This is the fifth 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 fourth, by Ellspermann, says that critics should not blame the Common Core standards for bad implementation and she writes why she likes the English Language Arts emphasis on reading text rather than allowing students to rely on personal experience. This is the fifth letter, from Burris.

Dear Jayne,

I am glad to hear that you were able to avoid the problems with Common Core testing experienced by other Florida schools. Testing is stressful enough without technology glitches.

New York will begin its third year of 3-8 Common Core testing next week. Last spring, the parents of 60,000 New York students refused to have their children take the test. This year the number will be far higher, with estimates of a quarter million or more. Thirty percent of our district’s parents have already handed in opt-out letters. The superintendent of the Comsewogue Schools has test refusal letters for 80% of his students, and a principal upstate has over 60%. All across the state, resistance to Common Core tests is increasing.

Boards of Education have reacted in various ways to the opt-out movement but most districts have been tolerant of parental rights. Many local teacher associations have their support, and the president of the New York State United Teachers, Karen McGee, called for a boycott of the tests. One of the members of our state’s Board of Regents, Kathleen Cashin,  a retired superintendent, publicly stated that she does not believe that the Common Core tests measure learning and that they should not be used to evaluate teachers, principals or schools.  She also said she understood why parents were refusing to have their children take the test.

In my 25 years in education, I have never seen such resistance to standards and their tests. Opt-out has become a movement of conscience for parents and teachers. Prior changes to standards and tests were implemented with some grumbling, but we quickly adapted. This is not the case with the Common Core.

The local television station, PIX11, did a series on the standards. The reporter, a Yale graduate, took the eighth-grade test and was stumped by several questions. I was interviewed by him and asked to participate in a Webchat on the topic. One after another, parents expressed their dismay. I was saddened when two students lamented, “I don’t think this test really measures if I am smart.” I reassured them that it does not.

I find that to be one of the most distressing aspects of standardized testing—students internalizing the results and drawing conclusions about their abilities and potential. Whether it is an IQ test, SAT or a Common Core test, the sorting and labeling of children deeply disturbs me.

Jayne, at the heart of our disagreement is that you see the Common Core Standards as a path to equity and I see them as a wall. You separate the standards from the tests and their consequences, and I cannot. There are high-stakes decisions made on the basis of student performance which impact children, teachers and schools. Standards are the first link in that chain.

How will we respond when the Common Core tests exacerbate the inequality in graduation rates, school entrance and promotion? As school leaders, how can we stand by and let that happen? I know from your last letter that you believe that retention does more harm than good. I hope you speak out on that issue in your state. You are well respected and your voice will matter.

I also disagree that the standards themselves promote more equitable opportunities for economically disadvantaged students. You wrote that the Common Core “minimizes personal experience, by calling on students to respond to questions with evidence from the text,” thus eliminating what you see as disadvantage for students of poverty as compared to their affluent classmates.

That argument is made by David Coleman, the architect of the Common Core standards. Coleman claims that background knowledge gives some students “privilege,” and therefore they should only draw from the given text when answering questions and writing.

I disagree. Research has shown that background knowledge is a critical part of developing comprehension, especially for struggling readers.   As students read, they interact with the text. Their background knowledge, vocabulary, and life experiences affect their understanding.  You cannot level the reading playing field by minimizing personal experience—not only is it impossible, it impedes comprehension. My reading specialist teaches students to draw on prior knowledge and question the text. By learning how to do what good readers naturally do, their reading improves.

Second, the technique of responding only with evidence from the text will not adequately prepare our high school students for college. Aaron Barlow, associate professor of English at New York City College of Technology, notes that this text-centered technique, which was popular 50 years ago (it is called New Criticism), is not at all what students need to be successful in college today. He observes, “A text, for one thing, isn’t ‘evidence.’” And “’reading comprehension’ requires much more than text-centric writing.” This is not to say that students should not reference the text as they write and justify their arguments.  That should be, however, one of many tools.

The problem with the Common Core is that the strategy to “read like a detective and write like an investigative reporter” is crowding out other reading and writing experiences.

It is also crowding out curriculum in the younger grades. I invite you to read a letter I received from a South Side graduate who is now teaching in an urban school where nearly every child is economically disadvantaged. She sees the effects of a narrow curriculum designed to teach the Common Core skills. I have posted her letter with my comments here.

I do not see how the Common Core theory of reading and writing benefits students, especially disadvantaged students. Shouldn’t our students also read like an author and write like a scholar? Should they not also read for pleasure and write to move hearts?

David Coleman justifies text-based writing by saying that when students grow up, they will realize that “people really don’t give a sh*t about what you feel or what you think.” What a cynical view! Helping students learn how to thoughtfully express their opinions and their feelings is critical for our democracy. Is that not what we are doing in our letters?

My assistant principal for English and I ask ourselves if we want our teachers to follow standards focused on a set of skills that narrow how our students read, write and think, or do we stay the course and build on the rich curriculum we already have, improving our program of instruction? So far, we have done all we can to minimize the influence of the Common Core.

Jayne, there was nothing to prevent you from challenging all children before the Common Core arrived. I am certain you had strategies to level the playing field for economically disadvantaged students prior to 2010. Why do you believe you need the Common Core?

Carol