Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The truth about Common Core's flaws

Last month, when I first wrote about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), I mentioned that there are some flaws in the initiative. Today, I'd like to discuss them, and then point out that such flaws do not merit complete abandonment of the CCSS.

The most common complaint I read about CCSS is that it is the federalization of Education. That could not be farther from the truth. A week or so ago I stumbled across an excellent editorial written by a conservative, rural Georgian. I'd like to use his sports analogy in debunking this federal take over myth. I'll always be a Utah Jazz fan at heart, even if I don't watch the NBA at all anymore. If Scott Walker announced that he was a Utah Jazz fan I would not suddenly start rooting for the LA Lakers. Gross! I would never root for the Lakers! This is what happened with the CCSS. It was a state led initiative, organized by the Governor's Association, funded by corporate Education reform leaders (Gates, etc), and designed by teachers with input from parents nation wide. Once it was all compiled and ready for the presses Obama and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced their approval ... and suddenly it was Obamacore (please envision my giant eye roll right about now).

Along the same lines that this was a federal takeover, some are arguing that the federal government has bribed states to participate. Funny story, my local state representative showed up at my house one Saturday afternoon and he and I had a quick chat about common core. He, as are many, was under the impression that Race to the Top money is being used to bribe states to participate in CCSS. There is a short answer and a long answer to this myth. The short answer is simply that Race to the Top grants are rewarded to states that have college ready standards and internationally benchmarked standardized tests. CCSS meets those standards. So do Virginia's non-CCSS standards and standardized tests. In fact, Virginia was rewarded Race to the Top money a few years back without adopting any part of the Common Core initiative ... so obviously this bribe theory is a misrepresentation of facts.

If that short story satisfies your curiosities you can skip the next three paragraphs. If you want a history of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top then keep reading.

Many people have little understanding as to what No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top actually are. The later did not replace the former. No Child Left Behind is still the law of the land. No Child Left Behind was a bipartisan, federal law (I know, it is shocking that those once existed) that was passed in the first 100 days of Bush II's tenure. NCLB used the typical Republican push to make schools more accountable through standardized tests. This business model that is data driven has long been part of the GOP plan for education reform. Having spent my entire teaching career under the NCLB model, I'm not entirely against it. Though schools can't run exactly like businesses, making schools use data to track growth and success yields wonderful outcomes. Combing through data helped me drastically improve the reading abilities of at least two of my students. Had I not spent hours looking over various different test scores and aligning those scores to specific reading skills, two of my students would have never been referred to a reading program, taught by another teacher, that eventually helped those two students pass standardized tests as proficient readers. Last I checked one of those struggling students is on her way to a respected East Coast college. Data and standardized tests are not everything there is to tracking student success, but it is an important piece of the pie. So, thank you NCLB for that push.

One major flaw in NCLB though was the funding piece. Under the original NCLB rules, schools that failed to meet data goals set at the federal level were severely punished. The funding piece of this law directly led to my departure from Dunbar High School, the first DC school I taught at. I was not invited back for Dunbar's 2009/2010 school year because under NCLB law the school had to let go of more than 60% of it's staff. I was, however, still employed by DCPS and quickly found myself a job at the districts top performing middle school. Imagine my surprise when even this highly successful middle school, with a proficient rate of nearly 90% in math and reading, still didn't meet the NCLB data requirements set by the federal government. Race to the Top changed a couple things about data driven goals and funding. Instead of requiring schools to meet the data goals set by the federal government, Race to the Top allowed schools to set their own data goals that could be approved at the state level. Not surprisingly Obama critics claimed this move made him racist. Another important change to the data/funding law is that instead of letting states create their own standards (that could be dumbed down as much as they'd like) and their own standardized tests (that could be dumbed down as much as they'd like), Race to the Top encourages (but does not force) states to adopt and/or create college ready standards and standardized tests. And finally, instead of punishing schools who fail to meet arbitrary federal goals, Race to the Top rewarded schools that demonstrate a commitment to college ready standards and internationally recognized standardized tests. Anyone who understood the flaws in the original NCLB laws would welcome these changes. People eager to gain attention for conspiracy theories would claim these changes create a government takeover that spies on our children and bribes states to teach a socialist agenda.

