This blog post was originally composed as a response to a comment by Kelly Amis, but as the post grew, I figured it could hold its own as a blog post.
Thanks for continuing the dialogue, Kelly. I like a good back-and-forth with people who push my thinking.
You wrote: “I’m pro-union (for jobs in which people are nearly powerless and easily replaced, like farm or factory workers, I’m just not sure it is helping teaching as a profession).” Regarding unions, I think it’s not only a matter of skill and replaceability, but also power imbalances. Teachers I know and hear from in non-unionized states describe the arbitrary and punitive use of power to silence troublemakers and embolden poor, unethical, even illegal practices in administration and school governance. There’s also considerable political pressure and involvement in education that necessitates the strength in numbers that comes with unions. Think of the science teachers who dare to teach about evolution as a fact, health teachers who mention birth-control, LGBTQ teachers harrassed or silenced, or teachers who dare to suggest that a student with two moms comes from a family every bit as normal as others, journalism teachers pressured to restrict their students’ First Amendment rights, librarians who allow students to check out controversial books, English teachers who use controversial books or creative writing assignments, social studies teachers who teach students about the Islamic Golden Age… Think about the teachers who give the starting point guard an F that will remove him from the playoffs, teachers who bust the school board member’s child for plagiarism, teachers who say something unpopular in the public sphere, signing anti-war petitions or letters to the editor, etc.
These are not hypothetical issues – they happen all the time. Daily. A vinidictive (or intimidated) administrator has so much power over a teacher – even with union support. A principal can ruin a teacher’s year, ruin a career, run their their health and morale into the ground. Removing the union actually makes it harder for most of us to do good work in difficult circumstances, harder to speak up on behalf of students and families. I think the overall educational outcomes in union vs. non-union states and countries undercut your suggestion that unions do not help education. True, I’ve also heard stories about local associations and union reps who are bad for schools and kids. It happens. But I don’t see those exceptions as an argument against unions – it’s an argument for better governance, management, and ethical decision-making by those individuals.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Jem reacts to the unjust conviction of Tom Robinson by suggesting that we should do away with juries. Of course, the point is that he lacks perspective and is reacting out of emotion; he’s offering a “solution” that might solve the immediate problem he’s thinking of, but create many more, and much worse problems. The imbalance of power and the high-stakes, politicized arena in which we work, make the union a useful counterbalance that protects teachers and students – to the extent that teachers often face trouble by advocating for or serving as role models for students.
As for seniority, I think you’re right to distinguish between big urban districts and others – my impression is that the problems are worse in larger districts. I would love to see unions negotiate a modified form of seniority to balance layoffs among schools in a more equitable way (if we must have any layoffs at all). No one would want their own child taught by an unqualified teacher, nor would I want my own students coming to me from or heading off to classrooms with unqualified teachers. When that happens due to seniority and “bumping” practices, it’s wrong; we should not layoff a qualified teacher to replace her/him with an unqualified teacher, and unions that have the opportunity to negotiate a better way should be doing so. (Let’s apply that idea to TFA recruits too – there should be no TFA corps members taking spots that were previously filled by qualified teachers who were laid off). So, seniority within a subject area or grade level/range might work. Seniority within a school or department perhaps. That approach would also create an incentive for good teachers to consider struggling schools – put yourself higher up the local seniority ladder faster.
However, if we go further than that and start using evaluations to determine layoffs, we will fail in a couple of ways. First of all, what’s the incentive to admit you’re struggling with any aspect of your teaching? If the goal of evaluation is improvement and growth for all teachers, then evaluation must be safe enough to enter into honestly and with pure intentions (to get better, not just to save one’s job). If evaluations are going to figure into layoffs, then we’ll have worse evaluations instead of better. Additionally, seniority provides a predictable and orderly approach that serves schools well. Remove seniority and you create disincentives for teamwork or for taking on challenges. Co-workers become competitors, and despite what some business-minded reformers will tell you, schools are not environments that thrive on internal competition. This is not an NFL team where we want our quarterbacks to compete with each other so we can put the best one on the field to defeat our opponents. We need quarterbacks who are willing to spend more of their time coaching their peers, not trying to distance themselves from their peers. In this game, we need every player to be good, every player on the field, and most importantly, every team winning.
