Planning Text Dependent Questions

Embedded within the Common Core’s instructional shifts for literacy, which focus educators on building coherent knowledge, demanding text evidence, and working with sufficiently complex texts, is an emphasis on close reading and text-dependent questions. So what are text-dependent questions, and how can teachers develop them?

What are Text-Dependent Questions?

Text-dependent questions direct students’ inquiry into the text, rather than outside of it, and can only be answered with evidence from the text. Text-dependent questions can be used to check students’ understanding, but a strong text-dependent question does not invite students merely to participate in a scavenger hunt. That is to say, text-dependent questions are not low-level, nor do they prompt students to produce literal or recall answers.  A strong text-dependent question should invite students to interpret theme, analyze syntax and text structure, support students’ understanding of vocabulary, and analyze the effects of specific word choice.

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What’s at Stake in Our Implementation of the Common Core?

I am a long-time fan of Patrick Finn’s work, Literacy with an Attitude: Educating Working-Class Children in Their Own Self-Interest, a book about education and literacy with which I wish more educators were familiar, as Finn’s work captures some important aspects of what is at stake within our national movement to implement the Common Core standards.

The instructional shifts for literacy and math demanded by the Common Core standards prioritize student inquiry and crystallize what it is that we mean when we talk about rigor for both literacy (text complexity, academic vocabulary, text evidence, background knowledge) and math (fluency, conceptual understanding, real-world application). Importantly, instruction that aligns with the Common Core will be student-centered and challenging, focused on text evidence, justification, problem-solving, and work that matters. Importantly, too, these shifts represent a significant departure from what it is that we do in American education.

If you read nothing else from Literacy with an Attitude, read Chapter 2, provocatively titled “A Distinctly Un-American Idea: An Education Appropriate to Their Station.” This chapter discusses research findings that link social class to the hidden curriculum in schools. In particular, this chapter articulates how students and teachers in schools across the economic spectrum define and enact what knowledge and work are, how teachers evaluate student work, how controversy and ambiguity are taught, and how teachers focus their control efforts. In addition, the research characterizes both the teachers in their attitudes toward students and the dominant culture or themes within each type of school.

The findings from the chapter are outlined in the following table:

This research essentially points out that students in all of these schools are being prepared to take up specific positions within the economy. Expectations for the blue collar workforce, for example, align with the assumptions about work, evaluation, and control that emerge from low SES schools. Critical thinking skills and analysis are not really present outside of the Affluent Professional and Executive Elite schools, because even  white collar workers, groomed in middle class schools, have little opportunity for critical analysis; instead, these workers are successful if they can provide a correct and timely answer for the boss.

So, what we have here with is an American education system that is classist and entrenched in an economic model that is fading fast. And this isn’t breaking news. Witness the fact that policy makers were sounding alarm bells in the 1980s and one of the most read articles at ASCD is about “The Myth of the Culture of Poverty.”

What’s all of this got to do with the Common Core?

One of the things that we see emerging from the Common Core is a unified set of expectations for what knowledge and work are as well as a consistent set of standards for evaluation of student work. We have the opportunity, then, to establish a new paradigm of education for all students, regardless of social class, that might look something like this:

In this paradigm, knowledge is constructed based on text-evidence; open to discovery through real-world problem-solving; coherent and connected, with intentional linkages within and across grades to build background knowledge and develop conceptual understanding; academic, intellectual, and rigorous. Student work is engagement in critical thinking and reasoning tasks, problem solving, and writing to expand, analyze, and illustrate ideas. Student evaluation is based on achieving excellence in relation to standards for college and career readiness. Teachers use current events, controversy, and ambiguity as opportunities to make school education relevant, connecting to students experiences in the world, promoting critical thinking, and reinforcing standards for civil discourse. Behavioral control is focused with strict attention to student engagement in high-quality learning experiences. Teachers are supportive of students, not derogatory, cynical, or driven by deficit thinking to talk about what “these kids” can’t do. The dominant theme for schools operating within this paradigm and truly delivering on the promise of the Common Core standards is excellence for all, with the underlying theme of building a better future.

