A front page article by Jamie Vaznis in the Boston Globe today carries the news that all lower-grade Boston district schools will drop the MCAS and adopt the new Common Core-aligned PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career) test.
Most Boston public schools would drop the MCAS next spring in favor of a new online testing system the state is trying out…
The recommendation, being presented to the School Committee Wednesday night, would affect more than 22,000 Boston students in grades 3-8 who must take state standardized tests every spring. Tenth-graders would continue to take the MCAS, which remains a state graduation requirement.
The most important consideration here should be the impact on learning and the pace of reform in Boston’s district schools. With so many of its schools falling in the Level 3 and 4 categories, BPS has no good justification for adopting PARCC across the board in grades 3 to 8. As I noted in Vaznis’ piece,
There is rightfully a lot of pressure from parents to keep accountability pressure on the schools, and implementing PARCC without any accountability function would in essence lessen if not remove the pressure to improve. That’s like giving troubled schools a pass for a year.
But it is worse than that. The adoption of PARCC across the board for K-8 schools resets all accountability and removes the ability to make comparisons of performance. It, in effect, sets back accountability for several years, until we have sufficient spans of data to understand how schools are performing. And for parents what this does is take away a critical tool — a tool that allows them to exert pressure on schools to improve core academic programs (math, science, and English Language Arts). Again, given the number of Level 3 and 4 schools in Boston, parents need those tools to advocate for their kids.
A second consideration is that Interim Superintendent John McDonough’s all-in adoption of PARCC for grades 3 to 8 is an dicey move. It’s not been at all clear how many districts around the state were sticking with the MCAS and how many were going with PARCC. The department suggests in the Globe piece that districts are running 60-40 in favor of PARCC, but outside observers suggest the department is overstating the adoption rate. The Globe piece reports the department’s numbers without question:
So far, 180 Massachusetts districts — including Andover, Milton, and Sudbury — plan to try out the new exams next spring, while 123 others, such as Peabody, Quincy, and Waltham, will stick with MCAS.
The problem here is that many of the districts that are counted in the list of adopters have only partially adopted or chosen to pass the decision off to school leaders. Case in point are Worcester and Springfield, both considered adopters by the department. But the former is piloting PARCC in half its schools and Worcester is leaving the decision to its principals. A fair assessment of the assessment adoption process would call it a draw — and that is remarkable given that the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester is the head of the PARCC assessment consortium and is putting all manner of pressure on districts to adopt the new test. (He went so far as to urge a Board vote, adopted in June, to place a de facto moratorium on charter school expansions in Brockton, Haverhill, Lowell, Somerville and Worcester as an inducement for those urban districts to adopt PARCC. This is what passes for leadership in Massachusetts education circles circa 2014.)
The fact is that many districts are not even close to having the level of technology needed to equitably and efficiently administer the new online tests. Many districts face overrides and long debates as to whether millions of dollars should be spent on technology or teachers.
These are the sorts of questions that have led to a collapse in the number of states participating in PARCC: Membership of the PARCC grouping has dropped from 25 to nominally 13. Included in the remaining 13 “nominal” states are places like Louisiana, which are actively seeking to drop Common Core and PARCC. That does not sound like a test that is gaining adherents or traction. Even architects of Common Core recognize that the test may not survive into the future.
Then there are legal questions. In New Mexico and Louisiana, there are open legal questions — well, actually lawsuits — about the implementation of PARCC and whether state procurement practices were being violated and in particular no-bid contracting was occurring. On this front, an enterprising reporter would delve into Massachusetts’ own procurement of PARCC testing support.
Most importantly for Massachusetts, with its landmark 1993 Education Reform Act, it’s not legal by state statute. The state department of education has chalked up many examples recently of ignoring the law. Earlier this year, my organization wrote to the Commissioner, noting that his attempts to pressure districts to adopt PARCC were in violation of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. NCLB requires tests for students between grades 3 and 10. At that point the Commissioner sought and received a letter from the US Secretary of Education granting a waiver from that provision of the law.
