Six Traps that Could Snare the Common Core Standards

by Linda Bevilacqua
February 28th, 2013

This blog is based on remarks I made this morning at “Curriculum Counts: Fulfilling the Promise of the Common Core State Standards,” a forum hosted by the Manhattan Institute and the Fordham Institute. A video of the event is available here.

In thought, word, and deed, the efforts of the Core Knowledge Foundation over the past 25 years, led by E. D. Hirsch, have been devoted to making the case that curriculum counts. So I am excited about the promise offered by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)—particularly the English language arts standards, which clearly state that, “The Standards must … be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectations laid out in this document.” As promising as the standards are, however, in the end, it is the manner in which the standards are interpreted and then implemented by state departments of education, school districts, and classroom teachers that really matters. And it is here that I must confess to a certain level of concern.

Let me be specific. Hopefully everyone is familiar with—or has at least heard of—the “six shifts” (identified by the New York State Education Department and Student Achievement Partners) that the implementation of the Common Core language arts standards will require. The identification of these shifts is helpful; they have become the intense focus of professional development in schools across the country. But they are not enough; we need to take another step.

In the interest of providing further clarity about how the language arts standards must be implemented if they are in fact to realize their potential, I’d like to propose that we focus attention as well on what I call the “six traps,” or obstacles, to effective implementation of the language arts standards. The first five traps are within the reach and influence of every teacher, principal, and district-level administrator. The sixth trap will require the attention of state-level policymakers.

1)  The failure to see the forest for the trees – In states and schools around this country, educators are intently engaged right now in reviewing language arts materials to determine whether or not they are aligned to the CCSS. I come across a new rubric or template for this purpose on nearly a daily basis. My concern is that too many educators are approaching this task with a severe case of myopia—attempting to literally align individual standards from the CCSS document to particular goals and objectives in given curricular materials, while failing to fully understand the “big picture” or true intent of the standards.

Think about the implications of this approach. While the CCSS for ELA consistently call for “a well-developed content-rich curriculum designed to build disciplinary knowledge,” nowhere is this stated in any of the individual standards. Therefore, to focus only on aligning to individual standards leads us into the failing-to-see-the-forest-for-the-trees trap. To avoid this trap, educators must align not just to the letter of the standards but to their spirit. The Core Knowledge Foundation has created a more comprehensive rubric to guide educators in using this approach.

2) The failure to go beyond simply balancing the percentage of fiction and nonfiction texts – After years of E. D. Hirsch writing about the importance of content knowledge for literacy, I am happy to report that I see educators and publishers alike uniformly talking about the importance of informational texts. Actually, many of the large publishing companies began including nonfiction selections in their materials and programs several years ago. The problem, however, is that educators and publishers have only gotten half of the message. An examination of those programs and materials that include nonfiction text reveals a haphazard, random approach to the selection of texts. One single nonfiction text selection on dinosaurs in one unit, Aztecs in the next unit, and Mozart in perhaps the following unit is not an effective way to build knowledge. Children, especially those who are behind, need a coherent, sequenced approach to building knowledge. This can be efficiently and quite easily accomplished by grouping text selections on a single topic and sequencing them to build knowledge and give repeated exposures to key vocabulary.

Here’s a novel idea: Why not expect both publishers and educators to include content-based objectives in all of their lesson plans? Doesn’t it make sense to ask, beyond the language arts skills: What do we want students to walk away with at the end of a lesson? What is the knowledge that we expect students to gain having read a particular selection?

3) The failure to understand the nature of vocabulary growth – E. D. Hirsch has written eloquently about vocabulary growth in detail in the winter 2013 issue of City Journal, so I will just touch on this. So long as vocabulary is not understood as representative of bodies of knowledge, and so long as literacy is seen as a general skill that does not depend on prior knowledge, schools will continue to teach isolated reading comprehension strategies and isolated vocabulary terms. The top researchers in word acquisition agree that most word learning is acquired incidentally in the course of gaining knowledge. Hence, the best way to develop vocabulary is through a systematic approach to gaining knowledge, staying on a single domain for at least two weeks, with repeated opportunities to learn and use new words.

