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 …

Common Core Test Camp?

One of Eduflack’s favorite streams on Twitter these days is @ThanksCommonCore (also with #thankscommoncore hashtag). With each passing day, it seems more and more that leads to the potential downfall of western civilization is being blamed on Common Core.

We, of course, know it isn’t actually Common Core’s fault. Those who actually take the time to read and understand what is in the standards realize Common Core that Common Core really isn’t to blame for all of the horrors in the world. And neither are the Common Core tests. A good assessment measures the progress of student learning. It isn’t something that is prepped or crammed for the evening before.

But back to today’s story. Over the weekend, the edu-family decided to check out a summer camp fair at the local shopping mall. Being new to the area in New Jersey, we wanted to see what local day camps were available for the summer, hoping to avoid the “free-range children” approach we took to last summer.

And much of what we saw was what we expected. Several nature camps. A number offering Minecraft and robotics. Camps run by the YMCA. Fabulously expensive day camps run by local private schools. Even summer camps run by our daughter’s gymnastics school. But I was sucked in by a banner from a local “learning center” trumpeting PARCC Preparation Camp.

Yep, you read that right. We now have folks looking to turn a summer buck cashing in on parents’ fears about the dreaded Common Core test.

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“Spaces are limited!”

The marketing materials go on to say:

We know PARCC is on everyone’s mind. We are actively working to make sure our students are prepared for whatever the test throws at them this March and May. If you’re not sure what you can do to help your child prepare, come speak with us. We can diagnose your child to see where there may be some areas of weakness and put together a game plan on how to fill those gaps in understanding.

That’s right. For all those parents worried about the dreaded Common Core test, have we got a product to prey on you. And we do it with the big logo and image that PARCC uses, so you think it is official. Worried the test will doom your kid to a life of flipping burgers? Have we got a program for you. Concerned the neighbor kids will do better than yours? Enroll today. Fear that some of the top public schools in the nation are falling down on the job? We are here to help.

They also offer to supplement the Common Core Test Prep Camp with other programs to better your kids in English, math, literature, creative writing, and critical thinking. And they throw in essay writing to ensure your kids can get into college once they’ve mastered that dreaded Common Core test.

Eduflack realizes that companies looking to profit on changes in education is nothing new. A decade ago, I spent far too much time dealing with new companies looking to cash in on the Reading First largesse. It seemed everyone had a new product “aligned” with scientifically based reading, and was more than happy to take money from the state, a school district, or a parent to ensure that all kids were reading. Unfortunately, too many of them were smoke and mirrors, magical elixirs and silver bullets that had no basis in what works and just wanted to score a quick buck while the going was good.

And now we see that in Common Core. Everything from Common Core-aligned (and Star Wars-themed) workbooks for parents to purchase to now CCSS test prep camps. It’s just shameful how often we look to take advantage of the legitimate concerns of parents and teachers to make a quick score and pick up a few more bucks in the process.

My kids won’t be going to Common Core camp this summer. There is likely Minecraft and gymnastics camps in our future. Our son (a third grader) also wants to go to one that will help teach him to make his own Lego movie. But he won’t be cramming on things that most likely aren’t even found in the Common Core State Standards.

And they may even go to one of those nature camps. Should they get sunburn, I’m just going to blame Common Core.

Maybe More Federal Role in Our Schools?

We’ve all seen it. Those cute photos that pop up all over Facebook with someone saying something important, but a misspelling or grammatical error ruins the whole thing.

Not to get too political here, but I just can’t shake this such sign from my head. We often hear terms like “liberty” used to turn back a Federal role in education or to push back against national accountability measures. But seeing a sign like this, I wonder of maybe we need a few more standards and a little more accountability, at least when it comes to spelling.

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“Common Sense on the Common Core”

With states, districts and educators working to ensure that
all students graduate from high school “college and career ready,” we are
hearing more and more about Common Core State Standards and their impact on the
classroom, particularly with regard to testing. What seems to be lacking from
that discussion, though, it a meaningful chronicling of what successful
implementation of the standards means. Until now.

This week, the Learning First Alliance rolled out a new
podcast series—Get It
Right: Common Sense on the Common Core
. In LFA’s own words, “to help those
committed to the standards ensure the proper implementation, the Learning First
Alliance is spotlighting those communities that are working hard to get Common
Core implementation right. These podcasts tell their stories.

The Get It Right series launches with three interesting
discussions, all of which the importance of proper planning and collaboration
in the implementation process. These podcasts include:

In addition to the podcasts themselves, LFA has also provided
resources from each of the states profiled, as well as from its
member organizations
.

If we are serious about ensuring every learner is college
and career ready, it is essential that we get CCSS implementation right. LFA’s
new effort helps all those involved in the process better understand what “getting
it right” really looks like in our states, district and schools.

This post originally appeared on the Collaborative
Communications blog
.

Full disclosure: Eduflack has worked with the Learning First Alliance and many of its member organizations over the years.


Blame Common Core!

In the terrific movie South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, the Colorado town is faced with a scourge of extreme potty mouth.  The solution?  Blame Canada!  After all, Canada was responsible for serving as a home to a foul-mouthed TV show the community’s kids just loved. So of course we declare war on our neighbor to the north.  How else to deal with the cussin’?

