Last week, I examined the nation’s move toward Common Core learning standards from the lofty perspective of scholars and policymakers. Let’s see what it looks like to a smart but confused high school English teacher in San Leandro, Calif.
Jerry Heverly has been teaching for 10 years. He has an intense interest in what the new standards might do for his mostly minority students in the East Bay community. “I really want to find a way to get involved in the political process around these changes,” he said, “but I don’t quite know how to do it.”
So he showed up at a February conference in San Jose sponsored by his union, the California Teachers Association. Marlene Fong and Vernon Gettone, association experts, promised “A Look at the New California State Standards and a New Generation of State Assessments.”
Heverly appreciated their behind-the-scenes revelations from Sacramento. But the session materials jarred him. They said that the Common Core standards, agreed to by the District and 45 states (including California and Maryland, but not Virginia), would be “internationally benchmarked so that all students are prepared to succeed in our global economy and society.”
“Here I go,” Heverly said, “more freaking multiple choice tests so we can compete with the Chinese.”
He got a bigger shock. He did not know the California state tests would expire in 2014 and be replaced by new tests based on the Common Core. Fong and Gettone said the state has set to work on writing the new tests for 2015. Those tests, Heverly said, “allegedly will be quite different from the ones we’ve been using for over 10 years.”
There will be no new textbooks aligned with the new standards and tests until 2017, he was told, because the state has no money at the moment to pay for them. There will be supplementary materials, their nature and quality unclear.
Heverly wondered why he hadn’t heard about this before. “The union reps said few districts publicized the coming changes,” he said. “They speculated that the notices went to superintendents, who didn’t pass on the info.” Like California, the District and Maryland plan to give new tests in 2015.
Common Core advocates and experts are having pitched battles in journals and blogs over how these standards will work in particular subjects. But Heverly sensed that he and other teachers at the conference had a more general reaction. He has no strong feelings about the current tests, but the big change in 2015 is akin to watching a rising tide approach sand castles carefully constructed on the beach.
Math, algebra and geometry are to be replaced with something called Integrated Math I, II and III, Heverly learned. The tests will have more questions that require students to explain how they got the answer to a problem rather than just fill in a bubble. There will be many changes in other subjects that schools will have to adjust to.
Heverly thought of the money his district had spent on pacing guides and textbooks aligned with the old exams. He asked at the conference, without getting an answer, about “the coterie of administrators whose whole existence was based on these practices.” What happens to them?
Heverly is pointing to something important but unmentioned in the Common Core debates that I have read. These new tests in nearly every state will delay, if not stop altogether, the national move toward rating teachers by student score improvements. School districts can’t do that when the tests change so radically. They might have to wait years to work out the kinks in the tests before using them to assess teachers.
That could kill the desire to assess teachers with test results. Many will cheer that result, but other changes demanded by the Common Core are not going to be so popular, at least from the perspective of a classroom teacher.
To read previous columns by Jay Mathews, go to postlocal.com.