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Friday, June 29, 2012

EPATA and Common Core Standards

Dear Friends of EPATA,

A few weeks ago I was watching the NBA playoffs with my wife when a commercial came on. Not an ordinary one. It was a commercial from a prominent oil company promoting the “Common Core Standards” as a means of improving American Education….’Wow’, I thought, ‘educational issues have made the big time.’ The corporate world has a plan for our children. It is not to support students in their hopes dreams and aspirations but rather to enable American corporations to better ‘compete in the global economy.’ The last time they tried this NCLB was the result-a monumental failure of trying to use the business accountability principles of test and punish to improve learning.

I thought parents, teachers and community members should be given some information about these standards. Here are some insights by Dr. Yong Zhao followed by my commentary. Dr. Yong Zhao is an internationally known scholar, author, and speaker. His works focus on the implications of globalization and technology on education. Coming to the US from China in 1992, he currently serves as the Presidential Chair and Associate Dean for Global Education in the College of Education, University of Oregon.

Common Sense Vs. Common Core: How to Minimize the Damages of the Common Core

by Yong Zhao

The wonder drug has been invented, manufactured, packaged, and shipped. Doctors and nurses are being trained to administer the drug properly. Companies and consultants are offering products and services to help with the proper administering of this wonder drug. A national effort is underway to develop tools to monitor the improvement of the patients. The media are flooded with enthusiastic endorsement and euphoric predictions.

This cure-all wonder drug is the Common Core, short for the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Cooked up by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, this magic potion promises to cure America’s education ills, according to its
Mission Statement:

The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.

Specifically, the Common Core claims to cure the ills that have long plagued America’s education: inequality and inefficiency. “Common standards will help ensure that students are receiving a high quality education consistently, from school to school and state to state. Common standards will provide a greater opportunity to share experiences and best practices within and across states that will improve our ability to best serve the needs of students.”

So how wonderful is this wonder drug? There is no empirical evidence at the moment to make any judgment since no one has taken it yet. But common sense can help.

If it is too good to be true. . .

"If you had a stomach ache, if you were nervous, if you were lethargic, if you needed energy, if you had tuberculosis, if you had asthma, all sorts of things. It was going to cure what you had." That was historian Dr. Howard Markel
talking about cocaine, a wonder drug praised by the medical researchers, doctors, and great minds in the 1880s, including the likes of Thomas Edison, Queen Victoria and Pope Leo XIII. "I take very small doses of it regularly against depression and against indigestion and with the most brilliant of success," wrote Sigmund Freud.

"A wonderful pain destroying compound." "The strongest and best liniment known for the cure of all pain and lameness." That is from
the ad for Clark Stanley's snake oil, which was supposed to treat "rheumatism, neuralgia, sciatica, lame back, lumbago, contracted muscles, toothache, sprains, swellings, etc." and cure "frost bites, chill blains, bruises, sore throat, and bites of animals, insects and reptiles."

"And today begins a new era, a new time in public education in our country. As of this hour, America's schools will be on a new path of reform, and a new path of results." That was President George W. Bush
talking about the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002. "Our schools will have higher expectations," he continued, "Our schools will have greater resources to help meet those goals. Parents will have more information about the schools, and more say in how their children are educated. From this day forward, all students will have a better chance to learn, to excel, and to live out their dreams."

Today, we know that cocaine is indeed potent, in fact, so potent that there is an ongoing expensive battle against it. Clark Stanley's cure-all was mostly mineral oil plus red peppers, and "traces of turpentine and camphor for the medicine smell." And Bush's NCLB? Every state is trying to get out of it, some even willing to trade it with a worse set of demands from Arne Duncan.

Diane Ravitch has exposed many cases of education wonder drugs or silver bullets in her outstanding must-read book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education and other writings. She writes, ". . . in education, there are no shortcuts, no utopias, and no silver bullets."

The Common Core has not been tested. If anything, standards and testing in the U.S. have not amounted much in curing the ills of inequality and inefficiency. "On the basis of past experience with standards, the most reasonable prediction is that the common core will have little to no effect on student achievement,"
Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institute predicts based on his analysis of America's past experiences with standards.

There is no free lunch. . .

All medicine has side effects. When it cures, it can harm the body as well. Put it in another way, there is no free lunch. Everything comes at a cost. Education cannot escape this simple common sense law of nature for a number of reasons. First, time is a constant. When one spends it on one thing, it cannot be spent on others. Thus when all time is spent on studying and preparing for exams, it cannot be spent on visiting museums. By the same token, when time is spent on activities not necessarily related to academic subjects, less time is available for studying the school subjects and preparing for exams. Second, certain human qualities may be antithetical to each other. When one is taught to conform, it will be difficult for him to be creative. When one is punished for making mistakes, it will be hard for her to take risks. When one is told to be wrong or inadequate all the time, it will be difficult for her to maintain confidence. In contrast, when the students are allowed freedom to explore, they may question what they are asked to learn, and may decide not to comply. Finally, resources are a finite as well. When a school or society devotes all resources to certain things, they don’t have them for others. For example, when all resources are devoted to teaching math and language, schools will have to cut out other programs. When more money is spent on testing students, less will be available for actually helping them grow.

NCLB has led to a narrowing of curriculum, demoralization of teachers, explosion of cheating scandals, reduction of teaching to test-preparation, weakening of public education, and deprivation of the disadvantaged children of a meaningful education experience. The national standards movement in the U.S. has coincided with a significant decline in creativity over the last few decades. Of course, another side (or intended) effect is the increased wealth of publishing companies, tutoring services, and for-profit education ventures.

