Friday, November 29, 2013

The Common Core in Louisiana, Part 2

Classroom testing the CCSS

As the standards were written, there was no provision made for field testing of the standards in K-12 schools, probably because this would have added additional time to the development process. The Gates Foundation and Arne Duncan believed that public education in the U.S. was performing at such a low level compared to other industrialized countries (Diane Ravitch shows that this is a myth) that a quick implementation of new standards was essential. Regular classroom teachers were not asked if they believed that the teaching techniques necessary for proficiency in Common Core standards were practical and effective. Only after the standards had been written were a few teachers asked to give only a cursory review of the standards. No teacher was ever actually allowed real input into the standards. Lack of field testing of the standards in my opinion has been a serious mistake. Millions of students across the nation are now serving as guinea pigs for a very crudely designed and flawed system.

Louisiana's experience with standards implementation

Another flawed assumption of the Common Core adoption in my opinion, was that it is assumed that the new standards are more rigorous and will somehow automatically produce higher level learning. There is no evidence whatsoever that student achievement will be improved because the CCSSS have not been tested. For Louisiana in particular, I don't think that any consideration was given to the environment surrounding our students at home and in their communities. No consideration was given to the educational level of our parents, the number of our students with disabilities, and the preschool opportunities (or lack of opportunities) of our students.

In Louisiana, our education leaders (who are mostly non-educators) have pointed to the fact that since the state adopted high stakes testing for our students over 10 years ago and for the rating of our public schools, student performance on state tests has improved significantly. They believe that Louisiana has proven that if we simply raise the academic bar that students will rise to the challenge and meet the new higher standards. But the reality is much more complicated than that. While performance on state LEAP tests improved fairly significantly after several years of testing, performance on national tests such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) only improved slightly. The LDOE states the following:

First, the state has shown steady increases on the LEAP, the state’s main assessment. Next, the difference between LEAP scores and NAEP scores have increased, showing the need to raise expectations.”

I have to seriously question this conclusion, because the adoption of LEAP standards was a raising of expectations, and it did not result in improvement compared to other states.

What the DOE is really saying is that our student scores on NAEP in the last ten years have not increased as much as they have in other states. Our nationwide ranking stayed near the bottom of all states. (47th or 48th out of 50). For high poverty students in Louisiana, the performance gap with the national average has widened. Raising the bar in Louisiana has not produced improvement compared to other states.

It is clear instead that a large part of the improvement on LEAP tests can be attributed to the fact that students were taught test taking skills and teachers got better at teaching the test. There was some improvement in actual achievement in the basic skills of math and language arts, and some improvement in the high school ACT testing, but that was because so much more emphasis has been put on those limited areas. All other subjects and activity areas have been severely curtailed in Louisiana to make more time for test teaching. Yes, test teaching. That's what we do now in Louisiana education. We have not only prepared for the LEAP test each year but we have also given pretests at various times to identify areas of weakness, and we teach students all year to test better in those areas. Our end-of-course test averages in high school have improved in part because teachers have learned to teach those questions that they know will be asked on the test each year. So much of the learning has not been real student learning but teachers learning what to emphasize and what to leave out to prepare students for the annual testing.

In Louisiana in recent years, almost all students have been encouraged to take the college prep Core 4 curriculum for high school graduation. What has been the result of all this “raising the bar”? Many educators believe that the teaching of true college prep courses has been watered down to accommodate students who were not really ready for or interested in college prep. Our 6 year college completion statistics have decreased from 23% ten years ago to only 19% today. Parents were never consulted as Louisiana moved to this new philosophy of education. I wonder if they would approve of all this emphasis of teaching to the test.

So what we have really proven in Louisiana is that raising the academic bar makes no difference in the performance of our students compared to other states. In fact there was less of a gap between the performance of our students and that of students in other states before we raised the bar. How will another round of “raising the bar” benefit our students?

The answer is: It will not benefit our students. It is likely to increase our student dropout rate. John White is aware of this. That's why he is now proposing that Louisiana relax its standards for student promotion from 4th to 5th grades and from 8th to 9th grades. High school principals know that this will increase the number of unqualified students entering high schools. Yet the grades assigned by our state to the high schools depend more and more on the graduation rate for students of those schools. So the high schools will now be pressured to graduate thousands of students who will not be doing high school level work. I don't think this is what the business community expected when they signed on to the Common Core Standards.

How will CCSS change Louisiana education?

So the new CCSS actually doubles down on the idea that we should put maximum emphasis on English language arts and math and that everything in our schools should be driven by the tests. In addition, the curriculum in those two subjects has been reduced to what the non-classroom “experts” who developed Common Core consider the most essential concepts. Yes, the Common Core reduces the number of concepts to be taught even in those basic skills subjects.

