School House Wonk

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine." Benjamin Franklin

Elites Enter the Online Arena

Much has been written about the explosion of online learning in higher education. In Elite Colleges Transform Online Higher Education, A.P. writer Terence Chea examines potential tipping points of this phenomenon.

While online learning has been around for a while, the recent entry of elite universities into the digital learning arena – with an outreach to hundreds of thousands of students worldwide – has elevated the conversation. With top-name universities now offering many courses online for free, we may be witnessing a permanent realignment of the higher education universe.

This past spring, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began offering free, online courses for the first time. According to Chea, massive open online courses – MOOCs – may be the biggest game changer yet in digital learning. Advocates claim these courses lower costs and expand access to higher education, all at a time when higher ed costs are soaring to the point of fueling student protests.

Chea and others report that last month “a dozen major research universities” announced they would offer online courses through the platform known as Coursera (joining Stanford, Princeton and the universities of Virginia and Pennsylvania). Harvard, MIT and University of California, Berkeley have already signed on with another online learning portal – edX. Chea reports that over 120 universities have expressed an interest in joining this consortium. Most universities offering these courses do not extend course credit with them, only certificates of completion (with a few exceptions, such as the University of Washington). So far that hasn’t mattered, as demand for these courses continues to soar.

So what makes these courses so attractive? First, the technology is better. It’s more interactive, and the curriculum is higher quality, according to the students who take them. Universities also claim the courses are as rigorous as the brick-and-mortar versions. Second, the virtual learning community greatly enhances learning. With access to thousands of other students at once, students can rely on more than just the professor and her teaching assistant to work through problems or get questions answered. There’s an entire (albeit virtual) community of engaged learners. Third, it speeds up the process – students can take more classes online and work through credit requirements more quickly (and on a time schedule of their choosing).

And the downsides? Cheating (there’s a lot of it), and lack of a personal connection. Plus some courses, particularly liberal arts or science classes with labs, simply aren’t well-suited for online learning.

Then there’s the overriding concern about wholesale extinction. Specifically, some fear universities (and their professors) will suffer the same fate as many newspapers did (bankruptcy) at the onset of the digital media age, because if you can get your content for free online, why should you pay the high price tag normally associated with elite schools?

My take: Elite universities aren’t going away anytime soon. Here’s what to watch – if employers are willing to hire students who complete certain courses (e.g., technical) without earning the traditional two or four-year degree, get ready for a complete paradigm shift. When employers focus less on traditional degrees earned, and more on content mastery as demonstrated by course completion, then you’ll know online learning has really arrived. Chea reports that this may already be happening in the tech industry, where some companies are asking online learning providers for “introductions” to students who successfully completed their online courses. Coursera is even considering this development as a possible revenue generator by charging students for certificates and employers for identifying top students.

Beth T. Sigall

August 13, 2012


Raising the Bar

This past weekend at the Aspen Ideas Festival, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten offered a new idea for the teaching profession — a bar exam. Education Week’s Stephen Sawchuck reports that Weingarten proposed a bar exam as a way to determine whether new teachers are ready to teach. Weingarten envisions a test that emphasizes critical thinking skills more than rote ones; it would also include a clinical piece to provide hands-on experience.

Weingarten then moved the conversation to Twitter (@rweingarten), where she spent much time clarifying and otherwise explaining her bar exam trial balloon. One explanation of particular note was a recent Gallup poll that, according to Weingarten, showed confidence in public education is at an all-time low.  Another was the need she sees for teachers to become proactive in finding solutions to the problems faced in public education by leading, not just reacting.

According to Sawchuck, while a bar exam for teachers has common-sense appeal, only a test that is both rigorous in content and requires a high score to pass stands a chance of working. And even then, other political obstacles stand in the way. While teachers unions might seem the most obvious roadblock, Sawchuck points to colleges of education and state licensing boards as groups that have opposed past efforts on raising the bar to becoming a teacher.

