After 30 years, still at risk?

Thirty years ago, the Nation At Risk report warned that “a rising tide of mediocrity” -- low educational standards — “threatens our very future as a nation and a people.”

High schools pushed students to take more rigorous college-prep courses. Students now earn significantly more science and math credits, notes the Washington Post.

Other recommendations, such as extending the school year to 220 days and paying teachers for 11 months of work, were ignored.

A Nation At Risk kicked off the education reform movement

Where Are We Now? asks Education Week.

Rigor is the answer writes Core Knowledge’s Lisa Hansel on the Shanker Blog. “Progressive educators’ misunderstandings of the essential role of specific, relevant knowledge in reading comprehension and critical thinking resulted in weak curricula being the norm and pockets of excellence typically being reserved for our most advantaged youth,’she writes.

Here’s an analysis from Fordham and the American Enterprise Institute:

 

Tougher tests spur anxiety, opt-outs

New York’s new Common Core-aligned tests are bringing “protests and tears,” reports the New York  Times.

Complaints were plentiful: the tests were too long; students were demoralized to the point of tears; teachers were not adequately prepared. Some parents, long skeptical of the emphasis on standardized testing, forbade their children from participating.

“All the kids were, like, open-mouthed, crazy-shocked and very upset,” said.Maya Velasquez, 14, an eighth grader at the Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering.

Education officials are predicting test scores will nosedive in the first year.

 Across the city on Thursday, teachers and principals reported that the test required more stamina and concentration than students were used to.

Students said they struggled with questions that asked them to discuss how a writer constructed a story rather than about the content of the passage itself. One question, for instance, asked students to analyze how an author built suspense in describing a girl whose rope snapped while in a cave.

At the Computer School on the Upper West Side, students said teachers had warned them that the test would be the most challenging they had taken. “When they ask, ‘What’s the main idea?’ and you have to put it in your own words, it’s a lot harder,” said Ron Yogev, a sixth grader.

That was the point. David Coleman, president of the College Board and an architect of the Common Core standards, told critics to chill. “When the alternative is shallower passages and shallower questions, what are we debating here?” he said.

Some parents, especially in affluent areas, are opting out of testing, notes Dana Goldstein in a blog post on Test Resentment and the Politics of the Common Core.

The new tests were “rolled out” before many schools and teachers received new curriculum materials and training.

. . .  the decision to move quickly was a deliberate one on the part of state policy-makers; since the exams are tied to teacher evaluations and high school graduation requirements, rolling them out sends a strong message that officials expect instruction to improve now. The risk is that the Common Core movement will lose political support as families and schools receive low test scores, and that states like New York will grade the exams on such a steep curve that their purpose–raising expectations–will be watered down.

It takes “fortitude” to stick with rigorous tests when many students do badly — especially if they’re middle-class students — Goldstein concludes.

Conservatives can like the Common Core

Conservatives should support the Common Core standards, write Kathleen Porter-Magee and Sol Stern, who describe themselves as “education scholars at two right-of-center think tanks” (Fordham and the Manhattan Institute).

Glenn Beck  calls the standards a stealth “leftist indoctrination” plot by the Obama administration. Michelle Malkin warns that they will “eliminate American children’s core knowledge base in English, language arts and history.”  Not so, write Porter-Magee and Stern.

Common Core State Standards . . . describe what children should know and the skills that they must acquire at each grade level to stay on course toward college- or career-readiness, something that conservatives have long argued for. They were written and adopted by governors—not by the Obama administration—thus preserving state control over K–12 education. And they are much more focused on rigorous back-to-basics content than the vast majority of state standards they replaced.

Common Core doesn’t force English teachers to drop To Kill a Mockingbird in favor of government manuals, they write.  All teachers — not just English teachers — will expose students to informational texts and literary nonfiction. That includes “foundational texts of American history—the Gettysburg Address, Common Sense, and works of thought leaders like Emerson and Thoreau.”

(Non-fiction reading can inspire creativity, writes an AP English teacher in Ed Week’s Teacher.)

On the math side, opponents argue the standards are “squishy, progressive and lacking in rigorous content.”  But the math standards are dominated by content, write Porter-Magee and Stern.

 Unlike many of the replaced state standards, Common Core demands automaticity (memorization) with basic math facts, mastery of standard algorithms, and understanding of critical arithmetic. These essential foundational math skills are not only required but prioritized, particularly in the early grades. The math standards focus in depth on fewer topics that coherently build over time.

“For decades, conservatives have fought to hold students accountable for high standards and an academic curriculum imbued with great works of Western civilization and the American republic,” conclude Porter-Magee and Stern. “This is our chance to make it happen.”