(EDIT, 5/6/13): Joe Bower has an amusing but serious video on his blog today, asking the question, Should union dues be optional? He suggested it would make a good complement to my post, and I agree – take a look!
[As my friend Bill Ferriter would say, "cranky blogger alert!"]
It’s time to retire the cliché “defend the status quo.” Just. Stop. Now.
It’s misleading, insulting, and worst of all… it’s such an overused cliché, which makes for dull writing and dumbed-down debates. We need an intervention to help people who can’t help themselves when it comes to repeating this worn-out phrase.
This blog post has been drafted, revised, and held back a number of times. What pushed me to finally click “Publish” was last week’s debate over SB-441* – a California Senate bill that aims to improve teacher evaluations. Supporters of the bill who took the debate online via Twitter grabbed this tired cliché and attempted to shame the bill’s opponents with the hashtag #protectthestatusquo.
Perhaps they felt clever getting that little dig in, but the problem is, no one is actually satisfied with the general state of teacher evaluation in most public schools. Who are these defenders of the status quo? The California Teachers Association has its own 17-point, 36-page evaluation reform framework. Other teacher organizations, including ACT, have published evaluation reform recommendations. I’ve talked about this topic in front of multiple audiences around California, events that included teachers, parents, administrators, school board members, union leaders, researchers, legislators, journalists, education advocates…. Everyone is looking for something better.
Disagreements arise when we begin defining the most deleterious aspects of status quo: what part of it are we talking about, and how did we get here? And while we all agree change is needed, is every proposed change a viable solution? Sometimes it feels like teachers and administrators are in a kitchen fighting a big grease fire with a single fire-extinguisher, and education reformers come along suggesting that since we haven’t succeeded with that one fire extinguisher, it’s time to use water. We’re not defending the status quo of the grease fire when we point out that water is the wrong way to put out a grease fire.
Below you’ll find a partial list of writers and speakers who’ve contributed to the overuse of this education reform mantra, with links to the incidents. To those who made the list, think of this as some tough love from an experienced writing teacher. It’s time to think up something new, something more substantial. Stop repeating yourselves and parroting each other – because no one in education defends the status quo.
Checker Finn – “teachers’ unions and other staunch defenders of the status quo have resisted”
Joel Klein – “those defending the status quo—the unions, the politicians, the bureaucrats, and the vendors—are well organized and well-financed”
Michael Bloomberg – ““Special interests and defenders of the status quo are digging in for a fight.”
Margaret Spellings – “To those who seek to undermine, delay, or obstruct reform, I say your time is over. You are on the wrong side of history. The status quo cannot be defended—it is indefensible.”
Tyson Eberhardt – “Assailed for over two decades by defenders of the status quo”
Bobby Jindal – “teacher unions and other defenders of the status quo simply demand more time and more money”
Greg Forster – “the test is being developed and implemented by a bureaucracy that is heavily colonized by the defenders of the status quo”
Dan Juneau - “The defenders of the status quo will keep these bills tied up in court as long as possible.”
KC Johnson - “a balancing act between advocates of change and defenders of the status quo.”
Steve Barr – “if our success wanes, all the defenders of the status quo will celebrate.”
Tom Vander Ark – “The only thing that stands in the way is local and state policy and folks like Larry Cuban mistakenly defending the status quo.”
Michelle Rhee – “we need courageous politicians and leaders who are willing to take on the entrenched interests and the defenders of the status quo” – and in the same article, John Kerr – “defenders of the status quo turned their sights last year on incumbent D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty.”
Whitney Tilson – “even the staunchest defenders of the status quo would agree that good schools are critical for our nation”
Doug DeWitt – “she is a consumate defender of the status quo”
Rod Paige – “feel a sense of urgency in saying that defenders of the status quo must step aside”
Conrad Appel – “union leaders and defenders of the status quo will do anything they can to stop this bold education reform”
Patrick Riccards - bonus points for double usage in one blog post - “same students that many defenders of the failed status quo say can’t learn because the [sic] come to school without breakfast” AND ”After all, those status quo defenders contend, collective bargaining agreements are all about protecting the rights and interests of the adults in the system.”