The federal waiver received after the fact by Chester (see our exchange of letters here) still does not absolve him and the department from the need to follow Massachusetts’ landmark 1993 Education Reform Act, which has driven huge gains in student achievement in the Commonwealth for all student subgroups. MERA requires at a minimum testing in grades 4, 8 and 10; see Section II of Chapter 71:
Section II. The board shall adopt a system for evaluating on an annual basis the performance of both public school districts and individual public schools. With respect to individual schools, the system shall include instruments designed to assess the extent to which schools and districts succeed in improving or fail to improve student performance, as defined by student acquisition of the skills, competencies and knowledge called for by the academic standards and embodied in the curriculum frameworks established by the board pursuant to sections one D and one E in the areas of mathematics, science and technology, history and social science, English, foreign languages and the arts…
In addition, comprehensive diagnostic assessment of individual students shall be conducted at least in the fourth, eighth and tenth grades. Said diagnostic assessments shall identify academic achievement levels of all students in order to inform teachers, parents, administrators and the students themselves, as to individual academic performance…
The Commissioner, the Boston School Committee and the interim Superintendent will be in violation of the 1993 Act if BPS adopts PARCC for ELA and math in all lower grade schools, as the grade 4 and 8 requirements of the Reform Act require testing for accountability purposes in those grades.
So, from an educational perspective, the adoption of PARCC for all students in grades 3 to 8 is tantamount to abandoning accountability for the BPS performance. That’s bad. But violating provisions of Massachusetts’ Landmark 1993 Education Reform Act, that’s illegal.
A good test question for the Attorney General and the Inspector General: Are you paying attention to minor details like the rule of law?
Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, visit Pioneer’s website, or check out our education posts at the Rock The Schoolhouse blog.
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.
Rick Hess and Mike McShane back in the spring wrote in the National Review Online that
At the end of March, Indiana became the first state to repeal the Common Core standards. The aftermath has not been pretty.
And they were right. Hess and McShane noted that
Critics have raised valid concerns but failed to put forward a notion of what happens next. This is a problem. Common Core adoption meant that Indiana schools set in place not only new reading and math standards but also new tests, curricula, instructional materials, and teaching strategies. And the abrupt shift could be a train wreck for students and educators.
Already back in 2011, Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation and a few others had tried to map out a strategy for states to exit Common Core.
For some states it has proven difficult to figure out. Back in 2011 Burke laid out some sensible markers:
- Determine how the decision was made to cede the state’s standard-setting authority and use that discovery process to determine the best way to reverse course.
- Prohibit new spending for standards implementation.
But by the time the wave of “repeal and replace” legislation began with Indiana, much more granular “exit strategies” were possible. As Dr. Sandra Stotsky noted in a Breitbart blog, she had made available for free alternate, high-quality ELA standards and also advised state officials on the kind of robust public process that would more likely lead to world-class standards in Indiana. For political reasons that only Governor Pence might be able to explain, the state chose a rushed, Common Core-lite strategy. Stotsky provided more detail on the utter failure to develop higher quality state standards in pieces here, here, and elsewhere.
So what’s a state to do? Well, a lot has changed since Burke and others began thinking through how to repeal and replace the Core. Here are some facts:
- At this point, most states have already spent the dollars they received through Race to the Top (RttT) for Common Core implementation. In most cases the RttT funding for Common Core implementation (mainly for such things as professional development) was only a third to a fourth of the total RttT grant. In Massachusetts case, we received $250 million from the feds, but a lot of it went to districts with little definition, some went for implementation of federally influenced teacher evaluations, and some went for Common Core. Assuming between $75 million and $100 million went to Common Core in the Bay State, that only constituted a small fraction of the total cost to get to the place where the standards and tests can even be administered. A 2011 Pioneer study, which focused on the cost of textbooks, technology, assessments and professional development pegged the cost to the country at $16 billion and to Massachusetts alone at $355 million.
- Many states, including Florida, California and it seems Massachusetts, just to provide a few examples, have run up against technology costs that far exceed what state education officials implied or explicitly disclosed in the past. In Florida, two years ago when Tony Bennett was Commissioner of Education, there was much debate because of discussion of the need for an additional $400 million for technology alone. In Massachusetts, we are seeing overrides at the local level to pay for technology, and there have been quiet discussion about the possibility of using the state’s School Building Authority funding (which is for, ahem, buildings) to fund technology, which is an expense that can be capitalized. That conversation with the SBA has led nowhere to date. Thankfully.
- The Common Core-aligned “consortia” tests, PARCC and SBAC, have lost market share – and how! PARCC has gone from 25 participating states to 13 nominal states participating. I say nominal because Louisiana and other states that are chafing to get out of PARCC are included in PARCC’s list of 13 friendly states. With the loss of market share – fewer students participating – the cost of the test must necessarily go up on a per student basis. Maybe Pearson, PARCC’s preferred (and in some states no-bid) contractor, will be able to hold the line on the pricing in the short term, but that will be a loss leader for them, and the long-term pricing is anything but known.
What those facts tell me are the following three things:
- The feds can no longer hold out the possibility of punishing states that received RttT funding for the Core. The states long ago spent the stimulus money.
