A recent Gallup poll (August 21) reveals that fewer than 20% of Americans are familiar with the Common Core State Standards currently being implemented in public schools across 45 states. This figure is alarming when one considers that the Common Core State Standards will have the most significant impact of any education policy ever imposed upon such a breadth of students, a policy endorsed by the federal government and extolled by Arne Duncan, the head of the Department of Education.
William Bushaw, co-director of the PDK/Gallup poll, said “The 2013 poll shows deep confusion around the nation’s most significant education policies and poses serious communication challenges for education leaders.” It’s no wonder there’s confusion surrounding the implementation of Common Core. Many “facts” reported on Common Core, even in the latest Gallup results, are often murky or misleading. For example, the Gallup results state, “Of the 38 percent who said they had [heard of the standards], many thought – incorrectly – that the federal government was forcing states to adopt them, the pollsters said.” Though this statement is technically true, the federal government has threatened to withhold much-needed federal funding from those states that do not adopt and implement the standards. There’s a fine line between “forcing” and “coercing.”
Another fact that receives little attention is that Common Core has never been field-tested in a single classroom. It’s hardly a stretch to conclude that Common Core will create guinea pigs of the current generation of students being subjected to learning standards that have far too many flaws and raise serious implications about the direction of public education for the foreseeable future.
If Common Core proves to be yet another disappointment, just as the standards implemented under the No Child Left Behind Act have become, another generation of students will have been failed once again. The years a student spends in public school cannot be recaptured; if policy fails, a child’s future is forever impacted. The potential risks are far too great for so many Americans to remain unaware. As a result, I am reposting a blog I wrote several months ago about Common Core and the lessons unlearned about this latest form of standards-based instruction. It is a long, but necessary, read.
Many years ago, when I first heard that the National Governor’s Association was collaborating on a set of common curriculum standards for all states, I thought it was pretty good idea. At the time, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) was in effect. Included in the federal government's NCLB Act was the mandate that states draft their own set of curriculum standards in English and math, as well as determine a means for assessing students’ knowledge of the standards via a test, with 100% proficiency by 2014.
From the publishing perspective, NCLB drastically changed how product was developed, especially for test prep. Gone was the one-size-fits-all practice test as more specific test-prep materials had to be created for individual states since standards varied so widely among them. Not all states; only those clamoring for such product, such as New Jersey, Florida, North Carolina, among several others.
Having spent years developing these test prep materials, I was often astounded at the disparity among the required standards created by individual states. A student in West Virginia, for example, was being tested on a completely different set of standards than one in Massachusetts. Some standards lacked an astonishing amount of depth while others seemed like overkill. So, the idea of a common set standards as a means toward an equitable education for all appealed to me. But that was years ago, before the full impact of NCLB came to light.
Standards-based curriculum and testing initiated by NCLB are taking over the sum and total of a child's educational experience, and test results are used to determine everything from teachers’ salaries, school closings, and the availability of federal dollars. Worse, they’re used to judge the whole of a student's educational experience and level of ability, as well as the ability of the teacher to instruct. No test can accurately assess these things, but that is the fallout of NCLB and the result of the government imposing mandatory state standards, the flawed notion that a test somehow can.
The best use of a standardized test always has been and always will be to establish a benchmark of a student’s mastery of certain skills. But test results must also be used in conjunction with other objective measures that can only be introduced to students, observed, and assessed by a teacher. But this is not how the outcomes of state tests are applied; outcomes of state tests have high-stakes political consquences. And teachers are no longer part of the larger equation when it comes to determining a student’s breadth of knowledge because:
a. so much depends on the overall scores of their students, and
b. there’s virtually no time in the school day to address other skills of equal or more value than those laid forth in state standards.
In some states, a teacher’s job and/or salary are impacted based solely on the test results of their students, the presumption being that student performance translates into an equal measure of teacher performance. But test out comes do not take into account such factors as students who are English language learners, students with learning challenges, or students who are experiencing cultural or social issues at home that impact their learning. And what about the teacher who is more adept than another at meeting the unique needs of challenged students and is assigned more of them than other teachers? This teacher’s reward could be a pink slip or watching teachers with fewer classroom challenges attain higher salaries and accolades for their perceived higher level of performance. There are too many variables within a single classroom and with each individual student for a test alone to determine with any measure of validity a student's acquired knowledge and skills, never mind how well a teacher is providing instruction. Yet so much depends on these results.
And now, here come the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).
