This is the seventh 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. In the third letter, Burris explains why she thinks Core testing hurts disadvantaged students. The fourth letter, 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. In the fifth letter, Burris asked Ellspermann why she thinks she needs the Core. In her response, the sixth letter between the two, Ellspermann discusses why she opposes the opt-out movement and how the Core is working in her school. Here is the seventh letter, from Burris to Ellspermann.
In my last letter, I asked a question that I think lies at the heart of the Common Core debate. I was disappointed that you did not respond to it. Here it is again, with context:
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?
You told me in a previous letter that Florida parents and teachers reviewed the Common Core and made minor revisions. But this wasn’t the first time standards were reformed in Florida. In 2006-07, your state adopted the Sunshine State Standards, then changed to the Florida (Common) Core Standards in 2010, and then tweaked and renamed them the Florida Standards in 2014. My question remains, why did you need to go from one set of standards to another?
According to a report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the Sunshine State Standards were at about the same level of rigor and quality as the Common Core. In English Language Arts, Fordham gave the Sunshine State standards a B while the Common Core grade was B+. In math, the Sunshine State were rated A and Common Core received A-. Do you agree with Fordham’s findings that the level of difficulty was about equal? If so, do you support Common Core because you believe that all states should have the same standards?
Here is why I ask the question. Those who support the Common Core standards often claim they are needed because state standards were weak and, if states would adopt the same standards, the achievement of all students would rise. The problem is there is no evidence that standards per se make a difference in student performance, and there is some impressive scholarship that says they do not make any difference.
Tom Loveless of the non-profit Washington D.C.-based Brookings Institution has shown that similar reforms over the past three decades have not improved student achievement, even when the standards were “rigorous” and schools did their best to implement them. He points out that when we look at National Assessment of Educational Progress scores, that the range of scores within individual states is “four to five times greater than differences” in state averages, even though states had vastly different standards. Back in 2010, writing for the National Education Policy Center, William Mathis made similar arguments based on both national and international data.
As principal, I’ve seen transfer students from Florida adjust easily and I’ve seen those who fell apart. The same goes for students who transferred from other New York schools. The quality of the prior school, the effort of the student, and all of the social and economic factors that impact learning, made the difference in how the student adjusted. Any reform, by state or national standards setting and testing, is a waste of precious financial resources and time. We should be working hard to improve the lives of our students and the quality of our schools. Public schools have not failed America, Jayne. America has failed its public schools.
Nevertheless, if the standards are developmentally or academically inappropriate and the tests are aligned with them, damage can be done. You asked in your last letter where is the evidence that parental unhappiness with New York testing and test prep has anything to do with the Common Core. It is a great question.
New York had high-stakes testing just like every other state since NCLB. It was only when the Common Core tests began that the opt-out movement started. Florida is in year one. We are in year three. The Common Core standards were implemented, and the tests followed. During the first year, it was apparent that the Common Core-aligned Pearson tests were unreasonably difficult. Many young children became physically ill from the stress of taking a test that made them feel like failures. Eight prominent principals wrote a protest letter to the State Education Department. Hundreds of other New York principals signed it. Nothing changed.
Proficiency rates dropped to around 30 percent and, as a result, teachers pushed the Common Core standards even harder. In year two, 2014, based on their experiences during the first year of Common Core testing, 60,000 students opted out of the test. Year two testing was just as bad. When the third cycle of Common Core testing came around, the number rose to 200,000. The tests were perhaps even worse this year, based on word of mouth and sample questions posted online.
You argue that the Common Core has nothing to do with New York’s issues around high-stakes testing and opt-out. Of course, it does. Prior to the Common Core and the tests aligned to it, New York parents simply did not protest either the tests or the curriculum.
You asked, “Where will the line be drawn on what will be assessed and what will not be assessed?” Right now over 50 percent of my ninth grade class refused last year’s Common Core tests. Not one of them has ever protested a test or the state Regents exams. Parents understand the difference between fair tests and unfair tests.