Saturday, April 30, 2011

A 'United State Standards of Education' for America

Readers: This piece is based on a referral from public school principal Todd Durand, who highly regards the work on Common Core Standards done by The Leadership and Learning Center.  If you aren't familiar with what these standards are, please see the entry "Common Questions About the Common Core Standards" (under Popular Posts). 

Dr. Douglas Reeves
The U.S. Constitution may leave education to the states by omission, but judging from a Dr. Douglas Reeves presentation on common core state standards, the country is on a path to uniting educationally given all but 6 states have joined the Common Core State Standards Initiative, or CCSSI.

As a global educational authority on leadership and effectiveness, Dr. Reeves-- one of just five experts to review the 490-page document prior to its public debut-- begins his Common Core State Standards presentation by explaining the origin of standards:

"The genesis extends back before the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001," said Dr. Reeves.  "States started adopting their own standards because the use of standards is a better way to evaluate children than the 'bell curve' and the norm reference tests that compared kids to each other."

As  a result of NCLB-- in 2002, each state's getting its own standards was a worthy accomplishment, were it not for the wild inconsistencies it created between states and their 50 different tests.

"Here we are ten years later .... now saying there are some things in literacy and math that really hold us together as a society," said Reeves.  It's just a way to be more efficient-- in a more highly mobile society, as kids move not only from district to district but state to state, it makes a lot of sense that we have some common understanding about what kids should know and be able to do."

To help understand what these standards represent, Dr. Reeves explains they are not meant to work in tandem with the No Child Left Behind Act.  Different from the Adequate Yearly Progress measures of NCLB, new core standards assessments won't be just another "misused" reading or math test.  Rather, CCSSI is to involve an entirely new "assessment learning system" encompassing classroom activities, things that teachers and local schools can collaboratively score, and performance assessments over the course of several days. 

"If they can in fact create that vision, then there isn't any doubt we will have something better than what we have right now," Reeves asserts.  "If by contrast, all we do is have one national reading and writing test used for high stakes replacing the old reading and math tests, then we will not have made a whole lot of progress."


Dr. Reeves also praised the CCSSI for its:

1. Rigor and Clarity that is "outstanding" and significantly better than most sets of state standards.  Expectations for success and connections between grade levels are very clear, and the standards err on the side of specificity.  Reeves stated that the proposed standards initiative is dramatically better than what he sees being taught in most 6th, 7th, and 8th grade classrooms in the country right now.

2. Refreshing emphasis on non-fiction writing:  which helps students in literacy, math and science.  The standards writers explicity indicated that nonfiction writing is a part of science, a part of social studies, which Reeves called a 'home run win.'  The standards also say that informative writing begins in kindergarten, and the standards document settles the issue that literacy starts in kindergarten.
    In addition to interdisciplinary emphasis on reading and writing, the new standards include examples of what good writing looks like.  Reeves said the examples differ from the formulaic writing that's considered proficient under most current state standards, which he said often includes:  "the same thing, the same intro, the same transitions, and they (students) can't write coherently to save their soul."

    3. The List that endorses the classics of  children's literature, doesn't dumb things down, or permit verbal expectations to decline through too much reliance on graphics. Reeves noted "there are some fine things that otherwise would have been lost in American literature (both fiction and nonfiction) that this document will preserve":

    In case you do not care to wait for the CCSSI to see this wonderful set of books: The List: Nonfiction and Fiction from K to 12. Officially, this is considered neither a required nor a comprehensive list.

    4. Math Standards include illustrations of what complete problem-solving looks like.

    A Big Weakness
    On the critical side of things, Reeves did say the developers of the initiative, as Herculean as their project is, tap danced too much by saying in a 3-page preamble that "nothing in this document shall be construed as telling people how to teach":

    "Balderdash, baloney," says Reeves.  "You can't talk about standards and what to teach,  you can't talk about the value of non fiction writing, you can't talk about high expectations of (students), without also saying that teaching is not a matter of personal taste ... We know that some teaching practices including non fiction writing, including effective feedback ... including good relationships with kids ... are more effective than others."

     But As Massachusetts & Iowa Go ...