My take: A bar exam would help align the teaching profession with others, such as law and medicine. Raising entry-level requirements in a thoughtful and substantive way (i.e., not with more paperwork or seat time in continuing education classes) so that education colleges are producing teachers who are ready to teach seems like something we can all agree on.

The AFT plans to release a report sometime this year, again according to Sawchuck, on how to improve the quality of teacher preparation. Perhaps Weingarten’s announcement is paving the way for some big ideas, such as a minimum-entry 3.0 GPA requirement, or a “national, rigorous entry test measuring college-level subject knowledge, rather than the basic-skills tests states currently administer.” Sawchuck writes that only one state – Texas – requires an entry test for new teachers normed to the college-aged population.

Beth T. Sigall

July 2, 2012

Supersize Me

Chester Finn recently returned from a trip to Singapore, and shared his takeaways of what we should learn, and not learn, from that country’s education system in Supersize my education? Not in Singapore.

Finn uses his trip as a springboard to discuss whether American students are receiving enough education, given that a “provocative” new study shows Americans students today are getting less education than their parents. Specifically, students born in 1980 will receive only eight months more education than their parents, a gap that has shrunk from a peak of two years more for kids (baby boomers) born in 1955.

Finn asks whether the answer to this problem lies in more school hours, or whether it’s a question of better and more relevant schooling:

But is more education – more hours and days, more years and degrees, — the cure for what ails us? Or are we already pigging out on the educational equivalent of fast food – fattening but not nutritious – and will supersizing our portions just make matters worse?

In examining this question, Finn looks in part to Singapore. According to Finn, Singapore has been going “a mile a minute in boosting both the quality and the quantity of formal education that its population receives.” The result: the percentage of Singaporeans completing the tenth grade jumped from 25 percent in 1980 to 96 percent in 2010. And Singaporean students score higher than practically every other developed nation on international assessments of science of math.

But, according to Finn, Singapore hasn’t achieved these dramatic gains by supersizing their education offerings (which he characterizes as a typical American response). For example, in Singapore, kindergarten is (still) optional – formal schooling doesn’t begin until age six or seven. About 25 percent of Singaporeans qualify for “junior college” (grades eleven and twelve). The government aims to place about 30 percent of its student in public universities; right now about 40 percent of high school graduates transition to career-oriented poly-technical institutes, which are similar to higher-end community colleges in the U.S. Another 20 percent attend technical schools that emphasize “hands-on” training. Bottom line according to Finn: even this seemingly-obsessed education nation does not advocate a “college-for-all” or “P through 20” approach to learning for every student.

So while college costs in the U.S. continue to rise, saddling parents and students with mind-boggling levels of debt, Finn uses the success of Singapore to ask some tough questions – namely whether getting more of a mediocre product is really a good thing, and whether our resources might be better spent on improving the education our students actually receive, both in terms of content and relevance.  These are questions worth asking.

Beth T. Sigall

May 14, 2012

Cups, Computers and Calculus at Virginia Tech

Large plastic drinking cups have always played a pivotal role in college life, but up until now that role mostly involved the consumption of cheap keg beer. But the math department at Virginia Tech has developed an entirely new use for these cups – and for an abandoned department store – all in the name of providing better math instruction to more students at a lower cost.

It’s called the Math Emporium, and according to Daniel de Vise of The Washington Post, it’s a place where “computer is king” and math course pass rates are rising.

Faced with massive overcrowding in required freshman math courses such as pre-calculus, calculus, trigonometry and geometry, Virginia Tech University decided to try something new. They renovated an old department store for $2 million, converting it to 60,000 square feet of teaching space with 537 computers arranged in six-person clusters. According to De Vise, there are no professors in the classroom – just a “sea of computers,” red plastic cups and four roving instructors. Students work at their own pace using a mastery-based program; when they need human help students place a red (beverage-free) cup on top of their computer monitor. That cup signals a math instructor to provide in-person assistance.