Excellence for all and a stronger, more economically competitive citizenry. That is what’s at stake in our national implementation of the Common Core standards.

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Common Core and Informational Text

The first two of the six fundamental shifts inherent in the Common Core standards call upon educators to establish a balance between literary and informational text in the early grades, then shift that balance through middle and high school so that, by graduation, 70% of students’ literacy instruction is focused on the exploration of informational text. There seems to be considerable anxiety over this particular shift, from English teachers who perceive a demotion of literature to history and science teachers who perceive an encroachment of reading into their content-driven territory. There has even been misperception that the intent of the Common Core is to have English textbooks contain 70% informational text. Given this anxiety and misperception, it is worthwhile to explore this issue and look more deeply at what the Common Core actually calls for.

The Common Core standards are quite explicit in articulating shared responsibility for students’ literacy development across disciplines. The assumption that informational text should comprise 70% of the literacy curriculum by high school must include the reading, questioning, and writing that students are doing in their subjects beyond the English classroom in history, science, the arts. Literature has definitely not been demoted!

Balanced literacy in the early grades

In the elementary grades, the literature expected under the Common Core includes all of the familiar genres of stories, drama, and poetry, with specific reference to teaching myth. It is useful to note that the Common Core does not specify any list of required myths; this is up to the teacher and the particular needs of a school’s curriculum. Informational text for the early grades includes biography & auto-biography; texts about history, culture, science, and the arts; and technical texts such as maps, step-wise directions, and graphs.

The purpose of this shift is to build coherent knowledge with students and to develop deep understanding of important topics through the exploration of multiple genres and types of text.

70% emphasis on informational text in high school

At the high school level, the types of text articulated under the Common Core expand, and teachers of all subject areas have access to a rich array of written material that they should use to develop students’ knowledge, understanding, critical thinking, reading, and writing skills.

As with the early grades, the Common Core establishes wide parameters for three text-based non-negotiables. Our students’ education must include the study of:

  1. myth,
  2. Shakespeare, and
  3. the foundational American works of the 17th – 20th Centuries.

The biggest take-away from the Common Core expectation that students read and discuss informational text is that if students can’t learn material by reading text, they are doomed in the world. Ultimately, we need to develop classroom instruction that brings together information and ideas from wide-ranging sources, helping students develop deep and interconnected knowledge. We also need to ensure that  students interact with primary source texts in history and science classes, (e.g. the Constitution, an excerpt from The Origin of Species, news regarding the presidential election) and engage in the process of articulating what these texts mean rather than have the teacher simply tell them. This is the kind of instruction that we see in honors courses and elite schools, while other students are too often given reading and content “lite.”

Preparing for the increased emphasis on informational text

The best thing high schools can do to prepare for this Common Core shift is to make it clear to teachers outside of the English department that they share responsibility for students’ literacy development. Then, schools will need to support those teachers in making high quality text choices and engaging in the kinds of questioning and writing that we expect in English departments. One practical step to take here is to have teachers in history and science bring in the study of one primary informational text within each content-driven unit.

Of course, many English teachers may also need to incorporate more informational text in their classrooms (if they have been largely ignoring it), and we would argue that the best way to bring in more informational text to the English classroom is to construct thematically-based units. For example, a unit could include the novel, A Lesson Before Dying, the poem “On the Eve of his Execution,” sections (or all) of the book Dead Man Walking, and informational text regarding the death penalty in other parts of the world. Such a unit would also allow a teacher to develop students’ awareness of the rhetorical appeals that authors use to influence their readers’ perceptions. Similarly, a unit on Romeo & Juliet can incorporate an excerpt from a Renaissance treatise on love, or a unit on Sanity can incorporate informational text regarding the “rest cure.” Units such as these allow students to ask and answers questions that are more in-depth and broad in perspective than any single text alone.

