Sandra Stotsky is Professor of Education Reform Emerita at the University of Arkansas and the 21st Century Chair in Teacher Quality. Her latest book is The Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum, published by Rowman & Littlefield in June 2012. She served on Common Core’s Validation Committee and on the National Mathematics Advisory Panel. She was Senior Associate Commissioner in the Massachusetts Department of Education from 1999 to 2003 and served on the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education from 2006 to 2010.
This past week, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by William Bennett, author of The Book of Virtues and once chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, in which he defended Common Core as a conservative approach to school reform—allowing, he claimed, the preservation of our civic and cultural literary heritage. Several days earlier, Politico published a blog in which David Coleman, now president of the College Board and widely acknowledged as the chief “architect” of Common Core’s English language arts standards, is quoted as claiming that Common Core had been inspired by the work of E.D. Hirsch, Jr., founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation in Charlottesville, Virginia. All of this rightly sounded bewildering to those familiar with The Book of Virtues and the Core Knowledge curriculum—and with Common Core’s ELA standards.
Hirsch has consistently advocated for a content-oriented curriculum, while Common Core’s standards are chiefly content-free (and poorly written) skills. Bennett has long advocated for a curriculum that includes highlights from our civic and cultural literary heritage, a heritage almost nowhere required or encouraged by Common Core’s standards or in the tests based on them. (Sorry, sidebars and footnotes don’t count.)
Not surprising. We have simply become the victims of a confusing propaganda war now being conducted by the Gates Foundation and its funded friends. The public is regularly told that black is white, freedom is slavery, and war is peace. Why? Mainly to portray Gates’s national standards as the victim of critics who are filled with misinformation and myths about what Common Core is and could do for the nation’s children if we only give Jaws a chance to show how well-intentioned the great white shark really is.
For reasons best known to the Gates Foundation and to public relations firms like DCI Group that it helps to fund “to craft the right messages” (a firm Bennett acknowledged paid for his op-ed), they have decided that the English language is the chief problem accounting for Common Core’s nosedive in public opinion. Whether written or oral, words are, they finally realized, intended to mean something. For a list of commonly-used vocabulary items whose meanings are being changed 180 degrees—that is, to their opposite by Common Core propagandists, see http://truthinamericaneducation.com/uncategorized/a-vocabulary-lesson/
Most parents don’t need help in understanding the Gates Foundation’s new lexicon for defending the indefensible (Common Core’s mediocre standards, as well as the curriculum and tests based on them). Enough parents can still read the Common Core-aligned lessons their children are being asked to do in school and have drawn their own conclusions about their worth—and intentions. Enough parents have also read the grade-level lists of specified literary works in the Core Knowledge literature curriculum, as well as the topics to be studied in other subjects. Because they have had eyes to see with, they can see that these literary works and subject area topics are in no way specified in Common Core’s ELA standards or the tests based on them.
Unfortunately for the Gates Foundation, lessons have had to be written down if teachers are to remember exactly what they are to do for the purpose of evaluation. So, when David Coleman claims he was inspired by the Core Knowledge curriculum, parents understand the Orwellian game that is being played on them. So do teachers. Many are leaving the profession after reading what they are to teach and teach to.
As state legislatures begin to pick up steam in their efforts to get rid of the Common Core octopus, with its many hidden tentacles reaching into the entire curriculum (under the guise of “literacy” standards), Common Core advocates have come up with a new ploy to ward off efforts to repeal Common Core and put first-rate standards in their place. It takes too long and costs too much money, Common Core advocates are now saying, to come up with another set of standards for ELA and math. Here is what was in a newsletter put out by the Office for Education Policy at the University of Arkansas.
States that drop Common Core standards under the gun for replacing them: States that drop the Common Core State Standards face the prospect of less time to create new academic standards, and under intense political pressure. Generally, states have years to review content standards and make major changes if state school board members, those usually charged with ultimate approval of content standards, and others feel it’s necessary. The process usually involves lengthy discussions, drafts, and revisions overseen by teachers at each grade level, as well as content-area experts and others who try to ensure the standards connect across grade levels. (OEP Web Links, July 16, 2014).