4) The failure to recognize the importance of implementation of the CCSS in the early grades – All of us recognize and want strong reading and language comprehension for all students when they graduate, but few seem to recognize that the knowledge and vocabulary needed are so extensive that we must begin systematically building this knowledge and vocabulary—as well as skills—as early as possible. Children with well-educated parents learn academic content from birth. Research has shown that the achievement gap is already large on the first day of kindergarten. Schools that wait until the upper elementary grades to get serious about academic content are making it virtually impossible to close the gap.

5) The failure to recognize the importance of oral language—listening and speaking—in literacy competency – The Common Core language arts standards recognize that to ensure students achieve college- and career-level literacy by the time they leave school, the schools must stress all facets of language development, including listening and speaking. Unfortunately, many educators continue to think and act as if literacy were comprised only of reading and writing, which is why we continue to hear stories and read newspaper articles about kindergarteners, for example, who are asked to write compositions in various genres. And then we hear stories of the frustrations of those kindergarten teachers, with everyone blaming the CCSS for imposing this practice. Let me be very clear: Nothing could be further from the truth. Such practice represents a complete misinterpretation of the CCSS and a failure to carefully read the progression of anchor standards as they evolve from the earliest grade levels. The CCSS promote the use of read-alouds in the early grades as the only way to address the paradox of the need to expose children to rich, complex text to build coherent knowledge.

6) The failure to recognize the need for curriculum-based assessments – This requires attention at the state level and by our best thinkers. In a typical school, what gets tested is what gets taught. Even a content-rich curriculum is rendered powerless in the absence of curriculum-based tests. Early samples from both consortia reveal a perpetuation of a skills-based approach to assessing reading comprehension. I realize that states are not going to run out and adopt a common curriculum for all schools in their state so that curriculum-based tests can be developed. But there is a middle ground.

Whether they are state or the new consortia tests, reading comprehension is assessed by asking students to read various passages on different topics. But the topics addressed by those passages are never revealed to teachers. These are, in essence, random-content tests. The middle ground would be domain-based tests. The state or the consortia could specify domains that ought to be studied in each grade level, without dictating which texts must be used or how to teach them. The state or consortia would then ensure that the passages assessing reading comprehension for a given grade level are exclusively drawn from those domains. Specifying the domains for each grade would counteract the tendency to narrow the curriculum and focus on comprehension skills as test prep. It would ensure that all students are systematically building knowledge and vocabulary and, as a result, would ensure that no child is knocked off the path to college or career readiness through well-intentioned, but misguided, instruction.

Did You Hear the One About the Talking Pineapple…

by Robert Pondiscio
April 20th, 2012

“It’s clearly an allegory. The pineapple is the Department of Education. The hare is the student who is eagerly taking the test,” said E.D. Hirsch. “The joke is supposed to be on the hare, because the questions are post-modern unanswerable,” he said. “But in fact the joke is on the pineapple, because the New York Daily News is going to eat it up.”

I’d explain what he’s talking about, but some things are beyond explanation….

Update:  At EdWeek Teacher, Anthony Cody asks the question that needs to be asked:  Would YOU want to be judged based on an 8th grader’s ability to make sense of this bizarre little story?

An Inconvenient Truth About Teacher Quality

by Robert Pondiscio
December 5th, 2011

If teacher quality is the most important school-based factor in student outcomes, then why are math scores rising, while reading scores stay flat?  Do we just happen to have really good math teachers and really lousy reading teachers?  That can’t be: in the case of 4th grade teachers, the exact same teachers are responsible for both subjects.

Or maybe it’s not the teachers. Could it be the curriculum?

That’s the question posed by Dan Willingham and David Grismer in an op-ed in the New York Daily News this morning.  They point out intriguing data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress that has been hiding in plain sight:

“Reading scores over the last 20 years have been flat. But in math, scores have increased markedly. A fourth-grader at the 50th percentile in 1990 would score at about the 25th percentile compared to the kids taking the test in 2009. That’s an enormous improvement.

“This raises an uncomfortable question for teacher quality advocates: If teachers are so vitally important, why have fourth-grade math scores dramatically improved, but reading scores have flatlined, given that — at least at the elementary level — the same teachers are responsible for each?

