The last few weeks I’ve been putting together my thoughts on the current educational system to explain, in detail, why I wrote my resignation letter. Since it was a lengthy post, I decided to split it into two posts: Part 1: “A Brief History on NCLB and Common Core.” Part 2: “The Perfect Storm: Common Core, Standardized State Testing, and Teacher Evaluations.”
The Problems with Common Core State Standards (CCSS)
As we unpacked CCSS, we started asking: “What were they thinking?” The skills and competencies don’t line up vertically for each grade level. There are huge gaps in the CCSS in some areas and plenty of overlap in other areas, as an example, I created a chart for the grammar section in Standard 3: Writing and Composition. (CDE Link) (Chart: Content Area standard 3)
Currently, the 9th grade grammar curriculum at my school includes comprehensive instruction on 4-level analysis of sentences. Students learn parts of speech, parts of sentence, phrases, and clauses, and how those 4-levels work together to create the two parts essential to communication: the subject-predicate set. With this information, students are armed with the language and skills necessary to correct sentence fragments, comma splices, and run-ons. Students also understand how to use phrases and dependent clauses correctly to create varied sentences. They learn about colons and semicolons, how to introduce quotations correctly, and the difference between active and passive voice. They learn all of this in 9th grade; in my opinion, there is no other way to teach grammar. CCS Standards don’t mention half of these skills and other skills are distributed across grade levels arbitrarily, since students need certain information like semicolon lessons in order to correct comma splices.
Another example of “What were they thinking?” is the CCSS requirement that teachers of eleventh grade American Literature need to teach a Shakespearean play. Last I checked, Shakespeare wasn’t American.
Honestly, good English teachers will cover all the material necessary for students to communicate effectively; that’s why having this document dictate rigid, yet incomplete standards doesn’t make any sense. Adding to that, the Common Core creators have given us a document that doesn’t align curriculum clearly or logically.
To summarize, the CCSS may be a poorly written document, but it is not evil in and of itself, at least not at the secondary level for writing, reading, and composition.
Common Core State Standards at the Elementary Level
My experiences with CCSS at the elementary level are from a parent’s perspective; my son is in 3rd grade and is struggling with the standards for various reasons (Link). Even though Ian may have unique reasons for his struggles, I know he is not the only child struggling. Here is an example of a 1st grade math test based on CCSS: http://roundtheinkwell.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/the-math-test.pdf
After looking at the above example and countless others popping up all over the internet, I really don’t know what the writers of CCSS were thinking when creating the elementary standards.
Children at the primary levels come from a variety of backgrounds and abilities and develop at different rates. There is no such thing as a homogeneous set of five year olds. Children’s development is wildly unpredictable and varied. “A year’s growth in a year’s time” catch phrase can’t be forced upon children physically; why should anyone think it would apply mentally? We can offer the opportunity for a year’s growth, but not all children will reach the same level at the same time; similarly, some students will exceed those levels. This does not mean there is anything wrong with the students who aren’t there yet or the teachers who teach them. Children will just develop at different rates. The CCSS does not account for those differences in development.
There has to be a better way to help children develop at their individual rates. I have a few ideas (Primary School and Education Reformation Posts), and I know other early childhood schools have great programs that work with children wherever they are developmentally, rather than pushing them to reach a standard before the children are ready to do so. The important thing to note is that children go to school to become the best they can be; they are not there to become a statistic for some government end game, whatever that may be.
In addition to learning the subjects in school, elementary students are also learning about themselves and how to behave and interact in social situations. Before the government mandates, elementary teachers had more time to help students with their social skills–a big part of their early development. In my experiences with my own children (I have a 9 year old, a 20 year old, and a 26 year old) and the students I have taught the past eleven years, I have noticed a huge difference in their social interactions over the years.
As an example, my 9 year old was told not to be a “tattle-tale” when he was in kindergarten by his teacher. So to my son, being a tattle-tale was worse than trying to figure out how to handle a situation by himself. If a child took his crayon, he yelled at that child. When a child spit on my son, he hit the other boy. He got a referral for that–in kindergarten. On the other hand, when my girls were younger, their teachers told them, “Go ask for your crayon back. If he doesn’t give it to you, come tell me.” Children need to trust the adults in their lives to help them understand how to navigate through their childhood. Instead of teaching them how to empower themselves and correcting bad behavior, teachers are too busy trying to teach children standards those children are not ready for.
In conjunction with this, there is an alarming trend in preschool: “More than 8,000 toddlers in the U.S. were suspended from preschool at least once during the 2011 school year” (http://www.politico.com/story/2014/03/civil-rights-education-race-equity-104879.html).
Why are children that young getting suspended? This is the exact age at which children need to learn what is acceptable and what isn’t; these conflicts are teachable moments. If children are acting out, could it be because they are confused by what they are learning or that the teachers are too busy teaching standards and aren’t available to help them maneuver through their social issues?
As teachers, our purpose is not to teach to the standards anymore than the purpose of building a house is to adhere to the building codes. You build a house to live in. We teach students so they become productive members of society.
The real problem with CCSS is what the states are doing with those standards. As far as I know, 43 of the 44 states implementing CCSS are also requiring that students take state standardized tests based on those standards (all of them moving towards PARCC by next year). The third element is that teachers will be evaluated (by different percentages depending on the state) on how well those students do on the tests. As a colleague of mine said, they have created a perfect storm.