Joel Klein – also gets bonus points for two uses in one article – “those defending the status quo—the unions, the politicians, the bureaucrats, and the vendors—are well organized and well financed” AND “…I fought to break this institutional stranglehold of defenders of the status quo.”
Ben Austin - double-bonus points for double usage in one sentence - “The defenders of the status quo have proven themselves willing to cross moral, ethical, even legal and constitutional boundaries in a desperate attempt to defend an indefensible status quo.”
RiShawn Biddle - triple-bonus points for three uses in one post - “giving congressional Republicans and defenders of the status quo such as the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers exactly what they want” AND ”status quo defenders wouldn’t gain much of a substantial victory” AND ”encountering the wrath of both congressional Republicans and status quo defenders.” (Biddle scored another triple-cliché post here).
Gloria Romero can top that, using the phrase five times in one letter to Antonio Villaraigosa. Here’s the final blow, a particularly sharp one directed at the Mayor himself: “In the likely event that you continue to defend the status quo, then for your sake, stop trying to shrink away and cover up your own spoken words. Fortunately, most Californians aren’t cowardly.”
And finally, one that was aimed at me personally, courtesy of Kelly Amis: “why not use your voice in the public realm to work for change instead of protecting the status quo?” That’s what I get for pointing out the misleading or omitted information in her films (see here, and here).
*ACT takes no position on this or any bill. This blog post is a commentary on the debate.
Last week, my classroom children took the California Standards Test. This is about as thrilling as walking the plank during Shark Week.
In February, John Deasy announced that he wants 30% of my evaluation based on these test scores. And then, later in the same week, came an email from my principal asking for my Stull Initial Planning Sheet.
Now, I don’t mind being evaluated and I like that being next door to my principal’s office means that he’s always in and out. I like that he was a fellow teacher right there with me a few years ago and that he’s very, very close to the challenges of teaching and learning. There’s trust.
I believe that measurement should be part of the job I do, and that I should be able to show some kind of proof that my children are learning. So I don’t get it when people get all upset about data. I am mystified when a colleague claims that teaching is an art that cannot possibly be measured and so we shouldn’t use any data at all in evaluation. It’s complicated. (Here’s a 14-minute video of Linda Darling-Hammond explaining all the factors that go into teacher effectiveness, just for a refresher: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oe76cUWIqBY. It turns out that student attendance is just as big a factor as a teacher’s “value-added” value.)
However, folks can’t go around declaring a jihad on testing, or teachers, or evaluation or anything at all, unless we’re prepared to offer an alternative.
I think there is one.
Darling-Hammond makes the point that the Common Core requires a whole different skill set and, obviously, you can never pinpoint the learning of a freshman who reads at 4th grade level using a 9th grade level test. You need something responsive that accounts for attendance, and individual learning styles, and skill levels. Something that even a classroom teacher’s grading system may not reflect. Something that shows engagement in reading and writing.
Maybe, something like this. Here’s a look at how I grade and analyze my students’ essays:
The capacity of a screen shot is limited, but you can tell that vertically, one student is green (83% mastery), five are yellowish (70% range of mastery), and the rest are orange (below 60% mastery). Of this last group, many have empty boxes signifying missing work that is still factored into their average. If you could see the numbers in detail, you’d be able to tell that some of these “problem” kids are actually doing all right. Wendy, for example, earned an 85% for her single essay. Spread out over three assignments, that equals 28%. Is she failing my language arts class? Yes. Can she pass the California High School Exit Exam? Very likely. A good number of my students fit this profile. Wendy’s scores on my own spreadsheet reflect her growing ability. And they show that if she’s motivated, Wendy can perform at grade level, as far as writing skill – which for me includes reading comprehension and critical analysis – which is NOT measured on the multiple-choice, formulated-by-experts California Standards Test (CST).