Perhaps the secret sauce is not who’s teaching but what’s being taught.  It’s a lot easier to align standards, curriculum and assessment in math. “There is little controversy as to the subject matter to be covered, and the order in which one ought to tackle subjects is more obvious,” Willingham and Grissmer write.  “Indeed, substantial effort has been made over the last 25 years to develop coherent math standards and curricula from K-8.”

In reading? Not so much.

As we’ve discussed many times on this blog, there’s no direct correlation between the subject matter that gets taught and tested in reading.  We teach random, incoherent content that bears no relation to the passages children ultimately encounter on their reading tests.  We insist on teaching and testing the “skill” of reading comprehension when it’s clearly not a skill at all.  Willingham and Grissmer conclude:

“Yes, overall teaching quality would improve with a more sensible method to usher hapless teachers out of the profession. Better teacher training would help too. But in addition to these longer-term goals, policymakers ought to focus on ensuring that the unglamorous but vital work of curriculum design is done properly. The popular perception is that America’s teachers are largely ineffective compared to international peers. But the data show that when given a clear, cogent curriculum to work with, they’re a lot stronger than we think.”

Education Week

by Guest Blogger
November 21st, 2011

by Jessica Lahey

Last Friday, the Illinois State Board of Education proposed new rules that will link teacher performance to their students’ performance on assessments. Up to thirty percent of teacher evaluations will be based on how students perform on tests, and while I understand the value of student progress in evaluating teachers, it’s certainly not the main thing that determines success in education. My mind has been on assessments lately because I just came out of a week defined by what I initially labeled a colossal assessment failure. I gave unit tests to cap off a couple of weeks in Latin and English grammar, and things did not go well. My students failed, failed, failed, and as teachers are wont to do, I used the transitive property and concluded that I had failed, failed, failed.

I spent the following weekend going over the assessments, my preparation, my teaching, the students’ homework scores, and found that the week of failure was much more complicated than one faulty assessment or a failure to teach some critical aspect of the lesson. As I could not go back and re-do the previous month of teaching, I decided to move forward, and figure out how to turn failure in to a learning experience. Once some time had passed, and I’d gained the benefit of hindsight, I wrote about the solution I came up with in my blog, Coming of Age in the Middle . I wrote about my teaching methods, but mostly, I wrote about how I had managed to make it through the week without tucking my tail between my legs and quitting my job.

A writer friend of mine liked the post, one thing led to another, and the next thing I knew, my failure was in the Gray Lady herself. When K.J. Dell’Antonia wrote her piece on my blog, titled “What Good Teachers Do When Kids Fail,” in the New York Times’ parenting blog Motherlode , the comments fell into two distinct camps: Parents who wished their teachers had more time to address student failure and teachers who lamented that they had no time to address student failure. A few teachers wrote about the time they took for re-writes and remedy, but for the most part, the message from educators was one of regret and frustration with a testing-centric schedule that did not allow for reflection.

The solution I came up with for my students required humility on both sides of the classroom – I had to admit I had failed my students and my students had to admit that they had not held up their end of the pedagogical bargain – but mostly, it took time. Time that, according to the comments after the article, most teachers just don’t have. I handed out blank tests and asked the students re-take the assessment as an open book exercise. They were asked to work in pairs I had strategically assigned, and teach each other the material on the test. They were required to not only find the correct answer, but to show why all of the other answers were wrong. This process ate up two classes, and as I only see my Latin students twice a week, this one remedial exercise burned an entire week of the school year. Clearly, this is simply not an option in many classrooms. Maria, from Baltimore, MD, wrote:

“I am a public high school math teacher. It’s only November, and I’m already 10 days behind schedule in one class, 3 days behind in another. And this is without me taking any sick days, no snow days, just a few days away from class for . . . you guessed it, administering the No Child Left Behind tests. I would love to have students retake their tests and learn from mistakes, but thanks to NCLB, and curricula that are an inch deep and a mile wide, we need to press on to the next topic.”

