Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

How MPS Is Improving Instruction

Common Core Standards are changing schools here and statewide, but Tea Party Republicans object.

By - Aug 29th, 2013 02:11 pm

Across the country, schools are adopting what are called the Common Core State Standards, hoping to standardize learning in schools, improve student achievement, and align curriculum with the kinds of skills measured by the ACT and other tests. Sounds sensible, but the standards have increasingly become a red flag for Republicans.

As recently as January 2012, a state task force headed up by Governor Scott Walker and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers saluted the Common Core as  “a set of rigorous new standards that are benchmarked against the standards of high performing countries” and “create a common set of expectations for children across the country.”

“Wisconsin was among the first of 48 states and territories to adopt the Common Core State Standards,” the task force approvingly noted. That was back in 2010, and Milwaukee Public Schools quickly jumped aboard, beginning a three-year effort to overhaul its curriculum. The state Department of Public Instruction, the task force noted, is updating state standards for all schools to “to ensure… alignment with the Common Core State Standards” and “fidelity of implementation. “

Since then, however, there has been increasing opposition to the standards by conservatives. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in May, such prominent Republicans as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush strongly support the standards. But because they are championed by President Barack Obama, Tea Party members and others have assailed them as “ObamaCore,” and the Republican National Committee has condemned them, as Nora G. Hertel and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism reported this week.

Needless to say, that creates a huge problem for Scott Walker, who hopes to enter the 2016 Republican presidential primary as the favored conservative. That might explain why he declined to discuss the issue with the Journal Sentinel in May and with Hertel this week. The standards he was just celebrating in January are now seen as the mark of the devil.

Republican legislators amended the state budget in May to require a review of the Common Core standards and a study of the costs associated with them. It seems like locking the barn after the horse has gone: state schools have been gradually implementing these standards since 2010.

The standards are tougher and more specific compared to the “incredibly general” state standards of the past, DPI specialist Emilie Amundson told Hertel. In essence they are intended to put more emphasis on conceptual learning and critical thinking: less about facts (what year was the Battle of Gettysburg?) and more about higher learning (what were the causes of the Civil War?).

MPS began adopting the language arts standards in the 2010 school year and the math standards in the 2011-2012 year. Ultimately the textbooks may be closely aligned with the new curriculum, but for now the old textbooks are used, not necessarily in chronological order, to build learning in the manner prescribed by the standards.

Have all teachers fully implemented the standards? “It varies dramatically from school to school,” says Milwaukee School Board member Terry Falk. “It’s easy to find schools that haven’t.”

But Tina Flood, MPS Chief Academic Officers, says the system’s internal test, the MAP or Measures of Academic Progress test, is showing improvements by students on average. She also says there are “early indicators” that the new curriculum may be improving the performance of MPS students on the ACT test.  “It does inspire more critical thinking,” she says of the Common Core standards.

It was Falk who back in 2007 introduced a resolution to require all MPS juniors to take the ACT test. If the resolution is passed, “we are going to see more kids going to college, and we are going to see more kids staying in college,” Falk predicted. Ultimately, the resolution was adopted and MPS now devotes a school day to testing all juniors; in the past students took the test on their own.

The percent of MPS students taking the test has risen from 48 percent in 2009 to 89 percent in 2013. Statewide, just 71 percent of students take the test.  As to Falk’s prediction, MPS data also shows the percent of MPS graduates pursuing a post-secondary education has risen by 8 percent in that time.

Of course, under Superintendent Gregory Thornton, MPS has taken other steps to encourage graduates to enroll in a vocational or four-year college. MPS has created two College Access offices on 27th and Fond du Lac and on 27th and Morgan which are open daily all summer and evenings and weekends during the school year. Each is staffed by a licensed high school counselor and aides who provide information and help to students and families.

Thornton has also pushed the system to enhance its efforts to help students gain scholarships. Scholarship money going to students grew from $18 million in 2012 to $24 million in 2013.

Finally, Thornton has pushed to bring back art, music and phy ed courses, which had been jettisoned by MPS (and many other school systems) in the push to emphasize basic skills. There is abundant research that art and music instruction has spillover benefits, helping students excel in other courses.

All of these changes seem sensible to me, but it remains to be seen what their impact will be.

Statewide, the adoption of the Common Core standards came about the same time as a plan that will require all juniors state-wide to take the ACT test. That may result in the state’s high ranking on the test to decline. This year, Wisconsin tied with Iowa for the second-highest composite ACT score, but there were 20 states where a higher percentage of students took the test. And the more students who take the test, the lower the average score. In states like Illinois, which greatly increased the percent of student test takers, the average score went down.

