Is Anyone Getting #CommonCore Right These Days?

Over at Politico this week, Kimberly Hefling has a terrific piece on how Common Core has “quietly won the war,” noting a thrust that seems to get lost in all of the heated rhetoric and vitriol about standards. That fact is that four out of every five school-aged kids in the United States, more than 40 million learners all together, are currently being instructed under a Common Core frame.

Granted, there is disagreement on what that means, with most Common Core haters focusing on their ire on those dreaded tests. And while they are connected along a continuum, we cannot forget that standards are not curriculum. They are not instructional materials. They are not professional development for educators. And no, standards themselves are not the tests.

Dear ol’ Eduflack has been trying to make that point since 2008, when it looked like we were jumping right from needed Common Core standards (which I remain a steadfast supporter of) directly to the assessment, without worrying about all that has to happen in the middle to get from a standard to an effective measure of whether the standard has been learned and can be demonstrated.

Over at Common Core Radio this month, we are fortunate to speak with one of those education leaders who understands that point and did just incredible work to make it a reality in his state. Kentucky was one of the earliest adopters of Common Core. And today it stands as one of the best examples of how we can get Common Core implementation right.

In this episode, Cheryl Scott Williams, the executive director of the Learning First Alliance, and I speak with Terry Holliday, the recently retired education commissioner for the Commonwealth of Kentucky. In this segment, we explore why Common Core is working in Kentucky, and what others can learn from it.

For those looking for the shortcut, the secret is educator involvement. Teachers involved in unpacking the standards to relate it to the actual teaching in the classroom. Teachers involved in identifying needed PD. And teachers actually part of the process to construct a state assessment that works for schools, for teachers, and for the students themselves.

Yes, we can get Common Core right. And we need to get it right. Commissioner Holliday provides some needed common sense and practical experience to help us all see how to get there.  Give it a listen.

Presidential Candidates, Time to Defend Testing

Over at Medium, I have a new piece, a different type of piece for me. I offer up a stump speech to all of those individuals currently seeking the presidency of the United States of America. Sure, we have heard many (most?) bash Common Core and testing and the like. But what would it look like if they were to come to defense of testing.

My stump speech, I Believe In a Tool Called Testing, offers just that. I dare a candidate to use all or part of it in talking about the importance of GOOD testing and how it can and should be used to improve both teaching and learning in our schools. As I write:

Good tests are invaluable tools in improving student learning outcomes. They track progress and identify gaps in learning. They provide teachers with valuable feedback on what is happening in the classroom. They equip parents and families with a true understanding of how their children are doing and how they stand against their classmates. Used properly, they can instill confidence in all of us when it comes to our schools, our kids, and our future.

Unfortunately, in recent years, we have seen test results misused and downright abused. We have seen outcomes bastardized and we have seen shortcomings held up as proof of failure of our schools, our teachers, and ourselves.

Give the whole thing a read. If you’re running for office, try saying it loud when you have a few thousand people around listening to you. You won’t be disappointed.

Parents, to the #CommonCore Barricades

I find I have to be more and more careful when talking with local parents in my community about education policy questions. A few weeks back, I got into a long an drawn out fight on how horrible state tests here in New Jersey were, and how the only real measure of a student’s performance were their classroom grades. When I pointed out grades can be subjective and an A in my town could be very different from an A in nearby Trenton (at least in terms of whether a high school A equated college-level ability) I was shunned by many of the group.

So it should come as no surprise when I saw what I saw being distributed in our local public library. For the record, I live in West Windsor, NJ. Our regional school district serves just under 10,000 kids, with a per-pupil expenditure of more than $17,000 per. It is one of those districts that is regularly ranked very high compared to others in the states. According to the most recent demographic data, a third of the student population is white, with 7 percent African America, and 5 percent Hispanic. The majority of students are Asian American, either Indian or Chinese. This is also a community where nearly four in 10 residents are foreign born.

To put it mildly, it is a high-achieving district and parents have sky-high expectations for their kids. At Back to School night last year, I watched as parents began lining up in front of a special education teacher, figuring she was yet another service their child should have access to, without knowing what special education really was.

But back to the local library. It is a popular place, as local public libraries should be. In the lobby, you can find stacks of shiny bookmarks for any parent to pick up.

The headline? CALLING ALL MOMS & DADS — PLEASE JOIN IN OUR FIGHT & CHOOSE TO REFUSE COMMON CORE

And then it offers its reasoning. Each point offering enough inconsistencies to drive a fact-checking big rig right through.

“Because Common Core …

  • is ILLEGAL! Under the U.S. Constitution, education falls under the domain of the States, NOT the Federal Government
  • Causes suspicion because children are not allowed to take home worksheets, and teachers are not allowed to discuss what is being read in class.
  • Has never been tested prior to implementation.
  • Means lower academic standards due to inadequate math and literature standards.
  • Excessive testing and homework causes TREMENDOUS STRESS TO OUR CHILDREN, resulting in psychological issues, lower self-confidence and lack of creativity.
  • Hinders individualism and success due to its “one size fits all” approach.
  • Is an invasion of student and family privacy laws, utilizing Data Mining.
  • Standards are determined and are under copyright of private groups that does NOT include educational professionals.”

