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Archive for the tag “Common Core”

Words I Long to Hear: “You’re Fired!”

Recently Peter Greene, who writes the pithy Curmudgication blog, has posted two pieces—one here more or less explaining why “Progressives” oppose Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and one here with the down-low on the “Conservative” rationale for opposing her. None of his points will you find anywhere on the mainstream news outlets; believe me, I’ve looked for them there.

Greene does an excellent job of summing up the arguments against DeVos from both camps, but one thing he doesn’t address directly is how the candidate who promised to “get rid of Common Core” has appointed one its biggest supporters to the catbird seat. (Yes, I know she has eschewed her earlier intense support for the Core, but I attribute that to the pragmatics of jumping off a sinking ship. She still hasn’t given up on “high standards” and “accountability.”) So what led Trump to this seeming contradiction?

I’m certainly not privy to all the machinations and conversations that have taken place among those who are putting together the Trump team, but if we look at Trump himself and how he operates, a likely explanation emerges: DeVos is the quid-quo-pro to buy the support of the reluctant Republican “elite,” the money men who have been scared to death that Trump will mess up their charter school, hedge fund playpen. Trump needs the support of these players, whether he is willing to admit it publicly or not. I have no clue whose idea it actually was to suggest that DeVos might be the key, but it was a brilliant stroke in keeping with Trump’s own tactics in deal-making.

When it comes to education, Trump is simply ignorant. He is a businessman who thinks like a businessman. Like most Americans, he feels he is an expert on education because he went to school. He put in his twelve years as “an apprentice” so he “knows” education. But education—especially public education—is a highly complex, nuanced entity, peopled by humans—students, teachers, and administrators—who do not respond like widgets on an assembly line. Education must address issues such as who is taught, what they are to be taught, who gets to teach them, what assurances do we need/have that students are learning, and how it can be done on the cheap—because the American public doesn’t like to give money to schools.

To all of this, Trump is issue-blind but consummately confident in his ignorance. Thus, I’m sure that when the emissary for those hedge-fund-happy Republican donors suggested someone (DeVos) who had an exemplary reputation in “making schools great again” (through charter schools) and who doesn’t like Common Core (now), Trump felt quite comfortable that he was making a great deal, if by appointing her to the Department of Education, he gained the loyalty of the Republican Old Guard. “I give a little, you give a lot, and we both walk away happy, right?” One wonders who gave more. And public education is once again the sacrificial lamb on the altar of politics-as-usual.

So what do those of us who are opposed to DeVos from either progressive or conservative perspectives do? Do we sit back and wait for this too to pass? I say, no; we did that when the accountability movement started, knowing where it would lead. We as educators protested and groused a little, but for the most part we bit the bullet and tried to do our jobs. The result has been that when accountability didn’t work, the reformers failed to see the error of their ways; they just double-down on accountability and shift it off to the states through ESSA. We cannot afford to continue on the “Do Nothing” path if we want to salvage public education—and I am of the opinion that the future of our democratic republic really does hinge on its survival.

So here’s what we do: we turn DeVos into a huge liability, one that Trump can no longer afford to hang onto. The thing that is more valuable to Trump than the moneyed Republicans whose support he bought with her nomination is the opinions of those who voted him into office. As Peter Greene states, we need to be calling and writing our senators, especially those of the Republican variety to let them know why we think making DeVos the Secretary of Education is a betrayal of Trump’s campaign promises. We must convince enough senators to publicly announce their lack of confidence in DeVos, to the point that Trump understands he is losing the support of those who put him in office. Trump is a pragmatist; if we mount such a campaign and the senators respond as we hope, my guess is Trump’s rejoinder will be, “Betsy, you’re fired!” and rescind her nomination.

We are the only ones who can make that happen. Call, email, write your senators, and then call, email, and write some more—and we must do it quickly as the confirmation hearings will begin very soon. The Network for Public Education offers a “Stop Betsy DeVos Toolkit” with lots of suggestions. A grassroots campaign of social media, letters, calls, and emails to legislators worked in Oklahoma to lay the groundwork to get rid of the Core. Let’s take this spirit of grassroots resistance national!


Where Is Education Headed?

Yesterday I was at a meeting of a service organization in which I am very active. As the meeting ended, another member of the group, who is aware of my activism regarding public education, approached me. “I want to ask you a question,” she said. “Where is education headed?”

I have to admit I was a little dumbfounded by the question. Surely this lady had not been under a rock for the last several years; surely she knows what I am about and why. Then she went on. “I have a daughter who has been teaching kindergarten for 28 years. I’m asking for her because she is wondering, if things aren’t going to get any better, maybe it’s time to quit.”

This is a serious question and one that many teachers in our neck of the woods and across the nation are asking themselves. I’m not sure I gave my friend a very satisfactory answer. I briefly reviewed where we are with the reauthorization of ESEA in light of Boehner’s resignation, which is unclear. I told her that there was both good and bad in the drafts I had read before Boehner’s announcement–the good being that the drafts scaled back the amount of influence the USDOE can exert on the states regarding education, the bad being that legislators are still in love with standardized tests and charter schools. But now it was not clear that any of the proposed drafts will be passed and that is discouraging. I told her that I had been monitoring an interim study being conducted by some state legislators last week that heard many experts testify as to the invalidity and harm being done by using student test scores to evaluate teachers as required by a waiver from the effects of the current version of ESEA (otherwise known as NCLB) according to the USDOE. I told her that representatives of Washington State, which had lost its waiver two years ago, testified that they were trucking along just fine without it, so why couldn’t we? That was somewhat encouraging.