Is Race to the Top perfect? No, even my super liberal father thinks the reward money was distributed very politically (Utah was left out of the first round). But is it an improvement from the first NCLB laws? Yes. States are no longer rewarded for dumbing down their standards and tests. They are no longer punished for challenging their students but failing to meet federal goals. Instead they are rewarded for efforts to prepare students for career and college. They are not forced to adopt CCSS and they can opt out at any time.

(Welcome back to my readers who may have skipped ^that^).
I'll repeat that last bit of my previous paragraph, states can opt out at any time. In fact, the most recent CCSS news seems to be that several states are opting out of the standardized test, but not the standards themselves. I'll focus on Massachusetts (Mass) for this portion of my post. Why Mass? Mass is a leader in education reform. Twenty years ago they followed a path that looks much like CCSS. They set state standards that would align with high stakes standardized tests. They pumped more money into schools. They had a lot of parent and public push back. Their early results showed that students were behind and struggling. They persevered, and they now have the best educated students in the union. If ranked as their own country, Mass would be fourth in the world for education. I have no doubt that if Mass (like Virginia) had wanted to keep their old standards and their old test (the MCAS) they would have easily qualified for the Race to the Top grants (like Virginia did). But Mass didn't. They adopted the CCSS early on, back in 2010. To me this speaks volumes of the standards. I have read the standards for myself and I do find them to be more rigorous than previous standards, but I sleep well knowing Mass seems to agree with me. But, and this is a big but, Mass has delayed the standardized tests that go along with the CCSS; the standardized test is called Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). PARCC is very open about their tests, and you can even sample questions online.

There is growing concern about PARCC. The conspiracy theorists will tell you this is a data mine used to collect private information about your children. Please, please do not believe that garbage. If you let yourself get distracted by that garbage you will miss the relevant complaints about PARCC -- mainly, the reasons Mass has delayed using PARCC. The best analogy I can give for why Mass has delayed PARCC is a runner's analogy. I've only ever run 5Ks (and to be fair I ran/walked one of them). Mass has only used MCAS for the past 20 years. If I decided to run a marathon I would be crazy not to keep running 5Ks. Naturally I'd up my game and add in a few 10Ks. Before the day of my big marathon, I'd also sign up for and run in at least one half-marathon. Then, after all the training and after all the smaller trial races (5Ks, 10Ks, and half-marathons) I'd be prepared for the big day. Only then could I run a full marathon. The Mass Board of Education has simply decided that they will keep using MCAS as they slowly transition to PARCC. They plan to have fully implemented PARCC by 2015. The model CCSS would like states to take has PARCC implemented in full by 2014. Naturally, some states are wanting to give their teachers extra time with CCSS before expecting their students to use PARCC. If you've been following the news on CCSS you may already know about Arne Duncan's "white suburban mom" comment. Tho his words were distasteful, I had already concluded what Duncan was getting at. Parents, schools and states are nervous that the PARCC will show just how far behind our students really are. Standardized test scores will plummet. In the past states could use their own tests, dumbed down as much as they liked, and pat themselves on the backs for great accomplishments. Now, the 45 states plus the District of Columbia who have signed on to CCSS are having to use PARCC or other approved tests (*see my father's comment below). That scares many of them.

I personally think Mass decision is wise, and it shows no sign of abandoning CCSS. Remember my runner's analogy. Mass is simply giving themselves time to prepare for the marathon. They are still designing lesson plans with CCSS. They, like always, are still striving to give their students a world class education. It is time the rest of the Union follow their lead. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your comments were spot on sis. As usual.
One clarification -- not all CCSS states use PARCC. Utah uses what we refer to as SAGE. It is being developed by Utah teachers in conjunction with AIR (American Institute for Research) out of DC. Maryland, Hawaii and several other states use AIR as well. As a member of AIR, we have access to all of its test pool items developed by UT, MD, HI, etc.
At one time Utah was a leading member of Smarter Balance (which is the other major testing consortium besides PARCC), but the dingledorf legislature and Gail pitched a big hissy and we had to go independent. I think we were better off with Smarter Balance, but then I always think the opposite of our inspired righteous all-knowing legislators.
Oops, there I go again. Enough said!

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