Of course some of those states were for first time giving the test to all students in high-poverty, lower achieving big city schools. Wisconsin, because MPS has already made this change, may not decline as dramatically in its ranking.

Whatever the results, it seems likely some Republican legislators may be pushing to overhaul the state’s curriculum standards yet again. Small wonder some teachers resist these changes when they come.

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Categories: Murphy's Law

14 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: How MPS Is Improving Instruction”

  1. James Lowder says:

    The Common Core standards are being opposed by more than just Republicans looking to reject anything Obama supports or Tea Party types who don’t want a centralized government telling them anything about anything. The standards are also criticized, often from the left, because they force districts to rely even more heavily on standardized tests that cost millions to administer and skew curriculum away from critical thinking and other skills not measured by the tests. And despite lots of happy talk about the Common Core and the endless boilerplate test regimen attached to it being more friendly to complex thought, the new tests developed to align with the Core have been reviewed and found seriously lacking by educators and groups such as the Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment in Education. This is not a shock, as critical thinking is not something you can measure reliably with a fill-in-the-bubble test.

    Looking back at the article, Bruce, you start from a flawed assumption: standardized tests such as the ACT are a sensible measure for the skills we should be teaching our kids. They aren’t, and just as colleges are now rightly questioning the ability of ACT or SAT scores to predict college success, anyone hoping to reform education should be questioning the role of these tests as a measure of overall academic readiness.

  2. Dave K. says:

    Two thoughts:
    1) Any time we use “common”, it seems to me we mean “least common denominator”. I really hope that when schools identify gifted kids (future doctors, lawyers, physicists, etc.), that we won’t be educating them to the least common denominator level.
    2) The article, in regards to the intended purpose of the core standards, states, “In essence they are intended to put more emphasis on conceptual learning and critical thinking: less about facts (what year was the Battle of Gettysburgh?) and more about higher learning (what were the causes of the Civil War?).” My question is that of perspective. The example mentions “what were the causes of the civil war” – isn’t that open to some interpretation? Maybe a southerner would argue that it was a war of aggression from the north, others would argue it was an economic imbalance between agrarian and industrial societies, another might argue just slavery, etc, etc. It’s easy for a computer to grade multiple choice answers like dates, times, calculations, etc. but how does it evaluate these more fuzzy answers? What about a more complex question about the origin of humanity? Maybe some people will argue biblical verse and some will argue evolutionary ideas. How do you measure that?

  3. Bruce Thompson says:

    James is certainly right that much of the opposition to the common core in the past came from the left, particularly from groups affiliated with teacher’s unions. The Tea Party folks are latecomers to this controversy. I think both groups are misguided. It is hard to improve any process if one is unwilling to measure the results.

    There is also some opposition in states like Massachusetts and California, whose standards were arguably more rigorous than the Common Core. That was not an issue in Wisconsin whose standards were among the worst in the nation, giving almost no guidance as to what students should learn.

    The Common Core itself is not testing but rather a summary of what students should be able to do at every grade. But without some sort of measurement, these standards are meaningless.

    Too often in the past when test scores are miserable schools have adopted strategies aimed at raising scores: rallies before testing day, practicing test items, etc. Generally these strategies have not been successful, unless accompanied by cheating. They miss the main point: if the tests shows students are having trouble with reading or math, for instance, the school should address what the students need to improve in these areas. If they do this well, test scores should follow.

  4. James Lowder says:

    Your assumption, Mr. Thompson, is that the expensive and deeply flawed standardized tests are actually registering anything other than how well students are prepped for the tests. This is a fatally flawed approach to education that is costing taxpayers a lot of money and leaving students poorly prepared for either college or daily life.

  5. Begonia says:

    I would encourage everyone to actually read some of the common core state standards before criticizing them as being designed to the “lowest common denominator”. They’ve been put together with a lot of thought, based on research, and shouldn’t be treated as another educational “fad”.

    Math and language common core standards are easily available for perusing here:

    Many people like to dismiss “testing” offhand because they say it doesn’t capture some of the measures that predict success in life. But think about it the other way–what if tests uncover students that are doing poorly in school, but show potential for talent? What if a language test revealed that a student is a gifted reader and writer, even though he consistently gets low marks in language arts because he can’t relate to the books he’s been assigned to read? His teacher can think about how to best cultivate his talent (which clearly he wasn’t displaying before). When those “problem” students realize their own potential, sometimes they really shine.

