Some political officials (Governor Sandoval of Nevada) and self-described policy wonks (Fordham Institute staff) are calling into question the usefulness of locally elected local school boards. Governor Sandoval suggested replacing them with governor-appointed boards, while Fordham has argued for years against locally elected school boards and for regional authorities, possibly appointed by governors and/or legislatures. Trust us, they say, we’re from Washington and know how to make your teachers accountable. Trust us, they say at the state level, we know how you should teach. That’s not how Massachusetts’ educational reform was ever envisioned – and the commonwealth’s reforms are well known as being the most successful educational reforms over the past half century.
Trust us, they say, we’re from Washington and know how to make your teachers accountable. Trust us, they say at the state level, we know how you should teach. That’s not how Massachusetts’ educational reform was ever envisioned – and the commonwealth’s reforms are well known as being the most successful educational reforms over the past half century.
Our reforms set agreed-upon standards and tests, but left a lot of flexibility to localities. Our standards were far less prescriptive on pedagogical method than the Common Core is. Our goal was to set a high bar and provide local professionals with the funding they needed to get the job done. In the 1990s, the Massachusetts Board of Education was a model for the rest of the country. Unfortunately, no one followed it.
If there are questions about education leadership, Fordham and the governors should be asking about the performance of the two highest strata of the nation’s federal system: the US Department of Education and our other state boards of education. After half a century and hundreds of billions of dollars into enlarging the federal role in education, where’s the measurable improvement in our schools? And, secondly, what about the performance of most state boards of education?
This kind of examination is especially timely, given the rising anger of parents and teachers across the country over the poorly written Common Core standards and the increasingly costly tests based on them that governor-appointed boards of education and appointed or elected commissioners/superintendents have imposed on local school districts.
So far, there is no record of even one state board or department of education listening to and then responding rationally to parents’ or teachers’ grievances about the Common Core standards and tests being imposed on their schools (although we have high hopes this may happen in Massachusetts this year).
Perhaps it’s time for many states to rethink quaint 19th century institutions developed with good intentions but which have outrun their usefulness. Even though there are irresponsible parents, are not most parents a better judge of the kind of education they want for their children than a state board of education, the state department of education, or the US Department of Education? Political scientists interested in questions of responsiveness to the body politic, as well as the role of outside money, would have a field day in studying the adoption of the Common Core by state boards and commissioners or superintendents of education.
Fordham and Governor Sandoval have it backwards—and that is likely because both have an interest in diminishing the power of local school boards and even local education professionals. Fordham has long wanted a strong federal role in driving content decisions; as a governor, Sandoval would perhaps love to have more of his friends determine how schools operate.
But if we look at what has worked in American education in the past 50 years, it would be clear that the federal government and most state boards have been ineffective in increasing students’ academic achievement, and they have also been unaccountable. Accountability should be in the hands of those who pay most of the bills for education. And the educators whose salaries they pay should be accountable only to them, not the federal government or state boards. Just a reminder: Teachers and principals are the ones interacting with students in the schools.
The entire Common Core project is rapidly going south, and within two years may be no more than a dim memory of a nightmare in the minds of a growing army of angry parents and teachers from coast to coast. Before this dystopian scheme for upgrading the academic status of low-income children emerges in a more deadly form in a newly re-authorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), we could try to salvage one of the reasonable arguments for a “common core.” We could benefit from some research-based and internationally benchmarked common standards in elementary school reading, writing, and arithmetic across states. But not up to grade 12. As educators in other countries and most parents everywhere know, many young adolescents don’t want to go to college or can’t do college coursework and would prefer other options. But common standards up to grade 8, with flexibility in the curriculum and in school organization for that educational wasteland known as middle or junior high school, make sense.
The first task is to relabel the currently toxic package as high school-ready standards and give the forthcoming “college readiness” tests not in grade 11 but in grade 8, which is where they better fit with respect to content and cut score. There, with additions by academic experts in each state to ensure adequate content knowledge is also assessed, they can serve as nationally recognized indications of whether students are capable of authentic high school-level work in grade 9.
