Sunday, July 14, 2013

Things That Worry Me About Common Core

Paul Pastorek, the previous State Superintendent who was also a non-educator superintendent agreed to adopt the Common Core standards for Louisiana sight unseen. Maybe he did it because someone told him that this would "raise the bar" and increase "rigor" or maybe because the developer of Common Core, David Coleman, was on the Board of Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst reform group. Overall I think it was adopted because it was the next big thing in education reform, and Jindal and Pastorek needed to approve it so Louisiana could promote its image as the most education reformed state in the nation.

The actual substance of Common Core was never important to Pastorek just as it is not really important to John White. That's why White fired or reassigned almost all the curriculum experts at the DOE and announced in recent education meetings that the Department was not going to tell teachers how to teach to the common core. Instead he was going to "empower" teachers to teach it any way they chose. Teachers will just need to be dammed sure students achieve a good VAM score if they want to keep their jobs. There will be no more GLEs, and no more lock step lesson plans that were supposed to demonstrate that the teacher had covered certain important concepts by certain dates. Now with the Common Core teachers will "be given" a form of "academic freedom". There will be no required curriculum at the elementary level, and maybe no specific amounts of teaching time for specific subjects. Subjects other than ELA and math won't matter very much. There will only be the PARCC. To teachers the simple message will be: "Do whatever is necessary to get as many of your students as possible over the bar."

Will the Common Core finally be the perfect standard for all our students? Is this list of standards (we are repeatedly told that it is not a curriculum) so miraculous that it will transform our schools into the world class learning institutions we want them to be? Will our frustrated teachers who have been beating their brains out trying to close the all important achievement gap finally have the illusive magic formula that will insure that all students will achieve at average or above levels? Will the fact that most states will be testing students and rating schools by the same set of standards finally bring excellence to our Louisiana public schools?

John White and Bridget Neiland of LABI (who recently wrote this op-ed in support of the Common Core) are promoting a really strange educational theory. That is: If you have  a bunch of kids who are having trouble clearing a certain academic bar, somehow those kids will magically do better if we raise the bar higher than the one they couldn't clear in the first place. Kids who are doing poorly even with rote learning will somehow rise to the challenge when we require them to switch gears and do a lot more critical thinking. Also, their reading skills will improve when we challenge them to read serious technical manuals instead of entertaining fiction.

Here are the reasons I am very skeptical that the Common Core will be the panacea for our schools.

1. The developer of the common core, David Coleman never taught a day in a K-12 school! As a student, he attended a special public high school for gifted students in New York, then received his university education as a Rhodes scholar in English literature and classical philosophy. He was turned down when he applied to teach at the high school level, so he became a self proclaimed expert in curriculum. I understand he worked on some high visibility tutoring projects but I can't help but be a bit skeptical that he knows very much about teaching low performing K-12 students. At least he is not hindered by the "soft bigotry of low expectations". Education seems to be the only field where the professionals with the most experience in the field are ignored when new standards are developed and self proclaimed "experts" such as Coleman are preferred. College philosophy professors and lawyers apparently have special knowledge of child development and the educational needs of all children.
Just saw this post by Diane Ravitch about how David Coleman sold us the common core. Another case of creating an imagined need.

2. Experts in early childhood education have been complaining lately that some of the Common Core standards are inappropriate for very young students. There were practically no early childhood educators on the committee that reviewed the standards. Many educators wonder if it is appropriate to have first graders analyzing the meaning of a paragraph before they can even read the words.

3. The Common Core requires much more of our ELA instruction to be based on non-fiction reading. Reading classes will shift from what may have been interesting fiction stories to cryptic instruction manuals and other informative pieces. See what David Chura, a respected educator of at-risk youth has to say about this. He wonders how this will encourage our least motivated students to read more.

4. With Common Core, math instruction will progress to more difficult concepts in earlier grades and will push students rapidly into abstract math. I googled a guide for common core geometry on the Internet and found that the practice problems are loaded with mathematical jargon instead of practical everyday language. Just try googling Common Core geometry practice problems and see if you find many that are useful in everyday life.

