By Amber M. Northern and Michael J. Petrilli
Eight years ago, the vast majority of states adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English language arts (ELA) and mathematics. Shortly thereafter, we published Common Core in the Schools: A First Look at Reading Assignments, by Tim Shanahan and Ann Duffett, which highlighted the results of a first-of-its-kind survey of ELA teachers in grades four through ten. We wanted to know how classroom implementation was progressing and where educators might need support in teaching these more rigorous expectations.
Overall, the results suggested broad support among teachers for the Common Core standards. But they also highlighted several areas of concern. Most notably, many teachers said they organized their instruction around discrete skills rather than texts, and they assigned texts based on students’ reading levels rather than their grade levels—the opposite of what the standards encourage.
Since that initial survey, the CCSS (or a close facsimile) are still in place in most states, and research has shown tentative signs of progress, at least when it comes to content coverage and instructional materials aligned to the standards. Those studies are useful for identifying broad implementation issues, yet they fall short when it comes to informing professional practice. We know that bridging the divide between research and practice is a critical need. We simply must do a better job of designing studies that speak to the needs of teachers.
Fordham’s new report, Reading and Writing Instruction in America's Schools, a nationally representative survey of over 1,200 ELA teachers, attempts to do just that. In it, we not only diagnose the implementation challenges in classrooms, but also identify practical implications for instruction (we call them “Literacy Lifelines”). We target several under-examined topics that matter to practitioners, such as how teachers approach creative and personal writing, whether they’ve made building students’ content and background knowledge a priority, and how educators engage in “close reading” with their students. The survey also provides fresh insights on how teachers approach grade-level texts, balance fiction and nonfiction, and teach vocabulary.
We collaborated with the nonpartisan FDR Group to craft the survey, and with the RAND Corporation to administer it. Fordham’s David Griffith, senior research and policy associate, authored the report with assistance from FDR Group co-founder Ann Duffett.
The topics we examined are at the heart of the three instructional shifts that are core elements of CCSS-ELA and similar state standards—each of which is meant to address widely recognized and longstanding weaknesses in ELA instruction. The first shift calls for “regular practice with complex texts and their academic language”; the second for “reading, writing, and speaking grounded in evidence from texts”; and the third for “building knowledge through content-rich curriculum.”
The survey asked whether these shifts are actually occurring in ELA classrooms. How are teachers interpreting them? Most importantly, how can we support teachers’ efforts in implementing instructional change?
Our findings suggest real progress in implementing state ELA standards, but also—like the baseline 2013 report—cause for concern. For example, middle and high school teachers are asking more text-dependent questions and report that students’ ability to accurately cite evidence from the text has improved—both of which are in line with the expectations of CCSS-ELA. Yet they have also become more likely to assign texts based on students’ current reading levels—as opposed to their grade levels—contrary to the intent of the standards. There are troubling signs on other fronts, too: teachers are assigning fewer classic works of literature, and showing a predilection for creative over evidence-based writing; and students’ continue to show a lack of content knowledge.
These findings suggest at least four takeaways for classroom teachers:
First, teachers should take another look at their ELA curriculum to make sure they aren’t overlooking classic works of literature.
Although it’s encouraging that ELA teachers are assigning more informational texts and literary nonfiction, as the Common Core suggests, it’s worrying that they seem to be doing so at the expense of classic works of literature. At some level, this sort of tradeoff may be unavoidable. But it’s also possible that teachers have gone too far in their attempts to include more nonfiction in the curriculum.
Consequently, it’s worth emphasizing two points: First, literature should remain the cornerstone of English courses in middle school and high school, so teachers of history, science, and other content-based courses need to do their part to help students analyze informational texts.
Let’s not forget that “classic works of literature” should include literary nonfiction and fiction. In other words, the reading list should include not only The Great Gatsby and Lord of the Flies, but also works such as “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” The Emancipation Proclamation, the Republic, The Diary of a Young Girl, “A Room of One’s Own,” and so on. Recall that the CCSS says that, in grades six through twelve, there should be “much greater attention on the specific category of literary nonfiction.”
Second, writing instruction needs serious attention.
There’s a place for creative and narrative writing, but high school students in particular need to know how to construct a coherent argument based on their analysis of one or more texts. So it’s worrying that more teachers say students’ ability to “write well-developed paragraphs or essays” has worsened (36 percent) than say it has improved (27 percent) compared to a few years ago. Similarly, 46 percent say students’ ability to “use correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling” has declined in recent years, while just 14 percent say it has improved.