What happens if we just take students’ proven abilities into account, rather than holding missing assignments against them? Take a look:
Wait a minute! Now all of a sudden it appears that most of my students aren’t in the danger zone after all, and neither am I. Vertically, students’ actual tested mastery is in the 70 percent range and several show green, which is 80+ percent.
The spreadsheet part disaggregates students’ scores for two writing assignments. In December, we were in the 50% range of mastery across the board. In January, we’re in the 70% range on four out of five criteria. Improvement, right? That’s what I thought! But we can’t use it to measure how effective I am as an English teacher. We have to use raw test scores.
Here is a prediction of how the same students are likely to score on the CST:
This “forecast” is from a software program we use about three times a month in the classroom. It’s test prep, basically, that has interesting, non-fiction, leveled readings followed by some writing activities and multiple choice questions. The forecast itself is generated from a reading-level test that students take the first time they log on.
Notice the reading levels and Lexile scores of the students predicted to score “Basic” on the CST. Wendy reads at 6th grade level. If we are to put faith in the test that gave us this score, that in itself explains the prediction, it has nothing to do with her Language Arts teacher, your humble narrator. (On a separate note, the one student who had an 11.1% chance of scoring Advanced left us for a school in a nearby bedroom community. THAT’S a topic all by itself.)
The next questions are obvious ones – what are the pitfalls of my data tracking approach, and is there one that’s reliable and easy to use out there somewhere? Teachers? Let’s compare notes. Our evaluation agreement says a teacher can use “multiple measures” to show efficacy and I’d like some help over here… the sharks are circling and the quartermaster just gave me a shove from behind.
Today’s InterACT guest blog post was written by Chris Miraglia, an intermediate school US history teacher from Santa Ana USD. A frequent commenter at this blog, Chris also writes at his own blog and is active on Twitter. He wrote this post as a follow-up to his comment on a prior InterACT blog post, Common Core Presentations and Omissions.
As California schools approach the implementation of the Common Core, I wonder how much thought has been put into the actual testing and logistical components associated with the instruction piece. The state has partnered with the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) as the provider of standardized student assessments, and some districts’ schools have recently finished piloting the English Language Arts and Mathematics components of the test. My site was one of those selected for piloting the assessment, and while I was not directly involved with the testing, let me share some of my observations and concerns about the CCSS testing and implementation.
First let me say that I agree with some of the basic principles behind the Common Core, in that our students will be challenged with a more rigorous curriculum, and that although I am not proponent of testing, the type of tests that are utilized under the Common Core are much improved compared to the NCLB assessments. Secondly, I clearly understand the need to pilot and have reviewed the process as outlined by the California Department of Education. However, I am concerned about the amount of testing that will take place.
If one reviews the CDE’s SBAC Frequently Asked Question site, they will see that not only are there plans for the summative assessment, but also for formative assessments. What type of effect will this have on school sites and students? At my site, each round of pilot testing took two weeks, as the four Language Arts teachers cycled through the two computer labs at scheduled times, and later the 7th grade Math teachers continued the testing for another two weeks. All in all, two labs were occupied for a month because of testing. Mind you this was only for 7th and 8th grade students in Language Arts, and only 7th grade in Math. If we add in the 6th graders and also include the remaining assessments for 7th and 8th graders, how much time will be consumed for testing at the expense of losing computer lab access for students and teachers? Fortunately we have three labs, but what is to be done with sites that are less fortunate? Moreover, when our state has still not recovered from the slash and burn mentality of education funding, where will monies be found to upgrade old technology and provide total access to students for the SBAC testing? One of the FAQs on the SBAC site asks “How will we get the infrastructure/technology ready for the proposed assessments?” The response does not indicate how districts will carry this out or pay for such implementation.
Among the teachers who monitored the pilot testing, some basic testing concerns were voiced. These ranged on how to train the students on how to use the computer functions such as using a mouse to highlight or select items, and how to navigate through the menus. We have to remember that many of our students don’t even use computers anymore, but prefer to complete school related tasks on their cell phones, iPods or tablets. By the time implementation takes place in 2014-15 school year, how many more students will not even know how operate a computer’s essential functions?
