Top teachers trump standards

Standards and tests won’t improve American public education, argues Sandra Stotsky, professor emerita at the University of Arkansas and an author of Massachusetts’ standards. Policymakers should focus on improving teacher quality and training and the K-12 curriculum, she writes.

The U.S. Department of Education (USED) and its narrow circle of Gates Foundation-funded or Gates Foundation-employed advisers . . . have spent their initial energies on first getting states to adopt the kind of standards they think low-achieving students can meet to be declared “college-ready” (i.e., generic, content-light skills in the English language arts); and then, on arguing with teacher unions about the percentage of students’ test scores for which teachers and administrators should be held accountable.

Only one characteristic of an effective teacher — subject-matter knowledge — is related to student achievement, according to the 2008 final report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, writes Stotsky.  “The more academically competent the teacher is, the more students learn.”

In high-achieving school systems, only the very best students can gain admittance to teacher training programs, she writes. Training is far more rigorous than in the U.S.

In Finland, prospective elementary teachers complete a three-year bachelor’s and a two-year master’s in education. Prospective secondary teachers usually complete a three-year degree and a two-year master’s in their subject, followed by a two-year master’s program in education. In both cases, the master’s focuses on educational research.

An academically stronger corps of educators is more likely to establish and teach an academically stronger curriculum, do better designed research, and make more soundly based educational policy.

Stotsky lists seven things states could do to improve teacher quality. It starts with restricting admission to teacher training to the top 10 to 15 percent of students.

Would the brightest students compete for a chance to teach? The career would be more prestigious if it was reserved for top students. But . . . I have my doubts.

RIP, close reading

Close Reading passed away last week, writes Dave Stuart, Jr. on Teaching the Core.  The cause of death was buzzwordification.

The death of “close reading, one of the most ubiquitous terms of the Common Core literacy era, is mourned by the very teachers (myself included), administrators, coaches, consultants, and authors who killed it through overuse,” writes Stuart in the obituary. “In classrooms, blogospheres, publishing houses, and convention centers,” close reading’s name will live on, “if not its actual meaning.”

Moats: Core fail

Common Core standards are appropriate for the “most academically able” students, says Louisa Moats in a Psychology Today interview. At least half of students will not be able to meet the standards. A nationally known expert on teaching reading, Moats helped write the standards.

Students doomed to “fail” core-aligned tests need a “range of educational choices and pathways to high school graduation, employment, and citizenship,” says Moats. Notice she doesn’t mention college.

The standards call for the use of “more challenging and complex texts,” which will benefit older students, she says. But that may hurt younger students.

Novice readers (typically through grade 3) need a stronger emphasis on the foundational skills of reading, language, and writing than on the “higher level” academic activities that depend on those foundations, until they are fluent readers.

Teachers aren’t prepared to teach the new standards, says Moats.

Classroom teachers are confused, lacking in training and skills to implement the standards, overstressed, and the victims of misinformed directives from administrators who are not well grounded in reading research.

. . . The standards treat the foundational language, reading, and writing skills as if they should take minimal time to teach and as if they are relatively easy to teach and to learn. They are not. The standards call for raising the difficulty of text, but many students cannot read at or above grade level, and therefore may not receive enough practice at levels that will build their fluency gradually over time.

Teachers have received no sensible guidance on how to teach students with learning disabilities, she adds.

  What little time there is for professional development is being taken up by poorly designed workshops on teaching comprehension of difficult text or getting kids to compose arguments and essays. This will not be good for the kids who need a systematic, explicit form of instruction to reach basic levels of academic competence.

I’ve been around a long time, and this feels like 1987 all over again, with different words attached to the same problems. When will we ever learn?

This is a devastating critique.

Via DCGEducator.

Is this a good Core lesson?

NPR highlights a “good Common Core lesson” designed for the first day of ninth-grade English.

Students review the day’s standards: citing textual evidence and determining meaning of words in context, and how they contribute to tone.

Then they read a short story, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves. It’s a magical realist coming-of-age tale.

It meets the Core’s call for complexity and contemporaneity (written in 2007), says Kate Gerson, a former teacher and EngageNY research fellow. It also is in the “canon” because author Karen Russell was a Pulitzer finalist. And she’s young and female, checking the diversity box.

The teacher reads a short excerpt aloud. Then students read to themselves, drawing boxes around unfamiliar words and writing definitions on Post-It notes.

Teachers are told to “get out of the students’ way” and let them struggle through on their own. Eventually students will pair up to “tease out the meaning” of words such as “lycanthropic, couth and kempt.”

Speaking from her own experience as an English teacher, (Gershon) said, the tendency all too often has been to instead spend class time “performing” literature — spelling out the subtext, defining tough words before students have a chance to puzzle over them, and advertising key plot points like the voiceover on a Bravo reality show.

Students finish the day with a “quick write.” They “use evidence from the text to relate the story’s epigraph to its first paragraph.”

Commenter Ajax in Charlotte is unimpressed. “Introducing the state standards and then having kids read silently, circle unfamiliar vocab words, and complete one short answer question is not exactly the most world-shattering, paradigm-shifting lesson plan I have ever seen.”