It won’t take long for college faculty to realize that Common Core’s tests are a better indication of whether students can do authentic high school-level work in grade 9 than of college-level work. Few post-secondary institutions will survive the pretense that grade 6/7 reading and mathematical skills denote “college readiness.” No doctors or engineers can be developed if they are at that academic level in grade 11 or 12, even when fraudulently deemed “college-ready.” How many American communities can survive without a few doctors and engineers of their own?
Once common ELA and math standards serve to guide a curriculum that makes most students ready for real high school work by the end of grade 8, we can work out alternative high school curricula—the upper secondary options that appeal to a broad range of students even today—and give young adolescents a choice of the kind of curriculum they are willing to commit themselves to—with change always possible. This is what most developed countries do, including Finland. Our aim would be to try to make sure that all students complete a basic education through grade 8, before compulsory schooling ends and before they choose their upper secondary curriculum.
Do not think I exaggerate our predicament. At present, we are spending billions of dollars trying to send students to college and maintain them there when on average our high school students read at about the grade 6 or 7 level and their mathematical knowledge is not much higher—in comparison to their peers in high-achieving countries. Two independent sources converge on that reading level: Renaissance Learning’s latest report on the average reading level of what our students in grades 9-12 read (whether assigned or chosen), and the average reading level of the books that colleges assign to incoming freshmen for summer reading (the titles can be found in the latest Beach Book report). As for mathematics, most high school graduates do not do much in mathematics beyond what students in high-achieving countries complete in algebra and geometry by the end of grade 8. Common Core asks for little more than that by the end of grade 11.
A crisis is a terrible thing to waste, as we have been regularly told. And here’s one we should take advantage of in order to salvage a battered public school system. If we don’t come to grips with Common Core’s notion of “college readiness,” we face dissolution of our entire education system. And there are other English-speaking post-secondary institutions outside of this country eager for students who can do high school-level reading and mathematics.
Sandra Stotsky was Senior Associate Commissioner in the Massachusetts Department of Education in 1999-2003 and responsible for its K-12 standards in all major subjects. She was also a member of Common Core’s Validation Committee.
News flash for Washington watchers! Now we know what Arne Duncan will do once his service as US Education Secretary comes to an end. In the Boston Globe on Monday, he demonstrated a flair for fiction, with a panegyric to Gov. Patrick’s stewardship of education policy. My reaction is posted here and at the Globe’s Podium section:
Who says Common Core advocates don’t like fiction? In his Globe opinion piece (Under Deval Patrick, Mass. has led the nation in education, January 5), US Education Secretary Arne Duncan got one fact right: Massachusetts leads the nation in education. Attributing that progress to Gov. Patrick’s leadership is like suggesting that a pinch runner who finds himself on third base hit a triple.
Massachusetts has led the nation in all subjects tested on sampled national assessments for a decade. In fact, before Gov. Patrick’s inauguration in 2007, Massachusetts had been one of the fastest improving states in the nation.
Secretary Duncan makes glowing reference to Massachusetts’ performance on the international PISA tests. But, again, already in the spring of 2007 the commonwealth’s students had taken the Trends in Math and Science Study (TIMSS), a higher-quality international test than PISA, and ranked in the top six countries in math and science.
Only a politician, or an Education Secretary playing one, would attribute Massachusetts’ success to Gov. Patrick. The very best one can say about overall student achievement in the commonwealth during the Governor’s terms in office is that it has been stagnant. An objective observer would note significant areas of decline:
- Since the adoption of Common Core in 2010, sampled national tests show fourth-grade reading scores, the best predictor of future success, falling more significantly in Massachusetts than anywhere else in the country.
- During Governor Patrick’s time in office, Massachusetts students’ SAT scores have fallen by 20 points. (Prior to 2007, SAT scores had risen for 13 consecutive years.)
