Louis CK ignites belated Core debate

The Common Core revolt started with baffled parents who went online to complain about their children’s “core-aligned” homework. Now a parent with 3 million Twitter followers — comedian Louis CK — blames the Common Core for making his kids hate math. 186296970-290.jpeg Louis, we feel your pain write Rick Hess and Michael McShane, American Enterprise Institute fellows and editors of Common Core Meets Education Reform, in the New York Daily News. Common Core defenders think Louis CK really is upset about testing, not about the new standards, write Hess and McShane. The homework “questions he flagged should not be blamed on the core,” defenders argue. But there’s a reason for the anti-Core backlash, write Hess and McShane. Common Core state standards — billed as a “landmark” change in American education — slipped in under the radar. The press didn’t do its job. The issues were not “hashed out in robust public debate.” In 2009, the year the draft standards were first released, a search finds only 453 mentions of the “Common Core.”  That goes up to 1,729 in 2010 when the final standards were introduced and adopted by 38 states and Washington D.C.

That year, Chester E. Finn, Jr., and Michael Petrilli, the president and vice president of the pro-Common Core Thomas B. Fordham Institute, cheerfully observed, “This profound … shift in American education is occurring with little outcry from the right, save for a half-dozen libertarians who don’t much care for government to start with.”

By 2013, when “the issue exploded into the national consciousness,”  most “states had been implementing the standards for years.”

Some criticism of the Common Core has been hyperbolic and rife with dubious claims. But today’s seemingly “misinformed” pushback may be mostly a case of frustrated citizens waking up to a fait accompli. . . . Stealth is a dubious strategy for pursuing fundamental change in 100,000 schools educating 50 million children.

If Common Core standards had been debated openly five years ago . . . But they weren’t.

Core “supporters cannot claim credit for the adoption of clearer and more rigorous standards and then wash our hands of anything bad that happens in the name of implementation,” writes Kathleen Porter-Magee on Flypaper.

Parents don’t distinguish between standards, curriculum and instruction, she writes.  “And what more than a few parents are seeing is confusing curriculum, too much time spent on test prep, and too many days spent toiling on assessments.”

‘Test and punish’ threatens Common Core

“When people talk about Common Core, they often mean the high-stakes tests attached to the standards and not the Common Core itself,” says Linda Darling-Hammond in an American Prospect interview, Pencils Out

The tests are a step in the right direction for most states in that they include more open-ended items. In most cases, they include at least one or two performance tasks, which require the kids to take up a problem, do an analysis, write a response, and sometimes revise that response. There’s real engagement in the work.

Darling-Hammond, a Stanford education professor, is senior research advisor to the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which is developing core-aligned tests.

(Under Common Core) students will be asked to collaborate, engage in the use of technologies for multiple purposes, communicate orally and in writing, do extensive research, apply mathematics and English language arts in complex problem-solving situations. The tests are not designed to reach all of those Common Core standards. They tackle the ones that are closest to what traditional sit-down tests can accomplish. Many of the answers will still be close-ended—that is, pick one answer out of five, or drag and drop your answer, or identify it from something that is already provided.

Many high-achieving nations have fewer assessments, says Darling-Hammond. Some use only open-ended questions, such as writing an essay, designing a scientific investigation or inquiring into a social-science problem. 

Only in the U.S. are tests used, without other measures, to decide on promotion, high school graduation and teachers’ pay and employment, says Darling-Hammond.

“To move forward we have to change the accountability paradigm” from “test and punish” to “assess and improve,” she concludes. “If we try to pour the Common Core standards into the old No Child Left Behind accountability framework, it will be like pouring new wine into old bottles.”

Most top-scoring nations give high-stakes “gateway” exams that decide who goes into a college-prep or vocational program and who gets into college, reports NCEE.

The opt-out outrage

The opt-out craze is an “outrage,” writes Checker Finn on Gadfly. Education isn’t just a private good, he writes.

. . . when they expect the state to educate their children at public expense, the public has a right to know whether those children are learning anything (no, not whether Johnny and Mary are learning, but whether the children of Waco—or Scarsdale—are learning); whether taxpayers are getting a decent ROI from the schools they’re paying for; and whether their community, their state, their society will be economically competitive and civically whole in the future as a result of an adequately educated populace.

Testing isn’t perfect, we can’t judge learning by seat time, graduations or “teacher-conferred grades,” Finn writes. Other assessment options are “subjective, expensive, impractical, or all of the above.”

Better tests are coming, but that doesn’t excuse “opting out” now. It’s not a legitimate form of civil disobedience. And it’s probably not legal, either. If you really find state tests odious, put your money and time where your mouth is—and stop asking taxpayers to educate your children.

