Getting started with core standards

Fordham’s Common Core in the Districts: An Early Look at Early Implementers examines how school leaders and teachers are implementing new standards “in a high-performing suburb, a trailblazer, an urban bellwether, and a creative implementer.”

“In the absence of externally vetted, high-quality Common Core materials, districts are striving—with mixed success—to devise their own, the report finds.

Delivering quality CCSS-aligned professional development also is “crucial” and “patchy.”

Core-aligned tests aren’t ready either. 

Seventy-three percent of teachers in Common Core states say they’re enthusiastic about the new standards, but think implementation will be challenging, according to a survey by Scholastic and the Gates Foundation.

Many teachers say they need more training and resources, especially for low-achieving students.

Fifty-seven percent of teachers believe the new standards will be positive for most students; only 8 percent predict a negative impact.

Knowledge at the Core

Knowledge at the Core, a new Fordham e-book of essays, argues that Common Core standards won’t work without a “sequential, content-rich curriculum.”

The essays in Knowledge at the Core also pay tribute to the work of E. D. (Don) Hirsch, Jr., author of Cultural Literacy  and other education reform books and founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation.

Essays include: Me, My Sons, and E. D. Hirsch by Sol Stern, Complex Texts Require Complex Knowledge by Ruth Wattenberg, There Are No Shortcuts by Robert Pondiscio and Building Teacher Enthusiasm for Core Knowledge by the Farkas Duffett Research Group. Hirsch contributes Sustaining the American Experiment, Romancing the Child and Why I’m For the Common Core.

What should students know?

What should students know? Robert Pondiscio asks Deborah Meier on Ed Week‘s Bridging Differences blog.

In an earlier post about the “hidden curriculum,” Meier said a good school is judged by how it  “responds to the cultural norms, conditions, language, relationships that all the constituents bring to school with them.”

What about history, math and science? asks Pondiscio.

Meier’s schools — Central Park East Secondary School (Harlem) and Mission Hill (Boston) — set very clear graduation requirements, she responds.  The schools teach history, math, physical and natural science, literature and the arts in a “more interdisciplinary manner.” The schools encourage “curiosity, debate, skepticism, and a commitment to getting at the truth about the ‘essential questions’ in each discipline.”

Students work was expected to demonstrate five intellectual habits of mind:

 What’s the evidence? Is there a pattern?  Is there an alternate perspective, explanation? What if? And who cares?

. . . Students were rated on their written and oral ability to present their views and defend them.  We thought the five “habits” met both academic and “real life” standards. (We developed a separate list of work and social/moral habits—meeting deadlines, etc.)

“Our students’ record of success” satisfied many skeptics, despite the lack of a list of “specific information” to be taught, writes Meier. 

“I want our students to be prepped for the real world, and I hope colleges do, too,” Meier concludes. Students did well in college interviews — and in college — because “they were unusually well prepared to carry on a conversation with adults in a thoughtful and lively way.”

If you like your curriculum, you can …

“If You Like Your Curriculum, You Can Keep Your Curriculum,” Common Core advocates promised. But it ain’t necessarily so, writes Jason Bedrick at Cato @ Liberty. “Common Core’s primary backers have been assuring us for years that the standards do not mandate any specific curriculum or prescribe any particular method of teaching,” he notes.

Six months ago, Kathleen Porter-Magee and Sol Stern wrote in National Review Online:

Here’s what the Common Core State Standards do: They simply delineate what children should know at each grade level and describe the skills that they must acquire to stay on course toward college or career readiness. They are not a curriculum; it’s up to school districts to choose curricula that comply with the standards.

Now Porter-Magee and Fordham’s Chester Finn argue that the standards must change “classroom practice” to be effective, notes Bedrick.

Furthermore, the National Council on Teacher Quality, backed by Fordham, is grading teacher training programs on whether “the program trains teacher candidates to teach reading as prescribed by the Common Core State Standards.”

“Prescribed?”  I thought Common Core didn’t prescribe pedagogy.  But that was back when I was young and we were dating.

“Fordham and others trying to hold down the right flank of the Common Core advocacy campaign” need to “keep their story straight,” concludes Bedrick.

SAT: 43% are college ready

Forty-three percent of SAT takers were prepared for college-level work, according to this year’s SAT Report on College & Career Readiness. Overall, scores were the same, but black and Hispanic students improved slightly.

Students who score 1550 or above on the three-part exam are likely to complete their degree.

Blacks and Hispanics took less rigorous courses and earned lower grades. Only 27 percent of black students and 36 percent of Hispanics said they’d earned an A average compared to 60 percent of Asian-Americans and 53 percent of whites.

