Common Core: Growing Pains or Growing Awareness?

April 20, 2011 John de Rosier editorial cartoon

Media reports have focused on a recent survey indicating a sharp decline in support for the Common Core among teachers. These reports have also included a variety of explanations and theories as to why this decline has occurred.

Unfortunately much of the speculation comes from Common Core cheer leaders who have limited teaching experience and do not have regular contact with students or teachers so they lack the wisdom derived from classroom experience along with any evidence to support their claims.

From my perspective, teachers no longer have confidence in the ability, or trust the motives, of the cognitively privileged but unqualified Common Core A-Team that was tasked with constructing National Learning Standards that should be RESPONSIVE, to the academic, social, vocational, and emotional needs of diverse learners.

Simply put, teachers have lost their patience and grown tired of the litany of disingenuous, contradictory, self-serving, and evidence-less claims.

Here is a partial list of problems and concerns regarding the efficacy of the Common Core State Standards…

 #1 Teaching To The Test

There is no better example of conflicting and contradictory statements than the issue of teaching to the test. Back in 2012, President Obama said

And one of the reasons that we have sought reforms to No Child Left Behind. I think it had great intentions. I give President Bush credit for saying, “Let’s raise standards and make sure that everybody’s trying to meet them.” But because so much of it was tied just to standardized testing, what you saw across the country was teaching to the test.

And I– I can’t tell you how many teachers I meet who say, “You know what? This makes school less interesting for kids. And as a consequence, I’m ending up really shrinking my curriculum, what I can do in– in terms of creativity inside of the classroom.” And that’s not how you or I, for example, when we think about our best teachers, we don’t think about studying a bunch of tests to see how we’re going to score on a standardized test

Recently U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan commented on the U.S. Department of Education Blog…

But the larger issue is, testing should never be the main focus of our schools. Educators work all day to inspire, to intrigue, to know their students – not just in a few subjects, and not just in “academic” areas. There’s a whole world of skills that tests can never touch that are vital to students’ success. No test will ever measure what a student is, or can be. It’s simply one measure of one kind of progress. Yet in too many places, testing itself has become a distraction from the work it is meant to support.

I believe testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools – oxygen that is needed for a healthy transition to higher standards…

Contrast the comments above with this excerpt from a 2011 Keynote Speech given by David Coleman, the chief author and architect of the Common Core State Standards…

… these standards are worthy of nothing if the assessments built on them are not worthy of teaching to, period…our top priorities in our organization, and I’ll tell you a little bit more about our organization, is to do our darnedest to ensure that the assessment is worthy of your time, is worthy of imitation.

It was Lauren who propounded the great rule that I think is a statement of reality, though not a pretty one, which is teachers will teach towards the test. There is no force strong enough on this earth to prevent that. There is no amount of hand-waving, there‟s no amount of saying, “They teach to the standards, not the test; we don‟t do that here.” Whatever. The truth is – and if I misrepresent you, you are welcome to take the mic back. But the truth is teachers do.

Tests exert an enormous effect on instructional practice, direct and indirect, and its hence our obligation to make tests that are worthy of that kind of attention. It is in my judgment the single most important work we have to do over the next two years to ensure that that is so, period.

So who are we to believe regarding teaching to the test?

No better way to learn if teachers will need to devote extra class time to training and test prep for the Common Core assessments than to look at a sample question like the one published in Valerie Strauss’s “Answer Sheet” Blog,

Consider this fourth-grade question on the test based on a passage from Pecos Bill Captures the Pacing White Mustang by Leigh Peck.

Why is Pecos Bill’s conversation with the cowboys important to the story?

A) It predicts the action in paragraph 4

B) It predicts the action in paragraph 5

C) It predicts the choice in paragraph 10

D) It predicts the choice in paragraph 11

Claims that the Common Core ELA literacy standards will prepare our children for college and careers are patently false and misleading.

The contrived and artificial Close Reading skills (see #2) required to answer the above test question are not realistic or properly aligned with the real life literacy demands of post-secondary learning and employment.

The convoluted format and design of Common Core test questions clearly call for test prep, as students will need time to practice and prepare for questions like this.

