Common Core and Issues Surrounding it

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the term standard means, “something established by authority, custom, or general consent as a model or example” (Merriam-Webster). Recently, 45 states have chosen to adopt standards known as the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) which are, according to the Common Core website, meant to “establish what students need to learn, but they do not dictate how teachers should teach” (Common Core). The website continues by stating that educators “will continue to devise lesson plans and tailor instruction to the individual needs of the students in their classrooms” and that “no state in the country was asked to lower their standards for their students in adopting the Common Core” (Common Core).

Sounds good, right? The idea of having students in our nation’s schools be able to move from state to state both while in school and after graduation and having learned basically the same content at relatively the same pace as one another would level the playing field a great deal. After all, having taught in Florida, I recall having honors students who moved to states such as Wisconsin communicate with me that they were 2-3 years behind their classmates after they moved. A set of national standards might have leveled that playing field and eased the transition.The implementation of a national set of standards is a noble idea. However, like anything else politicians and corporations get their hands on; it has surfaced as something far more sinister and damaging to our nation’s students.

Corporations bent on making more money have taken the standards and turned them into a profit machine as they churn out textbooks they feel are aligned with the standards as well as scripted lessons that many teachers are now being forced to use rather than being able to “continue to devise lesson plans and tailor instruction to the individual needs of the students in their classrooms” (Common Core). These same companies have also received contracts to produce the tests for these standards. They have taken a great idea and are making millions off it at the cost of the education of our children. The standards were not created to be moneymakers, but education changers.

Politicians, especially those bent on cutting money from education and who stand to profit from donations they receive from the corporations as well as charter schools run by corporations, have also jumped onto the bastardization of the Common Core State Standards by making certain they are tied to high stakes testing which, in turn, is tied to both education funding and teacher salaries and even their jobs. Many states are creating legislation that penalizes a teacher if his or her students do not pass these tests, some even to the point of the teacher being rated ineffective and losing his or her job. These politicians are advocating more charter schools, which are businesses in school’s clothing, that are either not subject to the same standards or testing as the public schools are as well as being free to choose which students attend them and which do not. Many of these charter schools are staffed by people who have had only 5 days training prior to their entering a classroom and being granted the title of teacher. Many do not even teach a subject where they have any prior knowledge of it.

Is this what we want for our children? Is this actually going to help our children to learn and retain knowledge that will train them for productive lives after high school? It is going to help us close the perceived education gap between the United States and the world? Sadly, it is not. By tying the standards to high stakes tests that penalize teachers and demoralize students, it is more of the same for our education system. We are training test takers rather than thinkers. We are mapping curriculum so that what our students are supposed to be learning is covered rather than learned. Teaching is an art form. Teaching is a vocation. People who become teachers are not the same as those who choose to become business people because teaching is not a business and should not be treated as such.

An additional problem with the Common Core State Standards is that they were implemented too early and without enough input from teachers from all grade levels. Yes, there were select groups of teachers and administrators who had input on the standards. Unfortunately, many of those teachers were the same ones who implemented the individual state tests that have beleaguered students in the past. There are standards that are inadequate as well as some that are simply too high for students at the grade level to reach from a developmental standpoint. They need fixed, but can only be fixed appropriately with teacher input from a wide range of teachers.

Another issue with the implementation of the CCSS is that, rather than being used as models or examples of what is expected, they are being seen as hard and fast rules for educating our students. In doing so, this leaves our nation’s special education and English learner student populations at a great disadvantage. It also works on a principle that is inhumane as it assumes that every student learns at the same pace and in the same way. Students are human as we all are. Even more, they are developmentally at different stages even if they share the same chronological age as their peers. To have the standards enforced with such rigidity is completely against education. It is unfair to students and to teachers. It cannot be expected that a student who is able to read at the sixth grade level as a tenth grader can be able to suddenly read at the tenth grade level just because the standards say he or she should be at the tenth grade level.

