The Trouble with the Common Core

Via Rethinking Schools

It isn’t easy to find common ground on the Common Core. Already hailed as the “next big thing” in education reform, the Common Core State Standards are being rushed into classrooms in nearly every district in the country. Although these “world-class” standards raise substantive questions about curriculum choices and instructional practices, such educational concerns are likely to prove less significant than the role the Common Core is playing in the larger landscape of our polarized education reform politics.

We know there have been many positive claims made for the Common Core:

  • That it represents a tighter set of smarter standards focused on developing critical learning skills instead of mastering fragmented bits of knowledge.
  • That it requires more progressive, student-centered teaching with strong elements of collaborative and reflective learning.
  • That it equalizes the playing field by raising expectations for all children, especially those suffering the worst effects of the “drill and kill” test prep norms of the recent past.

We also know that many creative, heroic teachers are seeking ways to use this latest reform wave to serve their students well. Especially in the current interim between the roll-out of the standards and the arrival of the tests, some teachers have embraced the Common Core as an alternative to the scripted commercial formulas of recent experience, and are trying to use the space opened up by the Common Core transition to do positive things in their classrooms.

We’d like to believe these claims and efforts can trump the more political uses of the Common Core project. But we can’t.

For starters, the misnamed “Common Core State Standards” are not state standards. They’re national standards, created by Gates-funded consultants for the National Governors Association (NGA). They were designed, in part, to circumvent federal restrictions on the adoption of a national curriculum, hence the insertion of the word “state” in the brand name. States were coerced into adopting the Common Core by requirements attached to the federal Race to the Top grants and, later, the No Child Left Behind waivers. (This is one reason many conservative groups opposed to any federal role in education policy oppose the Common Core.)

Written mostly by academics and assessment experts—many with ties to testing companies—the Common Core standards have never been fully implemented and tested in real schools anywhere. Of the 135 members on the official Common Core review panels convened by Achieve Inc., the consulting firm that has directed the Common Core project for the NGA, few were classroom teachers or current administrators. 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.

The standards are tied to assessments that are still in development and that must be given on computers many schools don’t have. So far, there is no research or experience to justify the extravagant claims being made for the ability of these standards to ensure that every child will graduate from high school “college and career ready.” By all accounts, the new Common Core tests will be considerably harder than current state assessments, leading to sharp drops in scores and proficiency rates.

We have seen this show before. The entire country just finished a decade-long experiment in standards-based, test-driven school reform called No Child Left Behind. NCLB required states to adopt “rigorous” curriculum standards and test students annually to gauge progress towards 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. (Before NCLB, only 19 states tested all kids every year, after NCLB all 50 did.)

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What if Finland’s great teachers taught in U.S. schools?

Finland’s Pasi Sahlberg is one of the world’s leading experts on school reform and the author of the best-selling “Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn About Educational Change in Finland?” In this piece he writes about whether the emphasis that American school reformers put on “teacher effectiveness” is really the best approach to improving student achievement.

Many governments are under political and economic pressure to turn around their school systems for higher rankings in the international league tables. Education reforms often promise quick fixes within one political term. Canada, South Korea, Singapore and Finland are commonly used models for the nations that hope to improve teaching and learning in their schools. In search of a silver bullet, reformers now turn their eyes on teachers, believing that if only they could attract “the best and the brightest” into the teaching profession, the quality of education would improve.

“Teacher effectiveness” is a commonly used term that refers to how much student performance on standardized tests is determined by the teacher. This concept hence applies only to those teachers who teach subjects on which students are tested. Teacher effectiveness plays a particular role in education policies of nations where alternative pathways exist to the teaching profession.

In the United States, for example, there are more than 1,500 different teacher-preparation programs. The range in quality is wide. In Singapore and Finland only one academically rigorous teacher education program is available for those who desire to become teachers. Likewise, neither Canada nor South Korea has fast-track options into teaching, such as Teach for America or Teach First in Europe. Teacher quality in high-performing countries is a result of careful quality control at entry into teaching rather than measuring teacher effectiveness in service.