It would be a shame to allow schools to view the responsibility for informational text as residing solely with the English department and to gut the literature curriculum, limiting students’ exposure to great texts as well as the cultural capital that those texts convey.

Especially at the high school level, it may be difficult for teachers to reach beyond their department silos, but we know it can be done! Teachers who are life-long learners and readers themselves will embrace the idea that, as David Coleman articulated in a recent Common Core panel discussion, “proper interrelationship between the disciplines strengthens them all.”

More than anything, the Common Core provides us with an opportunity to bring teachers of different disciplines together and help them link big ideas among departments and across literary and informational types of text. This is an area for professional development, teacher support, and leadership.

We think this is a topic worth further exploration. What kinds of supports do you think teachers will need to make this leap? Please post your responses!

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Common Core: Six Fundamental Shifts

The Common Core standards for English Language Arts call for student-centered work in classrooms that build knowledge, develop writing skills, and produce confident and competent critical thinkers who are ready to take the next step toward college and careers.  Within these Common Core standards are six fundamental shifts that all educators (not just English teachers!) need to understand.

The Common Core calls upon educators to enact these Six Fundamental Shifts in their curriculum design:

Balance literary and informational text (K-5): Beginning in the elementary grades, the Common Core calls for an equal balance (50%/50% split) between time spent on literary texts and time spent on informational text. This shift really isn’t about ensuring that students can read technical manuals by the time they graduate high school. It’s about building coherent and integrated knowledge within and across grades, beginning in students’ early years.

Build knowledge in the disciplines (6-12): Following on from the balance between literary and informational text in elementary grades, the Common Core pushes educators to shift that balance in middle and high school. By grade 8, middle school students should spend 55% of their time in school working with informational text. By the end of high school, students should spend 70% of their time working with informational text.

Again, the aim of this emphasis on informational text is not really about technical manuals or even scientific journals. The aim is to build students’ background knowledge and vocabulary, so they are able to read and comprehend the rich variety of text that they will be confronted with in their future schooling, their careers, and their daily lives.

It is critical to note that the 70% of students time in school working with informational text in high school includes the reading they are doing in history, science, the arts, and math, so English teachers should not despair. (Think about it…within a typical school day, students spend a significant amount of their time outside the English classroom.) Probably the best way to do this is to build school-level curriculum that reinforces big ideas across content areas.

Provide a staircase of complexity: This shift points to the Common Core’s emphasis on text complexity and ensuring that students are given the supports they need to work with grade-level appropriate texts…not just texts that are at their level. The staircase metaphor is a reminder that students should work with texts that become increasingly more complex as they move through school. This is probably the biggest game-changer embedded in the Common Core, as it exposes one of the larger gaps between current practice and the kinds of instruction it will take to bring the Common Core to life. This staircase of complexity and emphasis on grade-level appropriate texts will force teachers and schools to rethink sole reliance on leveled reading instruction.

Insist on text-based answers: This shift is about developing students’ ability to use and interpret text evidence. This shift calls for classroom instruction that is focused on a common text, that engages students in rigorous discussion that allows them to construct meaning from that text (rather than be told what it means), and that holds them accountable for backing up their reasoning and interpretations with evidence drawn from the text. This shift, too, exposes a pretty large gap in current practice, as, in many classrooms, a primary text may be present (e.g. the U.S. Constitution) but students may not actually read the text themselves and more often than not, they are simply told what it means.

Write from sources: Halleluiah! The Common Core reminds us that the majority of student writing should ask them to persuade and explain rather than convey experience. In the early grades, the Common Core asks for a balance between writing prompts to persuade, to explain and to convey experience, but by high school, the Common Core calls upon educators to construct learning experiences that ask students to persuade (40%) and explain (40%) much more often than to convey experience (20%). This shift pushes teachers to move away from often facile and de-contextualized writing prompts and to ensure that students can work with a common body of text-based evidence to support and develop their claims.

