This is the fourth in a continuing series of letters between two award-winning school principals, one who likes the Common Core State Standards and the other who doesn’t. 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. The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news Web site focused on inequality and innovation in education, is hosting a conversation between Carol Burris of New York and Jayne Ellspermann of Florida (in a format that Education Week once used with Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier as the authors). The Report’s editors as well as both principals have given me permission to republish each letter.
Burris has served as principal of South Side High School in the Rockville Centre School District in New York since 2000. In 2010, she 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. 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 first letter was written by Burris, a Core opponent, to Ellspermann, a Core supporter. Burris explained why she once liked the Core but changed her mind after New York State schools began to implement them several years ago. You can read her letter to Ellspermann here. Ellspermann’s reply letter, which you can read here, explained why she thinks the schools in her district benefit from the Common Core. The third in the series, which you can read here, is from Burris who writes about why she believes Common Core testing hurts disadvantaged children. This the fourth, by Ellspermann.
Our students [recently] took the first phase of the English Language Arts (ELA) assessment. We did not experience the technical problems that were sensationalized in the media. Our district delayed the start of the assessment for a day to see how the technology fared throughout the state. We then delayed a second day after some districts experienced technical difficulties. Once the assessment began any questions or concerns our teachers had were quickly resolved. We will assess our students on the remaining ELA standards in April.
Based on the students’ accounts, this writing assessment was much better than previous state writing assessments. Students said in the past they were given an essay prompt that was difficult to write about. This year, they read passages and responded to a writing prompt with evidence from the passages. My students said that their in-class writing assignments prepared them well for the assessment.
This made me reflect on the example in your letter of your well-traveled 4-year-old granddaughter. Her travels, you say, put her at a distinct advantage of being able to describe her personal experience. That is, in fact, one reason I support the Common Core standards: it minimizes personal experience, by calling on students to respond to questions with evidence from the text.
This point is personal for me. Sixty-eight percent of my students come from poverty. They do not take vacations and have not been exposed to diverse experiences. For many, personal experiences were so limited they entered kindergarten not recognizing their letters and numbers. Many of my students begin at a disadvantage, followed by an achievement gap that widens over time when students’ experiences outside the classroom become required for success in the classroom. The Common Core standards make success accessible to all students by allowing them to demonstrate their learning based, not on their life experience, but what they read in the text.
As a result, Carol, I cannot “blame the standards themselves” for the difficulties you and your colleagues in New York have experienced with Common Core implementation. In fact, I see just the opposite. The standards ask teachers to help the students, with instructions like these in kindergarten: “with prompting and support identify…. in a text” or “with guidance and support from adults….” The standards presume — perhaps even prescribe — scaffolding and differentiation by the adults who are working with these children. Support is determined, not by policymaker or standards author, but by a teacher.
To check my own thinking, I asked some of my teachers with children in early grades about their Common Core experience. Their responses differed from your teachers’. Their children are not stressed by the new standards. They love school and are enjoying learning. The parents do not have a problem with the standards. In math, the parents stated they were taught to solve a problem with a set format to determine the answer. Their children are being taught to think through the problem to find a solution and are asked to describe their process as part of the answer.
For all our differences, I share your concern regarding the Florida Statute that requires third grade students be retained if they are not determined proficient through a state assessment test. As high school administrators, you and I see the devastating impact of retention on students and the propensity to create drop outs. This inappropriate use of test data is not the fault of the standards. The standards are designed to provide consistent grade level expectations. With over one-third of our students moving from school to school during the school year, we see the lack of consistency in what is taught. Now with a common set of expectations for each grade level our students have a better chance of being able to transition between schools smoothly which will lead to greater opportunities for academic success.
We are in our fourth year of implementation of college and career ready standards at the elementary school level. Students in the third grade this year have known only these standards—first as the Common Core standards, then the Florida Standards for the past year. This will be the first year these students are going to be assessed on these standards. I don’t have the impression the tests are “unreasonable” as you indicate. These third grade students are taking the Florida Assessments this week and we will soon see how they perform.
What I can confirm, though, is that the similarities between the Common Core and Florida Standards do not signal any nefarious activity. When Florida’s review of Common Core took place, most schools had already been teaching to the standards for two or three years. We held a public discussion about the standards and people in our state who are heavily invested in education weighed in. We identified areas of change before adopting the standards.
Preparing for the standards was part of our teachers’ professional development and has helped in their implementation. For teachers who have spent their careers teaching a particular curriculum the transition can be a challenge along with the students who are new to the standards. Ongoing professional development and the sharing of best practices will help teachers and students as we move forward.
Carol, you paired the standards and assessments together saying they were “two sides of the same coin.” While I believe we need to determine if students have learned the standards that are being taught, currently assessments are being used to make significant decisions beyond mastering standards. Assessments are used to determine a child’s progression in school, determine teacher evaluations, and grade schools. The shifts in assessments to digital platforms have also created hardships for schools that do not have enough computer hardware or bandwidth. These issues have raised great concern over the assessments but they should not be transposed on the standards.
The first phase of our new assessment went well and we are preparing for the full wave of the testing season in April. I am looking forward to hearing about your impact analysis on the Common Core Standards in math and English Language Arts in your upcoming letter.