Common Core: Can the Standards be Separated from For-Profit (hidden or not) Implementation and Assessment?

This is my first post on trying to make sense of the debate on Common Core.

Perhaps because I live and teach in Florida, I saw the Common Core as rather refreshing. Our former standards changed almost yearly, rarely aligned with the standardized tests, and were way too vague in nature. The new  common core included a lot more emphasis on writing—something I was definitely thrilled to see—and had an emphasis on many smaller research projects as opposed to one longer one. I saw, and still do, the standards as standards and NOT curriculum and assessment.

It should be noted that I am only speaking for English/Language Arts here since that is my area of expertise. This is perhaps the only subject area where we have that much flexibility. Our subject is skill based whereas others are content-based. A necessary distinction.

It also made sense to me for a national standard, and assessment, since it seems Florida all too often creates their own set of rules for what is passing and this varies not only in important election years, but even before and after the testing in a single year. The bar is constantly moving up and down.

Florida tends to set a goal, place a mark as passing, but then too many don’t make it, we have to remediate by state law, that will cost money, school grades will drop too much, bad press, let’s change the passing level and claim that it is because we have increased the expectations too quickly. 

I have always been frustrated by motives that are anything but for the good of the kids. And I have increasingly become aware and disgusted at the for-profit market coming into schools and earning millions on the backs of teachers, schools, and our students.

But I also feel—still working through this—that the core on their own are strong, that the interpretation, implementation and the testing associated, the accountability for them, is what is flawed. I want the push to be a separation of these. I am learning and leaning toward the idea that this is simply impossible.

There are a few people I follow and read regularly because they provide diligent research and support in their posts. They have opened my eyes in many ways to the connections associated with the Common Core standards and the implementation/assessment connection. Deutsch29 is Mercedes Schneider’s blog and just today she sent out another well-researched report on Pearson and their “charitable” organization which is basically a filter for their testing market. Mercedes is convincing and supports  her work with links to plenty of reports and documents that most teachers would never know about. 

I also read Diane Ravitch’s blog and believe her. For those who do not know Diane’s story, she once served as the US assistant secretary of education under George H.W. Bush and she believed in and pressed for standardized testing and accountability.  But she also saw the flaws in the policies and practices she reversed roles. As a real insider her voice had become the loudest in opposition. I appreciate people who have the courage to say they were wrong, and then work to make it right. I don’t think there is anyone else working as hard as she is right now to right these wrongs. I suggest reading her new book  Reign of Error.  It’s on my Christmas wish list so hopefully in the new year I can post a review .

Of course the other side of the coin is everywhere. Schools are overwhelmingly focused on Common Core and the assessments associated. NEA is surprisingly a big supporter.

I believe Diane and Mercedes because I think about their motivation.  I am still questioning the NEA motivation. It’s not hard to see the motivation of Pearson and other testing and curriculum companies.  

That’s the thing with for-profit companies. Their goal is to make money and although plenty of companies can do that with a moral guide, I don’t see how for-profit companies in education today can rake in billions with a clear conscience. How are you NOT taking advantage of our youth?

But I also recognize—from what I see as I work in dozens of districts across Florida—each with varying “programs” and “curriculums” to help them succeed with Common Core, it is most often the district and/or school level making the purchasing and demanding the implementation.

When I visit a school to do a workshop, the teachers are always interested in how to find the time to write with their students, how to motivate them, how to grade essays in a way that makes the most sense, how to work in grammar and vocabulary. They want their students’ papers to have voice. Most often, but certainly not always, the administrators are most concerned about scores. How do we improve the scores? Certainly both needs can be met, but the teacher’s needs must come first. That is the main goal–to support the teachers to help the kids.

Developing real writers, critical thinkers, readers takes an enormous amount of time. With all the pre,  mid, mid-post, post mid, end-of-the year assessments, teachers feel they have to show progress each and every step of the way. More time is spent on assessment and data collection than on instruction. If one model results in lower scores—nevermind that the test might be terribly flawed, or that real learning takes time–another “solution” is sought after.

I don’t think I have seen a single “program” or curriculum in English/Language Arts that has not been developed already by teachers. Textbooks alone are just anthologies with ancillaries–the same sort of acillaries that teachers create all the time on their own. Why are we spending billions on them? 

All this leads me to question whether people are looking at the right target for their frustration. I get being angry with the for-profit companies, but they are really doing what they are designed to do—make money. I wonder if we should not be looking more towards our educational leaders, our administrators, our superintendents, our school boards, to make better decisions with their money and be a louder voice in opposition. 

I know A LOT of administrators put their neck on the line in opposition, but they are most definitely in the minority.

Love to hear your thoughts.