Build academic vocabulary: The Common Core acknowledges the immense power of words. Indeed, research indicates that giving students access to academic vocabulary produces dramatic increases in reading comprehension and builds students’ background knowledge, giving them access to increasingly complex text. Teachers need to make frequent and consistent use of common general academic vocabulary, ensuring that students know what it means to “generate a hypothesis” or “identify assumptions in two writers’ arguments” before they sit down to write an essay on a high-stakes test. This is a shift that calls for teachers of all subjects to consciously and consistently use academic vocabulary rather than simpler words to convey the same ideas.

This shift also calls upon teachers to choose text that exposes students to rich vocabulary and consistently provide students with access to powerfully useful, frequently occurring vocabulary.

Additionally, students need to gain access to the subtle distinctions between words that can only come through an awareness of not only denotation and synonyms, but also the connotative differences between apparent synonyms. This calls upon teachers to use the web of words around a given word to expand students’ vocabulary and understanding.

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Common Core: Narrowing the Curriculum

Expectations for Instruction in the Arts, History, & Science

“Learning Less,” a report issued by the Common Core, indicates that there is widespread tendency among schools and districts to narrow the curriculum, focusing myopically on English and Mathematics while crowding out history, science, and the arts. This trend was the subject of a recent panel discussion that included David Coleman, Carol Jago, Lewis Huffman, Steve Farkas, and Lynne Munson.

This Common Core panel discussion thankfully  reinforced the message that high quality education is not about test prep or about doubling down on teaching isolated reading skills. Rather, the Common Core demands a persistent widening of the curriculum as the basis of knowledge and the cornerstone of coherent, contextualized learning. It is always a pleasure to hear educators speak passionately about learning, and the Common Core educators on this panel have the courage to say that our national obsession with teaching isolated skills has not served to increase students’ abilities. Ironically our short-sighted efforts to narrow the curriculum and focus on test prep has devastated reading. The Common Core panel members also have the passion to speak up in favor of developing deep knowledge and rich vocabulary, allowing students to make connections between knowledge and ideas across content areas and increasing their cultural literacy.

At its core, the Common Core attests to the fact that there is no way to teach students how to read without also developing dense knowledge. In turn, there is no way to develop this kind of dense, interconnected knowledge by deprivileging science, history, geography, and the arts and concentrating on “the nuts and bolts of reading.”

The Common Core requires us to acknowledge that what is necessary to move forward and provide truly world-class education in the United States is nothing short of a fundamental overhaul of what and how we teach. This is not a time to “tweak” what we are already doing. The Common Core asks for teachers, schools, and districts to have the courage…and the stamina…to start over, to design curriculum that promotes interconnections between and among the content areas, and to accept nothing short of excellence in all things. Our students deserve the kinds of texts, materials, and learning experiences that will build dense knowledge and cultural literacy, as these in turn will help to ensure that we maximize each individual’s potential.

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Text Dependent Questions: Meeting the Common Core Demand for Analysis

Achieve the Core has published an excellent “Guide to Creating Text Dependent Questions for Close Analytic Reading,” urging teachers to focus on identifying, evaluating, and creating text dependent questions as a first step toward implementing the Common Core Standards. The authors rightly extol the importance of using text dependent questions to develop students’ abilities to read closely and, by high school, to “cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.”

Achieve the Core’s guide defines a text dependent question as one that “can only be answered by referring explicitly back to the text being read.  It does not rely on any particular background information extraneous to the text nor depend on students having other experiences or knowledge; instead it privileges the text itself and what students can extract from what is before them.”

Given the emphasis in the Common Core, however, on text analysis, close reading, and developing students’ abilities to ask and answer questions about text, our question is:

Do All Text Dependent Questions Demand Analysis?