There are fewer math skills to be taught but the ones that are taught are supposed to be taught more in depth with emphasis on methods of problem solving just as much as on getting the right answer. Also in math, the CCSS introduce new methods for teaching the basic concepts of division, multiplication, decimals and fractions that many classroom teachers are finding more cumbersome and less productive than the old methods.

In reading, the emphasis has been shifted to more technical reading that would prepare students more for reading technical instructional manuals than what may be classified as classical fiction reading.

Even though the promoters of Common Core stress that it is not a curriculum, the CCSS drives educators to create a curriculum that will attempt to produce success on the Common Core tests. Those tests will begin next school year in Louisiana (the testing has been moved up by one year in Louisiana). The new tests are called the Partnership for Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). Here again everything we do in our schools will be driven by the almighty annual testing and retesting of students.

So even though according to State Superintendent John White, Louisiana is in the third year of a five year phase in of Common Core, (Note: lately he has changed some standards associated with Common Core to a 10 year phase in) this is the first year that parents have actually been exposed to the effects of the new system on their children. This is the first year that most parents have even heard of the Common Core because no effort has ever been made to reach out to parents and prepare them for the new system. We learned recently that the Gates Foundation had made a sizable grant to the National PTA to help sell the common core to parents, but little information got to parents in Louisiana since most parents here have no connection with the PTA.

Problems with the Common Core

The more we study the design and the roll-out of the Common Core, the more it resembles the disastrous roll-out of Obama Care. (The Affordable Healthcare Act). Here are some important glitches that have developed:
  1. John White in his application to the Federal Government for the ESEA Waiver (which got federal approval for the switch to CCSS among other things) stated that the State Department of Education would develop a state approved curriculum for implementation of the Common Core standards. Later he changed his mind and simply stated that he wanted to empower individual teachers to develop their own curriculum that would teach the CC. This put most local school systems into a terrible bind to scramble around and gather materials and text books that would prepare students for the new testing starting in 2014. Some parishes borrowed half baked materials developed by other states like a program called Engage NY at this website which turned out to have reading materials considered inappropriate by many Louisiana parents. This has caused a major uproar in some local school systems. (Note: in the latest development in this area, State Superintendent White announced on November 19 that the Department of Education will after all, provide a curriculum guide to all public schools and will phase in over a ten year period the accountability sanctions resulting from Common Core to students, teachers and schools rather than to expect immediate performance at the original target levels proposed.)
  2. Perhaps fortunately for Louisiana, Kentucky and New York were the first states to implement the testing for the Common Core. It turns out that the creators of the test greatly over estimated the levels of proficiency that should be required by the testing. As a result, over 70% of New York state students were considered failures in the first round of testing. No one really knows at this point what is the proper level of mastery that should be expected because the standards were not tested prior to implementation. Louisiana Superintendent John White has recently announced that Louisiana will initially use the achievement of a 3 on a 5 point scale as satisfactory for Louisiana students instead of the 4 out of 5 used by New York. We don't know how this will be viewed since the Common Core is supposed to compare the performance of students across all the states that have adopted it. How can you compare students in different states if you use different standards for passing grades?
  3. One of the biggest controversies that has developed, also probably because of the lack of field testing, is what is considered by many experts in early childhood education as inappropriate standards for K-3 students. When you read through the reading and math standards for K-3 you can only ask: "What were they thinking?" Some of the levels of questioning and the analysis required of very young children is totally inappropriate. Parents must be shocked at what is being expected in the area of reading comprehension of children who have barely started to read.
  4. Part of the plan for implementation of Common Core was the requirement for extensive individual tracking and sharing of student data throughout a student's schooling and beyond using the InBloom system. I believe the developers of Common Core originally envisioned the sharing of student profiles which would include socioeconomic factors, disabilities, as well as testing data with selected providers who could possibly tailor educational programs and interventions to individual students. Some of the major corporations which have supported development of the Common Core such as Pearson and NewsCorp envisioned immense profits as parents were forced to come to them for preparing children to succeed on the testing mostly developed and owned by those private companies. Software companies such as Micorsoft stand to make huge profits as they design computer software to address highly specialized instruction systems to be purchased by parents not wanting their child to fall behind. Many parents are absolutely appalled about the implications of such a system of tracking, privacy violations, and profiteering with their children's education.
  5. One of my biggest concerns about this whole scheme is the damage that will be done to individual children by the attempt to standardize and over simplify the education of all children. This is a one-size-fits-all plan that is destined to fail many many children who just do not fit the mold for education created by the College Board staff and other academic elitists who wrote the standards. Gone is the American tradition of encouraging creativity and of identifying unique talents of children. It is all about getting every child to perform at grade level or above (which is statistically impossible) in certain preferred basic skills. Forget about music, forget about art, forget about the performing arts, forget about vocational skills, forget about teaching students how to work with tools, how to appreciate fine literature, helping students understand the functions of government and the history of our form of government, so they can be informed and active citizens. These other more creative characteristics are the very special characteristics of the American educational system that have been so admired in other parts of the world.

