Thursday, August 29, 2013

Uncommonly Undecided about the Common Core

I am conflicted about the Common Core.

The minority of folks shown by polling to be at all aware of Common Core State Standards probably know little more than that they are controversial. Those who’ve read a bit more may realize that CCSS opponents include some truly strange bedfellows: leftist progressives like Diane Ravitch (I am a fan) who see this as one more ersatz “reform” actually designed to reveal the “failure” of public schools, and rightist, libertarian and/or Tea Party types who see it as Big Government undermining “local control.”

A little background

The Common Core originated with corporate executives, major philanthropists, and state governors, prompted largely by a concern over economic competitiveness. Besides worry on a societal level that we must keep up with competitor nations, fewer manufacturing jobs here mean that our high school graduates need better skills to guarantee their own competitiveness for jobs.

CCS Standards discount rote learning in favor of an encouraging emphasis on deeper understanding, application to problem-solving, the ability to translate knowledge and skills to novel situations, and skills in collaboration and in evaluating information sources. All of these abilities will produce confident, competent young people with both hard and soft skills needed to thrive in today’s college and work environments.

CCSS are also part of a new accountability system to replace the mandates of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Early in the George W. Bush administration, NCLB aimed for all of our children to be proficient in all tested subjects by the end of the current school year. This was an unrealistic goal, and the draconian penalties for failing to make “adequate yearly progress” toward it have failed to produce such universal success. The successor plan to NCLB, called Race to the Top (RttT), allowed states to apply for waivers from the NCLB standards and penalties if they adopted the Common Core and other revised accountability measures, including the evaluation of teachers and administrators on the basis of student academic progress.

This new system restarts the clock, in a way, still requiring most (but not all) children to become proficient by the end of the 2021–22 school year, and requiring incremental progress toward that goal in every subgroup every year. The subgroups include students with disabilities, English Language–learners, economically disadvantaged students, the bottom 30% (in terms of proficiency), and various ethnic groups (white, black, Hispanic of any race, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, American Indian or Alaska Native, and multiracial). In addition, there are requirements regarding test participation rate, attendance rate, graduation rate, and compliance with school improvement, educator effectiveness, and other kinds of reporting. Because it is so multi-factored and complex, the system is difficult to understand — and its results are difficult to interpret (more about that below). But the aim is praiseworthy: that we expect more from our students and from our educators, and that we help them reach that higher bar.

So, why is this controversial?

The two sides

The left side argues that CCS Standards are so high, and the assessments written for them so difficult, that they are useless for assessing learning — think of giving a middle schooler a calculus exam. Even worse, the resultant low scores will be used to bludgeon teachers and schools, feeding the narrative that both are failing and must be replaced by charters (demonstrably no better than traditional public schools when measured by these tests) or privatized, for-profit options via vouchers (demonstrably worse). A huge and extremely profitable industry has grown up around producing materials and assessments aligned with CCSS, the digital tools and software required for on-line assessment and classroom management, the translation of student growth assessment into teacher evaluation, and even a newly privatized effort to train teachers and to test them for certification. Generally, all that money is diverted from the classrooms where it had been, and should be, more properly applied.

The right side argues that CCSS impose federal control where it does not belong. [I must interject that certain Michigan legislators, who suddenly champion “local control” after passing literally hundreds of micromanaging laws re education, must not have an ironic bone in their bodies.] Much of this opposition appears to be rooted in an unshakeable distrust of the Obama administration, more than anything else. I do not find their arguments nearly as compelling as the left-wing objections.

My fence-sitting

I have seen some of the CCSS “exemplar texts” for primary-grade language arts. My first reaction, as a long-time advocate for differentiated education of gifted children, was to think how much they would love these rich and challenging literary resources. Second thought: would the average student be able to handle them? Frustration level is very important in learning. If something is a stretch for you, you grow in pursuit of it. But, if it is too far over your head, you give up in resignation. Like Goldilocks, we do best when something is “just right” for us. Since we do not fully individualize teaching and learning — yet — it is probably best to err on the side of expecting more rather than less. After all, low expectations are as damaging in their impact on children as low test scores.

In general, higher standards are a good thing, as both teachers and students will strive to meet them. A ton of money and years of effort has already been invested in curriculum redesign; new materials; common assessment development; teacher training; infrastructure, hardware, and software for on-line assessment; and prodigious training and skills upgrades for all the professionals involved. What purpose would be served by throwing out the CCSS assessments at the eleventh hour? What tests would we use for all the federal and state requirements, both to asses student learning and to evaluate staff, as newer laws mandate?

I think we should continue on the CCSS path, but I know that the assessment results will be used unfairly, to malign good people working hard to serve our children and our society’s future.

This has already happened in New York, where scores on the first round of CCSS-related testing made it look as if both teachers and students had been lobotomized: 77.4% of students passed last year's exams but only 31.1% did so this year. To exemplify the absurdity of the new assessments, in one Long Island district where students take algebra early, eighth graders took the traditional New York Regents algebra exam for ninth grade, and 95% passed it. They also took the eighth-grade CCSS-related new test, meant to assess whether they were ready for algebra, and only 39.5% were deemed ready for the course they had already successfully completed. Results like this are simply useless. Even the much-celebrated Harlem’s Children Zone schools, where about three times as much as average is spent per child to provide extended schooling and wrap-around services, did not do well on the new exams. So, they will be used to call students, teachers, and schools failures — you can take that to the bank.

What to do?

I say we adopt and adapt to the Common Core standards and, as much as possible, ignore the testing results. Unless they are deliberately skewed for political reasons, as happened Indiana, they will make us all look pretty bad. This is just what happened with the recently released new Accountability Scorecards [link will download Excel spreadsheet] in Michigan, which rated less than 3% of our schools and districts as green (i.e., good) — and a third of those “green” schools were so labeled after achieving zero of a possible zero points. In all my reading, I have not been able to determine the basis for their good rating. (I am still awaiting a reply from the Bureau of Assessment and Accountability.) Just as this ranking system produces results so uniformly poor as to be pointless, low CCSS scores will be seen as invalid for the purpose of comparing schools. Let’s not waste any more energy or angst on fighting such things. Instead, we should focus on helping both our teachers and their charges to be the best that they can be. This stuff is a distraction from our real work.

It may be that the current “reform” effort, backed by corporations that stand to profit and by billionaire philanthropists who know little about education, has jumped the shark — gone too far and destroyed its own credibility and support. There are so many folks from so many quarters now complaining loudly about the over-reaching and conflicts of interest that the tide is turning.

We’ve experienced tremendous upheaval in public education, producing much less in terms of good results. We have the data to show that so-called accountability measures are really measuring socioeconomic status. They correlate almost perfectly with poverty levels. Instead of applying greater resources to the children who need them most, we have been systematically defunding, restructuring, and then closing their schools. Nowhere have these interventions proven to work better for children.

If we don’t call off this war on kids and teachers soon, it will be over — and both will have lost it. The most important way we can prevent that is to remember, in the voting booth, who has done what to whom.

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