- When Patrick took office, 67 percent of third graders scored advanced or proficient on the state’s third-grade reading tests (again, an important marker); that number is now 57 percent.
The one area where I do agree with Secretary Duncan is in his praise for the work being done in the Lawrence Public Schools. There the Patrick Administration has demonstrated strength of purpose and a willingness to bring in outside partners to advance the interests of all children.
Secretary Duncan’s suggestion that this uninspiring record is path-breaking no doubt stems from his own support of policy changes Gov. Patrick made. The most significant of these is the governor’s abandonment of two pillars of Massachusetts’ original, bold reforms — academic content standards that approached those in the highest-performing nations and a unique accountability system focused on improving district leadership and performance.
It may also stem from the malady that most plagues our nation’s capital—that toxic mix of self-importance and the inability to see reality. After his six years in Washington and tens of billions of dollars spent on policies that centralize power at the Lyndon B. Johnson Building and away from classrooms, the Secretary continues to believe that his policies have been “game-changing,” a term he seemingly has on speed-dial.
Six years later, any policy analyst can review the data. Arne Duncan’s impact on student achievement in the United States is no different from that of his predecessors—imperceptible.
When it comes to education, I hope Governor-elect Baker opts for empirically proven policies rather than the Secretary’s empty PR.
Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, visit Pioneer’s website, or check out our education posts at the Rock The Schoolhouse blog.
No one wants to talk about testing except the people that want to get rid of it. Which leaves the field of debate on a critical aspect of education reform in pretty partial hands.
Above all other states, Massachusetts should understand the important role of standardized testing.
Former Senate President Tom Birmingham, chief architect of the state’s landmark 1993 Education Reform Act (ERA) has noted that in 1992 the sole state-imposed graduation requirements were “one year of American history and four years of gym. The “absence of a comprehensive statewide system of standards,” he continued, “imposed real hardships on poor and minority school districts” given “society’s low expectations as to what their kids could learn.”
The ERA changed all that, leading to the development of world-class academic standards in English, mathematics and science, together with testing. Unlike what we had seen before — where poorer districts were treated to easier reading texts and lower-level math — all children in the commonwealth were now given access to crucial elements of a strong liberal arts education. The law translated into among the nation’s largest gains in student performance—for all students. In 1993, Massachusetts stood in 11th place in the country on national assessments. Since 2005, Massachusetts has outperformed every other state on national assessments. Since 2007, when Massachusetts competed as its own country in international math and science testing, the Commonwealth has been among the world’s highest performing nations in 4th and 8th grade math and science.
The clearest case for testing comes from a subject where the law’s requirement for testing was ignored by Massachusetts policymakers—U.S. History. On the civics portion of the 2010 national assessment, only seven percent of America’s eighth graders correctly identified the three branches of our government. Massachusetts is no exception in that dismal outcome.
There are today problems with testing, and they largely stem from federal impositions of one-size-fits-all policies. Massachusetts’ 1993 law required standardized testing but not in all subjects in each year. The Bush administration’s 2001 No Child Left Behind law and the Obama administration’s Common Core policies have reduced state autonomy over standards, curriculum and testing. Today, federally funded testing consortia (PARCC in Massachusetts) have expanded testing beyond the appropriate and reasonable balance that was struck in Massachusetts.
There are of course other issues associated with testing as it is done in Massachusetts today, including the March to May period for the tests and the time it takes to get the results back. To be fair to teachers, and to represent the value of the work they have done with students, we need to make every effort to push the tests to late May or even mid-June. As for the results, there is little benefit to parents when the results come back half a year later. The fact is that parents will make an effort to address areas where their children need to improve – and the summer is a great time to do that. Missing that window of opportunity is inexcusable.
And the MCAS can and should be improved. The frequency, the timing of the test and the distribution of results, as well as ways to improve the test should all be debated. But the value of standardized tests is only a matter up for debate among a rarefied and self-interested group of individuals who have a very short memory. We’re not going back to one year of history and four years of gym.
