Nation Touches Third Rail, Survives

by Robert Pondiscio
July 23rd, 2010

Despite the adoption of Common Core State Standards by more than half the states in the nation, the sky remains firmly in place, impervious to the coordinated attack.   Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has declared himself “ecstatic” at the adoption rate telling the New York Times, “This been the third rail of education, and the fact that you’re now seeing half the nation decide that it’s the right thing to do is a game-changer.”

Game-evolver, perhaps, as even CCSS supporters are quick to point out.  At Public School Insights, Claus Von Zastrow writes that high standards will mean little “if the tests are no good, the curriculum is weak, and schools have little or no support to make standards mean something in the classroom.”  The Minister of Propaganda for the education status quo thus finds himself under the same big tent as Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli at Fordham.  Even conservatives love the Common Core Standards, they note at National Review Online, with its call for students to memorize their times tables, learn phonics, and understand the country’s founding documents:

“Anxiety will surely rise when school kids across the land begin (three or four years hence) to take tests linked to these standards, and even more when those test results start to determine promotion from fifth to sixth grade or graduation from high school. (The development of those tests will soon start, aided by $350 million of federal stimulus funds.) But without tests and results-based accountability, along with solid curricula, quality textbooks, and competent teaching, standards alone have no traction in real classrooms. Adopting good standards is like having a goal for your cholesterol; it doesn’t mean you will actually eat a healthy diet or live longer.”

Right.  Critics argue that standards don’t educate children.  Right again.  The true test remains implementation.  For elementary education, the principal benefit of the CCSS is the recognition that verbal achievement is based on general knowledge, and the explicit call for instruction in language arts to include all key academic domains and be integrated with a content-rich curriculum.  Is that a guarantee it will happen?  Of course not.  Even under a single standard, the states that fare the best will be the ones with the best trained teachers and the most thoughtful, rigorous curriculum.

Hey! That sounds like a real race to the top.


  1. The best element of the language arts CCSSI standards was their inclusion of the idea of content knowledge as part of developing language abilies. Clearly, Prof. Hirsch and CK have been able to shift the conversation enough so that those ideas were included in the standards. And given that the CCSSI standards are largely symbolic (and look like they will remain so as long as schools/educational departments lack any ability to develop, implement or evaluate curricla), that symbolism is something that you and CK should consider a big win.

    (Not that anything is really going to change in the classroom…)

    Comment by Erin Johnson — July 23, 2010 @ 3:04 pm

  2. I think it is a little early to declare victory. How many teachers and parents have read these things yet?

    Comment by Tom Hoffman — July 23, 2010 @ 3:10 pm

  3. @Tom Hoffman Who’s declaring victory? That would be like building a stadium and saying you’ve won the World Series.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — July 23, 2010 @ 3:50 pm

  4. We need to celebrate the wins as we find them and having content knowledge included in the CCSSI standards should be considered a win (symbolic if nothing else).

    Teachers (for the most part) and parents were not the people that promoted content-free curricula.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — July 23, 2010 @ 3:51 pm

  5. Erin-

    Please take a look at the Model Teaching Standards linked on the Inferior Yardsticks thread before declaring victory.

    Georgia considers itself a model for Common Core and the lesson learned from Georgia is that if you have enough language about content to earn a solid rating from Fordham, no one much watches the actual implementation.

    In many school districts in Georgia, the textbooks, assessments and mandated discovery approach all come out of the Instructional Frameworks. When parents accurately pointed out there was little teaching of the vaunted content of the standards, the Fordham rating was thrown in their faces.

    “You have no grounds to complain! We were rated 4th best in math by Fordham” goes the repeated refrain.

    The Model Teaching Standards language suggests we are going to get a similar bait and switch at the national level.

    I wish the Fordham people better appreciated how their ratings are being used to stifle needed scrutiny.

    Comment by Student of History — July 23, 2010 @ 5:08 pm

  6. SoH, Thanks for making the post on the Model Teaching Standards. It seems to me to be the same drivel that has been promoted by ed schools for a very long time.

    My point about the win is that CK has at least switched the conversation to include the word “content”. The edu-drivel used to say “critical thinking skills” to the exclusion of the word “content”. That the edu-drivel folks are now using the word “content” (albeitly, incorrectly) should be considered a step in the right direction and something that would not have happened if Prof. Hirsch and CK had not so clearly articulated the need for subject matter content knowledge in reading and understanding.