Is there a solution? Yes. The CCSS need to be rethought and reworked by teachers at every level and from schools that model the true economic disparity of our country. Once they are re-worked, they need to be brought out as guidelines rather than hard and fast rules. They should never be tied to high stakes standardized testing. There is a good chance if that were to happen, then they would be more beneficial to our children.
If there are any real crises in education, they stem from larger societal problems that no amount of education reform or standards can repair. What needs repaired are the widespread issues with poverty, drugs, lack of affordable housing, parental involvement, and lack of good jobs. If those were fixed, then there is a good chance that what is a perceived crisis in education would also become outdated.

Charter Schools: The Walmarts of Education

The American educational system is in a crisis. If one listens to the pundits and some of the politicians, he or she hears how American students are failing, teacher unions are keeping bad teachers in the classroom, and classrooms around the country are overcrowded and in schools that are dangerous. The solution some are proposing are privatizing our public schools and creating charter schools in their place. Many hear the term ‘charter school’ and think they know what they are and believe the rhetoric that these are the saviors of education. What is not said, though, is far more sinister and far less educational than the public realizes. Charter schools are businesses run using taxpayer dollars. Their business is to indoctrinate students into learning a set and many times rote set of skills that do not encourage much in the way of creativity or thought. It is education in a box. Another way to think of it is to see charter schools as the WalMarts of education—lower costs, cheaper output. There are many reasons why they are this way, but I will touch on only a few.

First, let us start by naming the primary corporations that run charter schools in the United States. Charter Schools USA and Academica are two of the largest players in the area. Other major charter school management companies are EdisonLearning, Mosaica, Achievement First, and Aspire Public Schools. It needs to be noted that these are companies who are accountable to an extent to school boards, but not to the same extent as public schools are held accountable. They are free to select students based on applications and even lotteries to determine which students may attend school at their managed operations. Public schools do not have the option, as they are required to accept any student zoned for their particular school. Essentially, charter schools are private schools using taxpayer dollars to run them, but can use that money with little say from the taxpayers on how they are run. Again, they are an educational business rather than a school.

The following is taken from a document produced by a group called The Philanthropy Roundtable entitled, “Investing in Charter Schools. A Guide For Donors.” It defines a charter school as the following:

• is a public school funded with public money.
• is tuition-free for all students.
• is non-sectarian, non-religious, and may not discriminate in student admissions.
• is chosen by families.
• is semi-autonomous, operating under its own charter—hence the name—and thus exempt from many of the regulations and collective bargaining agreements under which traditional district schools operate.
• is free to be a unique school designed to meet the needs of the students it intends to serve.
• is required to meet the same graduation standards as other schools.
• is responsible for improving student achievement and adhering to its charter contract, or face closure.
• receives discounted funding (in most, but not all, states), thus making it partially reliant on philanthropic support.
• can be a stand-alone school or part of a network of charter schools.
• can be nonprofit or for-profit (page 11).

Now, while most of this sounds good, note that charter schools are “exempt from many of the regulations and collective bargaining agreements under which traditional district schools operate.” That means that teachers and staff who work there are not allowed in many cases to negotiate their contracts, their working hours or conditions, or other benefits that traditional educators have. This would also include protections from termination without just cause. Therefore, if the administrator comes in and does not like a particular worker, then they can be fired on the spot with no recourse as would occur in the majority of the jobs, especially in states with “Right-to-Work” laws. It would also include situations where students may not be moving along at the pace required by the standards, which could be caused by the fact that children are individuals who learn at different rates and different styles or their socioeconomic conditions, where the teacher would be held at fault for the student not making learning gains and thus subject to disciplinary actions including dismissal.

This document goes on to call for a priority in “Priming the Human Capital Pipeline” in the form of encouraging more people to teach and lead their charter schools. The exact words they use are that donor are an important source in “supporting the development of a well-primed pipeline of talented human capital for charter schools and helping fund the development of innovative technologies that can decrease the dependence of the sector on finding ever more sources of talent” (21). In plainer English, it is up to those donors to bring people in from wherever they can find them to teach and lead students without relying on colleges and universities to educate their “talented human capital” (21). Teachers and administrators are no longer people, but “talented human capital” (21). Sounds like a business rather than a school, doesn’t it?