What about the students? A whole generation of students has been subjected to the incessant testing mentality that consumes our schools; is CCSS testing a change? I think of my 8th grade students who were part of the pilot testing for a week in March, and who will return from Spring vacation to only take another full week of CST testing in May. How do they see their educational experience? Has anyone asked them what it is like to take so many standardized tests on top of the 80 or so Common Assessments and district benchmarks that are administered to 8th graders during the school year? So what will change? Based on what I have read, and heard from district higher-ups, there will be more testing once the Common Core is implemented.
Let’s talk about the costs, apart from technology, to implement the Common Core. As a teacher who has undergone at least 20 hours of training, I have been overwhelmed with massive amounts of handouts. On top of this I have thought about the fact that much of the Common Core teaching strategies such as close reading and the use of complex text incorporate reading and require students to underline, highlight, and markup text in order to better access the content. I am a proponent of those teaching strategies, but with a course load of seven classes and a cumulative total of approximately 240 students, I’ve calculated that I would would burn through two reams of paper weekly. I wonder if anyone has a contingency plan for the increased costs of basic supplies like paper required to fulfill these instructional methods.
Finally, I have put much thought into how districts who insist on utilizing student test data plan to evaluate teachers. Once the Common Core is implemented, it is quite conceivable that test scores will appear quite low, since the assessments and content are new to the students and teachers. Are districts actually preparing to evaluate teachers based on these tests from the start?
These concerns are being echoed throughout the state by those of us on the front lines. Is anyone listening?
This post may only be of interest to a select few people who follow education blogs and policy pretty closely, but I’ll fire off some quick thoughts here anyways. There’s been a spate of online bickering about whether or not it’s hypocritical for people engaged in public education policy debates to send their own children to private school, and how important it is for them to disclose where their children go to school. The recent exchanges began when the L.A. Times started asking where Michelle Rhee’s children go to school, and then it turned out that public schools advocate Leonie Haimson is has become a private school parent too, and now Alexander Russo is recycling 10-month old Whitney Tilson comments about Diane Ravitch’s children and grandchildren…
There’s a very basic way to sort out the hypocrites here, and it’s not based on whether or not their children go to private school: it’s whether or not they advocate to give all children the same benefits they seek for their own children.
Rahm Emanuel, Chris Christie, Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, Barack Obama, and many others in the education “reform” camp seek to impose educational practices and policies that are fundamentally different from the educational experiences they choose for their own children. There are some really good, and really obvious reasons that private schools maintain small class sizes, minimize standardized testing, and don’t use test results to evaluate teachers. It’s because private school leaders, and the families who pay them, know that class size matters, standardized tests are intrusive, and their results are useless in teacher evaluation. So, if you choose one set of conditions for your own children and advocate something quite different for other people’s children, that’s hypocritical.
Leonie Haimson and Diane Ravitch – and actually, many of my friends and relatives – are advocates for a public education that is consistent with the type of private education they currently choose or formerly chose for their own children. (And if this kind of disclosure matters, I went to private school in grades 7-12). It would be hypocritical to rail against private schools and then choose private schools. Some blog commenters have suggested that the hypocrisy is taking advantage of choice while opposing “school choice” policies relating to charters and vouchers, but I think that’s a more complicated issue. I doubt anyone is against the concept of choice, but the specific policies and mechanisms for providing choice lead us into more detailed discussions for another day, another post.
Am I supposed to refrain from advocating for better conditions in urban schools because I choose to work in a suburban district, where my children also attend school? Or to extend the comparison to another sector, would it be a problem if I advocated for better pay and benefits for soldiers and veterans even though I never enlisted in the military?
No one engaging in a public debate should pretend to be something they’re not, so by all means, let’s have transparency regarding anyone who made a false or misleading claim. But let’s put to rest the false equivalence regarding charges of hypocrisy among private school parents who are public figures: hypocrisy is determined by inconsistency between personal choices and public positions, and only one side has made that mistake in this recent dust-up.