But I don’t think any of that caused my friend to leave with any less concern for her daughter. And to be honest, I don’t think anyone can answer her question at this point. It is absolutely clear to those who pay attention that public education has been under attack from many quarters for an extended period of time. The results have been cataclysmic in some areas, just inconvenient in others, but no one has yet been able to point to any lasting positive results. Those who are the enemies of public education (and some of these do not see themselves as enemies, but they are) have spent much time and money to shield what they are doing from the public, and what is most discouraging is the naiveté and placid acceptance of their efforts by many of the stakeholders most affected–parents and teachers. Teachers I understand to some degree, because their jobs are on the line and it is risky to challenge. Common Core, which has received the most public attention, is/was only the most visible piece of the program for dismantling public education, and there are many more prongs to the attack–overuse of standardized tests; collection of inordinate amounts of data on our children that are unreasonable and insecure; the institution of an A-F grading system for schools that ignores the nuances of what success really means in a given community; the use of standardized tests to rank, punish, and eliminate local schools and their boards, students, and teachers; the push to replace these “failing” schools with unregulated charter schools that feed at the public trough.

But wherever I go, I learn that so many parents simply are blind to what is happening and don’t want to believe me when I tell them. I am convinced that the only way to foil the plans of the enemies of public education is to keep fighting, keep up the efforts to make parents aware, not just of what is happening, but of their POWER to stop it. It is definitely an uphill battle, but I for one cannot quit. To quit is to say that what I have devoted my life to is a waste. But more than that, it is to give up on the children of this country and on our very democracy. I won’t quit. That’s the most positive thing I could tell my friend yesterday.

Some Belated Thanksgiving Thoughts

One of my special “thank-yous” this year has to be for my husband’s recovery from a heart attack and triple by-pass surgery in August. The heart attack was totally unexpected because he seemed very healthy except for some back problems and a few other minor complaints. Besides that, since he had a pacemaker put in several years ago, he has been under the care of a cardiologist who did regular exams including stress tests. He always passed with flying colors, and the doctor commented that he hoped he would be in as good a shape when he got to my husband’s age (72, in case you’re wondering). So it was quite a shock when the doctor came out of the heart cath lab on that August day to tell us that my husband was literally a ticking time bomb and needed immediate surgery.

I will be eternally grateful (1) that he survived the heart attack, (2) that we were in a place where the surgery could be done immediately, and (3) that his recovery has been truly remarkable in several ways. He was able to leave the hospital within six days after the surgery. He has quickly regained his strength, so much so that he did not have to miss his bear hunt this fall. He is doing any and everything he wants to do. The doctors told us to expect that in time, but I think the speed of his come-back is unusual, probably because he was basically in good shape–except for his heart–before the attack.

But I have noticed something else. Many of the things that were bothering him before the surgery no longer do. For example, he had complained for several years about acid reflux and doctors had prescribed various medications for it. Yet even with the medications, he still had frequent attacks. Since the surgery, no more acid reflux. I think this suggests that the “acid reflux” was really referred chest pain, but no doctor ever suggested that.

Another example was severe leg cramps. He woke up almost every night for years before the attack with cramps so bad he would have to get out of bed and stand and stretch the muscle to get relief. Various doctors suggested remedies–drink more water, take zinc tablets, etc. Nothing worked. The most recent doctor put him on valium, which seemed to provide some relief. And since the heart surgery? No leg cramps.

This got me thinking that quite probably many of the minor complaints he was experiencing may have actually been tied to the undetected heart problems. Yet no doctor put all the pieces together to zero in on the real issue. This certainly makes the argument for digitized and accessible health records seem more reasonable to me, although I also see the downside of that.

However, because it’s never very far from my mind, I began thinking how this idea of looking at the whole patient applies in education. Many educational folks have long called for teaching the whole child, but what is happening today at the behest of test-focused educrats and corporatistas is anything but teaching the whole child. These single-minded policymakers seem to feel that the prescription for what ails education is their test-and-punish accountability policies. If we just administer the prescription with more “rigor,” college and career ready students will automatically graduate from our schools at a 100% rate. Here’s a clue, policymakers–you’re not treating the whole child. As long as you ignore 75 to 80% of the factors that impact how well children can do in school, as long as you want to claim that students with special needs just need to be encouraged to work harder, as long as you blame teachers for the problems you yourself have created, you will at some point be confronted with “a heart attack.”

Perhaps it has already begun. This gives me hope–the dumping of Common Core in several states, the rise of parent activist groups all across the country connected by social media, the opt-out movement among both parents and teachers that is spreading like wildfire. Now even higher ed is beginning to wake up, jerked to attention by the new draft regulations to insert the DOE as the determiner of whether teacher education programs are effective, yet again based on students’ test scores. The next step is for all of these groups to recognize that they have a common enemy and actively and deliberately collaborate to be the educrats’ heart attack. They are the plaque in the arteries of corporate reform. They have already given them “chest pain;” they just need to keep up the pressure.

