A Common Core Branding Problem or Implementation Problem?

With current actions having the governor of Louisiana filing suit against the Federal government over the Common Core State Standards and poll after poll showing new data on public perceptions regarding the standards themselves, the name Common Core, and just about everything else related to CCSS, it is no wonder that we aren’t quite sure what to make of it.

It is only going to get louder, as we get closer to the November elections, as we see candidate campaigning against (and a few for, I suppose) Common Core. Just ask the state superintendent in Arizona about the impact of the CCSS issue.

In today’s Waterbury RepublicanAmerican, Bruno Matarazzo has an interesting piece on how the topic is playing out in a true-blue state like Connecticut, a state that, back in the 1990s, was once a beacon for high educational standards. There, the issue is playing out through an Independent candidate for governor and growing concerns about the linkages between the standards and how new assessments will be used in high-stakes ways, such as teacher eval.

As Connecticut is a former stomping ground for dear ol’ Eduflack, I offered a little perspective to Matarazzo for his piece. Important for Connecticut, but also relevant for dozens of other states grappling with Common Core implementation issues. As Matarazzo writes:

PATRICK RICCARDS, THE FORMER DIRECTOR of Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now and current director of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, said Common Core has a branding problem; the standards themselves are not bad. He said supporters of Common Core have done a poor job of demonstrating why a common set of education standards across the country is needed.

Riccards said supporters also forget the emotional impact the topic of education can have on an entire community, from parents to the town gadfly. People don’t want to be made to feel the way they were educated as children was wrong, he said.

“You don’t win that fight with facts and figures, you win that by winning hearts,” Riccards said.

The problem with the state’s rollout is that it wanted to accomplish too much in too little time. Even before Common Core was implemented, a new computerized assessment pilot program was launched and a new teacher evaluation format was introduced.

Riccards said the gold standard in Common Core implementation was Kentucky, which rolled it out over four years and waited until it was complete to begin working on its own assessment test that was tied to the new standards.

Rebranding Common Core and holding town hall meetings to inform the community about the standards won’t help quell the fears of people concerned about the standards, Riccards said. What Connecticut needs to do, he suggested, is focus solely on Common Core implementation and make it sure it’s done right because the state only has one chance.

“If Connecticut screws this up, there’s no going back and doing it over,” Riccards said.

There are no do-overs when it comes to Common Core implementation. In an era of instant gratification, we need to really put the time in with regard to instruction, professional development, curricular materials, and the like before we worry about how the test scores are going to be applied.


A Texas-Sized Step Back on Edu-Thinking

Earlier this month, the Texas Young Republicans passed a resolution adopting a two-page platform and recommending the Republican Party of Texas endorse it whole cloth in 2016. Why is this important? Well, the two-page platform included some specific language regarding education policy (in the non-Common Core-adopting Texas).

The Texas Young GOPers stated:

We believe that all children should have access to quality education. Parents have the primary right and responsibility to educate their children, and we support their right to choose public, private, charter, or home education. We support the distribution of educational funds in a manner that they follow the student to any school, whether public, private, charter or home school. We reject federal imposition of educational standards and the tying of federal education funding to adopting federally mandated standards.

Reads like the flag and apple pie, huh? Setting aside the problem of using the Oxford comma at the beginning, and then forgetting the serial comma in the second set of school descriptors, let’s take a look at the statement.

Sentence one, I’m with ya. Every child should have access to quality education. I’ll do you one better, Young Texans, every child should have access to quality public education. And high-quality public education at that.

I’m also with you on parents having the right and responsibility to educate their kids. I didn’t realize that such parental rights were under siege. If anything, the main issue seems to be what we do when parents do not exercise said right, and their kids’ education is then solely the responsibility of teachers. We should be focusing more on getting parents more involved in what happens in our schools.

Then we shift into the “money follows the child” philosophy, with an added wrinkle. Not only are we calling for equal funds to go to charters (school choice) and privates (vouchers, or school choice on steroids, depending on your perspective), but we are now saying that money should follow the home schooler? Are we suggesting that each parent who decided to home school is now entitled to a $10k or $20k tax rebate (per child), for keeping them out of the public schools altogether?

