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October 31, 2013

Valid concerns, invalid cause

I certainly understand Katie Hurly’s concern that her daughter is getting stressed out in school in only the 1st grade. No parent wants to see their child overwhelmed by school, especially at such a young age. However, I can’t validate her argument that the new Common Core of State Standards (Common Core) are the root cause to the five reasons this psychotherapist and parenting expert insists is ruining childhood. While she may have some valid concerns about the practices conducted within her daughter’s school, attributing those practices to the Common Core is a reach— at best. Let’s take a look at each of her five arguments:

Increased Stress

Katie is right— when teachers feel stressed, students internalize it and get stressed themselves. But the reasons she believes teachers are more stressed now than ever before—increased stakes on testing and teacher evaluations—have an indirect connection to the Common Core. The stakes on testing are connected to federal and state accountability systems that measure how well students are meeting standards; how much stakes these accountability systems put on the tests is independent from the standards they are testing. Furthermore, new policies to evaluate teachers based on their students’ achievement are also independent of the Common Core. As CPE’s recent report on state evaluation policies shows, teachers are being evaluated on how much growth their students make from year to year and not the percentage of students who met the standards.

Creativity is Dead

I hear this criticism often and it is the most surprising to me. Reason being, the Common Core was developed to enhance creativity and problem solving skills, not kill them. A major criticism of previous state standards were that they relied too heavily on rote memorization skills and did almost nothing to enhance creativity and problem solving skills. It is debatable whether the Common Core does enough to enhance these skills but there is no evidence that it is killing them.

Inadequate Time to Socialize

First of all, as CPE’s report Time Out: Is recess in danger? shows there is little evidence beyond anecdotal that recess is disappearing from our nation’s schools. There is evidence that a small proportion of districts are reducing recess time but as our report shows just about every elementary school still provides time for recess. Furthermore, with few states having implemented the Common Core last school year it is nearly impossible to determine if the Common Core had any impact on recess. While parents should definitely ensure their child has time to exercise and socialize at school, there is no evidence they are not.

Poor Eating Habits and Insufficient Exercise

I find this particular concern to be quite a stretch. First, I don’t know of any data that shows most students get 15 to 20 minutes for lunch and Katie provides no evidence this is the case beyond hearsay. Even so, I remember my mom complaining I didn’t have enough time for lunch when I was in elementary school back in the 1980’s. So this criticism is nothing new and has nothing to do with the Common Core. Again, not that it isn’t a valid concern or isn’t happening in some schools but to claim the Common Core is the culprit is a real stretch.  With the increasing pressure placed on schools to improve student achievement some principals may look to add more instructional time by trimming lunch or eliminating physical education but there is no evidence this is happening on any measurable scale.

No Time to Decompress

Every example of overworked kids Katie provides has been heard well before the Common Core was even considered. Parents have had these concerns for awhile and they are certainly true for some students. But it should also be pointed out this is far from a problem for a great number of students, especially our most disadvantaged students. A look at actual data shows too much homework is not a problem for most students in the United States. Certainly there are a number of students spending an inordinate amount of time on homework and other activities but it is far from a national epidemic and no evidence the Common Core has any impact on students being overworked.

This isn’t to single out Katie’s concerns. I have heard similar concerns from many other people as well. Just as Katie does, many people associate their concerns about what is going on in their public schools to the Common Core. That is why CPE has just released a FAQ about the Common Core every parent should check out. Armed with accurate information, parents can better advocate for improving their child’s education. –Jim Hull

Filed under: Common Core,CPE,Homework,Parents,Public education,standards,Testing — Jim Hull @ 2:07 pm

October 30, 2013

Nothing but the FAQ’s: Common Core

CPE_CommonCore_SliderAs many of you know, CPE has written extensively about the Common Core, even dedicating an entire page to these new standards.

Still, with so much information— and disinformation— swirling around the CCSS, we understand how all of it can be very confusing.

It’s for this reason we felt compelled to create a fact sheet, a clear no-nonsense document that gets at the heart of what these new benchmarks are and aren’t. No spin, just facts— what you’ve come to expect from CPE.