College Board officials aren’t blaming a larger, more diverse testing pool for the stagnating scores, notes CollegeBound. Diversity is an “excuse,” said David Coleman, president of College Board. “It’s time to really consider how to get many, many more students into rigorous coursework that will enable them to break through a performance freeze that is limiting opportunity.”

Where schoolwork is hard, kids get ‘smart’

For all those who loathed psychologist Peter Gray’s argument for self-directed learning in School is bad for kids, here’s cognitive scientist Dan Willingham’s paean to rigorous curriculum and hard work.

In The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley tells the the education success stories of Finland, South Korea and Poland, Willingham writes. In all three countries, students engage ” from an early age, in rigorous work that poses significant cognitive challenge.”
When schoolwork is challenging, students fail frequently, “so failure necessarily is seen as a normal part of the learning process, and as an opportunity for learning, not a cause of shame.”

South Koreans, Finns and Poles expect schoolwork to be hard, Ripley writes.

By contrast, Americans believe “learning is natural” and “should be easy,” Willingham writes. If a student has to try much harder than classmates, he’s a candidate for a disability diagnosis.

Our expectation that learning should be easy makes us fall for educational gimmicks, Willingham writes. “Can’t learn math? It’s because your learning style hasn’t been identified. Trouble with Spanish? This new app will make it fun and effortless.”

Ripley discounts explanations for U.S. students’ mediocre performance on the science and math portions of PISA. Willingham agrees:

Poverty is higher in the U.S. Not compared to Poland. And other countries with low poverty (e.g. Norway) don’t end up with well educated kids. The relevant statistic is how much worse poor kids do relative to rich kids within a country. The U.S fares poorly on this statistic.

The U.S. doesn’t spend enough money on education. Actually we outspend nearly everyone. . .

The US has lots of immigrants and they score low. Other countries do a better job of educating kids who do not speak the native language.

The kids in other countries who take PISA are the elite. Arguably true in Shanghai, but not Korea or Finland, both of which boast higher graduation rates than the US.

Why should we compare our kids to those of foreign countries? Willingham answers: “Because those other kids are showing what we could offer our own children, and are not.”

By the way, Gray panned Willingham’s book, Why Don’t Students Like School?

New SAT aims to help low-income students

By focusing on what’s taught in school, the new SAT will help students who can’t afford test prep, writes Ilana Garon, a Bronx high school teacher.

The ACT has passed the SAT in popularity, notes Garon.

While both the current SAT and the ACT have Reading and Writing sections, the SAT currently focuses on vocabulary and more verbally complex reading passages, while the ACT does away with vocabulary definition questions in favor of questions about punctuation and a longer, more involved focus on writing mechanics. In the Reading section, the ACT features articles in four known categories (as opposed to the random selection offered on the SAT), as well as a Science section, which makes students analyze graphs. The Math section of the ACT more closely aligns with a high school math curriculum, while the SAT features some logic games, which are more similar to LSAT questions, and does not include trigonometry.

Students who are strong in math or visually oriented will do better on the ACT, while “verbal” students “may find the SAT plays to their strengths,” writes Garon.

One of the on-going problems with the current SAT is not that it is “harder” than the ACT (as some would argue) but the fact that, more than its rival, it focuses on material outside of the scope of a high school curriculum. For wealthier students, an SAT tutor becomes a mandatory accessory; for many poor students, this type of service is out of reach, leaving them to take a test that is disconnected from what they’re learning in their regular classes with only sparse opportunities for preparation

College Board plans to inform low-income achievers about scholarships and aid to pay their way to selective colleges. But raising college awareness may be less important than redesigning the test, concludes Garon.

I’m not optimistic that the new SAT will be an equalizer:  Students who go to academically strong schools will have a huge advantage.

Prepare for new SAT, digital ACT

College admissions tests are changing, reports the New York Times.

Say farewell to vocabulary flashcards with arcane words like “compendious,” “membranous,” “mendacious,” “pugnacious,” “depreciatory,” “redolent,” “treacly” and “jettison.” In the new SAT, to be unveiled in 2015, David Coleman, president of the College Board, wants to get rid of obscure words that are . . . just SAT words, and replace them with more common words like “synthesis,” “distill” and “transform,” used in context as they will be in college and in life.

And the math? “There are a few things that matter disproportionately, like proportional reasoning, linear equations and linear functions,” Mr. Coleman said. “Those are the kinds of things we’re going to concentrate on.”

“And it shouldn’t just be about picking the right answer,” he said. “It should be about being able to explain, and see, the applications of this math.”

Coleman, a principal architect of Common Core standards, wants the SAT to align with what students learn in high school instead of trying to measure “aptitude.”

The ACT, which already is more curriculum-based, will be given on computers and will include “more creative, hands-on questions,” the Times reports. In addition, ACT will offer yearly testing as early as third grade to “help guide students to college readiness.”

