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Pushing back on Common Core criticism, an advocacy group promotes challenging student work

StAn Advanced Placement U.S. History class at North Star College Preparatory High School in Newark is among those recognized by TNTP as offering challenging instruction.
StAn Advanced Placement U.S. History class at North Star College Preparatory High School in Newark is among those recognized by TNTP as offering challenging instruction.

A nonprofit organization that spurred a national effort to toughen teacher evaluations wants to redirect policy makers’ attention — toward too-easy student work.

Seven years after releasing “The Widget Effect,” which argued that teachers weren’t being pushed to improve, TNTP has come out with “Room to Run,” a multimedia project that aims to answer the question, “What’s possible when students are challenged and inspired in school?”

The project takes viewers into the classrooms of five students in four states whose teachers push them to ask questions, read challenging texts, and build arguments from available evidence. Shatavia, a high school junior in Newark, New Jersey, asks how Watergate affected the American psyche — then sets out to discover the answer. In Reno, Nevada, second-grader Abril and her classmates analyze historical documents. And science experiments inspire Ashley, in Roxbury, Massachusetts, to learn more about the world.

Classrooms like theirs are all too rare for poor students, according to TNTP President Dan Weisberg, who said members of his team had analyzed student assignments in more than 20 districts and found most of them not tough enough to put students on track for college-level work after graduation.

At the same time, efforts to raise expectations with new standards known as the Common Core have met widespread resistance — including the critique that the standards are not “developmentally appropriate” for many students, especially young children and children with disabilities. That critique has found traction as individual states have reassessed the standards, including in New York, where a panel convened by Gov. Andrew Cuomo concluded that standards in early grades should be modified so that they are “age-appropriate.”

“’These are not developmentally appropriate’ is code for they’re too hard and these expectations are too high,” Weisberg said. “The kids in our view who are going to suffer most from that thinking are the kids at the low end of the achievement gap.”

“Room to Run” follows another recent project about student work by a different advocacy group, Education Trust. That project concluded that poor students of color are given less challenging assignments in Advanced Placement courses than white and affluent students.

Together, the reports suggest that advocacy groups are trying to figure out how to have an impact as policy makers back away from aggressive strategies to improve schools. Where the Obama administration pushed states to adopt the Common Core and overhaul teacher evaluations, citing “The Widget Effect” in the process, Hillary Clinton has not called for policies that could anger teachers unions. In this climate, focusing on student work is a relatively safe bet.

“There’s universal agreement that it matters,” Weisberg said. “There isn’t anybody out there who says it doesn’t matter what work we have kids do.”

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