My Common Core Journey
What follows is the testimony I gave on November 5th to an Interim Study on Common Core held by the Administrative Oversight Sub-Committee of the Oklahoma House of Representatives chaired by Rep. Gus Blackwell. I was one of about 12 parents, students, and educators who shared from their particular perspectives their take on Common Core and the Common Core Initiative. In my sixth point below, I refer to a comparison of the characteristics of a five-to-six-year-old child and the CC Kindergarten Standards being included in the printed version. Unfortunately, I am not able to include those here.
My Common Core Journey
Barbara McClanahan, Ed.D.
Typically the nature of a teacher is to be compliant, and I guess I’ve been an example of that. If I’m asked to do something, I generally do my best to make it happen, even if I question the wisdom of it or even my ability to do it. I really don’t like to disappoint those above me.
As a teacher educator, I teach primarily reading classes. A major assignment in many of those classes requires that my students create lesson plans and/or units on various topics, and they are required to provide a state standard for every learning objective in those plans. I had taught in Texas for a number of years and was familiar with teaching with standards, so once I began teaching at the university, I quickly adapted to the Oklahoma PASS and felt comfortable instructing my students how to use them in their planning. Then suddenly in 2010, we were told by the State Department of Education that PASS was going away and would be replaced by Common Core State Standards.
Falling immediately into compliance mode, I began studying the Common Core Standards to see how they were different from PASS, what I might need to do differently to prepare my pre-service teachers. I was assured by the promotional materials for Common Core Standards that these standards reflected higher expectations of students and teachers, that they were intended to require deeper thinking and closer reading, that there would be a strong emphasis on writing, and the reading of more informational texts. That sounded good to me since those were things that I had already been emphasizing with my pre-service teachers and that had been staples in our Elementary Education program for many years. In fact, a principal in a school where I had done some professional development attended a state workshop on Common Core in 2011; she later told me that she remarked to a colleague after the workshop, “That sounds just like the things Dr. McClanahan has been teaching us!”
But as I worked with the Common Core standards, it seemed to me that there was really not a great deal of difference between the PASS we had been using and what Common Core required, at least at the upper elementary and middle school levels. Keep in mind, I was focused on the English Language Arts standards, since this is the area I work in. But I began to wonder, why would our state change their standards so abruptly when there seems to be so little difference between the old and the new? Surely these standards had been developed over a lengthy time frame by a knowledgeable cadre of educators at the state level, and I was just unaware because I was new. Boy, was that wrong! More on that later.
I did notice that the standards said very little about technology, and I found that Jason Ohler (2013), writing in Educational Leadership agreed with me. The use of technology in the teaching of literacy is one of my areas of study, so I thought it odd that the standards regarding technology seemed so weak, given the fact that technology permeates almost everything we do in the 21st Century. As early as 2000, the International Society for Technology in Education had developed a rich family of standards (ISTE, 2012) to guide the work of students, teachers, administrators, coaches, and computer science teachers in integrating technology into learning, yet the Common Core Standards seemed to draw on none of that.
Then I began receiving catalogues and brochures from scores of publishers, touting their new materials which were “Common Core aligned.” I began to hear that implementing Common Core would take extensive professional development. I wondered, if other teacher education institutions are doing the same kind of work we were doing, why was there this great need to re-train teachers in good teaching practice? What was so different about Common Core that it required such a major professional development effort? Frankly, I couldn’t see it. Unless, of course, teachers were not using the skills we were teaching them. Perhaps that was it. I was still in compliance mode.
I began noting articles in professional journals that suggested not everyone was happy with Common Core. A group of math experts were the first to come to my attention as complaining about the Math Standards. Since math is not my thing, I made a mental note and kept watching and reading. I read about exemplar texts in Appendix B that were intended to be a list of mandatory texts; but Elfrieda Hiebert (2012/2013) convinced me this was a misinterpretation. Yet in the same volume, Fenice Boyd (2012/2103) complained that the exemplar texts lacked appropriate diversity. McLaughlin and Overturf (2012/2013) explained that Common Core required the reading of complex texts that most state standards did not specifically require, but who gets to determine whether given text qualifies as “complex,” I wondered. I began to read about the angst of many English Language Arts teachers who were forced to adjust their literature assignments to 50% non-fiction in elementary up to 70% non-fiction reading in high school (Gewertz, 2013); although I firmly believe in a balance of fiction to non-fiction, I found these percentages on the high side, and yes, I read the explanation that after students leave school, most of their reading is non-fiction—all the more reason, I thought, to give them a strong foundation in fiction reading. In fact, last month the New York Times reported on a study (Belluck, 2013) published in the journal Science that found that students who read literary fiction are better at social skills than those who don’t. These, by the way, are the very skills that critics of our schools often say students will need in the new global society (Friedman, 2006). Then I read that implementing Common Core correctly would require that students no longer write about anything of personal interest; they should only write about factual topics. This I determined to be a distortion, but how many teachers might be operating under it, I wondered. There seemed to be much disagreement as to how to appropriately interpret and implement Common Core. Finally, last spring I read an article that started me searching out answers to my questions in earnest.
