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Is There Evidence to Support the Common Core: My Questions to New York Education Commissioner King

7 October 2012 49,717 12 Comments

A number of people have asked me about my brief encounter with New York Commissioner John King at the NYSCOSS Fall Leadership Summit on September 24, 2012. Here is my recollection.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the honor to listen to New York Education Commissioner Dr. John B. King, Jr. at the 2012 Fall Leadership Summit New York State Council of School Superintendents(NYSCOSS) in Saratoga Springs. Addressing a standing-room only audience of NY school leaders, Dr. King covered a wide range of topics from the Common Core to APPR to data-driven instruction to vocational and technical Education to equity and equality as elements of his vision for the next five to 10 years in NY education (watch his presentation).

I was very touched by his conviction to equity. He passionately spoke of the moral responsibility our nation has for providing excellent education to all students. “All students are entitled to equal educational opportunities,” said King and we must recognize the “wisdom of investing in all young people.” Cannot agree more!

But I am skeptical of his faith in the Common Core and test-score based teacher and principal evaluation as a way to bring equal opportunities to all students and make all young people globally competitive.

He said that Common Core will:

  • Roll back curriculum narrowing
  • Make students more competitive in the 21st Century
  • Help more students succeed in AP and IB, and enter college prepared
  • Reduce need for remedial courses.
  • Close the achievement gap

He also said that the APPR (short for Annual Professional Performance Review, which mandates that “student achievement will comprise 40% of teacher and principal evaluations.”) will do the same by

  • providing good and differentiated professional development to teachers,
  • helping them grow for student outcomes,
  • making principals capable instructional leaders who can identify and promote instruction aligned with the Common Core (competent Common Core police—my interpretation), and
  • bringing a future with more college and career ready students.

I had read these claims and in many places (my 2010 article with Chris Tienken, 2009 article in the J. of Scholarship and Practice, and my recent blog post) pointed out that these claimed benefits are not supported by evidence while the damages (or side-effects) have been.

Educators have regularly asked me after reading or listening to my take on education reforms why our policy makers and leaders such as Commissioner King continue to pursue such polices despite the abundant evidence. I thought this was a perfect opportunity to learn about our education leaders’ thinking—The Commissioner “oversees more than 7,000 public and independent elementary and secondary schools (serving 3.1 million students), and hundreds of other educational institutions across New York State including higher education, libraries, and museums.” A powerful leadership position.

So at the end of the open-mic session following his presentation, I asked Commissioner. King two questions. I don’t remember the exact wording, but the essence is as follows (the quotes were not used at the time):

  1. Past experiences in the U.S. and evidence from other countries have shown that common standards and or curriculum do not bring equal educational opportunities nor do they lead to better education. Standards-based reform is not new in America. Over the past few decades, virtually all states have developed and implemented standards and under NCLB all states have worked on curriculum standards and used high stakes tests to ensure their implementation. But they have not resulted in significant improvement in the overall achievement of our students nor have they narrowed the achievement gap. For example, Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institute, after studying standards efforts in the U.S., concludes that “[O]n 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.” Evidence from other countries shows the same. In China, despite its decades of national curriculum, tremendous gaps exist in access and achievement. We have also heard similar claims of great outcomes before. NCLB was said to have similar effects, but a decade later, we have no evidence that it has worked. So what gives you hope that the Common Core will work this time?
  2. What evidence is there to support the idea that using student test scores or achievement outcomes to judge the work of teachers and principals while available research shows otherwise. For example, the National Research Council found that “despite being used for several decades, test-based incentives have not consistently generated positive effects on student achievement” after examining examines evidence on incentive programs, which impose sanctions or offer rewards for students, teachers, or schools on the basis of students’ test performance.

His answer to the first question was not convincing, to say the least. He had four points (I don’t remember his fourth point. If you were at the session, please let me know if there is any misrepresentation of the Commissioner or I have missed anything.) Since there wasn’t time for further discussion at the session, I put my comments/response in parenthesis following each of his points.

