The Problem with Choice

I know too many people who are not educators (and some who are) that are in favor of the choice movement in education. The biggest reason people want choice is to improve the education for their own children and then create competition so that other schools will be forced to improve or shut down. Unfortunately, both reasons are based in misconceptions about education.

I will concede that “choice” is not a bad thing when you are talking about businesses, service industries, and commodities. We definitely want businesses to compete for our money. Competition makes businesses strive for excellence. That’s why people, outside of education mostly, thought that “choice” would make all schools better, but it hasn’t.

Why? First, because education is not a business; it is a human right (Article 26) that is protected as part of our inalienable fundamental rights to which people are entitled simply because they are human beings, “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour (sic), sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

In other words, if a business fails, the owners can start over, maybe poorer and a little wiser, but no real harm done. If a school fails, it has negatively affected the human rights of every child that went to that failing school.

So how does the “choice” movement hurt human rights? Bear with me as I try to explain this point.

If you are for “choice” in education, you want better “service” for your child. We all want what is best for our children–I’m not arguing that. But if your child is going to a failing school, and you have the money to pay for private schools, which is part of that choice movement, then you will no longer care about that failing school because you can give your child something better (unless your child makes a mistake which will result in an expulsion with no chance of return to that private school). That is great for you and your family, but what about all the other children who can’t afford to pay for private schools?

The next question is usually, isn’t that why people came up with charter schools, so that people who can’t afford private schools can still get a quality education? Yes. Charter schools, in general, are another great idea–on paper. You don’t have to pay for charter schools out of your own pocket—technically—but your tax dollars go to those schools. Our government gives charter schools a certain amount of money for every child enrolled in that charter school; so just like public schools, our government pays for your child’s education—that is if you are lucky enough to get selected, and your child behaves well enough to stay at that school. Most charter schools operate on a lottery system, so not all students will get in, and most schools will kick students out who make mistakes or make the school look bad in any way.

Once again, for those parents who want choice, this sounds great because those children who are selected have a great atmosphere for learning.

However, what people forget is that there are many students who will have to continue going to that failing school. If you can’t worry about someone else’s children, then just consider this: Pulling your child out of the failing school does not pull them out of the society in which they live. One way or another, the negative effects of that failing school will still affect you and your children.

Just to summarize the first point, education is not a business; it is a human right. Therefore, educational choice is about people only caring about their children—no one else’s. Those who can afford it will choose to pay for their children to go to private schools. Out of those that remain, some parents will apply to charter schools and a few lucky students will get selected. That leaves the rest in public schools because public schools will take every rejected and expelled student and do the best they can to educate those students within the confines of the system. Public schools also have incredible students who are successful despite the “choice” movement.

Is it any wonder our public schools look like they are failing if the wealthy and well behaved students are all going somewhere else? Along these lines, by eliminating the heterogeneous classroom in all three options, it makes it harder for those struggling students to see what work ethic, study skills, and perseverance looks like. On the other hand, a classroom that has students with different genders, talents, abilities, interests, backgrounds, and cultures will help all students work toward a higher standard. The students in heterogeneous schools can relate to the world better because they experience diversity on a daily basis. The homogeneous classrooms found in private and charter schools miss out on this necessary part of children’s education. Also, when you remove the top tier of motivated students, the learning culture deteriorates on multiple levels. Students with average ability, motivation, or interest lose that interest, and kids who struggle for whatever reason just give up. Remember, we want our children to be civic-minded and global citizens. How can they understand the global world or empathize with the struggles in our society if they grow up only relating to people just like them?

http://standardizedtests.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=4346 Denver Post cartoon satirizing the effect of standardized tests on public education.
http://standardizedtests.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=4346
Denver Post cartoon satirizing the effect of standardized tests on public education.

Second, it is important to note that private and charter schools don’t operate under the government’s watchful eye, which allows them to reject the highly controversial Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and refuse to participate in the corresponding state tests. Since these schools operate independently, they don’t have to participate in the very reasons that people are complaining about public schools. As a matter of fact, many private and charter schools saw the CCSS as a flawed document right from the start and opted out of it.

Remember, CCSS and the state tests are mandated for public schools by the government, while at the same time, the government is pushing for more charter schools that do not have to follow the mandates of the government. Does that make sense? So how can this “choice” movement improve the quality of all schools, when public schools don’t have the autonomy to fix their schools?

Third, to make matters worse, the government is giving money to private and charter schools because of that “choice” movement in the form of vouchers—money that could be given to public schools to improve those failing schools. Of course private and charter schools are going to appear as the right “choice” when they have money to purchase the newest technology, have the freedom to be innovative, and can reject the foolish educational reforms that are more about money than about our children.

privitization
http://www.hmleague.org/educational-political-cartoons/cartoon-privatization-tap/

Those outside of education do not understand that public schools cannot choose to change their operating methods, so it is impossible for public schools to compete in this so called “business market.” Besides the fact that education is a human right and not a business, the business competition model cannot change public schools because public schools are at the mercy of the government that continues to cut the budget of public schools to pay for tests and to give vouchers to private and charter schools.