    All that being said, I sincerely doubt that the CCSSI standards will make any difference (positive or negative) in schools. The state standards (good, bad or ugly) have had zero effect on improving student learning. (ref: Whitehurst) I am not sure why anyone would think that nationalizing a bad idea (e.g. using standards to drive improvements in student learning) will make it better.

    Have you posted on Flypaper about the concerns you have about the misuse of Fordham ratings?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — July 23, 2010 @ 6:26 pm

  7. My worst case scenario from the get-go has been that a single set of standards will mean a single set of tests. Even if those tests are dumbed-down and debased (cf. New York) you’ll be able to look at states’ performance (or urban districts in district, for example, in different parts of the country) and say “best, good, poor, worst.” Then you can start looking at what separates the best from the worst. My hunch is that it’ll come down to curriculum and teaching. So it’s not about nationalizing a bad idea, but reducing the number of moving parts.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — July 23, 2010 @ 6:33 pm

  8. One of my biggest concerns is that schools will hesitate to teach anything that isn’t “standards-based.” That is, they might not teach ancient Greek drama, as the standards do not mention ancient Greek drama (except by including Oedipus Rex in the text exemplars). They may limit their curricula to topics that clearly and literally address the standards. The actual literature may be treated as secondary to the standards.

    That could happen anyway, with or without national standards. But some of the strengths of the standards lie in their underlying philosophy, their support of a rich curriculum. What could be done to encourage states to see beyond the standards–to create the strongest, richest curricula possible, curricula that the standards may then support?

    Comment by Diana Senechal — July 23, 2010 @ 7:36 pm

  9. I have corresponded with various Fordham reviewers about the problem and did confirm that Georgia never provided its Instructional Frameworks as part of the review.

    It is good to mention content because it does give a dedicated super at the state or local level some traction to push content first.

    You sure do feel like a voice in the wilderness though.

    Comment by Student of History — July 23, 2010 @ 11:38 pm

  10. @Robert, What I find remarkable about the tests is that even with the good, the bad and the ugly tests, all of them, remarkably, converge upon the same conclusions: our students are learning a little bit but not what our peer nations have been able to accomplish. So what happens when the Common Core tests come back “bad”? (e.g. something akin to the Washington state WASL which was 1) expensive 2) unreliable and 3) completely aligned with content-free process-based learning) My speculation: pretty much nothing. Even if our students all fail the potentially horrific exams, what does that mean for student learning? Does that mean that students will learn less content? (I am not sure that that really is possible but I may be wrong.) Does that mean that they have to repeat the grade? Really, as long as at least 80% of the students pass the exam everyone will be happy. If less than that, the cut scores will change or the test will be thrown out as has happened in pretty much every state that set their cut scores “too low”.

    Standards plus tests have yet to lead to better learning. Real improvements will take insight (e.g. what you are doing at CK) and an iterative approach to implementing new ideas into the classroom. Setting a “high bar” and demanding that teachers “magically” attain that bar has never worked anywhere; not in education and not in business.

    Symbolically, the content of the standards and the writing of the tests do matter. But having lived through some of the worst possible reforms (TERC’s Investigations for math), and seen that experienced teachers rarely will conform to idiotic notions, it is hard for me to believe that that the ed reformers will be able to fire enough experienced teachers (who generally know what kids should learn) to be able to completely degrade our students’ learning. I’m hoping (perhaps irrationally) that I am not mistaken.

    @Diana, Most assuredly, the process-based ed-reformers will not embrace content-rich curricula, if it is possible to do so (including Greek drama). And frankly, it is not unreasonable for teachers to read the CCSSI standards and see whatever they wish in the standards. Everybody does. You see the content. But Linda Darling-Hammond sees the possiblity to promote progressive education which de-emphasizes subject matter content. Who has the right interpretation of the standards? (The answer is nobody.)

    Standards will never lead to improvements in classroom instruction because everyone can interprete what they like out of the document. It is curricula and instruction that truly matter. Without substantial improvements in curricula/instruction, we will be stuck with the status quo. And who (outside of CK) is really trying to improve curricula/instruction?

    @SoH, It is good to hear that you are fighting in Georgia for quality learning. It is always heartening to hear rationality and reasonability in advocating for our students’ education. And frankly, given the outsized influence that Fordham has had on this ed reform process, one would surely have wished that they had gotten this ed policy right and not promoted ineffective initiatives (e.g. standards as a tool to improve student learning). Perhaps one day, Checker will see that standards are a canard and a distraction from real ed reform (which will always end up being improving what happens in the classroom).

