Common Core influence on instruction negligible

In a piece posted at EducationNext recently, Tom Loveless asks whether the Common Core State Standards have had any influence on instruction in the schools.

Loveless examines test scores and studies which seem to show little change in instructional for good or bad since the standards were adopted, with the exception that there is more nonfiction reading material being used today than pre-CCSS.

I came to the same conclusion via a totally different type of evidence: keyword search terms.

Sign: To Teach is to keep learning forever.

In 2008, before CCSS was unleashed on American schools, I began a website aimed at teaching teachers of grades 8-14 how to teach nonfiction writing.  I used keyword search data to determine what kinds of information teachers were looking for. The greater the number of searches for a term, the greater the likelihood that the associated concepts or skills were in high demand in classrooms. The high-demand keywords became pages on

Teachers who visited my site told me about their challenges.

The vast majority of visitors to my site were teachers with at least 10 years’ teaching experience. Few had had any instruction in how to teach writing before they entered the profession. Most said they still felt unprepared to teach writing.

Even English department heads confided that they didn’t know how to teach nonfiction writing to teens and adults and couldn’t help other faculty.

After having the site up five years, I took it down in 2013. (Google was changing its algorithm faster than I could update a fraction of my 400+ page site to comply with the standards of the week.)

This past September while doing keyword analysis for a client, just for kicks I redid the keyword search on teaching writing that I’d done in 2008.

Surprise: The key terms and the number of keyword searches for each term in September 2015 were almost identical to the key terms and search figures in January 2008.

I’ve taken enough professional development workshops to know those PD workshops rarely provide enough help that a teacher can go from to implementing a new practice in her classroom. The teacher usually has to do some more serious study on her own.

The lack of searches related to Common Core emphases such as summarizing, writing in content areas and writing arguments suggests to me that although there may be a great deal of professional development presentations being delivered to support the Common Core, teachers on their own are not attempting to update their skills.

Or, to put it another way, teachers are not taking control of their learning.

And if that isn’t happening, I’d say Common Core State Standards have had very little influence on instruction in the schools.

How to align courses to Common Core: a tongue-in-cheek guide

I’ve been reading the education blogs, and I think I’ve finally figured out this whole “align with the Common Core” thing.

1. Take a lesson you’ve been doing that didn’t produce the learning students need.

2. Find something in the lesson that is like something called for in Common Core.

3. Include the code for the Common Core standard with your lesson plan.

How hard is that?


10 Reasons I Support the Common Core

When a teacher whom I respect asked me recently why I support the Common Core State Standards, I decided I ought to set out my reasons with at least enough coherence that they are clear in my own mind. Before I begin, here are a few disclaimers to help readers interpret my comments:

  • I have focused almost exclusively on the English language arts standards, which are the standards I need to know, ignoring the math standards.
  • Because I approve of the standards more than I disapprove of them does not mean I think the standards are flawless.
  • My approval/disapproval is related only to the standards themselves, not to how they are implemented in a given place.
  • My approval/disapproval is related only to the standards themselves, not to to any testing apparatus that may be associated with the standards.

Without further ado, here are my reasons for supporting the standards.
Common Core logo

1. Common Core Standards aim for learning that develops depth, utility and fluency throughout a lifetime.

The ELA standards, for example, focus on enabling students to gather information by reading, asking questions, observing, and discussing ideas with others; to think, analyze, and evaluate that information; to make choices based on that information; to present their reasoned opinions in writing, speaking, and other media; to apply their learning and thinking in creative ways. None of those skills can be mastered in one lesson or unit; they must develop over years of diverse experiences.

2. The Common Core Standards put acquiring learning skills into the context of learning content.

The standards don’t specify what specific topics must be taught. The standards say, for example, that students must be able to discuss differences in the way a topic is treated in a piece of fiction and a piece of nonfiction, but leave the choice of works open.

3. Common Core Standards are presented in terms of what students must do to demonstrate achievement.

Whenever the standards specify how a student demonstrates learning, they provide guidance as to the form instruction and evaluation must take. If the standards call for making choices and defending those choices, the learning activities must provide opportunities for making choices and defending them. If a standard calls for preparing a written document or giving a speech, a multiple choice test will not be an appropriate final assessment.

4. The Common Core gives curriculum design responsibilities back to teachers.

The standards don’t specify what content and instructional methods teachers must use. Choosing how to design a curriculum to fit students’ needs is left to teachers who know their students and the learning resources available locally.