It does not stop there as they go on to call those who start up charter schools “education entrepreneurs” (24). Even some of the charter schools are praised for having created a “brand” (25) by which they are known. They make a comparison between industry and charter schools by stating that “consumers come to know a brand and what it signifies…Brands have proven very useful in the marketplace….Charter Management Organizations (CMOs” are the ‘brands’ of the charter sector, with quality control and cost efficiencies” (29). One further aspect they state in this document concerns the differences between these CMOs and their counterparts called EMOs or education management organizations. CMOs are non-profit while EMOs are for profit. One particularly damning piece of evidence states:

…it is important to note that many education reformers believe that EMOs hold real potential for revolutionizing public education. If investors in EMOs are able to deliver consistent student achievement and create a profitable investment vehicle, they will have discovered a highly attractive and sustainable model for charter schools specifically and public education generally. (30).

Did you catch what was said as well as what was not said in that statement? These people believe that education needs to be a business with investors and profits. The goal of the charter movement is to see public education be corporate operated and run. There is no mention of students learning aside from their wanting the delivery of “consistent student achievement”. Consistent does not mean improvement. It does not mean creativity. It means a steady keeping of the status quo. It means having the same results over time. If only 55 percent of the students pass on a consistent basis, then they succeed. Consistency not progress is the key for them.

So, just how do charter schools measure student success? One of the largest donors to the charter school movement is The Walton Family Foundation, founded by the family of Walmart founder Sam Walton. The director of the foundation’s K-12 education reform, Jim Blew, stated in this document that the foundation is

very straightforward with our grantees that we expect them to dramatically increase student achievement, as measured by standardized tests in math and reading. We understand that there are other ways of measuring quality—attendance rates, graduation rates, etc.—and we want to hear about those, too. But, at the end of the day, we want to know that grantees are actually raising student achievement. (79)

Student achievement is not based on anything but how well students score on a standardized test. That is it. They are not deemed successful if they create something new. They are not deemed successful if they finally master something they worked on. They achieve if they can pass a test. World-class bubble fillers are the key to America’s success according to this supporter of charter schools. If a student can fill-in the correct answer, regardless of whether they actually understand why it is the correct answer, then they have learned. Learned what, you may ask. Well, how to fill in the correct answer because that is all that is needed to succeed in life. That is all that is needed to make America great again in the world. Well, at least really good at working in a Walmart where all that is needed is to follow the rules and do what management tells you to do.

Charter schools are not good for the education of our students. They are standardized test mills. As long as students can pass the test, they are okay. If the student cannot, well, they can currently be tossed back into the public schools. How long that will last is yet to be determined by policy makers and the donors to them. That is unless you who are reading this find the idea of having your child treated like an assembly line worker and their teacher treated like human capital as appalling as many other people do. If that is the case, it is time for you to take a stand as a parent or as a teacher against this movement to privatize our public educational system. Our children are not all the same; therefore, we cannot allow them to be taught or expected to learn the same way.

Here are some ways to combat this growing trend of charter schools and even reliance on high stakes standardized testing. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but a small start.

1. Get active in your local schools. Go to school board meetings. Volunteer in classrooms and/or the school office. It does not matter if you have kids there or not so long as you pass a criminal background check and care about the future of our country.
2. Stay informed. Do not rely on the media outlets to tell you everything you hear about our public schools or even charter schools.
3. Attend local public school events. Cheer on the sports teams. Cheer on the non-sports related groups and organizations as well.
4. If you are a parent, find ways to opt out of standardized testing.
5. Look into how the state tests are organized. Speak out if they only cover items that are rote memorization based. Multiple-choice tests do not measure thought, only if the right answers were memorized.
6. If you are a parent, demand more essay tests or tests that allow your child to choose an answer and defend it with logical reasoning skills.
7. Support your teachers. They work far more than what many believe they do. They do not have summers off as they spend that time planning as they do nights and weekends during the school year.
8. Teachers, defend your rights to teach. Abide by your negotiated contract, but if need be, do no more than that if you are not being heard.
9. Administrators, especially those of you who once taught in a classroom, go back into the classroom. Plan a period every day of the year to keep teaching. If you keep teaching, then you stay in touch with the changes that are happening on the front lines. And do not try to teach just the select students, branch out your roster to include all levels of student abilities.
10. Political leaders, listen to the teachers who teach in your district. They are on the front lines every day. They are experienced professionals who know their job, their subjects and their students. Remember that standardized tests are snapshots rather than the big picture of what is happening in our schools.