Good policy requires thoughtful definition of a high-quality liberal arts education and consideration of equity for all students, accountability for results, and impacts on the classroom. Evidence suggests Massachusetts should fulfill the promise made in 1993 and test US History instruction, but jealously guard its autonomy over policy in an age when the federal government is stoking a testing frenzy. It also suggests that the state should not be ashamed to push back at federal policy mandates wherever we, as a national leader in education reform, believe we can do better.
Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, visit Pioneer’s website, or check out our education posts at the Rock The Schoolhouse blog.
To help out governors and state legislatures that really want to get state-tailored standards close to the quality of the pre-2010 Massachusetts and California standards–or the Indiana 2006 standards–I have provided an outline of the steps or procedures a state legislature could follow (see below).
The outcomes remain open-ended. But these procedures, based on my experiences in Massachusetts over 10 years ago, and in other states in recent years, ensure that no special interest groups, including a state’s board, commissioner, or department of education, can take control of the “process,” deceive the parents of the state, and feed back a warmed-over version of Common Core as is now happening in South Carolina and Oklahoma, and as has happened in Indiana and Florida.
These procedures, among other things, are designed to ensure that those in charge of revising mathematics, science, or English language arts standards for a state actually know the content of these disciplines and teach in a state’s own higher education institutions. If anyone knows what college readiness should mean for a particular state, they should.
Procedures for state legislatures to use to establish standards development committees to replace Common Core’s Standards
STEERING OR EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE to be chosen by the State Legislature
- Chancellor of State System of Higher Education
- State Legislators (3)
- Others? PLUS (when chosen)
- ELA Standards Development Chair
- Mathematics Standards Development Chair
- Oversees the entire project
- Final approval of all content and work of the committees
- Final approval of all committee membership
- Supported by Attorney General’s office
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR (paid)
- Selected by and reports to Steering Committee
- Oversees entire standards process
- Assures accurate communications to the Legislature, the Governor. and the public at large
- Works directly with ELA and Math Chairs, and directs work of the ELA and Math Scribes
Document SCRIBES (paid) selected by the Steering Committee
- ELA Scribe
- Math Scribe
- Expertise in subject matter
- Adept at digital technology
- Report to ELA or Math Chair on Steering Committee
- Prepares database of all nominees
- Processes nominations to various committees
- Schedules and secures sites for all in-person and virtual meetings
- Arranges for the services of meeting facilitators where needed
- Takes and transcribes detailed notes of all meetings
- Creates minutes from Steering Committee meetings
- Provides ongoing updates of standards-writing process to all committees and the public
- Posts appropriate information on webpage
- Maintains all drafts and revisions throughout the writing process
- Compiles public comments
- Coordinates responses to public comment
MATH AND ELA CHAIRS (2 members)
- Undergraduate teaching faculty in the arts and sciences
- Math Chair must be a faculty member in a science, mathematics or engineering department
- ELA Chair must be a faculty member in an English literature/language department
- Nominated by the president of the candidate’s four-year accredited university or college that maintain graduate-level programs (not a member of faculty of college of education)
- At least 2 candidates for each committee will be nominated to the Steering Committee for final selection
- Maintains schedules and timelines
- Leads and coordinates the work of the Standards Development Committees
- Assures that standards are written with an emphasis on disciplinary content and accuracy
- Works with Executive Director
STANDARDS DEVELOPMENT COMMITTEES (15 members each)
District superintendents may nominate up to a total of 6 teachers for the subgroups in ELA and Math (i.e., no more than 1 per subgroup).