5. The Common Core necessitates continual evaluation and instructional adjustments in terms of the standards.

Because the standards are laddered to indicate how particular skills build year by year, teachers must assess students’ learning on a daily basis to correct misunderstandings before they become ingrained in students’ thinking. For such formative evaluations to be useful, they must be appropriate to the content being taught. Teachers cannot rely on multiple choice and short answer quizzes for insights into students’ thought processes or skill levels.

6. Common Core Standards encourage learning activities that address more than one objective.

The standards are so detailed that no teacher could possibly present even one lesson on every topic specified for her grade level in a year. Teachers should quickly realize that by planning activities that work toward achievement of more than one Common Core objective, they increase their productivity. A teacher can design an activity that includes reading nonfiction text, learning a new vocabulary word used that text, working in a small group, speaking and writing without spending more time than would be required to develop learning materials for each of those separate outcomes.

7. Common Core standards make teaching heterogeneous groups easier.

A teacher who is providing students with multiple opportunities to learn the most important skills and content can more easily help students master areas in which they are weak than can the teacher who has just one unit a year on a particular topic. Moreover, a teacher can help students set individual growth targets for the academic year, enabling students to reduce specific grammar errors, for example, or encouraging students to develop more depth in some area in which they are already at grade level.

8. Core standards promote cross-disciplinary collaboration.

So much is expected of schools under Common Core, that only by working with other teachers, including those in other disciplines, can an individual teacher accomplish her/his own objectives. Recognizing the importance of communication skills in all areas of life, Common Core demands teachers across the disciplines share in teaching English. Shared burdens are not only are lighter but often produce creative results.

9. Teachers must meet Common Core standards in order to teach students to meet them.

The Common Core is about being able to learn what you need to know without having a teacher masticate and pre-digest it for you. Teachers who won’t or can’t do that for themselves in order to teach to the Core standards shouldn’t teaching in Common Core schools.

10. Common Core requires flexible teachers and encourages them to be creative.

The Common Core State Standards constitute an instructional system: Its components need to be combined within a class and within a school to produce specific outcomes. Thinking in terms of school-wide teaching rather than in terms of classroom units requires intellectual flexibility. Teachers who can make the shift will find the Core standards give them wide latitude to develop their own materials, to collaborate with peers, to tap community and worldwide resources.

There you have my reasons for thinking the Common Core is more useful than not. My thoughts on the not-so-great parts and on some of the wacky ways states have attempted to implement the Core can wait for another day.

Thanks to @song4mozart for pushing me to write out my thoughts on this topic.



Misaligned with the Common Core

As the Common Core State Standards are rolled out across America, CCSS opponents such as Diane Ravitch, decry the profits publishers are making selling “Common Core aligned” material, which often is nothing more than their old materials with a CCSS reference number slapped on them.

As troubling at that practice is, I am at least as disturbed by educators who putting a CCSS reference number on their materials and saying their curriculum and their assessments align with the Common Core.

Sample student learning outcomes posted to, a website developed and maintained by the New York State Education Department, demonstrate just how serious the problem is.

The sample learning outcomes appear to have been developed by teachers. Each SLO includes information about the number and educational characteristics of students enrolled in the class, such as their ages/grade level, whether they had IEPs or were English Language Learners.

One SLO I examined is for a Computer Applications course. As you will see, the outcomes the teacher wrote (the author is not identified) do not specify what computer applications the students will study. That gap apparently did not bother the state education staff, but it bothers me.

Objectives for student learning

The Computer Applications course uses objectives borrowed from three sources, two of which are publicly accessible.

National Business Applications Standards

As a business owner, I hope the National Business Education Association’s standards include some instruction in

  • word processing
  • spreadsheets
  • Internet research
  • basic HTML coding
  • presentation/multi-media software

However, without paying a hefty price ($90 for the standards plus $9 shipping), the only way I or another member of the public has of figuring out what specific applications are taught in the computer course is to analyze the teacher’s description of the course assessments.

The teacher writes that the Computer Applications course “assessment is based upon keyboarding skills, multiple choice questions, and short answer section (error analysis).” The only application that suggests to me is word processing.


New York State’s Career Development and Occupational Studies objectives used for the Computer Applications course include what the layperson would refer to as:

  • applying classroom knowledge in the workplace
  • “soft skills” and/or “employability skills”

The state education department provides a downloadable PDF that shows both  standards and suggested assessments  for the standards, which are remarkably hands-on and realistic.

These suggested assessments were not used with the sample teacher’s curriculum.

