufficient to be an effective teacher but isn’t a necessary prerequisite to academic progress in a K-12 classroom?

    Why did Race to the Top reject every comment that would have required that instructional materials have some evidence of effectiveness?

    Comment by Student of History — March 3, 2010 @ 5:48 pm

  45. Student of History, I am equally interested to find the answers to the questions you have asked.

    Comment by Anonymous — March 3, 2010 @ 6:49 pm

  46. Andrei,

    Preventing a decrease in learning (e.g. standards preventing fuzzy math by requiring algorithms) is not the same thing as improving learning. That the standards may have had a part in defending math content in the math wars is better than nothing. But I would hope that the goal of ed reform is to improve student learning not just prevent the steady erosion of what quality content that there is in our schools.

    Unspoken is the role that standards have had in preventing quality materials from being adopted in our schools (e.g. Singapore math in WA). By focusing all our efforts on “great standards” we are losing sight of the real battle which is improving student learning.

    Textbook reviews mean nothing. They only tell us how closely aligned the text is to the standards, not if it is a *better* program than is customary used in the US. The effectiveness of a program can really only be determined by using that text with real students, real teachers and seeing what happens to student learning. We have no process for doing those evaluations, nor of disseminating those results.

    My point is the whole standards process is completely flawed and it is not possible to set up better quality controls that overcome those flaws.

    That does not mean that we can’t improve our schools. We absolutely can. But it is not going to be through the standards + testing + accountability model of ed reform.

    The thread above with Paul is a good example. I will presume that he has not used Singapore math as he did not respond to my query. Given that assumption, I can easily see why he supports the high-quality standards model because it allows teachers interested in content to persuade those teachers less inclined to teach math algorithms, because of it is written in the standards.

    What the standards *can not* do is persuade Paul (or teachers like him) that Singapore math is a substantially better program. Teachers look at Singapore math and it looks both strange, underwhelming and missing lots of topics that they are used to teaching.

    Define a system that encourages Paul (and every other teacher) to see that Singapore math is worth its weight in gold and we will have our path forward.


    Our educational system can best be described as a legacy system. Teachers teach what they remember being taught when they were in that grade level. This may be the reason why reform after reform has yet to penetrate the classroom. Teachers shut their doors and do what they think is the right thing.

    This is not necessarily a bad thing. Good teachers always need to own their own teaching. This process may have protected our children from some of the more misguided reforms (whole language, fuzzy math, etc.) But it does make it difficult to *improve* classroom instruction.

    Certification to teach is not the same as effective instruction. We could make the bar to get to be a teacher harder and harder. It doesn’t make it any more obvious what to do when that teacher sets foot in the classroom.

    The reluctance to make classroom instruction transparent is the largest barrier in educational reform. We have such a long tradition of the teacher as a solo agent. To the extent that many people confound teachers, teaching and curricula by lumping them all into a single entity (the Gates Foundation is a prime example).

    Opening up those classroom doors to examine how and what students are really learning is not/will not be easy. But students learn in a classroom from a teacher. That is where all successful reforms will begin and end. Standards are to distant to ever make improvements in student learning, no matter how tight quality control measures are established.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — March 3, 2010 @ 6:54 pm

  47. Erin-

    Good teachers teach on the basis of how they learned. I’m afraid too many teachers today are having every frustration they ever felt as a student fanned in ed school and prof devt.

    Not good in math or science? It’s not you; it was the technique used and we now have a better way. Let’s show you Everyday Math and later what you would have achieved if algebra had been about the graphing calculator.

    Some of us are still dealing with states that are expanding ed schools into the junior colleges without minimum SAT requirements and then reading that there will be no minimum GPA requirement.

    The state mandates the el ed degree must have one each math and science content course, so they ask the sociology department to teach it as a hands on discovery course. That way they’ll appreciate the program they’ll be implementing for their students.

    I do not know where you are and I do not disagree with you but this academic discussion on “standards” in the abstract is an impediment to these awful ideas in the hinterland.

    These are being implemented without challenge and looking at the CCSSI drafts to date, reading the Race to the Top regs, looking at the instructional materials Gates grants, and the details about the subjective assessment being developed, it looks like these bad ideas and low thresholds of “academics” are going national.