The images in the slideshow above are all pictures that I took at the 2011 and 2012 FIRST Robotics Competiton Silicon Valley Regional. (FIRST stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology”). I’ve taken my sons to this event for four years now, partly to encourage my school and my participating students, and partly because it’s fun watching six robots zooming around and smacking into each other in a race to lift and place large inflatables, or play basketball, balance on a ramp or zoom up a pole.
If I’ve posted this online, then we’re on our way to the San Jose Event Center to watch the first day of this year’s competition, which is called “Ultimate Ascent” – yes, frisbee time! Watch the animated film below to see this year’s game.
But actually, the main reason I keep coming back to this event is that I love watching education in action. On the surface, it’s all fun and games, as long as you’re a kid who understands robotics, computers, engineering, CAD, and a variety of other technical and mechanical skills. If you look at the slideshow above, you can see there are great things happening here among the students, audience, coaches and mentors, referees and event organizers.
Students design, build, test and troubleshoot the robots. You can see them working in the pit, safety goggles everywhere, lots of tools and machines, spot welding and testing circuitry, electrical tape, rechargeable batteries and power meters and wire… things… (forgive my highly imprecise terminology). Students have adult coaches and mentors available, and you can see the intensity and teamwork as they deal with the pressure of time and competition to perfect the robot’s performance.
Then there’s the actual competition. Six teams at a time, working in groups of three, place their robots on the field of play. The “field” is constructed on half of the floor in a basketball arena, and the competition takes place under the lights, with dramatic introductions over the public address system, and cheers from the crowd. For most of these students, I dare say this will be the only time in their lives that their techincal skills will be on display in an arena with bright lights, loud music, and an introduction that sounds like it was meant for a basketball team on their home court. In this case, everyone is on the home team. Great fun! The Silicon Valley Regional draws teams most from our immediate region, but each year there are a few teams that make the trip from other western states as well. In the early rounds, teams are randomly matched up. Top performers from the early rounds then form alliances and advance to the elimination rounds. It’s great to see how the teams compete against each other and cheer for each other at the same time. You can see in some of the pictures above how the crowd gets involved, and a little bit of the fun that happens in between rounds, with dancing mascots and lots of audience participation. Teams dress alike – a common t-shirt and color at a minimum, but also various themes such as hats, stripes, or even mohawk haircuts. They often have a little team routine they do when they’re introduced, some choreographed interaction that recalls a touchdown celebration or an NBA team introduction.
From an educational standpoint, there’s everything to like about this event. Students work together for months, learning valuable lessons about planning, problem solving and collaboration. They are developing and using high level academic and technical skills that have immediate and obvious “college and career” applications, but they’re mainly having fun and in it for the comradery and the thrill of taking on a challenge. They are connecting with adults and with their communities, and I think it’s great to see the lesson they provide for adults as well, showing what teens are capable of.
If you look at the pictures above, you’ll see plenty of evidence of sponsorships, and I see that as an overall positive, though questions of equity arise. Robotics teams require expensive equipment, travel, and highly qualified teachers and mentors. And I actually mean – highly – qualified – in a sense that’s quite different from current definitions in education policies. It’s wonderful to see businesses and organizations taking an interest in supporting schools and students this way, and supporting activities that give the “nerds” or “geeks” a very cool outlet and public platform. (I use those terms with a sense of affection and fun, and I should point out that on my campus at least, robotics is now cool enough to attract a diverse group of participants). While I’m thrilled that FIRST Robotics is creating this dynamic opportunity for students around the country, I do wish that our education system as a whole had the vision and resources to create similar opportunities for many more students and many more schools. As usual, the lines between the “haves” and “have-nots” are evident here, too. How long can we afford to ignore or accept those divisions in our society?
I hope people who read this post and learn something about robotics competition will experience a slight shift in expectations. In other words, when we discuss “high expectations” for students, do we only mean that they have to step up and work hard? Or, might we hold ourselves to higher expectations – to provide equitable opportunities for all students to learn in challenging and meaningful ways? Experienced educators and parents know that students will rise to meet and exceed expectations, but we have to show our expectations, because students are smart enough to know the difference between words and deeds.
