‘The Common Core Meltdown’

If you’re a parent with kids currently in school, a future parent, a teacher, or a tax payer, you need to read this article. With so much hullabaloo about the Common Core Standards (CCSS), Race to the Top (RTTT), and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) it’s very easy to get lost and confused. What are the CCSS? When and how are they being implemented – or why? How do they affect my child? Is my kid’s teacher worthless? And importantly,  What’s with all the testing?

Public education is moving more and more into the hands of private investors and corporate sponsors whom are profiting from the stress of parents, students, and teachers, and the devaluing of the educational process. And no, charter schools are not the answer.

And if this article doesn’t convince you Arne Duncan is a clueless moron, I don’t know what will. As far as I’m concerned he should be immediately removed as the Secretary of Education, and promptly tarred and feathered.

I’m going to quote some of the more important paragraphs, and I’ve bolded some of the more important and standout points, but the original article in its entirety can be found HERE. It is a must read.

Who Created the Common Core?

Because federal law prohibits the federal government from creating national standards and tests, the Common Core project was ostensibly designed as a state effort led by the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve, a private consulting firm. The Gates Foundation provided more than $160 million in funding, without which Common Core would not exist.

The standards were drafted largely behind closed doors by academics and assessment “experts,” many with ties to testing companies. Education Week blogger and science teacher Anthony Cody found that, of the 25 individuals in the work groups charged with drafting the standards, six were associated with the test makers from the College Board, five with the test publishers at ACT, and four with Achieve. Zero teachers were in the work groups. The feedback groups had 35 participants, almost all of whom were university professors. Cody found one classroom teacher involved in the entire process. According to early childhood expert Nancy Carlsson-Paige: “In all, there were 135 people on the review panels for the Common Core. Not a single one of them was a K–3 classroom teacher or early childhood professional.” Parents were entirely missing. K–12 educators were mostly brought in after the fact to tweak and endorse the standards—and lend legitimacy to the results.

No teachers involved in making policies and standards that teachers will personally use in the classroom. That’s like a babysitter drawing up a step-by-step process for landing an airplane.

Emerging from the Wreckage of No Child Left Behind

The CCSS emerged from the wreckage of NCLB. In 2002, NCLB was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support and presented as a way to close long-standing gaps in academic performance. NCLB marked a dramatic change in federal education policy—away from its historic role as a promoter of access and equity through support for things like school integration, extra funding for high-poverty schools, and services for students with special needs, to a much less equitable set of mandates around standards and testing, closing or “reconstituting” schools, and replacing school staff.

NCLB required states to adopt curriculum standards and to test students annually to gauge progress toward reaching them. Under threat of losing federal funds, all 50 states adopted or revised their standards and began testing every student, every year, in every grade from 3–8 and again in high school. The professed goal was to make sure every student was on grade level in math and language arts by requiring schools to reach 100 percent passing rates on state tests for every student in 10 subgroups.

By any measure, NCLB was a failure in raising academic performance and narrowing gaps in opportunity and outcomes. But by very publicly measuring the test results against arbitrary benchmarks that no real schools have ever met, NCLB succeeded in creating a narrative of failure that shaped a decade of attempts to “fix” schools while blaming those who work in them. The disaggregated scores put the spotlight on gaps among student groups, but the law used these gaps to label schools as failures without providing the resources or supports needed to eliminate them.

By the time the first decade of NCLB was over, more than half the schools in the nation were on the lists of “failing schools” and the rest were poised to follow. In Massachusetts, which is generally considered to have the toughest state standards in the nation—arguably more demanding than the Common Core—80 percent of the schools were facing NCLB sanctions. This is when the NCLB “waivers” appeared. As the number of schools facing sanctions and intervention grew well beyond the poor communities of color where NCLB had made “disruptive reform” the norm and began to reach into more middle-class and suburban districts, the pressure to revise NCLB’s unworkable accountability system increased. But the bipartisan coalition that passed NCLB had collapsed and gridlock in Congress made revising it impossible. So U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, with dubious legal justification, made up a process to grant NCLB waivers to states that agreed to certain conditions.

Forty states were granted conditional waivers from NCLB: If they agreed to tighten the screws on the most struggling schools serving the highest needs students, they could ease up on the rest, provided they also agreed to use test scores to evaluate all their teachers, expand the reach of charter schools, and adopt “college and career ready” curriculum standards. These same requirements were part of the Race to the Top program, which turned federal education funds into competitive grants and promoted the same policies, even though they have no track record of success as school improvement strategies.

Thanks, Arne. Go play in traffic. May I refer you back to this post, in which we discuss how much experience in education Duncan has.

College- and Career-Ready Standards?

The substance of the standards themselves is also, in a sense, top down. To arrive at “college- and career-ready standards,” the Common Core developers began by defining the “skills and abilities” they claim are needed to succeed in a four-year college. The CCSS tests being developed by two federally funded multi-state consortia, at a cost of about $350 million, are designed to assess these skills. One of these consortia, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, claims that students who earn a “college ready” designation by scoring a level 4 on these still-under-construction tests will have a 75 percent chance of getting a C or better in their freshman composition course. But there is no actual evidence connecting scores on any of these new experimental tests with future college success.

And it will take far more than standards and tests to make college affordable, accessible, and attainable for all. When I went to college many years ago, “college for all” meant open admissions, free tuition, and race, class, and gender studies. Today, it means cutthroat competition to get in, mountains of debt to stay, and often bleak prospects when you leave. Yet “college readiness” is about to become the new AYP (adequate yearly progress) by which schools will be ranked.

The idea that by next year Common Core tests will start labeling kids in the 3rd grade as on track or not for college is absurd and offensive.