Requiring students to take state exams is like requiring vaccinations, Finn argues. “Maybe your kid is healthy today but the classroom needs everybody’s kid to be inoculated lest an epidemic start.”

Of course, there’s an opt-out movement for vaccinations too.

From Teacher of the Year to NEA president

Twenty-five years after she was named Utah’s Teacher of the Year, Lily Eskelsen García is president-in-waiting of the National Education Association (NEA), reports Richard Lee Colvin. Eskelsen García, 58, left full-time teaching a year after winning the honor to fight for higher salaries and smaller class sizes. (Utah ranks 50th in both categories.)
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Now an NEA vice president, she’s running unopposed to replace Dennis Van Roekel.

Born Lilia Laura Pace in Texas in 1955, Eskelsen García did not plan to go to college. Her father worked for the U.S. Army. Her Panamanian mother had left school after 8th grade. 

She married Ruel Eskelsen right after graduating from high school. He enlisted in the Army.  She got a job in a school cafeteria. A kindergarten teacher “noticed how well she connected with the students and urged her to go to college to become a teacher,” writes Colvin.

“After her husband got out of the Army, they both enrolled at the University of Utah, supporting themselves with help from the GI Bill, loans, financial aid, and money they earned singing, accompanied by Eskelsen García on the guitar.”

She was graduated magna cum laude with a degree in elementary education and later earned a master’s degree in instructional technology. She began teaching at Orchard Elementary School outside of Salt Lake City in 1980.

Teachers worked as a team, sharing ideas and taking on additional duties to allow a colleague to spend more time with a group of kids producing a play or exploring a topic such as the civil rights movement in greater depth. Her love of music found its way into many of her lessons— she taught her students to memorize the Preamble to the Constitution by singing it, for example.

Eskelsen García supports Common Core standards, saying the authors heeded input from expert teachers.

“Every time I turned the page I thought, my God, this is how I teach, it really was,” she says. “Critical thinking skills, collaborate on problem solving, create, design, give me evidence of, give me your opinion and tell me why I should believe you, and organize a project.”

But she fears that standardized tests will not include those skills and that they’ll be eliminated from the curriculum.

. . . “If you see that there is no change in high-stakes testing; no change in obsessive test prep; no change in labeling students, teachers, and schools by that standardized test score, you’ll know that they don’t really care about higher-level, critical thinking skills, and that it was all just a PR ploy.”

Tests should be used to guide instruction rather than to judge performance, she tells Colvin.

She’s campaigned against “GERM,” which she says stands for “global education reform movement.”

6 weeks scoring 1 math question

As a 23-year-old “slacker” with a college degree, Kevin was hired by Pearson to score a sixth-grade math question on Illinois’ state exam. For six weeks, he scored the same question over and over again for eight hours a day.

Students are graded on a four-point scale on three dimensions: the actual answer they gave, the steps they took to get the answer, and the written explanation of why they took those steps. The first two dimensions were straightforward enough for the scorers, but the third one, the explanation, was a nightmare to score.

“The grading criteria for the explanation section changed three times,” Kevin writes.

Why I opted my child out — of test prep

I opted my child out—not of tests, but of test prep, writes Matthew Levey on Chalkbeat.

My wife and I won’t refuse to have our children tested. Taxpayers spend $25 billion a year on K-12 education in New York City. Someone needs to check not just that the money is not wasted, but more importantly, that children’s lives are not wasted.

Tests aren’t the problem, argues Levey. It’s the time-wasting test prep.

If we instead committed to building our students’ background knowledge through a comprehensive, coherent, and sequenced curriculum that includes foreign language, arts and music, we’d make our children’s education more meaningful, and the lives of their teachers far less stressful.

And students would do fine on tests.

Until then, he and his wife have asked that their children be given  extra independent reading time instead of test prep. “Their teachers have been uniformly supportive,” Levey writes.

Teachers: New tests are ‘soul crushing’

Teachers say New York’s new Common Core English exams are “stressful,” “exhausting,” “confusing” and “soul crushing,” reports Chalkbeat. Teachers posted their reviews on an online forum, Testing Talk.

With questions calling for “close reading,” students ran out of time, many teachers complained.

“When I announced there was only ten minutes remaining, more than half my class had not even started the extended response!” one teacher commented

“We have spent the year teaching students to be careful, thoughtful, deep thinkers,” a fourth-grade teacher lamented. “Today the objective was speed.”

The eighth-grade test featured a Shakespearean poem that was “extremely difficult,” one teacher said.