Instructional time is a precious commodity, but one way or another teachers need to incorporate more high-quality writing instruction. (For additional resources, see these “Literacy Lifelines.”)
Third, teachers should tackle the content knowledge deficit.
Teachers cite students’ content knowledge deficits, but seem oddly unaware of how they contribute to it. Between 2012 and 2017, the percentage of teachers who said they organized their instruction around “reading skills” increased from 56 to 62 percent, while those who said they organized their instruction around “specific texts” declined from 37 to 30 percent. That’s no way to systematically build students’ content knowledge. It’s high time that teachers (and preferably schools) adopt content-rich curricula and make use of well-constructed text sets.
Finally, if we want teachers to assign texts based on students’ grade level—rather than their reading level—we need to do more to help them bridge the gap between the two.
Increasing the complexity of the texts to which all students are exposed is a hallmark of the new standards, yet we’ve seen backsliding in this area. One potential explanation: Nearly half of teachers say “not enough” attention has been paid to “diagnosing and addressing the challenges posed by a text.” Helping struggling readers access grade-level texts can be difficult, so perhaps teachers simply don’t know how to scaffold their instruction so struggling readers can master such texts.
Curriculum designers, professional development coaches, and instructional leaders: Are you listening?
Maybe it’s all the sugar sand and palm trees, but I often feel disconnected from the gloomy national commentary on efforts to improve public education. Mike Petrilli’s recent lament, well-articulated as it was, is the latest example. Mike bemoaned a “lost decade” of achievement, “glum” policymakers and philanthropists, and “much friction, fractiousness, and furor” in the wake of failed reform.
Mike! You need a mojito! Education reform may be in a funk across America, but not in Florida. Not for education reformers who believe that expanding educational options, and giving both parents and teachers more power and freedom, is the linchpin to lasting progress.
In Florida, the past few years have been especially sunny. School choice continues to evolve into the new normal. A growing army of choice parents and teachers is increasingly visible and vocal. Policymakers continue to mash the pedal. At the same time, the evidence about academic outcomes keeps getting better.
The Florida experience suggests that putting more emphasis on accountability through choice, rather than through regulations only, will get us down the reform road further and faster. We certainly have enormous challenges in the Sunshine State, but the biggest one may be managing the pace and scope of progress. What I hear from my Florida colleagues isn’t: “How do we crank this back up?” It’s: “Can’t we slow it down a bit?”
Choice keeps expanding. Forty-six percent of Florida’s pre-K–12 students now attend something other than their zoned neighborhood schools: 300,000 use state-supported scholarships to attend private schools and pre-schools, and another 300,000 are in charter schools. The number of low-income and working-class students using the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship alone has doubled in the past five years, to 107,000 students. Meanwhile, new options continue to sprout. Florida established the nation’s second education savings account program (the Gardiner Scholarship for students with special needs) in 2014. It’s now the nation’s largest, serving 10,000-plus students last year, and running out of funding because of growing demand. The scholarship is now complemented by an online purchasing platform that we created (with lots of funding from those glum philanthropists) that will allow parents to rate schools and other providers and offer each other tons of meaningful information that goes far beyond test scores. The system, for example, will allow parents to leave the kinds of comments commonly found on sites like Yelp.
Reform keeps winning. In 2017, the left-leaning Florida Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit filed by the teachers union in 2014 to kill the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. That extinguished an existential threat to the nation’s largest private school choice program. From a messaging standpoint, the battle royal also backfired on the plaintiffs, giving parents, teachers, and other choice supporters opportunities they never would have had otherwise to chip away at myths and misperceptions long perpetuated by critics. We’ve made political progress, too. The teachers union initially tried to derail the Gardiner Scholarship, demagoguing the proposal as “another scheme to commercialize education” that would “blow the doors off public education.” (Must have been moonshine in those mojitos.) But since it became law, nearly every lawmaker, Democrat and Republican, has voted in favor of significant funding increases every single year. I can’t think of another “voucher” in America that has more bipartisan support.
