Yesterday’s headline in Ed. Week’s Curriculum Matters blog was eye-catching: Study: Common standards unlikely to boost student test scores. Ouch. My guttural response was, What?! Are they serious?? Is that possible?? How could the Common Core standards not be good for student achievement?! Perhaps others who read the article felt differently, but as a RttT Network Team member, it’s always a little unsettling when someone attempts to poke holes in the standards. I’ve worked with teachers, principals, and superintendents who are actively developing curricula and assessments around the standards, and I know first hand the rich impact they are having in schools across the state. So I drilled deeper and went to the study itself: The 2012 Brown Center Report on American Education: HOW WELL ARE AMERICAN STUDENTS LEARNING?
Published by the Brookings Institution, the study indeed predicts Common Core Standards will not affect student achievement. Tom Loveless, Senior Fellow at The Brown Center on Education Policy and the study’s author, writes, “The empirical evidence suggests that the Common Core will have little effect on American students’ achievement. The nation will have to look elsewhere for ways to improve its schools.” However, Loveless also cites the Fordham Institute’s conclusion that the ELA and Math Common Core standards are better than existing standards in nearly forty states, and that there will be reduced variation in achievement results between states.
Kathleen Porter-Magee of the Fordham Institute puts Loveless’ paper in perspective. She notes, “As we have (The Fordham Institute) long acknowledged, standards alone will do little but adorn classroom bookshelves if not aligned to summative, interim, and formative assessments in terms of both content and rigor, and if not tied to meaningful district-, school-, and classroom-level accountability.” (Brackets added.) Porter-Magee defends her case citing the impact of high quality standards in Massachusetts on student achievement, and how even the lowest performing students in that state score higher than the national average. Add the role of effective teaching and Common Core instructional shifts to her argument, and the verdict is evident: standards matter, period. Ultimately, it’s what you do with standards that determines their net value.
Standards alone rarely impact student achievement. The complexities of student learning are huge, and variables influencing assessment results are significant. What students learn in school is highly correlated to demographic factors and teacher quality; with teacher quality oftentimes the trump card to student success. The “elsewhere”Loveless alludes to for the nation to improve its schools lies with the classroom teacher, building principal, and district superintendent. Standards alone can not affect student achievement without quality teachers. Research by Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff (2011) demonstrate the impact of effective teachers on students, and we all know the tremendous influence of great teachers on individuals. If you have ever watched Sidney Portier in To Sir With Love, Richard Dreyfuss in Mr. Holland’s Opus, or Edward James Olmos in Stand and Deliver, with tissues in hand you are reminded how important teachers are in our lives. Those tear jerkers trigger memories and emotions in all of us. Most of us have had that one special teacher who connected with us, cared for us, encouraged and surprised us by unlocking our talents and capacities. These were the people who made a difference in our lives, and the ones we cherish deeply and never fully forget.
Great teaching combined with strong building and district leadership, sound curricula which breathe life into the standards, and assessments that document student, teacher, and principal effectiveness are the means by which Common Core Standards can indeed impact student success. Isolated and on a shelf, however, common standards will have no impact at all.