If you would like to read the entire document referenced in this essay, please use the following address:
http://publicimpact.com/web/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/Investing_in_Charter_Schools__A_Guide_for_Donors.pdf

Attention Teachers! It is Time to Take Our Schools Back!

It is almost time for another school year to begin around the United States; in fact, some school districts have already started classes and it is only the end of July. Yet, there is an evil that grows ever more severe as it grows like a shadow over our public education system. Teachers, up to this point, have cowered at the onslaught of this shadow that seeks to place our educational system into eternal darkness. It is time for the cowering to end and for teachers to take a stand for their jobs, but most of all, for the education of the future of our nation. The shadow of darkness comes in the form of the privatization of our schools disguised as education reform legislation and wealthy corporate donors who buy this legislation through our elected politicians. The so-called reform comes from places such as Teach for America, the Gates Foundation, and the Walton Family (Walmart). These entities cite studies that agree with their ideals or even some that they paid for which advocate the corporatization of our educational system through more charter schools and replacing experienced teachers with people indoctrinated into their mindset. These entities and their political cronies advocate high stakes testing rather than the basics our students need to be competitive in the global marketplace. These entities use the media to portray teacher unions as evil organizations bent on keeping inept teachers in their positions. It is time for teachers, and their unions, to stand up and voice their opinions and professionalism to the public. No longer can teachers and teachers unions cower and kowtow to the latest fad to come through the educational pipeline. Teachers must stand up and be heard. Teachers must be advocates for the public educational system that seeks to educate all students who come through the doors of the thousands of schools in our country. Teachers must be advocates for their students as well as themselves.

Teach for America (TFA), the Gates Foundation, and the Walton Family, among others, are pushing an agenda that replaces education with testing and a one-size-fits-all educational approach that they say will help our students to succeed in the global marketplace. The catalysts for their approaches stems from the problems that face our educational system: high dropout rates/low graduation rates, students who graduate yet cannot perform the basic skills needed to be successful, and students with low motivation to succeed. Rather than address underlying reasons for these, which I will discuss further, they take the easy route and blame teachers, teachers unions, and the educational system for these social ills. These three items are not necessarily the fault of our schools, but of our society as a whole. What they are calling education reform does not address these problems; it just blames the teachers for them. It is like blaming the fire department for there being fires. After all, if there were no fire departments, then there would not be any fires, right?

The problem of high dropout rates/low graduation rates is not the fault of the educational system as a whole, but the fault of our society as it does not value education as highly as other countries in the world. The media constantly bombards us with news of how US students are behind students in Japan, China, Russia, or Finland. What they do not show is the culture of those countries values education as a highly important part of a civilized society. In China and Japan, for example, parents pressure children to do well in school and it is shameful if students slack off when it comes to schoolwork. The homework assigned is much more than in the US, but it is meaningful, it counts, and it comes with the expectation that it will be done on time and correctly. Students are expected to ask for assistance if they need it. As a teacher, I faced numerous times when students would not do their homework or ask for extensions. When I attempted to enforce a no late work policy, they complained to their parents who many times went to administration who then forced me (and other teachers) to give in and allow the student to turn their work in late. When I attended school in the ‘70s and ‘80s, this did not happen unless there were extreme circumstances. Furthermore, students who committed discipline violations that caused them the consequence of an out of school suspension were allowed to make up their work. Also, a rare allowance for my generation.

