Against core standards

Today, California’s board of education is expected to adopt the Common Core Standards already approved by 30-odd states.

Dissenters Bill Evers and Ze’ev Wurman believe California will trade eighth-grade algebra for an “obese, unteachable” math course. Despite the state standards, many eighth graders can’t handle algebra.  Yet Evers and Wurman argue that setting the bar high has helped students.

Over the past decade and a half, California’s Latino student population has almost doubled from 30 percent to over 50 percent, many of them facing special learning challenges. Yet the number of students taking algebra by eighth grade has jumped from 16 percent to 60 percent, while the success rate has jumped from 39 percent to 48 percent since 2002. In 2002, only a third of high school students took Algebra 2 by grade 11; now more than half take it, and with increasing success rates.

More importantly, between 2003 and 2009 the number of African American students successfully taking Algebra 1 by grade 8 more than tripled from 1,700 to 5,400; the jump among Hispanic students was from 10,000 to 45,000; and for students from low-income households, from 12,000 to 49,000. Algebra 2 in high school shows similar results. Finally, since 1997, California State University freshman enrollment has doubled from 25,000 to 50,000, while remediation rates in mathematics have dropped from 54 percent to 37 percent.

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders, a veteran of the “math wars,” warns that going from “fuzzy crap” math — as the state education secretary called it — to eighth-grade algebra was a tough fight: “Once you’ve captured turf, you have to hold it.”

Massachusetts, another state with high standards, already has adopted the common core. Sandra Stotsky, who helped create the state’s standards, protests the decision.

In a New York Times’ Room for Debate last year, Stotsky said English teachers aren’t prepared to teach the common core English Language Arts standards, which call for students to learn to read scientific and historical texts as part of English class.

Go here to read Common Core’s Standards Still Don’t Make the Grade: Why California and Massachusetts Must Retain Control Over Their Academic Destinies by Stosky and Wurman.

Pushed hard by Arne Duncan, all but a few states seem certain to adopt the new standards. How will they implement them? That’s another question.

Update: Minnesota will not adopt Common Core Standards; they think the math standards are unclear and want to retain local control.

Will we ever learn?

Will We Ever Learn? ask Robert Lerman of the Urban Institue and Arnold Packer of SCANS in Education Week. That is, will we ever learn to stop forcing a one-size-fits-all college-prep curriculum on all students.

Many high schools require Algebra 2, they write, but “Northeastern University sociologist Michael Handel has found that only 9 percent of people in the workforce ever use this knowledge, and that fewer than 20 percent of managerial, professional, or technical workers report using any Algebra 2 material.”

Part of the reason high schools fail so many kids is that educators can’t get free of the notion that all students—regardless of their career aspirations—need the same basic preparation. States are piling on academic courses, removing the arts, and downplaying career and technical education to make way for a double portion of math. Meanwhile, career-focused programs, such as Wisconsin’s youth apprenticeships and well-designed career academies, are engaging students and raising their post-high-school earnings, especially among hard-to-reach, at-risk male students.

Research shows what employers want:

Successful workers communicate effectively, orally and in writing, and have social and behavioral skills that make them responsible and good at teamwork. They are creative and techno-savvy, have a good command of fractions and basic statistics, and can apply relatively simple math to real-world problems such as those concerning financial or health literacy. Employers never mention polynomial factoring . . .

The proposed common core standards ignore career readiness in favor of college-prep, they write. “We need rigorous but basic academics, homing in on skills that will be used, and not short-shrifting the ‘soft skill’ behaviors that lead to success in college and careers.”

I’m not sure how schools could get rigorous about “soft skill” behaviors. But I see very little in most high schools to engage career-minded students.

Race to new tests

Competition has opened for $350 million in Race To The Top funding for new assessments linked to common standards, reports Education Week. That means less multiple-choice testing  and more “essays, multidisciplinary projects, and other more nuanced measures of achievement.”

(The Education Department) wants tests that show not only what students have learned, but also how that achievement has grown over time and whether they are on track to do well in college. And all that, the regulations say, requires assessments that elicit “complex student demonstrations or applications” of what they’ve learned.

There is money for “comprehensive assessment systems” measuring mastery of a “common set of college- and career-ready” standards. Applicants get points for working with state universities to design the tests and guarantee that students who score above a certain level will be able to enroll in for-credit college classes.