In recent years the “no excuses”’ argument has been particularly persistent in the education debate. There are those who argue that poverty is only an excuse not to insist that all schools should reach higher standards. Solution: better teachers. Then there are those who claim that schools and teachers alone cannot overcome the negative impact that poverty causes in many children’s learning in school. Solution: Elevate children out of poverty by other public policies.

For me the latter is right. In the United States today, 23 percent of children live in poor homes. In Finland, the same way to calculate child poverty would show that figure to be almost five times smaller. The United States ranked in the bottom four in the recent United Nations review on child well-being. Among 29 wealthy countries, the United States landed second from the last in child poverty and held a similarly poor position in “child life satisfaction.” Teachers alone, regardless of how effective they are, will not be able to overcome the challenges that poor children bring with them to schools everyday.

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Double down on failure

No Child Left Behind introduced the idea of high stakes education. Few today doubt it's failure.

More Americans think the No Child Left Behind Act, which has governed federal education grants to public schools for a decade, has made education worse rather than better, by 29% to 16%. Thirty-eight percent say NCLB hasn't made much of a difference, while 17% are not familiar enough with the law to rate it.

That rejection is across all demographic groups.

People know failure when they see it. But, rather than re-evaluate the consequences of pushing for ever higher stakes, corporate education reformers have doubled down.

We haven't even begun most efforts, but we've already lost the State Superintendent to scandal, have delayed critical school report cards because of an invesitgation into erasures, have an evaluation system few are going to be able to figure out - let alone implement, a voucher privatization scheme few parents have been interest in, and all in an environment of massive and reackless budget cuts, and appointments of college quarterbacks with no education background to the State Board of Education.

Public education - a middle class bargain

The USDA has just released their annual report (issued annually since 1960), "Expenditures on Children by Families". finding that:

  • A middle-income family with a child born in 2011 can expect to spend about $234,900 ($295,560 if projected inflation costs are factored in*) for food, shelter, and other necessities to raise that child over the next 17 years.
  • For the year 2011, annual child-rearing expenses per child for a middle-income, two-parent family ranged from $12,290 to $14,320, depending on the age of the child.
  • A family earning less than $59,410 per year can expect to spend a total of $169,080 (in 2011 dollars) on a child from birth through high school.
  • Similarly, middle-income parents with an income between $59,410 and $102,870 can expect to spend $234,900.
  • A family earning more than $102,870 can expect to spend $389,670.

For middle-income families, housing costs are the single largest expenditure on a child, averaging $70,560 or 30 percent of the total cost over 17 years. Child care and education (for those incurring these expenses) and food were the next two largest expenses, accounting for 18 and 16 percent of the total cost over 17 years. These estimates do not include costs associated with pregnancy or the cost of a college education or education beyond high school.

Child care and education expenses consist of day care tuition and supplies; baby-sitting; and elementary and high school tuition, books, fees, and supplies. Books, fees, and supplies may be for private or public schools. However, according to the report, child care and education was the only budgetary component for which about half of all households reported no expenditure.

Without a free public education, the educational expense of raising a child would be the number 1 expense by far. Consider that in Ohio, the per student public school cost is ~$10,000. That would cost the typical 2 child family $20,000 per year, for a total of ~ $260,000 for the entire K-12 education - more than the total expense the USDA reports for raising a child!

It's hard to imagine a greater bargain that that.

Here's a look at how costs have changed since 1960

Expenditures on Children by Families, 2011

Education News for 05-31-2012

State Education News

  • State Gets Go-Ahead To End Federal Tutoring Program (WBNS)
  • The state auditor was investigating allegations of fraudulent billing in connection with a federal tutoring program, 10TV’s Kristyn Hartman reported on Wednesday. Officials from the Ohio Department of Education said that they wanted to get rid of the federally funded tutoring program designed to help students at underperforming schools. The Supplemental Educational Services program, part of the No Child Left Behind program, is designed to gives students help outside of the classroom. Read More...

