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Common Core: The growing ‘slip’ between rhetoric and implementation

I recently posted a piece, headlined “How New York’s education commissioner blew it big time,” by award-winning Principal Carol Burris of South Side High School in New York about  John King’s difficult efforts to try to sell the Common Core State Standards to the public. Here’s a follow-up which looks more deeply at the use of data in the state’s reform program and the growing divide between King’s reform policies, rhetoric and   implementation.

Burris has been chronicling on this blog the test-driven reform in her state (here, and here and here and here, for example). She was named New York’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and in 2010,  tapped as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State.

She is the co-author of the New York Principals letter of concern regarding the evaluation of teachers by student test scores. It has been signed by more than 1,535 New York principals and more than 6,500 teachers, parents, professors, administrators and citizens. You can read the letter by clicking here. 

By Carol Burris

In a WHAM-TV story entitled, NYS Education Chief Accused of Doublespeak, parent Liz Hallmark of Rochester, had the following to say about New York Education Commissioner, John King:

I have been watching these videos (of the meetings) … and I don’t know if he understands the difference between the abstract concepts of Common Core and the implementation of Common Core … there’s a slip between the lip and the cup in how it’s being applied.

Her astute observation is a further example of the growing “slip” between Commissioner King’s rhetoric and the implementation of his reforms in New York schools.  Here’s another example. At a recent meeting at Oyster Bay High School, King told the audience, according to this Wall Street Journal story:

“We are worried about the climate of potential over-testing and too much test prep.”

On the surface, that is an encouraging statement. In order to fix the problem, however, one must ask why is over-testing occurring. Are his policies encouraging over-testing, or are schools to blame?

The answer to that question can be found in the Regents Reform Agenda itself.  While much attention has focused on the Common Core, and the evaluation of teachers by test scores, the third part of the reform, Data Driven Instruction, has gone unnoticed. What follows is a description of Data Driven Instruction and how the New York State Education Department (NYSED) has encouraged its practice in schools.

In August of 2011, the New York State Education Department hosted its first Network Team Institute.  This institute was a multi-day event that trained educators from across the state in the Reform Agenda. In turn, they were to serve as “turnkey trainers” and push out the reforms.

At that first institute, participants received instruction from a variety of presenters including Paul Bambrick-Santoyo, the managing director of Uncommon Schools Newark.  In my last  post on this blog, I described the connection between this charter school chain and Commissioner John King, who served as a managing director of Uncommon Schools before moving to the State Education Department.  Mr. Bambrick-Santoyo received a generous fee for his work at that institute. The State Education Department also purchased 600 copies of his book, Driven by Data, which it gave to participants. (You can see that purchase, expenses and presenter fees from the first institute, which I obtained through a FOIL request by clicking here.  Various BOCES around the state then purchased books and distributed them as part of local turnkey training.   I received my copy from Nassau BOCES, which purchased 475 copies to distribute. You can see the purchase, obtained from a FOIL here.

Data Driven Instruction is clearly a manual on how to teach to state tests. One of the schools described in the book as a “data-driven success story” is South Bronx Classical, a K-5 charter school with good test scores. Below is an excerpt that describes the practices it uses.

South Bronx Classical created an aggressive follow-up system in which students took daily math assessments and daily English assessments to track their performance in real time. This…was coupled with formal tests every two weeks that served a miniature interim assessments within the larger structure of quarterly tests.

The author then describes how students were regularly pulled out of “specials” such as gym for tutoring. (p31).

The students of the school are as young as five years of age.

Bambrick-Santoyo’s book is replete with graphs of rising test scores, charts for assessment planning and advice such as pushing first-grade standards into kindergarten.  It encourages readers to make beginning class activities, commonly called “Do Nows” look like test items.  The author advises the reader to “Make Do Nows that look like a test question…collect and grade four straight Do Nows” (p81).

Other practices of Data Driven Instruction can be found on the Engage NY website here. Although I am certainly not promoting the book, I do suggest that parents read it.  It provides insight into the reforms that are occurring.  As they read the book, parents should ask themselves, “Is this what I want my child’s education to be?”

From the insistence that teachers be evaluated by student test scores, to the rapid introduction of Common Core tests, to the institution of “data driven” charter school practices, an unhealthy obsession with testing is producing a toxic mix.  Parents see it.  They feel it. Too many children are frustrated, anxious and unhappy at schools—especially those that have ‘bought in’ to the reforms.

What parents are observing is the inevitable consequence of a reform that did not put the gradual implementation of standards first, but rather put testing front and center, as charter schools do.  King’s holding of the microphone for one and a half hours at the now infamous Poughkeepsie hearing (and the subsequent suspension of further hearings) was a strategy to contain the voices of teachers, principals and parents across the state who are saying, “Slow down. Something is wrong.  Let’s thoughtfully institute reform, keeping the well-being of our children front and center.”

It now appears that smaller forums will be scheduled. But the damage done by the cancellation, as well as the unwillingness of King to listen and “reform the reform” is still echoing through the state, along with calls for his resignation.  As noted by New York Assemblyman Tom Abinanti:

NYSED’s announcement of a new series of forums is welcome but should supplement not substitute for Commissioner King’s resignation. The problem is not cancellation of meetings – it’s King’s attitude.
Commissioner King intentionally mischaracterizes the criticism of his approach and policies solely as opposition to Common Core when his critics cite his botched implementation of Common Core and his aversion to input before adopting significant NYSED policies.

It is ironic that Commissioner King wants our schools to be “driven by data,” yet he resists the assessment of the implementation of his reforms. Anything that gets in the way of his agenda is considered distraction. Let’s hope for the sake of our students that what occurred last week was a resounding wake up call resulting in substantive corrections.  It is time for the Board of Regents to heed to the most important  “data” of all—parent, principal and teacher voices.