Common Core State Standards

The teacher aligned the Computer Applications course to eight English language arts standards for writing, reading, and speaking. This list gives the gist of the standard the teacher cited. Use the link to get the CCSS wording.

  • CCRW4: Produce clear, coherent, appropriate writing
  • CCRW6: Use technology to write and collaborate.
  • CCRW10: Write long and short pieces regularly.
  • WHST5: Plan, revise, and edit writing.
  • WHST6: Use technology to keep written information current.
  • CCRL1: Use standard grammar and usage when writing or speaking.
  • CCRL2: Follow standard edited English conventions.
  • CCRL6: Continually expand vocabulary.

Remember the teachers’ description of the assessment instruments? It said, “Assessment is based upon keyboarding skills, multiple choice questions, and short answer section (error analysis).”

Do you think multiple choice questions are likely to show how whether students write long and short documents regularly?

Is a multiple choice question likely to show how well students use technology to write collaboratively?

Will an error analysis show whether students are regularly expanding their vocabulary?

I don’t think multiple choice items are likely to be good ways of assessing those kinds of learning.

The central problem

The teacher who prepared this material has made a real effort to do what she or he thought needed to be done. But her/his understanding of teaching to a set of standards is flawed.

While every teacher in a Common Core school is supposed to pitch in with helping students master the ELA and math objectives, each teacher is supposed to look for logical connections between what they teach and the Core.

Finding those logical connections between Core and course curriculum is easier if teachers work with the specific year-by-year standards rather than with the CCR standards for K-12.

Teaching to the standards

Students need to learn computer applications so they can do things such as:

  • Write documents
  • Gather data through online search, surveys, etc.
  • Collaborate on work tasks with people who are in different locations.
  • Record  numerical information
  • Analyze information
  • Produce and distribute multimedia information to various audiences.

The computer teacher can teach any of those skills and show their applicability to the Common Core using the year-by-year ELA and math standards.

The teacher can also use skills required in the core, such as writing and math, in computer class tasks. For example, having students use software to graph their keyboarding progress would provide a logical link between the Common Core standards and the computer course itself.

I feel sorry for teachers who want to teach well but are left to figure it out without help from anyone with experience teaching to standards.

They deserve better treatment.

Should Standards and Assessments be Piloted?

A call for piloting standards and assessments has been raised by educators around the world who are faced with the problems inherent in moving to outcomes-based learning.  This from David B. Cohen in the US is representative of the sorts of things I’ve heard:

Tweet Let's pilot new standards and assessments

That verb to pilot has a couple of common meanings.  Its most common meaning is to lead or guide, typically in difficult conditions.  That definition doesn’t fit the context of the Tweet. I suspect many of  Cohen’s Twitter followers would say the standards and assessments are the difficult conditions.

The second meaning is probably closer to what Cohen has in mind, but even it is not a good match for the context. To pilot can mean to set a course and see that the vessel arrives at its destination.  That meaning does not suggest that there’s flaw in the vessel, only that it requires a skilled operator.  I doubt that the folks who are opposed to new standards and new assessments would be caught dead suggesting that better quality teachers would have no problem using them.

It seems to me that although Cohen uses pilot as a verb, he wants the word to be understood in its adjectival meaning of testing or experimental, as in the phrase “a pilot program to train monkeys to run cash registers.”

Even assuming Cohen wants a  limited pilot program to test standards and assessments, I still see a problem.

Standards just are

By themselves, the number of people who meet a particular standard doesn’t tell anything about whether a standard is good or bad.

If the carnival ride has a requirement, “people must be 48-inches high to ride the Cyclone,”  having a random sample of 1,000 people line up against the standard won’t tell whether they standard is good or bad.  The standard might be set too high for the ride to be profitable for the operator or too low to allow people to ride in relative safety, but those determinations cannot be made just on the basis of the percentage of people who meet the standard.

Educational standards are supposedly the sort everyone can meet, while standards for joining the Rockettes or the Navy Seals are intended to be those which only a few can meet.  Both types of standards can be inappropriate for a multitude of reasons.

One of the criticisms of the Common Core State Standards is that some of the grade-level standards are not appropriate to students’ developmental level at that grade. If true (and I think it is), that’s a serious problem.

It is not, however, a problem that’s like to be solved through small-scale experiments. The folks responsible for the overall standards will have to be convinced by seeing lots of data over a few years—with some assistance from experts in child and adolescent development—that the objective needs to be moved to a different grade level.

Assessments are testable

Unlike standards, assessments can and should be tested.  Assessments, however,  are evaluated in terms of how well they measure achievement of the standards.

