Is Education ‘Reform’ Wrecking The Common Core?

Jeff Bryant

The latest news stories from the brave frontiers of a movement known as “education reform” are in, and the consensus view is that down continues to be the new up.

Personnel programs such as teacher merit pay that were supposed to improve the financial efficiency of schools are now being discarded for financial reasons. New competitive forms of schooling such as cyber charters that were supposed to reform the system through competition are now in need of “top-bottom reform.” Teachers who are held more accountable for children’s motivation to pursue education are discouraged to seek more education for themselves. Schools that are supposed to rescue children from poverty are bearing the brunt of deep cuts in spending.

Amidst this colossally dysfunctional scenario descends the new national standards known as the Common Core, what many believe constitutes education reform 2.0. Is it any wonder people are skeptical?

Whether you’re a big fan of the new standards or not, it should be clear that the old way of doing “education reform” will not work for the Common Core. Yet that seems to be the strategy rolling out, and no one seems to be coming forward to propose a better way forward.

Common Core Not  For Kids?

By all indicators, teachers are generally favorable to the new standards. But like its predecessor No Child Left Behind, the Common Core is proving to have many unanticipated consequences.

Who would have thought, for instance, that adopting new academic standards would necessitate kindergartners barely able to hold pencils being made to take bubble-in tests?

In states, such as New York, that are on the advanced guard of implementing the new standards and their accompanying tests, multiple choice tests are being pushed down to the youngest students, not because they’re good for the kids, but because they’re required to evaluate whether teachers are teaching according to the new standards.

Based on the report linked above in The Daily News, the exams are a “complete headache” for teachers, making the very act of testing “slow and traumatic.”

“Trying to get a proper answer was next to impossible,” the reporter observed, and teachers complained that the process caused their little pupils to “break down” and “cry.”

“‘Developmentally, it’s not the right thing to do,’ said one Queens teacher.”

New York is not alone in encountering unanticipated problems related to the new reforms. According to a report in The Washington Post, 14 states that have agreed to field-test the new exams linked to the Common Core are realizing that implementing the exams requires teaching little kids, from kindergarten up, to learn how to use a computer.

The standardized tests “require students to be able to manipulate a mouse; click, drag and type answers on a keyboard; and, starting in third grade, write online.” And while most elementary-age children are no strangers to technology, what they’re used to is operating those devices with “a swipe of a finger” rather than using them to compose a well-structured paragraph.

“It’s a huge deal,” said a California teacher who writes a popular blog called Ask A Tech Teacher. “All these elementary teachers are dying, worrying how they’re going to get their kids to meet these new requirements.”

The need to get little kids “to sit with two feet on the floor, elbows bent, hands hovering over keys and eyes on the screen” caused at least one Arizona teacher – like her colleague in New York struggling with paper-and-pencil tests – to wonder “whether developmentally, if it’s appropriate for kids.” A professor of educational psychology quoted in the article clarified: It’s not.

“The current Common Core is not developmentally appropriate,” she stated.

Setting Struggling Schools Further Behind?

Getting little kids up to expectations for implementing the Common Core seems difficult enough – now imagine what it’s like when they also don’t speak English.

That’s the situation for teachers in the lower Hudson Valley area of New York who have already seen how their predominantly Spanish-speaking students performed on the first go-round of new standards-based tests.

“We have children come to us in seventh, eighth, ninth grade with no English skills and little education,” explained the head of the local teachers’ association. Nevertheless, these children were supposed to meet the same assessment targets as their English speaking peers elsewhere in the state.

The test results weren’t pretty: over 80 percent of seventh- and eighth-graders failing in math, and 85 to as many as 92 percent of fourth- and fifth-graders missing state goals for English language arts.

Noted the reporter, “These districts are used to relatively low test results, as many students from poor, Spanish-speaking homes don’t develop rich language skills before reaching school age. But the new tests results have set them back further.”

Adaptations To Children Not Allowed?

Traditionally, when teachers encounter students who lack the readiness to tackle new academic work – whether for developmental, linguistic, or personal interest reasons – they’ve been trained to devise their own strategies for engaging the students in learning.

Implementing the Common Core may leave little room for this according to an Iowa teacher, Amy Prime, whose blog post about implementing the Common Core in her class went viral on the Internet. In her experience with the new standards, teachers are being given “new materials packaged and sold as magic bullets to cover everything Common Core” and told to “cover” those materials “without deviation.”

“I was trained as a teacher in the ’90s ” Prime explained. “We were taught to discover what our students were interested in and then create cross-curricular units of study that would build upon those interests to instigate learning.”

Elaborating in an interview with a local reporter, Prime expanded, “The problem is when districts chose to bring in [a] program that is purchased and marketed as covering the Common Core; then they insist upon teachers following that without deviation and fidelity.”

Further, Prime continued, “When you are required to spend 90 minutes to two hours a day on a specific program that [school officials] purchased … it shuts out other things. A huge majority of our day has to be focused on teaching reading and math. But what does that do for science, what does that do for physical education, what does that do for the arts, what does that do for social studies and history and all of those things that are important to a well-rounded education? It just narrows the focus down, and it hurts kids.”

Your Opinion Doesn’t Matter?

Even the biggest fan of the Common Core would have to admit, “Houston, we have a problem.”

But the old ways of doing reform – NCLB’s command-control driven administration, demanding compliance or else – seem to apply with the implementation of the Common Core.

