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A Christmas Story–of Sorts–for 2015

Last week our local newspaper headlined the story of an eight-year-old boy who collapsed in the breakfast line at a local school. When teachers went to his aid, they discovered he was covered with bruises and lacerations. Of course, CPS was called, and the story the boy told was beyond horrific. He reported that his father, angry with his absent mother, had taken out his belt and beat the boy mercilessly with the buckle end of it, sent him to bed without supper, then came back into the bedroom to beat him some more. The next morning, with the returned mother asleep in her bed, the boy awoke, got himself dressed, and went to school. Thankfully, by his collapsing in the cafeteria line, attention was drawn to this dreadful situation, the boy and his siblings were removed from the home, and the father is now in jail, where he clearly belongs.
That won’t be the end of it for this young boy. Even though he and his siblings may be in a safer place for the time being, he will carry the emotional scars of this traumatic event with him for the rest of his life. He will have to deal with the anguish of realizing that those who are supposed to care for him are the ones who hurt him. He must try to process how and why this happened without concluding that it was his fault. This child will need extensive psychotherapy to be able to come out on the other side of this a healthy and confident human being. Sadly, the chances of his having access to this kind of support are small, and the chances of his being returned to the same situation are high. But he will go to school and he will be expected to learn the same things and at the same rate as everyone else in his class, because those are the rules of school these days.

Yes, I sense your skepticism. You’re thinking, that’s terrible all right, but that’s just an isolated case. That’s not what it’s like for most students, certainly not the majority of students.
Yes, it is where I live.
When I moved to this community as a brand new, idealistic teacher educator eight years ago, I knew it was a rural area and I knew it was the lowest in the state economically. What I did not expect was the brutal nature of rural poverty. Early on I sat down with the principal of one of the primary schools. She shared with me how low the students in her building were academically. She took me to her “war room” where she and the teachers kept constant tabs on every student, using color codes on a large board to indicate where each student ranked at any given moment. Green was for students who were on track to succeed, yellow for students who were at risk of not being on track, and red was for students who were definitely not on track. As I surveyed the board, I saw many more yellow and red students than green. Then the principal explained that the reason these students were all so low had to do with their backgrounds. Not only were they poor, they came from homes steeped in alcohol, meth and other drugs, and domestic abuse of all sorts. Many students had an incarcerated parent or parents. Some were being raised by grandparents because the parents were strung out on meth. They had little stability in their lives and rarely was there anyone to read them a bedtime story before they went to sleep, often hungry.
I guess I looked at her, mouth open in disbelief. Finally, I said, “What you’re describing is an inner city school!”
“Yes,” she said. “There’s really very little difference. And that’s why we have to work so hard to help these kids get where they need to be to pass the tests [emphasis added]. And some of them are so far behind they may never catch up.”
I came away with a new understanding of the challenges teachers of poor students are facing in rural areas, which are really the same as teachers in urban areas. Teachers are being asked to make up for four to five years of cognitive, and usually also physical, neglect these children have endured during THE most formative period in their lives, and they must do it in a few hours of school five days a week for nine months out of the year for three to four years. It is simply an impossible task.
When I defended my dissertation, I quoted the research that says that, of all the influences in school, the teacher has the greatest impact on student learning. I still believe that is true, even though one of my committee members kept challenging me on it. Now I think I understand why. What I have come to see is that the impact of the teacher is often dulled by forces outside his or her control. Sometimes the tidal wave of external factors simply overwhelms all that a teacher can bring to the table.
Let’s suppose the boy in the opening scenario hadn’t collapsed in the breakfast line. Let’s suppose that the boy had enough stamina left to get his breakfast eaten and go on to class. Does anybody think he would have been ready to learn that day? Does anybody think he would have been able to focus on his school work? Is it just possible he might have been more focused on what might happen to him when he had to go home that afternoon? I think so, and given my conversation with the principal, I must assume that there are several other students much like him in the class he returns to. Their scars just aren’t as obvious.
But the policy makers, think-tankers, and legislators who create “rigorous standards” and high stakes tests designed to assess them tell us all of that is just an excuse. Students are just lazy and don’t want to do the hard work of learning. If teachers were good teachers, they claim, they would be able to overcome these kinds of distractions and get about the business of making sure this child, these children are ready to take the reading test at the end of third grade. This is insanity! We must stop setting up impossible standards that ALL students are required to meet because, purely and simply, ALL students can’t meet them, at least not on the arbitrary schedule that policy makers demand.
Under the passage of ESSA, the reauthorization of the federal education law, responsibility for standards and testing of those standards is being “returned” to the states. If that is so, the buck will stop with our state legislatures. They will lose the excuse of blaming the federal government for the disasters that their policies cause. However, as Joanne Yatvin points out, since the new bill is based on the same flawed theories of NCLB, convincing the states to move out of that “accountability” mindset will be a monumental challenge. The law still requires annual testing in third through eighth grades. But surely the legislatures can figure out ways to make these tests less damaging! Smart legislators should be able to come up with ways to support teachers in the overwhelming challenges they are facing with students such as I have described above, rather than simply demanding success and punishing failure. Carrots and sticks do not work, and research is full of evidence on that premise.
Yatvin fears “[w]e are not done with judging our students, teachers, and schools mainly by test scores, or believing that comparisons with other countries’ scores on international tests are meaningful.” She sees the only solution to be for “parents, teachers, and informed citizens to strengthen their efforts to support our public schools. We need to put pressure on state legislatures to use their funds and power to make intelligent decisions for our schools. If we are silent, thinking that all is well now that NCLB is dead, the future will be no better than the past.”

