Thursday, March 20, 2014

Common Core State Standards: Why American Parents Should Pay Attention

Perhaps you've heard the buzz in the past year or so, or maybe just the more recent outrage, about the "Common Core State Standards." What are they? Why should we care?

There has been an incredible amount written about CCSS from both those who support them and those who oppose them. For anyone who doesn't know or couldn't guess, I'm opposed. STRONGLY. Why? Read on to see:

"CrunchyProgressiveMusicMama, haven't you HEARD about America's dismal showing on the PISA 'report card,' showing we're only 11th in the WORLD in academic achievement? Don't we NEED to have high standards so our children can compete in a Global Economy?" *insert weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth here*

Well, I heard that the Department of Education was planning a "PISA Day" even before the scores were publicly released - AND that they had already lined up organizations and entities who would be able to spin that message. Have YOU also heard that when adjustments are made which filter out the poorest American students, American scores equal or surpass pretty much the rest of the world? It's not the education - it's the poverty, people. Oh, and have you been hearing a buzz about how China's scores were through the roof? Yeah, about that.... read and learn.

And OK, let's talk about that global competition and how very necessary college is for success in life: "Six times as many graduates are working in retail or hospitality as had originally planned. Since there are 1.7 million grads who are getting bachelor’s degrees this year, that means 120,000 young people are working as waiters, Gap salespeople, and baristas because it was the only work they could find." That first sentence bears repeating, with emphasis: SIX TIMES as many graduates working retail or hospitality as had planned. SIX. TIMES. There are plenty of college graduates now but not enough jobs ALREADY. Where are all these new college graduates going to work? Even in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields, "75% of those grads are in jobs requiring a four-year degree." (Note that the quote doesn't mention whether the degree required for those jobs must be in the field of choice, or whether the job accepts ANY degree in ANY subject.)

So with all this in mind, let's have a quick short Q&A about Common Core State Standards, shall we?

Anyone with an understanding about how gears work knows EXACTLY what's happening to the Students in this scenario. This image was found on an online manual for implementing Common Core but I've lost the source; if you want credit, please say so.

Q: Were the new standards created by educators, or at least by people with experience in education?

A: Depends on how one defines "educator." If you're thinking "classroom teachers" with education degrees and considerable experience in the classroom, then not so much. The US Department of Education and the State of Maryland (where I live, so I'll reference their propaganda since I have it so handy) maintain that "The nation’s governors and education commissioners collaborated with teachers, researchers, education experts, and members of the higher education and business communities to design and develop the standards." (This drivel is shamelessly quoted from Maryland's "Top 10 Things Parents Need To Know about the Common Core State Standards.") Au contraire, declared National Board Certified Teacher and education blogger Anthony Cody 4 years ago when he wrote, "Sixty individuals, ONE teacher among them, will write national education standards in the next five months, in a secret process that excludes effective input from students, parents or teachers." He also writes, in this same post, "So who makes up the two Work Groups? Of the 25 individuals on the two teams, (four people are on both) six are associated with the test-makers from the College Board, five are with fellow test-publishers ACT, and four are with Achieve. Zero teachers are on either Work Group. The Feedback Groups have 35 participants, almost all of whom are university professors. There appears to be exactly one classroom teacher involved in the entire process, on one of the Feedback Groups."

Q: So you're saying that the standards were created by governors (not teachers) and business leaders (not teachers)?

A: Despite the spin that teachers have been involved, there is precious little evidence that anyone with actual classroom experience participated in the actual creation. Brought in at the review stage, yes - but that's not "creation." "Education experts," as the Maryland pamphlet calls them, may or may not have ever been teachers themselves; even Arne Duncan, America's Secretary of Education, has never been a classroom teacher, and holds no education degrees whatsoever. He has a Bachelor's degree in Sociology. Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, DC School Chancellor, also has no education degrees, and there is evidence that she was less than honest about her alleged success in increasing test scores of the 3rd-graders she taught in Baltimore for a mere three years as a Teach For America Corps Member - and she is also regarded as an "education expert;" even the author of the Wikipedia entry on Michelle Rhee can't bring him/herself to call her more than "public figure involved in the American education system" (as opposed to a "teacher"). This is why I give that particular term no credence whatsoever.

