Despite the way the Common Core was foisted on schools and despite the cast of characters who underwrote the initiative, it is hard to argue against the proposition that all States in the union should agree on a set of standards students should meet during their formal education…. and given the ongoing “political dispute” regarding evolution and climate change it is surprising that 45 states adopted these standards! Diane Ravitch’s recent post noted the broad support for the common core by publishing s joint statement by the American Association of School Administrators, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the National School Boards Association, and the National Association of Secondary School Principals. These groups joined the NEA and UFT in supporting the Common Core because, well, how could you NOT support the principles behind the common core?
Where things break down is in assessing students with regard to these standards. Are the standards developmentally appropriate? That is, are we expecting too much too soon in some content areas? What is the purpose of the assessments? Is it to measure student performance? School performance? Teacher performance? Do we know that the assessments are valid and reliable? Are we going to assess subjects that are not part of the common core? How are we going to assess the “softer” standards, like the ability to work on a team or interact appropriately in a group? And most importantly, as the joint statement indicates, WHEN are we going to begin assessing the common core and using the results of the assessments to gauge student, teacher, and school performance?
John Merrow’s recent blog post, “An Open Letter to Common Core Architects” probes the question of testing soft skills. He describes an interdisciplinary expeditionary learning project at King Middle School in Portland Maine and comes to a disturbing conclusion:
I know the Common Core lists “Speaking and Listening” as one of its four English Language Arts priorities for grades 6-12, and that is broken down to include “comprehension and collaboration” and “presentation of knowledge and ideas.” That is, (the architects of the Common Core) are using all the right words and saying all the right things. That’s a step, or two, in the right direction.
However, so far I have not seen anything that convinces me that our system is anywhere near ready to test for the skills and capabilities that we witnessed those 8th graders acquire at King Middle School.
If past is prologue, things that aren’t being tested won’t end up being taught. It’s not just kids who ask, “Is this going to be on the test?” These days, when test scores determine which adults get fired, they’re probably the first ones to ask, “Is this going to be on the test?”
If it’s not tested, then say goodbye to that King School program and others like it.
In short, in assessing the Common Core, Merrow foresees a narrowing of instruction to those things that are easy to test and the elimination of project based instruction… and he is not alone in making that forecast.
The common core conundrum is the tension between standardization and individualization which is best exemplified by the tension between offering AP courses or offering rigorous advanced courses designed by the teacher. At two leading high schools in districts I led in NH the faculty bridled at offering AP courses, reasoning that their courses were as rigorous, more creative, and more comprehensive than the prescriptive AP offerings. Many of the teachers opposed AP because the framework implicitly required a stand-and-deliver survey approach as opposed to an in depth project-based approach. That said, if their job depended on having students take and pass an AP test, the teachers would follow the AP framework… but their enthusiasm would be diminished, their professionalism and experience would be undercut, and, in all likelihood, their students enthusiasm for the classwork would ebb as well. Oh… and those capabilities that can’t be readily tested using a computer or pencil and paper? They, too, would go by the boards.
Standardized tests cannot measure the depth of learning or the art of teaching. Those can only be assessed by human beings interacting with each other.
Earlier this week Diane Ravitch’s column linked to an Atlantic article by Greg Anrig that described the success Cincinnati public schools is experiencing, a success story that runs counter to the narrative of the “reformers” in virtually every respect. For example:
- Cincinnati schools are led by a veteran insider: Instead of hiring a flashy McKinsey style business-style CEO Cincinnati promoted a veteran administrator with a proven track record.
- Cincinnati audited its instructional practices before imposing changes: Instead of using an algorithm designed to increase test scores, Cincinnati examined its low performing schools to see if they were doing what they said they were doing.Here’s what they found when they held up the mirror:
What the auditors found was that a wide variety of instructional approaches (Montessori, Success for All, Direct Instruction, etc.) were not being followed as designed in classrooms. They also saw that many of the schools taught English for less than 45 minutes a day, that teachers were partial to whole-group instruction instead of breaking the class into smaller groups, and that testing data was not being used for any practical purpose.
- Cincinnati developed capacity within its existing staff: Instead of bringing in a cadre of TFA “experts”, Cincinnati identified a team of teacher leaders within their ranks, trained them, and used their expertise and internal credibility to address the deficiencies identified in their own internal audit.
