All posts by Allison Armour-Garb

PPI Series: Teachers Point to Early Benefits of Higher Standards

PPI Common Core: Here to Stay?

Part four of an ongoing series on higher standards in New York State

While there have been plenty of challenges with the adoption of higher standards in New York, the public has not been hearing enough about the positive results that the state is already seeing.  Student outcomes are not going to improve overnight, as Massachusetts learned when it raised standards in the 1990s (more on that in a future post).  But the results of New York’s math tests, which are used to measure students’ mastery of the standards, are encouraging:  The percentage of all test takers in grades 3-8 who scored at the proficient level has increased by seven points, from 31% in 2013 up to 38% in 2015.  Even more promising, the Common Core movement seems to have tapped a phenomenal burst of energy and creativity among New York’s teachers.  In today’s post, you’ll hear from some of those teachers in their own words.

The “Engaged Voices” section of the New York State Education Department’s EngageNY.org site is full of ideas, videos, and testimonials by New York teachers and administrators.  (The teacher and principal testimonials throughout this post are from Engaged Voices unless otherwise noted.)  Angela Logan-Smith, principal of the Goldie Maple Academy in Queens, describes how teachers are using the standards as a jumping-off point for innovative learning activities: 

Children get engaged in ideas and love to do projects to extend their learning. Teachers love this too; it gives them a chance to pursue their students’ interests in creative ways. Last year, one class of kindergartners was fascinated with recycling after finishing [a Common-Core-aligned unit] called Taking Care of the Earth. Their teacher took them on a walk near the school in which they identified litter that could have been recycled. The next day, the teacher brought in clean examples of all the things they identified. After donning their white lab coats, these little scientists figured out which recycling bin each item belonged in [and] discussed what could have been saved if all the litter they saw outside had been recycled.

The EngageNY.org site also contains free curriculum resources for teachers and principals and has received tens of millions of hits.  Katherine Hesla, a humanities teacher in Webster Central Schools near Rochester, talks about the advantages of sharing ideas and resources in a recent Wall Street Journal article.  “One of the huge benefits of the Common Core is that it gave us someplace to start from and collaborate,” she explains.  “Before, we were all just making up our own thing.”

Louis Cuglietto, the principal of JFK Magnet Elementary School in the Mid-Hudson Valley, explains the way math instruction is changing under the new standards:

Instead of lessons that feature a single procedure, teachers are facilitating learning by giving students multiple ways that they can use to come to the answer. Students then discuss both their answer and the process they used, which provides the opportunity for all students to learn from each other and develop a more fluid, conceptual understanding of mathematics.

Karen Marino, a math specialist in Skaneateles, Central New York, describes it as a “new rigorous math world in which struggle and persistence precede success.”  According to Marylee Liebowitz, a math coach from Putnam Northern Westchester BOCES, these shifts are long overdue:

As a math teacher for twenty-two years, I witnessed first-hand how American students have slipped further and further behind their global competitors…. We, as educators, have been unable to raise student performance in math and have repeatedly found US students near the bottom of the math rankings, despite the disproportionate amount of money spent on educating each child. During these years, I worked hard to design my own classroom lessons to stress understanding and mathematical thinking over a “step by step” process so my students truly comprehended the math behind the algorithm….  I was so pleased and surprised to find that the functional changes that we are making to teaching math are reflective of the strategies that I have found to be most successful with my students….

I truly believe these standards will result in the curricular and instructional changes that New York students need to become college ready and have an opportunity to participate positively in the global economy they will encounter when entering the workplace. The Common Core Learning Standards will help ensure that students are not hindered by poor qualifications and remediation but rather provide them with the footing they need to have real choices about their education, and careers.  Their futures will be in their hands.  

Teachers in other subjects are no less enthusiastic about the Common Core shifts in the way students are learning literacy skills.  The changes start early, according to Rochelle Jensen, an elementary school teacher in Rome, in the Mohawk Valley:

I don’t want a quiet classroom with kids sitting at their desk and hands folded waiting for me to spill out the next lesson. My classroom is filled with inquisitive students gaining knowledge through complex text, using close reading strategies to infer meaning and providing supporting evidence in their responses. When students are doing most of the talking their thinking gets stronger and they can then build on this knowledge when they write.

Andria Finch, an English language arts teacher in Franklin, in the Southern Tier, agrees that close reading leads to better writing:

Because my students now closely analyze authors’ use of language and the ways these authors unfold their stories, not only are they generating their own ideas and providing evidence to support their claims, but their own creative writing has improved tremendously as well. 