Dismissing teachers’ concerns about the inappropriateness of using bubble tests with kindergarteners, a New York department of education official responded that the new tests were just examples of “multiple tools” that every teacher “should” want to employ in order to “diagnose what students already know and what they need help with.”

“I can tell when a student needs help,” replied a Staten Island veteran. “I don’t have to give them a test.” But who believes her opinion will be heard?

Some teachers who are struggling to get their students’ keyboarding skills up to the proficiency required for Common Core testing may get a reprieve and use pencil-and-paper versions for the first year, depending on which type of test their state has chosen. But is a reprieve just a delay in implementing a potentially mistaken policy?

Teachers in New York who are seeing their progress set back because the new tests are not accommodating to the needs of students struggling with English got a visit from State Education Commissioner John King. The teachers explained, “They are trying to embrace the new Common Core learning standards despite a lack of money and the challenges posed by a student body with a wide range of English skills.”

According to the reporter, King “had no easy answers on how to address the test-score gap.” And he took the opportunity to opine, “We have to do a lot better as a state – and as a country – to help English-language learners acquire English skills.” To which one would imagine any thoughtful teacher replying, “Of course. But that’s not the point.”

Responding to teacher Amy Prime, who felt coerced to use Common Core aligned curriculum that narrowed the learning experiences of her students,her state’s Elementary Educational Services Director expressed no doubt that what his office is imposing “is working.” His proof?

“It’s making a difference in the performance of students,” which really means, “Test scores are up.” In other words, rather than taking into account authentic classroom experiences and the voices of teachers, test scores – the criteria that has ruled since the imposition of NCLB – remain the order of the day.

A Revolt In The Offing?

Will teachers and parents who witnessed the collapse of NCLB and education reform 1.0 get steamrolled by the same sort of mistaken top-down, test-driven process again?

“No way,” declared a mass audience gathered recently in upstate New York.

Writing for a Buffalo, NY newspaper, a reporter observed, “Reform of high-stakes testing for schoolchildren, a groundswell movement of lawn signs and small-scale protests, became an earthquake Wednesday evening.”

The event drew an audience large enough to reach the rafters of a local music performance hall but also included a host of political leaders that “looked like a Western New York State Legislature roll call.” The speeches tapped disgruntled teachers and parents who take issue with the reform agenda of high-stakes testing and teacher evaluations linked to student test scores.

“We’ve had a lot of quote-unquote educational reform in the past decades aimed at poor schools in the cities,” declared one state assemblyman, “But now all schools are feeling the pain, regardless of their previous performance. This is why you see a lot of suburban parents here tonight. They’re all being treated poorly. They’re mad about these tests.”

Echoing the discontent up-state from them, New Yorkers clogged a Poughkeepsie PTA-sponsored forum – originally intended to be the first in a series – to express their dissent to State Commissioner King about how the Common Core is being rolled out in their schools.

A video captured the event, as speaker after speaker rose to declare that the current agenda for education reform must “stop, stop, stop,” that the implementation of new standards and tests is being rushed, and that an imposed one-size-fits-all education program herds students into data points and percentages rather than engaging them as learners with individual and unique needs.

“These citizens are raising concerns which, prior to this event, have not been given a chance to be aired,” noted Education Week blogger Anthony Cody, “The frustration at their lack of input is palpable.”

Award-winning Long Island principal Carol Burris, writing at Valerie Strauss’ blog at The Washington Post, described the frustration: “By the last half hour of the evening, the audience was both boisterous and impassioned, angered because there was limited opportunity to speak. What little time remained for the audience was twice interrupted by Commissioner John King, who had held the floor for an hour and a half.”

“‘My will be done’ has been the tone and the tenor of chaotic reform in New York,” Burris continued. “In its rush to implement teacher evaluations, the Common Core and new testing, the state leadership has likened it to building a plane in the air. Cut scores anchored to ridiculously high performance on the SAT caused proficiency scores to plummet. Students, often in tears, rushed to finish tests that were too difficult and too long. The Common Core Algebra modules are still not finished, even though teachers must teach the course to students now.”

King’s response to the outpouring from parents and teachers was to cancel the rest of the series of hearings. His rationale, quoted in a local news article, “The disruptions caused by the ‘special interests’ have deprived parents of the opportunity to listen, ask questions, and offer comments.”

Marginalizing Dissent Is Not The Answer

Regarding teachers and parents, and their students and children, as “special interests” to be marginalized or ignored seems less than a workable plan for the Common Core’s success.

The real “special interests” who appear to be running the Common Core show are, in fact, not at all invisible to teachers and parents witnessing the battle over the Core’s roll out. Writing for Politico, Stephanie Simon and Nirvi Shah recently revealed, “Tens of millions of dollars are pouring into the battle over the Common Core.”

“Think tanks and advocacy groups” cited in the article, not teachers and parents, are using their money to engineer the debate, while all us little people need to figure out how we can “earn our place at the table,” at least according to a prominent operative from one of the very think tanks pushing the reform agenda.

If you’re a fan of the Common Core, these are not the people you want to see running the show: public officials and policy makers who refuse to embrace input from teachers and parents, pundits and philanthropists who continue to treat education as their pet cause, and businesses and entrepreneurs who are only in it for the money.

They had their shot running previous versions of “reform,” and they blew it.

We don’t need that kind of “reform” again. Instead, heed the voices from classrooms and communities – critics and all. Then, and only then, does any sort of positive way forward have a chance to succeed.

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