This is a bogus claim, since nothing like this process took place with the excessively speedy development of Common Core’s standards, violating every civic procedure in place for a state’s own standards but with no complaints by any state board of education or governor. Any state or local school district can come up with a first-class set of college and career-ready standards in ELA and math in a matter of minutes. Many states already had them: MA, CA, Indiana in 2006, Georgia, for example. They weren’t perfect, but they were far better than what Common Core has offered the 45 plus states now stuck with its low expectations and Common Core’s hidden strings.
All a state or local district has to do (and it takes only a matter of weeks, not years) is adopt wholesale once highly-rated standards and ask high school English teachers to tweak the high school literature standards to reflect state or regional authors and works. Good math standards should be similar across states (to paraphrase Tolstoy, all happy marriages are similar), and there is no need for any appointed group to diddle with good math standards right now.
A state board of education could immediately post the standards proposed by a revision committee for a two-week public comment period (the same two-week period allowed for Common Core’s standards) and adopt them in less than a month, at little or no cost to the taxpayers in the state.
Local districts are already beginning to do this since they have had the legal authority for hundreds of years to adopt and implement whatever standards they wish. That is what plucky little Wakefield, New Hampshire’s school board did last spring. Its board decided to adopt the old Massachusetts ELA and math standards (after all, they had an empirical record of effectiveness, unlike Common Core’s) and is already implementing them. The Wakefield school board, school administrators, teachers, and parents all seem to be working together to implement a far more demanding academic curriculum than will be in place in most other New Hampshire communities this coming year, as suggested by our two and one/half hour discussion on July 15, 2014. Their kids will become better readers and writers even if state-sponsored Common Core-based tests use test items that won’t show it.
But Wakefield will face a new hurdle next year. What happens when an appointed state board of education, backed by a commissioner of education, tells a district that it must use a Common Core-based test? And the local board refuses to do so, on the grounds that a Common Core-based test is incompatible with its locally supported and legally approved school curriculum, based on locally adopted standards that are far superior to Common Core’s? And that the local board has more trust in local teacher-made tests than in the unknown quality of a Common Core-based test that scores students’ Open Responses elsewhere, possibly by a computer? We don’t know.
The statutory issue may have to be adjudicated by a state court. Let such a case proceed. There are pro bono lawyers in the country to help local parents make the case that they should decide what they want their kids taught by means of their elected school boards, not Bill Gates and his minions on a state board of education.
In a front-page article in June, the Washington Post featured corporate billionaire Bill Gates as a political sinner who deserves sainthood because his heart is in the right place. He bought off every organization in the country and colluded with the U.S. Department of Education just to ensure that low-income students would get the same low education he wants other people’s kids to get. Not, mind you, his own kids; they will get a first-class non-Common Core education in a private school in Seattle.
On the other hand, the National Review Online featured a blog in June about Jenni White, the energetic mother of six who managed to get Oklahoma to reject Common Core officially. No front page feature article about her in any national newspaper. Her group of activist mothers doesn’t have the money Gates has to bribe everyone to promote Common Core for other people’s children. Her group of moms just wants a say in their own children’s education because they want a stronger curriculum than Common Core’s standards lead to.
What remains to be teased out is why the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and our major teacher unions were so willing to be “useful idiots.” Why did the teacher unions agree to hold all teachers accountable for students’ scores on tests based on standards that are not only not internationally benchmarked (not comparable with the best sets of standards in high-achieving countries) but also lead to inequities in what is taught across school districts and states? (No pathway to calculus in Common Core’s math standards, unless mathematically sophisticated parents in high-performing school districts demand them.) How did their unions ever agree to tie teachers’ evaluations to tests based on Gates’ ludicrous “national” standards, whether next year or in several more years?
The trust that parents once had in their public schools has been ruptured—for good. But Duncan/Fordham/Coleman et al probably don’t care so long as the cut scores (passing scores) on Common Core-based tests can be set in a way to provide “evidence” that Common Core has “rigorous” standards. And the budget item recently passed by the Massachusetts House of Representatives suggests that there is no shortage of legislators in this country who will believe whatever their state board, commissioner, and department of education tell them.