The article was written by Tom Loveless (2013), a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. In this article Loveless quoted the Common Core website which states that “[t]he Standards are not a curriculum…Local teachers, principals, superintendents, and others will decide how the standards are to be met.” Although that sounded reassuring, Loveless goes on to explain that school districts are now faced with a range of choices. He used as examples two highly touted and well-known curricula, which both claim to be “Common Core-aligned.” Core Knowledge holds that curriculum should be content-centered, whereas the Partnership for 21st Century Skills focuses on “critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity.” Certainly, a school district has the choice of which curriculum meshes best with its world view of education. The problem is, the tests that will assess students on Common Core are not created in a philosophical vacuum. Which view will the tests test? That is not a trivial question for school administrators and teachers, because, as it is now designed, their very livelihoods are hanging on this decision.
That article got me digging deeper and here is a summary of what I learned.
• First, I learned that despite the denial of Common Core promoters that the Standards are not a curriculum, the high-stakes tests that are part and parcel of the Common Core Initiative absolutely make them the curriculum (James, 2013). Standards should be a guide or a set of goals for learning, but when the learning is assessed with instruments upon which decisions are made which can dramatically impact lives, the standards have to be the curriculum. When teachers and schools are evaluated on the scores of their students on tests that they had no hand in designing, they will focus strategically on what will be tested. Teaching to the test, once looked down on as unprofessional, is already the modus operandi in most schools, promoted from the top down in many cases. The result is a narrowing of the curriculum. We’ve already seen that under NCLB. It can only get worse under Common Core. One solution to that, of course, is to test everything. I read last month that the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) has released an RFP requesting bids on assessments for “Speaking and Listening.” Seriously? I’m having a hard time imagining a computer-based test that can do an effective job of this, and I’m not the only one (Merrow, 2013).
• Second, I learned that despite protests from Common Core supporters, the connection of high-stakes tests with Common Core will undoubtedly lead to a “one size fits all” curriculum (Darling-Hammond, 2010). Teachers are taught how to differentiate learning to meet the needs of all students in our university classrooms. Using differentiated learning techniques, making modifications and accommodations, how to check for understanding and re-teach using different methods when necessary are part of what we teach pre-service teachers how to do. Nevertheless, the high-stakes aspect of the tests combined with the standards-curriculum that lays out in lock-step fashion exactly what must be learned each year or each month or even each week to achieve an acceptable grade on The Test leads teachers to “cover material” rather than “go deep” or re-teach for those who don’t learn as quickly. William Stevenson says this:
“A kind of corollary has developed from the recent emphasis on
testing, and now the present emphasis on Common Core Standards.
The corollary is unintended and unacknowledged, but it is real. Here
it is: all students should learn the same things in the same time
frame and preferably in the same way. To most people who have
taught school, it would seem foolish to make this assumption. How-
ever, if you focus on the reality of what the policies require,
this kind of uniformity is hard to avoid (2013, p. 3).”
Brooks and Dietz (2012/2013) put it this way:
“…the Common Core State Standards Initiative goes far beyond the
content of the standards themselves. The Initiative conflates standards with standardization. For instance, many states are mandating that school districts select standardized student outcome measures and teacher evaluation systems from a pre-established state lists. To maximize the likelihood of student success on standardized measure, many districts are requiring teachers to use curriculum materials produced by the same companies that are producing the testing instruments, even predetermining the books students will read on the basis of the list of sample texts that illustrate the standard. The Initiative compartmentalizes thinking, privileges profit-making companies, narrows the creativity and professionalism of teachers, and limits meaningful student learning” (p. 65).
• Third, I learned that where Common Core has been in place since 2010, we are reading reports of dramatic increases in children are psychologically stressed; students who used to look forward to school no longer want to go (Calamia, 2013; Ravitch, October 25, 2013). Recently, a group of 129 authors and illustrators of children’s books (Public Letter on Standardized Testing, October 22, 2013) presented a public letter to President Obama asking for an end to the abuses of over testing because of its negative effects on “children’s love of reading.”