De Vise writes that Math Emporium is open 24 hours a day, offering seven courses with 200 to 2,000 students enrolled. Instead of the traditional model of 100 or so instructors teaching hundreds of class sections, a staff of 12 rotates the lab and provides instructional help to any student who needs it. De Vise reports that the lab serves 5,000 students in the fall, and 3,000 in the spring. This frees up precious classroom space for other courses using the more traditional approach of instructor or professor-led instruction and discussion.

The results so far are promising. Virginia Tech is saving money. De Vise reports the model cuts per-student expenses by one-third, and pass rates for those introductory math courses are higher now than 15 years ago.

Since its creation in 1997, the Math Emporium model has popped up at the Universities of Alabama and Idaho, and Louisiana State University.

Peter Haskell, math department chair at Virginia Tech, recognizes the inevitability of this new chapter in higher education given the game-changing nature of computers and technology. Says Haskell:

How could computers not change mathematics? How could they not change higher education? They’ve changed everything else.

My Take: Virginia Tech’s approach is in keeping with its stated mission to “Invent the Future.” While many initially were skeptical, De Vise reports that students now seem happy with the quality of their instruction. It appears to be a good match for certain types of courses and subjects where mastery depends mostly on practice. I liked this analysis from the senior instructor who runs the Emporium, Terri Bourdon: “You don’t have to have the big staff we have. You just have to have the philosophy that we have, which is that you learn math by doing math.” While this model won’t work in other types of courses or subject areas, it resolves a pressing need for large universities faced with overcrowded math classes.

Beth T. Sigall

April 25, 2012

From Floundering to Finally Making it at Georgetown

While it’s typical for some college freshmen to feel overwhelmed by their first encounter with the rigors of university-level academic work, one student’s take on this experience has caused quite a stir in the world of education policy. In I Went To Some of D.C.’s Better Public Schools. I Was Still Unprepared For College, Georgetown University freshman Darryl Robinson reveals his near-constant academic struggles and the extraordinary frustration he experienced playing catch-up with his better-educated peers.

In his writing, Robinson comes across as refreshingly honest and very likable. It’s hard not to respect his work ethic (he earned a full scholarship to Georgetown and was raised by his grandmother). As such, it’s equally hard to dismiss his observations as simply the typical angst of a first-year college student.

Robinson describes how he first noticed his academic shortcomings during an initial writing assignment, where students were tasked with analyzing the main character in a memoir. Robinson focused on the Xs and Os of the book – summarizing the plot and repeating facts. But his classmates seemed to know instinctively how to take their writing to the next level, offering original insight into the character’s thinking through their own independent analysis. Robinson’s D-minus grade brought home a painful reality. “Other Georgetown freshmen from better schools had been trained to form original, concise thoughts,” writes Robinson. “I could memorize and recite facts and figures, but I didn’t know how to think for myself.”

Robinson’s struggles weren’t limited to writing. He also couldn’t hold his own in chemistry lecture or lab, and describes being “lost from the first lecture on.” He ended up dropping the course (he hopes to take it again next year) despite receiving tutoring help three times per week.

While he understands that ultimately the success or failure of his academic life rests primarily on his shoulders, Robinson nonetheless places the blame for his education shortcomings squarely on his public school education. He states his teachers “[s]imply did not push me to think past a basic level, to apply concepts, to move beyond memorizing facts and figures.” Even worse, when Robinson did excel in school, including overcoming a speech delay, his teachers “didn’t trust that I’d done the hard work. They assumed I was cheating.” Why?

I suspect they thought my background – a black boy raised by his grandmother . . . because my parents couldn’t take care of me – wouldn’t result in success. Failure was more believable than achievement.

Robinson responded as any person would – he developed coping mechanisms for working the system to his favor, even though those mechanisms mostly were disconnected from meaningful academic engagement. “Once I got to high school, I maintained good grades simply by listening to my teachers and giving them what they wanted to hear: themselves.”

