Caution urged on Common Core — from a supporter

Even as schools across the country change curriculum and assessments to align with the new Common Core State Standards, there are plenty of people — including Common Core supporters –  who think implementation is being rushed. Here is an open letter on this subject to the Illinois State Board of Education from Paul Horton, a history teacher at the private University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (where President Obama’s daughters attended before moving to Washington D.C.), and state liaison to the Illinois Council for History Education. In this letter Horton said he refers to himself and to many other teachers and educators who agree with his views.

Dear Illinois State Board of Education,

 

While the Common Core State Standards Initiative has produced a formidable set of goals that set very clear expectations for reading, writing, and speaking standards at each grade level, we have significant reservations about their implementation.

 

Our first reservation has to do with whether all students are beginning on the same starting line. State funding for education has been incrementally reduced and we have no reason to believe that more resources will be placed in those schools that currently receive substandard funding. Will Illinois’ “Spotlight Schools” be given more resources to insure that they can meet minimal standards before assessments are introduced?  If not, will one-size-fit-all standards simply reconfirm what James Coleman found over forty years ago: that test scores will correlate most closely to economic class and abundant resources?

 

A second concern has to do with assessment. Assessment prototypes are still being formulated, but many private companies are rushing products into the educational market place in advance of the scheduled 2014 date for completion. (See the video overview of development of assessments: http://media.all4ed.org/webinar-oct-2-2012). In Kentucky, a state that has rushed into standardized assessments, scores have dropped precipitously. According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, “Achievement gaps among low-income, minority, limited English and disabled students…continued to persist.” (November 2, 2012). If assessments are formative and summative, that is, if they are based on portfolios that clearly demonstrate in-class writing, reading, and speaking progress, and make use of common grade-level rubrics that teachers are trained to use, we might be able to make significant progress. This requires time and careful training to roll out, perhaps three to four years, if done carefully. We firmly believe that standardized tests, which may be a much cheaper way to assess Illinois students, will not accurately reflect student progress because some schools will struggle with literacy, while better funded schools will use the Common Core Standards to push toward the upper limits of the normal curve.

 

A third concern involves, not surprisingly, costs.  Can the State of Illinois afford “authentic assessment” that requires human beings to score essays using rubrics? Many of us have graded AP exams that are very expensive to grade.

 

Could we afford to do something similar for all of the students in the state? Can the state “authentically” and cheaply evaluate speaking progress or reading progress using standardized tests? A better case can probably be made for reading scores, but most of us believe that reading and comprehension can be better measured by examining how reading is used in essays and research papers. Given the current climate of austerity, is cheap the only way to go? Does cheap standardized assessment serve the interests of the students and parents of our state?

 

If we truly want to increase literacy, we need to take more time to train teachers to implement formative and summative assessments using standardized rubrics.  We must also trust teachers to evaluate accurately. Most importantly, our teachers need smaller class sizes that will for allow frequent writing, speaking, and reading assignments.

 

At the middle and high school levels in public schools, teachers typically see 150 students a day. Unless class sizes are reduced in History and English classes, there is a limit to how hard a teacher can work. A teacher who asks for a two page typed essay per week from each of her one hundred and fifty students would work an 85-90 hour week when class preparation, meetings, conferences, and paperwork are added together. If the Common Core is to be implemented successfully, smaller class sizes are as necessary as frequent substantial writing assignments. The schools that can afford smaller class sizes to facilitate more frequent writing will have an advantage.

 

Finally, we want to make it clear that we support the Common Core Standards. Most teachers will tell you that it is what they do anyway. To successfully implement the Common Core Standards, we will need smaller class sizes, more support for English and History teachers, and more support for underserved schools and districts. We also need to require kids to learn how to read, and to read a lot more!

 

The Common Core encourages us to look beyond the tyranny of the textbook and bring together multiple sources. Our secondary students should be reading several novels and several history books a year for credit. We need to do a much better job of incentivizing reading, including giving course credit for completing grade level reading lists and writing comparative papers on those books!

 

Meaningful change requires buy-in from all constituencies. If the State Board is prudent in a time of austerity, it will not “race to the top” by endorsing premature and cheap standardized assessments.

 

Paul Horton,

 

History Teacher, The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools

 

State Liaison, Illinois Council for History Education.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | January 24, 2013