Forty-six states have adopted CCSS. These standards, heartily endorsed by the Department of Education (DOE), have been prepared by private companies and dictate the knowledge and skills that each child across the nation should acquire in grades K-12. (K-12 standards are for language arts and math; 6-12 standards will have the addition of science and technical subjects, history, and writing.) A student test is in the works that will, like state tests, be used to measure acquired skills.
The adoption of CCSS by the majority of states hasn’t occurred because education officials have seen data that support the success of these standards in classrooms (there is no such data), nor is it that these states necessarily embrace the core pedagogy of the standards. The main reason CCSS have been adopted by the majority of states is because Arne Duncan, head of the Department of Education (a political appointee who, by the way, has never earned a degree in or studied education) has tied adoption of the standards to billions of dollars in Race to the Top funds, the withholding of Title 1 grants (something 90% of schools currently receive) and waivers from meeting the "100% proficiency by 2014" mandate of NCLB.
Supporters of CCSS often claim that many states intentionally “dumbed down” their standards to achieve the mandatory proficiency levels, and that this is one of the main reasons CCSS are needed. But one has to ask this key question: If state standards were so dumbed down, then why is it that 26 states have requested and been granted waivers from the proficiency standard? These waivers are handed out by directly by the DOE (some say illegally so because such a waiver bypasses the legislative process to alter NCLB). If tests were truly dumbed down, then half of American students won't meet the proficiency mandate even while being exposed to minimal standards. What does that say about standards-based instruction? And whether or not the standards were too easy or too challenging, how is the adoption of CCSS going to change anything if the current form of standards-based is so flawed?
Don’t get me wrong; standards in and of themselves are not a bad idea. Every curriculum needs a framework. The problem with mandatory standards is that they are increasingly used to measure things that they cannot, and the consequences of alleged failure are at best extreme, and at worst prohibitive to valuable learning experiences.
There are several compelling arguments that CCSS violate provisions that prohibit the federal government from drafting a national curriculum; this is the power of the states. Critics often cite this excerpt from the Department of Education Organization Act, which created the DOE in 1979: No provision of a program administered by the Secretary or by any other officer of the Department shall be construed to authorize the Secretary or any such officer to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution school, or school system, over any accrediting agency or association, or over the selection or content of library resources, textbooks, and other instructional materials.
But since CCSS are here, the debate over whether they are even legal isn’t going to change anything in the short run. By 2014, the performance of students across at least 45 states will be judged by how well they have mastered the skills required by CCSS.
According to the late Gerald Bracey, who conducted extensive research and authored numerous books about the misuse of data on education among policymakers, politicians, and the media, a measure of some of the most valuable achievements that test results cannot capture include: creativity, critical thinking, resilience, motivation, persistence, curiosity, endurance, reliability, enthusiasm, self-discipline, leadership, resourcefulness, and a sense of wonder.
Alfe Kohn, described in Time magazine as “perhaps the country's most outspoken critic of education's fixation on grades [and] test scores” provides a more startling conclusion based on his years of investigation: “Studies of students of different ages have found a statistical association between students with high scores on standardized tests and relatively shallow thinking....”
In spite of all the data that question the value of using standards-based instruction and standardized testing to measure attainable skills, the DOE has endorsed CCSS, and yet there are serious issues with these common standards that few are talking about. For example:
1. One critical problem for publishers is that the authors of the CCSS have provided little guidance as to how to interpret the precise intent of the standards. Few, in any, examples of how the standards are to be deciphered, never mind how they are to be applied, are found in the CCSS documents, including the publisher’s criteria that the authors have recently released. Some of the standards are so ambiguous that their targeted goal cannot be easily gleaned. But a clear understanding is crucial for publishers to accurately incorporate the standards into their materials so that students are truly practicing the skills they are expected to master.
Recently, I sat in on a meeting with several math writers for a series of math books I consulted on. The authors were to integrate CCSS math standards into a new series of supplemental texts. During just one brief meeting, there were at least a dozen examples where the opinions of the writers—all math educators with years of experience and impressive credentials—varied as to how to translate the wording of the standards, meaning there was no consensus as to what kind of math instruction needed to be developed to address them. Such dissent continued as product development went on, often with authors deciding to adopt the majority opinion; in essence, they had to make the best guess as to what the standard truly implied. Who knows how many times they got it right, or how many times they got it wrong. And now, as publishers begin to market materials that address CCSS, how can anyone be sure that each publisher is approaching the standards in the manner in which they were intended? How can anyone be sure that students are learning the standards that they will be tested on, a test that will not be prepared by the publisher or the teacher, but by another private company, one that did not even develop the standards? And if no one is sure that students are learning the standards as intended, how can anyone be sure what the test results actually reveal?