In Robinson’s view, because so many students arrive at D.C. public high schools lacking requisite academic skills, high school teachers spend significant time helping those students catch up. Thus, students like Robinson don’t have access to the rigorous college-prep coursework needed to make it at a place like Georgetown. “Any high school administrator in Washington [D.C.] faces a problem similar to my professors . . . [t]hey’re stuck correcting the damage done before we got there.”

The ending to Robinson’s story is mostly a happy one, and certainly a testament to his character. After attending tutoring twice a week, regularly seeing his professors during office hours and spending practically all of his time outside of class studying, he is now making As and Bs. In his words, he has gone from “floundering to finally making it at Georgetown.”

My Take: This compelling narrative serves as a Rorschach test for those seeking to identify and remedy what ails public education. For some, Robinson’s experience is the predictable and unfortunate consequence of a public school system focused entirely on high-stakes testing. For others, this episode is illustrative of a culture of low expectations that permeates our K-12 system, particularly for minority or low-income students. We expect less, so we lower standards, leaving students like Robinson unprepared for college work. Some view it as an indictment of public charter schools (Robinson’s school was a charter school) although he doesn’t; he states his school was considered the top choice for his neighborhood. Finally, some view Robinson’s experience as typical of the difficulties in making the leap from high school to college. College is the formative academic experience where students ostensibly are taught to think, work and learn on their own. That’s a big leap for anyone and many struggle with it.

While no single explanation captures every issue Robinson encountered, in my view the critical lesson here is how our K-12 system is outdated and not designed to meet the needs of today’s students. As explored in previous posts, writer Seth Godin develops this framework persuasively in Stop Stealing Dreams. According to Godin, “large-scale education was not developed to motivate kids or to create scholars. It was invented to churn out adults who worked well within the system. Scale was more important than quality, just as it was for most industrialists.

Unless we radically overhaul how we think about education, with particular focus on its purpose, our schools will continue to produce students like Robinson who are frustrated because they aren’t prepared for life and work in the twenty-first century. It’s up to us as parents to start asking these questions, instead of just assuming that we should keep doing what we’re already doing.  So, why are we learning what we’re learning? What should we be learning? Will our students be prepared? What is the purpose of school? These are tough questions, but we have to ask them if we want to improve the college experience of Robinson and students like him moving forward.

Beth T. Sigall

April 16, 2012

Arts Education Alive and Well

Critics of No Child Left Behind often point to the demise of K-12 arts education as an unintended victim in the federal government’s ten-year effort to bring every child to grade level in reading and math. Detractors claim that NCLB has forced teachers to devote precious instructional time “teaching to the test,” leaving less time to arts education, recess, and other equally important endeavors.

According to Education Week’s Erik W. Robelen, the data suggest otherwise. Robelen reports on a new study from the National Center on Education Statistics (NECS) that crunched the numbers on art instruction over the past decade. The panel found the availability of arts instruction at the K-12 level has remained high and virtually unchanged over that time.

Yes, there were some ups and downs – time spent on dance and drama instruction declined, while incorporation of these genres into other venues increased. Overall the highest availability for arts instruction was in music (over 90 percent), while instruction in visual arts saw a slight decline, although still widely available. Observed the Commission:

It is gratifying that, even in times of narrowing curriculum and economic hardships over the last decade, schools still see a strong value in access to arts education and continue to prioritize making it available to their students.

Some worrisome disparities do exist in availability of arts instruction for high-poverty high schools compared to low-poverty high schools, less so for elementary schools.

My take: For years we’ve been warned K-12 arts instruction was on the verge of extinction because of the onerous testing requirements of NCLB. Same with recess, field trips and other less measurable but equally important learning experiences. Why is there such a disconnect between perception and reality? Was this a case of the occasional anecdote driving the narrative? Whatever the reason, I’m thrilled arts instruction remains a vibrant part of our K-12 system, as it should be.