    Comment by Erin Johnson — July 24, 2010 @ 2:17 am

  11. @Erin I don’t disagree with you at all. My experience teaching led me to a conclusion not dissimilar from Diane Ravitch’s: test-based accountability has made education worse, not better. So where I net out is IF we are to set our star by these tests, one set of standards and tests is better than 50. The tests don’t concern me as much as the magical thinking of those who would use them rate teachers and schools from one year to the next, expecting to see a year’s growth in a year’s time, as if children come equipped with taxi meters that go click every tenth of a mile. If language growth is a slow-growing process, and not a linear one, we should expect — and measure — growth over years, not just a single year. Thus our accountabilitty systems need to reward a content-rich curriculum, not thwart it.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — July 24, 2010 @ 8:06 am

  12. Given LDH’s prominent role in developing these new tests it is important to read the vision she set out for the federal government to move to in her 2008 report “Democracy at Risk”.

    It’s long but worth the time. She insists that NAEP be revised so that it’s an open-ended performance assessment.

    It also talks of the need to move away from current coursework, instructional methods, and assessments as they “may not reveal to our children the wonders they are”.

    No test she designs will be about measuring content as she considers that to be an “out-of-date notion of learning”.

    Please do not miss her denunciation of the “transmission curriculum” on page 28.

    Comment by Student of History — July 24, 2010 @ 8:32 am

  13. @Robert, You are completely correct in your skepticism regarding using student test scores in evaluating teachers. The technical problems are enormous (and most likely insurmountable as a reliable measure of teaching ability) as the Board of Testing and Accountability stated in their letter to the US DoE. We might as well advocate a throw of the dice in evaluating teachers using student scores.

    I am surprised that CK has been so supportive of the idea of standards as a route toward improving student learning. While the inclusion of subject matter content into the CCSSI standards must have been quite gratifying, the idea of using standards to change classroom practice is gravely mistaken because the standards can always be used to justify *any* interpretation. And there is the probable risk (as SoH points out with the misuse of the Fordham analyses) that poor programs will be justified/entrenched because they “align to the standards”.

    I couldn’t agree more that our students need content-rich curricla. But the educational policy initiatives that will support the development, implementation and evaluation of those better curricula will never start with standards (state or national), nor with the idea that we can fire enough “bad teachers” to improve student learning.

    Diane did a very courageous announcement against the use of standards and accountability. It would be great if CK could follow suit. (And if you were able to convince the Fordham folks that would be even better.)

    @SoH, LDH has been very consistent in her views over many years and many people disagree with her approach. It isn’t her views that are the problem in this situation but that her ideas (or anyone’s ideas, including mine) on testing may be implemented without any recourse or evaluation of those ideas. Once those tests are in place, what agency will let us know if they are valid and reliable?

    The US Air Force study that demonstrated that focusing on the 1-year gains *hindered* learning in the subsequent years should be quite a chilling example on the use of tests to drive improvements in teaching and student learning.

    Tests are by definition quite limited. They are at best a rough survey of what a student knows and there are always limits to their reliablity. Tests can and should be a critical part of an educational system. But they are being mis-used by the standards-testing-accountability ed reformers.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — July 24, 2010 @ 1:19 pm

  14. LDH has indeed been consistent in her “education is the means to obtain social justice” meme.

    Now though she has been given the power to achieve those ends by having so much control over the assessment to be used under Common Core.

    The agency who will not be measuring the results of those new tests is the IES Board having redefined its mission recently and with new appointees who seem to define themselves and their views of public education largely through the prism of race or ethnicity or gender or all of the above.

    Likewise the Model Teaching Standards were sponsored by Education Testing Service, the NEA, and Pearson.

    Fordham is unlikely to admit in a few years that the implementation was nothing like they imagined.

    It also looks like the Justice Department may come after school districts that depart from the inclusive classroom under federal civil rights laws.

    It’s also no accident that America’s Choice is preparing the high school Common Core assessment. Aren’t they reknowned for pushing a single low threshold of content?

    It’s a depressing time for those of us who look into the reality behind the lofty education rhetoric.

    Comment by Student of History — July 24, 2010 @ 2:33 pm

  15. SoH, I agree, but our teachers have been under this onslaught for a very long time (remember whole language, reform math, group learning, renaming History to the more easily manipulated term “Social Studies” etc…) and teachers for the most part have largely resisted eviserating what content is left in our schools.

