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Reading and Writing and Dancing as Long as the Music Plays

Superintendents and Teachers: A Dichotomy of Opinion

Two very interesting reports were released within the last two weeks, one by the Center for Educational Policy (CEP), a research group that receives Gates funding, and another by Ryan Duques of TutaPoint, a for-profit online tutoring company. Although each study surveyed different groups within the education community, the two studies came to rather different and thought-provoking conclusions. Let’s start with the CEP study.

CEP, which claims to be nonpartisan and unbiased, surveyed school district leaders across the nation to get their opinion on the Common Core Standards and related issues. According to the executive summary of the report, “90% of school district leaders agree that the new standards are more rigorous than their state’s previous standards in math and English language arts.” The leaders report a number of major and minor “challenges” in implementing the standards and complain that they receive inadequate support from their state education agencies, but they nevertheless believe at a rate of 75% that “the Common Core will lead to improved student skills.” The CEP did not, apparently, ask in their survey for a definition of what “rigorous” actually means in this context.

The TutaPoint study surveyed experienced teachers from the northeast. The study looked at other issues besides Common Core, but when teachers were asked about their opinions of the Fed-supported standards, 64.7% of those who had an opinion indicated that they feel that the CCSS are negatively impacting the learning of their students. Only 35.3% of these teachers saw a positive impact on student learning. Interestingly, both studies allude to the lack of parent understanding and buy-in as a problem for the CCSS.

How do we reconcile the results of these two studies? It would seem that, taken together, they help identify a significant dichotomy regarding the Common Core relative to these two groups of educators. Superintendents tend to believe the core standards are wonderful, teachers not so much.

As I thought about these results, some questions came to mind: Which of these two groups typically has the better understanding of child development, classroom management, and pedagogy? Which of these two groups spends the most time in the classroom with those who are required to learn under these standards? The answer seems obvious. Superintendents and other administrators are one or two steps removed from the classrooms; they are not in classrooms on any kind of regular basis. How do superintendents really know what’s going on down in the trenches? What expertise do they have to determine so emphatically that the Common Core Standards will have a positive effect on the classrooms in their districts? Perhaps it’s time that superintendents show us their credentials, not the ones that document the courses they have taken in school finance and management, but the ones that show how they understand teachers and students and pedagogy.

A few years ago during my dissertation study of professional development, I identified an interesting finding. One teacher in the study who was excited about the research-based strategies he was learning and eagerly implementing them in his fifth-grade classroom was totally shut down by an administrator. The administrator was worried about the end-of-year state tests and decided that all fifth grade teachers would use the same lesson plans every day, lesson plans in which the teacher in my study had little or no input. The result was that the teacher became so discouraged that of all the other teachers in the study, his students did the poorest on the state tests that were used to determine the effect of the professional development.

This finding caused me to look more deeply into the training of administrators, with the view of writing an article about it. Although the article never materialized, the research I did revealed that the majority of the superintendent preparation programs across the country focus on budgets, finance, and personnel management, with virtually no coursework related directly to teaching or student development. Given the appearance since my initial research of even more business-aligned training programs for superintendents such as the Broad Institute, which are producing the superintendents for our nation’s largest school districts, I would guess this situation has, if anything, worsened.

This would not be a serious problem if the candidates in these programs were coming with a background in teaching. However, my years of experience and study in education tell me that, while some superintendents have classroom experience, many do not. Those who do have classroom experience rarely have it below the secondary level. I shouldn’t have to say that there is a vast difference between an elementary or primary student and a high school student. Given all these factors, I have serious doubts that most superintendents have anything close to a deep understanding of what it is like to be in an elementary classroom. It is logical then that the teachers in those classrooms best understand the negative impact of the “new, rigorous standards” and large numbers of them see it hurting their students.

I also want superintendents in the CEP study to explain why they appear to be dismissing out of hand the highly respected educators, related educational groups, and other professionals (e.g., Dr. Tom Loveless, Dr. Sandra Stotsky, Dr. James Milgram, the Alliance for Childhood, Dr. Gary Thompson) who have raised serious and valid concerns about the Core standards. These individuals and groups have provided chapter and verse to support their positions, but it would seem that the bulk of the superintendents who responded to the CEP survey are either ignorant of them or deliberately devalue them.

No teacher worthy of the designation has low expectations for his or her students. But they recognize that high expectations must be reasonable and built on the developmental capability of the students. They recognize, even without the testimony of respected educators and professionals, that much about Common Core is not reasonable and is not built on developmental appropriateness. They see the “Crash at Crush” looming and many are taking whatever opportunities they have to speak out about it. Speaking out is very dangerous for teachers because administrators may quickly brand them as “troublemakers” and visit minor to severe consequences on them. Evidence that this is happening came from Louisiana just this past week. The fear that such reports engender in teachers inhibits their willingness to share their honest feelings. This situation may produce an inaccurate assumption on the part of superintendents and other administrators that teachers are on board when in reality they are not. Another interesting development last week was the posting of a survey out of Utah which allows teachers to register their dislike of the Core anonymously. I will be very interested to see the results of that poll in which teachers can register their feelings without fear of recrimination.

I think I understand the position that many superintendents and school leaders are in, at least to some degree. They sincerely want their students to do well on the high-stakes exams—and in post-school life. They do not want to run the risk of the draconian measures for punishment mandated by the ill-advised requirements of No Child Left Behind, which Congress should have repealed long ago. And they also do not want to take a loss on whatever investment of time and money they have made as a district in preparing for the implementation of the Core, and I get that. I just wonder what will be the result when the superintendents see their students’ scores nosedive, despite that investment; this is bound to happen because the cut scores will be set to make sure they do. Somehow I doubt that these superintendents will look back and say, “Wow! Maybe the teachers were right!” Instead the teachers will likely be told that they didn’t work hard enough. I hope in the months to come teachers in greater and greater numbers will be willing to stand up with confidence in their academic knowledge and their pedagogical expertise and fight for what they know is best for their students. The numbers are telling us that they know they are right.

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