BY JOHN THOMPSON
Common Core standards are a sideshow. The real issue is the “unfunded nightmare” of high-stakes Common Core or “Common Core-type” testing.
Improved standards of learning can contribute somewhat to school improvement. During the 1980s, Massachusetts schools, ranked 8th or 9th nationally, used high-quality, well-funded standards-based reforms to become No. 1.
Under Sandy Garrett, Oklahoma consistently earned B+s or better on its standards. Garrett’s implementation of standards-based reforms was just as exemplary as that of Massachusetts’, but we still earn Ds and Fs on student performance.
Oklahoma offers excellent education in low-poverty schools but provides deplorable schools for poor children of color. Great standards are nice, but an overwhelming body of research explains why curriculum-driven, test-driven reforms cannot address the real problem – poverty.
And it’s unlikely that America will fund the $16 billion price tag for properly implementing Common Core.
I once welcomed Common Core. Its advocates acknowledged that bubble-in accountability had failed. The standards seemed to be a corrective to the primitive basic skills, worksheet-driven malpractice encouraged by No Child Left Behind. Under NCLB, test prep and remediation drove the joy of learning out of many classrooms.
One key to improving high-poverty schools is showing students respect by teaching an authentic curriculum. We must challenge students’ emotional and moral consciousness, and build on their strengths.
Common Core Standards could have deterred teach-to-the-test malpractice.
Had Common Core merely included assessments that provided a “test worth teaching with,” all would have benefitted. But Common Core became intertwined with a corporate reform attack on teachers.
We then learned that it is an all-or-nothing mandate. Its tests became nonnegotiable; Common Core must be used as a “test worth teaching to.”
As Common Core was exposed to sunlight, two other problems emerged.
The first is due to the hubris of its architects, as well as the logic of test-driven accountability.
The lead author of the English language standards was non-educator David Coleman, an ally of the anti-teacher demagogue Michelle Rhee. His only qualification was working for the McKinsey Group, the public relations firm that sold us the Penn Square Bank debacle, international anti-labor campaigns, Enron, and the Enronization of NCLB test scores.
To Coleman, all that matters is that testable material must be complex. He is notoriously dismissive of the emotional dynamics of teaching and learning. Coleman famously proclaimed, “People really don’t give a shit how you feel.” Consequently, students are prohibited from drawing upon their life experiences when addressing the standards.
I am not an expert on the second problem, but it might be more disturbing: Many of the nation’s top early education experts warn that kindergarten-2nd grade standards are dangerously flawed. Apparently, they push children to master developmentally inappropriate materials, and they do so at too fast a rate.
This one-size-fits-all drivenness, along with Common Core testing, has produced an epidemic of children vomiting on their tests and tearfully trying to refuse to go to school.
That leads to the fundamental flaw of the data-driven reform movement that spawned Common Core. True believers in accountability-driven schooling often treat children as collateral damage in their campaign for “transformational” change. Due to their unquestioned faith in the righteousness of their theories, they ignore the children driven out of school or denied a respectful education.
But, would parents endorse an untested policy experiment which was likely to benefit one of their children while damaging another?
And that leads to my mixed feelings regarding Common Core politics. Being an Obama-supporting liberal, I disagree with conservative opponents of Common Core on most issues. Many have some weird complaints.
In my experience, however, Oklahoma opponents of the standards are motivated by the damage they have seen done to children by ill-conceived educational experiments. The leaders who I know have seriously studied the full range of education research.
When indicting federal overreach, they have the far better legal argument on their side. Above all, they have helped reveal the true colors of corporate reformers.
Many accountability hawks are sincere in wanting to help poor children of color, but their dismissal of parents’ worries is another example of the disrespect that elite reformers bestow on teachers and grassroots citizens.
My feelings regarding my teacher colleagues who oppose Common Core are just as complex. Intellectually, I know that the smart strategy is to defeat Common Core standards and testing, as a tactic for derailing data-driven reform.
The experts I most respect make a strong case that Common Core standards cannot be distinguished from its testing because all are a part of a campaign to privatize public schools. Pearson Testing and Big Data entrepreneurs are determined to turn our children into data points, and sincere Common Core advocates don’t seem willing to stand up to their disgusting allies.
My head also says that the 90% low-income Oklahoma City Public Schools is a likely casualty of Common Core, and the other risky gambles being dumped on it.
It will be impossible for poor schools to meet the demands of Common Core, test-driven teacher evaluations, preparing children for high-stakes 3rd grade reading tests, and preventing a massive increase in the dropout rate as minimum competency graduation exams are turned into “Common Core-type” college readiness tests.
In my heart, however, I would like to break with my teacher allies, join with Common Core supporters, and avoid another educational failure. If we could agree on a common sense compromise – a moratorium on stakes for individuals being attached to tests – the effort to raise learning standards could be salvaged.
In my experience, many [or most] policy leaders understand that “No Moratorium, No Common Core.” It’s not a political slogan. It is reality.
The problem is that edu-philanthropists and the federal government are adamantly opposed to what they see as a concession to teachers and unions. If they delay Common Core testing, they fear, their entire accountability edifice will collapse.
Sadly, the most important issue is being ignored. If we implement Common Core and replace old-fashioned end of instruction tests with Common Core-type tests, how many students will be pushed out of school during the transition?
In poor states and districts, how many poor children will be denied the promise of a public education and a fighting chance to earn a high school diploma?
So, I will take my stand with any coalition, whether it just seeks to defeat high-stakes testing or the complete destruction Common Core standards and assessments, if it protects children from the unintended consequences of corporate reform.
To save Common Core standards, children need a legal protection such as, “No student will be denied graduation based on a Common Core test, ‘Common Core-type,’ or another college readiness test.”
In other words, if reformers will agree to mitigate the damage which will inevitably be done to many children, we should work together to prevent the train-wreck that is imminent. We could then work together and address the damage that testing is doing to teachers and classroom instruction.
If Common Core supporters will not bend, however, sacrificing the good parts of higher standards is a small price to pay as conservatives, liberals, parents, students, and teachers drive a stake through the heart of top-down school reform.
– Dr. John Thompson, an education writer whose essays appear regularly at The Huffington Post, currently is working on a book about his experiences teaching for two decades in the inner city of OKC. He has a doctorate from Rutgers University and is the author of Closing the Frontier: Radical Responses in Oklahoma Politics.