David Coleman’s comment and the sample test question above are evidence of the Data-driven philosophy and mindset of many Common Core enthusiasts who believe the “needs” of the test should drive instruction, rather than the literacy needs of the student.

Experienced educators appreciate and understand that the diverse needs of students must be the number one priority of any education program that claims to prepare students for adulthood and employment.

The misguided data-driven and test-centered approach means teachers are spending more and more class time training and preparing students for Common Core tests, rather than preparing them for life.

A 2012 Report: “Learning Lesson” details the results of a national teacher survey regarding Common Core implementation…

  • About half (51%) of elementary school teachers say that struggling students get extra help in math or language arts by getting pulled out of other classes; the most likely subjects are social studies (48%) and science (40%)
  • 59% of elementary school teachers report that social studies has been getting less instructional time and resources (28% middle school; 20% high school); 46% say the same about science (20% middle school; 14% high school)
#2 Close Reading

Close reading is a central focus of the the Common Core ELA Standards.
Students are expected to read and reread text, as they meticulously dissect and deconstruct passages while striving to determine “what the author is up to?”
Close reading is more than understanding and comprehending a reading, but “understanding how the text works”.

Timothy Shanahan explains

…A first reading is about figuring out what a text says. It is purely an issue of reading comprehension. Thus, if someone is reading a story, he/should be able to retell the plot; if someone is reading a science chapter, he/she should be able to answer questions about the key ideas and details of the text…

However, close reading requires that one go further than this. A second reading would, thus, focus on figuring out how this text worked. How did the author organize it? What literary devices were used and how effective were they?…


This process is very challenging and time consuming for advanced and grade level readers and is confusing, dispiriting, and not even independently obtainable for many weaker and learning disabled students.

More troubling is the fact that so many elementary students are losing time in other subject areas to spend extra class time on Close Reading activities when it is not an essential literacy skill for learning or work. Reducing time in other subject areas to focus on close reading is clearly about preparing students for close reading Common Core tests and not about preparing them for college and careers. The day-to-day reading demands of most jobs are NOT “rich and worthy” of close reading.

The National Institute for Literacy has identified and defined 16 content and national learning standards that will help students be “Equipped for The Future”. These standards do not require close reading skills. Instead they require literacy skills that are broad-based and transferable to real life learning situations where students and employees must “Read With Understanding”…

”define the knowledge and skills adults need in order to successfully carry out their roles as parents and family members, citizens and community members, and workers. Keeping a focus clearly on what adults need literacy for, EFF identified 16 core skills that supported effective performance in the home, community, and workplace.”


Teachers take their job very seriously and they have great admiration, respect, and high expectations for their students. More and more teachers do not support the Common Core Standards because they do not prepare students for the real life literacy demands of college and careers.
#3 Work-Based Learning
 
Many students’ academic and content area skills will improve if they were given the opportunity to enroll in a hands-on trade or vocational programs…
“Math used to be a struggle for 14-year-old Kathryn, until she fell in love with cars and started a hands-on project to build her own. Now the math matters and makes sense, and a whole new world of learning has opened up for her.”

Rather than just preparing students for college and careers, every student should have the opportunity to actually practice career skills by participating in internships and work-based learning experiences.

It is difficult for teachers to support the Common Core and take the college and career readiness claims seriously when there are no trade, vocational, or work experience standards, especially at a time when there is a growing demand for such workers

“The heavy proportion of older skilled-trade workers puts into focus more than just the pending retirement for baby boomers and oft-cited but rarely quantified gap between the skills that employers need and available workers possess. It also touches on the fact that American high schools have largely shifted their focus to preparing students for four-year colleges rather than vocational school.But just as training to become a welder or computer controlled machine operator isn’t for everyone, pursuing a college degree doesn’t fit every student’s skill set…”



#4 Teachers and employers do care about thoughts and feelings.

