In his article “Does the Common Core Matter?“, Tom Loveless declares, “On the basis of past experience with standards, the most reasonable prediction is that the common core will have litte to no effect on student achievement.” His argument stems from data in the 2012 Brown Center Report on American Education that shows from 2003-2009, NAEP scores in states with “fantastic standards” showed the same margin of improvement as states with “awful ones.” He credits various efforts within states for these improvements: “It is quite possible that states with bad standards made better decisions in other areas. Maybe they were inept at standards but good at improving teaching and curriculum.”
Good point. Bad standards paired with improved instructional practices (assuming these were happening in the same state) could produce good testing results in the same way bad standards paired with local concentration on improving test preparation strategies can improve test scores. If all I do in my classroom is teach test preparation, then regardless of the quality of the standards, I would anticipate raised test scores. But the same is true of instructional practices outside of test preparation; a statewide focus on raising reading achievement through adoption of an RtI model and better screening for reading difficulties at earlier grade levels is an instructional improvement that would impact NAEP scores regardless of standards.
Good instruction can be independent of standards, but good curriculum cannot.
There is a difference in adopting good instructional practices and creating good curriculum. Loveless ties the two together and says instruction and curriculum can exist independent of standards. I would argue that good instructional practices can exist independent of curriculum. Formative assessment practices, for example, are good instruction, but they can exist outside of the curriculum; a good teacher will constantly observe her students and provide intervention to those who are struggling–that practice can happen regardless of the lesson at hand. Intervention itself is a good practice that can happen outside of the curriculum–the practice of pulling groups of students to work with a reading interventionist, for example, is a structure that runs tangential to classroom curriculum. Good instruction, then, can be independent of curriculum, and I would argue improvements in instruction in those states with bad standards does not negate the effect of quality standards on education, but instead proves that good instruction is as important as good standards. Imagine what those scores in states with bad standards might have looked like if they were improving instruction AND using quality standards!
Though Loveless equates instruction and curriculum in their ability to exist regardless of standards, I would argue that curriculum, unlike instruction, is dependent on standards. By its very definition, it is standards-based:
To be clear, by ‘curriculum’ we mean a coherent, sequential set of guidelines in the core academic disciplines, specifying the content knowledge and skills that all students are expected to learn , over time, in a thoughtful progression across the grades.
But this is a point with which Loveless disagrees, “perhaps standards need not be the starting point…perhaps strong curriculum should be developed first and then all of the other pieces could be built around it.” I’m not sure how one would build a curriculum without a clear progression of standards. In fact, the first place I would turn when creating a curriculum would be the standards. How else would I ensure my students were meeting grade-level appropriate expectations? How would I even know what a grade-level appropriate expectation was without some generally accepted criteria? Curriculum then (the what of teaching), unlike instruction (the how of teaching), must exist in conjunction with standards.
Good standards do not ensure good curriculum.
Because curriculum is dependent on standards, it is important to ensure alignment of curriculum and standards, but what is alignment? What does an aligned curriculum look like? Loveless separates “effectiveness” of a curriculum from the “alignment” of the curriculum:
Effectiveness, not alignment, should be the primary criterion for selecting curricula, disseminating promising instructional strategies, and pursuing all of the other implementation strategies on which common-core advocates are betting so much.They steadfastly believe that “effectiveness” and “alignment with standards” are synonymous.
The questions this statement begs is how could a curriculum aligned to the common core be ineffective? And it is entirely possible. Let me explain…
“Aligning to the standards” has come to mean “this curriculum addresses the wording of the standard statement,” hence our checkmark mentality in standards-based curriculum. We line a lesson up to the wording of a standard statement, teach that statement, assess that statement, and check it off our list–“I did it, moving on.”
The wording of some of the CCSS lends itself to this same mentality. Look at RL.6.6, “Explain how an author develops the point of view of the narrator or speaker in a text.” Based on the words alone, a lesson would be “aligned” if the teacher planned an activity such as having the students read a brief passage and answer questions or complete a worksheet in which they track characterization in the piece. Checkmark. Done. Moving on.
But a curriculum that is “aligned” in this way to the CCSS misses the richness, depth, complexity, and value of the standards. These standards are to be interwoven; they exist in groups across the strands. Their true value and their effectiveness comes from effective groupings and a scope and sequence that unfolds from kindergarten through grade 12–always building, never retracing, moving forward, progress. It is impossible to “align to the standards” with the common core; one must “align to the intent of the standards,” which requires much more than a checkmark approach. Quality standards do not ensure effective curriculum if that curriculum does not align to their intent.
Will these standards have an effect on student achievement?
Loveless declares, “On the basis of past experience with standards, the most reasonable prediction is that the common core will have little to no effect on student achievement,” which may be true. Ineffective curricula that misses the intent of the CCSS might very well cause student achievement to seemingly drop or stagnate. It will take many longitudinal studies to determine its actual effect in American education.
But there are still tremendous things happening for our students right now. Think about the “buzz words” that have developed from CC implementation: text complexity, text-dependent questions, rigor. Are these new concepts? Not necessarily, but were these ideas prevalent in the early 1900’s? No. So, we are going somewhere with our educational system. We are moving in some direction. We see the images comparing classrooms of today to those of 100 years ago all the time, but our view of instruction and good teaching has changed, our view of our students is changing, our expectations for high school graduates is changing.
Regardless of its effect on NAEP scores, the standards movement is helping us to continue moving education forward.