To a considerable extent, assessments can be tested by small groups of the intended users to get rid of the least valid, least reliable assessments. Of course, if the standards were inappropriate to begin with, the assessments are going to be out of whack, too.

I have some sympathy for teachers who feel they are being forced to work with new standards and assessments without adequate preparation. I’m also willing to grant that first couple years of new standards and new assessments are going to be a pretty tough slog.

However, I believe teachers can work with (and around) new standards and assessments if they put their minds to it.

A workable approach

A District of Columbia ELA teacher who spoke at a webinar I attended recently told about how she implemented the Common Core in her classroom. She chose a few grade-specific standards that she thoroughly agreed with and worked all year teaching in-depth to achieve that standard.

When the standardized test showed her students didn’t do well on those standards, she said that test was not a valid assessment of students’ understanding of those topics.  She knew her students knew that material well.

She did the same things the next year that she’d done the first year.

The second year her students did very well: Between the first and second years, the standardized test was changed so the test items aligned better with the standards.

I suspect that  teachers will find that if they work consistently through the year toward a few of the standards they feel comfortable working with their students to achieve,  do their own assessments to show students’ learning, and not change their teaching to align with a poor test, they’ll be successful, too.

Real Audiences Elixir: Effective or Just Addictive?

One of the remedies for writing ailments that circulates regularly through the online education community is having students write for real audiences instead of the teacher.

Like nostrums sold by itinerant pedlars on the American frontier, the Real Audiences Elixir may be more addictive than effective.

Take a look at the examples promoted by Edutopia with hashtags tying them to English and English Language Arts.

The task author Rebecca Albers provide  for ninth/tenth graders is to require them to select and research a local or state official, examine the official’s record in light of his/her campaign promises, and write the official “a letter of congratulations.. or a letter calling him to action.”

I wonder how meaningful that assignment is to ninth and tenth graders. I don’t know many 14-year-olds whose idea of fun is researching their state comptroller’s record, do you?

I also wonder real the real audience for that writing prompt is. In my experience, mail to an official is most likely to get a templated response based on keywords in the letter. Perhaps the templates are more real than the students’ teacher, but I doubt it.

A more significant problem, however,  is whether the prompt accomplishes anything other than simply giving students writing experience. To what Common Core standards for ELA grades 9-10 does the writing prompt clearly link?  Research, possibly.

Because Common Core wants students to develop deep understanding of essentials within and across disciplines, teachers cannot afford to spend time on activities that address only one of the standards. That means, among other things, teachers need to direct writing assignments to support learning of other essential class content in addition to developing students’ writing skills.

(The writing prompt I criticized for English classes might turn out to be a perfect fit for a government objective in social studies.   Those standards are not yet published, so we can’t be sure.)

I’m not knocking the value of writing for readers other than just the teacher; I am urging teachers not to think that having students write to someone other than themselves is going to achieve the standards set out in the Common Core.

Standards-Based Teaching Mindset

The controversy surrounding assessment of students and teachers in standards-based classrooms in the U.S. and around the world has obscured a fundamental problem in teacher preparation: The vast majority of teachers have been taught to think in terms of lessons and units, not in terms of objectives. They don’t have any training in working with standards.

A few truly gifted teachers can teach lessons and units, each with their own objectives, and manage over an academic year to instill in their students a knowledge of the major concepts,  essential skills, and attitudes required in that discipline.

The majority of teachers, however, teach as they were taught and as they were taught to teach: in disconnected units.

They may teach well.

Students may acquire a great deal of information.

Students are unlikely, however, to get the big picture that will allow them to use their knowledge to acquire and produce new knowledge.

The frustration  teachers who are told to use methods they haven’t experienced or been taught is intense. I feel especially bad for the teachers who are eager to teach better, but held back by their unit-mindset, as these two tweets for help reveal:
Tweet from teacher

Tweet by teacher

This teacher’s problem is a unit mindset: one concept, one week.

Working within a standards-based environment means teachers must think in terms of objectives for a year or longer. Those objectives are major concepts and major skills. Such objectives cannot be “hit in a short time.” They cannot be confined to a lesson, a week, a unit. They must be taught repeatedly throughout the year in multiple ways in multiple contexts.

Take, for example, the Common Core Reading Standards for Literature for grade 6 students. The nine standards listed are to be a focus for the year.

Learning to “cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text” (the first standard) is not something students will learn to do in one unit. So instead of teaching a unit on citing textual evidence,  teachers incorporate that activity regularly into learning activities until citing textual evidence becomes standard procedure for students.

