By Carol Burris
My recent blog post, which was critical of the Common Core, surprised some of my friends and critics. I still hold the ideal of the Common Core—to prepare all students for college and career—as my goal as a principal. But I have concluded that the standards, as they are being implemented, are potentially harmful to students. The best way that I can explain my trepidation is with the following analogy.
Hurricane Sandy hit the shores of New York and New Jersey at high tide when there was a full moon, a time when tides were 20% higher. It was a Category One hurricane of no great fury—its winds were “only” about 74 miles per hour. However, Sandy became a super storm due to a Canadian cold front, which wrapped around the hurricane, making the storm larger and more ferocious.
Think of the Common Core standards as the high tide—the tide intended to lift all boats. Testing is the hurricane—a strong storm that blows through each year and affects our every action as educators. Now add the cold front, the ever-increasing high stakes, wrapping around the tests. Those high stakes—school closings, grade level retentions, and the evaluation of teachers by student scores—have given the hurricane additional fury and strength. High tide, which in and of itself is benign, now becomes a destructive force.
As a New Yorker who saw the tide of a nearby bay fill four feet of our home, I have new respect for what occurs when strong forces converge. Like the high tide that rushed through our neighborhood, the standards are not merely seeping into Grade 2 and rising through the upper grades as our students progress. Instead, they are rushing in all at once, throughout all K-12 classrooms. And because the testing is immediate, with high stakes for individual teachers and higher demands for student learning, districts are buying materials without time for full review, and frantic test prep is occurring.
Some readers said that principals should “stop the test prep” – that students do not need it for the tests. However, the “handbook” that New York principals are supposed to use is called “Data Driven Instruction.” It was written by an author who happens to come from the same charter school chain, Uncommon Schools, as New York’s education commissioner, John King. The book was purchased in bulk by the New York State Education Department and given to administrators through BOCES [Boards of Cooperative Educational Services] training for teacher evaluation. I wrote about the training and the book here. Today’s reformers know full well that educators will react by teaching to the test.
Other readers of my earlier blog commented that the standards themselves, apart from implementation, are deeply flawed. Because my expertise is in secondary education, I do not have the knowledge base to make that judgment for Grades K-8. However, I have found some evidence that supports their concern. Let’s start at the beginning—kindergarten. The Common Core Standards expect that four- and five-year-olds will count to 100 by ones and tens and will write the numbers from 0 to 20.
However, childhood learning experts not only stress that each child will develop differently, they set counting skills for five year olds not from 1 to 100, but to 20 at age 5 and to 30 between the ages of 5 and 6. Please see here and here. While some students will master all this by age five, many will not – nor should we demand that they do.
In looking at the English Language Arts standards for kindergarten, I also found that according to the Common Core, kindergarteners are supposed to name the authors and illustrators of books that they read and discuss their role in the text. I find this to be odd and of little value to youngsters who should, developmentally, be learning to sound out words.
Educators and parents are expressing worry. Kindergarten teacher, Dr. Eric Gidseg, is concerned that the standards are making unreasonable demands of his students, labeling them “as failures just as they embark on what should be a journey of confident discovery”. Many of the same concerns are expressed by parent and college professor, Mark Rice, whose thoughts can be found here,
The disconnect between the standards and childhood development is not difficult to explain. The standards were developed through backwards mapping, that is, standards for college readiness were established and then skills were walked backward through the grades. However, children move forward not backward through development, and as any pediatrician will tell you, they do so at individual, unique paces.
Parents and teachers understand the effects of inappropriate demands and testing on young children, but do the bureaucrats get it? The Department of Education of New York City recently put out a parent guide for the standards and the upcoming tests. Here is what it advises parents to say to their children about the tests: “Let your child know that these tests are meant to be really hard. That’s because they are designed to measure whether students are on track for college and a good job when they finish high school”.
This strikes me as something a character from a Dickens novel would say to an eight-year old: “Go and take this really hard test and if you don’t get a good score, you might not go to college and get a good job”.
Finally, there were those who commented that without the hard tests that students were expected to fail, change would never happen. In other words, without a whip and a ruler we would have only the status quo. I disagree. In the last piece, I referred to the research of Michael Fullan, a far more knowledgeable expert on successful reform than I. In his work on the conditions under which reform can work, he explains that the United States is on the wrong track, and he offers a successful alternative that you can read about here  and here and here.
Common Core Standards author, David Coleman, once told a reporter how disappointed he was that the poor youth of New Haven, with whom he briefly worked, were not ready for Yale. Certainly this son of a Manhattan psychiatrist and a university president could count to 100 by kindergarten, probably in French. But to expect that every child, especially those without the same privilege, run the same race at breakneck speed is vanity at its worst.
We can only hope that parents and educators will have their voices heard before the storm of reform washes away a generation of student learning.