After attending parent-teacher conferences last evening for my kids’ school, I feel a bit of a South Park moment coming on.  Only instead of Canada, we are now blaming all of our educational ills on the dreaded Common Core State Standards.
I’ll try to forget the teacher who lapsed into edu-speak, using every abbreviation in the K-12 eyechart.  Sure, Eduflack knows all of the acronyms that were used in a relatively short conversation, but how many other parents in that class do?
I’ll try to forgive the one teacher who dropped guard to tell us that first graders used to have to answer 30 simply addition and subtraction problems in three minutes, but they’ve now extended it to 50 problems because too many kids were hitting the benchmark in previous years.
And I’ll even try to overlook the exchange over parent materials.  After commending a teacher for giving us two handouts from the Council of Great City Schools’ Parent Roadmap series (and remarking that it was interesting that our small, suburban school district was using materials from CGCS, but getting no acknowledgement that the teacher even knew what CGCS was), the eduwife and I simply got a tart response to the effect that the principal shared these materials, but they really aren’t relevant because “our school doesn’t do these sorts of things.”
But dear ol’ Eduflack can’t shake one of the discussions on what is happening in the classroom.
We started our discussion on the mathematics side of the ledger.  We actually spent most of our time talking coinage.  At issue was the ability to distinguish, on a work sheet mind you, the differences between the head of a quarter and the head of a nickel.  I was told that the Common Core requires knowledge of coins and recognition of their respective fronts and backs.  It took every fiber of my being not to point out that we are moving to a paperless world (has anyone heard of bitcoin, or even the new RFID bracelets that do away with currency in Disney World?), and the future of pennies and nickels are likely limited in our society.  And I resisted asking how recognizing FDR on the dime would make a second grader college and career ready.
Imagine my surprise to go back and look at the standards and indeed see that the second grade CCSS state that a student should “solve word problems involving dollar bills, quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies, using $ and ¢ symbols appropriately.” So while this educator is indeed taking it a bit far, working with money is indeed a part of the CCSS.
We then moved on to the reading side of the coin, if you will.  And here my blood began to boil.  The discussion quickly shifted again to CCSS.  Here, we were informed that the standards require students to be able to “diagram words.”  No, not the sentence diagrams I remember fondly as a child.  Diagramming a specific word.  Recognizing that a word like “scream” has eight individual or blended sounds and being able to mark each of the individual components to a given word.
So it is asking students — second graders — to diagram the digraph, blend, digraph blend, closed syllables, glued sounds and the like.  Every mark counts.  Be sure to show your work.
The rub here it is all or nothing.  A student gets no credit for IDing seven of the eight pieces.  Miss one, and you get a zero.  Get a zero, and you are SOL when it comes to meeting “the standards.”
I went back to the second grade CCSS, and I can find nothing on these supposed word diagrams.  Is it an overreaching extension of the phonics components of the standards?  Is it an interpretation based on a veteran teacher’s past experience?  Or is it just more administrative gobbledygook that helps frustrate those parents just hoping to understand what is happening in their child’s classroom?
I’m tired of CCSS now serving as an excuse for just checking the boxes and drilling students.  I’m tired of the continued focus on inputs and not the actual outcomes or the students themselves.  I’m tired of the blame game.  
And I recognize a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing.  It is one thing to discuss CCSS and related issues in our policy bubble.  It is something completely different to be doing it from those half-sized plastic chairs in an elementary school.  And while I know the acronyms and the dreaded standards that were thrown around, what about those parents who don’t?  Are they running home to teach the nickel?  Or to figure out for themselves home to diagram the glue sound?
For now, it seems we will all just continue to blame the Common Core.  Maybe it is time to follow Cartman’s advice and ask what Brian Boitano would do …

The First Day of School

Today is a very special day in the Eduflack household.  This morning, the edu-son started kindergarten.  As we walked up North Oak Street toward his elementary school, he was getting a little apprehensive.  For weeks, we had been excited about going to the “hippo school” (the school’s mascot is a purple hippo).  We did a week of “kindergarten orientation” and went last week to meet his new teachers.  But as we walked up the steep hill, I could tell the previous excitement was giving way to some fear about the new.

All those worries evaporated once the edu-son entered his classroom.  Warm hugs from the three teachers who will be manning classroom three this year.  His own hook and cubby to house his new Captain America backpack.  And a seat at the “Lego table” where he immediately started the building process before class even began.
Before this morning, we talked about what the edu-son wanted to learn now that he was in kindergarten.  His expectations were specific and direct.  He wanted to learn to build a robot.  He wanted to learn about outer space, penguins, and sharks.  And he wanted to learn how to make pizza.  After all that, he wanted to learn math.  Sounds like a full academic year.  I just hope his teachers are up for the challenge.
I’ll admit, I was a little misty eyed when I dropped my son off this morning.  He didn’t quite understand what the big deal was (and certainly didn’t know why dad had a tear in his eye).  But as I watched him start his public school career today, I am reminded of a blog post I wrote nearly three years ago, when we brought our daughter home from Guatemala.  At the time, I reflected on my educational hopes and dreams for the edu-daughter (and by extension, my son, who is 18 months older).  
At the time, I laid out 10 tenets for the education I wanted my children to experience.  Three years later, they seem even more appropriate:

What is my vision for my children?  Let me nail Eduflack’s 10 tenets to the electronic wall:

* I want every kid, particularly mine, reading proficient before the start of the fourth grade.  Without reading proficiency, it is near impossible to keep up in the other academic subjects.  And to get there, we need high-quality, academically focused early childhood education offerings for all.