    The other 48 would be wise to go as well.  Reeves reminds listeners that the standards movement was not the product of the federal government or officials from any particular political party telling them it had to be done.  Instead, the standards movement is the best way to "teach, assess, and to lead," and it began during the 1990s because it was the right thing to do.  For those states concerned that accepting the common core standards would have them settling for less, consider the Massachusetts and Iowa examples:

    Massachusetts' students posted nation-leading scores in NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) in reading & math for 3 consecutive trials-- even as its ELL and poverty levels increased-- yet it still saw fit to adopt the components of the CCSSI.  Though Reeves believes the state will have to resolve which set of standards (state or CCSSI) it will eventually follow, the Massachusetts example illustrates how adopting core standards is not the same as giving up your own.

    As written of in the companion blog entry "Common Questions About the Common Core Standards," Iowa is taking the same approach as Massachusetts, about which Reeves remarked:

    "A lot of people thought this day for common standards would never come," explains Reeves.  "Heck in Iowa, they never thought they would have state standards, because every county thought they had a different number of letters in the alphabet presumably," Reeves said. "There is lot of local territorialism that comes from the 10th amendment that all powers not specifically enumerated in the Constitution belong to the states."

    Summary Responses

    Reeves realizes one of the biggest issues with a state putting in common core standards will be how to implement them while its state officials continue with its own set of standards and assessments.  He acknowledged that teachers will initially be faced with an expanded amount of content needing coverage in the same amount of instructional time.

    He said that until old state tests are replaced with the new ones, educators will "have to power standards that have leverage, application to multiple disciplines, that have got endurance & will last through a number of years, and that are most essential to the next level of learning."

    For those interested in whether standards are used in other countries:

    "We notice furthermore that other industrialized countries are able to have common standards among there entire country without any violation being done to their constitution, to their human rights," says Reeves.  "No Black Hawk helicopters are swooping down to drop tests on the heads of children.  It's just a way to try to become more efficient." 

    In his conclusion, Reeves contended that educational standards development is a worldwide phenomenon that has worldwide challenges.

    Hopefully, Minnesota policymakers will see their value and not make getting the strongest ones possible in place harder than it has to be.

    Thursday, April 28, 2011

    Common Questions About the Common Core Standards

    June 13, 2011 Update: North Dakota's adoption of the math and reading standards makes '46 states' that have fully adopted the CCSSI.

    May 11, 2011 Update: A key question surrounding the Common Core initiative is whether it truly represents the aspirations of states or stands to be another heavy-handed approach from above that will damage education.  For one answer to this question, please consider this statement from Mitch Chester, who is the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education.

    Note: See companion piece to this post titled "A United State Standards of Education for America" linkable in Popular Posts at left.

    Forty-four and counting--  that is the number of states whose education policy leaders have fully adopted the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which may just be the most widespread education effort yet to garner little media attention for its lack of sensationalism.

    Maine, Massachusetts, Washington, Colorado, and Illinois-- each deserving of its own "Educational Lighthouse" label-- have all signed on to a "bottom up" effort to create quality standards for our nation's schoolchildren.  Assuming you, too, have been affected by this news embargo on political cooperation, here is a Q & A on the CCSSI, for you to learn more about the grassroots educational undertaking that is sweeping the country.

    1. What is the initiative about?

    The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a state-led effort to establish a voluntary set of shared standards for English language arts and mathematics. They were designed by a diverse group of teachers, experts, parents, and school administrators to reflect both the aspirations and the realities of students.  The standards were informed using evidence and experts from across the country and around the globe, and they will ensure graduating seniors are prepared for college, the workforce, and to compete in the emerging global marketplace.

    2. Why is having common standards important?

    Common standards breed consistency from school to school and state to state. Common standards allow for sharing experiences, meaningful student performance comparisons, and the better serving of needs for all students.

    Standards do not tell teachers how to teach, but they do provide teachers and families a road map of knowledge and skills their students should have, from which teachers can build the best lessons and environments for their classrooms.

    3. What has been and will be the Federal Government's role in the CCSSI?

    The federal government was not involved in the development of the standards. Since individual states choose whether to adopt these standards, CCSSI is in no way, shape or form a part of the current, or any potentially reauthorized, No Child Left Behind law.  In fact, as can be seen from the material in question 6 below, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been outspoken about the punitive nature of NCLB as it stands, but he is ebullient about the prospects for innovation that CCSSI provides.