$5,000,000 shall be used for the one-time, non-recurring costs associated with the development and field testing of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness in College and Careers (PARCC) exam, so-called; provided further, that the PARCC exam shall not be adopted as the Commonwealth’s graduation standard nor for any high stakes assessment, until the field testing has shown that it is equal or greater in rigor than the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam.
One might wonder why Massachusetts legislators are spending $5,000,000 for a test that may be no better than the one already in place but is clearly less rigorous. The MCAS exam that the PARCC exam will replace is given in grade 10, while the PARCC test for high school graduation is to be given in grade 11. Moreover, students who pass the PARCC test will be declared college ready and entitled to credit-bearing coursework in their freshman year at Massachusetts institutions of higher education. No such reward was available for passing the grade 10 MCAS.
Bottom line: Massachusetts taxpayers may be shelling out $5 million for a test that may be no more difficult than the test already in place but which lets students bypass not only a year or two of high school coursework but also possible placement in remedial coursework in college. And we have not factored in where a cut score, or passing score, might be set on the PARCC test. And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce thinks Common Core’s standards and tests increase academic achievement!
1. Focus of Accountability: Schools or Teachers
Under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), schools and school districts were held accountable based on student scores.
Under Common Core/Race to the Top (CC/RttT), teachers are to be held accountable based on varying percentages of student scores from state to state.
2. Source of State Standards: State Agencies or Private DC-Based Organizations
Under NCLB or earlier, standards were developed by state departments of education guided by education schools, national teacher organizations, teachers, and higher education academic experts. They were approved through a public process applied to multiple drafts.
Under CC/RttT, standards were developed by private organizations with no transparent review and finalization process, and no public discussion of final draft. The March 2010 public comment draft went out for two weeks of comment, but the comments are not available to the public.
3. Control of Test Content: State Agencies or Federal Agency
Under NCLB, state tests were developed/contracted for by state departments of education and reviewed by a state’s teachers, consultants, and public agencies. Test items were also reviewed by independent sources before tests were given and/or after test administration.
Under CC/RttT, tests are developed by private organizations and unknown individuals, with limited public review of test items before tests given and no public release of all or most test items after use.
4. Control of Passing Score: State Agencies or Federal Agency
Under NCLB in each state, the process for determining passing scores was controlled by state departments of education, with parents and state legislators participating in the determination of passing scores by means of an open vote.
For CC-based tests, there seems to be a non-transparent process controlled by both state departments of education and the test consortia, with possible oversight by the USDE. While parents and others may be included, committee membership may be controlled by both state DoEs and the test consortia, with no participation in a vote permitted to parents and state legislators. It is not clear how the passing score for all states will be determined and if there will be state-specific scores. An announcement from one test consortium indicates that “recommendations from the Online Panel, the In-Person Panel, and the Vertical Articulation Committee” will be presented to the chief school officers in Smarter Balanced governing states for their consideration and endorsement, in order to establish a common set of achievement levels for mathematics and English language arts/Literacy across grades 3–8 and high school.
No involvement is indicated for the Congressional House of Representatives.
5. Purpose: High school graduation or college-readiness
Under NCLB, the goal of K-12 standards was graduation from high school based on passing tests based on state-developed standards. Under RttT, the goal after passing tests based on CC standards is enrollment in credit-bearing coursework at post-secondary institutions, with the further goal of a college diploma or certificate. Assumption: every student is judged on preparedness for college even though it is not clear that preparedness for that goal is equivalent to preparedness for an occupational career.
6. Who benefits? Professional Development Providers or Technology and Global Education Companies
Who makes money from the public trough? Under NCLB, professional development providers. Under CC/RttT, high-tech companies that need to equip 50 million students for computer-based testing, and global/national professional development providers that can now provide the same kind of program to all teachers.
