Thursday, October 10, 2013

Why I have serious doubts about Common Core (and why you should too)


There has been a lot of talk, a good portion of it negative, about the new federally implemented Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI). The goal of this is to have every school following the same exact standards. While in theory, this may sound like a great idea, a closer look reveals why the Common Core is not in the best interest of our kids. One of the biggest issues, I believe, is how CCSSI resembles the failed No Child Left Behind program. NCLB required teachers to "teach to the test", meaning students are memorizing rather than learning and critically thinking about information. Common Core is a one-size-fits-all education policy that assumes all students learn the same way. Centrally controlled standards will ultimately hurt students’ creativity and learning. Sound education policy realizes that all students have different learning styles, preferences, and paces- and we should be listening to our teachers, not a bunch of rich, old, white men in a big room deciding the fate of our kids.

Recently, the Superintendent of our school district wrote an article, singing the praises of CCSSI. Ask any school superintendent about this program, and you will hear much of the same. I am replying to this article with reasons of my own as to why the Common Core is certain to hurt our children's education, not help it. 

1)      Common Core: The goal is not to "cover" content or to "complete the book," but rather, the discovery of rich content.
The term "curriculum" often used to mean "the book." We used to make sure students were "exposed" to content in "the book" used in that particular class. Standards would vary from classroom to classroom as would specific learning formats used. The goal was to complete the book, with a focus on the delivery of content, not necessarily connected with any real learning. This system of run-through-it-one-time almost guaranteed that some students would learn and others would not.  
 The word curriculum comes from the Latin word meaning "a course for racing." Think how closely  this metaphor fits the way in which educators perceive the curriculum in schools. Teachers often speak about "covering" concepts as one would speak about "covering" ground. And that coverage is often a race against the testing clock. It isn't just "the book."   And just what is wrong with varied standards, and varied learning formats? All students learn differently!! Differentiated instruction is key!This is not a bad thing. 

                                                How we are adapting/implementing:
Curriculum is no longer a static list of check-off items for teachers to "deliver." They are also not kept a secret as in the past. They are a living, breathing, malleable set of high level student  performances which are discussed regularly and are posted on classroom walls. We want to ensure to parents that all students are not only exposed to the same standards, but are expected to perform at the standard described. Teachers now work to re-teach students who need it during each unit by measuring student proficiencies with frequent short assessments (called "formative").

"Expected to perform" That right there sets warning bells off in my head. How do posters on classroom walls enhance or help learning? How does taking re-take after re-take further knowledge when the rest of the class is moving on?

2)Common Core: These standards are all about students obtaining a deep understanding of concepts.
The Common Core does not specify or dictate how the curriculum should be taught, but are instead a set of higher standards which schools should be targeting. The curriculum now might be described as one which is an "inch wide and a mile deep" instead of the previous "mile wide, inch deep" standard of the past. Rote learning and memorizing facts would prepare students well for the 1950's assembly line world.  A rich curriculum involving deep understanding of concepts has a chance to prepare students for the 21st century.     

Federal law prohibits the U.S. Department of Education from “exercising any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction” or selection of “instructional materials.” But wait... the Department got around these prohibitions by making "Race to the Top" funding and No Child Left Behind waivers contingent on a state’s adoption of the Common Core and the aligned assessments. Because curriculum must be aligned with standards and assessments, the Department is able to exercise direction and control over curricula, programs of instruction, instructional materials.  It is true that CCSSI were commissioned by the National Governors Association (NGA) and  by the Council of Chief State School Offices (CCSSO), but federal government provided all funds for national Common Core tests.  States that did not adopt CCSSI were penalized on applications for federal stimulus grants as well. No, CCSSI is NOT mandated (not yet), but it is being dangles like a carrot on a stick and school districts (including ours) are chasing after it. 

How we are adapting/implementing:
Teachers are making significant changes in their classrooms, to having students use information in discussions, expand information using the internet and in formatting information in class presentations. Students are now being asked to construct arguments, analyze, understand and critique others, justify and communicate conclusions, synthesize and interpret, apply answers to the context, and so many more kinds of higher-order thinking and application. Researching websites via computer labs or I-Pads will be more and more prevalent, as will creating and presenting multi-media displays to generate more thought and discussion.  Deep understanding is learning for the 21st century.  
 Teachers themselves have to learn how to be "21st Century Educators" and have their own set of standards to learn and get a 3 or 4. As I thought about this, I realized it is truly about control, control of how and even what a teacher teaches. What if future circumstances required a higher rating to keep a teaching job? What about training that is "suggested" regardless the personal philosophies of teachers? Control people- it's all about control. Teachers would have little control over their classrooms under CCSSI They will be forced to comply with standards decided upon by federal bureaucrats. This leaves little to no room for teachers to innovate to meet the unique needs of their students. Think about this, three hundred prominent policymakers and education experts warn the CCSSI will close the door on innovation and without innovation, we are lost.