Imagine a 9th grade class reading Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “The Tell-Tale Heart.” As a text dependent question, a teacher might ask, “Why does the narrator kill the old man?” To answer this question, a student can easily turn to the second paragraph of the story and read:

“I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this! One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture — a pale blue eye with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me my blood ran cold, and so by degrees, very gradually, I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye for ever.”

This student could respond that the narrator kills the old man because of his strange vulture eye and deliver an answer that is based on evidence drawn from the text.

This question, although text dependent, does not engage the student’s analytic skills. It simply draws on the student’s ability to recall information and provide a factual answer to a text dependent question.  There are many classrooms where both the teacher and student would walk away from the interaction perfectly satisfied.  However, the Common Core State Standards ask us to do something more rigorous. The Common Core consistently makes rigorous demands for teaching students to justify, reason coherently, and support analysis using text evidence.

A better text dependent question for the teacher to ask would be, “Why does the narrator insist that he is not a madman?” With this text dependent question, the reader is forced to scour the text in search of a plausible interpretation. The fact is (no pun intended) that the text never explicitly states why the narrator makes this claim. Rather than skimming for a quote that explicitly states an answer, students must employ critical thinking skills to break down the text in order to construct an analysis that can be supported using text evidence. Students, for example, could draw upon the number of times that the narrator iterates that he is “smart” or “clever” and thus must not be “mad.” A student might offer the following evidence in response to our text dependent question: “The narrator insists that he is not mad because he is wise. The narrator says,

    • ‘Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded.’
    • ‘Ha! Would a madman have been so wise as this?’

For our second question, students must still refer explicitly back to the text to find evidence in support of their answers, as they did in the first example. In other words, the question “Why does the narrator insist that he is not a madman?” is a text dependent question, and teachers should not “allow” purely speculative answers that draw upon background information extraneous to the text. This text dependent question goes beyond asking students to find explicit evidence in text, however, and meets the analytic demands of the Common Core.

In this example, students are required to use analysis and critical thinking skills to develop and defend their answers, filling in the blanks regarding why their reading of the specific text evidence supports a particular answer. Simply pointing to citations in the text is thus insufficient, as these quotations alone do not directly answer the question. Unpacking how these citations are interpreted is the key to making it analytic.

This text dependent question has necessitated text dependent analysis!

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Using WebQuests to Fulfill Common Core Expectations

WebQuests have always been good instructional tools for structuring students’ research and inquiry using online information sources. However, considering the fact that the method was originally established in 1995 by Bernie Dodge, professor of educational technology at San Diego State University, it is a wonder that the method isn’t more widely known and that there aren’t more high quality WebQuests living on the internet as ready resources for instruction.

The Common Core, however, gives us a terrific opportunity to re-examine and re-prioritize WebQuests as an important methodological tool. Importantly, the Common Core State Standards establishes the following expectations:

  • By high school, 70% of students’ reading (including reading in science, math, and social studies) should center on informational text. (See page 5 of the CCSS for English Language Arts and Literacy in History / Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects.)
  • By high school, 80% of students’ writing tasks should require them to persuade or explain.
  • Students need to make and support assertions using specific text evidence.
  • Students need to integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media. (See the CCSS ELA Anchor Standards)
  • Literacy development should be a shared responsibility, with reading, questioning and writing expected beyond the English classroom.
  • Research, technology, and media skills should be integrated throughout the curriculum.

How Do WebQuests Align with Common Core Expectations?

As defined by Bernie Dodge, a Webquest is “an inquiry-oriented activity in which some or all of the information that learners interact with comes from resources on the internet.”

A true, high-quality WebQuest is not simply a series of web-based experiences or an internet scavenger hunt. By contrast, a real WebQuest will make good use of internet-based resources, allowing teachers to present content in diverse formats and media and requiring students to engage in a learning activity modeled on a real-world task that requires them to research and use technology skills, then synthesize and analyze the information they have gathered. In the culminating project or writing assignment of a WebQuest, students are generally asked to persuade an audience or explain their point of view based on the specific evidence they have gathered through internet-based inquiry.