Lawmakers keep pushing. There’s no retreat from reform here. There’s no reticence to be big and bold. Last year, Florida lawmakers created the Schools of Hope program to pave the way for more high-quality charter schools in more high-poverty neighborhoods. They also took important steps toward equalizing capital funding for charters after years in which charter school parents and teachers were treated as second-class citizens. This year, the legislature created two new scholarship programs, including an education savings account for struggling readers in public schools. You read that right: a “voucher” for students in public schools. The Reading Scholarship can serve up to 19,400 students this year, and it’s likely Florida school districts will be among the biggest providers serving them. Parents will be able to use it to purchase services from a variety of providers. They could go with private tutors, and we’re assuming many will. But many are also likely to opt to go with tutors provided by their school districts. If getting rid of artificial distinctions between public and private is another key to reform, we’re on our way.
Parents keep engaging. In 2016, 10,000 people rallied in the state capital to fight the lawsuit against the tax credit scholarship. Many were black and Hispanic parents. In states that have no choice programs or small ones, choice parents remain an abstraction. Not in Florida. Critics who lob bogus information about charters and private schools, and politicians who campaign against them, are increasingly countered by choice parents on opinion pages, at school board meetings, in the halls of the Capitol, and at the ballot box. Slowly but surely, the same is true for choice teachers. From my perspective as a former teachers union president, the choice movement must better emphasize teacher empowerment. In Florida, it’s easy to find former district teachers who now teach in charter or private schools—or in some cases, who’ve created charter or private schools—because they love the freedom to teach in ways that work best for them and their students. They’re beginning to share their stories. And once they do, their peers will begin to see choice in a whole new light.
Outcomes keep improving. Florida’s K–12 performance is better than it’s ever been. Two decades ago, we were Flori-duh. Not anymore. The Sunshine State logged in the biggest gains in the nation on the most recent NAEP after flat-lining the previous few cycles. And an Urban Institute analysis shows that, adjusted for demographics, Florida ranks highly on NAEP’s four core tests: number one in fourth grade math, number one in fourth grade reading, number three in eighth grade reading, and number eight in eighth grade math. Our AP test results may be even more impressive, with the state ranking fourth in the percentage of graduating seniors who have passed Advanced Placement exams, despite one of the nation’s highest rates of students receiving free- or reduced-price lunch. No state has a bigger differential between poverty and performance. And for what it’s worth, over the past decade, Florida has ranked no lower than twelfth on the K–12 Achievement portion of Education Week’s Quality Counts report. These are far from perfect measures. There are caveats to all of them. But taken together, it’s a sign that something here really is putting more students, particularly low-income students and students of color, on the road to success.
Fair-minded people would agree these gains are due to a combination of factors—both to top-down regulatory reforms like school grades and to the concurrent expansion of educational choice. All these programs and policies are worthy of nuanced debate and continuous improvement. But as a general rule, it makes most sense to prioritize parental choice.
There’s a constituency for choice—a constituency that is continuing to grow in size and intensity. There’s never been a grassroots constituency for more regulation, and there never will be. Parents and teachers resist and resent just about every state-imposed regulatory accountability measure, even when they work—so much so that few Floridians are willing to concede how much progress the state has made. More regulation is a recipe for perpetual conflict. But once they get a taste of the freedom and power that come with having options, they can’t get enough. A system that empowers parents and teachers, that gives them agency and ownership, is much more in sync with what we know about human motivation, and much more likely to get sustained, positive results. Regulations have a role in all choice systems, but we can’t regulate our way to excellence. If we can make the greatest progress by making choice the primary organizing principle of public education, why wouldn’t we?
To be clear, I don’t see choice as the end goal. I see it as the road to the real destination: high quality customized instruction for every student. The best way to get to the promised land of effective and efficient customization is to hand the reins over to empowered teachers and parents, not to keep it in the hands of well-meaning bureaucrats.
In Florida, that’s what we’ve been doing. Maybe that’s why the ed reformers down here aren’t glum. Maybe that’s why we’re still making progress.
A mojito now and then doesn’t hurt either.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
Editor’s note: Fordham President Michael J. Petrilli recently published a long-form article titled, “Where Education Reform Goes from Here.” Others have responded to that essay, and this post furthers that conversation.
In his recent essay, “Where Education Reform Goes From Here,” Mike Petrilli offers a solid menu of ideas for state and local policymakers who want to stay the course on school choice and accountability, improve teaching, and radically redesign high school. Personally, I find many of his ideas compelling. If I were a state policymaker, I’d be tempted to go big or go home, as Peter Cunningham suggested, and I’d be poring through Sandy Kress’ evidence about what works.
And yet I think something important is missing from Mike’s perspective: Looking ahead, I think we need to look much more at the how of education reform. For example, which of Mike’s ideas might be implemented by whom, and why?