Still thinking over the presentations I attended at the recent ASCD Conference, I was struck by some other recent blog posts about the Common Core standards transition. There’s been a recent back-and-forth exchange of posts debating a number of issues relating to the CCSS, involving Marc Tucker, Diane Ravitch, and Stephen Krashen. Tucker just posted in EdWeek his “Last Round…” in that exchange, and from his post, you can follow plenty of other links to additional stages in the debate. I went through a similar exchange with Dr. Krashen and Dr. Paul W. Thomas here at InterACT, beginning when I posted about my willingness to use Common Core implementation as a vehicle for more teacher leadership, despite concerns about the standards and the possible testing regimen ahead of us. (And again, you could use that link as a jumping off point for a whole host of additional posts and arguments).
The main problem with the debate, as I see it, is the tendency to slip from one argument to another. In any given exchange, we mix questions of how the standards were designed, their likely consequences for students, teachers, and schools, their costs, feasibility, and other issues. If you want to land completely on one side or other in the debate, maybe it makes sense to whirl all those ideas into the mix at once. As someone occupying a middle ground, I find the debates informative but not very productive.
But thinking back now to the ASCD conference, I’ll say this: I went to at least five presentations (and stayed through four of them) in which the Common Core was discussed by some authors and presenters very well-known in our field – Carol Ann Tomlinson, Heidi Hayes Jacobs, Jay McTighe, and a few others. I also wrote in some detail about the last of the presentations I attended, by Sandra Alberti. And while I heard plenty of ideas about teaching and learning, and even some ideas about supporting teachers in this work, I heard next to nothing about the PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments, about their costs or their implications for educational programs and policies.
I have to admit, both consortia offered presentations at the conference, and I didn’t attend those sessions. But it’s remarkable to me that everyone else seems to be talking about the CCSS transition with minimal recognition of the potential (likely) negative impacts that the assessment programs will have. Let’s balance out the idealistic visions of what could be with a little more practical assessment of the assessments, such as this one by Shaun Johnson. Based on his experiences and ideas about some typical schools, he suggests a number of negative impacts on instructional time, for example: “This could mean as many as 18 straight days of testing, or a full three and a half weeks of school, or approximately ten percent of the entire school year.”
What about the financial costs? Will states that signed on to CCSS balk when the invoices begin to arrive? Recent news item from Oklahoma:
“[Rep. Gus] Blackwell said he was told it could cost $250 million to implement the standards, or more than twice the amount of new money legislative leaders are considering to fund common education for the 2014 fiscal year, which begins July 1.
“Someone is going to make a boatload of money off of this,” he said. “That boatload of money is not going to go to Oklahoma teachers, it’s not going to go to Oklahoma schools, it’s not going to go to educate Oklahoma kids. It’s going to go to testing companies in other states.”
And then there’s the technological demands of the assessment regimen. Now, I’m all in favor of schools upgrading their computing and internet capacity, but CCSS should not be the driver. First of all, when budgets are tight, unfunded mandates are the enemy, preventing local policy makers from having enough discretion in their spending. Second, technology decisisons should be guided by teaching and learning priorities rather than assessment priorities. CCSS advocates would probably say these assessments will improve teaching and learning, and therefore the technology investment will pay off. I’d like to trust local teachers, technology specialists and policy makers to reach that determination for themselves.
I’m truly ambivalent about these standards; I don’t wish to see to see the whole enterprise fail, but I’m not yet convinced that its success is important or feasible. At the local level, I’ll engage in whatever dialogue and collaboration has the potential to help our students, and I’ll speak out if and when I see problems. But I hope advocates of Common Core begin to recognize that near-silence on these practical matters won’t help anybody. CCSS advocates would be better off acknowledging the problems and counseling more flexibility and patience, rather than putting on an air of unwarranted confidence. Downplaying the problems or pretending they’re being adequately addressed is just setting us up for a fall.