Coleman plans to change grading for the SAT essay, which lets students “get top marks for declaring that the Declaration of Independence was written by Justin Bieber and sparked the French Revolution, as long as the essay is well organized and develops a point of view.”

 “We should not be encouraging students to make up the facts,” Mr. Coleman said. “We should be asking them to construct an argument supported by their best evidence.”

Over and over, Mr. Coleman returns to the need to prod students into marshaling their evidence. “The heart of the revised SAT will be analyzing evidence,” he said. “The College Board is reaching out to teachers and college faculty to help us design questions that, for example, could ask students to use math to analyze the data in an economics study or the results of a scientific experiment, or analyze the evidence provided within texts in literature, history, geography or natural science.”

In 2005, the SAT dropped analogies and added more advanced math. However, the test is losing market share to the ACT, which last year was taken by more students.

Uncommon curriculum

Closing the vocabulary gap would help close the opportunity gap, argues Fordham’s Mike Petrilli, a guest on the Bridging Differences blog. Children from low-income families start kindergarten with an enormous vocabulary deficit, he writes. Preschools and elementary schools can build children’s vocabulary by teaching them history, science, art, music, literature and geography.

Yes, to little kids. (You know, the ones who are curious about EVERYTHING. Who can learn a TON just by listening to a good read-aloud story.)

E.D. Hirsch has argued for 30 years that the key to building students’ vocabularies, and thus their ability to read and learn, is content knowledge. Once a child learns to decode, her “comprehension” ability mainly comes down to the store of knowledge she’s got in her head. If she can sound out words but can’t read a passage about dinosaurs, it’s not because she hasn’t been taught “comprehension skills”—it’s probably because she’s never been taught anything about dinosaurs.

Yet our preschools and elementary schools systematically reject this obvious approach because they deem it not “developmentally appropriate.” Furthermore, they say, why teach all those “facts” when kids can just Google them?

High-poverty schools make it worse if they delay teaching social studies and science — usually untested — until fourth or fifth grade to spend more time teaching reading in the early grades. This is “nuts,” writes Petrilli. “Teaching content is teaching reading.”

Building vocabulary doesn’t require a common curriculum, responds Deborah Meier. She’s all for teaching “stuff.” But there are many ways to do that, she writes.

As with our first language we need to rely on building vocabulary by: (1) having a more diverse student body (racial and class integration); (2) having a lot of adults around to interact with and smaller class sizes (like good private schools do); (3) engaging in studies that require collaboration between students and students, and students and adults—including adult-written texts; (4) encouraging reading in settings that are designed to naturally arouse interest—motivate—or that answer questions youngsters really want to know; and (5) remembering that vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and spelling are most efficiently learned the same way we learn everything else that matters.

We learn to drive by driving and to cook by cooking, which means allowing 6- to 12-year-olds to read (and listen to) repetitive and engaging books which do not present too much of a “cognitive” or empathy challenge.

Progressive preschools don’t think knowing facts is “developmentally inappropriate,” Meier writes. But they believe direct instruction isn’t needed to ”

kick in this love of reading, of hobbies, of facts, of curiosity, of indefatigable and repetitive practice in subjects and skills” kids are fascinated by. “Our job is to extend” kids’ curiosity, she concludes. Too often, schools kill it.

Too soon for Common Core tests?

Move ahead with Common Core testing, editorialized the New York Times on Sunday.  Tough new math and English tests “are an essential part of rigorous education reforms” designed to teach reasoning skills.

In Kentucky, the first state to adopt Common Core-aligned tests, the proportion of students rated “proficient” or better in math and reading dropped by about a third, notes the Times, which warns New Yorkers to prepare for a shock.

California won’t be ready for Common Core testing, which is scheduled to start in the 2014-15 school year, editorializes the Los Angeles Times. The state “hasn’t figured out how to go about training teachers, and won’t begin to adopt new textbooks — a slow and politically rancorous process — for at least two years.”

What’s more, common core is expensive, requiring extensive new training for teachers, new textbooks and computers on which the new tests must be taken. It’s unclear where the state will find the money.

At the rate the state is going, teachers will end up being trained before the English curriculum is even in place, and instruction would start before the new textbooks are in anyone’s hands. Yet if the school reform movement has its way, teachers will be evaluated in part based on how well their students do on the very different standardized tests that go with the new curriculum. Reflecting the concern that teachers throughout the state have been expressing, one California teacher recently tweeted that within a couple of years, “we start testing on standards we’re not teaching with curriculum we don’t have on computers that don’t exist.”

Teachers believe they’re being “set up for failure,” the editorial warns. Common Core will be “yet another education flash in the pan” unless it’s “carefully implemented with meaningful tests that are aligned with what the students are supposed to learn.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, wants to cut off federal money to implement Common Core State Standards, but his proposal probably isn’t going anywhere.