  1. He knows Tom Loveless and Tom was his thesis advisor. (Not sure how this makes Common Core more effective).
  2. The study by Tom Loveless is correlational, not causal. (Not sure how this makes the conclusion of no effect go away. In my thinking, if you cannot find any correlation between two factors, you cannot claim one causes another to begin with. Even if you did find relationship, you may not be able to claim that one causes another. In this case, if Loveless had found that states with more rigorous standards have better achievement and narrower gaps than those without, one may doubt if standards caused the positive outcome. But he found no significant relationship between the two at all!).
  3. The research by Bill Schmidt gives him hope. (Not sure about this either. Bill was a close colleague when I was at Michigan State and a close friend—but this does not make my points any stronger. Anyway, as far as I know, Bill Schmidt’s research on standards and curriculum began in the 1990s with TIMSS and shows that countries with higher TIMSS math scores have curriculum with more focus, coherence, and rigor. I suspect that the Commissioner was referring to Bill’s study released in May 2012. The study found that the Common Core math standards are consistent with high achieving countries and that states with standards most like the Common Core have higher scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Now, this is correlational, not causal. It does not mean the standards caused the higher scores. Bill Schmidt himself “emphasized (repeatedly) that this particular finding is merely suggestive, and does not establish causation. ““I want to be very clear about this,” he told me. “This does not prove anything…”” writes Education Week reporter Eric Robelen.)

And I don’t remember him giving answers to my question about the APPR.

So I am still looking for evidence…

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  • Leonie Haimson said:

    Is there video available anywhere?

  • ira shor said:

    Yes, very valuable confrontation, Prof. Zhao, thank you. Can we see a video of King’s failure to answer the data? The push for high-stakes testing to judge students, teachers, and principals is naked propaganda to help corporate reformers seize valuable assets and budgets from public schools. King, Gates, Broad, Rhee, and other corporate reformers have the money to broadcast promises and claims which data contradict. Impt to keep hammering them on the data every possible chance.

  • YongZhao said:

    Hi, I don’t know if there is video of the Q&A session. But the Commissioner’s presentation is online (I have a link in the post).

  • Jane Gangi said:

    Dear Mr. Zhao,

    Thanking you for speaking up on behalf of New York and America’s children.

    I cannot speak to the math common core but I can to the ELA. What is so troublesome is that tests are being made on the ELA common core, yet the common core is deeply flawed (so the tests will be, too). And teachers’ evaluations will be based on teaching to these deeply flawed tests.

    There is NO evidence–anywhere–for the ELA common core.

    Jane M. Gangi, PhD

    8 Reasons the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards (CCSS) will hurt children, not help them:

    1. The elementary text exemplars are primarily by and about White people, thus privileging White children and marginalizing children of color and the poor. The proficient reader research shows that, to become proficient readers, children must make text-to-self connections. Besides proficient reading, there is also identity. Julius Lester says, “They are asking us who they are and we are telling them.” When we leave out children of color and the poor, we are telling them they don’t matter.

    2. The word “analysis” appears 94 times in the CCSS; the word “emotion” twice in a clinical sort of way, and the word “affect” not at all. For children to care about “facts,” their emotions have to be engaged. The CCSS’s focus on the mind and neglect of the body and emotions has been tried before, and failed. By ignoring emotions, the CCSS ignores decades of research.

    3. The CCSS eliminates reading for pleasure and choice and, although the CCSS claims to be “internationally benchmarked,” does not say which nations. The city of Shenzen, China–a city of 15 million–emphasizes free and pleasure reading and has the highest university pass rate in the country. The Chinese government is, wisely, encouraging the rest of China to follow Shenzen’s lead; the CCSS are leading us down the opposite path.

    4. Music is mentioned once, the visual arts not at all. “Acting out” is okay for enacting vocabulary words. Yet, the arts are powerful ways to foster literacy; the CCSS leave out a V-8 engine for literacy in leaving out the arts. Many educators of color have argued for the inclusion of the arts as a way to actively engage children of color in literacy learning. The CCSS ignore the power of the arts and the concerns of diverse educators.

    5. Informational text is privileged, with the expectation that by the secondary grades the fare will be 75% informational and 25% literary genres. Yet, Adam Jones’s interviews with 57 genocide scholars and human rights activists show that their most powerful experiences were with 75% arts and literary texts, 25% “informational” texts–the exact opposite of the CCSS. A study of 37 biographies and autobiographies of writers shows that the most powerful works for these writers when they were children were 90% literary and 10% informational. Albert Einstein would tell you to read children more fairy tales; Charles Darwin would tell you to read them more poetry (email me for references). The CCSS claims to aim for making children “college and career ready,” yet ignores important research.