Another pot of money will fund end-of-course high school exams.

Stanford Education Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who leads a group representing a majority of states, believes performance assessments can improve the way teachers teach, notes John Fensterwald on Educated Guess.

The alternative is performance assessments, which require students to construct their own responses to questions. These can take the form of supplying short phrases or sentences to questions, writing essays or conducting complex and time-consuming activities, such as a lab experiment. “By tapping into students’ advanced thinking skills and abilities to explain their thinking, performance assessments yield a more complete picture of students’ strengths and weaknesses,” Darling-Hammond wrote.

“Performance assessments face obstacles of cost, reliability and testing time,” Fensterwald writes. He links to a critique of Darling-Hammond’s paper by Doug McRae, a retired publisher for the testing division of McGraw-Hill.

Because multiple-choice questions are cheap and easy to score, it’s possible to ask students a wide range of questions. As tests get more complex — write an essay, design an experiment, stage a debate — students  spend more time being assessed on far fewer prompts. Grading is subjective. Todd Farley’s Making the Grades explains tough it is for a group of people to score short answers and essays with consistency and fairness.

Core standards get reading right

Core standards could revolutionize reading instruction, writes E.D. Hirsch Jr., founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, on the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet.

The English Language Arts Standards include a call for “literacy in history/social students and science,” Hirsch points out. Standards writers explain that students need a “foundation of knowledge” to be “better readers in all content areas.” Hirsch could not agree more.

(The document) concedes explicitly that proficiency in reading and writing can only be achieved through a definite curriculum that is “coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.”

Currently, reading comprehension is taught as a series of transferable strategies, Hirsch writes. It’s assumed that if children can “find the main idea” or “question the author,” they can understand anything. But comprehension is based on knowledge.

Several studies show that “poor” readers suddenly look quite strong when reading on subjects they know a lot about, and “strong” readers who have weak subject knowledge, suddenly look quite weak. Despite this finding, students are boringly and time-wastingly taught to practice formal strategies on trivial fictions as though these strategies will somehow replace the subject-matter knowledge needed to become broadly literate.

Publishers could replace trivial fiction with a random assortment of trivial non-fiction, Hirsch writes. But he hopes the message will get through: There must be a “coherent, specific and content-rich” curriculum.  Strategies aren’t enough.

Here’s an Ed Next debate on national standards.

Core standards pushback

Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top is pushing states to sign on to proposed core standards, but some are pushing back.

Massachusetts, which spent six years creating successful academic standards, lost points in its RTTT application for refusing to commit in advance to “inferior national standards,” write Jim Stergios and Charles Chieppo of Pioneer Institute in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

While educational fads come and go –the governor is pushing “21st century skills” like “global awareness” and “cultural competence,” they complain — the academic standards are a bulwark against backsliding.

The national standards may be better than most state standards, but they’re still dumbing down schools, writes Terrence Moore in Big Government. He wants students to develop “depth of insight into how human beings think, believe, hope, and act.”

I ran a K-12 classical charter school for seven years. Not once did I or any of the teachers look at a state standard in reading or writing (math is something of a different case). The students did no test prep. When our students took the state exams, all they did was complain about how easy and worthless they were and how they wanted to get back to real learning. Every year the high school ranked in the top three in the state, twice coming out first. . . . The way to teach literacy for the twenty-first century turns out to be the same way it has been done in the last thirty centuries of civilization: to hire the brightest and best-educated teachers (usually not those coming out of a school of education considered “certified”), to put in their hands the best works of literature and history and philosophy, to invite young people to have a conversation about what it means to be a human being, and to require those students to work hard and demonstrate good character while doing so.

Test-prepped in K-12, college students can’t read critically, writes Heather Kim, a remedial writing instructor at Berkeley, in the San Francisco Chronicle. Her students rely on strategies for guessing what a passage means. They all did well enough in high school to qualify for California’s flagship state university, which is supposed to be one of the best in the country.

If Moore’s students could ace state tests by discussing literature, I wonder if test prep really helps students pass tests. I was told once by a researcher that test prep didn’t produce higher test scores in Texas; what worked was time spent teaching writing skills.

Californians question new math standards

Proposed common core standards are too weak for California schools, some critics say. From the San Jose Mercury News.