As a teacher in an elementary school I can safely tell you the standards for K-3 are messed. up. No longer are kindergarteners allowed more time to learn by exploration and free thinking and association. Now they have rigorous standards to fulfill and tests to take. Yes, tests.

Substantive questions have been raised about the Common Core’s tendency to push difficult academic skills to lower grades, about the appropriateness of the early childhood standards, about the sequencing of the math standards, about the mix and type of mandated readings, and about the priority Common Core puts on the close reading of texts in ways that devalue student experience and prior knowledge.

A decade of NCLB tests showed that millions of students were not meeting existing standards, but the sponsors of the Common Core decided that the solution was tougher ones. And this time, instead of each state developing its own standards, the Common Core seeks to create national tests that are comparable across states and districts, and that can produce results that can be plugged into the data-driven crisis machine that is the engine of corporate reform.

Hmm. These standards we made up and these testing challenges we’re implementing aren’t working? Ok, let’s give more tests with harder objectives. That should do it!

Educational Plan or Marketing Campaign?

The way the standards are being rushed into classrooms across the country is further undercutting their credibility. These standards have never been fully implemented in real schools anywhere. They’re more or less abstract descriptions of academic abilities organized into sequences by people who have never taught at all or who have not taught this particular set of standards. To have any impact, the standards must be translated into curriculum, instructional plans, classroom materials, and valid assessments. A reasonable approach to implementing new standards would include a few multi-year pilot programs that provided time, resources, opportunities for collaboration, and transparent evaluation plans.

Instead we’re getting an overhyped all-state implementation drive that seems more like a marketing campaign than an educational plan. And I use the word marketing advisedly, because another defining characteristic of the Common Core project is rampant profiteering.

And finally,

Tests, Tests, Tests

But while this larger political battle rages, the most immediate threat for educators and schools remains the new wave of high-stakes Common Core tests.

Duncan, who once said, “The best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina” and who called Waiting for Superman “a Rosa Parks moment,” now tells us, “I am convinced that this new generation of state assessments will be an absolute game-changer in public education.”

Oh it’s a game-charger alright. Again, why is this guy in charge? Waiting For Superman was nothing more than a propaganda film supporting Charter Schools, which have been proven to not work – especially since to showcase their “top-scores” many kick out low-performing students, leaving them back in the hands of broken public education instead of in a situation where they could possibly be lifted.

The problem is that this game, like the last one, is rigged. Although reasonable people have found things of value in the Common Core standards, there is no credible defense to be made of the high-stakes uses planned for these new tests.

Only about 30 percent of students were deemed “proficient” based on arbitrary cut scores designed to create new categories of failure. The achievement gaps Common Core is supposed to narrow grew larger. Less than 4 percent of students who are English language learners passed. The number of students identified by the tests for “academic intervention” skyrocketed to 70 percent, far beyond the capacity of districts to meet.

Not much of a surprise when despite all the emphasis on differentiation pushed on teachers, and intervention programs for struggling kids (which by the way removes them from the classroom to miss more instruction) that all students, including ones struggling to comprehend or read English, are forced to take the same test.

When I’m forced to alter homework, in-class assignments, quizzes, and tests to allow lower level students to hopefully achieve, or higher level students to be challenged, but then they are all given the same test at the end of the year makes no sense. A 5th grade student who struggles to read at a 3rd grade level for the duration of the year, isn’t going to succeed on a 5th grade level reading test. Even if the teacher succeeded wonderfully in raising that student’s reading level from 3rd to mid-4th, it is still scored negatively making the progress and satisfaction achieved by both the student and the teacher for their success worth absolutely nothing when the test results come back.

The tests are on track to squeeze out whatever positive potential exists in the Common Core:

  • The arrival of the tests will pre-empt the already too short period teachers and schools have to review the standards and develop appropriate curriculum responses before that space is filled by the assessments themselves.
  • Instead of reversing the mania for over-testing, the new assessments will extend it with pre-tests, interim tests, post-tests, and computer-based “performance assessments.” It’s the difference between giving a patient a blood test and draining the patient’s blood.
  • The scores will be plugged into data systems that will generate value-added measures, student growth percentiles, and other imaginary numbers for what I call psychometric astrology. The inaccurate and unreliable practice of using test scores for teacher evaluation will distort the assessments before they’re even in place, and has the potential to make Common Core implementation part of the assault on the teaching profession instead of a renewal of it.
  • If the Common Core’s college- and career-ready performance levels become the standard for high school graduation, it will push more kids out of high school than it will prepare for college. The most vulnerable students will be the most at risk. As FairTest put it: “If a child struggles to clear the high bar at 5 feet, she will not become a ‘world-class’ jumper because someone raised the bar to 6 feet and yelled ‘jump higher,’ or if her ‘poor’ performance is used to punish her coach.”
  • The costs of the tests, which have multiple pieces throughout the year and must be given on computers many schools don’t have, will be enormous and will come at the expense of more important things. The plunging scores will be used as an excuse to close more public schools and open more privatized charters and voucher schools, especially in poor communities of color.

This is not just cynical speculation. It is a reasonable projection based on the history of the NCLB decade, the dismantling of public education in the nation’s urban centers, and the appalling growth of the inequality and concentrated poverty that remains the central problem in public education.

Common Core is not the answer, nor is any of the garbage being pushed through with it. What the US needs is an entire restructuring of the education system starting at the top, and filtering down through the state education officials, and the learning standards. These positions need to be filled by people with experience in education: teachers and administrators. The standards and objectives need to be written by the very same people who know what happens in a child’s development and what is achievable in the classroom.

Until then, stop blaming teachers. And unions. Because guess what, we don’t have unions anymore. In fact, we don’t have any representation or say in the construction of any of the policies we are forced to follow every day. Why is that?

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