  • Educators, Parents Call For Better Funding For Ohio Public Schools (ONN)
  • Parents and educators from Cincinnati protested in front of the Ohio Statehouse Wednesday afternoon. At the center of controversy Wednesday was an education funding formula that many believe puts some districts at a disadvantage. "We have to raise money by selling wrapping paper in order to have enough pencils for our children to take tests, but literally 20 minutes away every child has a laptop," said Ruth Ann Wolfe. Read More...

Local Issues

  • Area educators react to decision on No Child Left Behind change in Ohio (News Herald)
  • Area educators are expressing mixed reaction to this week's announcement that Ohio schools will be freed from several regulations of the No Child Left Behind Act. The U.S. Department of Education approved the state's waiver application Tuesday. Schools in the state will now be given greater flexibility to meet accountability standards, including removal of some reporting requirements, and they will also have more freedom in use of federal funds, according to the Ohio Department of Education. Read More...

  • Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson's bid for local control of charter schools fits national push for accountability (Plain Dealer)
  • Mayor Frank Jackson's bid for more local control of charter schools in Cleveland wasn't a big reach by national standards. Most states require charter schools -- public schools that receive tax money, but are privately run -- to be created through major educational institutions such as local school districts, universities or the state education department. Read More...

  • Utica High School Students To Receive iPads (WBNS )
  • UTICA, Ohio - North Fork Local Schools officials said that they will lease 560 iPads to students in the next four years, 10TV News reported on Wednesday. According to administrators, the tablets would be paid for using money that would have been used to purchase textbooks and paper. Read More...

  • Picture of inspiration goes viral (Dispatch)
  • By the second lap, Matt Woodrum had slowed down. The fifth-grader with cerebral palsy clearly was in pain. 'You’re not stopping, are you?' his gym teacher asked, already knowing the answer. 'No.' Matt pushed on. The determination that the 11-year-old showed in completing the 400-meter race on May 16 inspired not only his classmates and school officials, but also viewers around the world who have seen the viral YouTube video online. Read More...

  • ODE: Monroe taking right path to emerge from fiscal emergency (Middletown Journal News)
  • MONROE — Monroe stakeholders have taken the right approach to reach financial solvency for the school district, a state education official said. Roger Hardin of the Ohio Department of Education, said he’s seen a series of trends when it comes to dealing with fiscal emergencies in school districts. Read More...

Editorial & Opinion

  • New opportunity (Findlay Courier)
  • Now that Ohio has been granted relief from some federal education mandates, lawmakers and educators need to raise the bar in education. The No Child Left Behind Act, which has been in place since 2001, requires states, among other things, to test students in reading and math in order to receive federal dollars. Those states which don't have a 100 percent compliance rate by 2014 would risk losing federal money. Read More...

  • Proficient learners (Beacon Journal)
  • In 2001, education reformers on Capitol Hill and the White House set a high goal for the nation’s public schools: The No Child Left Behind Act would ensure that every child was proficient in math and reading by 2013-14. States would set proficiency targets and measure districts and schools on Adequate Yearly Progress. Progressively stern interventions awaited districts and schools that failed persistently to make the required progress. Read More...

  • Keeping No Child Left Behind waiver is Ohio's next challenge: editorial (Plain Dealer)
  • It's no surprise that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave Ohio and seven other states a waiver Tuesday from some of the most onerous and unattainable mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act. Eleven other states have gotten waivers -- and more, if not all, probably will end up with them, given the impossibility of meeting the mandate that 100 percent of students test proficient in math and reading by 2014. Read More...

  • Get on board (Dispatch)
  • With the federal government’s decision to free Ohio from the unrealistic mandates of the No Child Left Behind law, state lawmakers have even greater obligation to come to terms with Gov. John Kasich’s efforts to move schools toward academic improvement. Read More...

