Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Common Core?

As we begin our admissions season for the 2015-16 school year, I have been getting a number of questions from prospective parents about the Common Core Standards, which most states have adopted in their public schools. For those of you who are interested in my take on the Common Core, I will say this: Houston Academy will not be adopting the Common Core Standards. In this blog entry, I’ll explain why.

For something that has elicited so much controversy, the Common Core’s premise is really quite simple: to have a set of national standards for K-12 education which standardizes what students should be expected to master at each grade level. It actually does not tell teachers how to teach, and despite popular misconceptions, there IS no curriculum. However, as a part of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, every state had to test every child every year in 3-8 grade in math and reading, plus one year in high school. The results of these “high stakes” tests were used to determine whether a school was “failing.” Each school was expected to increase the percentage of students passing the test, each year, thereby meeting the law’s requirement for Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). Students at “failing” schools could transfer to a different school, and if the schools persistently failed, they could be “reconstituted.” Many states, including Alabama, have recently received waivers from adhering to No Child Left Behind in order to create their own accountability measures. Alabama has adopted the Common Core, but unlike most states, Alabama has chosen to use the ACT Aspire as its end-of-year test.

As it stands, though, states have poured billions of dollars into implementation of the Common Core. Nationally, putting the Common Core in place will cost the states as much as $10 billion, with an additional estimated cost of $800 million per year.[1] This, according to many, has diverted needed resources away from teacher recruitment and training, facilities, and remediation for our most challenged students. For example, amidst numerous complaints about a crumbling school infrastructure, Los Angeles spent $1 billion dollars of revenue from a “school construction bond” in order to put Common Core testing software on iPads.[2] Last year, the state of Alabama spent $6.7 million dollars on their testing program, alone.[3] Of course, the textbook companies are thrilled with this development, because it allows them to sell brand new “Common Core aligned” textbooks to every district in the United States. This amounts to a profit windfall.

While I certainly have problems with some of the content of the Common Core, I think we could all find problems with any universal set of standards. The reason why Houston Academy will not be adopting Common Core has nothing to do with the quality of the standards. It is because I have not found credible research that backs the notion that common standards, alone, will lead to increased levels of student achievement.[4]  Sure, high standards are important, but it’s only a fraction of what goes into student achievement and gains in student learning.  What’s interesting is that when one explores the scores on the Department of Educations’ National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), there has persistently been a four to five times greater difference within states than between any two states.[5] In other words, in Alabama, there’s likely to be more of a difference in test scores between any two school districts in Alabama than there is likely to be between the state of Alabama and the state of Massachusetts. Of course, states have had common sets of standards for decades. If standards, alone, could work miracles, we’d see similar achievement within our state. Additionally, whether a state has strong standards or weak standards bears no statistical relationship to either standardized test scores or student achievement.5

What does make a difference in student achievement? Well, years of data tell us that much of student learning is influenced by context variables that are beyond the control of the school. However, of the factors we can control, the literature has consistently confirmed that quality teaching is the single most powerful factor in increasing and improving student learning.[6]

That seems like common sense, right? I mean, I’ve never had a student come back after graduation who said, “I’d really like to thank the person who wrote your curriculum! That curriculum has made all the difference in my life. When I look back on Unit 6, Goal 3a in Chemistry – ‘Derive the empirical formula for a compound by using percent composition data’ – I can’t help but smile and think about how that has helped me in my life’s work and career success.”  No, what former students DO want to talk about is how Starla Lewis made them love math, Wanda Emblom made them want to be a doctor, or Paige Knight made them want to be a writer. 

Put another way, students don’t learn from standards; they learn from teachers.

Permit me to use this analogy. I can determine the absolute best type of fertilizer to put on my lawn to make it grow and prosper. However, if I dump the fertilizer in the middle of my lawn instead of spreading it properly and at the correct weight, I’m going to kill my grass. We can have all the finest standards in the world, but if we don’t apply those standards properly, we are not going to improve student learning.  It’s the quality of the teacher that matters.

Actually, I’d argue, you could give us students at Houston Academy from any socio-economic background, and given a certainly level of motivation and God-given ability, our teachers at HA will lead them to achieve.  Furthermore, I’d argue that it’s precisely because our teachers are freed from the demands that public school teachers face– high-stakes testing, Common Core, exhaustive evaluation systems, individualized educational plans, state certification requirements, monotonous paperwork, Goals 2000, No Child Left Behind, etc. – that our teachers are free to focus on children and their learning needs.  It’s because our teachers don’t have to focus on a broad set of national standards that they can focus on having high standards for every individual student. Those standards are much higher than anything the government has prescribed.

Learning is a very complex activity, and we know that every student learns differently. Not all of our students are going to be successful all the time, but what I can tell you for certain is that throwing billions of dollars at a set of national standards is not going to fix our problems. Focusing on teachers and students just might.

[1] Chiaramonte, P. (2014, February 5). High cost of Common Core has states rethinking the national education standards. Retrieved February 24, 2015.
[2] Murphy, T. (2014, September 1). Inside the Mammoth Backlash to Common Core. Mother Jones.
[3] State of Alabama Department of Education. (2014). ACT assessments establish new baseline for student achievement [Press Release]. Retrieved from
[4] Loveless, T. (2012, February 1). The 2012 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning. Retrieved February 24, 2015.
 [5] Loveless, T. (2012, April 13). Does the Common Core Matter? Education Week.
[6] Brophy, J. E., & Good, T. L. (1974). Teacher-student relationships: Causes and consequences. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc.
Cruickshank, D. R., Jenkins, D. B., & Metcalf, K. K. (2003). The act of teaching (Third ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Good, T. L., & Brophy, J. E. (2003). Looking in classrooms (9th ed.). Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.
Wayne, A., & Youngs, P. (2003). Teacher characteristics and student achievement gains. Review of Educational-Research, 73(1), 89-122.