    It seems that the window of opportunity to appreciate what we are being drawn into and its implications is narrow. Please let’s not spend the time on theoretical discussions instead of confronting the hard nasty facts coming at us like a freight train in an open stretch.

    Comment by Student of History — March 3, 2010 @ 8:24 pm

  48. SoH, Standards are not going to save us from that freight train. In fact, standards could very well be used to firmly entrench those fuzzy ideas into our schools. Even the MA standards did not get rid of Everyday Math and TERC in their schools. It only forced the teachers to supplement.

    I suppose if your goal is to ensure that our schools don’t get worse, then by all means fight the standards fight. But in the long run, I suspect the fuzzies will win out because the emotional appeal that those theories have resonate quite well with many school administrators and thought leaders.

    So the (not theoretical) question is what to do next. If standards won’t get us to content-rich schooling, what will?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — March 3, 2010 @ 10:08 pm

  49. Erin, I guess we’ll agree to disagree. I know Paul Hoss, and I bet he actually would like Singapore M. I do not advocate we put our efforts only on standards, nor on textbooks, nor simply on one curriculum, be it S.M. We have not talked here at all about teacher training.

    Textbook reviews also reflect mathematical quality, coherence and correctness – not just how closely aligned the text is to the standards. That was certainly the case in the WA state review. The WA state at least picked very good elementary math curricula, and relatively good middle and high school math curricula – according to Stephen Wilson’s reviews, whose opinion I trust. The process to a great extent worked in WA state.

    It remains to relentlessly point out the flaws as well as the positive aspects of Common Core standards. If a battle is lost, if it is coming at us like a freight train in an open stretch, then any flaw in these national standards, any misdeed or conflict of interest in the textbook review process will be so visible, so egregious, and such an easy target at the end of the day, that it will have to be sooner or later fixed.

    Comment by andrei radulescu-banu — March 4, 2010 @ 12:06 am

  50. Erin and Andrei are correct. I’ve never used Singapore Math but would probably endorse it if I had used it when I taught. Like most teachers, I was too busy trying to focus on what was going on in my classroom. If you have the time and suggested sites, please recommend.

    The adopted series in my district was Everyday Math so of course I was obliged to use it. I supplemented it with my self developed arithmetic curriculum with a heavy emphasis on the mastery of algorithms. I felt this gave my kids a double dose of mathematics every day which proved to be very beneficial to them in the long run.

    Andrei, SoH, and Erin, you all referenced teacher training as the possible missing link in our reform efforts. SoH commented that, “Good teachers teach on the basis of how they learned.” Erin stated that, “Our educational system can best be described as a legacy system. Teachers teach what they remember being taught when they were in that grade level.” While Andrei noted, “We have not talked here at all about teacher training.”

    I guess the difference for me was not duplicating the way I remembered being taught but amending the methods of my teachers in an attempt to make the experience for my students a better one.

    I agree with you all. Teacher training is critical to the success in each of our classrooms. Unfortunately, it appears to be the most entrenched component in our schools, as Erin called it, a “legacy system.”

    How to go about addressing this paradigm shift and eventually amending it appears to be the big question. And a change to what? There’s no one best approach/system for every classroom, every teacher, or every student.

    It would have to start, of course, in our state teacher colleges and schools of education. That, in and of itself, would be a monumental endeavor.

    Okay, we’ve come this far. Now where to?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 4, 2010 @ 9:13 am

  51. In a time of declining public revenue, they are not going to voluntarily give up the parts of their university system (the ed schools) where the costs to operate are less than the tuition income generated.

    States seem to treat the right to decide who gets the teaching credential as an asset they get to sell off over and over again.

    In too many states, the education blog wants to be paid once by taxpayers to provide students an education and again through tuition income to its ed schools by anyone wanting a teaching credential, and , frequently, again get revenue from those who wish their instructional materials to be on the state or district recommended or required list.

    This revenue model taints quality every step of the way.