Parents, grandparents, teachers, VOTERS, it’s time to hold the legislators accountable. We must scream at the top of our lungs until we are heard. Recent statistics tell us that almost one-fourth of American children live in the kind of poverty I have been talking about! These children need nurture and support, not unreasonable pressure and demands that they accomplish what they are not emotionally, developmentally, or cognitively ready to do.
Let’s find a better way! There’s a bruised and broken eight-year-old in my town who needs it desperately. Yatvin’s words are ringing in my ears: “If we are silent…”

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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.

An Experience with Age Discrimination

Recently Nancy Bailey has drawn attention to the issue of age discrimination against teachers as it relates to the almost national teacher shortage. Reading this blog, I was reminded of a situation I experienced in my own life and career.

To tell this story, I probably need to go back further than the event itself. Although I always wanted and planned to be a teacher, life intervened. Consequently, I didn’t get to start my teaching career until I was in my mid-fifties, when many people are looking to retire. Having received my state credentials, I found it very difficult to “break in.” I realize that having secondary history as my initial certification and not being able to coach put me in a difficult position to start with. At the time I didn’t think about my age being that much of a hindrance, but now I wonder.

Finally, a week before school started, I was hired by a school in deep East Texas–and hour and a half drive one way from my home–and I took it. I had to go back and get a Special Education endorsement, but I was fine with that. That started me on a ten-year career in Special Education and, for the most part, I loved it. The next year I was able to move to a school closer to my home–only a 35-minute drive–and stayed for eight years. However, this position required me to teach resource reading and English to Special Ed students in 6th through 8th grades. English was no problem since that had been my minor in college, but I discovered I knew NOTHING about teaching reading. After struggling for a year, I began to look around for some help and found it in a Master’s program at a nearby (euphemistically speaking) university. As I took courses in the program, I started trying out what I was learning in my classroom, and–lo and behold!–it worked! I began having some success with my reading students.

As part of my coursework, I learned about the Reading Recovery Program, which has a proven record of helping struggling first graders be successful in learning to read. By this time I had earned all-level certification in Special Education and English as a Second Language, and had met the requirements for Master Reading Teacher. I had come to love teaching reading and wanted to devote my efforts to younger students in an effort to prevent so many older students from winding up in resource or remedial classes–in other words, catch them early. I learned that the Reading Recovery Program at a large suburban district in North Texas was looking for applicants for their program. I decided to apply. The process of applying for this program was extensive and intensive. It involved several interviews and an elaborate application. Being accepted by the program, however, did not mean that you had a job; it just meant that you had been approved to apply for a job at an individual school. The schools called in the individuals they wanted to interview from the pool approved by the directors of the Reading Recovery Program.

Having passed the first hurdle–approval by the Reading Recovery directors–I was interviewed by a couple of schools. Neither called me back for a second interview. Toward the end of summer, I received a phone call from one of the directors. All the Reading Recovery positions for that year had been filled, she said, but they really wanted to get me into the system. Would I consider applying for a Special Education position for the current year, and then I would be in a good position to get a Reading Recovery position for the following year. I said sure! I can’t remember if I interviewed at two schools or just one, but at any rate, one principal called and asked for a second interview with her committee. She said it had come down to me and one other candidate. I met with the committee and thought I had done well. I heard nothing for several days, and when I called one morning to check on things, the principal said she would have an answer for me that afternoon. The afternoon came and went–no phone call. She finally called that night at 10:00 p.m. She informed me that the committee had chosen the other candidate. She could have dropped it at that and I would have accepted it and not given it much more thought. However, she seemed nervous and kept talking, as if she were making some sort of apology. Then she said the words that have stuck in my brain: “The committee just thought that the other candidate was younger and more energetic.” I was too shocked to say anything. I thanked her for the call and hung up.