Doesn’t it sound boring?

“Underlying this lesson is a misunderstanding of intellectual work, writes Diana Senechal. It assumes that “if the teacher is explaining the literature, the students are doing no work.”

Thinking should be the essential work of the classroom. Students can and should look up words at home; in class, they come together to hear the teacher and each other, to pose questions, and to test out ideas. Of course, this can vary: there may well be days when the teacher has students write or work with unfamiliar vocabulary. But it takes discipline and concentration to listen, think, and speak in a whole-class discussion–and the classroom is the best place for such work and leisure.

. . . Can the Common Core really claim to prepare students for college and career when it equates “hard work” exclusively with visible physical activity–such as annotating a text in class? What about the hard work of listening to the teacher and forming a question or challenge?

The lesson also misrepresents teaching, writes Senechal. In the Common Core caricature, “the teacher stood at the front of the room and yakked, while the students passively took in plot points and didn’t learn to read.”

For many years, teachers have been told to be a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage.”

I started ninth-grade English in 1966.  It was a Level 1 class, so everyone read the assignments at home, figured out the new words and came to class ready to discuss the ideas. Our teachers rarely lectured for more than a few minutes, as I recall. (It has been awhile.)  They asked questions and guided class discussions. We did all our writing at home too.

Common Core? What’s that?

Only 53 percent of Americans have heard of Common Core standards and only 20 percent have heard a lot about them, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll.

When told about the standards, 59 percent are supportive, while 31 percent are not, notes Neal McCluskey on Cato@Liberty. But the description is so biased it’s amazing the support isn’t 99 percent. Pollsters said:

The Common Core standards are a new set of education standards for English and math that have been set to internationally competitive levels and would be used in every state for students in grades K through 12.

What’s not to like?

It’s “highly debatable that the Core is set to top international levels,” writes McCluskey. Furthermore, the description ignored the “massive federal role in pushing state adoption.”

It’s like failing to tell people pufferfish are poisonous, saying, “pufferfish are delicious and nutritious,” then asking, “would you like to eat some pufferfish?”

I don’t think Common Core standards are as dangerous as pufferfish, but I’d agree that the only useful information in the poll is that most Americans know little or nothing about the new standards.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is trying to pull his state out of the Core, but it’s not clear he has the authority to do so.

Gates: Don’t use Core scores for 2 years

Common Core-aligned tests shouldn’t be used for  teacher evaluations and student promotions for two years, writes Vicki Phillips for the Gates Foundation. “The standards need time to work.”

Teachers need time to develop lessons, receive more training, get used to the new tests, and offer their feedback.

. . . A rushed effort to apply the assessments could punish teachers as they’re trying new things, and any hiccups in the assessments could be seen as flaws in the standards.

That makes sense. But it comes a few days after a Washington Post story on the foundation’s support for the development and promotion of Common Core Standards — and its extensive links with the Obama administration.

The foundation backed off on high-stakes testing after “calls for congressional investigations” into the foundation and its administration allies, writes Susan Berry on Breitbart.

How Bill Gates sold the Common Core


Bill Gates put $200 million into Common Core standards.

Common Core State Standards were the brainchild of Gene Wilhoit, director of a national group of state school chiefs, and David Coleman, reports Lyndsey Layton in the Washington Post. The godfather was Bill Gates, who put more than $200 million into developing the Core and building support for it.

The Gates Foundation spread money across the political spectrum, to entities including the big teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, and business organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — groups that have clashed in the past but became vocal backers of the standards.

Money flowed to policy groups on the right and left, funding research by scholars of varying political persuasions who promoted the idea of common standards. Liberals at the Center for American Progress and conservatives affiliated with the American Legislative Exchange Council who routinely disagree on nearly every issue accepted Gates money and found common ground on the Common Core.

President Obama’s Education Department, “populated by former Gates Foundation staffers and associates”  used $4.3 billion in “stimulus funds to reward states that accepted the standards.” Forty-six states and the District of Columbia signed on, though some have jumped ship.

Even Catholic schools have adopted the standards, if only because it’s hard to find classroom materials or training that’s not aligned to the Common Core.

The speed of adoption by the states was staggering by normal standards. A process that typically can take five years was collapsed into a matter of months.

“You had dozens of states adopting before the standards even existed, with little or no discussion, coverage or controversy,” said Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, which has received $4 million from the Gates Foundation since 2007 to study education policy, including the Common Core. “States saw a chance to have a crack at a couple of million bucks if they made some promises.”

The Gates Foundation has put $3.4 billion into trying to improve K-12 education, reports the Post. (My other blog, Community College Spotlight is funded by the Hechinger Institute, which receives Gates Foundation grants.) It has enormous influence.

“Really rich guys can come up with ideas that they think are great, but there is a danger that everyone will tell them they’re great, even if they’re not,” said Jay Greene, who heads the University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform.

Gates “sees himself as a technocrat” funding research in “new tools” to improve education. “Medicine — they spend a lot of money finding new tools. Software is a very R and D-oriented industry. The funding, in general, of what works in education . . . is tiny. It’s the lowest in this field than any field of human endeavor. Yet you could argue it should be the highest.”