September 25, 2013

Benefits of state-designed curricular resources

TeacherIn late August, Texas State Senator Dan Patrick stood before the Texas Board of Education and argued against state-designed lesson plans. One of the central concerns of Senator Patrick and his growing mass of supporters was that state-aligned lesson plans, assessments and curricular tools from the TEKs Resource System (TEKs), Texas’ curriculum-management network, contained anti-American and anti-Christian values. Senator Patrick made the case that these flaws encouraged children to challenge family traditions that many Texan’s subscribed to. The senator also feared that TEKs materials were imposing centralized, common core related policies, which stripped local school districts of their autonomy. Whether or not Senator Patrick’s arguments are valid, what’s troubling is that he and his supporters haven’t acknowledged the general merits of state-developed resources or the state standards they uphold. As such, it is both timely and vital to explore two critical merits and their relevance to public education leaders.

1. Don’t set standards without thoroughly explaining them

Although, many policymakers are leery of centralized, state control over education, few argue for the complete dismantling of state education standards. Even Senator Patrick seems to agree with some form of academic commonality between districts. So, if most people generally agree that Texas, and all states, should spend time, money and human capital choosing standards then state officials surely must create measures to help schools hold students to those standards. To phrase this point as a question, does it make sense to place effort into setting expectations for curricula without ensuring that teachers understand those expectations and know how to apply them to their lessons? After all, curricular standards are purposefully written with brevity and broadness so that teachers have flexibility when designing individual lessons. While expert teachers may thrive with that freedom and require little support connecting standards to their curricula, inexperienced teachers do not possess the pedagogical experience to reach the same conclusions. But even with veteran educators, state-designed materials cross the bridge between standards and lessons so that all educators catch a glimpse of what’s expected on the ground level.

2. New teachers need curricular resources from experienced teachers

Hovering around 50%, it’s no secret that teacher attrition rates are a major issue in U.S. public schools. An article from the Huffington Post reminds Americans that a lack of quality resources and support is a major contributor to the large number of teachers that leave the workforce. Considering this, policymakers must acknowledge that, aside from political disputes about specific messages, new teachers need to know how veterans lesson plan. More specifically, beginners must learn how to take a broad, complex topic and separate it into monthly, weekly, daily and moment-to-moment components that are logically sequenced, aligned to state standards and challenging for students. Since state curriculum developers are proven educators, their eye for lesson planning should not be overlooked by new teachers even if the message behind particular lessons is disagreeable. Materials from other experts should be given equal consideration so that new teachers can hone their particular teaching style from a variety of quality resources.

Taking a step back, its important for education leaders and parents to acknowledge that support for some level of state standards necessitates an explanation of those standards at the school level from experienced educators. When clarity of those expectations is provided, parents can take solace in the added support and guidance that it provides to new teachers as they learn how to explain material. Political debates about content messages should, of course, not be ignored. However, they should include the general merits of states assisting districts in lesson plan sharing and support. – Jordan Belton

Filed under: CPE,instruction,standards — Jordan Belton @ 10:55 am

July 26, 2013

States get what they pay for

Georgia’s decision to bow out of the PARCC assessment due to increased costs raises concern about the future of Common Core of State Standards (CCSS). The new assessments created by the PARCC and Smarter Balanced consortiums were supposed to create new and better assessments than what many states have used for more than a decade.

The vast majority of states signed on to implement one of the two assessments. However, for nearly half of these states they will have to pay more to provide these assessments than they currently pay to implement state-designed assessments. Such costs are making states such as Georgia reconsider providing these new assessments instead opting to continue giving their state designed assessments. In the case of Georgia, providing the state assessment will cost nearly half as much as providing the new PARCC assessment.

Keep in mind, however, that Georgia will only see a savings of about $15 per student by instituting their own assessments. Of course that isn’t chump change when aggregated over one million students. Still, it begs the question if standards and assessments are the foundation for school improvement isn’t $15 per student a small price to pay? For the CCSS to spur improvement in student achievement they must be aligned to high quality assessments. Unfortunately, states have not had a history of developing such assessments. For those states that want to ensure their students graduate high school college and career ready they need to find a way to pay for the extra cost to implement better assessments or risk wasting millions of dollars to implement the CCSS with little likelihood of significantly improving student achievement.  By spending a little more now, states will likely see a much greater rate of return in the future by graduating more students ready to enter college or the workforce. – Jim Hull

Filed under: Assessments,CPE,standards,Testing — Tags: — Jim Hull @ 8:46 am

June 19, 2013

NCTQ Teacher Prep Review: Brief Highlights

The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) recently released a lengthy report called “Teacher Prep Review: A Review of the Nation’s Teacher Preparation Programs” (“The Review”). The much anticipated and highly contested report highlights the shortfalls of the vast majority of the nation’s colleges and universities’ teacher preparation programs. The report sounds the alarm on inadequate training for teachers, particularly focusing on what aspiring teachers need to know and be able to do as they enter the nation’s diverse classrooms.

