By Jane Weinkrantz
If your life is anything like mine, lately you’ve been fielding a lot of questions about the state of education in New York. People who had been perfectly contented with their children’s schools, lessons and teachers now see a teacher they know at the grocery store, the salon or the gym and take the opportunity to ask why the satisfactory educational experience their child had been having up until recently has morphed into something unrecognizable, stressful and frustrating. With those people in mind, I offer this and my next few columns as primers for non-educators on the reform in New York’s Education System. This column addresses the Common Core and testing.
1. Why has education changed so dramatically? I don’t remember voting for any of this or anyone even telling me about it.
You did not vote for any of the current changes, nor did your politicians mention them while they were campaigning. They are the result of Race to the Top, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Obama’s competition among states for federal monies for education. In order to qualify for RTTT money, states had to agree to tie teacher evaluations to standardized test results, adopt an established set of academic standards and create a statewide database of student information. Under Governor Paterson, the New York State Legislature approved abolishing our state’s cap on charter schools; linking teacher evaluations to standardized test results, and developing a data system to track individual student performance. In return, New York received nearly $700 million dollars in RTTT funding.
2. That’s a lot of money. Have we been able to reduce class size, hire more teachers or upgrade textbooks, technology or physical plants?
Actually, the cost of the reforms mandated in RTTT exceeds the money New York received. According to Superintendent Ken Mitchell’s “Updates on Local Education: Costs and Consequences---Yes, it’s a Race but is it in the Right Direction” published in Fall 2012, six Rockland County districts calculated the costs of compliance with RTTT at nearly $11 million dollars. This figure included teacher and supervisor Common Core training, new textbooks and assessments, curriculum development, the scoring of assessments, technology and professional development. Combined, all six districts had received only $400,000 in Race to the Top funds, leaving them with a deficit of $10 million dollars. Many other districts throughout the state find themselves in the same position. The cost of RTTT mandates, combined with Governor Cuomo’s 2% tax cap, has forced districts to cut staff, increase class sizes, eliminate programs and put off building maintenance. So, if you have not noticed any observable benefits to your district from RTTT monies, it is probably because there are none.
3. I am not really sure what the Common Core is; I only know I can no longer help my child with her homework. What’s going on?
Race to the Top required that states adopt “internationally bench-marked standards.” The Common Core State Standards were essentially the only such standards at the time. However, they were not developed by educators, but by a group of policy makers, consultants and assessment experts, working for the National Governors Association and paid by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The price tag for the standards? $160 million. No teachers and few administrators participated in the initial development, though some came on board later in the process to give the impression of an imprimatur from the professionals who would actually have to implement the standards. Teachers of grades K-3 were not represented. No parents were consulted at all.
The CCSS were developed by “backmapping” which means that their inventors worked backwards from what a graduating senior should know to be ready for college. Then, they traced the senior’s steps backward all the way to kindergarten---without the help of early childhood teachers or specialists. There is no reason or research to suggest this would work.
Furthermore, the Common Core State Standards were never field tested or piloted on a small scale. No one has any idea how effective CCSS will or will not be. Their first implementation is the one we are witnessing now. In an interview at Harvard University last September, Bill Gates said, “It would be great if our education stuff worked, but that we won’t know for probably a decade.” In other words, the current students are the designated guinea pigs for CCSS. This does not stop New York State Ed’s EngageNY.com website from referring to the standards as “evidence based.” I’d like to see that evidence.
4. Are the Common Core State Standards federal standards or state standards? America has never had a national curriculum. In fact, local control of education is an American tradition.
Well, this is an interesting question. The Common Core State Standards are part of the Race to the Top, which is a federal program, but they were adopted on a state-by-state basis. (Only Virginia, Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska and Texas have not adopted the CCSS. )Obviously, they are the standards the current federal government wants states to have. Since teachers across the country are all learning how to instruct Common Core style through the same modules, teaching will be increasingly regimented. The modules actually provide for scripts for the teachers. In the Grade 3, “Writing a First Draft: Facts and Image Side of the Freaky Frog Trading Card,” the module provides exact language for the teacher who must ask the eight-year-olds, “How do you see the author of this model incorporating the criteria for success?” and “I see here how the author made sure to have an important detail for each category from the matrix. That’s one way that he or she is meeting the criteria.” If the Common Core State Standards continue to progress at their current pace, we will have a national curriculum in practice, if not in name.
5. So what do these standards actually say?
According to a PowerPoint presentation by New York State Commissioner of Education John King (http://usny.nysed.gov/docs/reform-agenda-hearing-testimony-nyc.pdf) , curriculum will shift in English Language Arts so that students “read as much non-fiction as fiction,” “learn about the world by reading,” “read more challenging material closely” “discuss reading using evidence” and “increase academic vocabulary.”
In mathematics, the shifts are “focus: immersion in important topics” “build skills across grades,” “develop fluency and accuracy”, “Really know it, Really do it (sic),” “Use it in the real world” and “Efficiently solve complex problems.” The explanations of these shifts are murky and full of jargon. The best way to understand them is to view videos of lessons at http://www.engageny.org/video-library. My personal favorite is the lesson in which a first grade teacher instructs her students in finding textual evidence. She states---completely unironically--- that this is challenging because the children are still learning to read. The idea that this might be putting the cart before the horse seems not to have crossed anyone’s mind. (http://www.engageny.org/resource/grade-1-ela-instruction-focus-standard-ri-11)
Some people say the Common Core isn’t so bad; the implementation is the problem. Is that true?
The implementation certainly did not make the CCSS more popular. Teachers were not given enough time to prepare CCSS aligned lessons, nor were they given sufficient professional development. The state has been late and sloppy in providing materials about the new standards, but it had no problem making students sit for exams aligned with the new approach as early as last year.
To get an idea of how badly the roll out was organized, take a look at the videos and modules on engageny.org and the date each item was posted. Many are dated January 2014. The sample questions for the new English Language Arts CCSS Regents exam were posted on October 1, 2013. The test is June 3, 2014. This gives teachers only 8 of the 10 months in a school year to prepare. The sample questions for the new algebra Regents exams, which will also be given in June, were just updated in mid-December 2013. According to an article by Robby Soave at The Daily Caller, New York City teachers received their third grade math books a month late. Soave, “the mistakes are numerous. A third-grade workbook contains a set of questions accompanying a mismatched reading selection; one of the pages in another workbook is printed upside down; and some teacher’s manuals don’t line up with student versions.”