Third graders faced “obscure vocabulary and unapproachable plot line” in a reading passage drawn from a 1950s book, another teacher wrote.

In affluent Park Slope, known for excellent public schools, a principal e-mailed parents to complain about the “terrible test,” reports New York Magazine.

“There was inappropriate content, many highly ambiguous questions, and a focus on structure rather than meaning of passages,” wrote (Elizabeth) Phillips. “Our teachers and administrators feel that this test is an insult to the profession of teaching and that students’ scores on it will not correlate with their reading ability.”

“I have never felt more devalued and outraged about a statewide test,” a Brooklyn teacher told parents in a separate recruiting email. “I really need you to help make a vocal stand against these high stakes tests.”

‘Smarter Balanced’ or badly worded?

 Darren and his fellow math teachers took a practice “Smarter Balanced” test to see what problems students will encounter on the Common Core-aligned exam. Many of the 11th-grade math questions “were worded in an obtuse way,” he writes.

. . .  we have highly qualified, very competent math teachers at my school, and some of the problems had a few of us gathered around trying to figure out exactly what a problem was asking for.

The “performance” problem asks students to compare the New York and Massachusetts systems of assessing fines for speeding. After graphing the two, students are asked if they agree that a new Massachusetts-based model would be “fairer” for New York speeders. To get full credit, students must agree and justify their answer by citing at least one comparison between the values in the two systems.

Darren asks:

Is “fair” defined?  Will everyone define “fair” the same way?  Are you comfortable with a performance task for which you’re only given credit if you agree with the problem-writer’s (unexpressed) view of “fair”?

. . . Why must two values be given?  Where is that requirement stated?  

It’s fuzzy, Darren concludes.

Students had no trouble taking the “Smarter Balanced” test on computers, reports the San Jose Mercury News. “Mastery of online graphing tools and directional arrows is no sweat, even for students who don’t use computers at home.” But the content of the exam — which is just for practice this year — was “challenging — and at times intriguing.”

It’s a learning game — and a test

Learning games are trying to “bridge the gap between instruction and assessment,” reports Education Week.

In SimCity’s Pollution Challenge game, students “must balance the growth of their cities with environmental impacts.” The game analyzes how well a student understands “systems thinking” and reports that to teachers.

“If a student builds one bus stop, then waits before strategically building other bus stops, he has an eye for problem-solving that I would not have gotten with a multiple-choice or written test,” said Matt Farber, a social studies teacher who beta-tested SimCityEDU with 6th graders at the 650-student Valleyview Middle School in Denville, N.J.

More assessment-embedded games are on the way, experts say.

“Stealth assessments” can measure “creativity, persistence and conceptual understanding during game play,” said Valerie J. Shute, a Florida State educational psychology professor. Shute co-developed Newton’s Playground, which uses simulations to teach about gravity, mass, and other physics concepts. Assessment is embedded in the game.

Who destroyed Detroit?

Who destroyed Detroit? asks Deborah Meier, calling it a “bombed-out shell of a city.”

“It was first and foremost the fault of some quite well-educated, high test-scorers in the management of the auto industry and in high places in Washington D.C.,” she concludes on Ed Week‘s Bridging Differences.

Don’t blame “corporate reform,” responds Robert Pondiscio.

There is an idea at loose in overheated corners of the edusphere, which I pray you do not share, which sees a manufactured “shock doctrine” conspiracy to drive American education onto the rocks in order to seize control and make a buck.  It’s a lovely, comforting illusion, isn’t it?  We are capable, wise, and all would be well if the malefactors of great wealth were not aligned against us.  That is far easier to accept than our own shortcomings, low expectations, failed notions about schooling, and stubborn refusal to adapt.  Perhaps we were as complacent about our schools as Detroit’s auto execs were about their factories.

Test scores are “not a definitive measure of ‘intellectual prowess’,” writes Meier. Pondiscio agrees, but asks “what of it?”

Testing did not destroy schooling. It revealed the rot and complacency within too many schools, especially those serving our poorest children, like Detroit’s.

We adapt, we grow, or else we stagnate and decay. The factories that employed generations in Detroit stand empty.  One hundred years ago, they didn’t stand at all. A generation hence, maybe two, something else will stand in their place.  But not if we pretend nothing’s wrong, Deb.  Not if we choose not to run the race.

Pittsburgh was the Detroit of the late ’70s when the steel industry collapsed, writes Pondiscio.  “Today it’s a lovely and livable city, with a diversified economy built on education, technology, and finance.” Pittsburgh adapted.