2. The development of CCSS was paid for by the Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation also paid to have the standards evaluated, an evaluation that, for no comprehensible reason, never consisted of a single field test in a single classroom. How can the standards possibly be evaluated when they haven’t been tried out in the manner in which they will be implemented? The Gates Foundation never sought to solicit feedback from educators about the validity, intention, and strength of the standards through any sort of classroom trials. Yet, 46 states have adopted CCSS, essentially with a gun to their head, standards that will have great national impact on our students' education and no one knows how they will work nor seems to care.
To put it another way: Forty-five states are set to implement a set of standards that have been untested with regard to their value, yet CCSS supporters and the DOE find nothing hypocritical about the fact that these untested standards will be used to judge the performance of our schools, our teachers, our children, as well as dictate the majority of our children’s educational experience.
3. One of the evaluators of CCSS was the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The Institute received large grants from the Gates Foundation for their evaluations and, not surprisingly, enthusiastically supports them. The Institute estimates the cost of implementing the standards to be between $1 billion and $8.3 billion. (Is that an “estimate” or a “guesstimate”? Could a student provide an answer that broad to a CCSS test question about estimating and still be judged to have answered correctly? Not likely.) The Pioneer Institute, however, reports that that the cost of implementation would be at least $16 billion, cautioning that this figure might be just a “mid-range” estimate.
4. The Gates Foundation is also underwriting Pearson Publishing to create online materials for teachers to implement the standards. For a profit, of course (but you won’t find that information in the press release). Such an alliance with a single publisher should raise more than an eyebrow or two. Pearson will have an advantage over other publishers to make marketing claims about their products that others cannot, while at the same time using grants to create their products, a financial advantage other publishers will not have. Why should a sole publisher be allowed to have a monopoly on access to the developer and, more importantly, to the accurate interpretation of the standards, as well as the developer’s funding?
The most distressing impact of the CCSS seems clear: The reinforcement of the ever-encroaching testing mentality, that it will become so entrenched within our culture that there will be no turning back. As previously mentioned, when NCLB was implemented in 2001, states were forced to construct their own standards, much like the CCSS, and develop a test to measure how well students were achieving based on those standards. As a result, many teachers have become stifled in their own classrooms, having to dedicate the majority of classroom time to teaching state standards to prepare students for spring testing. This is why so many districts have had to eliminate such classes as art, music, and physical education—to meet the time requirements necessary to address the state's standards-based curriculum. And with school, teacher, and student performance increasingly being determined solely on test scores, teachers are indirectly incentivized to do what they would rather not—teach to the test.
This is what has occurred across 50 states since NCLB—the beginning of the federal government’s interference with curriculum, a nurturing of the testing culture, and a movement away from any form of personalized, learner-centered instruction where students become active participants in their own learning and discovery. Instead, learning is becoming an increasingly passive experience with teachers reduced to factory workers on an assembly line, filling up students with the required information and sending them down the conveyor belt on to the next classroom. And now with CCSS, learning experiences that are the hallmark of a relevant, well-rounded education may soon cease to exist. And we’re taking that risk as a nation with standards that have seen not a single field test! But that’s not all. With CCSS, it won’t be just cities and towns within a given state competing for the best test scores, it will be states pitted against other states. The stakes will be even higher.
CCSS isn’t the answer to the achievement gaps, whether those that exist from state to state or between the US and other countries because no clear data exists to show why these gaps are so broad. Why is it that the “experts” in this country always seek a one-size-fits all solution to “fixing” public education when such attempts have always failed? Phonics-based only instruction for reading? Failed. Whole language approach to curriculum? Failed. Standards-based instruction? A minimum of 26 states are currently failing. These failures aren’t because each of these approaches is invalid; quite the contrary. The reason for these failures is quite simple—children learn differently; multiple approaches are needed in every classroom and every teacher knows this and has known this since the inception of public education. Yet this is never taken into account when initiating reforms. There’s no reason to expect that CCSS will be anything but the latest band-aid on a very narrow view of what’s wrong with public education.
No one person has the answers as to how to better serve our students, but there is one crucial question we should demand that the DOE and other supporters of CCSS answer before attempting to solve a problem with more of the same: Assuming there does exist a sincere drive to discover the components and measures of a valid education, why is that educators, teachers, students, and parents are rarely included in the process? Why instead is that power entrusted to politicians and political appointees who have chosen to implement radical changes that currently have no valid measure of their worth?