If you have a fear or worry about something that goes bump in the educational night, this group has a reason to back them for you? Federal encroachment? Check. Anti-teacher. Check. Lower standards. Check. Testing stressing your kids? Check. Hinders success and creativity? Check. Data privacy? Check. Corporate takeover of education? Check.

Now if we wanted to put any of these charges through a fact checker like they use on political candidates, we’d find that they don’t hold water. But that doesn’t mean much. The term “Common Core” is toxic. And those organizing against the standards know that SO they can use the fear and hatred for Common Core to turn it into whatever devil they want it to be.

Over the weekend, Alexander Russo was asking on Twitter about the PDK survey results and whether those outcomes are outliers or truly represent the shifting feelings of the American people. And the answer is yes to both questions. It does indeed represent public feeling toward the brand “Common Core,” and whatever it represents to the individual. For most, Common Core means high-stakes tests. For others, it is anti-teacher. But for very few, does “Common Core” actually mean the learning standards we expect every student to master each academic year.

Now if you asked the same questions, without using the dreaded Common Core name, and instead talked about teaching and learning standards and expectations, you’d get a MUCH different reaction. You might even find some appreciation for efforts to ensure that a public school education has value, regardless of the state or zip code where it is offered.

Sadly, I won’t be joining the Facebook group that is asking my to man the barricades and fight against the horrible beast known as Common Core. You see, I believe we should have learning standards. I believe we should hold our states and districts and schools accountable for what should be taught. I believe teachers and parents should have a clear understanding of what should be taught and what a student should be able to do each school year. And I believe in Common Core.

Maybe I need to make some bookmarks of my own. Or hats and t-shirts, everyone loves swag, even if it is pro-Common Core …

Moving from #STEM to STEEM?

Earlier this week, Eduflack was in a meeting talking about what could be. As is typical in such discussions, the conversation often shifts to STEM–or science, technology, engineering, and math–education. Sure, we often struggle with what technology and engineering look like in a K-12 setting, and some ask whether STEM is more important than great literature, but there is no denying that STEM literacy is important for virtually every student, whether they intend to be a rocket scientist or an artist.

One of the big trends lately has been asking whether it should be “STEAM” instead, with an A added for the study of the arts. But after some of the visits I’ve made to schools and educators in places like Indiana and Wisconsin, I’ve become an advocate for STEAM, only with the A standing for agriculture.

Today, though, something crossed my desk that has me wondering is perhaps we should be thinking of it as STEEM. There is no doubt that second E has a lot of attention and the focus on this current generation of students (and their parents, I would guess). The big question, though, is how one effectively teaches the environment and ecology in today’s K-12 universe (unless you want to be a true stickler and claim that such studies should fit under science, but another story for another day).

So I was intrigued when I saw a new curriculum offered by the Think Earth Environmental Education Foundation designed to help K-2 teachers instruct their little learners in the finer points of environmental education. The curriculum is being offered free of charge to schools, and focuses on subjects such as natural resource conservation, waste reduction, and the minimalization of pollution. Think Earth is even rolling out a third-grade curriculum for this coming 2015-16 school year, with plans to add fourth through eighth grade in the coming year. And to be environmentally conscious, it’ll all be available online.

According to its creators, the curriculum has already been used by more than 60,000 educators. And if we believe the small print, it is aligned with Common Core State Standards, Next Generation Science Standards, and the McREL Standards Compendium.

As I write this, I can already here the edu-wife laughing at me, wondering what liberal tsetse fly bit me overnight, resulting in me writing an environmentally conscious blog post. Yes, I’m that guy that complains about recycling (even though I seem to be the one hauling our sorted trash to the curb each week). And I have been known to say the Earth should toughen up a little, and it is awfully pompous of us to believe that a few decades of human consumption is going to ruin a planet millions of years in the making.

But I also think of my own kids, one who exited second grade two years ago and one who just finished her tenure in the second stanza this past spring. Both learned about the environment. Both came home preaching about my waste and our need to protect the environment. And neither really knowing what it all meant and definitely not seeing how it fit into what they were learning in class on a daily basis.

So if this curriculum and the work of Think Earth can help move us a little closer to relevance, while helping the youngest learners begin to collect the knowledge that will be useful when they are tested on science in years to come, I’m all for it. Added bonus if it means I don’t have to roll my eyes when my kids just choose to preach environment every April, And triple word score if maybe, just maybe, it means I’m not the only one in the house having to do the work because the rest of my family unit is worried about the environment.

#CommonCore, Through Teacher and Legislator Eyes

In the trenches of the Common Core State Standards battle, it is common to hear educators lament that legislators and policymakers just don’t understand what it is like to be a teacher or to know what is being asked of teachers when it comes to implementing Common Core.

On the flip side, many legislators have grown tired of teachers constantly saying that if you have never taught in a classroom, you have no business developing or even talking about laws and policies in the field of P-12 education.

Such realities set up instant showdowns, and, more often than not, have the educator and policy communities talking past each other, when they should be working together on important issues such as what we expect each and every student to actually learn.