  1. Outstanding post and you hit the nail on the head in your final sentence. Focusing on teaching/teachers and students is the recipe for success.

    1. You know, it's really not tough to understand that the quality of teaching makes the biggest difference. The problem is that focusing on improving teacher quality and attracting and retaining quality teachers is not easy, nor is it politically expedient. In fact, it's hard work and it's expensive. It also is difficult to quantify, which drives the policy wonks in Washington and Montgomery crazy. It's much easier to write a national curriculum and keep testing kids.

      My next blog is going to be on high-stakes testing and the damage it's done to the American educational system.

    2. I really enjoyed the post. Very refreshing since rarely do I hear those intricately involved in education speak sensibly on this topic. Standards, testing, and licking up the latest technology are viewed as the only ways to educate in this "complex new world." The end results of this crazy experiment are less prepared students, wealthy textbook/testing/tech companies and a workforce that is ill-equipped for humane service.

      My hope is for a school that esteems great teachers, sets high expectations and seeks to make school a safe place for kids to learn.

      Thanks for the post.

    3. You know, Dr. Beauchamp, you bring up technology, and that's another interesting issue. I did a meta-analysis once on the impact of technology on student learning outcomes. First, in order to have technology make a meaningful impact on student learning, you have to meet about seven stringent criteria. After you meet those criteria, technology can, indeed, have a statistically significant impact on student learning. However, the effect size is small. That is, it makes a difference, but not that much of a difference. The question that policy makers should be asking every time they spend any money is, "How will this decision improve student learning?" If you can't answer that question, you should probably think twice about spending that money.

      Technology is a tool. It's a useful tool, and our children are going to have to know how to use it to be successful in the 21st century marketplace. However, I think schools rushed headlong into the black hole of technology spending without really giving it enough thought.

      We're now finding out, for example, that there is great benefit in taking notes by hand instead of on the computer. The brain research tells us that there's something about the kinesthetic process of writing down notes that helps us internalize and process information better than when we type it into a computer. Some of our teachers have gone back to making kids write down their notes. I actually support that. At least students should be given the freedom to see what works best for them.

      I also worry about the distractibility factor, with all of our devices. Heck, some of our kids only communicate electronically - it's made me wonder if our voice boxes will evolve away! Educators have a term for that, now. They call it "devisolation."

      Anyway, this is getting a bit long - probably a better topic for a new blog post!

  2. Dr Phillipps - Thanks for sharing your insightful thoughts on your blog. You sure can paint a picture with your words. You write just like you talk - So much common sense and knowledge. Its always great to talk with you. You are accessible and always willing to listen. Houston Academy is very fortunate to have a leader like you who is in the Know and The Now. You are Updating HA in many refreshing ways. You are changing/deleting the phrase/mentality - 'We've always done in that way.' Your common sense, knowledge, and being willing to listen and hear makes you a great leader and HA a more Now School. Dr. Phillipps - We are blessed to have you and your family in Dothan. - TheMeck

  3. Dr. Phillips,
    I tweeted that you were being wilfully ignorant by making statements like, "students don’t learn from standards; they learn from teachers." While I agree with much of the content of your article, I don't agree with semantically silly statements. You tweeted back a rude comment to me because you thought I was being rude by criticizing your article. Then the entire discussion devolved to you threatening me by saying "Does your employer know how you behave on Twitter?" Even though I was tweeting from my consulting twitter account @webbersed, you wrote my business partner of my other business thinking that you were going to get me "into trouble" with my employer. I find that intellectually and professionally cowardly. This is the problem with administrators like you. You cannot take criticism and when someone who you perceive to be in a subordinate position to you criticizes you, you threaten them. Is this how you treat teachers under your direction? If you cannot take criticism, then do not write a public blog. You wrote my business partner and said you would debate me on your blog, so here I am. What do you have to say for yourself? Or are you going to go crying to my business partner again? Suck it up sunshine! We don't have to agree with everything you say and praise how clever you are because you write BLOG!
    Mark Webber

    1. What I object to, sir, is not your disagreement with my post, but your rude language. Calling someone "ignorant" is bombastic and outside of the boundaries of a professional discussion.Your tweets went out to the entire body of SAIS and AISA. I received multiple emails from other heads of school and from administrators of educational organizations telling me how out of bound you were. In fact, I had not read your tweet until it was pointed out to me by administrators in national, professional organizations. People were appalled at your tweets. In fact, I believe you have now been blocked by both SAIS and AISA on twitter. That is not because of anything I did, but because other professional educators believe you crossed the lines of professionalism.

      I think you owe it to your school, your children, and your business partner to behave better in a public forum. If I were you, and I were your partner who is trying the attract business as a consultant, I would work very hard to try to portray a measured, professional, and rational persona. Moreover, if one of my employees were behaving on social media the way you have been behaving, I would want to know that. For what it's worth, someone else contacted your head of school about your twitter behavior, and they told me that they did so. That was not me, and it was not at my request.

      If I understand it correctly, you teach debate. I'm wondering if you consider "suck it up, sunshine" to be appropriate and professional language for a debate.

      Finally, you know nothing about me, professionally or otherwise. However, I will tell you that I give my faculty gift certificates if they criticize me, and I encourage dissent. However, there is a proper way to do it, and calling me names on tweets that go out to everyone in the Southern Association of Independent Schools and the Alabama Independent School Association is not the way to do it.

      All that being said, I would be more than happy to engage you in a RESPECTFUL debate about my post.

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