Teaching within a standards-based environment allows—even demands—teachers assume more responsibility for selecting materials to use with their students. In addition, teachers have more freedom and responsibility for the pace of instruction: “This month’s unit” is on its way out.

We’re probably in for a long period of turmoil until the assessment issues are worked out, but when they are settled, I believe many teachers will welcome having more professional responsibility for managing their classroom learning environment and will do  better teaching in a standards-based environment.

They just need the right mindset.

Argument values students’ unique contributions

One of the tenets of American education is that every child’s ideas are valuable. That tenet has oozed into a practice of treating all ideas as equally valuable on the theory that Josh shouldn’t be made to feel his idea is not as good as Caitlin’s.

The truth is that some ideas are better than others.

In a piece for fastcodesign, Daniel Sobol, a design strategist at Continuum, writes about how the company encourages innovation. By deliberate choice, Continuum has rejected brainstorming, which is about getting lots of ideas from everyone, in favor of deliberative discourse.

Deliberative discourse has been used to solve problems from the time of Aristotle. Such discourse is both deliberate in the sense of focusing on a shared purpose. It is also deliberative in the sense of being evaluative.  You and I probably call it argument. That’s what the Common Core State Standards call it. Sobol says, “It refers to participative and collaborative (but not critique-free) communication.”

The deliberative discourse process is not argumentative; it does not make personal attacks or spout off illogically. Disagreements have to be supported by evidence.

When argument is enlisted to solve problems, some important shifts occur.

First, the focus shifts from the quantity of the ideas students generate to the quality of ideas they generate.  We’re deluding ourselves if we think Josh won’t notice that Caitlin had five ideas for every one of his. In true collaborative work, the person whose argument leads to rejection of a weak idea is at least as valuable as the person who generates lots of ideas.

Secondly, the ability to articulate a position clearly—which implies having evidence to support it—becomes extremely important. That’s an educational reason for using argument.

Finally, the uniqueness of each individual’s perspectives, experience, and skills takes on greater significance. In a world that increasingly relies on collaboration, workers will be selected for their unique skills. It seems only sensible that in our classrooms, we teach collaborative processes like argument in which all are accorded respect for the unique value of their contributions rather  allowing  the individual’s contributions to be melted into the group’s work.

[Updated link to Sobol article content 2016-01-22.]


Advanced computer skills for Common Core

Educators have been wailing that students may not have the advanced computer skills necessary to show the extent of their learning when tests aligned to Common Core State Standards roll out.  I have spent quite a bit of time poking around the standards in English Language Arts.  I hadn’t seen any I thought required  advanced skills, but what do I know?

Curious about what advanced computer skills might be required, I signed up for a webinar offered by Atomic Learning on the integration of Common Core and technology. The webinar  began with quotes from teachers about the computer skills they feared their students would not have. Among the vague rumblings of fear were a few specifics.

One teacher feared students wouldn’t be able to open a PDF file.

Another was concerned that students would not know how to copy text from one file and paste it into another.

There’s no way to know whether the quotes are representative even of clients of the company, let alone whether they are representative of American teachers.

But it is rather scary to think even a couple American teachers consider opening a file and copying and pasting to be “advanced computer skills.”

Training and educating are twin roles for schools

Many teachers are perplexed by the Common Core State Standards and similar slates of educational objectives. They cannot understand how they can be expected to teach a skill such as “analyze the interactions between individuals, events and ideas in a text” (ELA: RI.7.3) unless someone tells them which text, which individuals, which events, and which ideas they are to present.

These teachers are confusing training with educating.

Last week Thomas Ricks was on the PBS NewsHour  to talk about his new book  The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today. In his conversation with Ray Suarez, Ricks said this:

You train for the known … but you educate for the unknown, for the critical, ambiguous, the complex battlefields you find.

That distinction is one educators need to understand. We can—should—train students for the world in which they live. But we also need to educate them to live in a different world that hasn’t been created yet.

Ricks went on to say that in battlefield situations a general must:

Figure out what’s going on here, what’s important about it, what’s trivial. How do I devise a response? What’s a solution? And how do I implement it through the actions of thousands of subordinates?

The kind of  critical thinking and strategic solutions required of generals is also required of teachers and school administrators today if our students are to become educated for tomorrow’s world.

Training and educating are both essential. We shouldn’t neglect either.

And we certainly must not confuse them.

[Repaired broken link 04-03-2014; repaired broken link 2016-01-22.]