That’s why Eduflack is so excited to announce that BAM! Radio Network has brought back Common Core Radio, the show I’ve been hosting since 2013. Now, I am joined by Cheryl Williams, the executive director of the Learning First Alliance, as we talk about what educators, parents, policymakers, and all those in between are doing to help successfully implement Common Core in their classrooms, schools, communities, districts, and states.

To kick us off, this week we have Eric Luedtke. Luedtke brings a fairly unique perspective to this discussion. First and foremost, he is a middle school social studies teacher in Montgomery County (MD) Public Schools. As an added bonus, he is also an elected member of the Maryland House of Delegates.

Imagine that, a teacher/legislator. In this episode, Williams and I talk to Luedtke about his experiences balancing both roles, and how he helps legislators understand the teacher perspective on Common Core, and how he helps reassure educators that their legislators are indeed listening to the classroom when it comes to standards and student expectations.

The episode, Debunking the Myths on the Path to Successful Common Core Implementation, can be found on the BAM! website or can be downloaded from iTunes. And for those who are always asking, there have been more than a million downloads of BAM! programming since the network was launched.

Happy listening! I promise you won’t be disappointed in Common Core Radio.

Urban Supes: We Want Greater Accountability

While all the things that go bump in the night tell us that tests and standards and accountability are responsible for the complete and utter fall of western civilization as we once knew it, a large and impressive group of superintendents (present and former) representing some of the nation’s largest school districts have a different view. They believe strong standards, assessments, and accountability are required if we are to provide all kids with a top-notch school experience.

Over at Education World, I write about how this group of school district leaders is calling on Congress to ensure a great public education for all kids. In asking Congressional leaders not to lose sight of the gains many of their districts made because of accountability measures in place, these educators offer a very simple equation for success. As Eduflack writes, these supes are telling us:

We believe in strong academic standards. We need annual tests in core subjects to determine student progress in meeting those standards. Those test results need to get back to teachers quickly, so they can adjust classroom instruction accordingly. States need to make sure this happens as intended. If it doesn’t, the feds need to step in. That’s how we make sure all kids—regardless of race, family income, or zip code—get a world-class public education.

It’s an important lesson from an impressive list of education leaders on the front lines of school transformation and improvement. I hope you will give it a read.

A Failure to CCSS Communicate?

The Eduflack family lives in a PARCC state. For months, we have heard from our school district about preparing for the upcoming PARCC assessment. This has been a particularly “interesting” time for our house, as it will be the first time one of the edu-kiddos is slated to take a state exam.

In recent weeks, the talk shifted to the edu-son and his plans to take two rounds of PARCC tests this spring. The first will begin in just a few short weeks, and will run through much of March. The second round will come a month or so after completing the first round.

When dear ol’ Eduflack inquired about why the two rounds for a third-grader, he got the most curious of answers. Yes, I am aware that the PARCC test is intended to be offered in two parts, the first being the performance-based component and the second being the end-of-year component. As I understand it, it is two parts to the same exam. Part one looks at “critical-thinking, reasoning and application skills through extended tasks such as reading an excerpt from a book and writing about it.” Part two is designed to “measure concepts and skills.”

But that wasn’t the explanation we received, and I’m guessing it isn’t what our district is telling other parents who may not know better. Instead, the line was “PARCC is both a formative and summative test, so we offer the formative in March and then the summative in late April.”

Granted, I’m no psychometrician, but I’m not quite sure that’s how formative and summative assessments are supposed to work, at least not in the primary grades. And if it is, I don’t see how any schools or classes are going to show student learning outcome gains on a summative test just a few weeks after benchmarking with the formative.

And it should be no surprise that, as we have these confusions on assessment types, that the state teachers’ union is running TV spots on how horrible testing is and how there is nothing a test can tell a parent that a teacher can’t already relay.

To borrow from Cool Hand Luke, what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate. Earlier this week, The Washington Post reported on significant parent misperceptions about Common Core State Standards, particularly with regard to the content and subjects covered by the standards. But we have also seen a major assault against the standards because of the tests, with attacks coming on amount of testing time, stress of the test, technology issues, and all points in between. And it is the assault on assessment that has really chipped away at CCSS over the past several years.

Today’s example is just another one of how misperceptions–or lack of understanding–continue to hurt what are intended to be standard instructional guidelines in English and math. It gives one more thing to blame CCSS for, and one more reason to buy into the “over tested, over stressed” argument.

Instead, we should be taking opportunities to educate parents (and teachers and policymakers and just about everyone) on the different types of tests. What are the benefits of a formative assessment versus an interim versus a summative? How are they different? How can we tell when any one of the three is of high quality (as PARCC seems to be) and how can we decide when a test is just crap? And how do we ensure teachers and parents get test data in quick turnaround so it can be used to improve the teaching and learning process?

Until we address these types of questions, it will remain open season on testing in general, and CCSS assessments in particular. And until we ensure high-quality assessments focused on student learning, real efforts to improve public schools and ensure students are college and career ready will struggle to gain the hold they need to succeed.