What should we do in Louisiana instead of Common Core?

If we care about preparing our students for the true workforce opportunities in Louisiana, we should be putting more emphasis as early as possible on teaching skilled crafts and voc-tech as well as implementing a true college prep curriculum for the college bound. Our students do not need standardization. They need training in many exciting career pathways as well as good basic training in citizenship skills.

High tech skills and vocations; that's where most of the high paying jobs are in Louisiana. But instead of training our young people, Louisiana is importing welders from Tiawan and paying them wages averaging $50 per hour for jobs our students are not trained to do!

With our aging population there are many opportunities in health care careers that require specialized training requiring far less than for four year degrees. Service industries need dependable highly trained workers in hospitality, food service, office work and management. None of these require university degrees.

With all its emphasis on college prep for all in the last 10 years, Louisiana has succeeded in almost destroying our once effective voc-tech and Agricultural sciences training that were once offered in all high schools. Building and construction trade training is now almost non-existent at the high school level.

In some school systems such as the one exemplified by the New Orleans Recovery District there are now what I consider only two education tracks: College prep and dependency prep. Many of the students that fall into the dependency prep category actually end up in a prison bound cycle. The RSD charter schools tout their goal of preparing all students for college, yet almost none of their students will ever complete a four year degree after graduating from high school. That's because their low ACT and SAT scores exclude them from most scholarship programs. Most of these graduates end up with no salable skills because there are almost no vocational programs in these schools. The best most of these students can expect is to end up at the lowest levels of service work where they will go from one dead end job to another. Others will get involved in petty crime and drug dealing. This is not at all the image being sold to the many philanthropies that are pouring millions into the charter school system in Louisiana.

Many of the great opportunities for our young people lie in the fact that Louisiana is experiencing a boom in industrial development caused by the new technologies that allow production of oil and gas that was never before producible. Cheap natural gas in Louisiana is spawning the construction of new facilities that use natural gas as a feedstock. There is a growing demand for highly trained construction workers and then operators and technicians in the new plants along the Mississippi and gulf coast as well as the oil industry itself. The extensive new oil and gas drilling operations are occurring over the entire state. The complaint from these industries is that they cannot find dependable well trained workers locally. To allow our young people to cash in on this boom, Louisiana should develop a strong cooperative effort between our high schools, our voc-tech and Community colleges and Louisiana business. Students should be involved in career exploration activities as early as middle school. Starting as early as 10th grade, students who choose these pathways should be enrolled in career training either in cooperation with local industry or in our voc-tech or Community colleges. Louisiana should study the vocational technical training provided to students in European countries such as Germany and Finland as models for development of high tech career training in Louisiana.

Instead of enrolling all of our students in a college prep curriculum such as that fostered by the CCSS, Louisiana should develop practical math and ELA courses that prepare students for work and citizenship. Students should have the opportunity to study literature, social studies, art, music, citizenship and government. All courses should be rigorous and demanding, but students should be able to connect their school training to real life applications.

China and Korea have tried standardization of their education program for years and are now trying to adopt the more productive parts of the American system that we now seem determined to dismantle. Finland which is recognized as having one of the most successful education systems in the world does not put this insane emphasis on test based standardization of the curriculum. There teachers are not just test teachers but are expected to inspire and to encourage diversity in their students. What we are about to do to our education system with implementation of Common Core is just wrong and educationally unsound!

As a person who has enjoyed a wonderful long career in Louisiana education, I am appalled at what we are allowing the so called “reformers” who have little experience in education to do to Louisiana education. I can only encourage parents and teachers to join hands and demand that our legislature free us to develop a truly productive and creative education system for our children. One that does not attempt to standardize children but instead attempts to nourish and encourage the many talents and interests of our children. We must return to the principles formulated for public education by Horace Mann, the father of public education in America, who believed in educating the whole child, respecting them as individuals, and preparing young people to be good citizens.

Go to the following Louisiana Department of Education web site to view all 132 pages of Common Core State Standards:

Go to the following Advocate Letter to the Editor by math teachers and education blogger Vincent Barras for a review of the CCSS writing team in a letter titled Look Who Designed the Common Core at:

Go to the post by education blogger Crazy Crawfish to get a parents view that is also hilarious of the math standards for very young children at this web address.

See also this Diane Ravitch blog about the demand for students trained in tech fields rather than 4 year colleges.