• Fourth, I learned that high-stakes testing will dramatically increase. Since the implementation of NCLB, Oklahoma has been testing its students statewide based on PASS, so testing on success with the standards is nothing new. These tests have been used to rate school districts, but have provided no information that is useful to teachers for help with individual students and is never provided on a timely basis. Four to five months separate the administration of the tests and the release of the results to the schools. Thus they are useless to teachers for formative assessment, since the results are for students they no longer have in their classrooms. The proposed Common Core assessments are different; they are NCLB on steroids.
This past weekend I attended a literacy conference where two highly respected literacy researchers and theorists spoke about the Common Core Standards. Dr. Robert Calfee (2013) of Stanford provided an understanding of the vision of the Core and its goal of integration across disciplines, a concept I totally agree with; however, when I specifically asked about the impact of tests on these goals, he commented emphatically that tests would undermine them. I next listened to Dr. Tim Shanahan (2013), former president of the International Reading Association, who also lauded the goals of Common Core, but went on to provide examples of test items from proposed tests of both PARCC and Smarter Balance. The take away? He questions whether the sophisticated tests will really work for a number of reasons. Although these presentations helped me better understand how Common Core differs from PASS, and why extensive professional development would be required, they both supported my concerns relative to the disastrous effects of the proposed testing.
Initially, Oklahoma participated in PARCC, one of the two consortia charged by the federal Department of Education with developing multi-state assessments. Instead of one round of testing (for which the two months preceding the test is spent primarily in “test prep”), in a gross distortion of the term “formative assessment,” PARCC requires three rounds of testing—beginning benchmark tests, mid-year “formative assessments,” and end-of-year tests (Hain, 2011). The testing sessions are lengthy and many if not most will be done on a computer. Many of the school districts in Oklahoma do not have the infrastructure to provide sufficient numbers of computers or adequate Internet access to their students to take these tests. What will “test prep” look like for these tests? As a teacher, I understand the value of formative or interim assessments to help direct teachers’ efforts. Although the stated purpose of the first and second rounds of testing is to provide teachers feedback to guide instruction, the track record of OSDE in providing timely and accurate test results leaves me skeptical. Since Oklahoma pulled out of PARCC to develop its own tests, at the moment, teachers all across Oklahoma are desperately trying to prepare students for tests to be given next April, the developers of which have not even been announced yet.
And still speaking of tests, the number of hours, days, weeks, and months that students in our schools must devote to either testing or test prep is growing exponentially. Every time a student takes a test, that is time out of the school day taken from instruction. In our local middle school last April, it took an entire three weeks just to give the tests; because they had to be taken on the computer, and there are a limited number of computers, it required three weeks to be able to schedule every group in and out of the computer labs. The disruption this caused in real learning is astonishing. Testing is not learning. Recently Rob Miller (October 23, 2013), principal at Jenks, OK, published some projections as to how many tests an eighth-grader at his middle school will have taken by the end of the year. Here’s the list: “…probably a hundred subject-area benchmark tests, unit and chapter tests and quizzes in all…courses…the ACT Explore test, the OCCT Writing assessment, the OCCT Science test, the OCCT US History Test, the online OCCT Reading test, the online OCCT Math test, and (for most students at Jenks Middle School) an additional EOI math test.” On top of these, Miller explained that according to the latest information from OSDE, students may be asked to take another round of tests this spring as “pilot” tests for the new OCCRA assessments. According to Miller, that may add another five to ten days of testing, because Jenks doesn’t have a computer for every student either.
I talked recently with a third grade teacher in an Oklahoma City school. She told me that she is required to test some of her students weekly using a computer-based test, and the testing required was often not on the students’ areas of weakness; thus the tests were meaningless for her use. She complained bitterly about the amount of time testing was taking away from teaching.
I have thought about the amount of money being spent on the development of these tests, which are written by professional test writers in huge conglomerate publishing firms like McGraw-Hill and Pearson, with inconsequential input from Oklahoma educators, including teacher educators. I have thought about the millions of dollars it will take to get rural districts up to speed to allow their students to take these tests on a computer. If we were not committed to spending money on these questionable tests, imagine what we could provide for students and teachers and schools in Oklahoma.