The Common Core, however dressed, shares the fundamental spirit with NCLB: standardization of curriculum enforced with high-stakes testing. In fact, the Common Core comes with more force on a larger scale. The side effects will be even more significant.

How to Minimize the Damages?

As it stands now, America has passed the point of no return. The Common Core will reach our classrooms soon. Our children’s education experience will be altered by the Common Core and assessed by the Common Assessment because our schools and teachers will be held accountable for teaching to the Common Assessment, currently being developed by two consortia.

The Common Core is unstoppable now. But there are a few things we, as parents, educators, and taxpayers, can do to minimize its damages on our children:

1. Don’t be fooled

Don’t be fooled by the claims of the Common Core advocates. The Common Core will not make your children ready for college or a career. The future needs passionate, creative, collaborative innovators and entrepreneurs, not compliant, uniform test takers. The Common Core will not help the disadvantaged children do better either because the real problem is poverty, not standards in the classrooms.

Don’t be fooled by the tiny improvement you see in the standards themselves. Yes, some teachers may find the Common Core contain certain things that are better than other curriculum or standards, in which case, learn from it, but that does not justify the imposition of the entire standards upon all children across the whole nation.

Don’t be fooled by the flashy charts, dancing graphs, or other colorful interactive displays of student data you are sure to be shown by some companies who claim to help you align your curriculum with the Common Core, improve your teaching effectiveness, and enhance your students learning. The best way to know your children is to look into their eyes, talk with them, and work with them. The best way to help your children is to believe in them, care about them, support them, and value them as individual human beings rather than professional test takers

2. Don’t narrow your curriculum

Don’t cut arts, music, sports, recess, field trips, debate teams, or other programs in order to align with the Common Core. Nothing is more core than a child’s interest and passion. A well-balanced, broad curriculum that meets the needs of each child is a much better bet for your children’s future than one devoted to two subjects standardized and prescribed by people who have no knowledge of your community or your children.

3. Don’t standardize the teachers

Don’t force the teachers to become Common Core machines. Don’t make them standardized knowledge transmitters. The most powerful and effective teachers are those who inspire and motivate their students, who are personable and enthusiastic about their work, and who trust and believe in their students. The best teachers are not those who can dispense knowledge or provide explanation as good as YouTube videos, Wikipedia articles, or Google searches. They are those who give students a reason to watch the YouTube video, read the Wikipedia article, and search for information on Google.

4. Don’t waste your money

Don’t waste your precious dollars on the numerous Common Core products and services purport to help with your children’s college and career readiness. A better bet is on the people in your schools—spend the money on teachers and school leaders—excite them with opportunities and support for their innovation, inspire them with high quality professional development programs, minimize the bureaucratic burden placed on them, reduce their class sizes, and give them time to learn and collaborate with their colleagues.

5. Don’t judge your students or teachers based on test scores

Finally, don’t judge the worth and value of your children based on their test scores. No matter how wonderful a standardized test in math or reading is, it cannot measure your children’s character, interest, passion, friendship, wisdom, creativity, or mental health. It cannot predict your children’s future either. Instead, look for their strength, support their interest, and help them explore and experiment. Behind what they cannot do may well be something they are great at!

Don’t judge teachers by their students’ scores. Test scores are a poor measure of a child’s quality and an even worse measure of the quality of teaching. Moreover students’ performance on tests is the result of many factors, many of which are beyond the control the teacher. Thus it is not only unfair to judge a teacher based on test scores, but also ineffective—research has shown that test-based incentive programs do not lead to improvement of student achievement.

Here is Rog’s commentary:

Let’s look at the evidence. Are having ‘common’ standards a panacea for better student engagement and learning? In the US each state has its own set of ‘common’ standards used by each district in the state. Does the mere existence of ‘common’ standards in each state make student learning in each state better than any other? No. Do school districts within a given state all excel because they all have the same standards? No. Commonality of standards within a given state does not propel learning.

Countries with a set of common standards do no better or worse on international tests than countries without them. Also, there is no evidence that those seventeen top world economies with common standards are any more economically competitive than those without. (Tienken, 2010)  Commonality of standards within a country does not necessarily propel learning or economic competitiveness between countries.

A ‘standard’ is a sentence. There can be no higher or lower standards because each standard cannot be weighed or measured. One sentence can only be ‘different’ than another not higher or lower. All standards are of equivalent value and are only selected as a result of the preferences and choice of the standards’ authors. One state may have an algebra standard on slope that says, “All students will be able to calculate the slope of a line.” and another that says,   Graph linear functions, noting that the vertical change (change in y- value) per unit of horizontal change (change in x- value) is always the same and know that the ratio ("rise over run") is called the slope of a graph?”A common core standard is no higher or lower than any current standard, just different.

What is a ‘core’ standard? It is a sentence that the authors of this set of standards believes is the most important to be taught to our students. Another group of authors could easily have a different set of ‘core’ standards than are proposed here and be just as valid. There is no absolute judgment that this set of core standards is any better or worse than those of each of our fifty states. The diversity of our state standards is what enriches our country. Plant and animal diversity is what strengthens the ecology of our planet. Without diversity in our economy we would all be ‘common’-driving Fords and wearing Levi jeans.

If common core standards are not the solution to what we think ails education, what is? Begin with healthy students-physically, mentally and emotionally. These are societal issues: Create home, neighborhood, state and national programs that promote the health and well being of our youth both outside and within schools. Support knowledgeable, autonomous, and creative teachers who as professionals use best practices, and can make the curriculum relevant to their students as they respond to each student’s unique individual needs. All systems in a district should have a unitary focus: supporting classroom students and teachers.