Fourth, people and the government are not paying attention to the problems with some charter schools. John Oliver did this great piece on charter schools that exposed the problems with the government funding these unregulated entities.

 Many “nonprofit” charter schools are finding deceptive was to make a profit. Once again, if “choice” education is supposed to create competition and a striving for excellence among all schools, Oliver’s research shows how that business model is failing even in the charter school industry.

On the other side of this issue, though, I will admit, there are some amazing charter schools out there. This is my biggest frustration: If there are innovative schools that are working, why can’t we adopt those innovations in public schools?

If parents truly want choice, this is where we as parents and educators need to concentrate our efforts. In Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the statement that “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children” should be taken literally and used to fix public education for all, not to give choice only to the wealthy and the fortunate.

If we want true education reformation, we need to make sure the public tax dollars are being used correctly to create an actual choice movement within the public school system itself: Increase money being spent on public education to improve ALL schools, regardless of location; increase teachers’ salaries to create a true competition for quality teachers; increase public school autonomy so that principals and teachers can use their knowledge and experience to innovate and create the right learning environment for their students.

If people are really concerned about choice, they should make sure their local public school is doing what their children need in order to thrive. Imagine a public school that has the elite academic prep curriculum of Phillips Exeter Academy for those students who are college bound; the innovation of The Ron Clark Academy for those who are creative or learn differently; the care and nurturing of the Learning Skills Academy for those with learning disabilities; and The Independent Project (https://youtu.be/RElUmGI5gLc) for those who want independence and a nontraditional education. Using these innovative schools as models to transform public schools would meet the needs of every student regardless of race, gender, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status—not just the wealthy and lucky few.

Melissa Bowers: 7 Reasons You Might Not Want to Teach Anymore

This is the post I wish I wrote. Melissa Bowers captures the plight of a teacher perfectly. There are many reasons to leave the profession, which many teachers, including me, have done. The only reason to stay is for our students. Remember that when you want to be overly critical of the public school teachers still fighting in the trenches–they stayed for your children.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/melissa-bowers/7-reasons-you-might-not-want_b_9832490.html

Joshua Katz’s TEDx Talk: Toxic Culture of Education

Joshua Katz describes perfectly the plight of American education, the damage it does to our lower achieving students, and the super villains behind it all.

“We need to pay attention to our students and who they are. . . . How can we help them be better students? . . . How can we help them with these non cognitive factors, like work ethic and character? . . . It’s the public narrative that must be shifted. We must talk about what is happening in the lives of our students–even our honors’ students–because we are simply creating a massive population of future citizens who are afraid to attempt anything challenging, unable to read or think critically, or unable to find a way to earn a meaningful income.”

I can’t say it any better than he did, so take the time to watch this video all the way until the end and pay attention to his solutions.

We can have an educational system that meets the needs of every child. We can change the narrative. We just need more people willing to stand up for our children, stand against the super villains, and demand an educational system that encourages success, not failure.

Part 2: The Perfect Storm: Common Core, Standardized State Testing, and Teacher Evaluations

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 Perfect StormWhat is the perfect storm?

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?

My Plea

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.

Join me.

Part 1: A Brief History on NCLB and Common Core

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.”

A Little Perspective

In my resignation letter I listed many reasons why I was leaving the profession I love and the community I served after eleven years of teaching. In one paragraph, I mentioned Common Core State Standards in conjunction with high-stakes testing:

I am supposed to help them think for themselves, help them find solutions to problems, help them become productive members of society. Instead, the emphasis on Common Core Standards and high-stakes testing is creating a teach-to-the-test mentality for our teachers and stress and anxiety for our students. . . . That is what school has become: A place where teachers must give students “right” answers, so students can prove (on tests riddled with problems, by the way) that teachers have taught students what the standards have deemed to be a proper education.

To my amazement, I received national attention about my resignation and was asked to appear on Fox News America’s Newsroom for a live interview. I was thrilled to get the opportunity to tell a national audience how I wanted to change the current educational system so that more people could become part of the solution. The folks at Fox News did not alert me to the subtitle they would be running alongside my interview: “Colorado English Teacher Resigns in Blog Post Due to Common Core.” Therefore, when Martha MacCullum asked me pointed questions about Common Core, it took me a few seconds to get started, and then it was difficult to fully explain my position in a three-minute segment that included four questions. While I am not a fan of Common Core, those standards are not the primary reason why I resigned.