Common Core could lead to “federal control of school curricula,” writes Neal McCluskey on Cato’s blog.  Porter-Magee will serve on the U.S. Department of Education’s technical review panel vetting Common Core tests developed by “Department-selected consortia,” he adds. If the feds control the tests, they control what’s taught in schools, argues McCluskey.

The bigotry of low (teacher) expectations

Common Core Standards didn’t invent effective teaching, writes Julie Greenberg in  The bigotry of low (teacher) expectations in the National Council on Teacher Quality’s blog. She objects to step 5 in Six Steps to Teacher Development, a joint production of the Gates Foundation and the American Federation of Teachers.

Districts are encouraged to “Align teacher development and evaluation to the Common Core Standards.”

..while most teachers are adept at classroom management skills, teachers have long been taught to fit a lot of material in a short period of time, not to ask high-level questions or to engage students in rigorous discussions.

Greenberg taught secondary math for 13 years without being advised to ask low-level questions and avoid rigorous discussion. Nobody helped her improve her questioning or discussion techniques. Perhaps the new standards will do so, she writes.

But I’m also worried that districts will fall into the same old professional development trap they’re in now, paying some pricey “Common Core” consultants to portray  the need for better questioning and discussion techniques to teachers as breaking news without any follow-through on real improved practice.

Greenberg provides a caricature of teachers attending the typical professional development session. It’s all too close to reality, she writes.
 

Core math adds coherence, rigor, focus

Common Core’s new math standards “have the potential to improve average student achievement” by adding focus, rigor and coherence, predict  William H. Schmidt and Nathan A. Burroughs in the new American Educator.

Common Core State Standards in math resemble the high-quality standards of high-achieving nations, they conclude.

Furthermore, states with standards similar to CCSS-M had the highest eighth-grade mathematics score on the 2009 NAEP. “The more similar the standards were to the CCSS-M, the higher student achievement.”

Algebra 1 for all — but it’s not always algebra

Nearly all high graduates in the class of ’05 passed Algebra I — or a course labeled Algebra I, concludes a new federal study. But fewer than one in four studied the challenging algebra topics needed to prepare for college-level math, the National Assessment of Educational Progress study found. Most geometry and “integrated math” also were watered down. From Education Week.

Education watchers hoping to close persistent achievement gaps among students of different racial and ethnic groups long have pushed for all students to take “college-ready” class schedules, including at least four years of high school math, including Algebra I and II, Geometry, and Calculus. Here, at least, the transcript study shows this push has paid off: Graduates in 2005 earned on average 3.8 credits in math, significantly more than the average of 3.2 credits earned by graduates in 1990. Moreover, from 1990 to 2005, black graduates closed a six-percentage-point gap with white graduates in the percentages of students earning at least three math credits, including in algebra and geometry.

Two thirds of Algebra I and Geometry courses covered core content topics. However, the quality of courses varied widely. Only a third of algebra students spent 60 percent of their time on challenging topics such as functions and advanced number theory. Only a fifth of geometry students primarily studied rigorous material.

“We found that there is very little truth-in-labeling for high school Algebra I and Geometry courses,” said Sean P. “Jack” Buckley, the NCES commissioner, in a statement on the study.

“Honors” meant nothing in algebra:  ”Regular” Algebra I classes were more likely to be rigorous than “honors” classes. Geometry honors classes were more likely to be rigorous, but only a third of honors geometry classes contained challenging material, compared with 19 percent of regular geometry classes.

Researchers analyzed the textbooks used; it’s possible teachers added more challenging supplemental material. However, “students who took classes that covered more rigorous topics in algebra and geometry scored significantly higher on the NAEP than those who studied beginner topics, regardless of the course’s title,” Ed Week reports.

It’s no wonder so many high school graduates are placed in remedial math in college, despite passing high school math courses, often with B’s and C’s.

Ohio: Exit exam will test college readiness

Ohio will replace its high-school graduation test with a tougher college-readiness exam and end-of-course tests, reports the Columbus Dispatch.

The current graduation test asks for 10th-grade skills. Forty-two percent of first-year college students in the state require remedial coursework.

The new college- and career-readiness test has not been developed. There’s “talk of using the ACT,” which would be provided free of charge, reports the Dispatch. End-of-course exams will be required in English I, II and III, algebra I, geometry, algebra II, biology, physical science, American history and American government. Test grades will count as a portion of the grade for the course.

So what happens when the failure rate soars? And what about Ohio students who aren’t prepping for college but want a high school diploma to qualify for an apprenticeship or the military?

Young, gifted and neglected

Very smart kids don’t have enough opportunities to soar, argues Checker Finn in a New York Times op-ed. Low achievers are the priority.

First, we’re weak at identifying “gifted and talented” children early, particularly if they’re poor or members of minority groups or don’t have savvy, pushy parents.

Second, at the primary and middle-school levels, we don’t have enough gifted-education classrooms (with suitable teachers and curriculums) to serve even the existing demand.