Many comments stressed the vital role that failure plays in education. Dr. Kim, from Ithaca, NY wrote,

“We need to allow students opportunities to fail. Too often our kids are afraid of failure. If we don’t fail, we’re not pushing our limits–we’re not challenging ourselves. I have a friend who is an amazing skier who says “if you don’t fall, you’re not pushing yourself hard enough.” This is true. Plus, we learn much more from failure. Our brains are programmed to remember those things with strong emotional attachments — positive or negative. Failures are memorable.”

I completely agree that some of the best lessons are learned from failure. Failure can shock a student out of complacency, particularly among those students who are smart enough to do well on a bare minimum of effort. Middle school is the ideal time for this time of shock; the stakes are still low(ish) and the potential for growth is huge. I’m not one for sports quotes, but in this case, baseball player and coach Vernon Law had it right. “Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards.” It would have been much easier to teach the lessons first and give the test after, but in the end, I think the experience taught all of us a greater lesson. Everyone has to admit to failure – teacher and student. As a result of this failure, I grew as a teacher and they grew as students. Crossroads Academy was built on a core virtues curriculum as well as a core knowledge curriculum, so our journey through this week of failure became an important part of the students’ character education. That’s where commenter T. Zinner of Boston hits the nail on the head:

This article goes to the heart of our goal as parents and the ideal of teachers: creating individuals with strength of character. The happiest and most successful people seem to be the individuals who take their talents and face obstacles either directly with perseverance or creatively so that the obstacles are no longer viewed as challenges. This is the case for the most exceptional physicians I work with, the patients who live fully despite illness and friends and neighbors who create lives of joy and depth in the face of unexpected loss or change in circumstance.

That’s the kind of teaching I love to do, teaching that helps students become better people, teaching that takes into account the unpredictability inherent teaching adolescents.

But this sort of teaching is increasingly not what is valued today, and it’s certainly not what counts as quality teaching or a gauge of student progress. Failure makes people nervous because in order to find anything of value in the situation, everyone has to face their role in the failure. It would have been much easier for me to fail the students and move on, or curve the exam so much that the failure got lost in a sea of amended numbers. The grades would have looked good, the students would have felt good, and everyone would have been satisfied with my performance. But lurking under this neat and tidy appearance, my students would know. They would know they had not really learned the material, that I had swept something under the rug. Worse, I would know that somewhere down the line that gap in their education would come back to haunt them.

Assessments are often blunt instruments, and to decide a teacher’s worth based on student testing measures just one small fraction of the learning that goes on in the classroom. This one assessment failure taught me valuable lessons about my teaching methods, the quality of my assessments, and the courage of my students. Two of my students summed up our week perfectly as they handed in their remedy exam: “I think I learned more from that one failing grade than from any A,” and “You know, now that we have gone through every question, that test really wasn’t that hard.”

My sentiments exactly.

Neither Good Nor Bad

by Robert Pondiscio
September 13th, 2010

Assessment is nearly a constant feature of a decent classroom.  Every time a teacher asks a question in class, leads a discussion, conferences with a child about his work, looks at homework, or glances over a student’s shoulder while she is writing, he or she is assessing–making a judgement about what the child knows, can do, and needs help with.  A baseline idea in education is “assessment drives instruction” — in order to meet a child where he or she is, you have to know where exactly that is. 

For a teacher, this is among the blandest, most obvious statements imaginable.  So why bring it up?  The New York Times, as it is wont to do, has discovered that young children in China are tested constantly–from “mad minute” math quizzes to science exams.  Elizabeth Rosenthal writes that for her two young children attending elementary school in China, “taking tests was as much a part of the rhythm of their school day as tag at recess or listening to stories at circle time.”

In Asia, such a march of tests for young children was regarded as normal, and not evil or particularly anxiety provoking. That made for some interesting culture clashes. I remember nearly constant tension between the Asian parents, who wanted still more tests and homework, and the Western parents, who were more concerned with whether their kids were having fun — and wanted less.

Point taken.  Another recent New York Times piece described the benefits of testing as a learning tool.  “The process of retrieving an idea is not like pulling a book from a shelf; it seems to fundamentally alter the way the information is subsequently stored, making it far more accessible in the future,” observed the Times’ Benedict Carey. 

