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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Educators Need More Than Memos & Mandates in 2014

By Peter DeWitt — January 02, 2014 6 min read
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For every increment of performance I require of you, I have the responsibility to provide you with additional capacity to produce that performance.” Richard Elmore

It may seem that the implementation of the Common Core in New York State is...a New York State issue. It isn’t. Many states, even other countries, can learn a great deal from how things have been handled, or mishandled. Being a leader doesn’t mean using power to get what you want. Educational leadership means working in collaboration with all stakeholders to make education stronger.

In New York State, the perception on the part of the New York State Education Department is that they work collaboratively with teachers, parents and students. They didn’t, and even though they are doing a “listening tour” they are not listening. And it wasn’t because teachers, students and parents didn’t want to work with them.

Another Memo From the Top

Recently, NY State Education Commissioner John King sent out his final memo of 2013 to Districts around the state. In the memo, which you can read here in its entirety, King admitted that implementing the Common Core has been a “significant challenge.” I could imagine that any initiative this large must be challenging, but other states did not have the issues that New York State did.

As a resident of New York, I often hear from other educators or school leaders that New York State was ahead of other states when it came to the implementation. I often countered that being ahead of anything, doesn’t mean that the end will be successful. Front runners and pacers in long distance races on the track are often out ahead of the pack, only to drop out of the race and not finish.

The truth is I have not been kind to the New York State Education Department. Nor have I been kind to Commissioner King’s leadership. It’s not that I have an issue because they wanted me to change my blog in April, which you can read about here. It’s that I think the 2013 implementation of the Common Core has been one of the worst implementations I have ever seen in education, and I have been around for 19 years.

Since the beginning of this implementation, teachers, school leaders and parents have pleaded with the state education department to take input. Unfortunately, their input was ignored, and the input that was acknowledged seemed to always be the words of people who agreed with John King, Merryl Tisch and the rest of the Board of Regents. It even went higher than them.

You see, in 2012 since Governor Cuomo called himself the “Lobbyist for Children” many began to swing their bats at public educators and the public school system as a whole. They had money, power, influence and new evaluation laws on their side. Unfortunately, what they forgot about was that they needed the public.

Those in power, felt that they could pummel educators into submission, but they neglected to think ahead of things like election years, and public opinion. And the pummeling of educators, and the sympathy of outside observers, was much stronger than the negativity that the governor and the state education department were spreading, which is why the Governor is now polling voters on the subject of education. It was a subject that many political reporters found to be a soft topic.

So here we are, entering into 2014 and I wonder what will change? If Commissioner King’s memo is any indication, only very little will change. The following are some excerpts from his memo.

We understand that implementation of the Common Core and teacher/principal evaluation in a time of limited resources has come with significant challenges. The Board of Regents and I knew we would encounter a good amount of concern in the public forums. We want - and need - to hear from teachers, parents, and students as these important changes in practice occur in classrooms, schools, and communities across the State."

It has been more than a significant challenge. It has had a severely negative effect on school climate. The truth of the matter is that parents were so upset that King cancelled the first round of forums after parents and teachers began shouting and questioning the Common Core, and he called them “Special interest groups.”

Although much attention has been paid to concerns about implementation, there is also evidence of important and positive change. Each week, I visit classrooms where educators - particularly in communities that began this work during the 2010-11 school year, when the standards were adopted by the Board - continue to refine their practice and challenge students with rigorous and exciting learning activities. Students in these Common Core-inspired classrooms benefit from meaningful and lasting learning."

Every initiative has positive elements. One of the best things about the Common Core is that we are all talking, debating, and questioning the way students learn. That does not make the Common Core positive. They were a catalyst for conversation and debate. There is no way to say, or to assure us, that the Common Core will make our students be more prepared for their future...no matter what those students choose to do.

Some of the concerns expressed at the forums were based on misinformation. For example, some believe that New York requires additional testing as a result of the Common Core. The facts are otherwise and clear: (1) all but two of the State's required tests are also required by federal law; (2) we continue to increase the quality and reduce the length of State tests; and, (3) we continue to approve district proposals to reduce or eliminate additional local assessments that were adopted as part of teacher and principal evaluation."

The additional testing, whether approved by the state or not, is happening. Pre-k through 2nd grade students are being prepared for tests they will take in 3rd grade. You cannot tie high stakes testing to evaluations and then step away saying that the state never promoted or approved more testing. You approved and promoted it as soon as you tied it to someone’s evaluations. And we are preparing a generation of students to be test-takers, when we should be spending our time inspiring, encouraging, and working with them to be creative and independent thinkers.

Additionally, where the implementation and misinformation is concerned, in her book Student-Centered Leadership, Viviane Robinson says, “Although the accountability policies have created new expectations, they do not, in themselves, create the capacity to meet them” (p. 149). Although she was talking about building, state and federal policies, the central idea is the same for what happened in New York. Creating accountability is one thing, implementing it is another.

Again, our vision is that teaching - not testing - is the core of our work. Rote standardized test preparation and "scripted" teaching practices are a disservice to teachers and won't prepare our children for rigorous learning standards like the Common Core. The best preparation for student success is a great teacher providing great instruction."

Commissioner King, Chancellor Tisch and the Board of Regents cannot simply create accountability measures, mandate them, and tie them to teacher and administrator evaluation...and then step away saying the byproducts of what happens is not their intention. In a simplistic way, the state education department, board of regents, and perhaps even the governor, made it clear they felt as though all schools were failing, and that following a one-size-fits-all program would make everyone better. It didn’t. It made everyone the same, but perhaps they wanted that as well.

And please do not promote the modules, which are very scripted, and say that scripted teaching practices are a disservice to teachers...especially when that curriculum will end up on high stakes testing. Not to mention the fact that even EngageNY calls it “Common Core Curriculum.”

The truth is now, what it always has been. There are schools that are doing an amazing job focusing on student learning. Other schools that could, and should, do better, and many of our poor schools that lack resources, have increased poverty rates that need help, and the Common Core is not the help that’s needed.

In the End

Over the past few months, I have written about the benefits of the Six Shifts of the Common Core, questioned whether if standards are a problem or what we do with them, and wondered whether standards have ever helped promote independent thinkers. The Common Core will work in some schools, because they have the resources or their school leaders are forcing it to work. The Common Core will not work in some schools because they lack the resources and are working with large populations of students who come from situations that many of us could never imagine.

I do not question whether teachers and school leaders need to change, but that change is something different for each one of them. Some teachers need to do a better job with student engagement. Some leaders need to do a better job working in collaboration with their school communities.

What we need is not more rules, mandates and accountability. If we truly want to move in a positive direction this year, we need a moratorium on testing, and to stop promoting scripted learning by uploading thousands of lessons and pacing guides on EngageNY at the same time it is said that scripted teaching is a disservice to teachers.

And finally, after all the debating, fighting, Senate Commissions, and cancelling of forums that are rescheduled the next week with a new name, we need to have leadership that can create stakeholder groups, including students, that really focus on what our students need, and not force them to learn everything we think they need. 2014 should be more positive than 2013, and from my perspective that shouldn’t be so hard.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.