. .  .Third, many high schools have just a smattering of honors or Advanced Placement classes, sometimes populated by kids who are bright but not truly prepared to succeed in them.

With Jessica A. Hockett, Finn wrote Exam Schools, a look at public high schools for very bright, very motivated students. Only 1 percent of students attends an exam school, they found. Almost all turn away many qualified applicants.

Why do we provide high-quality learning opportunities only to high-IQ students, asks Sara Mead. She agrees with Finn that our schools don’t maximize the potential of talented low-income and minority students. She believes in “differentiating in schooling to meet the needs of students with differing aptitudes and interests. ”

But the grim reality is that in practice the gifted and talented label–and special programs for youngsters who wear it–often has less to do with meeting specific and unique needs of especially bright youngsters than with rationing access to a limited supply of quality educational options. That’s why parents in places like New York City (where “gifted” children may gain access to specialized placements as early as in kindergarten) are spending exorbitant effort and money to get their kids identified as gifted.

Implicit in many of Finn’s arguments seems to be the assumption that we can’t possibly provide academically demanding, safe, high-quality schools staffed by excellent teachers for all of our kids, so we’d best focus on those who are likely to amount to something some day.

It’s excellent students — not excellent teachers — that make exam schools so good. It should be possible to create good schools for motivated, not-gifted students.  But can it be done for everyone?

America’s math problem

Stop teaching dumbed-down algebra to unprepared eighth graders and we can solve America’s math problem argues Jacob Vigdor in an American Enterprise Institute report. Unprepared students don’t benefit from Algebra Lite and prepared students are turned off to math, he argues.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools pushed most eighth graders into algebra classes, he writes. Students scored much lower on the end-of-course exam than those allowed to take algebra in ninth grade — and accelerated students did worse in geometry. The district abandoned the experiment after two years.

Our math problems are largely “self-inflicted,” Vigdor writes. In order to bring low performers up to the standard, schools have lowered standards.

Closing the achievement gap by improving the performance of struggling students is hard; closing the gap by reducing the quality of education offered to high performers—for example, by eliminating tracking and promoting universal access to “rigorous” courses while reducing the definition of rigor—is easy.

The first step to improving math performance is to concede that students differ in abilities, he concludes.

Algebra for all is a growing trend, notes Sarah Garland on Hechinger Ed. “Schools across the country are gearing up this fall to introduce new common standards, which promise that ‘students who have completed 7th grade and mastered the content and skills through the 7th grade will be well-prepared for algebra in grade 8′.”

Is BASIS too tough for D.C. students?

BASIS, which runs very rigorous, very high performing charter schools in Arizona, will expand to Washington, D.C. this fall. The school will start with grades 5 through 8, then add a high school. Fifth graders read Beowulf, sixth graders take physics and Latin, seventh graders take algebra and high school students must pass at least eight AP courses and six exams. Students who fail end-of-year exams must repeat the grade. Critics say it’s too tough for D.C. students.

Among 45,000 kids in D.C. public schools more than 70,000 school-age kids in the city, it’s “bizarre” to think there aren’t at least a few hundred who’d benefit from “a phenomenally challenging academic environment,” writes Rick Hess. Not to mention insulting.

As Skip McKoy, a member of the D.C. Public Charter School Board has said, “I’m all for high standards. I’m all for excellent curriculum. Kids should be pushed. But you have to recognize the population.” Mark Lerner, a member of the board of Washington Latin charter school also argued that BASIS “blatantly markets itself to elite students” and is “a direct affront to the civil rights struggle so many have fought over school choice for underprivileged children.”

So school choice should provide no choices for students who are able to excel?

After conducting a lottery, BASIS has signed up a mix of students, reports the Washington Post: 48 percent are black, compared to 69 percent in D.C. schools, and 54 percent come from public schools.

Already, students are working on study skills, reading and math in a voluntary two-week boot camp before the Aug. 27 start date.

In a math prep session, teacher Robert Biemesderfer gave a class of mostly fifth- and sixth-graders 15 seconds to complete a row of multiplication problems. Mental math ability, Biemesderfer said, atrophies over the summer. “And by the way,” he said, “can anyone tell me what ‘atrophy’ means?”

Behind him, a PowerPoint slide read “Nothing halfway,” which is a Basis aphorism, along with “It’s cool to be smart” and “Walk with purpose.”

BASIS is designed for “workaholics,” not for gifted students, say founders Olga and Michael Block, Czech immigrants who wanted a challenging school for their daughter. Attrition is high in the eight Arizona schools and few special education students last long.

It’s not a good school for every student, writes Hess, but that’s OK. “The notion that families and students in DC shouldn’t have access to a high quality liberal arts curriculum just because many students in DC need something more remedial in scope strikes me as a perverse vision of ‘social justice’.”