Federal Opinion

Mr. Van Roekel: Common Core Standards Mean Standardization, Not an End to One-Size-Fits-All

By Anthony Cody — September 03, 2013 4 min read
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The critical thinking that the Common Core is supposed to promote cannot come soon enough. It is sorely lacking in the defense of the Common Core standards offered today by NEA president Dennis Van Roekel. Mr. Van Roekel continues the union’s attempt to separate the standards from the tests that have been designed to enforce them. He describes a mythical land where standards are broad, and teachers have autonomy to create their own lessons.

The problems start with the headline: “Why the Common Core Could Bring the End of One-Size-Fits-All Learning.”

Wouldn’t that be great? Isn’t that what everyone dreams of? So let’s pull up our chairs and read a bit about how this could happen.

First Mr. Van Roekel offers this:

Over the past decade we have increasingly relied on standardized test results to judge students, teachers, and schools, but we still haven't created assessments that give a fully accurate picture of student learning.

Is this intended to suggest that there are assessments around the corner that COULD give a fully accurate picture of student learning -- but we just haven’t created them yet? What about the tests that were given last spring in New York?

Next we have a critique of the patchwork of different states using different standardized tests and setting different proficiency targets:

The problem is, each state sets its own benchmark for proficiency, and different students are held to different standards.

The alternative we are being offered here is the Common Core. One set of standards and tests to rule them all. And how is this NOT one-size-fits-all?

Next the tricky bit:

The Common Core was developed through a partnership headed by the National Governor's Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The National Education Association has been closely involved as well, with members who are nationally certified teachers helping to draft and review the proposed standards.

As we now know, the Common Core has been a project financed and guided from the start by the Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation has spent more than $150 million to develop and promote Common Core, including millions of dollars to both the NEA and AFT.

The Common Core process used the National Governor’s Association and the CCSSO as ways to make an end run around the law that prevents the Department of Education from enacting national standards. They were originally written by a small group of people, almost none of whom were classroom teachers. The NEA and AFT have been involved in various review and feedback processes, but were not there when the standards were first written.

Then comes the next stretcher:

These standards are voluntary and broad. They don't dictate how teachers should teach, but they do provide clear goals, such as saying that fourth-grade math students should be able to draw and identify lines and angles, or that seventh-graders should be able to compare a written work of literature to a film, audio, or stage adaptation.

Voluntary? Their adoption was a major source of points for states competing for Race for the Top grants, and more recently, they are a key element in states that wish waivers from the draconian effects of No Child Left Behind. How is that voluntary? That is better described as “coerced.”

And here is the most troubling part. Mr. Van Roekel seems to want us to inhabit some alternative universe where teachers can teach according broad guidelines, and high stakes tests are on hold until we somehow have perfected their ability to fully capture student learning. Yet in New York, Common Core tests were given just a short five months ago, and only 30% of the students were rated proficient. Governor Cuomo is calling for the “death penalty” for low scoring schools. Teacher evaluations are required to include test scores. There will be more pressure brought to bear at every level, and once again, schools in African American and Latino communities will be the first closed.

As the tests are brought to bear, we already see ads of companies offering Common Core test preparation materials. Fear of failure will motivate their purchase. There will be beginning of the year tests to find out where students are starting from, and frequent benchmark tests to make sure they (and their teachers) are on track. Teachers are finding the lessons they have designed and used successfully for years jettisoned and replaced with district-mandated Common Core-aligned lessons. Here is what New York teacher Katie Lapham reports:

Both the content and purpose of the CCSS test prep materials we were given, which consisted of a random selection of reading passages, disconnected from a larger, more meaningful unit of study, contrast with our own teacher-created materials and performance tasks. Unlike our thought-provoking social justice curriculum, the test prep materials were largely devoid of any real world knowledge that we find our students crave. I recently examined Pearson's scripted NYC ReadyGEN Common Core curriculum that my school is using for ELA this year, and, like the test prep materials we were given for the spring tests, it closely resembles the content and skills assessed on Pearson's NYS Common Core exams.

While schools can choose from a menu of options, there is financial pressure to choose the curricula that the District has paid for, and even more pressure to choose materials which are approved as being aligned to the new tests.

Mr. Van Roekel acknowledges these concerns, but something does not make sense here. He writes:

If this all sounds too good to be true, well, there is a catch. Some teachers are wary of the Common Core. In most cases, I believe their anxiety arises from a fear of the unknown, because we haven't yet determined how to assess student learning under these new standards. Many teachers understand the what of Common Core, and now need to understand more of the how to implement it in the classroom.

I truly do not understand. Are we not already getting tests based on the Common Core? This is hardly “unknown” to teachers, students, administrators and parents in the state of New York. I think what we have here is a fear of the known, and a fear of the what and the how as well.

Our union leaders have suggested that we can praise the standards and condemn the high stakes tests that are being abused in our schools. In this column Mr. Van Roekel seems to be in denial about the fact that tests are already being implemented - this is no longer some unknown out there. The tests are very real, and our political leaders like Governor Cuomo are making it clear that they will be used to further stigmatize and punish teachers, students and schools.

Mr. Van Roekel is starting a five-state tour where he will be devoting himself to dispelling myths about the Common Core. I really wish our schools could live in this protected place Mr. Van Roekel describes, where standards are broad and voluntary, and teachers have the freedom and autonomy they deserve. Unfortunately, this may be the biggest Common Core myth of all.

Update: A commenter below suggested that perhaps Mr. Van Roekel is referring to the yet-to-be-implemented new assessments coming from the two consortia, Smarter Balance and PARCC. A new report from FairTest offers some information about the quality of these tests:

Reality: New tests will largely consist of the same old, multiple-choice questions. Proponents initially hyped new assessments that they said would measure - and help teachers promote - critical thinking. In fact, the exams will remain predominantly multiple choice. Heavy reliance on such items continues to promote rote teaching and learning. Assessments will generally include just one session of short performance tasks per subject. Some short-answer and "essay" questions will appear, just as on many current state tests. Common Core math items are often simple computation tasks buried in complex and sometimes confusing "word problems" (PARCC, 2012; SBAC, 2012). The prominent Gordon Commission of measurement and education experts concluded Common Core tests are currently "far from what is ultimately needed for either accountability or classroom instructional improvement purposes" (Gordon Commission, 2013).

What do you think? Could the Common Core standards somehow free us from a one-size-fits-all system? Are concerns about the Common Core well-founded, or rooted in a fear of the unknown?

Earlier posts on this topic:

Will a Year’s Delay Save the Common Core? A Response to Weingarten’s Proposal

Will Union-Led Implementation Rescue the Common Core?
Can Our Unions Praise Common Core Standards and Defeat High Stakes Tests?

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