Afterglow and Afterthoughts

Some Thoughts on Glenn Beck’s We Will Not Conform Interactive Event:

I have to admit it was thrilling last night to watch and participate in Glenn Beck’s national presentation designed to generate a unified action plan at scale to stop Common Core. To see the faces at the tables and in the audience, many of whom I know personally and who have been involved in this rather lonely fight for a number of years, was to say the least satisfying. Finally this issue is beginning to receive the attention it deserves with the goal of moving forward strategically with a united front.

Yet I was also struck by who wasn’t there. A number of state and national leaders in the anti-Common Core movement were notable for their absence. Some names that come to mind are Mercedes Schneider, the brilliant teacher-investigator-statistician who has dug up and exposed in great detail the interconnections of the corporate reformers; Diane Ravitich, who switched sides on privatization when she saw the damage it was doing and built what I believe was the first network of social media to share information; in my own state of Oklahoma, Linda Murphy, who raised the cry early on and traveled the state to raise awareness among parents, teachers, and legislators; and I could name others, but these suffice to make my point. And my point is more of a question: although Beck emphasized that this issue cuts across all political ideologies and perspectives, what does not having these folks at the tables or at least in the audience actually say? For all I know, invitations to participate may have been extended and declined, but I would like to have heard the names mentioned or some reference made to them. And it was striking that by far the majority of the people on the panels fall into the conservative camp. Where were the “liberals?” It’s their fight, too, in many cases.

I also had a couple of concerns in regard to the “Alternative” table discussion. The three alternatives that were suggested were homeschooling, private schools, and charter schools. First, from a realistic standpoint, all three of these options are middle-class options. Only middle-class parents can afford to homeschool or pay tuition for private schools and quality charter schools. Parents who struggle in poverty to simply put food on the table have nothing left over to activate these choices. These “alternatives” allow escape from Common Core for middle to upper class children but leave the poor to sink in it. For that reason, I do not see these alternatives as any kind of real solution to the problem of Common Core. I realize that the statement was made that even if these alternatives are used, we can not turn our backs on public schools, but I fear that is exactly what will happen if large numbers of middle-class parents avail themselves of these options. Public schools are absolutely the backbone of our democratic system, a fact that the founders of our system of government clearly understood. To abandon them is to give up on democracy.

A second concern I have is with the presentation of the charter school option. This is no reflection on Dr. Terrence Moore, who did an admirable job of defending his particular kind of charter school and did indeed bring the conversation back to support of all education, whether public or private. My concern is what was left unsaid about the charter school movement in this country. For the most part, charter schools, using the euphemism “choice,” have been co-opted by the wealthy charter school entrepreneurs to become even more wealthy at the expense of the public coffers. The huge charter chains which have taken over in cities like New Orleans are failures and are failing the students and communities where they exist. I think it is important to draw the distinction between these kinds of charter schools and the ones Dr. Moore represents, and that was not done in the program.

I hope these comments will be taken in the spirit in which I intend them–as an attempt to broaden the conversation. If the movement is to be effective, all stakeholders of all political persuasions must be on board and put aside personal differences that may exist. The solution must be a solution for all, not just the middle class, lest public education experience a new iteration of white flight. And we must return charter schools to their original purpose–to create sites of real innovation, instead of profit centers. As we move forward on whatever action plan may be determined appropriate, I hope that the issues I have raised will be addressed.

David and Goliath: An Oklahoma Story

  • An Analysis of the Defeat of Common Core in Oklahoma through Gladwell’s Lens
  • David and Goliath by Gebhard Fugel This past week I was invited to Oklahoma City to participate in a photo event marking the historic signing of HB3399, the bill that ended Common Core in Oklahoma. I’m not at all sure I belonged with the group in the photo, but I was pleased to represent my region of Oklahoma by participating. The effort for HB3399 was totally an ongoing grassroots marathon that for some began four to five years ago. I only became aware and took an active part over the last year, but this involvement has given me unique insight as to how the surprising upset was accomplished.

    In the beginning, overturning Common Core seemed like an impossible goal. By the time anyone really knew what was happening, the governor, the state superintendent of education, and the legislature had worked together to not just put Common Core “in place,” but to put it into law. By June of 2010, it had become the law of the land and virtually no teachers or parents had even heard of it. As some of us began to question it, as we dug into its history and background, we learned that Common Core was much bigger than Oklahoma; it was a national initiative to ensure that all American children learned exactly the same thing at the same time and were tested on their knowledge based on those standards with exactly the same tests, and the data from those test results would be accessible on a national level to third party vendors. We figured out that the impetus behind it all boiled down to a few individuals or groups with a lot of money who either thought they knew better than educators and parents how to run education, or who saw huge profits to be made in providing curriculum materials, computerized tests, and professional development for the “new, national” standards. It has become a fight of the “one-percenters,” the super-rich “philanthropists” with a business perspective and sometimes (oftentimes?) questionable motives, against disconnected, politically unsophisticated, and normally compliant parents and teachers.