Think about what all of this means: Teachers have to teach a curriculum based on a poorly-written document to students who are all developing at different rates; teachers’ jobs and pay will depend on how well those children do on the state tests. Teachers will get frustrated with students who are not keeping up because those students could lower the test results, thereby hurting the teachers’ chances of getting a good evaluation. Teachers must then continue to teach all students, even the ones who are far behind, the new material in order to get it all in; the students who are not caught up get additional homework until they catch up to where the CCSS dictate each child should be. This perfect storm puts teachers in survival mode: They are being forced to think of themselves and their school’s overall performance first, and put the individual children and their needs second. This perfect storm also puts underachieving children in shut-down mode: They are overwhelmed with class work and homework that is beyond their comprehension. They begin to develop a poor self image, which will last the rest of their education if someone doesn’t step in and put a stop to this dysfunctional system.
Add to that, some students are very aware that their performance on these assessments could hurt their teachers. If they like their teachers, it creates added anxiety for those students to perform well; if they don’t like their teachers, they may intentionally do poorly to hurt them. Even if students are not aware of their power over teachers, some may feel their teacher’s anxiety and stress and begin to internalize it. This is a lose-lose situation.
It is important to note that juniors will also have a new battery of tests next year as well, which will conflict with their AP testing schedule in May of 2015. The addition of more tests at the junior level will burn students out and take even more time away from classroom instruction.
The most confusing aspect of this perfect storm is that the state standardized tests are not a creation of CCSS. (For more information on CCSS and state tests go to http://prospect.org/article/pencils-out) The big business of state testing is what is left over from No Child Left Behind’s (NCLB) accountability framework; the “test and punish” accountability paradigm remains in effect even though the CCSS creators and the current administration proclaim these tests as punitive and not a reliable measure of intelligence and effective instruction.
What is becoming more frustrating is the polarization in the political arena about education. What gets lost in these political debates is what actually happens in the classroom between teachers and students. How does this standards-driven, data-collection, test-abuse movement affect our children and teachers? More and more of our children are participating in bullying, self-harm, and/or drug abuse. Children express their pain outwardly or inwardly depending on the personality of the child. They feel frustrated and defeated by the labels these standardized tests put on them and by being pushed through their education whether they understand the material or not. As for teachers, we are caught between doing what is mandated by our legislature (a time-consuming and exhausting process) and protecting our students from the abuses occurring in this educational system.
Most teachers are doing everything possible to reach those lost children; our hearts break for them when they no longer have the ability or desire to engage with any part of their education. I know when I look at my students, I don’t see numbers or data. I am not producing machines in a factory; I am educating human beings who are all different. I want to celebrate their beautiful uniqueness. Instead, what the current educational system is doing is throwing our children into a perfect storm without a paddle.
The answer is The Money. What is the question?
Every year I start my classes with telling my students that I will know they are learning, not when they have the answers, but when they start asking the right questions.
What are the right questions here?
First, who is benefitting from this perfect storm? It is certainly not the teachers or schools. Students are not reaping any benefits whatsoever. Taxpayers are not seeing any benefit from the money being poured into education; that’s why so many people refuse to vote for any increase in taxes to help education.
Who does that leave? State and federal government and publishing companies.
In 2002 during the Bush administration and NCLB, PBS Frontline reported that the top four publishing companies reaping the benefits of that movement were “Harcourt Educational Measurement, CTB McGraw-Hill, Riverside Publishing (a Houghton Mifflin company), and NCS Pearson. According to an October 2001 report in the industry newsletter Educational Marketer, Harcourt, CTB McGraw-Hill, and Riverside Publishing write 96 percent of the exams administered at the state level. NCS Pearson, meanwhile, is the leading scorer of standardized tests” (Frontline).
In 2008, it was reported that the combined state and federal government spending on education totals $600 billion per year.
In 2012, The Wall Street Journal reported that “the Thomas B. Fordham Institute estimates the national cost for compliance with common core will be between $1 billion to $8 billion and the profits will go almost directly to publishers. According to Peter Cohen, CEO of Pearson’s K-12 division, Pearson School, ‘It’s a really big deal. The Common Core standards are affecting literally every part of the business we’re involved in’ ” (Huffington Post).
In addition, “Pearson is busy marketing common core textbooks, common core staff development, and common core student and teacher assessments. Its website brags ‘Pearson’s close association with key authors and architects of the Common Core State Standards ensures that the spirit and pedagogical approach of the initiative is embodied in our professional development’ ” (Huffington Post).
So, the bottom line: Publishers are making a fortune off the original NCLB framework, and our state legislators are continuing to sell out our children to these businesses. Making education about money and power is antithetical to the nurturing that is necessary to educating children. What’s worse, these companies are also producing test preparation guides and CCSS textbooks. The companies benefiting from the destruction of public education are also destroying our children’s futures.
Here’s a few more questions to guide any interested parties:
Why does Pearson currently have the controlling interest in CCSS and the tests created to test teacher effectiveness?
What is the government getting in return for making Pearson rich?
Does the government really have our children’s best interest in mind?
Regardless of what we may be up against, what we have in our favor is choice; we can choose to fight what is happening in public schools.
What we have is a voice: One voice is a drop in the ocean. “Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops.”
What we have are actions; we can protest and boycott these tests.
Choose. Speak. Act.