Beth T. Sigall

April 12, 2012

Another Option in the UnCollege Movement

Nate Hindman of The Huffington Post writes this week about a new player in the world of college-isn’t-the-answer-for-everyone arena, this time in the form of [E]nstitute. This latest entry in the UnCollege movement hopes to tap into the market of budding entrepreneurs who would rather jump right into the working world than drift through a traditional four-year college experience that doesn’t meet their needs. The program inserts college-aged students (age 18 to 24-years old) into a two-year apprenticeship program working in some of New York’s hottest start-up companies. Instruction includes on-site work as well as lecture series, panel discussions, guest speaker dinners, projects, readings and real-life simulation projects.

The inaugural class of 15 students were chosen from over 300 applicants from all over the country (11 percent previously had attended an Ivy League school). Hindman writes that founder Kane Sarhan describes the typical [E]nstitute applicant this way:

Many of these kids have been in school, realized it wasn’t for them, and found other people like them who have always learned differently and are really interested in something alternative. And we’re definitely finding kids who are on the entrepreneurial side, who have built stuff, and who may not have the best grades, but are running non-profit groups or businesses on the side that are making money.

My take:  As explored in previous blog entries, [E]nstitute continues a promising trend in higher education of providing students alternatives to the traditional four-year, brick-and-mortar college experience by developing learning options that better meet the needs of students. The result is a good one: more choices, more flexibility, and more connection to real-world work experiences. [E]institute’s motto “learn by doing” captures this movement well.

Disrupting the Dropout Habit Loop

In The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and In Business, New York Times staff writer Charles Duhigg examines how the science of building and maintaining good habits can translate into wide-scale success. According to Duhigg, “habit loops” emerge in our brains as a convenient way of saving effort. These loops, consisting of a cue/routine/reward, develop over time and with practically no conscience effort.

When repeated often enough, the cue/routine/reward loop becomes a habit. But the problem with habit loops is that it’s just as easy to develop bad ones as good ones, because our brains don’t distinguish between the two (e.g., eating donuts for breakfast each morning versus exercising).

According to Duhigg’s survey of the science, adjusting the components of this loop can result in powerful changes. Thus, instead of focusing on the end result (e.g., losing 20 pounds, making more money, etc.) we should instead look to what parts of our habit loop(s) can be tweaked so that the “bad” habit can be replaced with a more productive one.

Duhigg showcases the promise of habit power to transform large organizations through case studies. Of particular interest is Alcoa, the highly successful aluminum manufacturer. In 1987 Alcoa’s new CEO Paul O’Neill stepped onto the scene of a company reeling from a series of setbacks. But instead of focusing on the typical end-game of conventional corporate leaders, such as profits, taxes and regulation, O’Neill promised only one thing – to improve employee safety. Said O’Neill at the time: “I intend to make Alcoa the safest company in America. I intend to go for zero injuries.” In O’Neill’s view, injuries impacted not just workers, but the entire culture of the company. And it was something all the stakeholders in the company could agree on (labor and management, shareholders and board members). But investors scratched their heads – they wondered aloud how focusing primarily on employee safety would turn the company around.

O’Neill’s aim was to disrupt Alcoa’s habit loop for injury reporting and replace it with a new one. Now anytime an employee was injured, within 24 hours the unit president for that employee had to report the injury directly to CEO O’Neill. The reward? Only those employees who embraced the new system would have a chance at promotion.

Duhigg describes this type of disruption as a “keystone habit” because it can transform an organization by changing its entire structure.

Keystone habits move through an organization like a chain reaction, and can influence “how people work, eat play, live, spend and communicate.”

This new habit loop required substantial changes throughout Alcoa’s system. Because the timeframe was short (24 hours), but the length of the communication chain up to O’Neill was significant, it forced everyone to streamline their reporting habits. The result was not just new habits replacing old ones; it meant that former work “rivals” now joined together working towards a common cause (labor and management all working towards reducing injuries).