And Roberta Faery, a high school social studies teacher and curriculum facilitator in Newfane, in Western New York, says these shifts are leading to gains across the curriculum:

When students know what it means to ‘make a claim’ in their writing they start to write for a purpose and not just because their teacher assigned it. Students have developed as writers.  Now feedback and revisions are key and an essential piece to the writing process.  The students’ time spent on editing and refining their writing has enabled them to develop a much deeper understanding of content.

To be heard above the sometimes strident controversy, teachers are joining pro-common core organizations, such as the New York Educator Voice Fellowship, and stepping forward to pen op eds in support of the standards and tests.  The New York Post’s “Passing the Common Core” series features teacher perspectives and sample lessons at each grade level.  Many of the teachers speaking out are motivated by a vision of equal educational opportunity for our state’s disadvantaged students.  Joshua Cornue, a fourth grade teacher in Rochester, explains:

The Common Core has allowed me to embrace higher expectations for my students. These kids who come from the most impoverished areas of the city, and who have often faced a track record of failure in school, are now coming in with more knowledge and confidence since they have been exposed to higher level work.

Teresa Ranieri, a first grade teacher at P.S. 11 in the Bronx, expresses a similar sentiment in a recent op ed in support of the annual state tests:

The data and results derived from assessments are a path to providing equal opportunity to a quality education for all.  I believe that by providing all students with an education they deserve, and annually measuring their growth and making instructional improvement, we can begin to bridge the inequality gaps in our education system.

Tim O. Mains, superintendent of the Jamestown Public Schools in Western New York, shares his perspective:

These new exams are more sophisticated than those given years ago. The stronger emphasis on skills like problem solving and critical thinking focus on building what students need for success.…  We believe that the tests are one fair measure of how well our students are learning the Common Core standards. The exams become a valuable measure of how well we are doing as a district. 

Educators who have seen first-hand the benefits of the new standards in their own schools and classrooms are making their voices heard.  Michelle Helmer, director of curriculum and instructional coach in the Silver Creek and Forestville School Districts in Western New York, concludes a recent article in the Observer Today with a strong call to action:

Let’s not divert our resources, change our trajectory, or back down. Let’s not settle for reactionary changes to the Common Core Standards in order to calm the political waters or make our work easier when it may leave a wake of superficial learning in its path. Let’s instead continue to support our teachers, leaders and students. Let’s provide the resources, time, and encouragement needed to work for the changes we wish to see in our classrooms for our students.

Please click here to read the third part in this ongoing series.

PPI Series: Standards vs. Curriculum vs. Assessment—What’s the Difference?

PPI Common Core: Here to Stay?

Part three of an ongoing series on higher standards in New York State

When people talk about “Common Core” and higher standards, what exactly are they referring to? In today’s post, I’ll use an analogy to explain the role and purpose of education standards.

In order to earn your driver’s license, you first must be able to demonstrate the knowledge and skills associated with driving.  But the State of New York doesn’t mandate exactly how you learn to drive.  So although the state insists that you know how to parallel park, understand traffic signs, are able to merge onto the highway, etc. (those are the standards), you have some choices as to how to learn these skills and knowledge.  You can choose between a short pre-licensing course or a longer driver’s education course.  You have some freedom to decide where and when to practice driving.  You might decide to review videos and other instructional materials and take a few practice tests, or you might not.  All of those lessons, practice sessions, and materials constitute the curriculum.  The same principle is behind the Common Core standards:  They specify what we expect students to know and be able in to do in each grade to progress and, by the end of high school, to be college- and career-ready.   How to get students to that point—including decisions about curriculum, training, tools, materials, and textbooks—is up to states, districts, schools, and teachers.

Assessments or tests are the instruments the state uses to measure mastery of a set of standards.  States that adopted the Common Core standards were not required to increase the amount of testing.  Whenever standards change, however, any tests that are used to measure mastery of those standards need to be modified to accurately reflect the same content as the new standards.  Thus, for example, when New York State changes any of the rules of the road that drivers are expected to know (e.g., the “Move Over” Law passed in 2012), it has to update the road test and written test to appropriately address the new material.  The degree to which standards, curriculum, and assessments address the same content is called alignment.

Want to learn more about the Common Core standards? Watch for more blog posts in this series, and visit the Public Policy Institute of New York State website. But don’t just take our word for it. You can read the actual standards at www.corestandards.org/.

Please click here to read the second part in this ongoing series.

PPI Series: The Common Core Standards Represent “the Best of Our Knowledge”

PPI Common Core: Here to Stay?