The big, successful change efforts in American history have started with grassroots personal and spiritual change, continued to gain life in local institutions, and then and only then reshaped state and national policies. The abolition of slavery, the growth of universal primary and secondary education, the Progressive Era, and the Civil Rights Movement all proceeded roughly along these lines.
Modern education reform flipped the script. The nation’s governors met with then-president George H. W. Bush in Charlottesville in 1989 and set the stage for national education standards and more aggressive state leadership to improve teaching quality. When it comes to education, we’ve never had the equivalent of the Christian revivalist gatherings of the late nineteenth century that paved the way for the policy changes of the Progressive Era.
If you ask parents today what more they want from their children’s schools, you’ll get a wide variety of answers, but higher scores on standardized tests—the primary school quality measurement mechanism to date for the education reform movement—will not show up on most parents’ top-ten lists.
It’s time to flip the script back.
What if, as education reformers, we thought more about the revival stage, and then more about how to support the local practitioners who are breaking through and showing us how it’s done? Then, as it is written in the Book of Job, we can sit back and watch “the sparks fly upward.”
What might the education reform revival look like? Who knows. To get some clues, let’s spend more time with people like Colleen Dippel at Families Empowered, Veronica Palmer at Colorado RISE, and Matt Hammer and Jose Arenas at Innovate Public Schools.
Revivals are conversations among leaders and followers, and boy do we need those kinds of conversations. The “preachers” need to talk about how not all the children are OK. They need to raise awareness among parents that children don’t just need to be getting B’s. They also need to be independently reading good books, discovering important ideas, and demonstrating they can read and write well.
Then how might we kindle the fire so the sparks fly upward? Let’s study lessons from practitioners of “positive deviance” in healthcare and other fields. And then let’s reframe our mission as helping them go further faster to help more kids and to enable their good ideas and methods to spread.
It’s a local activity. What if all of us national education reformers agreed to hold hands and repeat a thousand times: “Education reform Is primarily a local activity”? And then those of us in Georgia went to listen and learn from and support leaders at schools like Arabia Mountain High School, and those of us in Arkansas went to listen and learn from and support leaders at schools like Marshall High School? Lisa Keegan and other people in Arizona are trying to do this.
Over time, this kind of thinking will catalyze the creation and growth of institutions that support excellent leaders and teachers, organizations like KIPP, Relay Graduate School of Education, Great Minds, Leadership for Educational Equity, and Pacific Charter School Development. The real reform action is in these national organizations and the thousands of local ones like them.
“Here is something to which every policymaker should aspire: using government authority to encourage non-government authority,” Andy Smarick wrote recently in his excellent Weekly Standard essay, “A Modest Proposal.” Amen.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
On this week’s podcast, Jim Shelton, who is about to step down from the helm of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s education efforts, joins Mike Petrilli and David Griffith to discuss the whole-child approach to personalized learning. On the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines how coaching programs affect teachers’ instructional practices and student achievement.
Amber’s Research Minute
Matthew A. Kraft et al., “The Effect of Teacher Coaching on Instruction and Achievement: A Meta-Analysis of the Causal Evidence,” Review of Educational Research (August 2018).
Expanding universal pre-K is high on the list of many education advocates, despite the fact that evidence of its impact is based on “thin empirical gruel.” If we’re going to forge ahead anyway, a new study in the Economics of Education Review addresses a key question: What type of curriculum works best in these settings?
Analysts use experimental data to determine which preschool curricula are most effective in pre-K classrooms, which spanned public preschools, private childcare, and Head Start programs primarily serving low-income families. The study pooled data from the Preschool Curriculum Evaluation Research Initiative Study, which began in 2003 and required evaluations of fourteen early-childhood-education curricula in preschool centers. Each of those grantees was responsible for collecting various data for independent evaluations, but this is the first time that those data have been pooled across all of the single evaluations, with a sample comprising roughly 2,000 children.
Each grantee randomly assigned whole schools or classrooms within schools to either treatment or control curricula. There were three broad types of curricula to which they assigned. First is the whole-child curricula, defined as what most Head Start centers use, which is based on child-centered active learning for which teachers lead small and large group activities focused on multiple interest areas (such as blocks, dramatic play, toys, games, art, music, and so on). This is a “business as usual” approach, and is one of the control conditions. The second potential assignment is locally-developed curricula that are precisely that; in other words, we don’t know exactly what those materials entail, but they nonetheless comprise the second “business as usual” approach and second control condition. Finally, there are the content-specific curricula in math and English language arts that target specific academic skills; this is the treatment condition.