As to who was the author of the standards, one David Coleman (president of the College Board - but I can't find any evidence that he's ever been a teacher either, only that we was turned down for a teaching job at one time) is generally regarded as the chief "architect" of the CCSS, or at least the ELA (English/Language Arts standards). Here, in his own words, from this post, is how he views himself and his qualifications for the job:
One is we’re composed of that collection of unqualified people who were involved in developing the common standards. And our only qualification was our attention to and command of the evidence behind them. That is, it was our insistence in the standards process that it was not enough to say you wanted to or thought that kids should know these things, that you had to have evidence to support it, frankly because it was our conviction that the only way to get an eraser into the standards writing room was with evidence behind it, cause otherwise the way standards are written you get all the adults into the room about what kids should know, and the only way to end the meeting is to include everything. That’s how we’ve gotten to the typical state standards we have today….
…I probably spend a little more time on literacy because as weak as my qualifications are there, in math they’re even more desperate in their lacking."
Makes you want to run right out and embrace these standards, doesn't it? (<---sarcasm) Incidentally, I have not yet found what "evidence" Coleman is referring to, the "evidence behind [the standards]."

Q: Where did the funding come from? Was this paid for by my tax dollars?

A: A primary funding source for CCSS is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I'm not sure why this is: Neither Bill nor Melinda Gates are educators. Bill Gates has told over and over again how the traditional public school model failed him, and he himself sends his own children to private schools with plenty of enrichment opportunities and class sizes that border on the microscopic, while he himself funded standards that are meant to apply to EVERY public school child in America across the board, and he has also said that class size is unimportant (and I'll take this opportunity to remind you, Dear Readers, that Bill Gates is NOT a teacher, has never BEEN a teacher, has never stood in front of a class of 40 or even 30 or even 5 children and tried to teach them). He also completely discounts the effects of poverty on test scores, although how one of the planet's wealthiest men can have such insight into how poverty has no effect on learning from stages from infancy through college is beyond me. Along the same lines, the Walton Family (think Wal-Mart), the Koch Brothers, and Eli Broad - and no, not a single educator among them either! - have also contributed plenty of money to the promotion of CCSS.

The amount of money that Bill Gates has directly or indirectly poured into Common Core, either for its development or in the form of grants to promote it, has exceeded TWO BILLION DOLLARS. I can think of at least a thousand ways that money could have been better spent, that would have directly benefited students and teachers and schools - but it's been spent on a set of standards that even he admits we won't know for another ten years whether or not it works - meaning our kids are the guinea pigs.

Q: How did we end up with a "national curriculum," then? Doesn't the Constitution leave education to individual states?

A: Because the NGA - the National Governors' Association and CCSSO aren't actual governmental agencies, and because Bill Gates and his Foundation's money aren't Federal dollars, this has been spun as a "state-led" initiative (State governors, after all) rather than a Federally-pushed one. SO where did the Federal grant dollars for Race to the Top come from, and how can they be administered Federally? How is it that Arne Duncan and the ED can decide how compliant a state is with Race to the Top and even threaten to withhold Title I funds that are NOT RttT-related? Arguments have been made that states ceded their rights by buying into Race to the Top, but without the Federal carrot dangling in front of them at a time when states' economies were resulting in severe cutbacks in education, it's less likely that so many states would have jumped on board.

Q: What if we don't like the standards? Can't we just change them? For example, if we see that it's not developmentally appropriate for Kindergarteners to do what used to be second- and third-grade math, can't we just back it up till second or third grade again?

A: No - the CCSS is a COPYRIGHTED document. It can NOT be altered in any way. (Caveat: up to 15% can be ADDED to it - so here in Maryland, we can ADD some Maryland history, assuming there's any time left to do so - but they can't be altered. Additionally, the authors make NO guarantee as to their efficacy. NONE.

Q: Weren't the standards at least pilot-tested before the whole country was expected to adopt them? Surely something so significant would have been tested. If someone as wealthy as Bill Gates were funding them, couldn't he have covered the cost of a pilot test?