And we finally get the horcrux that continues to dog just about every education discussion. The notion that the evils of everything public education lies embedded in Common Core State Standards. Forget that Texas had no issue rejecting the “imposition of federal standards” in the first place. Forget that most states who put the standards in place didn’t get a federal dime to do so (while they may have hoped to, there were far more Race to the Top losers than there were winners). Yes, now is the time to take a strong stand on a policy decision that was made four years ago (in terms of initial adoption of the standards and tying $$ to them).

At some point, we — and that includes those young Republican Texans writing political platforms — just need to acknowledge that the vast majority of states have adopted CCSS. They decided, for a range of reasons, that these standards were better than the hodgepodge of crappy standards each individual state had developed and adjusted and weakened over the years. They did so by their own free will, and did so (presumably) because they saw it as a positive step for their state, public schools, and communities. We need to see it isn’t a bad thing that many students will be held to higher standards than their older siblings, and we should embrace it.

Most importantly, we need to see it is imprudent to try and undo a policy decision that was made eons ago (politically) and that, instead, we should focus our attentions and energies on ensuring that said standards are implemented well and done so with fidelity. That we focus on the best in terms of instructional materials and PD. That we move forward with efforts to improve those standards and make them stronger and better over time (particularly with regard to early childhood and the math). That we use this as a foundation to build a stronger public education system for ALL students, and not as a “last stand” for those looking to reopen the battles of the past.

I yield the soapbox, and suspect I won’t be asked to speak at the Texas GOP convention in 2016 …

Saying Nothing

I’ve spent a great deal of my career managing crisis communications. And this is an important lesson we all should be mindful.

In the education sector, we just have too many people who are speaking just for the sake of speaking. We should speak when we have something to contribute. Silence should be treasured, and see as a form of endorsement.

Ah, to dream …


Self-Awareness on “Majority-Minority Districts”

In recent weeks, there has been significant chatter about the shift in P-12 school demographics across the United States. In this Education Week piece, reporter Lesli Maxwell notes:

America’s public schools are on the cusp of a new demographic era.

This fall, for the first time, the overall number of Latino, African-American, and Asian students in public K-12 classrooms is expected to surpass the number of non-Hispanic whites.

The new collective majority of minority schoolchildren—projected to be 50.3 percent by the National Center for Education Statistics—is driven largely by dramatic growth in the Latino population and a decline in the white population, and, to a lesser degree, by a steady rise in the number of Asian-Americans. African-American growth has been mostly flat.

These shifts have results in folks talking about “majority-minority districts,” those school districts where the number of white students is less than the number of minority students. Of course, such a concept is nothing new. We have long had districts that were majority African American or majority Latino or majority Asian-American. But the rapid shift of some districts, going from majority white to majority minority is sure to catch folks’ eye.

Why does Eduflack raise this? Because of personal realization. Last evening, the edu-wife and I headed over to our local school for a “new parents orientation.” It was a great event. The teachers and administrators who led the event were top notch. The orientation went as scheduled, with nothing taking them off track., And for a welcome for district-wide new parents in the middle of August, the school auditorium was almost standing-room only, with most families represented by both parents.

And then there was the parents themselves. In a sea of parents, the edu-wife and I were one of only a handful of parents who were not of color. I may have missed a few, but it seemed there were maybe five or six other parental sets that looked like us. There is no question we had moved into a “majority-minority” district.

We picked the town because of the schools. Great schools. Experienced teachers. Strong attention on the whole child. A running list of services and opportunities to ensure our kids get the best public education possible (particularly important in a house with a struggling reader).

Out of curiosity, I checked out the demographics this morning. We live in a community that, as a whole, is about 55 percent white. Last year, 33 percent of the student population was white, representing a major shift in resident demographics over the past two decades.

Then I dove a little deeper into the student demographics. Minority students comprised 70.6 percent of last year’s first grade class. And 75.5 percent of last year’s kindergarten class. And 87.8 percent of last year’s preK class.

So why write about this on this little ol’ blog? No, it isn’t that I am just waking up to demographic shifts in our country. As the father of two Latino students, it is something I am well aware of. 