Part two of an ongoing series on higher standards in New York State

Ever since 1983, when President Ronald Reagan called for state leaders to raise expectations for their education systems, the issue of state standards has been part of the education policy conversation.  Over the decades that followed, each state developed its own standards, including New York, which approved “learning standards” in seven content areas in 1996.  But this patchwork led to frustration among policymakers, who wanted to be able to compare student data across states in order to determine the relative effectiveness of their schools and education policies.  State-by-state variation in standards also meant that American students faced vast differences in educational expectations depending on where they happened to live. Some states intentionally set low standards, in a so-called “race to the bottom,” so that they could claim that a higher number of their students were achieving proficiency.

Thus, in 2009, governors and state education commissioners from 51 states and territories agreed to create shared standards in ELA and math.  A team of content experts, education researchers, teachers, and higher education faculty was assembled to begin the development process.  New York contributed more experts to the K-12 standards development teams than any other state; these included certified teachers, representatives of the teacher’s unions, and SUNY faculty. In March 2010, the National Governors Association released a draft for public feedback, and more than 10,000 individual comments were received.  New York had more than 570 commenters—including parents, higher education faculty, and over 300 teachers—far outnumbering the participation in any other state except California. The final standards were released in June 2010, and over the months that followed, individual states further reviewed them and decided whether to adopt them.

Ultimately, more than 40 states and the District of Columbia adopted the Common Core standards.  Because the Common Core standards were developed through a state-led, open and collaborative process that drew on the best available expertise, they can truly be said to embody “the best of our knowledge.”  The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank that specializes in analyzing education standards, describes the features that make the Common Core standards so much better than pre-existing state standards:

They are admirably aligned with rigorous research (on early reading instruction, for example); explicit about the quality and complexity of reading and writing that should be expected of students every year; very solid on arithmetic as a clear priority in the elementary grades; ambitious in aiming for college and career readiness by the end of twelfth grade; and relatively jargon-free.

Moreover, expectations are now consistent across more than 40 states and are no longer dependent on a student’s zip code.

Yet every passing week seems to bring a news story about another state in which the Common Core is under attack.  Many of these stories are based on bills that were introduced by state legislators but ultimately failed to become law, or lawsuits sponsored by interest groups who misleadingly paint the standards and testing consortia as forcible intrusions by the Obama administration into state and local matters.  While it is true that federal Race to the Top grants provided financial incentives that hastened adoption of the standards and financed the testing consortia, state participation in those programs was voluntary.  The state-driven common standards movement pre-dates Race to the Top, and most states welcomed the influx of federal funding in support of their efforts.

The Common Core standards are in effect in more than 40 states, including every state that originally adopted them except Oklahoma and South Carolina.  In response to political controversy, some states have re-branded the standards by changing the name but have quietly retained the substance.  More than a dozen states, including New York, have adapted the standards by adding supplementary language—a move that was anticipated by the original adoption agreement under the so-called “15 percent rule.” Numerous states, including New York, have postponed or pulled back from full-scale participation in the Common Core testing consortia, while retaining the standards themselves.  Several states, including New York, have launched processes to review the standards and associated tests.

All of this has done little to roll back the Common Core standards, and it is arguable that the additional scrutiny and fine-tuning at the state level will ultimately strengthen the standards and improve their implementation.

To read part one in the series, please click here.

PPI Series: Common Core: Here to Stay?

PPI Common Core: Here to Stay?

Part one of an ongoing series on higher standards in New York State

Each passing week seems to bring another negative story about “Common Core”:  viral social media posts show nonsensical math homework assignments that stump parents; presidential candidates and state legislators across the nation grab headlines by vowing to repeal the standards; and Governor Cuomo’s Common Core Task Force has recommended modifying the standards and associated policies. Does all this mean that the Common Core is going away? And does it even matter?

Over the past five years, at the same time that the media have been reporting controversies and protests, the Common Core standards were taking root firmly in classrooms across the nation. The New York Common Core Task Force’s recent review of the standards has yielded a set of recommendations for change, and some of those changes are considered quite significant by teachers and parents. Most notably, the Board of Regents has adopted the Task Force’s recommendation to remove any consequences for teachers’ and principals’ evaluations related to New York’s grades 3-8 ELA and math tests until the 2019-2020 school year. As for the standards themselves, the Task Force explicitly affirmed that New York must maintain high educational standards and “build upon the foundation established by the Common Core standards,” while acknowledging that some changes should be considered to ensure that the standards in the early grades are developmentally appropriate. The New York State Education Department has pledged to use feedback received from parents and teachers familiar with the standards to “identify where and what changes are needed to make New York’s Common Core ELA and Math Learning Standards stronger.”

In the coming weeks, this blog mini-series will argue that higher standards are important to the economic future of our state and our citizens, and will take you on a guided tour through the many reasons why I believe the Common Core is here to stay.