Ultimately by introducing this one keystone habit, Alcoa’s costs came down, productivity increased and quality improved. In fact, Duhigg reports that Alcoa employees and managers became work safety gurus – pointing out safety issues anywhere and everywhere – because the work-safety mindset became a permanently fixed framework. Success. All from good habits.

Keystone Habits and High School Dropout/Graduation Rates 

High school graduation rates recently have dominated education news headlines because of a new report “Building a Grad Nation” released by Colin Powell’s America’s Promise Alliance and other education groups. While graduation rates improved to 75.5 percent in 2009, up from 72 percent in 2001, only one state – Wisconsin – achieved a 90% graduation rate. Graduation rates for certain minority groups remain too low. The U.S. Department of Education recently launched a “26 seconds” campaign to draw national attention to the problem of high dropout rates in the U.S. (on average, a student drops out of high school every 26 seconds).

Reading Duhigg’s case study of Alcoa made me think about whether we could develop keystone habits in our education system. Specifically, what if we developed a keystone habit in our public school structure that disrupted the high school dropout habit loop? What if we treated high school dropouts the same way Alcoa treated its injured employees? So, every time a student drops out (or comes close), something new, bold but relatively straightforward happens.
Here are some ideas – what are yours?

  • Every September, high school principals must report to their school district, which then reports to the school board, the number of dropouts, and whether that number is an increase or decrease since the previous September. The school board must report the information out at a public board meeting, with student dropouts presented and broken down by school with comparisons to previous years to provide context. The meeting is solely designated for this purpose, and is widely publicized.
  • At each high school, a running counter displayed in a highly visible place gives the number of students currently on track for graduation compared to the total number of students in the school.
  • At each high school, a bulletin board announces the number of consecutive months the school has gone without a dropout: “At this school, zero/five/twenty student dropouts in the past month.”
  • Each high school publishes on its website and in local newspapers online every other month its dropout totals (number of dropouts and number of students on track for graduation), with data comparisons for previous reporting periods to show trends up or down.
  • Or perhaps the focus shouldn’t be on dropouts, but on absences. Each school or grade level in high school could set a target for days missed/days not missed, and make that target a highly publicized goal for the class. “The class of 2016 will have no more than XX unexcused absences this school year.”

Most of these new habits would require a change in how districts and schools typically calculate dropout rates. They would have to take dropout data more frequently, or measure unexcused absences in a different way entirely. But, these additional data points could provide useful information about when, where and even why certain student populations are either missing more school or dropping out (e.g., time of year, before or after certain difficult exam periods, etc.). Thus one habit change could create a chain reaction that disrupts how we think about dropouts, and what we’re willing to do about it.

Beth T. Sigall

March 27, 2012

What If We Told Students the Truth?

In a previous post we kicked off a conversation about entrepreneur and best-selling author Seth Godin’s new education manifesto Stop Stealing Dreams (What Is School For?). Since that time, Stop Stealing Dreams has been shared, re-shared, spread and “sneezed” across the digital universe, with tens of thousands of viewings each day.

In Manifesto 25 Godin asks yet another uncomfortable question: ‘What if We Told Students the Truth?” Although Godin never quite defines what that “truth” is, he does explain the motivation for hiding it. That explanation mostly relies on Godin’s recurrent theme of public education remaining stuck in an Industrial Age framework, unable to serve the needs of today’s students, and (mostly) unwilling to do much about it. Godin argues that the system’s lack of transparency helps preserve the status quo (to the extent it can be preserved) because if students and parents really knew what was going on, they’d walk away from it, or worse. From Godin (emphasis is mine):

Transparency in the traditional school might destroy it. If we told the truth about the irrelevance of various courses, about the relative quality of some teachers, about the power of choice and free speech—could the school as we know it survive?

What happens when the connection revolution collides with the school?

Unlike just about every other institution and product line in our economy, transparency is missing from education. Students are lied to and so are parents. At some point, teenagers realize that most of school is a game, but the system never acknowledges it. In search of power, control and independence, administrators hide information from teachers, and vice versa.