- Second, the states have been saddled with a significant unfunded mandate. States and localities fund 90% of educational services, so if there are costs that go beyond the original sum received through the RttT for Common Core, then states and localities will be on the hook for them.
- The future costs of staying with Common Core are unpredictable – and therefore at this point it is more prudent from a budgetary perspective to transition from the Core and the Core-aligned tests.
There are further considerations and experiences that finally allow states to trace out a clear path out from the Core.
Indiana’s repeal and replace bill showed how not to extricate a state from the Core. Governor Pence demonstrated little interest in policy or in educational quality; nor did he evince a clear vision of truly public process. The truncated effort to develop new “Indiana” standards led to an inside job led by proponents of the Core, it started with the Core as a foundational document, and it ended up with a product even worse than the Core, as Stotsky among others clearly demonstrated.
Oklahoma and South Carolina have taken a different path, and they are trying to build new state-led standards with real public processes. Oklahoma had the benefit of state standards that were in fact of higher quality than the Core. They are therefore going back to the drawing board and using the Oklahoma standards as a foundation stone. South Carolina has the benefit of very strong US History standards, but do not have strong ELA and math standards to draft off of.
That’s where Ohio comes in. Learning from Indiana’s disastrous effort and the good efforts in Oklahoma and South Carolina, Ohio’s HB597 is a huge step forward in that it not only rejects Common Core’s mediocre offerings, but it provides on an interim basis Massachusetts’ nation-leading standards as the new foundation to draft off of in developing new Ohio standards. The Massachusetts’ standards go into place for two years as Ohio educators, businesses, scholars and parents put their heads together in a truly public process—and develop, we hope, even better standards than what Massachusetts had.
And there are several points to be made in favor of states quickly adopting the MA standards for a two-year interim period while developing their own first-rate standards.
First, two years is ample time to engage local communities and constituencies in the kind of public process that upholds the public trust and also can gain the level of teacher buy-in that will help make new standards effective guidance. No such buy-in is possible with Common Core because of its lack of a public process.
Second, the interim adoption of the Massachusetts standards is a cost-effective exit strategy for Ohio and other states. The fact is that Common Core requires lots of professional development, because there are pedagogical strategies embedded in the Core standards. A couple of examples will suffice: Some of the early grad math requires multiple approaches rather than standard algorithms. The high school geometry standards insist on the use of an experimental method that has not been used successfully in Western high schools. Early grade ELA includes more non-fiction than teachers have used in the past; across the board, there are non-fiction offerings that fall outside the traditional teacher preparation and likely background of English teachers.
On the other hand, Massachusetts standards will require minimal professional development. None at the high school level because the standards reflect the disciplinary background of teachers in English, mathematics, science, and history/U.S. Government. Continuing PD will be needed in reading in K-6 because of the inadequacy of reading methods courses in many schools of education and in some professional development. As Stotsky noted years ago, the Massachusetts standards were developed with teachers’ backgrounds in mind. There is not the insistence on new methods and fads. English teachers, most of whom came out of English lit majors are likely to be pretty comfortable teaching a greater amount of literature rather than jamming in lots of non-fiction extracts. As a result, costs for professional development will be much, much lower.
Third, the organization and clarity of the Massachusetts standards not only can be implemented as interim standards very easily and without lots of professional development, but they also lend themselves to greater ease of understanding to teachers and district officials. In short, they will serve more effectively as a framework for Ohio’s development of new, higher-quality standards.
As for the prohibition of PARCC embedded in Ohio HB597, well, that is just smart. There is no predictability as to whether PARCC will survive and, if it does, at what price point. The Massachusetts assessment, MCAS, is a known entity. It’s been “tested” and proven over a decade. And, as I noted to the Ohio Rules and Reference Committee, the fact is that PARCC is on its last legs. Why stick with a sinking ship? (It is useful to note that there are free test items available from 2001 to 2011 on the Massachusetts Education Department’s website.)
Finally, there is that small detail called quality. School systems will have a head start in using first-rate standards by orienting themselves to the Massachusetts standards.
So, Ohio Representatives Matt Huffman and Andrew Thompson may not only have given Ohioans hope, they may have traced out the core elements of a positive agenda that can replace the Core. And that’s important. In about 25 states, it is not enough for state officials and activists to say no to Common Core. Those states had poor quality standards before the Core and getting rid of it will not lead to higher achievement by their students. Instead, they need to have an exit strategy that says no to the Core and yes to world-class standards.