Another cause for the high dropout rates/low graduation rates is that educational programs, especially at the middle and high school levels, only address the academic areas of success. By this, I mean that many do not offer vocational programs for students who are not academically inclined. Instead, students are told that they all have to go to college in order to succeed. While that is a noble idea, the facts are that some students simply do not want to go to college, but would rather enter a trade. If there are no vocational courses, these students fall through the cracks and many become disruptions in the classroom. They see no need to study the academic areas in depth if they plan to become an auto mechanic or a cosmetologist. Yet, where is the funding cut many times, vocational programs and the arts. The arts are another area that usually faces cuts in funding, as they are not seen as necessary. Many students, including myself when I was in public schools, needed the arts to give me a reason to go to school. The arts connect with every academic area and many students who are gifted with a talent, when allowed to learn and use that talent, will also succeed academically. If you do not believe these to be true, listen the next time when a school board threatens to cut funding. The public remains relatively silent when vocational or arts programs are threatened with cuts, but when cuts to athletics are mentioned, the outrage is tremendous.
The next area consists of those students who manage to graduate without mastering the basic skills needed to succeed in the workforce. Again, those in power want to blame the educational system for this. However, take a closer look at why they are not mastering the basics and you will find another story. Part of it ties in to what I already mentioned prior to this, but another part points to the darling of the so-called reformers—high stakes, standardized testing. Students are taught the test in some places from kindergarten through the 12th grade. Yes, the mantra is that teachers teach to the standards not to the test. Bullshit. When a teacher’s career and salary are tied to how their students do on the tests, then the teacher teaches to the test. That is the reality of it. In addition, the tests themselves, which are products of big businesses such as Pearson, do nothing to measure usable skills. They measure how well students take tests. Most of them are multiple-choice where the student must simply figure out which answer the test makers want them to bubble in. They do not allow for a student to choose an answer and defend why they chose it. That would be placing learning above test taking skills as it calls for critical thinking and reasoning skills rather than bubble completion. Would those tests take longer to grade? Yes. Would they measure student knowledge better? You bet they would. The global workplace demands the ability to think critically and reason, not to fill in a bubble. I taught a great number of students who could bubble in tests with great success, but if assigned an essay where they needed to think critically, they faltered and many failed. The love affair with standardized testing has to end. Good teachers know this. Good teachers know that students must grapple with problems that cause them to think, to research, to reason, and to defend why they come up with the answers they do. That is what made America great over the years. Standardized testing only serves to enable students to work at places like Walmart or fast food because they do not really have to think, but just do what others expect them to do.

The American public laments as to why “Johnny cannot read”, but they also fail to see how Johnny’s parents do not read to him or make him read. Past generations had a parent or someone who read to and with their children. A major form of entertainment for students was to read. It increased vocabulary, enabled the ability to imagine and think about the story lines and the various plots, and it caused the child to have to picture the action in their head. Today, many students are babysat by the television or the video game system. They can text, be entertained, and not have to think because the media barrage of images does it all for them including when to tell them to laugh even if the jokes are not funny. Reading is a skill and needs to be cultivated. Math is another area where we are falling behind. How often do the children of our nation practice it? Obviously, not often enough. It is also a skill that needs nurturing and practice. Science is an area where we are getting our rears kicked. One reason for this is practice, or the lack thereof, but also it goes back to a skill gained though reading—imagination. Think of some of the great scientific discoveries from America’s past and they have their genesis in imagination. Imagine if man could travel to the moon. People did and made it happen. Students do not have to imagine anything if the media just gives it to them. That is a travesty in our society, not in our schools. If more parents would just stop and read to their children, or find ways to incorporate math or science into their child’s life, then the educational gaps would start to disappear. Any good teacher could tell you that, if people would listen to them instead of the corporate donors and their puppet politicians.
Finally, the lack of motivation in our students is lamentable as compared with the rest of the world. Yes, they are motivated by not passing a class—sometimes, if their parents get on their cases. One cause for motivation stems from the lack of support educators and education in general receive from the public, including parents. If students do not see education as valued, then they are not motivated to do the work. Lack of motivation also stems from students not being able to see why all of what they are learning is relevant to them and their goals. I can attest to this as an English teacher. It is hard to convince a student that Shakespeare matters. Yet it does as his plays teach us human nature and psychology. It is up to the teacher to show it. Good teachers find the hooks needed to reel in the student. Do they succeed with every student and every time? No. However, teachers try repeatedly until something clicks. The vast majority of teachers never give up on their students even if the students give up on them. It emotionally hurts teachers when students fail. Teachers take it personally when their students do not grasp a concept when they have tried everything they could to help them to do so.