Through much difficulty (read: uncooperative and litigious circumstances), the NCTQ attained data from the 1,130 institutions that train 99 percent of the nation’s traditionally trained teachers. The Review focuses vastly on public institutions and hopes to expand its analysis to include more private universities in subsequent editions. The standards chosen for the review were developed in accordance with educational experts, best practices of high performing educational institutions, surveyed responses from principals and superintendents, and alignment with the Common Core State Standards. The Review focuses on the skills new teachers must have in order to teach to a high standard, thus surpassing expectations set for previous generations of educators. The NCTQ standards are generally categorized as Selection (e.g., how teacher candidates are selected for training programs), Content Preparation (e.g., early reading), Professional Skills (e.g., lesson planning), and Outcomes (e.g., evidence of effectiveness).

The major takeaways from the report are as follows:

  1. From a zero-to-four star rating system, fewer than 10 percent of rated programs received the upper rankings of three to four stars.
    1. Teacher training programs were largely based on document review (e.g., syllabi, student teaching handbooks, etc.), graduate and employer surveys, and student teaching placement materials obtained primarily through open-records requests.
  2. Most teachers’ colleges are not nearly as restrictive as they could be with only a quarter of programs limiting admission to students in the top half of their class.
    1. According to The Review, high-performing nations limit entrance to their teacher preparation programs to the top third of applicants. This variance could have significant consequences on how the U.S. fares globally in educational success.
  3. Though the vast majority of states (46 states and Washington, DC) have agreed to devise curriculum aligning to the Common Core State Standards, The Review finds that a meager one-third of high school programs and less than one-ninth of elementary programs are prepping future teachers at content levels required by those very standards.
    1. This information aligns with the findings highlighted in a recent report co-authored by the Center for Public Education and Change the Equation: “Out of Sync: Many Common Core states have yet to define a Common Core-worthy diploma.”
  4. Seventy-five percent of elementary teacher reading programs do not prime teachers with high-quality methods of reading instruction.
    1. The Review highlights the disturbing fact that 866 different reading textbooks, “the majority of which are partly or wholly unscientific,” are used across the country to train teachers in reading instruction. Not all textbooks are created equal! Texts need to be thoroughly vetted for their usefulness in providing first-rate reading pedagogy.
  5. A dismal 7 percent of programs provide rigorous and impactful student teaching experiences by placing students with effective master teachers.
    1. The Review recommends a shift in policy wherein colleges and universities insist on cooperating teachers who have proven themselves as highly effective teachers and competent mentors. In other words, it is not sufficient to blindly accept any experienced educator who volunteers for this monumental role in the development of a budding teacher.

Mirroring the U.S. News & World Report national rankings of colleges and universities, The
Review aims to serve as a kind of “consumer report” for endeavoring teachers and school administrators. Because first-year teachers are charged with teaching 1.5 million of the nation’s students, that is more than enough reason to take seriously the quality of teacher preparation and its implications on classrooms all over the country.

Notes on methodology: The Review evaluates elementary and secondary programs at both undergraduate and graduate levels (for a total of four different programs) for the top 200 institutions that produce the greatest proportion of new teachers each year. The remaining ~900 institutions (1,130 total were reviewed) each had two of their programs randomly chosen and evaluated. Data from alternative initial certification programs, traditional advanced certification programs, and private institutions of higher education graduating less than 20 new teachers annually were not included in the analysis. NCTQ was able to include a limited sample of special education programs for evaluation with plans to expand their analysis in future editions of The Review.

Thoughts: To be sure, there are a plethora of positive changes being affected nationwide in public education. (For a great example, read about the nation’s consistently climbing graduation rates courtesy of the Diplomas Count Report from Education Week.) The Review, however, highlights some serious causes for concern that might explain why some students still lag so far behind their peers nationwide. Students in high-poverty, high-need schools are still the most likely cohort to be placed with a novice teacher. It is my hope that, at a minimum, this report be used by college faculty, staff, and administration as a tool for reflection, adjustment, and (re)evaluation of how to train the next generation of teachers to be the best this country has ever seen.-Christine Duchouquette

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