So assessment is fundamental to teaching, and testing is not only a form of assessment, but a potentially powerful learning tool.  Still, I worry that the wrong takeaways will result from these pieces.  As with, well, everything in education, the risk of oversimplification here is great.    Surely, there is a difference between the constant assessment –formal and informal — that takes place in nearly every good classroom and drives instruction, and the annual ritual of high-stakes testing that now dominates elementary and middle schools.  Likewise there is a difference between studying and mastering a body of material for, say, a biology or geometry test, and a state reading test.  There is no body of knowledge to study with a reading test.  Test-taking skills and reading strategies that might provide a short-term boost are deleterious in the long run.  Countless hours of test prep and strategy sessions are educationally unproductive.  And it would be naive in the extreme to suggest high-stakes tests are not materially different than a workaday math quiz in the anxiety they produce.

The bottom line, as always: it’s complicated.  These issues are not simply about “testing good” or “testing bad.”  With the exception of a few anti-testing zealots — and they are few indeed — it is the rare educator who is opposed to all testing.  Indeed, it’s almost impossible to teach at all without assessing your students on a nearly constant basis, formally and informally.  Yes, lots of kids love to compete against themsleves and classmates on “mad minute” math drills.  Yes, classroom tests focus the mind and efforts of students to master material.  Unfortunately, none of these things are true of high stakes reading and math tests. They don’t drive instruction because months go by before you get the results. No bragging rights or competitive juices are fired by them. And reading tests are impossible to study for  since they are constructed on a mistaken notion of reading as a transferable skill.  It’s possible to be a firm believer in testing–even high stakes testing–yet have misgivings about their impact on education.

Conflicts of Interest

by Robert Pondiscio
August 3rd, 2010

Which is worse, asks A-Rus at This Week in Education:  cheating or plagiarism?  This after yesterday’s NY Times story on allegedly fungible definitions of plagiarism and an apparent vindication of Atlanta’s schools in the “Erase to the Top” scandal.

Just wondering:  Has the pressure on schools and teachers to measure up fundamentally changed the dynamic of cheating?  In a gentler age, cheating was how you put one over on the teacher.  Now, the teacher theoretically benefits from cheating as much as the student.  Maybe even more.

Moving the Goalposts Back

by Robert Pondiscio
July 20th, 2010

School superintendents in some New York cities are complaining that changes to state tests that would lower passing rates and toughen the definition of proficiency are “akin to moving goalposts.”  “We’ve lost sight of the purpose of the test — it’s supposed to show you’ve mastered a certain skill at a certain time,” Daniel G. Lowengard, the superintendent in Syracuse tells the New York Times.  “I think it’s unfair to teachers to say thank you very much, you’ve been doing this work for the last three or four years, and now that your kids are passing, all of sudden we’re going to call a B a C and call a C a D.”

No.  Exactly wrong. The point is that kids have NOT mastered a certain skill at a certain time.  We’ve just been pretending they did.   The goalposts aren’t moving, they’ve been creeping in for years.  What David Steiner and Co. are talking about is moving them back into the endzone where they belong and (hopefully) bolting them to the ground.  If we must have football analogies, this is the proper one:  We’ve been telling kids for years they’re nailing kicks from 60 yards out and are NFL material.  Only it turns out the goalposts were merely 20 yards away.   Telling someone they’ve got the tools when they don’t is not just misleading but cruel.

Tick…Tick…Tick….

by Robert Pondiscio
July 19th, 2010

Gotham Schools has the details on the much-anticipated report by Daniel Koretz and Jennifer Jennings (remember her?) on New York State testing.

Mandatory Testing for Homeschoolers?

by Robert Pondiscio
December 29th, 2009

Should homeschooled children be required to sit for state exams to ensure minimum competency in reading and math?  And what should happen if they fail?    Indiana University School of Education professor Robert Kunzman, who studies homeschooling, proposes in the journal Theory and Research in Education that states require a basic skills test for homeschoolers.

Seconding Kunzman’s article, Miller-McCune magazine asks, with as many as 2 million students currently being homeschooled, whether ”it might be time to consider some sensible oversight.”  In theory, the magazine notes, a required basic skills test “could be a useful tool to help homeschooling parents understand which areas their child is excelling and struggling in and, if constructed properly, could illuminate where to focus additional attention.”