Might Help To Know Where I Came From…

It was 2007 and I was in my eleventh year of teaching high school English, 10th grade students who had yet to pass the state reading and writing test. Like many teachers today, I was extremely frustrated. The writing instruction being forced upon us stressed the formula essay—a practice I saw a detrimental to student creativity and writing skills. A practice they saw solely as raising scores. Tests and their scoring methods were highly flawed and nobody seemed to be questioning their validity. In fact, it seemed the only people being hired into higher positions were those who were Yes Men, those eager to please and unwilling to question. New teacher evaluation systems were coming into place, also highly flawed. Data analysis requirements sucked up extra time that should have been devoted to designing lessons. Assessment ate away at instruction.

Always the team player, I kept going.

Mind you the school had voted me Teacher of the Year just a few years earlier, I had received Florida English Teacher of the Year the same year, had my Master’s degree and my National Board Certification. I was a district trainer, the editor of The Florida English Journal, a reviewer for textbooks, a board member on The Florida Council of Teachers of English, and the co-chair of our 24 person department.

In short, I was a professional educator.

I was also given 6 classes of the lowest test performers—almost always synonymous with worst behaved in the school. I was given these same level students every year. Why? Two reasons: 1. Their scores improved in my class and 2. When they asked us at the end of every year what we wanted to teach I always wrote the same thing, “give me the classes that nobody else wants.” 

So perhaps you can imagine my frustration when, at the end of the year, the DATA was entered into our new evaluation system, I came out as the only teacher in the school who was not considered “highly effective.”  I was the only teacher in the school of 158 teachers who did not get a bonus.

At this time the school grade was based primarily on the performance of the lowest 25% of Math and Reading scores. In the years prior, the school grade had moved from a C to a B to an A. Out of all the teachers in our school, I had the largest majority of test-takers that provided those results. In truth, about five teachers in the whole school were responsible for the scores that determined school grades and therefore bonuses for the entire staff, custodians, cafeteria, and administration included.  

Only through my own time-consuming efforts, and because I am so stubborn, was it discovered that my evaluation was taking in data from the start and end of the year scores. Since 25-30% of my students were expelled or dropped out any given year, they did not have end-of-the-year scores. They were all entered as 0. 

As frustrated and dejected as I felt after that experience, I never thought of leaving, just tried even harder to make changes. I shared my own collected data. I brought in samples, offered solutions, provided research.  My philosophy has always been to be pro-active instead of re-active.  But I was getting nowhere—just annoying others who wanted to get on with the show.

It was spring break and I had been eager for the rest. It was the heart of testing season and posters, drills, lectures, fliers, everything revolved around testing. I was reading Tim Ferris’ Four Hour Work Week and I had an epiphany. He asked…Is there a way you can still do what you love while removing the cons?  What did I really love? For me this was really just working with students and colleagues. What were the cons? Just about everything else.

So I asked…Is there a way I can still do what I love—work with students and teachers while also removing the cons?  Yes. The wheels started turning. 

I made the decision that spring break. Turned in my resignation. And left.

I could tell where things were headed, but honestly, back then I thought a few more years would be enough and the pendulum would swing back. Unfortunately, things have only gotten worse. These past few years I have had the honor of meeting hundreds of amazing teachers and got a chance to work with some awesome students. I have dipped my feet back into the teaching waters and tasted the bittersweet life that is teaching.

I also see teacher morale lower than ever. See students hungry to have people hear their voice. I read, research, write, and read some more about high-stakes testing, common core debates, and the commercialization of our public education system. I train and share, tweet and post.

And I have given up most everything—security, vacations, a dependable vehicle—to make The English Teacher’s Friend work as an organization that can be an answer—an immediate model to assist and retain good teachers. I have visions for our student programs—how we can bridge divides, engage students, change the minds of those thinking about dropping out.  

Lately I have thought a lot about what I will do if this organization fails.

My passion is education.

Sometimes it breaks my heart.

It always tries to break my spirit.

But I love it.

Just sometimes, it doesn’t love me back.

Premature Resolutions

Over the years I have found the holiday pig-outcal fest to be better handled when I start my resolutions in December. I might not lose much weight but I don’t gain as much either. I feel better for trying. So, this December 1st begins another go at running and eating better.

And in the same mentality this BLOG begins.

As The English Teacher’s Friend has evolved, one of the most pressing issues I always faced was having time to write. In many ways I have been a fraud. I work in classrooms across Florida and stress to teachers that they MUST provide more opportunity for writing–the whole process: brainstorming through publication–if they want their students to be real writers. And yet I constantly tell myself there isn’t enough time. I put it at the bottom of my priority list, down there with running and eating healthy, even though I know they are all equally essential.

Writing needs nurturing.

Like a healthy lifestyle, the more you do it, the daily habits you form, the more it becomes a part of your life. Soon you miss it. No matter what I am writing about, the act itself fills me and helps me to see things more clearly.

I planned to start writing again in January. But then, I always say that. Next month I will. Next month.

So today I begin to blog….again.

What can you expect from this blog?

As the name suggests I will attempt to make things simple. Those who have worked with me know that I am pretty-straight forward and will say what I think. But I am hoping to gain some insights each week as I explore issues in more depth and try to find the balance that is so needed in our educational system today.

I guess we will see.

Now, off to lace up the running shoes.