    The core of the ed reform problem (from the point of view of a content-rich curricular advocate) is that our schools are not organized to improve. They do not know how to develop curricula, new instructional techniques nor evaluate whether those approaches resulted in better student learning.

    Our educational system can best be described as a legacy system and it is entirely dependant upon the conventional wisdom about what should be taught in each grade.

    This is good when horrific reforms are rammed into the classroom. (Where the correct response by the teacher is to nod one’s head and teach what really should be taught.)

    This is bad when we want our teachers to become better. (Which they most certainly could do.)

    Presumably, the idea of putting a content-rich curricula into the schools is to improve student learning. But without an organizational system that allows for improvements, that content-rich curricula will not move outside the (very) small list of schools/visionaries that promote quality curricula.

    It doesn’t matter if standards are good or bad. They have never substantially changed (for the better) what happens in the classroom. All real substantive improvements will have to focus on classroom instruction. Not something that the standards-testing-accountability will ever enable.

    And the unintended consequences of the standards-testing-accountability movement will be (as Diane Ravitch has mentioned) a narrowing of the curricula to only topics that are tested.

    But schools can improve.

    As an example: Singapore was able to significantly improve their early reading program within 5 years (as measured by PIRLS) by using curricula and teacher training (not firing teachers).

    PIRLS US Singapore

    2001: 542 528
    2006: 540 558

    Change -2 +30

    It is not possible for our schools to get to “better” using the standards-testing-accountability educational policy model.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — July 24, 2010 @ 3:44 pm

  16. Conservatives might like the phonics and emphasis on calculation in the CCCS but true conservatives would not agree that there should be national standards (or even state ones).

    I just finished reading the book One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards by Susan Ohanian. It has a copyright date of 1999, and in it she quotes E.D. Hirsch as saying the choice to adopt Core Knowledge “must be made at the building level rather than imposed on [schools] by an outside entity.”

    What happened?????

    Comment by Crimson Wife — July 24, 2010 @ 8:44 pm

  17. CW, what do you see in the CCSS that’s anything like imposing Core Knowledge on schools? The salient point is that the CCSS makes it clear that a curriculum is essential to meet the standards. In short, you don’t arbitrarily choose material to, for example, teach compare and contrast, inferencing, etc. Personally, I think the standards make a strong case for a CK-style curriculum, but schools are as free now as they’ve ever been to implement standards badly. The standards writers had the wit and wisdom to reinforce the rgument that Hirsch and CK have made for 20+ years, but they are not imposing a curriculum.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — July 24, 2010 @ 8:59 pm

  18. @Robert, If you were handicapping this race, what percent of schools adopting CCSSI will ultimately adopt a CK-style curriculum? and what percent of schools will look at the standards and say that they are already doing that?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — July 24, 2010 @ 10:08 pm

  19. A larger percentage than are doing so now.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — July 24, 2010 @ 10:16 pm

  20. @Robert, What makes you think so?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — July 25, 2010 @ 12:41 am

  21. Other than my congenial optimism and sunny disposition? Earlier in this thread, you noted that the “best element of the language arts CCSSI standards was their inclusion of the idea of content knowledge as part of developing language abilies. Clearly, Prof. Hirsch and CK have been able to shift the conversation enough so that those ideas were included in the standards.” That’s it, in a nutshell. The more widely known and understood this is, the more likely it is to be applied.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — July 25, 2010 @ 8:20 am

  22. In a rational world that would be enough. But curricular adoptions tend to run more on comfort, familiarity and sometimes popularity. The major publishing companies are experts at packaging their same-old-same-old and calling it “aligned with the standards”, whatever those standards may be. Other than CK (and possibly K12), do you know of any program put out by the major publishing companies that has embraced the content-rich ideas in CK and been successful in the school market?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — July 25, 2010 @ 11:17 am

  23. Interesting dialogue, all.

    On the Linda Darling-Hammond front: Did she have anything to do with the Stanford University charter school originated and operated by their Ed School that had its charter revoked last spring for poor performance? One can only guess it was heavily laced with the progressive notions of twenty-first century skills, education of the whole child, and alternative assessments that were responsible for bringing it to its knees.