Above all, it’s essential that the test be crafted by individual states (just as individual states create tests for public schools in compliance with federal testing mandates) and be viewed as “neutral” (evolutionary science off-limits?) by parents and students. Then perhaps local homeschool organizations could work with the state to create a skills assessment that contains no ideological or moral “litmus test.” The result, as Kunzman conceives it, “would involve computation skills (adding, subtracting, multiplication, division) and reading comprehension.” In other words: a simple, rudimentary, noncontroversial test that even a serviceably educated student could pass.

Even that won’t be simple, however.  At the website Homeschooling Research Notes, Milton Gaither, a professor at Messiah College sees several problems with Kunzman’s proposal:

First, he is not clear about exactly when these tests would need to be administered or what would happen if a student failed them.  By what age must a child be able to read, write, and cipher?  For some unschoolers such skills are not deliberately taught until a child wants to learn them, which could be as late as 10 or 12.  Such children would fail the Iowa test of Basic Skills, perhaps repeatedly.  What then?  Kunzman says in a footnote that failure doesn’t mean kids should be forcibly placed in public schools, for they might do even worse there.  All he says is that repeated failure shoud prompt “a closer look by the state into that particular homeschool context, the quality of instruction, and the needs of the student before deciding how best to protect his or her educational interests.” (p. 328)  This I find unhelpful and vague.  Why bother administering the test at all if there’s no clear consequence for failing it?

Kunzman’s website has a lot of interesting information and resources about homeschooling (his state-by-state chart of homeschooling regulations is fascinating).  While I understand the impulse behind his proposal–he points out we really have no objective information about how homeschooled students truly perform academically–but I think it’s unlikely that many, perhaps even most, homeschoolers will see mandated testing as anything other than an unwarranted intrustion.  “The underlying assumption of this proposal seems to be that the citizen is somehow subject to the standards set by the state,” writes one homeschooling blogger.  “Or perhaps that the state has a more compelling interest in the well being of the child than the parent. As any homeschooling parent can tell you, we don’t need a test to tell us how our child is doing. They are not a name on a roster, they are our focus of attention.”

In short, prepare for a fight.  Given the relatively low performance of most states, it will also be hard to make a credible case that they know best or are even minimally competent to gauge, let alone assure academic success.

Flatline! Call a Code Blue!

by Robert Pondiscio
October 14th, 2009

Reactions to today’s dispiriting NAEP scores….

“The trend is flat; it’s a plateau. Scores are not going anywhere, at least nowhere important.  That means that eight years after enactment of No Child Left Behind, the problems it set out to solve are not being solved, and now we’re five years from the deadline and we’re still far, far from the goal.” (Chester E. Finn, Jr. Thomas B. Fordham Institute)

“Had we had 19 years of flat results and one year of increases in one subject, we wouldn’t celebrate. Similarly, we shouldn’t press the panic button over one year of stalled growth in one subject…this is far from convincing evidence that NCLB failed or education reform is doomed.” (Andy Smarick @ Flypaper)

“It’s clear from the data at both grade levels that we still have a long way to go to effectively prepare all of our elementary and middle school students for the world that awaits them in high school and beyond.” (Kati Haycock, President of The Education Trust)

“Supporters of the No Child Left Behind Act–and I’ve generally been one of them–hoped that the law would catalyze a major upward move in student achievement. That hasn’t happened.” (Kevin Carey @ The Quick and The Ed)

“Seeing stuff flat-line is not what we want as a country — seeing achievement gaps that are unacceptably large.  The status quo isn’t good enough. We have to get dramatically better.”  (Secretary of Education Arne Duncan)

“We’re losing ground to our international competitors every year.  It’s a situation that calls for dramatic improvement. Unfortunately there seems to be apathy across the country.” (David P. Driscoll, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board)

“The current system is producing school teachers who do not have a strong background in math themselves and may even be ‘afraid’ to teach math to pre-K students…if we want to improve students’ proficiency in math, we have to improve teachers‘ proficiency too. (Lisa Guernsey @ Early Ed Watch)