7. Subject Expertise of Teachers: Assured by School District or State Licensure Test Only
Under NCLB, states and local school districts were to ensure the subject expertise of all teachers (via an undergraduate major, a teacher license, or HOUSSE plan to ensure “highly qualified” teacher). Under RttT, teacher subject expertise is subsumed under teacher “effectiveness,” on the basis of which redistribution of teachers may take place if it can be determined that low-income students have a lower percentage of “effective” teachers than do other students.
The next phase of the Great Game to control the minds of the next generation of Americans has just begun. Oklahoma is the most recent state to try to eliminate the academic malignancies entailed by Common Core. Many Oklahomans deserve credit for the bill Governor Fallin may sign this week, especially Jenni White, an energetic mother of six. But there will be no end to the Gates Foundation’s effort to impose weak secondary school standards on this country in the name of ending “white privilege” (the motivation acknowledged by New Hampshire teacher David Pook at a Cornerstone Institute debate two weeks ago), rather than to strengthen secondary school coursework for all students with academically rigorous and internationally benchmarked standards.
The following steps could be taken at the local level to make sure that state boards of education, commissioners, or departments of education don’t select people for drafting a new set of state standards who are committed to Common Core. Despite any legislative oversight that may be built into bills to eliminate Common Core, states trying to extricate themselves from Common Core may yet experience a version of Governor Pence’s strategy in Indiana.
The Pence strategy was designed to ensure that committee members selected by his education policy advisor (Claire Fiddian-Green), the Indiana Board of Education, Commissioner of Education Glenda Ritz, and the Indiana Department of Education replaced the existing version of Common Core’s standards with a dumbed-down version of them (yes, that is possible), instead of with internationally benchmarked and rigorous academic standards similar to the standards Indiana had in 2006.
To avoid that possibility, here are possible steps for local school boards to take, depending on existing state law and what the legislature has passed:
1. Local school boards vote to eliminate Common Core’s standards in their school district. This is as far as Oklahoma needs to go right now. In other states, parents and others may need to petition their local school boards to do this.
2. Local school boards then need to vote to adopt/develop new and stronger standards in ELA and math for their district. For this to happen, school boards must authorize their superintendent and teaching staff in ELA and math to use as working blueprints the old California or my (free) ELA standards (based on the former Massachusetts ELA standards) and a set of math standards chosen by their high school mathematics staff (they could come from Minnesota, California 1997, Indiana 2006, or Massachusetts 2000). It is crucial to start with a non-Common Core blueprint or organizational outline in order to prevent development of a version of Common Core (as in Indiana or Manchester, New Hampshire) called “the floor” or the “Common Core floor.” There is apt to be nothing above the floor to be taught. Even if there is, it won’t be tested.
3. Local school boards then need to vote to direct their superintendent, all school administrators, and all teachers to adjust their K-12 curriculum to address the new standards. (New standards development and curriculum re-adjustment needs to be done in a matter of months, not years.)
4. THEN, local school boards can refuse to administer any Common Core-aligned state tests on the grounds that they are incompatible with their locally adopted, approved, official standards and curriculum. No state or federal money can be legally withheld because there is NO state statute in any state requiring local districts to take tests that are incompatible with locally adopted, official standards and curriculum. Local school boards can do whatever state law does not explicitly require or forbid.
If there is disagreement on the matter by a state commissioner or department of education, let the matter head to the State Supreme Court for hearings. Parents must argue for the right to have their own legally elected school board members and state legislators decide on policies for their local schools.
5. Plan B: The state legislature develops and passes a bill to eliminate the state board and department of education. It may need to keep the chief state school officer to satisfy ESEA requirements. Let USED send Congressionally-appropriated Title I funds directly to local school districts after a re-authorization of NCLB that allows this possibility.
While Oklahoma’s bill wisely requires a return to the state’s previous standards and tests during the interim, it is crucial for local school boards to also vote to eliminate Common Core’s standards and any curriculum developed to address them. This will prevent the imposition of a federally-imposed Common Core-aligned test at the local level—another possible end-run around state legislatures.
A different version of this article appeared at Breitbart News under the title of “Local School Districts Should Eliminate Common Core and Adopt Stronger Standards.”