How Is Standards-Based Instruction Standard in Classroom Practice?

08/03/2017 11:16 am ET

Education policy, goes an old saying, is like a storm at sea. Crashing waves, thunder, lightning, and cross-currents at the surface, but 10 fathoms down, nothing ever changes.

In our time, one of the epic storms in education relates to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and other college- and career-ready standards that resemble CCSS. Common Core was intended to move instructional practices and student outcomes toward problem-solving, higher-order thinking, and contextualized knowledge, and away from rote learning, memorization, and formulas. We are now five years into this reform. How is it changing what teachers actually do in the classroom?

Fortunately, there is a research center working to understand this question: the Center for Standards, Alignment, Instruction, and Learning (C-SAIL) at the University of Pennsylvania. C-SAIL, funded by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) at the U.S. Department of Education, is carrying out several studies to examine how state policies more or less aligned with Common Core or college- and career-ready standards are changing teachers’ instruction.

Recently, C-SAIL researchers Adam Edgerton, Morgan Polikoff, and Laura Desimone, published an article on representative state-wide surveys of teachers in Kentucky, Ohio, and Texas. Kentucky and Ohio were early, enthusiastic adopters of Common Core, while Texas was one of just two states (with Virginia) that have always refused to adopt Common Core standards, giving up a shot at substantial Race to the Top grants for their obstinance. However, Texas has its own standards intended to be college-and career-ready.

In all three states, teachers reported teaching many objectives emphasized by their states’ standards, but a roughly equal number of objectives de-emphasized by the standards. This was true in reading and math and in elementary and secondary schools.

C-SAIL is doing studies in which they will obtain logs and other more detailed information on daily lessons. Perhaps they will find that teachers are increasingly teaching content aligned with their state standards. But from the C-SAIL survey, it seems unlikely that these differences will be profound enough to greatly affect students’ achievement, which is, after all, the ultimate goal.

There is a lot to admire in the Common Core and other college-and career-ready standards, and perhaps the best parts are in fact changing practices. However, turning around a country the size of the U.S., with 50 states, 14,000 school districts, 120,000 public schools, and a tradition of local autonomy is no easy feat. One big problem is that issues that rise to the stormy surface are buffeted by political currents, so they often don’t last long enough to make widespread change.

C-SAIL provides a useful service in monitoring how policy changes practice, so we can at least learn from the college-and career-ready standards movement (within which Common Core plays an important part). Journalists love to write about the crashing waves at the surface of education reform, but we need independent, scientific organizations like C-SAIL to tell us what’s really happening 10 fathoms down, where the kids are.

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