What’s ironic about the debate over Common Core Standards is that these standards are supposed to prepare our children to be free and critical thinkers and give them the ability to make up their own minds, something that seems to be lacking in most discussions on the subject!

The other interesting result of appearing on a national station is that people have brought me into their political discussions. I have never aligned myself with any political party. I investigate candidates’ educational positions and make informed decisions based on what I discover. I want to fix what is happening in education, and, as far as I can tell, it isn’t just one administration’s fault.

I am thankful for this platform I’ve been given. It has helped me find like-minded individuals: people who care more about our children than they do about their politics; people who care more about helping children become engaged with their education again, rather than people who are only interested in creating more problems; people who put children first, as individuals, and support and respect the teachers who educate and pour their lives into those children.

A Brief History on the Precursor of Common Core: NCLB

When I first started teaching Language Arts in 2003, we worked with the Colorado Model Content Standards for Reading and Writing (specifics are below). In our school, we had quite a bit of freedom to teach what we wanted as long as we stayed within those guiding principles. In our departments, we started discussing the alignment of our curriculum and added standardized common finals to our core courses because the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was also pushing standardized tests; we wanted to give our students more practice with that format. NCLB’s purpose was to close the achievement gap. The government professed they would close the gap with “its expansion of state-mandated standardized testing as means of assessing school performance” (Time).

In 2002, the NCLB Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush:

The legislation, modeled on Bush’s education policy as Governor of Texas, mandated annual testing in reading and math (and later science) in Grades 3 through 8 and again in 10th Grade. If schools did not show sufficient “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP), they faced sanctions and the possibility of being taken over by the state or closed. NCLB required that 100% of US students be “proficient” on state reading and math tests by 2014, which was regarded as an impossible target by many testing opponents. According to the Pew Center on the States, annual state spending on standardized tests rose from $423 million before NCLB to almost $1.1 billion in 2008 (a 160% increase compared to a 19.22% increase in inflation over the same period).  Combined state and federal government spending on education totals $600 billion per year. . . .  [emphasis mine] (http://standardizedtests.procon.org/)

Besides the financial repercussions, the other difficulty with these assessments was that the tests were meaningless to students. They were neither rewarded nor punished for their scores. The schools, on the other hand, began to worry about sanctions, funding, and meeting AYP.

For a time, our school (as well as many others around the country) tried a reward system to encourage students to put forth their best effort on the tests. Students who worked hard (based on a proctor’s subjective evaluation) could put their names into a box; each year a few lucky students won iPods, flip cameras, gaming devices, or similar items.

Near the end of the Bush Administration, the NCLB movement was losing steam:

After No Child Left Behind (NCLB) passed in 2002, the US slipped from 18th in the world in math on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to 31st place in 2009, with a similar drop in science and no change in reading. A May 26, 2011, National Research Council report found no evidence test-based incentive programs are working: “Despite using them for several decades, policymakers and educators do not yet know how to use test-based incentives to consistently generate positive effects on achievement and to improve education.” (http://standardizedtests.procon.org/)

The biggest problem with this program was that there were students who either didn’t care about the tests no matter what the school offered as incentives or students who were struggling learners, making progress but not anywhere close to “proficient” as defined by the test. With these irrefutable facts, the government still wanted to punish teachers and schools for something that was out of their control.

Race to the Top

With a new administration, came a new push to fix the issues in education:

On February 17, 2009, President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program was signed into law, inviting states to compete for $4.35 billion in extra funding based on the strength of their student test scores. On Mar. 13, 2010, Obama proposed an overhaul of NCLB, promising further incentives to states if they develop improved assessments tied more closely to state standards, and emphasizing other indicators like pupil attendance, graduation rates and learning climate in addition to test scores. Testing opponents have decried both initiatives for their continued reliance on test scores, a complaint Obama seemed to echo on Mar. 28, 2011, when he said: “Too often what we have been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools.” 

On March 9, 2011, US Education Secretary Arne Duncan told Congress that 82% of American schools could fail to meet NCLB’s goal of 100% proficiency on standardized tests by 2014. Duncan proposed reforming NCLB to “impose a much tighter definition of success” that supports “our fundamental aspiration that every single student can learn, achieve and succeed.” Individual states have cast similar doubts on their ability to satisfy NCLB’s Adequate Yearly Progress goals. A 2008 study published in the peer-reviewed journal Science forecast “nearly 100 percent failure” of California schools to meet AYP in 2014. The primary reason for failure, the study concluded, would be poor results on standardized tests by English Language Learners (ELL) and children in low-income families.” (http://standardizedtests.procon.org/)

Despite the apparent failure of high-stakes standardized testing, it is obvious the government is still pushing these tests in order to measure student and school “success.” With all the information available on the difficulties surrounding these tests nationwide (lack of student buy-in, ELL and low-income families’ unique difficulties, children with learning disabilities), the education secretary still believes “every single student can learn, achieve and succeed.” However, Arne Duncan’s definition of learning, achieving, and succeeding is based on a rigid, poorly-written document that doesn’t measure the growth and achievement of students with learning difficulties and disabilities: Common Core State Standards.

