In this photo taken Feb. 12, 2015, students in Carrie Young’s sixth grade class work through an exercise on their laptops during a practice session to prepare for the the Common Core State Standards test at Morgan Elementary School South in Stockport, Ohio. (AP Photo/Ty Wright)

This is the eighth 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, 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 the sixth letter, Ellspermann responds by discussing why she opposes the opt-out movement and how the Core is working in her school. Burris came back, in a seventh letter, explaining why she doesn’t think the Core will do for students what supporters say it will. Here’s the eighth letter, from Ellspermann, originally posted on May 21 on the Hechinger Report. Burris’ reply is in the post above this one.

Dear Carol,

In your last letter you asked if I support the Common Core because I “believe that all states should have the same standards?” Actually Carol, I believe all students should have the same standards. Where a student lives should not determine educational expectations. As educational leaders, we need to assure the public that we understand the challenges students face after graduation and that we are preparing them for college and the work place. College and career ready standards must be a part of K-12 education. Whether we call those standards Common Core, Florida Standards, or something else, does not matter. The point is that colleges have been telling high schools for years that our graduates are not prepared for college level academics and employers have shared similar concerns.

It’s true that my state had high academic standards before we adopted the Florida standards. The Fordham Institute study you mentioned confirmed that the previous Sunshine State Standards weren’t so different from the Common Core, and in some instances more rigorous. This was taken into consideration as we transitioned to the Florida Standards in both ELA and in math where we added additional standards that were not included in the CCSS.

If we have the same standards for all students, we create a common ground for education. For too long we have had inconsistencies throughout the country, within our states, in our school districts and even within our schools.

Your observation regarding NAEP scores makes an excellent point. You noted that the range of scores within individual states is “four to five times greater than differences” in state averages. This variation in performance for the past thirty years suggests that we need to look carefully at our expectations for our students and to create standards to which all students have access regardless of where they live.

Standards clearly state what we expect of students graduating high school. Instead of focusing on what we expect of our students upon graduation, the discussion of standards has become complicated by political agendas, teacher evaluations, school rankings, the challenges of computerized test platforms, and a myriad of topics that distract from the original goal, which is to establish benchmarks for student learning.

I agree that the mere adoption of standards does little to actually improve instruction. However, since our introduction of the new standards, I have witnessed an improvement in instruction. Gone is the 50-minute lecture with note-taking five days a week followed by a test of those carefully scripted notes copied by students. Now I see classrooms filled with animated discussion where students defend their points of view with evidence from the text and I see students showing each other how to solve complex math problems.

The Common Core arrived at the same time that a fatigue with testing reached full boil. Data released last fall by the Center for American Progress indicated that students are being tested an average of once a month—and some as much as twice a month. Most of these tests are not federally mandated, and many are not state mandated. District tests, in addition to school level testing, supplant valuable instructional time. The line between the value of formative assessment and diagnostic testing is blurred when there is pressure to ensure positive results for teacher evaluations, school grades, promotion, and graduation. There has to be a balance to ensure we can measure learning against standards without losing focus on what we expect from our schools.

[How students with top test scores actually hurt their teacher’s evaluation]

What began as a large-scale effort to homogenize education has been softened as states begin to implement and assess the standards. We are beginning to see variation from state to state. You asked, “If the Common Core tests differ from state to state will the Common Core be ‘common’ at all?” My question to you is if you have two biology teachers who give two different biology tests is the course still biology? Your discussion in your last letter focused on the fairness of the tests and if they are reliable measurements of student learning. The college and career ready standards are an expectation of what students will learn during their K-12 journey. The assessment of those standards is where I see the most contention.

We have just finished our state assessments and await the results. The Florida Legislature has mandated a validity study of our assessments by an independent firm. Our student results will only be released after the review has been completed. This year our students and teachers were adjusting to new standards and were faced with a new assessment. I am very proud of the professionalism of our teachers and the great attitudes of our students as they tackled the first year of Florida Standards Assessments. It was amazing to see how the dizzying testing schedule did not deter our teachers and students from maintaining positive momentum in instruction.

Carol, you made a very strong statement when you wrote, “Public schools have not failed America; America has failed its public schools.” I believe we have a responsibility to show America that public schools are the most important institution that we have in our country. The American public needs to know that our country’s future is secure and they can depend on its public schools.

We need to let America know that our public schools are positive learning environments where our students are being prepared to lead in the future. I invite and welcome anyone who has a question about public education to visit my campus and see what our students are learning and how it differs from the way we were taught, and how we taught at the beginning of our careers. The implementation of Florida Standards in our schools has been an opportunity for us to examine our practice and look at what our students need in order to continue their education beyond high school or go into the workforce.

Best wishes to you and your school as you conclude the school year.

Jayne