    6. Efferent reading (what you carry off, like when you read the directions for your new cell phone) is privileged over aesthetic reading (when you cannot put down a book). By privileging efferent reading the CCSS turn children into information processors, imposing a view of children and humanity many of us do not share. In the CCSS “aesthetics” are not mentioned until 11th grade. Children need aesthetic experiences long before that. The middle and upper classes will be able to get aesthetic experiences for their children outside of school.

    7. “Close reading”–all 13 years–will bore children to death. Children need multiple approaches to text (please email me for research on English Language Learners whose test scores moved from zero to 50% passing in six months through arts-based literacy). To throw out letting children make personal connections to text is a big mistake.

    8. Resources are being diverted from children to testing that won’t help them. Resources need to go to what directly affects children: Schools’ infrastructure, playgrounds, labs, libraries, and professional learning for teachers who teach children not of their own culture or ethnicity.

  • Virtual Pathways » Is there evidence to support the Common Core? said:

    […] Zhao poses this question to New York schools leader. For more details visit:… Common Core common […]

  • Bob Pritchard, Ed.D. said:

    Dr. Zhao,

    I wish to express my gratitude on behalf of New York State school superintendents…I witnessed this brief exchange between you and our commissioner. Concerning the implementation of reform measures, we are often met with a response that falls into one of two categories: First (the “urgency” response) – according to the commissioner, we have failed to create educational opportunities that make our students internationally competitive…we cannot wait another minute to overhaul our system. Second (the “legal” response) – we must implement immediately in order to be compliant with the law. Up until you addressed Commissioner King, I had not heard anyone ask for supporting evidence regarding these reforms – again, thank you for this.

    In my mind, I’m rewinding the Q&A between you and Commissioner King. I remember anxiously awaiting answers to your questions and sensing disappointment when none were given. Perhaps your questions did not lend themselves to answers that could be easily classified in the “urgency” or “legal” typography. That is my best guess.

    NY schools have re-calibrated our performance evaluation systems since almost all of our principals and teachers fell into the top quartile skewing the findings in such a way as to be meaningless. Now…they will mainly fall into the third quartile which will have the same effect (or “3 is the new 4” as I’ve heard so often). The inferential statistics analyzing student achievement/teacher effectiveness and used to support the APPR model are so crude that its predictive qualities are questionable, at best. Same as it ever was. The costs associated with implementation far exceed the meager federal funding that we’ve received under Race to the Top.

    In the meantime, the sausage machine is still grinding away. Occasionally, something other than a sausage is produced (I’m happy to report).

    Thanks again,
    Bob Pritchard, Ed.D.

  • leaning to teach, teaching to learn « Learning Differences said:

    […] Zhao has a number of important points to bring up that should give anyone pause to consider the merits of the common core initiative.  […]

  • Yong Zhao to Commissioner King in NY: There Is No Evidence to Support Common Core « Diane Ravitch's blog said:

    […] Recently the renowned scholar faced off with New York Commissioner of Education John King. […]

  • Rod Rock said:

    It seems absurd to suggest that the simple adoption of a curriculum will improve achievement or college readiness. How many iterations of curricula have come and gone in the past 20 years, each with the promise of improved achievement and citizenship?

    I wish to be part of an educational transformation in America. This will happen not through curriculum adoption or revision but through a denunciation of test-focused improvement, the implementation of processes that require students to show what they know and how they know it (over time, according to a few standards and toward the development of academic and non-cognitive skills), and the societal intervention toward the prevention of learning challenges. Until we address the causes, we should not expect to change the effects.

    I have tremendous respect for Dr. Zhao and I appreciate the wisdom he brings to this conversation.

  • Jeffrey Bowen said:

    The best short answer the Commissioner could have given: “Ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies.”

  • Michael Fiorillo said:

    Thank you for speaking up and pressing Mr. King on these issues. My inclination would have been to be far less gentlemanly in response to his prevarications.

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