Rather than following in step with other states, critics say, California should be looking to keep up with India, Singapore and Europe. Compared with their peers in Europe and Asia, U.S. students are two to 2½ years behind in math; California students are 1½ years behind, said James Milgram, professor emeritus of math at Stanford University, who will help determine the new national standards.

Milgram doesn’t think California should adopt what he says will be weaker standards. Neither does Ze’ev Wurman, a Palo Alto high-tech executive and former adviser to the U.S. Department of Education.

“Essentially we are giving up on the hope of teaching algebra in the eighth grade,” he said. He charges the proposed standards set the bar too low for college readiness.

However, Professor Hung-Hsi Wu of UC Berkeley, who worked on the proposed standards, believes California’s algebra-by-eighth-grade requirement — often ignored by schools — has not improved achievement. The new proposal “spells out a more reasonable way to approach mathematics education,” he said.

California’s math standards are highly rated, but many students don’t come close to reaching them.

Common standards, many opinions

Comments are pouring in on common core standards, reports Ed Week’s Catherine Gewertz.

Chris Minnich, who’s leading the common-standards work for the Council of Chief State School Officers, told me that the comments are currently trending about 75 percent positive and 25 percent negative. Not that we can know that independently; the current plan is not to post any of the actual comments, so we can see for ourselves, but to summarize them at the end.

Gewertz suggests editing out the profanity and posting the rest.

Standards will raise expectations in math and English classrooms, conclude Fordham’s experts.

On the math side, while some tweaks are needed, particularly to the organization of the high school expectations, our reviewers found rigorous, internationally-competitive standards that earn an impressive A-.

On the ELA side, the draft standards earn a solid B. And with some clarification of vague standards and the addition of more references to specific content that students must know in order to demonstrate mastery of the essential college-readiness skills outlined by the draft, these standards have the potential to be top notch.

Fordham warns:

On the implementation side, if these standards are going to realize their promise and truly drive student achievement, states will need to ensure that these standards are linked to rigorous, content-rich curricula and outstanding instruction. Even rigorous standards, after all, only describe the destination.

The wheels are coming off the national standards train, counters Jay Greene.

Core confusion

States won’t be able to pick and choose which common core standards they adopt, reports Catherine Gewertz on Curriculum Matters.

At a meeting in Las Vegas, Scott Montgomery of the Council of Chief State School Officers and David Wakelyn of the National Governors Association, the two groups organizing the initiative, “said that when a state adopts the common-core standards, it must adopt the whole thing, not just parts of it,” Gewertz writes.

The first draft of core standards is being rewritten, in response to feedback. Reviewers said the English standards were hard to understand.

A source at the American Federation of Teachers said the union would like to see more clarity of language and grade-by-grade specificity, “so a teacher could pick it up and teach to it.” The group also spotted grade-sequencing problems in some places, the source said, such as requiring a math skill in one grade level without prerequisite skills in the previous grade.

Core standards need improvement, writes the Boston Herald.

As one example of what was wrong in English (among many possibilities), Massachusetts reviewers singled out a “core” standard for ninth and 10th grades: Students should be able to “articulate theses and themes and summarize how they develop over the course of a text and how they are expressed by the details.” The objection: “No experienced teacher would ever ask a student to do that. And an inexperienced teacher would be led to think that every work has both a theme and a thesis.”

In mathematics, among other problems, the reviewers cautioned against using words that “teachers, parents (and) members of the public may not be familiar with,” such as “transitivity” and “bivariate.”

Massachusetts already has good standards that have been tested in the classroom and won’t be eager to accept second-rate substitutes. I wonder why the core folks can’t just copy Massachusetts, modifying where necessary, rather than starting from scratch.

In an Education Week week column, a former high school and college teacher laments the “failure of imagination” in the core standards for writing, which call for students to “establish a topic, sustain focus, represent data accurately, revise their own writing ‘when necessary,’ and use technology as a tool.”

Of the 18 proposed core writing standards, eight, or nearly half, refer explicitly to writing arguments or explanations: the second and fourth, and standards 13 through 18.

Narrative writing is considered “a component of making an argument and writing to inform or explain.”

Good writers do more — and don’t always follow the rules, Edgar H. Schuster writes.

But the standards’ goal is to produce competent writers capable of writing college papers; it’s not to turn out good writers.

My high school taught nothing but expository writing — the 3-3-3 paragraph — in English for all four years. We hated it, but we were “college ready.”