A: Heh. No. There has been NO pilot testing of ANY kind. NONE. In fact, Bill Gates himself has admitted that “It would be great if our education stuff worked, but that we won’t know for probably a decade.” Yes, you read that right: even HE doesn't know. NOBODY knows. America's children are guinea pigs - well, not all of them: private schools are NOT required to sign on to CCSS. This means that Bill Gates' kids don't get them because they go to an exclusive private school. At least one of Michelle Rhee's children also attends a VERY pricy private school, or did as of March 2013. Arne Duncan's kids *do* attend public schools, in Virginia (which is one of the few states which did not sign on to CCSS). Hmmm....

Q: Well, at least the states got to see the standards before they signed on to them, didn't they? DIDN'T THEY? It *was* a "state-led initiative," after all. Wasn't it? WASN'T IT?!?!?

A: One might THINK that of the 45 states who DID sign up for Race to the Top grants, it might have occurred to someone that they should look at what they were getting into first. One would also apparently be WRONG. The Standards hadn't even been WRITTEN yet when RttT grant money was dangled in front of states:

"Race to the Top was a competition grant process. States were awarded points based on how closely they conformed to the desires of the federal Department of Education. In the case of the Common Core State Standards, Section (B)(1)(ii) of the Race to the Top grant application clearly outlined the federal requirements. States would be awarded up to 40 points depending on their commitment to adopting a common set of standards by the federal deadline of August 2, 2010.....

"The Race to the Top grant applications had to be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education BEFORE the standards were actually available to the states. In January 2010 William McCallum, one of the authors of the Common Core Math Standards, spoke at a national mathematics conference in San Francisco. In response to questions and concerns about the compressed schedule for developing the math standards, a schedule that did not allow for pilot testing or normal editing, Mr. McCallum told his audience that his "bosses," the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers, were being "pressed by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who was using the possibility of getting Race to the Top money as leverage to force states to commit now to adopting uniform standards." He told his audience that states were committing to the adoption of the standards "sight unseen"...."

Q: It looks like it's a done deal. How bad can they BE for the kids? If we keep drilling even the little kids, they'll be reading even younger than the kids in Finland (who don't start formal education till 7YO!). Isn't that a good thing?

A: Early Childhood experts and mental health professionals agree that especially in the early grades, CCSS is downright harmful. When the standards were created, they were "backward-mapped" from final goals back through Kindergarten, with no thought to he way that young children are "hard-wired" to learn, and WHAT they're hard-wired to learn, or whether young children are actually developmentally able to learn the things dictated in the first place. (Early Childhood refers to the ages from Birth through 8YO, so basically third grade - most of elementary school!)

This video features Early Childhood expert Dr. Megan Koschnick and while it's long (26-1/2 minutes), it is full of information about why Common Core and young kids are not a good mix. As for the consequences of Common Core, this shorter video (13-1/2 minutes) by Clinical Social Worker Mary Calamia tells a chilling tale of the effect of an inappropriate set of academic expectations on children and teachers alike: stress-related behaviors that used to present primarily in high schoolers, like self-harm, are now presenting in elementary-schoolers. Finally, this account from a mother of 8YO twins about how Common Core affected her children is a must-watch (about 11 min). Our own experience thankfully hasn't been this extreme, but the changes in our younger daughter's demeanor have been especially distressing as she's changed from Kindergarten from the kid who always smiled to the kid who has grown more sullen and angry.

Q: What can we do about it?

A: Ask questions. Go to school board meetings. Advocate for your children in school. Write to your lawmakers, both at the State and Federal levels, and ask them questions, and share with them what you learn; they have the power to change the laws. If you're on Facebook, there are groups galore where new information is posted several times a day about the harm Common Core and Race To the Top are doing; one such page is Parents and Educators Against Common Core Standards, or PEACCS. Petitions abound online; one current petition (as of this writing) calling for an end to the current policy of annual high-stakes testing of children EVERY YEAR from grades 3-8 - instead of the testing many of us went through as children in perhaps 3 or 4 grades throughout our public school lives - is currently making the rounds.

I'll close out with a list that's also making the Facebook rounds that sums up many parents' concerns nicely. I would love to give credit to the creator but have not been able to locate him/her; if you know who it is, please contact me and I'll be more than happy to give credit where it's due! :-)

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Please keep it clean. Differences of opinion aren't a problem for me. Rudeness is. Thankyouverymuch. :-)