David Coleman’s infamous and insulting statement about thoughts and feelings reveals a lack of awareness and understanding regarding the needs and expectations of students and employees.Even more troubling is the fact that a person who would make such an insensitive and ignorant statement was given so much power and influence to design our National Learning Standards.
K-12 education programs should focus much more instructional time on helping students acquire and practice soft skills, if they expect them to master and apply hard skills in appropriate and effective ways. The authors of the Common Core continue to claim that the Standards, will properly prepare our students for college and careers, despite countless surveys and interviews regarding the critical importance of soft skills.
Clearly, thoughts and feelings do matter. Students who care and who feel cared for, are more engaged learners and employees are most engaged in their work when they feel a sense of passion and purpose.
Even PARCC recognizes the critical importance of soft skills and they have issued a disclaimer acknowledging that their own Common Core assessments will not provide a comprehensive and reliable measure of career and college readiness…
“A comprehensive determination of college and career readiness that would include additional factors (such as persistence, motivation, and time management…) is beyond the scope of the PARCC assessments in ELA/literacy and mathematics…Since these non-academic factors are so important, PARCC College- and Career-Ready Determinations can only provide an estimate of the likelihood that students who earn them have the academic preparation necessary to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing courses.”
 
Here’s hoping the 2014-15 school year sees the retreat of the Common Core from the classroom and the return of common sense and increased teacher support for student-centered education reforms and learning standards that will prepare every student for the diverse challenges and opportunities of adulthood and employment.
As Robert Green Ingersoll said…
It is a thousand times better to have common sense without education than to have education without common sense.
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Climbing Rungless Ladders

Talk with most ed reformers about the importance of the Common Core and many will bring up the need for higher learning standards and more academic rigor in the classroom.

Unfortunately, misguided and poorly designed implementation efforts have resulted in many disadvantaged students being subjected to “grit building” learning activities that are comparable to being required to climb a rungless ladder… 10260017_749020085129823_3965045056750888009_n In January, 2015 it was revealed that 51 percent of K-12 students were living in poverty. One would expect that a data-driven campaign to raise academic achievement in America would take into account this staggering figure. The Ed Department awarded Race To The Top funds to assist states that adopted the Common Core Standards and has established spending priorities and guidelines to support successful implementation of the Standards.

At a time when so many students are living in poverty one would expect that funding priorities would include, additional staff, smaller class sizes, after school programs, morning programs, school counselors, along with essential wrap around and community-based services to help ameliorate the affects of poverty.

Instead the Ed Department has set spending priorities such as upgrading and expanding data collection systems, purchasing new computers and upgrading technology infrastructure to accommodate online testing, implementing new VAM teacher evaluation systems, high quality CCSS professional development for teachers, and designing or purchasing curriculum materials and standardized testing programs.

So while these new and improved tests will allow parents to see if there child is “on track” for college and careers and how effective their child’s teacher is, many poor children will continue to struggle to learn without being able to see the chalkboard…

“My colleagues and I have conducted 2,400 screenings on students in three New York City middle schools: one in the South Bronx, one in Williamsburg and one in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. We have prescribed and distributed 450 free pairs of glasses to the nearly one-fifth of the kids who had 20/40 vision (which means street signs and chalkboards are blurry) or worse. Many of the kids knew they couldn’t see the board, but hadn’t thought to ask for a checkup, because their vision had deteriorated gradually.

Children who struggle to see don’t tend to make for very good students. At Middle School 223 in the Bronx, the principal reported dramatic differences in several students once they’d received their glasses. An eighth-grade boy who had previously been reprimanded for talking during class stopped being disruptive. When administrators asked him what had caused his sudden change in behavior, he explained that he’d been asking other students to help him read the board. A sixth grader who had been notably quiet in class revealed that she had stopped looking at the board because she couldn’t read it.

“Kids Who Can’t See Can’t  Learn”, Pamela F. Gallin NY Times 5/15/15

So while teachers across the country attend close reading professional development sessions, students in poorer schools and communities won’t come close to reading a book in the school library because there are no funds to hire a librarian or purchase new reading material.

“More than half of school libraries in California lack even a part-time state-certified school librarian, compared with about 20 percent nationwide, federal data shows. Urban districts are less likely to fund collections in every school.

Researchers have documented a stark difference in the number of books available outside of the classroom to children from rich and poor families, with children from low-income families typically having fewer books at home and less access to public libraries or bookstores.

