Common Core opponents wave signs and cheer at a rally opposing Mississippi’s continued use of the Common Core academic standards on the steps of the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015.  (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

The debate over the Common Core State Standards has become so polarized that it is hard to get people who disagree to have reasonable conversations about it. This is the first of what will be a continuing series of letters that two award-winning principals with differing views on the Core will write to each other (a concept that Education Week once used with Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier as the authors). The new iteration is being undertaken by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news Web site focused on inequality and innovation in education, and each piece will be published there first. The Report’s editors as well as both principals have given me permission to republish each letter.

Who are the principals? One is Carol Burris of New York, who was once a strong Core supporter but underwent a change, and who has written posts published frequently on this blog. The other is Jayne Ellspermann of Florida. This is the introduction to the new series of letters from the Hechinger Report, and following that is the first letter, from Burris to Ellspermann:

 

A raging debate over whether Common Core is good or bad for American schoolchildren is intensifying, but in most U.S. schools, the new standards already govern how teachers teach and what students study. In 40-plus states, the math and English guidelines determine the knowledge students have to master by the end of each grade, what they’ll be tested on this year, and in many cases, how teachers and principals will be rated at their jobs once those test scores are released. Teachers are throwing out lesson plans and writing new ones, textbooks have been overhauled and new digital products are being hawked to schools that promise to help them meet the challenge of the new, tougher standards.

And yet too often the political fights over the Common Core exclude the voices of educators who have studied the standards and are grappling with how to apply them. To help fill this void, The Hechinger Report has invited two experienced principals to write a weekly column that will examine the Common Core through the eyes of those who have lived it.

Carol Burris has served as principal of South Side High School in the Rockville Centre School District in New York since 2000. In 2010, Dr. Burris was recognized by the School Administrators Association of New York State as their Outstanding Educator of the Year, and in 2013 she was recognized as the New York State High School Principal of the Year.

Jayne Ellspermann is principal of West Port High School in Ocala, Florida.  She has served as a principal in elementary, middle, and high schools for the past 24 years and is the 2015 Principal of the Year for the National Association of Secondary School Principals. 

The column will take the format of letters written between Burris and Ellspermann, inspired in part by the long-running Education Week column, “Bridging Differences.” Although two principals don’t agree on many aspects of the Common Core and the way it’s been rolled out, they both have a deep commitment to improving education for their students. We hope their exchanges will bring more nuance and more constructive ideas to the debate around Common Core, and give our readers an important window into how the standards are actually impacting kids, for better or worse.

 

Dear Jayne,

When we spoke, you asked me how I went from being a strong supporter of the Common Core to becoming a critic of the standards. It was a long process and I gave it a lot of thought. It is not easy for me to shift my opinion on matters of importance, but after months of deliberation, there came a point when my conscience demanded that I publicly express my misgivings.

I was originally attracted to the Common Core because of its promise to teach all students the skills, habits and knowledge needed to be successful in post-secondary education. Some of my students choose not to go to college or a trade school after graduation, but I want them to be empowered to make that choice. I am sure you hold a similar position about your students.

My high school, South Side High School in Rockville Centre, New York, is designed with that goal—college preparedness for all– in mind. We do not track or place students in classes by ability groups, and all of our students, with the exception of those who are developmentally delayed and attend school until age 21, take International Baccalaureate (IB) English in Grades 11 and 12. Nearly all take IB math, and this year, for the first time, all are taking IB History of the Americas. It is a strong, college preparatory curriculum that was adopted by our locally elected School Board.

We are a full-inclusion school, which means we provide the same opportunities to our special education students, who study alongside their general education peers. It was natural for me, therefore, to support a set of standards that purported to have the same goal.

And then something disturbing started to happen. My teachers whose own children were in elementary school began taking me aside to share their worries. New York had implemented the Common Core standards, and it was not going well. Their children were frustrated. They were developing physical symptoms of stress. Homework was taking hours to complete—even for first- and second-grade children. High school math teachers were befuddled by their own children’s homework problems. Something was very wrong.

I decided to take a deeper look. Was this just a case of bad or over-enthusiastic implementation of the Common Core standards, or, was the problem the standards themselves? Teachers would bring me homework and worksheets and I would compare the work on those materials to see if it reflected the Common Core. I concluded that nearly all of the materials did. That review made me take a closer look at the elementary standards.

I confess that reading this kindergarten standard made my jaw drop….

“Compose and decompose numbers from 11 to 19 into ten ones and some further ones, e.g., by using objects or drawings, and record each composition or decomposition by a drawing or equation (such as 18 = 10 + 8); understand that these numbers are composed of ten ones and one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, or nine ones.”

When I read that math standard and others like it, I realized the claim of the creators of the Common Core—that the standards are clear, easy to understand and research-based—was simply not true. And I am certainly not alone in my skepticism.

Back in 2010, 500 early childhood health and education professionals issued a joint statement expressing their misgivings about the early childhood standards. Those concerns were so grave they called for the suspension of the Common Core standards in Grades K-3. Pediatric psychiatrist, Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld, of the New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, was one of the experts who signed the statement. He believes that pushing academics sooner and harder, as reflected in the Common Core, will not work. According to Dr. Rosenfeld, there is no evidence that “throwing stuff at kids when they’re young” at a time when their brains are not sufficiently wired to do the work is a good idea. It will not help us catch up with other nations. As a mother, a grandmother and an educator, I agree.

We know, as high school principals, that the academic preparation that students have before they enter our schools matter. But we also know that the way our students feel about school, along with their confidence, resilience and a host of other socio-emotional factors, strongly influences their success as well. It is far easier for me to help a student catch up academically than it is to undo disaffection and alienation from being miserable at school.

In short, Jayne, I am truly worried that we may lose an entire generation of students. The Common Core was hastily imposed and never field-tested. Moreover, the standards were not developed by teachers, principals and superintendents in conjunction with our State Boards of Education. Achieve, the National Governors Association, and the Council of Chief State School Officers, with funding from the Gates Foundation, developed the Common Core. There was minimal educator or public engagement.

Despite the denials, I am convinced that the intent was for the Common Core to become national standards with student performance measured by two national tests—PARCC and Smarter Balance. Certainly, Race to the Top put in place the incentives to make that happen. It is interesting to see the states that adopted them now distance themselves by eliminating the words, “Common Core.”

I know that your governor claims that Sunshine State standards are not national, but produced locally by Florida state teachers. However, that unsuitable kindergarten standard on decomposing numbers that I shared in this letter is exactly the same as the Florida standard, MAFS.K.NBT. In fact, Jayne, if you look at the Florida Kindergarten math standards and the Common Core’s side by side you will find that they are nearly identical.

I find that worrisome. I do not think it is a good idea to homogenize standards as untried as the Common Core, across our nation. What we teach our children is far too important to submit to a national experiment. Practicing educators, child development experts and parents should be deeply engaged in the process of standard setting in our states. Standards should be debated, reviewed and refined.

While all states should have standards that sufficiently and appropriately prepare students for college and careers, I don’t think it is bad if there are differences. We can learn from each other, and in that learning improve. Can we honestly say that the Common Core standards are so sound and so remarkable that they should be embraced as the standards by which every American child should be both educated and judged? I don’t think we can.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.