In short, a well-designed WebQuest can fulfill many of the Common Core expectations for teaching and learning. Moreover, a WebQuest is a relevant tool across the curriculum, helping teachers in content-driven courses share the responsibility for students’ literacy development. WebQuests work hand in hand with the Common Core to increase students’ inquiry and critical thinking skills and develop their ability to research and use evidence!

WebQuests in Action

The following link will take you to a WebQuest titled Investigating the Inca which was designed for a 3rd grade classroom. This WebQuest is aligned to Common Core standards (see the Teachers’ Page), is structured around a journalistic task, and includes informational resources related to the Inca culture. A unit plan that begins with reading an Inca folktale and which articulates specific instructional plans is available.

We would welcome your feedback regarding this WebQuest and about WebQuests as instructional tools for implementing the Common Core!

For further information about how to structure a WebQuest as well as using WebQuests to promote classroom inquiry, technology integration, and student engagement, we invite you to use our VoiceThread presentation:

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Common Core: In Search of Text Complexity

The issue of text complexity establishes one of the fundamental shifts demanded by the Common Core Learning Standards. The Common Core standards make consistent reference to students’ ability to read and comprehend both literary and informational text “at the high end of the [grade level] text complexity band independently and proficiently.” Taken at face value, there is, perhaps, no radical shift here, as we have always acknowledged grade-level appropriateness by referring to reading levels, and educators certainly intend to ensure that their students are reading appropriately leveled texts. Yet this question of what an appropriately leveled text is is often answered in terms of differentiation. We acknowledge that there are students in our classrooms who are reading a year or more below their assigned grade levels, and for these students, we differentiate by offering them texts that are at their level rather than texts that are likely to frustrate them.

So here comes the big game changer in the Common Core Learning Standards: Appendix A, which summarizes the Research Supporting Key Elements of the Common Core Standards, tells us that “Students who struggle greatly to read texts within (or even below) their grade band must be given the support needed to enable them to read at a grade-appropriate level of complexity” (Appendix A, 12). Quite simply, the Common Core Learning Standards are a call to action not only to intend but to actually ensure that our students are able to read and comprehend text that is appropriate for students in their grade level. As the Common Core writers so eloquently put it in their introduction to the Mathematics standards, “These Standards are not intended to be new names for old ways of doing business. They are a call to take the next step. … It is time to
recognize that standards are not just promises to our children, but promises we intend to keep” (CCLS for Mathematics, 5). Okay, so they were talking about math, but I think we can acknowledge that this sentiment, derived as it is from Robert Frost, is equally applicable to text-based literacy!

So, what is text complexity and how do we measure it?

The Common Core Learning Standards acknowledges that text complexity is not defined by a simple measure of vocabulary or sentence complexity. Rather, research supporting the Common Core suggests that text complexity is derived from three equally important factors:

Most of the time when we think about text complexity, our analysis stops at those Quantitative measures that can be assessed by a computer such as sentence length, word frequency and text cohesion. There are some very good tools out there to assess quantitative measures of text complexity, but these can tell you, at best, one third of the story.

Qualitative aspects of text complexity, such as the ambiguity of a text, the levels of meaning it expresses, its structure, what it demands of its reader, and the conventionality of its language usage, are no less significant in making an argument for a text’s grade level appropriateness. Importantly, these are aspects of text complexity that cannot be judged by a computer but are best assessed by an attentive human reader.

The Common Core puts forth Reader & Task considerations as the third factor affecting text complexity. These considerations are specific to a particular group of learners, such as their motivation and background knowledge, and to the task set by their teacher, such as whether or not students are asked to infer or to make connections across texts. As an extension of this third factor, teachers who consciously build their students’ background knowledge of a topic through cross-curricular planning, real-world experiences, reading that builds along a theme, and vocabulary development enable students to engage with more complex text.