Adoption on an interim basis of Massachusetts’ standards is a great innovation. Importantly, Huffman and Thompson are not saying that they want to replace the Core with Massachusetts’ standards. They are saying that the Massachusetts standards are in interim step – a great framework that Ohioans will need to make their own. They should. This country was built on a federalist impulse – the idea of competitive federalism. We want states to have different standards, to test what works and what doesn’t. States competing to be the best is a true Race to the Top. That’s a virtuous cycle and very different from the feds’ RttT, which was more like a race to comply with federal definitions of what “innovation” means.
Time to turn the page.
Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, visit Pioneer’s website, or check out our education posts at the Rock The Schoolhouse blog.
The Boston Teachers Union (BTU) puts charter schools at the top of their list of “hot issues” in education. The union is strongly opposed to charters, claiming they achieve their impressive results by “cherry picking” and that they drain much-needed funding from traditional public schools. The BTU promotes many recurring myths about charter schools (often drawing on data presented in a report that is five years out of date). The top six are listed below.
Myth #1: Charters “cherry pick” their students.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. The law specifically states that if the number of applicants to a charter school exceeds the number of available seats, a lottery must be held to decide who is admitted. The charter cannot pick and choose who they admit.
Myth #2: Charter Schools are not very popular.
The BTU downplays the popularity of charter schools. They dismiss the growing number of students on waiting lists to get into charters, claiming students are counted twice if they apply to more than one school, and that charters do not remove students from waiting lists after they have missed their chance to be admitted. Therefore, the union claims, the totals are misleading. But according to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, there are currently over 40,000 unique students on charter school waiting lists statewide. The rising popularity of charters is also reflected by the number of students attending them in Massachusetts, which has risen every year since they were created two decades ago. Considering total enrollment has jumped from 2,613 in 1995-96 to 37,870 in 2014-15, charters are clearly a popular choice in public education.
Myth #3: Student achievement at charters is inconsistent.
The BTU argues that “students clearly show a tremendous range in the achievement of charter school[s].” But in fact, data from 2013 shows that when charters and traditional public schools in Boston are ranked side by side based on MCAS test scores, the charters consistently place high on the list. While the union points to a CREDO study to show a wide range in achievement among charters nationwide, charters in Massachusetts charters are very successful. And unlike a traditional public school, when a charter can’t live up to its mission, a system is in place to facilitate its closure. This process ensures that only schools that are educating students successfully will survive.
Myth #4: Charters don’t educate low income students.
|Charter District||Total Enrollment||Low Income #||SWD|
|Academy Pacfic Rim||498||272||102|
|Brooke East Boston||288||218||18|
|City on a Hill||286||248||64|
|Excel East Boston||212||151||39|
|Excel Orient Heights||112||94||12|
|MATCH Jr. + High||494||369||82|
|Roxbury Prep Charter||716||558||97|
|Smith Leadership Academy.||243||201||38|
|UP Academy Dorchester||562||482||87|
|Percentages||-||0.7384 (74%)||0.1461 (15%)|
The BTU claims that Boston Public Schools educate more low-income students than Boston charters do. They argue that this gives charters an advantage and explains why charters outperform the city’s traditional public schools. Such a discrepancy does exist, but it is small, amounting to about a four-point difference in the percentage of low income students enrolled. Statewide, however, in the 2013-2014 school year, 53.7% of charter students were low income, whereas only 38.3% of the public school students generally were low income. Rather than ignore them, charters disproportionally HELP low income students in Massachusetts.
Myth #5: Charters can’t properly educated students with disabilities.
The union also complains that public schools educate more students with learning disabilities. Statewide this is true. But charters allow parents to choose the school that is the best fit for their child. Public schools often have more resources to offer students with severe learning disabilities than charters do, therefore it makes sense that students with special needs would choose to attend schools that best meet those needs. This is not an argument against charters, but rather a vindication of the theory behind their creation: parents and students choosing the best schools for their needs.
Myth #6: Charters drain money from public schools.
When a student goes to a charter, a formula dictates how much money is transferred from the district to the charter public school. This money is referred to as “tuition.” Opponents of charters say that this process wreaks havoc on public school budgets and therefore harms students. But this claim is misleading. The reality is that Massachusetts has a very generous formula that reimburses public schools when students leave for charters. Starting in fiscal year 2016, the first year after a student leaves a public school, the district receives 100% reimbursement for the tuition money paid to the charter, and 25% of the tuition for the next five years. This formula will help districts adjust their budgets over time so they can better plan for decreased budgets and student enrollment.
Many charter school myths are often repeated by those who feel threatened by true education reform. Polls show that parents and students realize school choice works. How long until the BTU comes to the same conclusion?
Michael Crupi is a research intern at Pioneer. He attends Boston College where he studies Political Science.
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.