    Erin, I’ll still contend the Massachusetts standards developed back in the early nineties by Sandra Stotsky were at least partially responsible for Massachusetts students being at the top academically both nationally (NAEP) and internationally (TIMSS and PISA). We’ve had other variables help along the way such as the MCAS, high expectations, and until last week, strong support from the business community and state government, but our curricula specific standards cannot be overlooked.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — July 26, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

  24. Paul, The best curricula that I am aware of (Core Knowledge, CK Early Literacy, Singapore math, much of K12) were developed in spite of the standards, not because of them. And frankly, none have made a true dent in the educational market despite their exceptional quality.

    That MA has improved over the past 10 years is great. But how much of that can we attribute to the standards documents and how much should we attribute to good teachers trying very hard to improve their program and all the other support that MA schools received? Certainly, the Whitehurst data suggests that it was not the standards documents as there is no correlation between the quality of state standards and the improvements on NAEP.

    And even more importantly, could we expect the same level of dedication to improve in other states? MA has long had a strong tradition in education and so the base of teachers knowledge/expectations in the Bay State is somewhat higher than many other states. The data suggests that no: quality standards will not translate to improvements in student learning in other states.

    I would also argue the Prof. Hirsch could have made a more lasting impression on our schools than any of the standards documents. By advocating content-rich curricula, he has changed the conversation. Perhaps it is symbolic but still quite important.

    My point above is that our schools have no mechanisms for developing, implementing and evaluating better curricula/instructional methods, and so consequently innovative programs will unlikely be adopted. Without data or method to compare programs, why would any school adoption committee go out on a limb and adopt an innovative program?

    The best math program that I am aware of (Singapore math) was not developed in the US, nor is there a strong desire by schools here to adopt it because it is so unfamiliar and counter to the edu-speak so prevalent in our educational schools. This is true, even though it is significantly less expensive and more kid-friendly than any other American math program.

    Standards are also being used by very poor programs as cover. That is if the program is “aligned to the standards” then schools will assume that it is of good quality (because we have no other way of evaluating programs). It this true? Are all “standards-aligned” programs great?

    As a policy lever, standards have failed. And pushing this onto the national stage will not change the fact that schools have no way of knowing what programs are better than others. If all curricula are all “standards-aligned” the default will be to adopt familiar or popular programs, not innovative ones.

    There are better government policies can can help to develop the organizational process that we need to develop, implement and evaluate innovative programs.

    Some possible examples:

    1) Offer a large prize for any school district/consortium that is able to 1) match or exceed the countries on the TIMSS exam and 2) publish all curricula, instructional and governance changes that were used. This allows for everyone to try new ideas instead of the RttT method which pre-picks who they think will be the winners.

    2) Extend the idea of Advanced Placement to all high school classes where specific syllabi are developed coupled with an end-of-the-year evaluation. Offer differing levels/classes depending upon student needs and interests. This would provide a great database for very specific types of subject matter classes as well as accomodate individual interests (unlike the one-size fits all standards documents).

    Even though the CCSSI standards could be intepreted to embrace the Core Knowledge approach, in practice it is unlikely that any school will interprete them in that manner. The big publishing companies are too slick and are too experienced in catering to the comfort levels of school adoption committees.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — July 26, 2010 @ 2:10 pm

  25. Paul,

    Yes she was involved with it. Here’s just one of the available links covering the story from this spring.

    I remember reading Whitney Tilson’s “Stop the Presses” on this issue which is cited here.

    Also at least one of the commenters picked up on our concern that she is in charge of the Common Core assessments.

    Comment by Student of History — July 26, 2010 @ 2:50 pm

  26. Here’s a follow-up that’s important because it quotes Sandy Kress saying the high school is making no attempt to teach the California content standards.

    Comment by Student of History — July 26, 2010 @ 2:55 pm

  27. Student of History,

    Thank you for the references. They’ll serve as useful background information in the days and weeks ahead for the Boston Globe.

    As we say here in the Bay State, the Jay Greene piece in particular, it’s a keepah!

    Comment by Paul Hoss — July 26, 2010 @ 5:49 pm

  28. Erin,

    I agree with you on this issue. The standards can be interpreted as fluff, unless they’re really content specific (like those in Massachusetts). What is important is the accompanying curricula and how individual teachers deal with them that makes the difference.

    But what has made Massachusetts teachers so dedicated with a strong tradition in education and so their base of knowledge/expectations is somewhat higher than many other states? Not sure on that assumption.

    I particularly favor your example number 1 from above.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — July 26, 2010 @ 6:13 pm

  29. I just wrote a critique of the Model Core Teaching Standards (thanks, Student of History, for bringing them up):


    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 18, 2010 @ 12:44 pm

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