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.

The Curriculum Reformation

by Robert Pondiscio
July 23rd, 2012

Sol Stern has a piece in the new issue of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, which echoes a point made on this blog about Common Core State Standards: Love ‘em or hate ‘em, CCSS has put curriculum on the map as a reform lever.   “For the first time in almost half a century, education administrators and policymakers around the country are seriously discussing the role of a content-based curriculum in raising student achievement,” Stern writes, “and that means long-overdue recognition of the ideas of E. D. Hirsch, one of America’s greatest but also most neglected education reformers.”

Stern calls Hirsch, the “odd man out in the school-reform movement.”  But with the widespread adoption Common Core standards, “Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum has suddenly become highly relevant to the national education debate. School leaders from several states are now knocking on Hirsch’s door, looking for help in implementing the standards,” Stern writes.  That includes New York State which earlier this year awarded the Core Knowledge Foundation a multi-million dollar contract to produce a pre-K through second-grade ELA curriculum aligned to the standards.

Since a pilot of the Core Knowledge Language Arts program initiated under then-Chancellor Joel Klein began to show strong results according to the New York City DOE’s own research three years ago, Stern has played gadfly ever since, frequently asking why New York City did not more broadly implement a curriculum its own research indicated was more effective than its widely used balanced literacy approach. Stern offers up a scoop:

“Klein resigned in 2010, so he was out of the DOE by the time the third-year results were announced; until now, he has declined to comment publicly on them. But after I contacted him recently via e-mail, he broke his silence. ‘I believe that knowledge acquisition is critical to effective education and that, in general, the public schools in NYC and elsewhere were not doing a good job in that respect,’ Klein wrote. He added that ‘the early results’ of the pilot were ‘enormously encouraging.’

“And he made a last point, one with national implications. Hirsch’s approach was ‘well aligned with the new Common Core reading standards that 45 States have already adopted. Common Core focuses much more on understanding complex texts and dramatically increases the amount of non-fiction that students will be required to read. This should mean that [Hirsch’s] approach will now get the widespread adoption and attention it so richly deserves. For too long, he had been a voice in the wilderness. His time has now come.’”

On Common Core State Standards, Stern notes political objections as well as “the far more serious criticism” leveled by Ze’ev Wurman, Sandra Stotsky and others that the standards “are academically inferior to the existing standards in several states and the even higher standards in many countries whose students outperform ours.  Massachusetts reformers in particular, Stern notes, “have argued correctly that the Common Core standards don’t aim as high as the standards that their state adopted in 1993…The Bay State would have done better by its students if it had said no to the Obama administration and stuck with its already excellent standards—which were also heavily influenced by Hirsch’s work.”

“Nevertheless, school reformers should not ignore one overriding fact: for most states—which, unlike Massachusetts, have lacked rigorous standards—the Common Core is an enormous step forward. Since the standards call for a content-based curriculum, those states are now having a serious discussion about the specific subject matter that must be taught in the classroom. And that’s a discussion that hasn’t happened in American schools for almost half a century.”

Stern concludes by arguing—correctly, I believe—that adoption of CCSS by states isn’t enough.  States need to choose effective, specific curricula to meet the standards.  He cites work by Brookings’ Russ Whitehurst and Matthew M. Chingos, which demonstrated the effect size of curriculum and instructional materials rival those associated with differences in teacher effectiveness, the go-to strategy in the ed reform playbook.

“The Common Core train has left the station, but we don’t know yet whether that train will follow a route that leads to a restored American curriculum and a nation of literate and knowledgeable adults,” Stern warns.  “Whatever differences they might have on other issues, school reformers of all stripes should monitor and comment on the standards’ implementation in the coming years. Reformers could help ensure that the curricula that state and local school-district officials select meet the Common Core’s own benchmark of ‘rich content knowledge.’”

“That would be E. D. Hirsch’s final victory,” writes Stern.

The Fierce Urgency of Eventually

by Robert Pondiscio
December 24th, 2010

A version of this piece appears in the most recent edition of Fordham’s Education Gadfly.

Last Wednesday in New York City, Michelle Rhee was awarded the Manhattan Institute’s 2010 Urban Innovator Award.  In her acceptance speech, the former Washington, DC Chancellor discussed her new high-profile initiative, Students First, and its goal of raising $1 billion to advocate for “real change,” which she defined as putting students’ needs “before those of special interests or wasteful bureaucracies.”