I have no idea what kind of discussions took place in reaching the decision that the committee reached. I am sure that the principal was uncomfortable with communicating to me the reason for the decision, a reason that is completely illegal. I don’t think she intended to say what she said. But as I thought about my experience with this district, I remembered that at every school at which I interviewed, I didn’t remember seeing a teacher or administrator who was beyond middle age. Was age discrimination pervasive in this district? I can’t say, but I am quite sure I experienced it.

I now teach at the university level, helping pre-service teachers learn the ropes. My duty station, however, is at a branch campus, a hundred miles from the main campus, and in a deeply rural area. Many of my students are non-traditional, coming back to school in middle age. They often make the best students, having years of wisdom to bring to the task. They are often nervous and wondering if they have made the right decision. I tell them that if they are truly called to teach, they will not be happy doing anything else.

I do believe teaching is a calling, but one that takes learning to develop the skill and knowledge base required to be a successful teacher. That skill and knowledge rarely come naturally. What a shame if these future teachers, after making a wrenching mid-life change and putting in the time, effort, and money to reach that level of skill and knowledge cannot find the jobs they deserve because they are not perceived as “young and energetic.” Looking back I now think that this may have been playing a role in my struggle to find a job as I began my teaching career.

Nancy Bailey pointed to other issues in age discrimination such as efforts to force older teachers out because they are more “expensive.” I have personally talked to many teachers who have retired or are planning to retire earlier than they would have otherwise were it not for the level of stress that has risen for teachers over the last 15 years. Think about the loss of experience any kind of age discrimination means for our schools and our children. In no case can we afford it!

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.

Grit and Grittiness: A Personal Perspective

Swimming Pool
Summer has begun and, among other chores ignored during the busy school year, I am wading through a pile of unread journals I have received over the last nine months or so. Of course, when you have a stack, roughly a foot high, you don’t expect to read all of them cover to cover; I scan through them, pick out the articles that interest me, and ignore the rest. Early on in this project I picked up the September 2013 issue of Educational Leadership; this was a themed issue on “Resilience” and, quite honestly, I didn’t expect to find much in it of interest to me. However, the second article made me stop and go back to read in depth. It was an interview done by Deborah Perkins-Gough with Angela Lee Duckworth on her research on grit (Perkins-Gough, 2013).

Now, this article got my attention because, over the last year I have heard or read some discussions about “grit” as it pertains to education, and most of them were fairly negative. For example, I’ve seen this concept referred to as a new version of racism and classism, in other words, a new way of sorting and ranking kids. I read that the federal Department of Education was soliciting proposals to develop assessments for “grit.” The individual discussing this idea spoke rather disparagingly of it, and, frankly, I essentially agreed. First, I wasn’t sure that “grit” in education is quantifiable in the sense of being able to identify it on a standardized test. Second, “grit,” whatever that is determined to be, is not a cognitive trait that needs to be assessed. Third, this seemed to me like just an additional attempt of the DOE to get one more set of data points on American children to sell to Pearson or others to develop programs to sell back to schools to help them teach “grit.”

Acknowledging that the research on “grit” had not been part of my professional reading, and putting my pre-conceived thoughts aside, I read the article. Within the framework of Perkins-Gough’s questions, Duckworth did a good job of first defining what “grit” means in terms of her research. While the commonly-understood meaning of the word generally refers to “overcoming great difficulty” or “persevering in the face of tremendous obstacles,” Duckworth says it involves much more than that. The concept of grit includes the idea of commitment; “It means that you choose to do a particular thing in life and choose to give up a lot of other things in order to do it. And you stick with those interests and goals over the long term (p. 16).”

In response to a question about what had surprised her most in her research on grit, Duckworth explained that it was the finding that grit was more important than talent in a successful outcome. People with great talent but without grit often reach a plateau that they are content with and stop short of the best possible outcome, whereas people with perhaps less talent but with grit may achieve even more than the more talented, because they are committed to the absolute best possible outcome they can achieve. It was at that point that my reading ceased being an intellectual exercise and became very personal.

To explain the connection I made, I must provide some background. I was born with a congenital hereditary abnormality called Kleppel-Fiel Syndrome. The deformity occurs within the first eight weeks of gestation just as the spine and upper body organs are developing. While many children with this issue are affected dramatically with heart and lung involvement that leads to early death, its impact on my body was not so severe. The most obvious physical trait in my case is the fact that two vertebrate are missing in my neck, resulting in a short thick neck. Although I have an extreme scoliosis that results in my being very short-waisted, the deformity in the spine alternates in such a way that I am able to stand straight. Growing up, none of this interfered with my ability to run and play with my friends and do basically everything they did. As I came to understand my condition, I also realized that I was really quite blessed and I needed to make the most of what God had given me.