Membership of ELA Standards Development Committee
- ELA Chair
- ELA Vice Chair — Teaching faculty member in an undergraduate English Literature
Department at a four-year university (selected by the ELA Chair)
- 4 Pre-K to Fifth Grade school teachers
- 4 Middle school teachers (Sixth Grade-Eighth Grade)
- 4 High school teachers at each grade level (Ninth Grade-12th Grade)
- 1 Librarian (nominated by State’s Library Association)
Qualifications for teachers (District Superintendents are to use one-page nomination forms:
- Minimum 7 years experience at the educational level of the subgroup for which they are applying: Current teaching assignment at one of the grade levels in that subgroup
- At least a minor in English and/or list courses completed in literature, composition, or rhetoric for those seeking middle or high school subgroup
- Reading methods coursework for those in PreK-grade 8
- Steering Committee in conjunction with the ELA Chair and Vice Chair make the final selection of those to serve on the subgroups
Membership of Math Standards Development Committee
- Math Chair
- Math Vice Chair — teaching faculty member in an undergraduate Mathematics Department at a four-year university (selected by the Math Chair)
- 4 Pre-K to Grade 5 teachers
- 4 Middle school teachers (Sixth Grade-Eighth Grade)
- 4 High school teachers (Ninth Grade-12th Grade) to Include:
- Algebra I teacher
- Geometry teacher
- Algebra II teacher
- Precalculus or Trigonometry teacher
- 1 Engineer (nominated by a state engineering professional organization or university faculty)
Qualifications for classroom teachers (District Superintendents use a one-page nomination form):
- Minimum 7 years experience at the educational level of the subgroup for which they are applying: Current teaching assignment at one of the grade levels in the subgroup
- At least a minor in mathematics, science, or engineering
- Steering Committee in conjunction with Math Chair and Vice Chair make the final selection of those to serve on the subgroups
- Each Standards Development Committee as a whole selects for use a highly-rated pre-2009 set of state standards as the foundational blueprint (for ELA: California, Indiana 2006, Massachusetts 2001 or condensed/revised 2013, and for math: California, Indiana 2006, Massachusetts 2000, or Minnesota).
- Each subgroup addresses each relevant grade-level set of standards by adoption, modification, or rewrite.
- Standards Development Committee as a whole examines entire set of standards and revises when necessary
- Submits the documents to the Steering Committee for review and approval
FIRST-DRAFT REVIEW COMMITTEE
- Remaining nominees not selected to be on Standards Development Committee
- Teachers review all standards at their own educational level for appropriateness and wording
- High school teachers review all documents
- Comments are recorded by the Scribes and sent to the Standards Development Committee for review and possible action
- First draft presented to the Steering Committee for approval
SECOND DRAFT REVIEW by higher education and special interest groups
- State Chamber of Commerce
- State business and industry professional organizations
- State engineering organizations
- Early childhood advocacy organizations
- Special education advocacy organizations
- English Language Learners advocacy organizations
- School counselor professional organizations
- Speech pathology professional organizations
- Undergraduate teaching faculty in science, engineering, mathematics and English literature/language
- Review content standards and advise on:
- a) Classroom application
- b) Vertical alignment
- c) Provide comment on how the standards affect the population they represent.
- All responses must be signed and submitted electronically
- Comments on any recommended changes to the Second Draft are recorded by the Scribes and sent to the Standards Development Committee for review and possible action
- Second draft presented to the Steering Committee for approval. Steering Committee reviews recommendations and provides direction to the ELA and Math Chairs and the Standards Writing Teams as they edit the second draft.
The presidents, provost, and faculty of the 4 year colleges nominate two well known or well published experts in each subject area.
Membership: Selection is by the Steering Committee
- Individuals do not teach at a state college or university
- Qualifications determined by Steering Committee
- The External Reviewer will report on the quality of the standards
- The External Reviewer will report to the Steering Committee and the State Legislature
After the second draft review, the Standards Development Committees will review, revise and submit a final draft to the Steering Committee. Final draft will be submitted for a 45-day public comment period and public hearing at the State Capitol. Public comment will be incorporated as deemed appropriate by the Standards Development Committee
Final Draft submitted to the State Legislature for Legislative Hearings and final approval.