    Comment by Student of History — March 4, 2010 @ 10:16 am

  52. I like that phrase, the “legacy system”. I have long felt that teachers primarily teach as they were taught. I have also long felt that this is a good thing. Critics would accuse me of being a knee jerk traditionalist. I don’t think I am. I think conventional practice has evolved primarily because it is functional. It works. It is common sense. The legacy system is to some degree unthinking, but I think it has saved American education from the excesses of progressivism (or whatever you want to call it) for generations. The knee jerk crowd, in my humble opinion, is the progressivists (or whatever you want to call them).

    I have also long felt that teachers do not teach only as they were taught. They can’t, because conditions and situations change. I think for most teachers the legacy is only a beginning point. I don’t think it’s quite accurate to say that teachers are deep thinkers, but they are not shallow thinkers either. They try different things, and they modify their practice with experience and conditions. At least I think they do, because I always have.

    The legacy is a starting point. To build on it teachers use the resources they have. Those resources, in my opinion are their general intelligence, their specialized subject matter knowledge, their communication skills, their social skills and knowledge, and their cultural values and knowledge. These resources are substantial, and they are not confined to teachers. I find it no surprise that homeschooling parents generally do well by their kids. They generally do well because the resources I mentioned are generally found in the population at large.

    The resources I mentioned do not include what teachers learned in ed school. That is unfortunate, and I don’t think it has to be that way. But I am cynical enough to think it’s not going to change soon.

    But I do wonder if the legacy system is not so beneficial today as when I was a kid. The teachers I had, with few exceptions, expected kids to behave, to work, and to learn. I can think of very little in what my teachers did that could be termed progressive education, and I think I’ve read enough of Left Back to have some idea of what I’m talking about. The legacy system may not have been the product of deep thought, but it was a product of a healthy culture (at least wherever I have lived – I do understand that big cities have problems that are not a part of my life or experience). Cultural expectations were that teachers will provide rich content. They did – with varying degrees of success, of course, but in general they did. It was expected.

    But when my children were in school I did occasionally have reason to wonder if standards had declined a bit. (One result of this uncertainty was my article “Chicago Math”. I wonder if the bad ideas from ed schools have made more inroads into education than I had previously appreciated. Maybe the legacy that young teachers have today is not a particularly good foundation for teaching. That is a sobering thought indeed.

    I do not favor national standards. I think any formalized standards would be a pale imitation of the cultural standards that shaped the education I got as a child. I further think it likely that formalized standards could do a lot of harm. In my own field, math, the danger is very clear. Any battle over math “standards” is bound to include a battle over differing perspectives of math education. Indeed I think it would be center stage. I further think the bad guys would win hands down. That means standards, the CCSSI or any other, would enshrine the ideas of the NCTM into law. That, in my humble opinion, would be a very bad thing. The math wars would continue. They would morph in various ways, of course, some unexpected, but would continue. They would continue because the NCTM ideas lead to a lot of frustration, because they don’t work very well.

    The legacy system may be imperfect, but is there something better?

    Comment by Brian Rude — March 4, 2010 @ 3:25 pm

  53. Paul, Brian,

    The legacy system does not incorporate improvements easily. But to improve our schools we need to have techniques to change classroom practice.

    As a guiding principle, there is a large difference between instruction in elementary school and middle/high school. The approaches to improving classroom instruction might very well need to be different for different age groups.

    As a strawman for middle/high school: what would your thoughts be on using the AP model for course design? That is, sequenced courses with a detailed syllabus, a course specific exam and/or performance requirements (perhaps run by the College Board or other national organization). Teachers/schools/students might be able to choose which courses to offer. Classes could vary by content or pace to adjust to the needs of the students and requirements for college or high school graduation.

    For elementary school, what would you think about having states/feds fund specific initiatives of partnerships between curricula developers, teachers, and assessment specialists to develop very specific lesson plans and curricular materials, assessments that are directly tied to the curricula (not general standardized tests) with the goal of publishing/publicizing their results (lesson plans, implementation challenges, teacher comments, etc..) after 5 years? At least with this method we would know how much teachers really are supplementing Everyday Math et al.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — March 4, 2010 @ 7:48 pm

  54. Many schools with reform math programs, like EM or Investigations or whole language techniques (in fact if not in rhetoric) like Fountas & Pinnell, also have a policy of “fidelity of implementation” that makes teachers fear for their jobs.