• Fifth, I learned that there is little reason to expect that the Common Core Standards will be any more successful in raising student achievement than PASS was. The argument has been made that high standards will improve learning, and there is some research that supports that argument. Linda Darling-Hammond in her book The Flat World of Education (2010) reviewed a set of studies on the effect of standards on student achievement. What her review revealed was that in areas where standards were connected to investments in effective professional development and where tests were used primarily to inform teachers and support curriculum reform, student gains could be documented on performance assessments. This was not true where the standards were not supported in these ways. In fact, when standards were tied to knowledge-based multiple-choice tests that were not shared with teachers in a way that they could use them to inform instruction or plan curriculum, the results were teaching to the test, which actually leads to less learning and critical thinking, and a narrowing of the curriculum, because as Darling-Hammond says, “Untested subjects are…neglected” (p. 71). In 2012 the Brown Center (Loveless, 2012) released a report which focused in part on the question of whether the Common Core State Standards can be expected to improve student achievement. I quote from its executive summary: “…the study foresees little to no impact on student learning.”
• Sixth, I learned that Common Core is inappropriate for early childhood. This fall I am teaching a course called Foundations of Literacy. This course focuses on the very early beginnings of learning to read and write through age 8. When I began to hear reports that the demands being put on first graders and kindergartners by Common Core were developmentally inappropriate (e.g., Ochshorn, 2013; Ravitch, October 13, 2013; Ravitch, October 19, 2013), I decided to check it out for myself. Our textbook is written by Dr. Leslie Mandel Morrow (Morrow, 2012), one of the most highly respected early childhood experts in the United States today. On pages 52-58 in the text, Dr. Morrow provides a list of the developmental characteristics of young children by age. I took the list for the five-year-old child and compared it to the Common Core Kindergarten Standards. I found many mismatches; for example, cognitive characteristics of the five-to-six-year-old child include that he or she can “recognize that one can get meaning from printed words” and “may begin printing or copying letters.” The Kindergarten Standards state that a Kindergartner should be capitalizing the first word of a sentence, be able to write a letter for most consonants and short vowel sounds, and spell words phonetically. I have included copies of Morrow’s developmental characteristics and the Kindergarten Standards with this presentation, so you can see the discrepancies for yourself. How could this happen, one might ask—and in fact, one should.
In looking into this, I discovered that the collaborative group of “experts” who were hired by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers were primarily employees of test writing companies such as Pearson, and none of them had any expert knowledge or skill in early childhood (Cody, 2013; Mathis, 2010). In fact, I also learned that, rather than beginning at the youngest schooling age to begin building the standards, the group decided to begin at the top, as confirmed by Conley and Gaston (2013). Supposedly, they began by asking, “What does a high school graduate need to know to enter college, or maybe a career?” Personally, I see a big problem there. The only national tests we currently have that give us any idea as to what graduating seniors may know are the SAT and the ACT (Huffington Post, 2012). One might start there except for one big problem: every college and university in the nation handles those scores differently, giving them different weights in the selection process, a growing number not considering them at all. So how can we say these tests have the potential to tell us what colleges expect students to know? Another factor is that study after study has shown that the best predictor of college success is high school GPA, not scores on the ACT or SAT.
The developers of the Standards have been less than forthcoming in describing the process that was used in their development, so in fact, I have no idea whether they used the ACT and/or SAT, but if they didn’t, what other basis could they have used? Is it possible that they just created out of whole cloth what they thought freshman should start college with? Whatever they started from, they proceeded to work their way down. I can only assume that by the time they got to about third grade, they had too many standards left over, so they just pushed them further down.
A report by David Conley and Paul Gaston (2013) released in October attempts to “bridge the gap” between Common Core Standards and the Degree Qualifications Profile or DQP; the DQP is an effort to describe the general “learning outcomes” a person graduating from college should expect to have regardless of major. The report describes a survey conducted by the authors of instructors of almost 2000 college courses, asking them how well they thought the standards applied to their expectations of what an entering student should know and be able to do to be successful in their coursework. The authors concluded that based on the instructors’ assessments, “the standards as a whole are applicable to and important for success in their courses.” However, they also state that confirmation of such applicability can only come from long-term studies. Bear in mind that the creators of the standards did not have even this study to work from. Yet, the writers of the standards were so confident in their work that Secretary Duncan required that any state who participated in Race to the Top, must adopt the Common Core “State” Standards (Fletcher, 2010). Conley and Gaston also point out that the Common Core Standards do not specify to what level any given standard must be acquired or mastered in order to be “college ready.” We won’t know that, I suppose, until the tests are launched.