    As the battle was playing to what we thought was its end, I happened to be reading Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (2013). I was intrigued by the correlation I noted between theories in this text and what was happening in Oklahoma. Perhaps it will be useful to review those correlations.

    Not Playing by the Rules

    At the beginning of the book, Gladwell introduces his premise using the familiar Biblical tale of David and Goliath, but he cautions that David’s victory over the giant warrior was not as straight forward as we usually think of it. It’s important to know, for example, that there were certain conventions of warfare that everyone was expected to follow; one of those conventions involved avoiding devastating and costly battles by agreeing to one-on-one contests. Each side pitted its best hand-to-hand fighter against that of the other side, winner take all. In the David and Goliath story, that’s just what the Philistines were trying to set up, but no Israelite was big enough to stand a chance against Goliath. When David rose to the challenge, everyone, including King Saul, expected him to fight a close, hand-to-hand encounter. David, however, knowing that was effectively suicidal, refused to follow the conventions. He elected to use his highly honed skills as a slinger against Goliath. Slingers comprised one of the three components of every ancient army, along with foot soldiers in heavy armor and archers who stayed behind the lines and did not need armor. Thus, when David approached him with no armor and no visible weapons, Goliath was perplexed, and only too late did he realize that David wasn’t following the “rules.”

    I see a clear correlation here to the story of the defeat of Common Core in Oklahoma. To begin with, the movement essentially started with a very small group of parents, some of them also teachers, who realized early on the standards themselves were not well written. Although there were some good parts to them, on the whole, they were not developmentally appropriate, especially at the lower grade levels, and they made assumptions about children and learning, even at higher grade levels, that were inaccurate. These individuals were led to do a great deal of research through which they began to see that the standards were only a part of a much bigger “initiative” promoted by the federal Department of Education to be “national” standards and funded by philanthropists with a decidedly “corporate reform” bent, and that the ultimate goal of these tightly connected “reformers” was data collection on both kids and their parents and the ultimate destruction of public education. They were determined to stop it, but what could such a small group do against such a huge and well-funded business-government coalition?

    They became “David” pacing back and forth at the top of the ridge surveying the valley below where the huge giant stood commanding the field of battle. For approximately three years, they researched, wrote, and talked to anyone who would listen–and there weren’t many who would. They were often ignored or dismissed. As they traveled from one corner of the state to the other at their own expense, giving presentations with PowerPoints displaying screenshots with documentation for their claims, a few people began to listen, especially parents whose children were now dealing with some of the disturbing curriculum being introduced as “Common Core-aligned.”

    Realizing that, since Common Core had been voted into law, repeal would have to come through the legislature, they began lobbying legislators to submit repeal bills. Although bills were submitted at each session, they never reached the floor, probably because of the influence of the minions of those who had pushed Common Core from outside the state in the first place, and because few legislators saw these new standards as significantly different from any other set of standards, for heaven’s sake! In 2011 and 2013, however, two representatives were given permission to hold a couple of interim studies on Common Core. At each of those studies, educators and parents testified, some angrily, some tearfully, as to numerous problems with Common Core and about the problems with testing that were already being experienced and would intensify as Common Core was fully implemented. I testified at one of these studies; unfortunately, only a handful of legislators actually showed up to hear our testimony.

    Traditional political wisdom would say that the cause was hopeless; there were too many people with too much money and power arrayed against us to achieve our goal. But those with the power didn’t count on the Mama Bears. By late fall 2013 into winter 2014, parent legislative action committees began to spring up all over Oklahoma. These groups were concerned and they were angry. Not only did they feel that Common Core was not appropriate for their children, they felt they were totally left out of the educational and political process. This was the point where “David” stopped following the conventions of how things get done in politics. The various parent groups set up Facebook pages and posted the research that they were doing that revealed the corrupt underbelly of the Common Core Initiative. These posts were shared and re-shared and re-re-shared. There were blogs and Twitter conversations to develop strategies and to keep one another informed. Connections were made with similar groups across the country; we learned we were not alone.

    It was determined that the only way to get the attention of the legislature was to bombard individual legislators with emails, letters, and phone calls, and the Mama Bears did it by the thousands, using social media to coordinate their efforts. In fact I read that, after the bill was passed and the governor was contemplating whether or not to sign it, she received over 20,000 emails and calls requesting her to sign. On at least two occasions, the call went out for parents and teachers to report to the Capitol en masse for a systematic lobbying effort, and hundreds showed up. That is the kind of grassroots demonstration that “Goliath” never expected. And Oklahoma is not the only place this kind of political activism among parents and teachers is being exercised. This is happening in many states across the country, and one by one, the dominos are falling.