Students at many D.C. schools have never had a full-time librarian or an updated book collection, and not all schools have permitted students to check books out of the library.”

“Unequal shelves in D.C. school libraries benefit wealthier students”  3/9/15

While ed reform leaders are proud of their efforts to increase college readiness and raise standards, students in 20% of the public schools in New York City aren’t able to raise their voices in a choir because there are no arts teachers.

“New York City’s comptroller plans to release a report on Monday quantifying what student advocates have long suspected: that many public schools in the city do not offer any kind of arts education, and that the lack of arts instruction disproportionately affects low-income neighborhoods…

Between 2006 and 2013, spending on arts supplies and equipment dropped by 84 percent, the report said. When money is tight, arts education is often one of the first subjects to be sidelined, the report noted.

It said the trend had accelerated as schools focused more on meeting accountability standards, shifting their resources from subjects seen as nonessential, like arts, to preparation for English and math tests…”

Vivian Yee, “Arts Education Lacking in Low-Income Areas of New York City, Report Says” 4/7/14

“Just 45 percent of public schools have a full-time registered nurse, according to a 2007 study from the National Association of School Nurses (NASN). Another 30 percent of schools have a nurse who works part time in one or more schools, while 25 percent have no nurse at all.

There has been no comprehensive study since then, but anecdotal reports show that more school nurses are losing their jobs as budgets are cut and health services are a low priority, says Carolyn Duff, president of the NASN.

The preventative care provided by nurses keeps students healthier, which means less absences, Duff says. “School administrators cannot accomplish their mission of enabling students to reach their full academic potential without providing school health services,” she adds.

NASN recommends a nurse-to-student ratio of one-to-750 for students without chronic illnesses. But 33 states were above that average in 2010, the association found. Vermont had the lowest nurse-to-student ratio at 396 students per nurse at the time, while Michigan had the highest, at 4,411 students per nurse.

To determine how many nurses are needed, administrators should consider the number of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch who may have less access to outside health care, and the number of emergency services calls from the school each year, Duff says.

No federal legislation mandates school nursing, and as of 2005 only 14 states had established student-per-nurse ratios, according to the American Nurses Association. With no nurse on duty, the responsibility for administering medications and treating students falls on administrators, educators and staff who may not have enough training.

In an interview about recent budget cuts, Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite told DA the district was investigating the events leading to the girl’s death. The district meets the state-mandated ratio of one nurse per 1,500 students, so hiring more nurses is not a priority, he says.

The ratio of nurses in Philadelphia schools was 1 to 950 students before the cuts two years ago. And the reduction has led to poorer student health services, according to a May 2013 Education Law Center of Philadelphia survey of school nurses, parents and special education advocates.

Seventy percent of respondents reported that medications and/or treatments were being administered by teachers or aides rather than by nurses, and 52 percent reported that children were not receiving urgent medical care. Another 36 percent said children were not receiving their treatments at prescribed intervals.”

School nurse shortages grow as budgets shrink Alison DeNisco, District Administration, January 2014

Childhood obesity has more than doubled in the past thirty years, so one would expect that a data-driven education reform movement would make purchasing new playground and sports equipment a priority seeking to decrease sit and learn / sit and test time, rather than buying more computers to “deliver” software solutions and administer the new Common Core assessments.

The Race To The Top funding priorities are more about measuring student achievement and teacher quality, rather than providing essential academic and support services to help our neediest students achieve higher standards.

Expecting the implementation of higher standards to improve student outcomes without investing in necessary wrap around services is like raising the recommended amount of exercise for young people while lowering the recommended calorie intake for youth and then expecting these new standards on their own to decrease the rate of childhood obesity.

Ed reformers data-driven and test-centered approaches to school improvement make as much sense as a doctor advising overweight patients to spend their money on a tape measure, scale, and blood pressure machine rather than purchasing sneakers, a bicycle, or membership in a gym.

Education reform programs implemented in classrooms are focused primarily on measuring the manifestations of poverty and treating student “symptoms” such as low achievement or poor attendance, rather than addressing the underlying “illness” of poverty that is impacting students in their homes and communities around the United States. testiop