Common Core’s PR Problem

Common Core and bad public relations

I’m intrigued and disappointed at the quality of discourse surrounding the adoption of the Common Core State Standards.  Regular readers of educational news are witnessing the growing unhappiness among parents who are finding a voice in opposition to the CCSS.  So many of the complaints center on the massive amount of testing that implementing the Standards involve, parents are beginning to actively oppose more testing and less teaching, and legislators are starting to listen.  This exemplifies the public relations failures that put Common Core proponents, like me, into a strange corner.

Common Core does not require tests

Why? Adoption of the Common Core standards simply does not require massive testing in two subjects from grade 3-11, but has been portrayed as a necessary package.  The over-testing issues have, however, become so closely identified with the CCSS that folks are generally lumping them together and wanting to reject the entire package.

NCLB  was useless to compare states

Core standards have always made sense to me.  A great weakness of NCLB reforms was the utter lack of any comparable standards among the 50 states, making valid comparisons of student achievement from state to state virtually impossible.  Some expert groups, from the start, attempted to equate state standards so as to rank the states for public comparisons.  Groups also examined the quality of the 50 individual state NCLB tests, and attempted to rank state performance taking into account the difficulty of state tests.  Several years ago when I was paying keen attention to these comparisons, I saw that my state, New York, had 211 failing schools (I’m approximating here because I don’t have ready access to the actual data), while Texas had only a handful.  But based on the expert evaluations of standards and test difficulty, if students in the New York schools had taken the Texas version of NCLB exams, the number of failing schools would drop to about 17.  Massachusetts, on the other hand, has been consistently ranked as having high standards and high student performance, and it would have been in the top 5 scoring nations had it been a country taking TIMSS or PISA tests.

So, making valid comparisons between states made no sense at all.  The wise decision by the Council of Chief State School Officers to push for creation of common standards that would be adopted by all the states would, for the first time, make possible a real evaluation of the quality of education across the nation.  Lets be very frank about this: Some state educational standards are objectively abysmal and do a disservice to their students and to the nation, despite parents and families who always rate their own schools as good and other schools as failing.  We have, and have alway had, terrible inequality among state education systems that has been effectively and intentionally shoved under the rug.

Real flaws exist in the CCSS

The Common Core Standards have lots of flaws that are not getting worked out particularly well during this period of implementation.  I agree with many critics who identify several of the standards as developmentally inappropriate for young children.  Reading experts, in particular, have been consistently critical of the approach the CCSS take in early grades.  Mathematical abstractions appear to many experts too challenging for some of the grade levels at which they are introduced.  Few teachers were actually involved in the development of the CCSS.  It appears, in fact, that few K-12 educational content experts were actually involved.  And implementation has been pushed out before adequate curricula and teacher training on that curricula was available.  But what makes this troubling to the public, I believe, is the massive testing that accompanies the implementation.

The testing has two problems.  First, the intellectual content of the new tests, if they follow the stated intent of the CCSS, is surprisingly more difficult that what almost all state have been using in the past.  The Common Core Standards generally are higher and expect a higher level of cognitive functioning than in the past.  Test exemplars of the higher level questions are illustrative of these higher challenges, and I would bet my pension that if the US Congress were given the full range of new 9th grade math tests from either of the large testing consortia, the politicians would make sure their test results remained confidential.  Most adults, me included, could not pass current high school math graduation exams in Geometry and Algebra 2 even before the Common Core.  And when parents see the results of the new tests, instead of being helped to understand that the transition to higher standards will take several years while children and teachers work up through grade levels to prepare for the increased cognitive load, they get reports about how their children are underperforming.  They haven’t heard this before, and they are rightly confused.  The result—opposition to something they don’t understand.

Tests becoming a political football and profit stream

The second big problem, and to me the greater problem, is the political uses to which the test results are being made.  Those who want to demonstrate the failure of public education see these test results as a wonderful way to strike fear into everyone so that they can profit by ‘reforms.’  Privatize the schools—send kids to for-profit charter schools (which have so far too often been exempt from NCLB testing and who have greater filters available to counsel the low performing students back into public schools and masquerade their inability to do better than the public schools in the same neighborhoods.)  Attack teachers as failing, because to do otherwise would mean they have to recognize that poverty in a community and in a school is a very strong predictor of student success, and a more significant issue than the teacher in the classroom.  Buy more technology, thinking that an electronic teacher can be the solution to weak teachers.  All these are chimeras of educational reform.

Misused testing narrows curriculum for students

The effect of this testing mania is magnified by the use of the tests to evaluate teachers and sanction those who are deemed to be underperforming.  I have written before about the problems with grading teachers according to student test results when the tests themselves are not designed for that purpose, when the statistical models fail to account for prior levels of student achievement, and when the results cannot account for the socioeconomic characteristics of either the student or community.  Independent researchers are pretty consistent about these shortcomings.  And with teachers having no control of how the tests are being used, they end up attempting to teach what they think will be on the test.  School districts, to avoid public embarassment, are forced into survival mode, which results in a narrowed curriculum focusing on tested subjects to the detriment art, music, social studies, science, drama, debate, career education, and other ‘soft’ subjects that make us better human beings.  Teachers are becoming robotic in their attention to tested subjects and students who are identified as low performers get less and less of anything but remediation in ELA and math— which under the Common Core may be developmentally too hard for them in the first place.

Growing opposition to the Common Core from schools and communities

This is a circular problem pushed on schools by some well-meaning reformers and by other opportunistic profiteers who wouldn’t know a great teacher if they were sitting in his or her class.  So teachers hate the Common Core because of the testing.  Parents oppose the Common Core because they see the chaos and hurt that frequent,  harder tests are imposing on their previously happy children.  States don’t have the money or the resources for curriculum development and the purchase of new instructional materials and teacher training at every grade level.  Legislators oppose the Common Core because of it’s cost and fear of local control of education.  The CCSS is being sold as a package with billions of dollars of costly testing touted as necessary to measure the effectiveness of teachers, and when parents and teachers start pushing back, the legislators start to balk.

My New York example of state pushback is a new editorial from the Albany Times Record, where columnist Fred LeBrun has long been a critic of the NY State Education Department.  His editorial End chaos of state Common Core standards in schools illustrates the blending of issues around Common Core and testing, and you can read of legislative responses to voter dismay over the rapid push to implement CCSS and it’s unintended consequences.

Common Core should be aspirational goals

Were the Common Core Standards portrayed as aspirational goals toward which American would work for the next several years, with a focus on building new curricula and retraining the nation’s teaching force, and were schools given the opportunity to pilot changes and determine whether the Standards made sense at each grade level, with the opportunity for the teaching profession to be fully engaged with a thoughtful, measured roll-out over time, and with the expectation that results of pilots could lead to modification of the Standards, the hysteria may never have begun.  The Standards movement has been derailed by policy makers and noneducator politicians who are moving too fast, and this is killing an otherwise long-overdue modernization of American education.

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