    Giants Are Not Always What They Seem

    The second correlation with Gladwell’s rendition of the David and Goliath story has to do with the idea that Goliath’s greatest strength was actually his greatest weakness. According to Gladwell, researchers now believe that Goliath suffered from a malady known as acromegaly. This condition is brought about by a tumor that grows on the pituitary gland, which as you may recall, is the tiny gland in your head that controls growth. Acromegaly causes growth in height to continue well past the time it ceases in normal individuals, resulting in extreme height, sometimes eight feet or more. This certainly could explain Goliath’s reputation as a giant. However, most people with acromegaly also have very poor vision, including double vision, and the evidence in the Biblical text suggests this was true for Goliath. Thus, Goliath was unable to determine that David was not planning to follow the rules of hand-to-hand combat until he was well within range of his slingshot. As Gladwell says, “The powerful and the strong are not always what they seem” (p. 15). I think this is certainly true of the groups and individuals who developed and successfully (to a degree) promoted Common Core. For whatever reason, they believe that they and only they know exactly how to “fix” American education. This deep-seated hubris leads them to believe that the rest of the nation should be grateful for what they are doing and not question it. They believed they could pave the way for acceptance by the people by paying for it with their largess. They did not expect any significant opposition and did not plan for it. Thus, by the time it had developed, they had no response other than to continue to spout the unsupported and undocumented talking points they provided initially. In my opinion, the strength of their self-confidence in themselves and their money was their undoing, at least in Oklahoma.

    Gladwell points out that “underdog strategies are hard” (p. 32). When you are the underdog, the temptation is to use the expected familiar tactics. To develop new ones and to put your trust in them takes guts and determination and plain old consistent hard work. That certainly describes the work of the Mama Bears in Oklahoma in the years leading up to HB3399.

    The Theory of Desirable Difficulty

    Gladwell also discusses the theory of desirable difficulty. This theory proposes that, although discouraging difficulties in life, such as being born dyslexic or losing a parent at an early age, may result in some people accomplishing less than their potential, for others the very difficulties they experience have the effect of being the catalyst they require to succeed. One aspect of this is based on the Five Factor Personality Assessment; this measurement looks at where individuals fall on a continuum of five factors: neuroticism, extraversion, openness, conscientiousness, and agreeableness. One psychologist believes that innovators, people who think and act outside the box, tend to have a great deal of openness and conscientiousness; however, they surprisingly tend to be somewhat disagreeable, in the sense of being “willing to take social risks–to do things that others might disapprove of” (p. 117). In other words, the difficulties they have faced and survived may actually lead them to take the risks necessary to challenge the status quo.

    In relation to this theory, Gladwell also talks about the fear of fear being a major factor in not overcoming in desperate situations. When a person has been through “hell,” so to speak, and survived, he or she tends to lose the sense of fear. He or she is ready and willing to be “disagreeable,” if that’s what it takes to accomplish an important task.

    How does this theory explain the Oklahoma fight against Common Core? I can only speculate, since I do not have knowledge of the stories of thousands of teachers and parents who took an active role in this campaign; however, I have heard the stories of parents watching their children struggle with developmentally inappropriate school tasks and tests, and I have heard from teachers who are demoralized by the pinball machine of constant reforms and incessant testing and test prep, who are cheated of the opportunity to use their professional knowledge and decision making art and skill. I strongly suspect that many of these folks have moved beyond their fear of the consequences of speaking out and taking a public role in an attempt to regain their voices in the education of the children of this state. It may have been, like the snake in the beaker of water that doesn’t realize the temperature is being raised to the killing point, these folks might have consented uncomplaining, had the “reform” of Common Core been introduced in a way that gave them the appearance of having a voice in its adoption. As it was, the top-down, “we know best” attitude of the promoters and the immediate and devastating impact it had on children and teachers resulted in a level of “discouraging difficulty” like nothing they had yet experienced. At some point that “difficulty” reached a tipping point; there was no fear left; action was required no matter the risk. I do know that many of the anti-Common Core “operatives” became decidedly “disagreeable” in the view of a number of legislators and state officers; they simply would not go away.

    The Theories of the Limits of Power and the Inverted U Curve

    Another theory that Gladwell deals with in relation to battling giants is the theory of the limits of power. He explains the perspective developed by Nathan Leites and Charles Wolf of the RAND Corporation that became popular after World War II for dealing with insurrections. According to Leites and Wolf, people operate rationally on a cost/benefit basis; that is, if the cost is too great, behavior of an individual will change. They believed then that “influencing popular behavior requires neither sympathy or mysticism, but rather a better understanding of what costs and benefits the individual or the group is concerned with, and how they are calculated” (p. 202). In other words, if the rebels’ behavior doesn’t change, the cost to them is not severe enough. According to Gladwell, the IRA Insurrection in Northern Ireland and Viet Nam were both fought on exactly this premise. It didn’t work in both cases, or in many others. This theory has as its basis the idea that “the power of the state was without limits” (p. 217).

    Gladwell maintains that Leites and Wolf had it all wrong. Whereas Leites and Wolf said authority doesn’t need to worry about how those in their power felt and thought, Gladwell says it is absolutely imperative that authority figures care about the feelings of their “subjects” and communicate that to them.

    Gladwell also talks about something called the inverted U curve. The theory of this statistical curve is that making a change of any sort often follows a kind of upside down “U” trajectory. Initially there appears to be a quick and beneficial benefit or “rise” due to the change. At some point, however, the benefit from the “rise” flattens out; applying more of the change doesn’t get the same dramatic effect. Eventually, the benefit actually begins to fall; no matter how much more of the change you apply, the benefit becomes less and less. Gladwell applies this idea to the exercise of power, and comes to the conclusion that there are definite limits to power. He goes on to explain that when those in power do not take the feelings of the people into account, their power loses legitimacy in the eyes of the people. They no longer see any need to be loyal to that power. “The excessive use of force creates legitimacy problems, and force without legitimacy leads to defiance, not submission” (p.273).