Because school was invented to control students and give power to the state, it’s not surprising that the relationships are fraught with mistrust.

The very texture of the traditional school matches the organization and culture of the industrial economy. The bottom of the pyramid stores the students, with teachers (middle managers) following instructions from their bosses.

As in the traditional industrial organization, the folks at the bottom of the school are ignored, mistreated, and lied to. They are kept in the dark about anything outside of what they need to know to do their job (being a student), and put to work to satisfy the needs of the people in charge. Us and them.

But according to Godin, the Connection Economy is leading an education revolution, giving students the tools they need to find the answers relevant to their world. With or without the traditional public school system, students will make their mark and schools will be forced to adapt. Godin continues in Manifesto 25:

“The connection economy destroys the illusion of control. Students have the ability to find out which colleges are a good value, which courses make no sense, and how people in the real world are actually making a living. They have the ability to easily do outside research, even in fifth grade, and to discover that the teacher (or her textbook) is just plain wrong.

When students can take entire courses outside of the traditional school, how does the school prevent that? When passionate students can start their own political movements, profitable companies, or worthwhile community projects without the aegis of a school, how are obedience and fealty enforced?

It’s impossible to lie and manipulate when you have no power.”

My take: In my nearly ten years of writing, talking, advocating and thinking about what works in education, I’ve stressed time and again that the change we are all talking about in education will happen. It is inevitable. Why? Because with education reform there is a convergence of three major, disruptive influences: 1. Parents and students demanding excellence (without exception); 2. Parents and students seeking out any possible means to achieve this excellence and 3. An interconnected world that has exponentially enhanced both the number and quality of alternatives to the traditional K-12 education system. The result is a system where parents and students design their own plans based on their student’s unique needs. What Godin describes is an education universe (slowly) turning upside down. Instead of adjusting their world to the K-12 system, parents and students are crafting their own destinies from an entirely new menu of choices. The K-12 system must either adjust to the new paradigm of parents and students as co-equal partners or risk becoming irrelevant.

Common Core Standards Revisited

The Washington Post’s  Jay Mathews is taking a second look at Common Core standards in his must-read Class Struggle column Why Common Core Standards Will Fail.

Although previously intrigued by the idea of Common Core standards, Mathews now stands firmly in the skeptic camp. Here’s why.

The rationale for Common Core standards goes like this – if the federal government establishes rigorous common academic standards that every state and school district must follow, student performance will rise accordingly. So if students in Massachusetts and Mississippi are all expected to meet the same high standards, and both sets of students are taught using the same agreed-to curriculum, student performance will improve regardless of geographic location. Like Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams, if you build it, they will come.

But according to Mathews, the problem is that researchers have yet to find strong correlation between high standards and academic performance in states that currently use them. Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institute is a national expert on Common Core. He reviewed the data and determined that states with weak content standards had “about the same average scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests as states with strong standards.” Rigorous standards were also not a good predictor of future academic achievement gains either. Loveless concluded that the weak to non-existent links between high standards and academic achievement do not warrant the substantial investment they will require.

So if Common Core standards aren’t the answer, what is? For the answer Mathews went straight to the source – he asked teachers.

“I have interviewed hundreds of teachers who significantly raised student achievement. Not one has ever said it was because of great state learning standards. Good curriculums help, but high-minded, numbingly detailed standards don’t produce them. How teachers are trained and supported in the classroom is what matters.”

My take: I too initially was drawn to the idea of Common Core standards, particularly given their worthy goal of setting the same high standards for every student in every state. But as I read and learn more about them, I’m troubled by the lack of flexibility and top-down control they could impose on states and school districts. Moreover, if there is little-to-no correlation between Common Core standards and high academic performance, perhaps we need to look elsewhere to determine what the real driving force is behind states and countries that achieve consistently high academic standards.

Beth T. Sigall

March 4, 2012

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