5. The common core standards are basically college prep material. When questioned about this, the promoters of Common Core simply state their ideology that students going into skilled crafts and careers requiring associate degrees or entering service fields need exactly the same preparation from high school as do those who plan to go on to 4 year degrees. I believe that people who say this must have no concept of what math and English skills everyday people really use. When we increase the emphasis on "higher level math skills" we neglect teaching kids about the benefits of ordinary concepts like compound interest and the virtual slavery caused by payday loans. So much for equipping young people with real life skills.

Common Core has never been field tested to see if it works, and real classroom teachers were not consulted to see if it was appropriate before Louisiana adopted it.  Would the medical profession adopt a new surgical procedure without asking real surgeons to test it? Would the highway department adopt a new bridge design developed by philosophy professors and lawyers? This is basically what we are doing with the Common Core in Louisiana. Guess who will be blamed if it does not work!


Tom Hoffman said...

This is a pretty accurate analysis of the situation. I do feel like some red herrings have dominated a lot of the discussion. We don't really even know what David Coleman's role was in writing the ELA standards. I think he came in relatively late in the process, because there is a real discontinuity between the standards themselves and the commentary and appendices that I think Coleman did have a leading role in. But he has been made the public face (and done a remarkably poor job as such) of what is by necessity a committee document.

The emphasis on informational text, in particular the famous percentages, is an example of the discontinuity. That is information that, if actually required by the standards, would have properly gone in the range of reading standards which are specified by multiple enumerated standards at each grade level. But they were only added in the introduction and other commentary.

Michael Deshotels said...

Thank you Tom. You obviously have more in depth knowledge about the process used in creating the common core than I do. I still maintain however, that just imposing a set of college prep standards on all students will not magically create excellent performance. But there will be a new false impression of the failure of our public schools. I do not believe these people (the common core developers) were more qualified than our regular classroom teachers to decide what our students need.

HOSSMAN said...

Great analysis and commentary. Awesome. I'm going to be watching you.

Noah Sullivan said...

Mike, this stuff has me dizzy as a classroom teacher...I'm doing good to keep kids excited about what I am trying to sell them while they are making what I am supposed to be selling to the students less and less tangible, again. There was a time when they would let us teach whatever we wanted, but that led to inconsistencies where more definitive scope and sequence...and standards/benchmarks...became mandatory. Now, they require a common core that seems less "common" than publicized as they crawfish on what is supposed to be taught. Oddly enough, it is supposed to compare states more comprehensively to each the same time it is removing restrictions on what is to be taught. Teachers from Ohio are reporting that common core is dumbing down what they used to teach...while John White is touting that the CC will expose LA's deficiencies. It is enough to make one wonder which way is up!

Unknown said...

Noah, the biggest problem I see is that CC is a further narrowing of the curriculum to that which will be tested by PARCC. I believe this will bore and fail many students and discourage our best teachers. I hope you and other dedicated teachers hang in there until we can change this.

Anonymous said...

So many great experienced teachers are retiring. Exhausted by the constant changes in curriculum, intense focus on ELA and math and none on social studies or science; at great expense to those teaching these classes. Our students know that they can score very low in science and social studies and still pass to high school! Your average 14 year old can figure out what they need to study and what they can ignore. Then we offer remediation over the summer and if they just increase their scores a bit off they go to high school! Totally under-prepared. So now in high school the kids figure out they can take 4 years to earn 21 Carnegie unit and graduate. So much wasted time and senior year I would have kids crying in the halls from the final realization that they had to pass everything since they had failed so many classes. We offer far to much remediation in public schools and college that kids have no fear of failure and expect to be rescued. CCSS and PARCC will change this and many kids and parents need to be told these changes could push their child far past their ability with no time for a do over! Many
parents want all A's and blame the teacher for anything less. COMPASS blames us for low test scores. Out state blames us for everything from unprepared employees to college freshman failures. The VAM scores make no sense and we fear the scores and being called ineffective despite our best efforts. We have been hanging in there for years. Many of us are aging and we need medical insurance and a paycheck and we love teaching...we just never get to teach anymore. So we will keep hanging in there but VAM means that once we get fired (and 10% WILL) WE CAN"T work as a teacher anymore or get hired in Louisiana if we lose our teaching credentials. Intensive remediation for teachers can be horrible or great; depending on your administration! With the 10% rule in COMPASS no principal is going to be allowed to keep those "BAD" teachers! No one I know can afford to move and with ALEC all states are pretty much the same for teachers.