3)      Common Core:  Frequent student talk is the goal in Common Core classrooms. Teachers are asked to talk less.
We have known for, not years, but decades, that the lecture has the lowest level of learning of any kind of learning format measured (yes, even colleges are abandoning it.)  Student retention of information is minimal when sitting in a "lecture" classroom (some studies suggest just 5% of the information is actually recalled.) Just the idea of "retention of information" implies literal learning. Student motivation is also low in this kind of format. In a Common Core classroom, student communication can be an effective way to obtain a "deep understanding" of concepts.
I am all for more student interaction and less didactic teaching methods- a student INVOLVED in their education is more engaged, and willing to learn. This statement SOUNDS great. But what if the communication is wrong? The CCSSI assume that what kids need to know is covered by one or another of the traditional core subjects. The unexplored intellectual terrain between and beyond those familiar fields of study is HUGE, expanding by the day, the HOUR!

                                                          How we are adapting/implementing:
"Student-engaged learning" is the goal in the Common Core. The more students are involved with some type of learning activity the more they will learn. These activities can have any number of formats: small groups (research, problem solving, real world simulation, planning a formal presentation, etc.), work in pairs (debate planning, informal presentation, book or article "talk," inquiry/discussion), or many others. The role of the teacher becomes more of a facilitator and less of an "information provider." They use inquiry to build student interest, and students become more investigative in finding answers to complex questions.
Really? The standards, which, by the way are intended to prepare students for non-selective community colleges rather than four-year universities, are inferior to those of some states and no better than those of many others. Common Core’s English language arts standards consist of empty skill sets that, once implemented, might not require reading skills any higher than middle-school level. The removing classic literature and relying heavily on  of “informational texts” completely gives up the goal of truly educating students.  What about the students who need the information from a teacher, and are refused? I am all for kids learning research skills, and being taught and encouraged to find answers as opposed to having them handed to them- but what happens when a student has done all they can, and still needs more than a facilitator? What about the student with autism, ADHD, or LD- that may have executive functioning deficits and needs that extra help?

4) Common Core:  Students learn more on their own by being active participants. They build stamina, learn about persistence and how to solve problems.

Because the Common Core is much more rigorous than state standards, students will have  more difficulty in gaining the proficiencies which are targeted.  In the past, information gaining has been the "end" or target in the learning process. Classroom struggles in the past have been minimal for many simply because the standard was much lower. Applying information to complex problems is much more difficult than learning facts The Common Core will provide the challenge many students have needed. 
The  CCSSI is  more rigorous-if not more challenging (yes, there is a difference).  Younger students will have to learn at a faster pace than ever before. This is going to make early childhood programs  become more rigid. Pre-Kindergarten will be more important, and skills students used to learn in second grade will need to be taught in Kindergarten. What is wrong with this you may ask. Nothing, if you don't take developmentally appropriate practice (DAP) into consideration. There are MANY educational theories out there- some are outdated, and new ones are always being tested. However, I am a student of Piaget, and if you take a look at the picture below, you can see how his developmental stages do not coincide with CCSSI at all.
For example in a group of ten year olds, you can usually find three levels of developmental capabilities based on Piaget’s theory. There will be a few pre-operational, pre-logical, students, many concrete operational youngsters capable of logical operations applied to concrete, direct experience and a few formal operational youngsters who are fully capable of hypothetical deduction and abstract, critical and creative reasoning. How can a standardized, ill defined, one size fits all model appropriately respond to developmental reality? 
How we are adapting/implementing:
Higher-order thinking is being immersed into every grade and subject and is much more demanding. Complex, interactive learning processes are more prevalent and are much more arduous. Students will experience more of a challenge and will be asked and conditioned to have appropriate responses. In this way, the curriculum simulates the real world. Sometimes there are no answers, while other times, all the options are not very good, again, as in the real world. Students will have these experiences earlier in life. They will hopefully learn to build stamina and to not give up. Using these standards, "information" is the means to an end, not an end in itself, and can be used to obtain a higher level of learning. Readiness for college takes many forms. Learning to deal with difficulties and with academic struggles earlier will help students later on.
Notice the buzzwords here: "challenge" higher level of learning" "higher order thinking" Don't these all sound intelligent, and things every parent should want for their child? That is not coincidence folks. This "Race to the Top" is putting the emphasis on testing and scores, not on REAL learning. The CCSSI have not been tested -ANYWHERE. The CCSSI remove any instructional flexibility despite the possibility that their curriculum may not be what works best for a particular class. Teachers will not have the freedom to distinguish themselves and find new ways to connect with their students. Having to take re-take after re-take is not teaching students to deal with academic struggles. It is not TEACHING them anything, but how to finally memorize what they missed so they can finally move on. Or, they just give up all together. 