Flash forward to my junior year at college. My degree plan required four semesters of Physical Education, and by that point I had only completed two. Some of you remember, I’m sure, the days when on course enrollment day you took your schedule around to visit the tables that the various disciplines had set up in the student union and asked each professor to enroll you in the classes you needed. That was what passed for advising back then. So, I took my schedule and went to the PE table, and just happened to get the swimming coach. I think she was trying very hard to fill a class, because, when I told her I needed a PE course, she quickly recommended swimming. I smiled and said I didn’t want a swimming class. I had taken swimming a couple of times and I just couldn’t learn to swim. Wrong thing to say! She took that as a challenge. “Look,” she said, “if you take this course, I guarantee you I can teach you to swim.” I shrugged my shoulders, agreed, and went out to buy a swim suit and bathing cap.

On the first day of swimming class, the coach had us all get in the shallow end of the pool and showed us how to do the jelly fish float, where you put your face in the water and grab your knees. She had us do it one at a time and tapped us on the back when she was ready for us to stand back up. When she came to me, I did as instructed. When I stood up, she looked at me and said, “Well, now I know why you can’t swim. You can’t float! You sink!” Later during class she explained to me that my body is so compact, it is not buoyant. “I can teach you to swim,” she said, “but it will be hard.”

“Do you want me to drop the class?” I asked.

“No!” she said almost vehemently. “I want you to learn to swim. You can do it, but you’ll have to work harder than everyone else in here to do it.” She explained that in order to stay on top of the water, I would have to be moving constantly. As long as I kept moving my arms and legs, I could generate enough buoyancy to stay at the top of the water. Wow! It was a relief just to understand why I had never been able to learn to swim. But I had to decide if I was up to the challenge. Did I want to work that hard just to get a grade in a swimming course? I decided that I did; I wanted to be able to swim just as everyone else could.

For the rest of the semester, I worked my butt off in the pool for every class. First I learned to simply stay afloat; then I learned to stroke and kick from a few feet out back to the edge of the pool. What the coach didn’t realize was that, since my chest capacity is smaller, I had to breathe harder and faster than others would have to keep up the constant movement. On class days, I was exhausted by the time class was over. Nevertheless, by the end of the course, I could swim the width of the pool and back on my own and I could jump off the diving board on the deep end and swim to the edge. It was a major accomplishment for me, and I had indeed had to work harder and put out more effort than anyone else in that class.

As I read Duckworth’s interview, this whole episode came back to me. My experience in swimming class was clearly an example of both definitions of grit she discussed. I had overcome a seemingly impossible obstacle to learn to swim, which is the most common definition. But I had absolutely no talent for swimming, so I couldn’t have done it without my own commitment to making it happen, which is the essence of the second definition. But something else occurred to me as I pondered this. If my coach had not expressed absolute confidence that I could do it, I would never have tried. I think this piece is the “teaching” part of grit. It’s the wisdom on the part of the teacher of knowing how to build and support that confidence in the students.

Near the end of the interview, Duckworth discusses the idea of teachers teaching grit to their students. She believes it can be done by patterning such teaching on Carol Dweck’s growth mind-set work. But she recognizes this is still theory, with no research yet to support it. I know from experience at least one coach who knew how to do it for me, and I suspect there are many other teachers doing this kind of critical non-cognitive teaching. However, I am still doubtful that we need assessments to determine which students have “grit” or not, so we can implement canned programs to develop it. Can we teach teachers how to teach grit? I doubt it, not to scale, anyway, the way the corporate reformers want to do everything. I think it has to be built around a sense of efficacy on the part of the teacher who communicates to his/her students absolute faith in them and does it in such a way that s/he makes believers out of them. I had no doubt that Coach could teach me to swim if I were willing to put in the time and effort. I’m quite sure Coach never took a course in Teaching Grit, but I wish we had more teachers like her.

Epilogue: After all the effort I put into that swimming course and after accomplishing what, to me, seemed initially like an impossible task, I was sure that I would get an A. No, I got a C. The letter grade I got reflected the quality of the swimming I could do, not the amount of effort I had put in or the progress I had made. I couldn’t argue with the facts, even though I wanted to. It taught me a couple of things. First, nobody is good at everything; I was an A student in most things, but I was a C student in swimming. It gave me a good deal more compassion for my own students who could never be star students in academics no matter how hard they tried; I will never be an Olympic swimmer. Second, it made it abundantly clear to me that the way our grading system is devised and implemented is fundamentally flawed if our goal is really to develop the grit required for our students to reach the best potential outcome. Interestingly enough, in the same issue of Educational Leadership is an article by Thomas Guskey entitled “The Case against Percentage Grades” (Guskey, 2013). I haven’t read this one yet. I’ll get back to you…

References:

Guskey, T. R. (September 2013). The case against percentage grades. Educational Leadership, 71(1), 68-72.

Perkins-Gough, D. (September 2013). The significance of grit: A conversation with Angela Lee Duckworth. Educational Leadership, 71>(1), 14-20.

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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