What the so-called reformers are calling educational reform is the application of business principles to education. This results in a one-size-fits-all approach to education. Many of the ‘reforms’ they call for have teachers reading scripted lessons to students some of which even have maps that prompt them to say certain things as responses to student questions. It is like having a robot teaching classes. Good teachers know that all students are different and they learn in different ways. This is why the vast majority of teachers practice differentiated learning with their students. One form of this is through the use of multiple intelligence theories with students. Multiple intelligence theory basically states there are different ways students learn and if the teacher locates the areas where a student is strongest and gears learning toward using those areas, then the student will learn better. For example, one assignment I would give my students was to read a novel each month. They were then to present the novel to the class in whatever form best suited their abilities. This resulted in the traditional book reports from some; however, it also resulted in student created comic books, artistic works, musical compositions, plays adapted from the novels, videos, collages, and a number of other projects that proved to me that the student read and understood the text. The point is that the student read the novel, but presented their understanding of the concepts, themes, and overall idea the author had in mind through a manner best suited to their way of learning. It took me a longer time to grade them, but the students accomplished my goal, which was to learn. Any parent who has more than one child can tell you their children are different and do things differently, even the same task. The problem is that these so-called reformers do not see this and would rather throw a test where students bubble in an answer as being the solution to the problem.

I do wish to address one thing that always seems to be touted by these so-called reformers before I end this piece. That is the myth that teacher unions protect those in education who cannot teach. While this happens, it is usually not the fault of the union, but the school administration. School administrators are human. Many times, they are become friends with teachers or the teachers do not rock the boat for them, and yet the teachers cannot teach. The administrators protect these teachers to keep things easy for them and reward them with high ratings. I knew Social Studies teachers who relied on showing videos the entire year rather than teach their subject area. These teachers kept getting good ratings regardless of the evaluation system being used. The teachers who took a risk did not always fare very well, especially under evaluation systems that looked for a standard set of skills rather than if the students actually learned anything. I had this happen to me as I presented a lesson where the students were engaged and learned for a formal evaluation one time. I received a low to middle rating in part because the lesson carried over to the next day when the evaluation would not be held. However, a few months later, when the students were taking their final exam, I was again evaluated and received a high rating because the students were demonstrating their skills because they were being tested on a paper test. The first one was active engagement, but it did not fit into the specified period allowed by the evaluation instrument. The second was just students sitting there taking a test. Not something one could really call active engagement with material.

Teachers unions do not want teachers who cannot teach. It is that simple. Many teaching contracts are written with plans in place for teachers who are not performing well to be placed on developmental plans to improve their teaching skills. However, it is up to the administrators to place the teachers on them. If a teacher is placed on an improvement plan, they are expected to improve whatever skills they are lacking within a set amount of time or face further disciplinary measures including being reassigned to an area where they could meet with more success and learn the skills they lack or termination. No professional organization wants people who are not professionals within it as that only make the organization look bad. Unfortunately, the unions do not do a good job of bringing this to light in the media.

A new school year is quickly approaching. Rather than cower in the shadows, teachers need to stand up and speak up for public education. Teachers need to unite and be vocal when politicians and special interests groups try to lament the problems with public education, especially when those problems are societal rather than within the educational system. The problems within the educational system are societal more than with teachers or teacher unions. Are teachers getting more vocal? Yes. There are organizations beyond the unions, such as Badass Teachers Association, who are fighting back with words and protests to those who wish to change the system who have never really been in the system to begin with. Teachers are professionals, let them lead the reforms needed and have the support from the public and politicians and they will reform our educational system and save the future of our country.