    Let’s see how this theory applies to the repeal of Common Core in Oklahoma. Research has shown rather conclusively that there was a concerted effort on the part of several corporate reform entities aided and abetted by personnel in the U.S. Department of Education to bypass the democratic process to install the Common Core State Standards in every state before the public was aware of it, at which point, they believed it would be too late for the states to back out. As the realization of that slowly dawned on parents and teachers in Oklahoma, they began to feel that they had had no voice in what was happening to their schools and to their children. And as they realized the result of corporate reform, including Common Core, would lead to more and more standardized testing, and the data from their students would be shared inappropriately–all excessive uses of force–those pushing for Common Core began to lose legitimacy in their eyes. A strong opt-out movement sprang up in Oklahoma; many parents, including some 800 in the suburban community of Jenks, requested that their students not participate in field testing for the new tests. There was a marked rise in parents who began to homeschool their children in an attempt to avoid the impact of Common Core and other reforms. The development of the parent legislative action committees was in itself an act of defiance.

    To make matters worse, the state superintendent of education essentially turned a deaf ear to all requests by parents and schools to mute the impact of the reforms, including Common Core. Probably the straw that broke the camel’s back was her rigid insistence on the Reading Sufficiency Act (a major part of the corporate reform agenda) which required all third-graders unable to pass the third-grade Language Arts test (of which less than half was a true reading test) at the prescribed level, would be retained. The superintendent’s lack of compassion and understanding absolutely contributed to the decline in the sense of legitimacy of the state education agency. Not only were parents complaining loudly on social media and in other venues, many teachers and administrators across the state took to writing blogs, some anonymously, some not, and writing news releases to draw attention to their plight.

    I feel confident that this loss of legitimacy facilitated the “insurrection” against Common Core in Oklahoma. As I write this, the story is not done. After the governor signed the bill overwhelmingly passed by the legislature, a small group of teachers and parents and members of the governor-appointed school board filed suit in the Oklahoma Supreme Court to have portions of the bill declared unconstitutional. This appears to be a political game organized to deflect the heat from the governor and still keep Common Core. I don’t think the Mama Bears and the teachers are going to be fooled this time. They have lost all faith in the legitimacy of those currently in power in Oklahoma. If the Supreme Court tows the power line and declares the bill unconstitutional, I have no doubt there will be political repercussions in the months to come.

    I don’t propose that the theories that Gladwell spells out in David and Goliath explain everything about how Common Core was/is being defeated in Oklahoma, but I do believe much of what happened and is happening can be interpreted in light of these theories, and I believe we can benefit from understanding how these theories apply. Those who have fought this battle, however, should also consider them a warning. The inverted U curve can exert its power in unexpected ways; the strategies utilized against the pro-Common Core factors can simply lose their effect if they are overused. The inverted U suggests there is a limit to their effectiveness. It remains to be watchful and vigilant, something we haven’t been particularly good at in the past. I hope we are not destined to repeat this history. With knowledge and determination, we don’t have to be.

    Work Cited

    Gladwell, M. (2013). David and Goliath: Underdogs, misfits and the art of battling giants. New York: Little, Brown, and Company.

    When Do Ethics Kick In?

    Competent, Committed, Ethical–this is the motto of the Teacher Education program at the small regional university where I teach. When I began there six years ago, I was mostly concerned with the first two aspects of this motto. I set about designing lessons and projects that I felt would help my pre-service teachers build an adequate knowledge base about how to teach reading (my particular area of expertise) and how to become a reflective, life-long learner focusing on the needs of their students and how best to meet them. I really didn’t pay a great deal of attention to the “ethical” component of the motto; I think I just assumed that everyone knew how to be ethical. After all, doesn’t “ethical” just mean pretty much following the Golden Rule?

    And then along came Common Core. Yes, I hear your question–what does Common Core have to do with ethics? Well, quite a bit, it seems to me. But perhaps a slice of history is in order first.

    The standards movement began to gain serious traction about 25 years ago. The idea was that there is a basic body of knowledge that all students should learn before they leave school. Unless teachers were provided with a set of goals or guidelines related to the content that should be taught, they might not teach everything a student needed to learn. Initially, the standards that were developed were not very constraining; teachers used them as general guides in planning their instruction. Standards, it was argued, were the what to teach, not the how. Slowly, with strong “encouragement” from the federal Department of Education and other policy makers, most states created a set of content standards and required school districts to implement them. In some states, a system of statewide testing was initiated to be sure that students were learning the content in the standards and that teachers were teaching the required content. At that point, the standards began to take on a more constraining character.

    It must be said that as the states developed their standards, there was a serious effort to build the standards from the ground up. Educational personnel with expertise in child development attempted to match the requirements in the standards to the developmental stages of the children at each grade level. Because that was true, teachers could feel comfortable that using the standards to plan instruction would be appropriate for their students.