    Even though the federal government had nothing to do with the CCSSI development, and cannot use them to enforce compliance or do school interventions as in the case of the current rendition of NCLB, it does appear the USDE will assign weight to an individual state's participation in CCSSI through the second round of recently authorized Race to the Top grants and the biennial Title 1 monies it appropriates.

    Naturally, this intent to withhold financial support concerns many policymakers, Minnesota's included.

    4. One undesirable consequence of the NCLB Act has been its pushing of educators to "teach to the test".  Won't CCSSI just encourage more of the same?

    No-- CCSSI is meant to build, align and support good curriculum, and yes, quality assessments will be a part of that equation, but a given district or school's performance will not be held against them as in the case of NCLB.

    Remember: CCSSI is about rewarding for innovation, not punishing for failure to comply. As you read this, hundreds of professional development teams, curriculum groups, foundations, and private companies are busily constructing instructional packages they hope a given district or state will adopt under CCSSI.  Such an expansive effort could not possibly result in students having to pass through the narrow straits of a standardized test.

    5. What is Minnesota' position on the Common Core State Standards Initiative?

    In June 2009, the Minnesota Dept of Education took an "active role" in the state-led initiative, on the belief that it could help other states create "consistent academic standards as rigorous as Minnesota's."

    A September 2010 action by then MDE Commissioner Alice Seagren saw Minnesota signing on to the English Language Arts standards while refraining from Math on the basis that the state’s existing math standards were far superior to those in CCSSI.  In 2007 the state had revamped its own math standards by preparing students to take algebra in 8th grade.  In support of its decision to opt out of the CCSSI, MDE claimed the number of students scoring proficient in the math had increased 11 percent in the previoius three years.

    The Thomas B. Fordham Institute-- a nationally recognized adjudicator for 10 years on states' educational rigor & assessments-- gave Minnesota a "clearly inferior to the common core" in mathematics rating.

    While key Minnesota officials supported the decision to stay out of the math standards of CCSSI for the time being, others cautioned that doing so might keep Minnesota out of an important national discussion.

    An even more important dynamic in Minnesota's standards deliberations has nothing whatsoever to do with CCSSI and everything to do with a teacher evaluation bill currently making its way through the legislature.  While key legislators and education officials have vowed to base new school report cards and related teacher evaluations on the best available research about "student growth," the reality is that such a bill may only calcify the much disliked standardized state tests used for NCLB in math and reading.

    On top of that, MN Senate File 1030 contains language expressly prohibiting the Commissioner of Education from adopting the CCSSI math standards and those likely to be developed in "science, social studies, technology and information literacy, the arts, and language arts" in the years to come.

    6. What does US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan think of the Common Core initiative?

    The Secretary likes it a lot.  You've probably caught excerpts of comments he has made since assuming the top education post.  Not one to mince words, his previous actions on alternative licensure & teacher evaluation have ruffled union representatives and his efforts to lift prescriptive NCLB requirements for schools has likely brought headaches to the number crunchers of his own department.

    In Congressional testimony before the House Education Workforce Committee on 3/9/11, Duncan vigorously criticized the current NCLB law as one having "arbitrary state bars" that has created dozens of ways to fail and very few ways to succeed, before declaring:

    "We need a common sense law that strikes the right balance between accountability and flexibility ... but NCLB got that backwards.  Instead of being tight on goals and loose on the means of achieving them, the law is loose on goals, but tight on the means ... We need to flip that, and states are already leading us in the right direction," the Secretary said.

    With this viewpoint from the Secretary as context, listen to the 11-second clip in which the Secretary glows with admiration for the work states are doing in the Common Core initiative.

    7. What is Iowa's position, a state with as much productivity from its field of education as from its globe-feeding cornfields?

    Iowa ranks with MN in terms of reputation with student performance on the ACT exam and is arguably the home of academic assessment nationwide with ACT, Inc. and its Iowa Basic Skills Tests.  Curiously, it has also adopted the Common Core, but by assimilating them into a broader set of state standards.

    Through a kind of tapestry approach to its standard development, Iowa may have just found the perfect way to maintain its own standards  and stay "in the game" for the procurement of federal funds.  According to this Iowa State Board of Education report, Iowa approved the new Common Core standards as part of its Iowa Core standards. After a comparison of the two was performed by Achieve, an independent non-profit organization based in Washington D.C., the Iowa Core and the Common Core were found to have a high degree of alignment.  As a result, the Iowa Public School System was able to embed the Common Core standards into its state standards plan going forward.