The real answer is we need to get to the point where we stop thinking about majority-majority and majority-minority school districts. What I saw last evening, and what I have seen in countless schools where I’ve visited or observed, is that this is America. Our schools are now the melting pot that our Founders envisioned. They are where stereotypes can be broken .., or reinforced. They are where opportunity can be found, regardless of race or family income.

I’m proud that my two kiddos are now going to be a part of that educational quilt. They will meet kids from backgrounds they know nothing about (there are more than 45 languages spoken in our little ol’ district). They will be on the frontlines of that new demographic area. And it will seem completely normal to them.  

The EdSec, The Educators, and The Testing Conundrum

It’s no secret that the education community is in the throws of a major debate on testing and its proper use (or its improper misuse). Whether it be a lack of assessment literacy on the part of most involved, a distrust of the providers of said tests, or the fear that tests are the first step down a slippery slope of moral and educational decay, testing seems to be the issue that is holding up many a school improvement, educational reform, and standards implementation effort.

It’s also no secret that much misinformation and misattribution regarding testing has been directed at EdSec Arne Duncan. Listen to some, and it seems he is traveling city to city, selling the latest and greatest tests, and checking off more educational souls that have been captured in the name of accountability.

So Eduflack was glad to see that the EdSec offered up a blog post earlier today to try and set the record straight. Posted on SmartBlog on Education, Arne writes:

As teachers gear up for a new school year, I want to offer two thoughts. One is a message of celebration and thanks. The other is a response to a concern that has come up often in many conversations with teachers and families, and which deserves an answer.
First, the thanks. America’s students have posted some unprecedented achievements in the last year – the highest high school graduation rate in the nation’s history, and sharp cuts in dropout rates and increases in college enrollment, especially for groups that in the past have lagged significantly. For these achievements, we should celebrate America’s teachers, principals, and students and their families. These achievements are also indications of deeper, more successful relationships with our students. All of us who’ve worked with young people know how much they yearn for adults to care about them and know them as individuals.
These achievements come at a time of nearly unprecedented change in American education – which entails enormously hard work by educators. Nearly every state has adopted new standards, new assessments, new approaches to incorporating data on student learning, and new efforts to support teachers.
This transition represents the biggest, fastest change in schools nationwide in our lifetime. And these efforts are essential to prepare kids to succeed in an age when the ability to think critically and creatively, communicate skillfully, and manipulate ideas fluently is vital. I have heard from many teachers that they have not received all the support they’d want during this transition. Yet America’s teachers are making this change work – and I want to recognize and thank them for that and encourage their leadership in this time of change.
That’s the easy part of this message. The harder part has to do with concerns that many teachers have brought to my door.
My team and I hold regular conversations with teachers, principals and other educators, often led by Teacher and Principal Ambassador Fellows, who take a year away from their schools to advise my agency. Increasingly, in those conversations, I hear concerns about standardized testing.
Assessment of student progress has a fundamental place in teaching and learning – few question that teachers, schools and parents need to know what progress students are making. And few question the particular importance of knowing how our most vulnerable students are progressing. Indeed, there’s wide recognition that annual assessments – those required by federal law – have done much to shine a light on the places and groups of students most in need of help. Yet in too many places, it’s clear that the yardstick has become the focus.
There are three main issues I’ve heard about repeatedly from educators:
  1. It doesn’t make sense to hold them accountable during this transition year for results on the new assessments – a test many of them have not seen before – and as many are coming up to speed with new standards.
  2. The standardized tests they have today focus too much on basic skills, not enough on critical thinking and deeper learning.
  3. Testing – and test preparation – takes up too much time.
I share these concerns. And I want our department to be part of the solution.
To those who are reading the last sentence with surprise, let me be clear: assessment is a vital part of teaching and learning, but it should be one part (and only one part) of how adults hold themselves responsible for students’ progress. Schools, teachers and families need and deserve clear, useful information about how their students are progressing. As a parent of two children in public school, I know I want that. And in fact, most teachers and principals I talk with want to be held responsible for students’ progress – through a sensible, smart combination of factors that reflect their work with students – not the level students came in at, or factors outside of their control.
But assessment needs to be done wisely. No school or teacher should look bad because they took on kids with greater challenges. Growth is what matters. No teacher or school should be judged on any one test, or tests alone – always on a mix of measures – which could range from classroom observations to family engagement indicators. In Nevada, educators include a teacher’s contribution to the school community in their measures; in Hawaii, schools consider student feedback surveys and professional growth, such as leading workshops or taking university coursework). Educators in Delaware look at measures of planning and preparation such as lesson plans and descriptions of instructional strategies to be used for students with diverse needs. Federal policy rightly stays out of picking those individual measures, but ensures that in evaluating teachers, states and districts include student growth, and consider multiple measures.
But the larger issue is, testing should never be the main focus of our schools. Educators work all day to inspire, to intrigue, to know their students – not just in a few subjects, and not just in “academic” areas. There’s a whole world of skills that tests can never touch that are vital to students’ success. No test will ever measure what a student is, or can be. It’s simply one measure of one kind of progress. Yet in too many places, testing itself has become a distraction from the work it is meant to support.
I believe testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools – oxygen that is needed for a healthy transition to higher standards, improved systems for data, better aligned assessments, teacher professional development, evaluation and support, and more. This is one of the biggest changes education in this country has ever seen, and teachers who’ve worked through it have told me it’s allowed them to become the best teachers they’ve ever been. That change needs educators’ full attention.
That’s why we will be taking action in the coming weeks that give states more flexibility in key areas that teachers have said are causing worry.
States will have the opportunity to request a delay in when test results matter for teacher evaluation during this transition. As we always have, we’ll work with them in a spirit of flexibility to develop a plan that works, but typically I’d expect this to mean that states that request this delay will push back by one year (to 2015-16) the time when student growth measures based on new state assessments become part of their evaluation systems – and we will work with states seeking other areas of flexibility as well. We want to make sure that they are still sharing growth data with their teachers, and still moving forward on the other critical pieces of evaluation systems that provide useful feedback to educators. We will be working in concert with other educators and leaders to get this right. These changes are incredibly important, and educators should not have to make them in an atmosphere of worry. Some states will choose to take advantage of that flexibility; others, especially those that are well along in this transition, will not need a delay. The bottom line is that educators deserve strong support as our schools make vital, and urgently needed, changes. As many educators have pointed out, getting this right rests also on high-quality assessments. Many educators, and parents, have made clear that they’re supportive of assessment that measures what matters – but that a lot of tests today don’t do that – they focus too much on basic skills rather than problem solving and critical thinking. That’s why we’ve committed a third of a billion dollars to two consortia of states working to create new assessments that get beyond the bubble test, and do a better job of measuring critical thinking and writing.
I’m concerned, too, when I see places where adults are gaming tests, rather than using them to help students.
And we also need to recognize that in many places, the sheer quantity of testing – and test prep – has become an issue. In some schools and districts, over time tests have simply been layered on top of one another, without a clear sense of strategy or direction. Where tests are redundant, or not sufficiently helpful for instruction, they cost precious time that teachers and kids can’t afford. Too much testing can rob school buildings of joy, and cause unnecessary stress. This issue is a priority for us, and we’ll continue to work throughout the fall on efforts to cut back on over-testing.
There’s plenty of responsibility to share on these challenges, and a fair chunk of that sits with me and my department. We encouraged states to move a whole lot of changes simultaneously, because of the enormous urgency to raise standards and improve systems of teacher support – not for another generation of students, but for today’s students.
But in how this change happens, we need to listen carefully to the teachers, principals and other educators who are living it on a daily basis – and we need to be true to our promise to be tight on outcomes, but loose on how we get there.
From my first day on this job, the objective has been to work in a spirit of flexibility to help states and communities improve outcomes for kids. We need to make changes, but we are also making progress. I’m determined that, working in partnership, we’ll continue to do both – be flexible and make progress for our kids.
Change is hard, and changes of significance rarely work exactly as planned. But in partnership, making course alterations as necessary, we will get there.
Well said, Mr. Secretary!