Overall, then, text complexity is the result of the (complex) interplay between quantitative and qualitative factors, students’ background knowledge, and task construction. It is also interesting to note that, although quantitative and qualitative factors are inherent to the text itself, the third factor, reader & task considerations, privileges teachers’ instructional planning and knowledge of the classroom. We actually think that high quality tasks which encourage critical thinking and inferential questions are most important and that this aspect of text selection can help teachers engage all readers in the classroom.

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Increasing Our National Knowledge Stock

We all acknowledge the importance of students gaining access to higher education and building a knowledgeable workforce.  Education is arguably what has helped build the American middle class, and the erosion of educational outcomes is one of the threats to sustaining our way of life.

This post asks: What should be done by government, business and education to maintain and enhance the knowledge stock? And what role does society play? Too often, policy debates focus on the wrong point in the educational value chain: to be successful in increasing the national knowledge stock, we have to embrace education reforms that will affect primary and secondary education, for without capable high school graduates, we cannot hope to affect college enrollment and graduation rates.

The fact that 45 out of 50 states have adopted the Common Core State Standards is a significant coup in education reform at the K-12 level. The Common Core specifically responds to the fact that American textbooks have gotten semantically and syntactically easier over the past 50 years while at the same time the demands of college and careers have stayed the same or increased. In math, the Common Core reminds educators that standards aren’t just promises, but rather promises to keep and demands that students develop mathematical understanding, justification, and real-world problem-solving skills.

The fact that five states have not adopted the Common Core is more a debate about states’ rights than it is about education. The fire is fueled by teachers’ anxiety over common assessments and value-added evaluations of teacher effectiveness.

To effectively increase the  stock of knowledge within the country, we need to continue to develop and support clear national standards for educational outcomes, including assessment,which are driven at the national level with input from the states, K-12 educators, university academics, and business. Barring federal mandates for education standards, the opt-in approach of the Common Core and the common assessments that will grow out of them (being developed by two competing state consortia) was a brilliant move in education reform.

In addition to clear, nationally adopted standards for what students should know, understand, and be able to do, we need policy supports that take the findings of McKinsey’s 2007 report, “How the World’s Best-Performing School Systems Come Out on Top,” into consideration. Specifically, the report articulates that “the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers” and calls for higher standards for selecting teachers for teacher training. Subsequent research published in 2011 shows just how far we are from higher standards for teacher preparation programs. The data from a study of several universities’ grade distributions compared across departments consistently shows that education departments grades are highly skewed. (Check out the graphs of grade distribution by university majors in this brief written by the original researcher if you would like to see something statistically frightening.) Koedel notes, “The fundamental problem is simple: there is no pressure from competitive markets in education. The solution, as with any market failure, is external intervention.”

The McKinsey report also identifies that “the only way to improve outcomes is to improve instruction.” Common assessments and data-driven instruction are important parts of the solution, but if “external intervention” is more test accountability, one might have to disagree with Koedel. We need to support teachers to improve instructional planning and delivery. And we need to insist on the same high-quality instruction in all schools, not just in classrooms occupied by the gifted and the nation’s socio-economic elite.

What is society’s role in improving the nation’s knowledge stock? On one hand, sophisticated and demanding consumers create pressure to meet high standards and innovate. And the nation’s parents can be pretty invested and demanding regarding education. On the other hand, this “consumer base” has not exerted appropriate pressure to ensure that education meets high standards or innovates over the last fifty years, and neither standards nor education policy should be part of a populist agenda. Overall, however, society has a deeply vested interest in the nation’s knowledge stock, and developing a sophisticated and demanding public will help to ensure continued innovation and progress.

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Please let us know what issues and concerns you would like us to discuss here on our blog. Give us your top five, and, as we build the site, we will work to engage you!

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