    With the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001, everything changed in the world of standards. NCLB not only required the states to have standards taught by “highly qualified” teachers, it required the states to develop tests for those standards and monitor “adequate yearly progress.” If schools were not able to demonstrate such progress by their student populations, they were threatened with sanctions, up to and including the closing of the schools. Tests to monitor progress had now become high-stakes tests used to reward and punish.

    No problem, we teachers thought. If we just keep doing good teaching, our students will be able to pass almost any test. And for schools in affluent and middle income areas, that was more true than not. But in urban schools and in poor rural areas, things didn’t go that well. Teachers and administrators lost their jobs; some schools were closed; charter schools appeared that lured the best students away, leaving a high percentage of those who struggled. Creeping into our schools came the idea that we had to focus more on what was tested, on the “bubble” kids that needed just that extra little push to pass, on skills workbooks and, although we didn’t say the words, “teaching to the test.” I suspect that push came more from administrators who feared that their schools might be the ones to be closed if their students’ scores didn’t reach that magical cut score.

    Through all of this, we teachers rationalized our ethical stances. For myself, I knew that teaching to the test was not ethical, and I was not willing to do it. However, I didn’t voice my feelings. I simply took the stack of test-prep reading workbooks I was given, found whatever activities in them I could incorporate as a minilesson, and then moved on for the duration of the class period to provide a varied, differentiated fare for my students based on where they were cognitively and where they needed to go next. Nobody ever questioned what I was doing and I never offered an explanation. It was my way of satisfying my own ethics, guided primarily by the needs of my students. I made an ethical decision that my students’ needs trumped the possibility that I was misleading my administrator. Although some teachers in my building opted for the drill-and-kill mentality of the test prep workbooks, I am confident that many others were operating much as I was, guided by much the same ethical stance.

    Fast forward five years. About two years into my first college teaching experience, I learned that our state had adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Okay, I thought, I’ll just dig in and learn how these standards will impact my pre-service teachers’ lesson planning and teach them to use them, and for two years I tried to do that. But the more I studied the CCSS and the Initiative that they are part and parcel of, the more I questioned.

    I began to see some serious deficiencies in the Standards themselves; especially at the lower grade levels, the tasks required of the students do not match their developmental abilities, resulting in confusion and frustration on the part of the students. I learned that there would be three times as many achievement tests for the students to take, and that even kindergartners would be taking these tests which would not be field tested in any authentic way. Having observed the levels of stress students experience on high stakes tests, I can only imagine the exponential increase of such stress that will occur. (Actually, I don’t have to imagine it, since a child psychologist in New York recently testified to the New York Assembly that she had seen a 200 to 300% increase in patient load that could be tied directly to the impact of Common Core teaching and testing in her state.) I learned that these tests, taken on computer, would send enormous amounts of private data about students and their families into statewide, perhaps even nationwide, databases and that the managers of these databases could not and would not guarantee the security of that data.

    I also have read that many schools, rather than developing their own curricula to align with the CCSS, are opting to buy packaged programs. Since the CCSS are the law in our state and cannot be changed because they are copyrighted by other entities, administrators in many schools are requiring teachers to march through the purchased curricula without accommodating the pace or the method of teaching. The script must be followed to be sure that we have covered everything that might be on the tests. The only result this guarantees is that many students will be Left Behind.

    Competent, Committed, Ethical. It seems necessary to begin paying more attention to the third component of this motto. Together we must think deeply about what the definition of ethics is and what it means to be ethical. I must find the best way to communicate clearly to my pre-service teachers the minefield they will be entering. I must help them think through a number of possible scenarios they may be faced with. I must give them opportunities to consider what the best ethical choice may be.

    Could/should a teacher refuse to follow the pacing of the scripted curriculum because he or she knows that it moves too fast for many students to stay up? Could/should a teacher use differentiated teaching in his or her classroom even though it is not recommended in the teacher’s edition of the curriculum? Some folks who oppose the CCSS are organizing parent opt-out movements, in which the parents formally notify the school that they refuse to allow their students to participate in the testing. Could/should a teacher refuse to give these tests because of his or her ethical position that the tests do more harm than good for students? Could/should a teacher join with other like-minded teachers to voice their opposition to practices in the field that are detrimental to children? These are just a few of the decisions a teacher will have to make in the CCSS environment.

    I recently read an article that suggested that, in the face of the behavioristic corporate reform movement, it may be necessary for teachers to become insurrectionist pedagogues. I’m not yet comfortable with that term, probably because it translates to “rebellious teachers.” I don’t like to think of myself in what are generally considered negative or oppositional terms. At the same time, my own ethics require me to provide my students with a realistic picture of the field they are entering–and pray that the ethical stance they develop under my tutelage will guide them to advocate for the children they serve.

    Standards, not Standardization

    Sharing this explanation of Laufenburg’s phrase, “Standards, not standardization.” It makes some excellent points from the teacher’s point of view.

    Living the Dream

    ImageI said this phrase, standards not standardization, in a conversation with the ever thoughtful, Jose Vilson… and he has brought it up with me a few times …  which makes me think that I need to write through my thoughts on this and will then be leading a conversation on this same topic at Educon 2.6 next month.  These are ideas in progress, trying to work through why I bristle at the mention of new standards as a key factor in ‘fixing’ American education.