  6. James Lowder says:

    You assume that standardized testing can recognize the sort of original thought required for skill at writing or interpreting text. It can’t. In fact, the way in which even the essay portions of standardized tests are graded tend to reward mediocrity over originality. Not a surprise when test companies such as Pearson are using Craigslist to attract “qualified” scorers for these essays. Some are also using robo-readers, which don’t judge content for truth, only format and other standardized metrics. Because good writing is always the same, right?

    Two worthwhile pieces on the essay-scoring business:

    And a NYT piece on the robo-readers:

  7. Bruce Thompson says:

    Actually there is a strong (not perfect) correlation between students’ standardized test results and how they do in other measures of academic success. For example the lower an MPS student scores on the eighth grade state tests the less likely they are to be seniors (or in MPS in any grade) 4 years later.

  8. James Lowder says:

    What’s the source for this claim?

  9. Bruce Thompson says:

    The correlation between 8th grade scores and achieving senior status was something I saw when analyzing data from MPS. I didn’t see that as a world-shaking result since any high school counselor would likely confirm that.

  10. Bill Sweeney says:

    Isn’t there a distinction between being in favor of the Common Core Standards vs being in favor of standardized testing? You could have some concerns or doubts about how school systems are employing standardized tests, but still like the common core standards. The standards look to be a guide, a description of what a consensus of educators think should be taught at various levels of eduction, what we should expect children to learn. There are all sorts of ways that teachers, parents and others can evaluate whether that is succeeding or not. What kind of testing is just one of those ways.

    Forgive me, there is no h at the end of Gettysburg.

  11. James Lowder says:

    Mr. Thompson, you should look into the formal studies that have prompted many colleges to conclude that SAT and ACT scores do not correlate with future success. The Shultz and Zedeck study from 2011, for example, concludes very clearly that the LSATs fail to correlate with longterm success or effectiveness as a lawyer. Really, what the tests are good at showing is the ability of students to pass more of them later.

    Mr. Sweeney, the curriculum structure built up around the Common Core is centered on more standardized testing. This despite the claims that the Core emphasizes critical thinking–something standardized tests do a miserable job measuring. And, no, there are few other measures being used. High-stakes testing regimens push aside other metrics, other methods of judging success or failure.

  12. Bruce Thompson says:

    Let me start with Mr Lowder’s second point first. The curriculum around Common Core is built around an analysis of what students need for post-secondary success (college or job), not standardized testing. The assessment follow the curriculum; without some way of measuring, there is no way of knowing if the students mastered the Common Core.

    The Shultz and Zedeck ( approach strikes me as very similar to that of the Common Core: first identify the factors that lead to effective lawyering and then find or create tests that measure those factors. Apparently the LSAT is more aimed at skills needed for success in law school but not for the other factors needed by practicing lawyers. Finally we shouldn’t forget that everyone who either gave their opinion or volunteered for the various tests did well-enough on the LSAT to be admitted to law school, so we have no information as to whether people who did poorly on the LSAT would have made good lawyers.

  13. James Lowder says:

    That’s one of many studies that question the predictive nature of standardized tests. Shultz and Zedeck note that the tests could be made better, but read more deeply on the subject and you’ll find that there are fundamental problems with standardized tests as predictive–and as tools for assessing critical thinking or writing or any other skill that does not lend itself to a fill-in-the-bubble answer. The consensus is moving toward using multiple metrics. But the Common Core is being built around standardized tests, not different types of works. That’s part of the package. The goal of creating more rigorous content guides may be laudable, but on the ground the Core is shaping up as one more set of tests to add to the $1.7 billion worth of standardized tests to which the US subjected kids last year.

  14. Dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    Sure Bruce, another reform, another Super, another plan, another pie in the sky, will solve the problems. How come the one room school house teachers, the nuns with 40 kids, the little schools in the neighborhoods were able to each kids how to read, spell , grammar, math and these modern schools, great castles with money far beyond that available to the schools hundred years ago, cannot accomplish the same?
    Why? cause it is simple. The involvement of the Unions and the Fed started the downfall of the schools. Teachers teach the test, they ar buried in paper work of “No child”, “Race to the Top”, center everything around the tests not learning. All everyone is talking about here today is the testing. I want to talk about the learning. Everything else is BS.
    The Left is far more concerned about sex, Gays, race then they are about learning and the kids are lost cause of it.

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