Diane Ravitch wants Congress to investigate Gates’ role in the creation and marketing of Common Core standards.

The idea of “common national standards and tests goes back a long long way before Gates,” points out Alexander Russo. If the idea hadn’t already had broad appeal, Gates’ millions wouldn’t have been effective.

Most education philanthropy supports the status quo, adds Eduwonk. “In education there is very little change absent an infusion of marginal dollars and outside pressure.”

Personally, I think it’s crazy to suggest that Bill Gates has given $3.4 billion to education causes — and billions more to public health — because he wants to make more money. His policy ideas may be wrong. His motives are good.

Core no more

Following Indiana’s lead, Oklahoma and South Carolina have dropped Common Core standards, vowing to write their own. North Carolina will be next.

After that? Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal wants his state to dump the Core too.

In a Missouri compromise, the state will use Core standards for two years to give educators time to write a new set of standards.

States also are dropping out of the two federally funded testing consortia, PARCC and Smarter Balanced. Only 42 percent of students will take a Core-aligned test, reports Education Week. That number is “likely to dwindle.”

Credit recovery goes online

As high schools struggle to raise graduation rates, many have turned to online credit recovery programs, writes Hechinger’s Sarah Carr on Education Next. Are students learning — or just being moved along? It’s not clear, but many are dubious.

“There’s a political motivation,” says David Bloomfield, professor of educational leadership, law, and policy at Brooklyn College. “It’s an end run around higher standards.”

Oceanside Unified in California improved graduation rates after opening three centers that offer online credit recovery. Superintendent Larry Perondi believes “the centers have improved the life prospects of students who would have dropped out otherwise, including young parents and teens battling drug addiction.”

Perondi “encourages the district’s best teachers to work” in the centers and assigns extra counselors and social workers to support students.

Three New Orleans charters enroll only students who’ve fallen behind in coursework.

Their supporters argue that the schools provide a much-needed safety valve for students who don’t work well in conventional settings and prefer to move through courses at their own pace; critics worry about the quality of the online courses and fear they take the onus off of traditional high schools to meet the needs of all students.

At the Jefferson Chamber Foundation Academy, the average student is an 18-year-old sophomore. “Some of the students failed the same classes multiple times; others dropped out for a period of months, or years,” writes Carr. “The school supplements the online courses with in-person tutorials and small-group instruction.”

The NET, another charter for high-risk students, combines online courses with traditional in-person classes and “advisories.”

Students and teachers say the online courses have some universal benefits: the teenagers can move at their own pace and get instant feedback on how they are doing.

. . . The biggest drawback, however, is that many of the courses are either too easy or too hard. . . . stronger schools and teachers are increasingly figuring out how to use the online courses as a jumping-off point to address individual students’ needs, supplementing easy courses with more challenging material, for instance, or harder courses with extra in-person tutorials.

But some schools rely exclusively on the online courses.

Louis CK ignites belated Core debate

The Common Core revolt started with baffled parents who went online to complain about their children’s “core-aligned” homework. Now a parent with 3 million Twitter followers — comedian Louis CK — blames the Common Core for making his kids hate math. 186296970-290.jpeg Louis, we feel your pain write Rick Hess and Michael McShane, American Enterprise Institute fellows and editors of Common Core Meets Education Reform, in the New York Daily News. Common Core defenders think Louis CK really is upset about testing, not about the new standards, write Hess and McShane. The homework “questions he flagged should not be blamed on the core,” defenders argue. But there’s a reason for the anti-Core backlash, write Hess and McShane. Common Core state standards — billed as a “landmark” change in American education — slipped in under the radar. The press didn’t do its job. The issues were not “hashed out in robust public debate.” In 2009, the year the draft standards were first released, a search finds only 453 mentions of the “Common Core.”  That goes up to 1,729 in 2010 when the final standards were introduced and adopted by 38 states and Washington D.C.

That year, Chester E. Finn, Jr., and Michael Petrilli, the president and vice president of the pro-Common Core Thomas B. Fordham Institute, cheerfully observed, “This profound … shift in American education is occurring with little outcry from the right, save for a half-dozen libertarians who don’t much care for government to start with.”

By 2013, when “the issue exploded into the national consciousness,”  most “states had been implementing the standards for years.”

Some criticism of the Common Core has been hyperbolic and rife with dubious claims. But today’s seemingly “misinformed” pushback may be mostly a case of frustrated citizens waking up to a fait accompli. . . . Stealth is a dubious strategy for pursuing fundamental change in 100,000 schools educating 50 million children.

If Common Core standards had been debated openly five years ago . . . But they weren’t.

Core “supporters cannot claim credit for the adoption of clearer and more rigorous standards and then wash our hands of anything bad that happens in the name of implementation,” writes Kathleen Porter-Magee on Flypaper.

Parents don’t distinguish between standards, curriculum and instruction, she writes.  “And what more than a few parents are seeing is confusing curriculum, too much time spent on test prep, and too many days spent toiling on assessments.”