Common Core State Standards (CCSS)

According to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) website, the standards were created for consistency throughout the country: “Recognizing the value and need for consistent learning goals across states, in 2009 the state school chiefs and governors that comprise CCSSO and the NGA Center coordinated a state-led effort to develop the Common Core State Standards” (http://www.corestandards.org/about-the-standards/).

In 2010, forty-five of the fifty states adopted the CCSS with the plan of full implementation of the standards by 2013-2014 school year. Within months of schools working with the new standards, teachers began noticing the problems associated with the document itself. Teachers and parents began protesting the standards. In March of 2014, Indiana became the first state to withdraw from CCSS. Many states are now trying to get similar bills passed, or at least bills to slow down the full implementation of CCSS and the assessments created to evaluate schools, teachers, and students.

For those opposed to the CCSS, the greatest fear is that the federal government has taken far too much control of our children’s education and is dictating to our teachers what must be taught at each level and when it must be mastered.

On the other hand, for some people, especially those who are transient because of their jobs, having the same basic experience for their children across the nation may be beneficial. Also, for new or struggling teachers, it might provide a guide for what needs to be taught at each level.

As far as I’m concerned, CCSS are just standards. There is nothing wrong with having benchmarks for our learning path. The problems I have with CCSS are that they are rigid, disorganized, and unreasonable, especially at the elementary-school level.

Common Core Specific to Colorado

While I’m certain there are similar experiences across states, I’m only familiar with the implementation process in Colorado, since my teaching experiences are limited to this state.

The biggest difference between Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the old Colorado Model Content Standards for Reading and Writing is how specific CCSS are. With the old reading and writing standards, there were six for elementary and secondary students:

1) Students read and understand a variety of materials.

2) Students write and speak for a variety of purposes and audiences.

3) Students write and speak using conventional grammar, usage, sentence structure, punctuation, capitalization, and spelling.

4) Students apply thinking skills to their reading, writing, speaking, listening, and viewing.

5) Students read to locate, select, and make use of relevant information from a variety of media, reference, and technological sources.

6) Students read and recognize literature as a record of human experience.

There were benchmarks for each grade level, but schools decided what they would do with those benchmarks. Most course leaders created a “Scope and Sequence” document that acted as a guide for the teachers. These standards trusted educators to teach their students what needed to be taught.

The Common Core State Standards for Reading, Writing, and Communicating have four standards:

Standard 1: Oral Expression and Listening

Standard 2: Reading for All Purposes

Standard 3: Writing and Composition

Standard 4: Research and Reasoning

These four are titles more than they are standards, but the CCSS document for reading, writing, and communicating includes detailed benchmarks, or “evidence outcomes” for all grade levels; this document is 173 pages long.

Truthfully, after teaching English for eleven years, I didn’t have to change what I taught to align myself to CCSS. I have a solid understanding about what is essential for my students to learn. I’ve had tremendous success with my reading, writing, and grammar programs. I have shared them with my colleagues, and we have vertically aligned our teaching lessons beautifully. At my school, we have approximately 70% college enrollment rate. Students who go on to college tell me they are far ahead of their peers because of what I and my colleagues taught them. We have incredible English teachers at my high school who work extremely hard to make sure students can communicate effectively and become productive members of society. I’ve been proud to work alongside them.

What has been difficult the last few years is having to “unpack” the CCSS: We have spent countless hours reading through the document for each level we teach, lining up our curriculum to what the CCSS deemed as critical skills, and looking at the skills students would be tested on in the spring (which will now be a battery of tests instead of just one). We have had to switch our curriculum around, so our students will be ready in 2015 for the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), which is the new state standardized test completely aligned with the CCSS. The PARCC will replace the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program (TCAP), which was a replacement for the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP).

While I am not opposed to aligning our curriculum with CCSS, I am opposed to the hours spent away from my students. I would much rather be working with my students’ current needs and developing ways to get them caught up than working with standards, statistics, and phrases in order to be ready for a test. This concentration on CCSS has created a teach-to-the-test mentality for many teachers. I have heard many colleagues across curriculums say: “If it’s not explicitly stated in the standards for my grade level, I’m not teaching it.” There is a huge problem with that position; it encourages minimum expectations instead of exceeding expectations.

What we allowNext: Part 2: “The Perfect Storm: Common Core, Standardized State Testing, and Teacher Evaluations”