    Standards are developed to provide structure to the ‘what’ of what we teach.  Standardization focuses on the ‘how’ of the ‘what’.  One can have standards, one can teach with standards without being in a lock step trudge with every other teacher of math or ELA, on the same page, on the same day… crippling the ability of the teacher to practice their craft and for…

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    The Bleating of the Sheeple

    Not so long ago in the land of Acirema, there was a Chief Shepherd of Education who was sure that he had all the answers to the education needs of his country. With some very wealthy friends, he made an elaborate plan to assure that every kid in his land would be ready for college after high school, whether the kid wanted to go or not. All kids must be “college ready” when they finished high school, he thought, because the economic future of the country absolutely depended on it. He knew that because of the horrible scores of Acirema’s kids when compared to those of other countries. All of Acirema’s kids should be studying the same thing at the same time so he could test them to make sure they were on track and so he could know which sheeple teachers were not doing their jobs.

    The plan was for the wealthy friends to hire a few folks who knew how to write tests and ask them to write a new set of rigorous educational standards for the kids, of whom, clearly not enough was being expected or demanded. Once the standards were written, new more rigorous tests could be developed by those same testing folks to match the standards. And the tests could be used to find out which kids refused to learn and which teacher sheeple refused to teach and which schools were failing. Once that was determined, the failing schools could be closed, and the Chief’s wealthy friends would be more than willing to come in and set up charter schools–for a price, of course, and staff them with wonderful idealistic young teacher sheeple with 5-weeks of training who would certainly be able to “teach” with the teacher-proof, scripted curricula that the publishing arms of the testing companies mentioned above were happy to provide–for a hefty price, of course.

    But there was a problem with this plan. Acirema had laws in place that said the Chief Shepherd of Education was not allowed to promote a national curriculum. The Constitution of Acirema left the management of education up to the states. And other laws strictly forbade the Chief Shepherd of Education from interfering with that.

    And then something terrible happened–a bad recession. Many sheeple were out of work. Schools were running out of money. The Chief Shepherd of Education saw this as a fortuitous opportunity to get approval for his plan. If he could offer the states a chance for money for their schools and a reprieve from the harsh testing of kids that was already in place, they might all be willing to adopt his wonderful new “rigorous” standards–and the tests that went along with them. In fact, he would tell them if they didn’t adopt the standards and the tests, the money would dry up. He was counting on the sheeple to be sheeple and just do as they were told. After all, it was best for Acirema!

    And sure enough, almost all of the sheeple leaders in most of the states, desperate for money for their schools, agreed to the standards. Unfortunately, though, very few of the states got the money they hoped for, but they still had the standards that had to be implemented and the new “more rigorous” tests that would require many more computers and a bigger investment in technological infrastructure that would have to be bought and paid for and “new standards-aligned” curriculum materials that would have to be bought and paid for and professional development for teacher sheeple who had to learn how to teach with the wonderful new standards that would have to be paid for. Now the sheeple leaders knew that they would have to march forward with the new standards just to get whatever crumbs the Chief Shepherd of Education might be willing to throw their way. They felt duped, but they didn’t see a way out.

    The Chief had set a deadline when all the pieces of the new educational system had to be in place. As the deadline grew closer, some of the parent sheeple became concerned. They didn’t like some of the things they saw in the new curricula designed around the new standards. They didn’t like all the tests their kids would have to take, and they learned that there would be even more tests when the new standards were completely implemented. They didn’t like the fact that the new standards were put in place without their knowing about them or without anyone from their state having a say in how the new standards came to be. They especially didn’t like the plans for all kid data to be sent to one large database and that their kid’s personal information could be released to the companies writing the tests and the curricula and other things they might want to sell to kids and their parents–or goodness knows what other use that data might be put to!

    So the sheeple began to bleat, at first just a few. And the Chief Shepherd of Education said they were just a fringe element who didn’t really know or want what was best for their kids. After all, didn’t he know best?

    But the sheeple continued to bleat and soon others joined in. The bleating grew louder. The Chief Shepherd of Education got angry. He said these were just well-to-do ewe sheeple who were disappointed that their kids weren’t as smart as they thought they were. This made even more sheeple grumble and the bleating grew louder and louder. Some began to say that perhaps the same standards for all states enforced by the actions of the Chief Shepherd of Education might even be against the law…or perhaps even the Constitution…but no sheeple stood up to challenge the Chief…

    I wish I knew how this allegory ends, but I don’t. I do know that the federal education officials are counting on us to be sheep, and they are surprised at the growing level of pushback against their plan. Blogger Mercedes Schneider has documented serious resistance movements in 17 of the 45 sheep states here. Where are the other 28?

    Knowledge is power. The pen (or a word processor) really is mightier than the sword. Add to these concepts the effectiveness of social media and you can see that we have a full toolbox with which to stop this usurpation of our right to local control of education in its tracks. But that won’t happen unless the sheeple step up and bleat and email and text and Facebook and twitter as loudly and as often as they can. And maybe some lawyer sheeple will get the ball rolling.

    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 predeter​​mining 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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