    Using the Hawkeye state as an example, it might behoove Minnesota policy makers to say "we're in" for the purposes of maintaining federal funding support, and then augment its own state-developed standards with those of the CCSSI.

    8. Could the hubris that goes with Minnesota's being the "Education State" and the "Do it Our Way" Legislative Republicans be the perfect political combination that keeps Minnesota from taking a major educational step that 44 other states' officials have already taken?

    Quite possibly.

    For a flavor of the next generation of assessments to align with the Common Core standards, check out these 9 amazing Webinars. 

    You may also appreciate "A United State Standards of Education for America"-- a companion piece on this blog that conveys the Common Core perspective of Dr. Douglas Reeves, a leading expert on the initiative.  To locate, go to "Dr. Douglas Reeves" in the "Labels" column.

    Tuesday, April 26, 2011

    The "ACT Plus Writing Exam" as a College-Ready Proficiency Standard

    Preface: "Nicely said! Yes, we need to ramp up our efforts in writing. It is a quest of mine...and a predictor of college completion."--Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius' reaction to this piece.

    Minnpost's recent Mounds View Schools Add a Test That's Worth the Extra Bother provides a bold example of a district helping all its students prepare for a post-secondary education or career using a reliable academic measure.  Given ISD 621 will have 100% of its juniors take the writing portion of the exam, the district could also serve as an important model for phasing out a graduation proficiency assessment administered in the 9th grade.

    The basis: No one pretends the currently administered GRAD written composition, as it's known, sufficiently measures the writing skill of a graduating Minnesota senior.  Not writing instructors, or administrative officials-- neither college admissions folks, nor Minnesota's Commissioner of Education Dr. Brenda Cassellius is willing to defend the academic level of the this writing metric.

    For a detailed exposition of this point, clear 15 minutes off the calendar, grab a cup of coffee, and sit down to read an ACT Writing Proposal.  Just in case that 5-page journey gets painful, here's the shorthand: discarding the GRAD written assessment for the ACT Plus Writing would reduce unproductive testing, save money, free valuable instructional time, and raise the quality of writing instruction in our public schools.

    As MDE Director of Research and Assessment Division's Dr. Dirk Mattson explained: "The GRAD written exam was never meant to be an indicator of college and career readiness."  The main reason for this is because it originally served as a Basic Skills test administered to students attempting to get their GED (Graduation Equivalency Diploma).  Somewhere in the evolution of the state's education policy, the assessment was promoted to being a requirement for all graduating students.

    Thankfully the educational jury is not out on the need to strengthen the state's writing requirement.  Like immediate predecessor Republican Alice Seagren before her, MDE Commissioner Brenda Cassellius is in agreement with the need for increased writing rigor: 

    "Writing is a key to future life success and college success," the Commissioner wrote.   "Our current writing assessment, in my opinion, is well below the standard necessary for on-going success."  As a result, Cassellius plans to place writing under the purview of a new Test Reduction Task Force, make writing "more relevant to teaching and learning," and "ensure the testing we do gets students ready for college and career."

    To this high-level of support for emphasis on writing, fans of the written word can add an opening supplied by the Minnesota Legislature for a rewritten graduation standard.  Article 2, Line 25 of House File 934 (also known as the Omnibus Education bill), which is currently winding its way through the Legislative process "directs an Assessment Advisory Committee to develop recommendations for alternative methods to meet the reading and writing exam requirement, and to consider the CLEP, ACT and SAT."

    A Football Metaphor

    The best way to depict the situation surrounding the state's graduation writing requirement may be to apply the game of football:
    • Teachers, administrators, policy makers and education officials are very aware of the need for a new writing metric that legitimizes student claims to being "college and career ready."  Essentially, they have issued a "Game On" call to enhance writing quality.
    • In response to this need, the MN Legislature has gone to the effort of creating a field of play complete with goal posts for interested parties to begin making their points.
    • The Mounds View School District is the first team on the field, and with the state's first-ever 100% administration of the ACT Plus Writing exam set to be administered tomorrow, April 27th, it is poised to begin kicking the ball through the "Up-Writes."
    • Now all the rest of us fans of more writing rigor need to do is cheer these good efforts on. 
    Note: The Little Red Writing Book is noted for being strong in teaching writing to ELL students.