High Stakes Testing Backlash

The backlash against high-stakes testing is growing. JTF recently signed the National Resolution on High-Stakes Testing, which simply states

WHEREAS, our nation's future well-being relies on a high-quality public education system that prepares all students for college, careers, citizenship and lifelong learning, and strengthens the nation's social and economic well-being; and

WHEREAS, our nation's school systems have been spending growing amounts of time, money and energy on high-stakes standardized testing, in which student performance on standardized tests is used to make major decisions affecting individual students, educators and schools; and

WHEREAS, the over-reliance on high-stakes standardized testing in state and federal accountability systems is undermining educational quality and equity in U.S. public schools by hampering educators' efforts to focus on the broad range of learning experiences that promote the innovation, creativity, problem solving, collaboration, communication, critical thinking and deep subject-matter knowledge that will allow students to thrive in a democracy and an increasingly global society and economy; and

WHEREAS, it is widely recognized that standardized testing is an inadequate and often unreliable measure of both student learning and educator effectiveness; and

WHEREAS, the over-emphasis on standardized testing has caused considerable collateral damage in too many schools, including narrowing the curriculum, teaching to the test, reducing love of learning, pushing students out of school, driving excellent teachers out of the profession, and undermining school climate; and

WHEREAS, high-stakes standardized testing has negative effects for students from all backgrounds, and especially for low-income students, English language learners, children of color, and those with disabilities; and WHEREAS, the culture and structure of the systems in which students learn must change in order to foster engaging school experiences that promote joy in learning, depth of thought and breadth of knowledge for students; therefore be it RESOLVED, that [your organization name] calls on the governor, state legislature and state education boards and administrators to reexamine public school accountability systems in this state, and to develop a system based on multiple forms of assessment which does not require extensive standardized testing, more accurately reflects the broad range of student learning, and is used to support students and improve schools; and RESOLVED, that join the Future calls on the U.S. Congress and Administration to overhaul the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, currently known as the "No Child Left Behind Act," reduce the testing mandates, promote multiple forms of evidence of student learning and school quality in accountability, and not mandate any fixed role for the use of student test scores in evaluating educators.

We joined 290 other organizations and almost 8,000 individuals in doing so. This growing movement is starting to have an effect. CNN

Welcome to the world of high-stakes standardized testing.

“I find it the most absurd thing in the world. I don’t know anyone who thinks they’re valid,” said Principal Anna Allanbrook at Public School 146 in Brooklyn, New York. “So the morale is down because teachers are worried that people who don’t really know their work will make decisions about their jobs.”
Across the country, teachers, principals and parents are pushing back against the test results carrying so much weight. More than 1,400 New York principals signed onto a letter to the state education commissioner that said the tests are deeply flawed. The outgoing Education Commissioner in Texas called standardized testing “the heart of the vampire.” Jenny LaCoste-Caputo of the Texas Association of School Administrators said, “This one test has become the single measure for a student’s success, for a school’s success, and that’s what is absolutely wrong.”

The Wall Street Journal reports

The increasing role of standardized testing in U.S. classrooms is triggering pockets of rebellion across the country from school officials, teachers and parents who say the system is stifling teaching and learning.

The increasing role of standardized testing in classrooms is triggering pockets of rebellion across the U.S. from school officials, teachers and parents. Stephanie Banchero has details on The News Hub. Photo: Brandon Kruse for The Wall Street Journal.

In Texas, some 400 local school boards—more than one-third of the state's total—have adopted a resolution this year asking lawmakers to scale back testing. In Everett, Wash., more than 500 children skipped state exams in protest earlier this month. A national coalition of parents and civil-rights groups, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, signed a petition in April asking Congress to reduce federal testing mandates.

In recent weeks, the protest spread to Florida, where two school boards, including Palm Beach County, signed on to a petition similar to the one in Texas. A parent in a third, Broward County, on Tuesday formally requested that school officials support the movement.