Researchers conducted various analyses such that different combinations of treatment and control curricula were compared. They examined both academic measures and classroom observation data that documented the interactions between teachers and students and the other “process” measures of classroom culture.
The key finding was that the whole-child curricula did much better on the process measures for classroom culture—virtually every one of them—than did the other curricula. Yet content-specific curricula did much better on the academic readiness measures—specifically, the Woodcock Johnson and Peabody Picture Test—than did whole-child or local curricula. For instance, at the end of preschool, children randomly assigned to the math-content curriculum had math scores that were 0.35 standard deviations higher, and academic composite scores that were 0.25 standard deviations higher, compared to children receiving the “Creative Curriculum,” which was the “whole-child” curriculum.
The analysts find no link between measures of classroom quality and curricular impacts, so they warn against relying too heavily on “process outcomes” to measure school readiness for young learners. They also recommend that whole-child curricula not be mandated—which is apparently what the Head Start centers do—without much more research. And they end with this stern admonition: “In the absence of such evidence, we conclude that policy effects should focus more attention on assessing and implementing developmentally-appropriate, proven, skills-focused curricula and move away from the comparatively ineffective whole-child approach.” Sounds like a step forward, but we at Fordham would add one more suggestion: Make sure that the so-called skills-focused curricula are anchored in rich and engaging content.
SOURCE: Jade M. Jenkins et al., “Boosting School Readiness: Should Preschool Teachers Target Skills or the Whole Child?” Economics of Education Review (May 2018).
Death, taxes, and the Browns missing the playoffs are just about the only predictable things on this earth. But far greater uncertainty exists in other aspects of life, including matters of school finance. A new paper by Stéphane Lavertu and Travis St. Clair examines the accuracy of Ohio school districts’ revenue predictions. They also study whether districts’ forecasting errors—a surplus or shortfall relative to predicted amounts—affect student achievement. The analysis relies on state-required financial forecasts produced by Ohio’s 611 districts from 2007–08 through 2014–15.
In terms of forecasting accuracy, Lavertu and St. Clair find that districts underestimated following-year revenues by an average of 2.7 percent during the period of study—what they call a “conservative bias” in districts’ predictions. But as the authors note, it’s not just conservative budgeting that explains the underestimates: Districts also have an incentive to “deflate” revenue predictions in efforts to rally voters to approve local taxes (local news stories illustrate how they can use projected deficits in levy campaigns). But the average masks variation, with a significant number of cases in which districts overestimated revenues, leading to unexpected shortfalls.
Using a battery of analyses, the researchers examine the relationship between districts’ forecasting errors and their value-added scores, a measure of academic performance based on student growth. They conclude that inaccuracies—whether over or under the actual revenues received—have relatively modest effects on value-added results. Specifically, they find that a 1 percentage point increase in forecasting errors is associated with a loss equivalent to one to two days of student learning. But when focusing on districts that overestimated revenues—those that reported rosy predictions but later faced shortfalls—the analysts find somewhat larger negative effects, equivalent to losses of about four to eight days of learning per percentage point increase in errors. Since they run statistical models that control for per-pupil spending, the authors conclude that “the impact of forecast error is unlikely to be attributable to any link between achievement growth and district spending levels.” Finally, based on supplemental analyses, the study offers evidence that teacher attrition and a focus on passing new taxes to fill unexpected budget holes might explain these findings.
Accuracy in revenue projections is surely to be encouraged, and both local and state leaders can take initiatives to this end. On a local level, school leaders can conduct detailed analyses of housing and demographic patterns to better predict local revenues and expenditures. State legislators can do their part as well by creating straightforward, predictable funding formulas that determine districts’ state allocations. A couple steps, described in more detail here, that Ohio can take are: (1) funding districts based on prior-year enrollments, instead of “real-time” headcounts that cause fluctuations in state aid; and (2) phasing out funding caps and guarantees, which are policies that are sharply debated every two years and yield an overly complicated and less predictable formula.
Just like the weather, no organization can perfectly predict future revenues. But helping schools to better plan for the future, so that they don’t end up in financial straits, is a task well worth undertaking.
SOURCE: Stéphane Lavertu and Travis St. Clair, “Beyond spending levels: Revenue uncertainty and the performance of local governments,” Journal of Urban Economics (2018); an open-access version is available here.