    The best teachers I have known shut the door and go for the instruction they know works but most are not free to acknowledge what they’re doing.

    How can we measure what will work under these circumstances?

    Comment by Student of History — March 4, 2010 @ 9:01 pm

  55. SoH, Teachers can not be transparent under those circumstances.

    The burden of proof of efficacy of any new curricula should be on the curricula developers while the teachers should be the evaluators/auditors.

    The FDA does this with medicines. The pharmaceutical companies have to prove that their therapy works, not the doctors.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — March 4, 2010 @ 10:35 pm

  56. Erin,

    “…states/feds fund specific initiatives of partnerships between curricula developers, teachers, and assessment specialists to develop very specific lesson plans and curricular materials, assessments that are directly tied to the curricula.”

    The words that scare me the most here are “very specific.” This sounds too similar to scripted lessons, which causes me great concern. I’d be looking at the probability of a bunch of know-nothing neophytes specifying what I was or was not going to be doing in my class? I would be very uncomfortable in that setting.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 5, 2010 @ 7:42 am

  57. I agree that there should be an obligation to show efficacy.

    I also have a copy of the May 2003 Stanovich federal study on using scientifically based research to make curricular and instructional decisions. I have read it more than once and wish it were required for all administrators and school boards.

    Guess what though? The ARRA language and the Race to the Top regs and the ESEA discussion all show the USDOE moving away from any measure of efficacy. That’s the reality we are dealing with.

    I think it showed up yesterday in some of those bizarre choices for RTT finalists.

    Ohio? New York? No Charter law Kentucky?

    It’s hard not to see the Massachusetts selection as an attempt to get rid of their fine standards. Paul- Everything I had read is no one thought Mass had done enough to be competitive. Can you verify?

    Comment by Student of History — March 5, 2010 @ 9:13 am

  58. SoH,

    Please re-phrase your last paragraph. As worded, your question is ambiguous.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 5, 2010 @ 11:21 am

  59. Paul,

    I would concur. “A bunch of know-nothing neophytes specifying what I was or was not going to be doing in my class” would probably result in pissing off all the teachers, confusing the students and not result in a better program.

    I was thinking more along the lines of the Japanese lesson study, which is not a scripted program but a teacher collaborative list of approaches to accomplishing a specific objective, with the sequence of objectives set by their curricular developers.

    But the burden of proof needs to be on the curricular developers, not on the teachers. And the grant money would need to be tied to transparency both in classroom practice and in student achievement.

    If TERC can get buy-in from a school district (and all teachers) to actually evaluate their approach using external measures and seeing what teachers really are doing in the class with the materials, I would be very supportive. At least then, we would have direct, explicit data to evaluate whether the program improves student learning or not. Instead, we get these half-baked programs foistered on schools with teachers having to secretly back-fill so as not to let their students down.

    How would this approach be any worse than the textbook adoption process that your school goes through? You already have “a bunch of know-nothing neophytes” writing textbooks that you have to use in your class. At least with the evaluation process we would have transparency on whether that textbook is sufficient or not.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — March 5, 2010 @ 12:23 pm

  60. Was there a perception that Massachusetts had written a competitive application and was a likely contender for finalist?

    I had heard no. If that is so and if the CCSSI standards are as academically weak as we are hearing and reading, wouldn’t they need Mass to win the RTT grant so they will be forced to go with the new national standards or forfeit millions in desired funds?

    Otherwise Massachusetts will remain the pesky “shining city on the hill” still trumpeting solid academic standards as the rest of the nation goes to an activity and project based learning approach.


    Hasn’t John Sweller for one done exactly what you are describing?

    Isn’t that in part what John Hattie’s book Visible Learning documents?

    Comment by Student of History — March 5, 2010 @ 12:42 pm

  61. SoH, Both are consistent with the idea that improvements in classroom instruction (teaching, curricula, etc.) are essential for improving student learning. If John Sweller already done this, could you post the links.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — March 5, 2010 @ 1:19 pm


    is one study.

    My notes also show he wrote a paper alone that was published in the October 1, 2008 Educational Psychologist.