* I want proven-effective instruction, the sort of math, reading, and science teaching that has worked in schools like those in my neighborhood with kids just like mine. 

* I want teachers who understand research and know how to use it.  And I want teachers to be empowered to use that research to provide the specific interventions a specific student may need.

* I want clear and easily accessible state, district, school, and student data.  I want to know how my kids stack up by comparison.

* I want relevant education, providing clear building blocks for future success.  That means strong math and technology classes.  It means courses that provide the soft skills needed to succeed in both college and career through interesting instruction.  And it means art and music right alongside math and reading.

* I want national standards, so if my family relocates (as mine did many times when I was a child), I am guaranteed the same high-quality education regardless of the state’s capitol.

* I want educational options, be they charter schools or magnet schools, after-school or summer enrichment programs.  And these options should be available for all kids, not just those struggling to keep up.

* I want schools that encourage bilingual education, without stigmatizing those students for whom English is a second language.  Our nation is changing, and our approach to English instruction must change too.

* I want a high-quality, effective teacher in every classroom.  Teaching is really, really hard.  Not everyone is cut out for it.  We need the best educators in the classroom, and we need to properly reward them for their performance.

* I want access to postsecondary education for all.  If a student graduates from high school and meets national performance standards, they should gain access to an institution of higher education.  And if they can’t afford it, we have a collective obligation to provide the aid, grants, and work study to ensure that no student is denied college because of finances.

   
As we all experience the start of the new school year, aren’t these tenets that we should expect from all of our schools?   

Injecting Tech Into Assessment

As we all well know, last year the U.S. Department of Education awarded $350 million to develop new assessments to go with our Common Core State Standards.  Those assessment consortia — the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) — have been working to start developing the tests that measure the achievement of the student performance against the new common standards.

Since the beginning of the consortia effort, questions have been raised.  Recently, many have asked about the progress of the consortia, wondering if they will be able to deliver test to states for implementation in 2014.  But queries about technology have existed before the feds even cut the checks, with initial hypotheses (since proven incorrect) saying that PARCC wasn’t even interested in the adoption of new technologies in its assessment model.
To help focus on the issues of technology and CCSS assessment, the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) recently released Technology Requirements for Large-Scale Computer-Based and Online Assessment: Current Status and Issues, a discussion draft report currently available on www.assess4ed.net, a new online community supported by the U.S. Department of Education to explore RttT assessment issues.  
Among the issues posed by SETDA in the discussion draft:
* Striking the right balance in specifying technology requirements, while recognizing the heterogeneity of the technology in use in schools today and tomorrow;
* The specifications for test administration – including especially the length of the testing window – may have the single greatest impact on school technology readiness for computer-based and online assessment;
* Coordinating technology requirements, management, and related costs for assessment with other educational technology investments;
* Employing IT industry best practices to extract cost-savings via the shift to computer-based and online assessment;
* Creating processes and plans to both take advantage of future technology innovations and to take out of service obsolete technology;
* Architecting a system that can accommodate the trend away from seat time requirements and toward increasing online and blended (part-online, part face-to-face settings) enrollments;
* Striking and maintaining the right balance between comparability and validity in implementing next generation assessment systems;
* Providing meaningful opportunities for students and teachers to become comfortable with the assessment technology prior to implementation; and
* Coordinating work with state and district technology leadership.
Without question, Eduflack applauds SETDA for asking the right questions and pointing to the right issues when it comes to technology and the next generation of student assessments.  And the report is particularly useful in providing a series of charts and graphs on both CCSS and the states themselves.
As this Technology Requirements was issued as a draft for review and comment, I just can’t miss the opportunity to provide two comments (additions really) for the authors to consider:
* In addition to providing meaningful opportunities for students and teachers to become comfortable with the assessment technology, there is a real opportunity to position the ed tech standards (NETS) established by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) as a key component for linking technology, assessment, instruction, and learning. 
* While online assessments are important, they really only get us half of the way to our destination.  If we are serious about deploying meaningful tests that will serve our states and districts for decades to come, we must look at exams that are both online and adaptive.  Adaptive testing technologies are advancing rapidly.  Some states, particularly those in SBAC are already using online adaptive technologies to build a better testing mousetrap.  We need to learn from those states, constructing for the future of testing, not for its past.
Now is the time to speak up folks.  SETDA has put a valuable and intriguing marker down on the the discussion of technology and assessment.  Contribute to the discussion, both through the draft report and through www.assess4ed.net.  These are important discussions.  Speak now or forever hold your peace.