The efforts are a response to the spread of mandatory testing in the past decade. Proponents say the exams are needed to ensure students are learning and teachers' effectiveness is measured. Critics say schools are spending disproportionate time and resources on the tests at the expense of more-creative learning. They also contend the results weigh too heavily in decisions on student advancement, teacher pay and the fate of schools judged to have failed.

"They've turned a generation of kids into test-taking machines who are lacking creative-thinking ability," said Debbie Shaw, whose two children attend Palm Beach schools. She said she intends to enroll her younger child in a private school next year because she is so angered by Florida's "insane" testing regime.

the reason this backlas is growing is in part because stories and experiences like this are becoming mainstream

Other than the pep rally, teachers spent the week prior to the testing in meetings being lectured on the importance of test security, the protocols that would be our bible for the next two weeks, and on just exactly what would happen to us if these rules were not followed. The plans outlined what would happen from the moment the students entered the classroom until the last test was signed back into our testing coordinator. We were instructed to go over the plans, ask any questions we had and be prepared in the weeks to come. Due to the fact that our school was under scrutiny for previous allegations of cheating, we were warned that any negligence in conforming our classrooms and ourselves to these guidelines would result in an investigation and strict consequences.

I planned lessons throughout the meetings and graded papers in the background, only contributing my thoughts in areas which I found to be egregiously unreasonable or unjust. For example, lined paper for scrap paper, smiling at students (this is what they say is “coaching”), and allowing students to stand and stretch during testing would absolutely not be tolerated. As I listened to these rules, I pictured my bubbly bunch of eight year olds' faces. Then, the real bomb was dropped: Absolutely no bathroom breaks during testing unless the child was showing physical signs of distress. In addition, we also needed to prevent multiple bathroom trips by determining how badly each child had to use the restroom. Well, any teacher knows that once one student has “an emergency,” they all have emergencies. How am I to be the judge of the content of each child's bladder? To this I was told it would be easier to deal with angry parents of a child who had wet themselves, than to have to explain the situation to the monitors from central offices.

I decided that I'd be escorted out by authorities before I let nervous eight year old test-takers wet themselves on my watch. Are we that afraid of losing our jobs that we relinquish our humanity? Are we that desperate to prove that we are not cheating on these McTests that we deny children their basic needs? This is the “pinnacle” of insanity. This is the “pinnacle” of what an era of high-stakes testing is doing to our children and to our educators.

As testing was underway I became more and more irritated with not only the rules, but the fact that teachers’ discretion was being undermined by outsiders claiming to be experts on data, but not on children. Who are these people moving chairs from place to place around my room to see my test administration from multiple angles? Why are these strangers writing pages of notes on the condition of my classroom and my position in the room? The thought crossed my mind of just throwing the pile of test booklets in the air and screaming of its insanity, but what good would that do? I wouldn’t be allowed to finish the year with my students who had to put their science projects on the back burner for the two-week testing period. I would never get to see how they turned out if I was punished for breaching test security. I had already been scolded for allowing children to read books after they finished the test, as well as for allowing them to go to the bathroom. I decided to not push any further.

After being stalked throughout the building for two weeks in order to ensure that I would not change any test answers and spied on from just beyond my classroom door, my anxiety and disgust became overwhelming. After being witness to little children crying with anxiety and acting out in resistance and being forced to sit for hours completing endless assessments that they would most likely never see the results of, my faith in public education was diminishing. Why are teachers subject to this level of disrespect and distrust? Why are students subject to this much of a loss of real learning time?

Every day, more and more evidence comes out that challenges the reliability and validity of test results and demonstrates the unfairness of using these results to evaluate teachers. But I will comply with the rules and regulations--if for nothing else than to see my students' science projects and to see how much more they will accomplish this year; I am committed to my students and their learning even as I am opposed to the insane high-stakes testing regime that has been imposed on them. I will not, however, allow my students or myself to be de-humanized in the process.

How much longer can we allow our schools to feed the high-stakes testing machine rather than feed students’ imperative to learn? How much longer can we let testing replace teaching and learning? And how much longer can we remain silent throughout it all?