One of the things I learned in graduate school was that you can’t assume a good idea will work; it has to be tested and tried and the results have to be studied to make adjustments. I was appalled when I learned that the Common Core Standards were implemented with absolutely no field testing (Mathis, 2010; Ravitch, 2013). That means we don’t really know whether or how well they will work. The proper procedure would have been to try them out on a small scale before using virtually the entire population of the nation’s children as guinea pigs! And by the way, the standards are copyrighted by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, and states must be given a license to use them (Schneider, 2013). It’s free, of course, to states who adopt them, but that also means that the states cannot change or adapt them in any way to meet specific needs. If they are truly “state” standards, why would a state need permission to change one? And thereby hangs a tale.
• Seventh, I learned that the Common Core State Standards are not state standards at all. Mathis (2010) calls them de facto national standards, but I think they are more than de facto. The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, both national organizations themselves, were willing to front for Department of Education, which appears to covet top-down control of education in this country. The NCSG and the CCSSO did not write the standards; they hired an organization called ACHIEVE to compose them. The writers who worked for ACHIEVE were primarily representatives of publishing and testing companies, including the College Board and ACT (Mathis, 2010). Certain education figures, mostly college professors and only one practicing teacher, were invited to “review” the standards, but not write them (Mathis, 2010). I’m not aware of anyone from Oklahoma who participated in that process. How can these be our state standards? Oklahoma was required to adopt the standards, at the demand of the Department of Education, in order to have a chance at competing in the Race to the Top. Much has already been written on the questionable methods used to make this effort appear to be a state effort, when it was really a screen for federal involvement in the development and promotion of the standards (Cody, 2013). Section 103 of Public Law 96-88 which established the Department of Education as a cabinet-level position expressly prohibits the DOE from “…increas[ing] the authority of the Federal Government over education or diminish[ing] the responsibility for education which is reserved to the States and the local school systems and other instrumentalities of the States.” There is a clear and reasonable argument to be made that the Common Core Initiative is illegal (Cody, 2013).
• The eighth point I learned concerned SAT and ACT rankings for Oklahoma students. Oklahoma has long ranked near the bottom of states in terms of money the state provides for education. A report issued last month indicated that Oklahoma has actually cut more funding to education since 2008 than any other state (Leachman & Mai, 2013). Yet despite that, a review (Bridges, n.d.) of the scores in recent years shows that Oklahoma students score in the middle of the pack nationally on the ACT. Few students in Oklahoma take the SAT, but those who do score exceptionally well. If you accept the premise that these tests indicate college readiness, it seems to me this is clear evidence that Oklahoma teachers, by and large, are doing a fine job to prepare students for college—without Common Core.
• And ninth, speaking of teachers, several studies relating to the process of evaluating teachers based on their students’ test scores have recently been released (Baker, 2013; Educational Analytics, Inc., 2013; Spears, 2013). This process of teacher evaluation is demanded by the Department of Education as part and parcel of Race to the Top, which was the Trojan Horse by which states were lured into accepting Common Core. The theory is that if a teacher is a good teacher, his or her students will always show gains in achievement on the required tests. All teachers know instinctively that this is wrong. Students are not widgets and teachers are not factory workers. There is no quality control that provides a standard product coming to them on the school assembly line. Students vary from year to year in terms of their abilities, so it is impossible for teachers to show the same consistent progress all the time (Ravitch, 2013). These studies document clearly that teachers cannot be fairly evaluated using students’ test scores; one researcher called the teacher evaluation systems “junk science.” Yet with Common Core, we are married to that flawed concept, which has already led to the highly questionable firing of teachers and administrators in many parts of our country (Ravitch, 2013). And as Diane Ravitch (2013) notes, the other countries whose students, many claim, out-score ours on international tests “did not get there by ‘deselecting’ teachers whose students got low scores. Nations such as Finland, Canada, Japan, and South Korea spend time and resources improving the skills of their teachers, not selectively firing them in relation to student test scores.”
Given these nine facts I have learned in my research, I am deeply concerned about the impact of the Common Core Initiative on Oklahoma students, teachers, and parents. Of course, as long as Common Core is in place, I will guide my student teachers in learning how to use the standards as guides, but I will also tell them that as professionals they have a right and an obligation to advocate for their students, even if that means they must challenge the status quo. We as teachers and teacher educators can no longer in good conscience accept what we know not to be in the best interests of our students. Based on what I have learned, I am ethically bound to oppose Common Core. It’s not good for students, teachers, parents, or schools. It’s not good for Oklahoma.
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