- Cincinnati uses tests for diagnostic- not punitive- purposes: Instead of using tests to identify failing schools or to rate teachers, Cincinnati used tests to diagnose where students were struggling and to develop intervention strategies.
- Cincinnati valued the arts: Instead of using ARRA money to hire teachers, buy computers, or impose some canned remedial curriculum, Cincinnati used the funds for “… a “fifth quarter,” which extended the school year by a month, providing additional time for enrichment programs like art and music classes.”
- Cincinnati collaborated: Instead of accepting full responsibility for the children’s deficiencies, Cincinnati formed an alliance with community agencies, one that matches the kinds of interagency collaboratives described in the essay I wrote a decade ago for Education Week.
Could Cincinnati’s success be replicated? Anrig has some ideas on how it could be done:
“… It is vital to build trust between school administrators and teachers unions… Also required are effective approaches for developing coherent instructional systems with active teacher input; close attentiveness to testing data to identify problems students are having so they can be provided with extra support; and strong connections between the schools, parents, and community groups…”
In the conclusion, Anrig writes:
The first steps toward emulating that success, however, will require walking back from the animosity toward teachers unions and coercive sanctions that have derailed public education policy in the United States.
Unfortunately the current leadership at the USDOE appears intent on continuing the “coercive sanction” model in favor of the “cooperative support” model. Let’s hope that some urban leaders will look to Cincinnati for an example of how to turnaround schools/
One of my favorite quotes is Jeff Greenfield who stated he didn’t believe in conspiracy theory because incompetence explained so much more… But of late much has been written on many blogs describing how the for-profit education establishments have links to mass media (e.g. Washington Posts link to Kaplan) and, as a result, the mass media unquestioningly echo whatever messages the for-profit crowd wants to have broadcast. This past week provided an excellent example of this phenomenon. Last Wednesday, NBC broadcast a heartwarming story about a Principal in Massachusetts who took over a “failing school” that was a “career killer” for Principals and “transformed” it by firing security guards and replacing them with arts teachers. It was hopeful for those of us who think schools have gone overboard on security and underemphasized the arts… but… as Diane Ravitch quickly discovered… it wasn’t entirely true. Her MA reader/bloggers reported the rest of the story: “…the principal fired most of the teachers and the enrollment of the school changed, raising its socioeconomic profile.” And the blogger/readers all thought the reconstitution of the student population had a lot more to do with the increase in test scores than the firing of teachers or security guards.
Another of Diane Ravitch’s blog posts, which was picked up by Naked Capitalism, describes how corporations buy advertising time describing “failing schools” and touting “reforms” like the common core, new tests, etc. And she also blogged about an NYTimes article that described how for-profit education “reformers” are underwriting housing for Teach For America teachers whose track record indicates that they are not settling in the communities where they teach. She asserts, and I concur, that if the private sector wanted to help urban teachers they would provide newly hired public school employees with the same benefit.
Greenfield’s quotation sheds some light on the situation. Conspiracies are difficult to concoct and mass media, while not incompetent, ARE strapped for time and money. As a result, employees who need to produce content 24/7 are inclined to take press releases, lightly edit them, and publish them without putting them in context… or probing too deeply into the links between their employer and the author of the story… not because they are getting kickbacks from for-profit educational entrepreneurs but because they are facing deadlines. This is sloppy journalism, but it is inexpensive… and with a huge push for content that will pass muster with advertisers, publishing heartwarming stories about daring principals who transform schools is a surefire way to lift the spirits of viewers and readers. Plus, it reinforces story lines that are in the public’s narrative about schools:
- Students can succeed if only they had extraordinary teachers every year
- A good principal with imagination and vigor can transform a bad school
- For-profit schools that pay based on performance will fix schools for less money than traditional schools who pay based on seniority
- Anything run by the government, like the public school monopoly, will cost more and be less efficient than anything run by the private sector
Readers can fill in their own tired narrative about “failing public schools” but if a reporter tries to change the story line they will run into difficulty. Try to tell someone that if MA, MN and CT were sovereign nations their international test scores would match any country in the world and you’ll get pushback… even if you provide the person with a link to studies that demonstrate this reality. It doesn’t square with their understanding that US schools are all failing. Changing the narrative is going to be tough, but I believe that truth will prevail in the end… I just hope it happens soon.