Reflecting on her attempt to turn around Washington’s schools, Rhee said she ultimately learned that she was “playing the wrong game.” 

“I would spend my time, as many education reformers across the country do, talking to politicians and trying to appeal to their sense of what is good and right for children and meanwhile you’ve got the interest groups like the teachers unions funding their campaigns.  So at the end of the day, who are you going to go with?  The nice little lady over here who says you can do good for kids?  Or the people who are going to get you re-elected?”

Fordham’s Checker Finn see Rhee’s move from educator to advocate as part of a broader trend.  There has been, he notes, a “profound shift” away from the research and education agenda of non-profit groups toward “political hardball—cash contributions to campaigns, outright advocacy of this candidate and denunciation of the other one, the shrewd use of paid lobbyists, influence-peddlers, campaign consultants, marketing experts, and public relations firms,” Finn wrote.  It is, he observes wistfully, not an entirely welcome development.

“Part of me wishes this weren’t happening in education, as it has and is in just about every other sector of American life. Part of me wishes the old model would endure and in time prevail by virtue of its powerful analyses, moral superiority, and irrefutable arguments.”

After the Manhattan Institute event, I had the opportunity to talk briefly with Rhee about my reform game –curriculum, teaching and learning.  I wondered out loud whether it made sense to reach conclusions about the effectiveness of individual teachers who are poorly trained and have no say over their curriculum or, more often than not, no curriculum at all. 

“I know you have a lot on your plate,” I concluded. “But I’d urge you to at least keep curriculum in mind.” 

“The last thing we’re going to do,” she replied with a chuckle, “is get wrapped up in curriculum battles.”

A stunning reply if you think about it.  The poster child for bare-knuckle reform, who moments earlier was urging her listeners to “embrace conflict,” has no stomach for a debate about what kids should learn in school.  Is it that difficult or controversial, for example, to say that all kindergarteners should learn shapes, colors and to count to 20?   Confronting the teachers unions on pay and tenure  is worth a fight, yet it is too heavy a lift to say what third graders should know about American history, geography or science—or whether they need to know anything at all?

It is not my intention to single out Michelle Rhee.  She is merely the most vocal and visible representative of a theory of change that sees structures, and increasingly political power, as the coin of the realm.  I have no illusions:  Education reform may be sexy, but curriculum is not.  It doesn’t get you on Oprah or the cover of Newsweek.  We are unlikely, now or ever, to see a bold initiative to raise one billion dollars to advocate for a coherent, knowledge-rich curriculum for every child in the early grades, even though, for high-mobility, low-income children in particular, it would surely be among the most impactful reforms we could offer. 

What I cannot accept, however, is that to focus on instruction—on curriculum and teaching—is to play the “wrong game.”  To accept this argument is to believe that the educational outcome of Jose or Malik in the South Bronx or Detroit is more deeply affected by who wins a primary for a House race somewhere in California than what they learn in school all day.  It is to believe that electing the “right people” matters more than what teachers teach and what children learn.

“For three decades, education has been driven by special interests,” Rhee concluded in her Manhattan Institute speech.  That’s one diagnosis.  Another one belongs to E.D. Hirsch, who points out in The Making of Americans that our schools have gone six decades without a curriculum.   Earlier this year, at an Aspen Institute panel discussion, AFT head Randi Weingarten hit the nail on the head when asked why ed reformers aren’t concerned about curriculum.  “This stuff is really important,” she replied.  “And it’s really boring.” 

Playing kingmaker, by contrast, is the best, most glamorous game there is.  But it’s an expensive, time-consuming, long-term play.  It does nothing to effect change today, and essentially writes off yet another generation of children to mediocrity and underperformance.  It represents the fierce urgency of eventually. 

It is the perfect right of Michelle Rhee and others committing their careers and their dollars to ed reform advocacy groups to play whatever games they wish, under whatever terms they choose.  But forgive me if I don’t see this as the last word in “What’s Best for Kids.”  The rhetoric is a bit of a sham, frankly, since a big part of what we know works best for children is a coherent curriculum. 

Call it what you like, but don’t call it the wrong game.