    The title is “Instructional Implications of David C. Geary’s Evolutionary Educational Psychology”. He explains why inquiry math works so poorly.

    David Geary’s original paper-”An Evolutionarily Informed Education Science”- was about reading but he says expressly in it that math is another example of culturally important biologically secondary knowledge that needs to be taught explicitly.

    Reading Geary, Sweller, and Hattie is like an epiphany of why discovery learning sounds so good and works so poorly as a primary method of teaching reading or math.

    Dr Geary was also a member of the National Math Advisory Panel.

    Comment by Student of History — March 5, 2010 @ 2:36 pm

  63. SoH,

    Massachusetts, like many states, amended their (Governor Patrick and Boston Mayor Menino) policies to meet Race To The Top’s two main guidelines – lifting the cap on charters and connecting student test scores to teacher evaluations. Both were done to the dismay of teacher unions, of course. However, once the turnaround occurred state officials thought we had a very good chance at qualifying for the money.

    The only scuttlebutt I’ve heard from the DOE and the Boston Globe is that adopting the common CCSSI standards would not be in the best interest of our schools/students because; (1) they’ve yet to be seen, and (2) it will be difficult to improve on what we already have.

    Not to be lost in this discussion, Governor Patrick idolizes Obama. If the president says, “Jump,” Patrick’s response has always been, “How high?”


    I’m a huge fan of Japanese lesson studies. Stigler and Hiebert were on the mark in bringing this practice to the attention of American educators. Unfortunately, I don’t believe it’s gained that much traction in this country over the past decade, at least not to this point.

    As for our textbook adoption process; it’s essentially carved in stone once the recommendation has gone through committee. Afterthoughts are truly frowned upon under the pretense everyone (supposedly) had their opportunity for feedback during the adoption process. Translation: second-guessing all the committee’s hard work is a no-no.

    Back-filling, at least for me, was standard operating procedure. I was always of the opinion it’s very difficult to judge a program that I’ve never had the opportunity to pilot. Besides, what was the composition of the committee? Was there an administrator on there that had a hidden agenda, etc.?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 8, 2010 @ 9:24 am

  64. Paul,

    Lesson studies only work well when there is a common curriculum. Several years back, the Bellevue school district embraced the lesson plan idea but decided not to use a common curriclum, with the idea that in the marketplace of ideas/lessons the good ones will win out.

    The whole initiative failed to change classroom practice because teachers all had different ideas about what should be taught and thus there was very little commonality between the goals of the lessons. It then became a tug-of-war about the which ideas/concepts should be taught, not the best way to approach that idea/concept.

    Do you know of any teachers that didn’t backfill the adopted textbooks? How many publishers have asked you for your opinion regarding the quality/ease of use of their textbooks?

    For real improvements in classroom instruction, we need public transparency regarding the backfilling. It needs to be discussed and better materials need to be developed. So what would you do?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — March 8, 2010 @ 12:35 pm

  65. Erin,

    The backfillers were usually the younger, less senior teachers. Most decided early on they would go by the book in an attempt to conform and not make waves. Clearly, no one could fault them for this strategy.

    Whenever a publisher asked me for my opinion regarding their series, I explained what I was looking for because of the way I taught. This instantly put most on the defensive where they would insist everyone should be teaching this way and their series easily adopted to my methods. It was clear the rep in question had little or no idea what I was talking about.

    I never really minded filling in the gaps of any series. After a short while in the classroom it became clear this had to be done if you were going to get the job done correctly – an occupational hazard, if you will.

    I was always the one who raided the storeroom or the book closet looking for the textbook that would have just the right skill/concept/knowledge that I was looking for. Some of the older texts had some very good “stuff.” It just took a little digging to find what you were looking for.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 8, 2010 @ 4:01 pm

  66. Paul,

    This is the great difficulty that we face with teaching reform. You backfill and yet the textbooks (no matter how horrible) get the credit. Don’t you think that some honesty about what happens in the classroom would benefit the ed reform discussion?

    Also, after reading the Newsweek articles on getting rid of bad teachers, I have to say I was quite dismayed by the discussion. Do you agree that the solution to our schools lie in getting rid of “bad teachers”?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — March 9, 2010 @ 2:14 am

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