5)      Common Core: Helping students reach higher.
Students will be asked to perform at a more difficult level in the Common Core classroom. In traditional classrooms, students often were on the sidelines and not really engaged in their own learning. Expectations were low, and so was the amount and level of learning.

Expectations were low? For whom? The Common Core Standards are a set-up for national standardized tests, tests that can’t evaluate complex thought, can’t avoid cultural bias, can’t measure non-verbal learning, and can’t predict anything of consequence. The CCSSI math standards failed to meet the content targets recommended by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, the standards of leading states, and our international competitors, it's already hurting our kids. CCSSI exclude certain Algebra 2 and Geometry content that is currently a prerequisite at almost every four-year state college. With the CCSSI, if a student says 3x4=11- and can explain the steps they took to get that answer- it is not wrong! WHAAATT? Don't believe me? Watch this video, and then you decide. The CCSS “college readiness” ELA standards can best be described as skill sets, not fully developed standards.  And how does teaching to one big standardized test give teachers an accurate view of what their students are learning?  Having to re-test and re-test is still sitting on the sidelines, worse, because now the student is falling behind. 

Fun Fact: The CCSSI Assessments will not have an equivalency test for students with special needs. Many states provide students with special needs a modified version of the test. There will be no modified test for the CCSS, meaning that 100% of a school’s population will have their results reported for accountability purposes.

                                                 How we are adapting/implementing:
By identifying the learning target, students are asked to play a role in their own learning, thereby increasing their motivation to learn. They will have more personal awareness, will be better able to self-assess and to set goals. This challenging curriculum requires students to step up and do their part in the process. By becoming partners with the teacher in their own learning, students will hopefully come to school each day with a higher degree of interest, affording them the opportunity to build stamina and persevere in these tough standards.

I am exhausted by all of the feel good language here. Smoke screens and diversionary tactics all designed to distract people from what is going on with CCSSI. There is no best design for curriculum in any subject. A rigid, single set of curriculum guidelines from  6th-12th grades  is at the very least questionable, when taking into account students diverse interests, talents, and educational needs. Our schools should not be limited in the diversity of curriculum they can offer to students. Multiple models should be encouraged, not a one size fits all approach that is doomed to fail. (Remember No Child Left Behind?)

Something that was left out of this "Yay for Common Core" article is the fact that it  was developed by two tax-exempt private member organizations: the Council of Chief State School Offices (CCSSO) and the National Governor’s Association (NGA).  What this means is that local school districts, school teachers, parents and students are being handed a one-size-fits-all package of educational content and standards established by unknown, un-elected, unaccountable private interests, AND backed by the federal government,  holding themselves up as experts. 
CCSSI relies upon intrusive "state longitudinal data systems"(otherwise known as data-mining), tracking of student performance. Meanwhile, 2012 federal Education Department rules gutted the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), permitting CCSSI not only to track personal student information over more than 400 data points, but to share that information with other government agencies and private entities, and without parental consent. (otherwise known as data-mining). Taxpayers will fund private organizations through grants and stimulus money to develop these database systems, such as CCSSO’s Education Data & Information Systems.  Did you know that? And YOU have no say as a parent- at least in the nine states across the country that have already agreed to adopt this data mining process. Schools in New York, Delaware, Colorado, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Illinois, Louisiana, Georgia, and North Carolina have committed to “pilot testing” and "information dissemination" by sending students’ personal information to a database managed by inBloom, Inc., a private organization funded largely by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. again- don't believe me? Think it's a big government conspiracy theory? Well,  check this report out from the DOE, and again, make your own conclusions. 

A standardized common core of content for school curriculum  ignores developmental differences in individual learners.  All children learn differently, and biology won't be standardized. Imagination and desire to actually learn is being squashed by these Power Standards.  Ask questions. Demand answers, Fight for your child's education.  Common Core is not the answer.