Friday, December 11, 2015

NY: Cuomo's Common Core Nothing Sundae

They said it couldn't be done, but today NY Governor Andrew Cuomo's Common Core Task Force delivered a big old report in less time than it takes my students to complete their major research project. And it's a big ole Nothing Sundae with a few scoops of Fluff on the side, with a cherry on top.

The announcement came with the same stock photo student we've seen before, and I want with all my heart to believe that his expression of, "Heh. Yeah, this is some ridiculous baloney" is the blow struck by whatever intern had to cobble this together. But the nothing in this announcement announces its nothingness right off the bat. Here's the head of the Task Force, Richard Parsons, Senior Advisor, Providence Equity Partners, LLC and former Chairman of Citigroup (because when you want to look at education policy, you call a banker):

While adoption of the Common Core was extremely well intentioned, its implementation has caused confusion and upheaval in classrooms across New York State. We believe that these recommendations, once acted on, provide a means to put things back on the right track and ensure high quality standards that meet the needs of New York’s kids. The recommendations will provide the foundation to restore public trust in the education system in New York and build on the long history of excellence that preceded this period.

So there you have it-- the purpose of the report is "to restore public trust." Which is a little different than "meet educational needs."

But that's the PR. How does the report look? Let's just see.

Getting Started 

The report kicks off with a the short summary (for those who want to skip straight to the highlights) and a recap of what the Common Core is (spoiler alert: it's exactly what all the PR from Common Core says it is, apparently, so you already know this part). From there we move to the bulk of the report, which is the findings and twenty-one recommendations. Let's see what the task force came up with, shall we? The recommendations are grouped by specific issues.

Issue One: Establish New High Quality New York Standards

Well, if you had any doubts about how deeply the task force was going to dig and how carefully they were going to probe to reach heretofore undiscovered frontiers of understanding, just look at this sentence:

The Task Force has learned that New York educators had limited input into the Common Core before their formal adoption in New York.

Stay tuned for the moment in which the Task Force learns that the sun does not revolve around the sun.

The Task Force accepted input for a whole month and heard from 10,500 respondents.But they single out the Council for a Strong America, the New York State Business Council, and an unnamed NY higher education administrator. Many people are unhappy, yet somehow there is widespread agreement that the goals of CCSS are all swell.

Recommendation One: Adopt some high quality NY standards with all stakeholders in a transparent process.

Mind you, they need to be high standards that promote college and career readiness. And they shouldn't just be a name change, and they should be New Yorky.

But-- the changes should include all the "key instructional shifts set forth in the Common Core Standards." So they should be totally different from the Core, but they should do exactly what the Core does. Got that? NY will rewrite the standards without questioning any of the foundation or goals of the standards. So, more than a name change-- there will also be wording changes. Probably fine changes, too. Just no changes to the actual goals and substance of the standards, Which will make it hard to do

Recommendation Two: Fix the early grade standards.

Well, not fix exactly. The Task Force doesn't want to lower the standards, but recognizing that children develop at different rates, they recommend "banding" to give teachers a wider time range in which to drag tony students across the finish line. They're talking Pre-K through 2. Up through grade 2, everyone can move more or less at their own pace, but by grade 3 the little slackers should be on point and meeting those one-size-fits-all standards. So what we'd like to take those special moments where live humans meet incorrectly written standards and just sort of move them to a later point in the students' lives.

Recommendation Three: Some kind of flexibility for special populations.

Basically, let's make sure that students with disabilities and ELL have more than just the option of vocational certificates instead of a regents diploma. But every student should be prepared to succeed after high school. Convene some experts and figure something out.

Recommendation Four: Ensure standards do not lead to the narrowing of the curriculum or diminish the love of reading and joy of learning.

The Task Force hasn't the foggiest notion how to actually do this, but they recognize it's an issue to many people. So they recommend that the new standards just kind of do this, somehow. It does not occur to them, for instance, that focusing all measurement of schools, teachers, and students on the results of a couple of standardized tests might have the effect of narrowing the curriculum. Nope. Like Arne Duncan, they have no idea how this happened, but they recommend that it stop happening, right now.

Recommendation Five: Establish transparent review and revision process for standards.

It's a mark of just how far the Common Core has driven us down the Crazyland Turnpike that this idea-- that there should be a way to review the standards and change what needs to be changed-- qualifies as a new recommendation. No, David Coleman saw his Creation, and he saw that it was Good, and he decreed that nobody could or should ever change it. The Task Force is not wrong, but the state of New York and a whole lot of other folks are dopes for having waiting till the end of 2015 to come up with this.

Issue Two: Develop Better Curriculum Guidance and Resources

Bzzzzt!! Wrong "issue." The issue is not, "how can the state do a better job of micromanaging classroom teachers." The issue is, "how can the state back itself up and let teachers do their jobs." But the closest the Task Force can come is acknowledging that "teachers develop and select elements of curriculum within the context of student learning goals and objectives established by state and local authorities." So while in their straightjackets, teachers are free to wiggle their noses and roll their eyes.

The Task Force also notes that EngageNY is being used as mandated curriculum in many districts, even though NYSED swears up and down it told people not to do that. Also, many people think the EngageNY modules and website suck.

Also, the Task Force is one more group that is fuzzy on the difference between standards and curriculum. For all these reasons, the following recommendations pretty much miss the point.

Recommendation Six: Educators and local districts should be free to develop and tailor curriculum to the standards.

And you can get a Model T in any color, as long as it's black. The TF actually notes that high-performing schools give teachers autonomy. And yet, somehow the recommendation "Give teachers autonomy" does not make it onto the list.

Recommendation Seven: Release New! Improved! curriculum resources.

Make a new, more better EngageNY. Oh, and occasionally collect feedback on it, just in case it's not more betterer enough.

Recommendation Eight: Set up a digital platform for teacher sharing.

Another moment of candor breaks out. "Teachers and students are not one-size-fit-all. So why are our modules?" Yeah! So let's see if teachers want to fill in the huge gaps in our materials offerings, for free. Let's see if teachers and schools want to give away materials that might help other teachers and schools beat them in the stack rankings. Using the interwebs!

Recommendation Nine: More better Professional Development 

Responding to the complaint that the Core were implemented without enough explanation of How To Do It, the TF suggests that lots of super-duper PD be deployed so that people will totally know how to do it the next time. Because implementation is always the explanation. Hey, question. Do you think anybody out there is researching better ways to spread cholera? Or could it be that some things can't be implemented well because they are inherently flawed and un-implementable?

Issue Three: Significantly Reducing Testing Time and Blah Blah Blahdy Blah

Tests are inevitable and universal, we say. People apparently have complained about Common Core testing. A lot. Who knew? (Oh, wait-- everybody who's read that at least 250,000 students in NY refused to take the test). The Task Force is aware that Pearson has been replaced and that the education chief has launched an initiative to get test compliance back up, complete with a hilariously handy propaganda kit. The Task Force is aware that nobody thinks they're getting useful information from the tests. Of course, the Task Force also accepts NYSED's estimate of how much time any of this testification sucks up, and they think that the President's Test Action Plan actually said something useful and meaningful.

Of course, the way to significantly reduce testing time, a goal everyone allegedly supports, would have been for the ESSA to NOT require the same amount of standardized testing as previously mandated. But under ESSA, states that really wanted to do something about the testing juggernaut could push the boundaries of what the tests are and what they are used for (because test prep would be less prevalent if everybody's future weren't riding on test results). But (spoiler alert) the Task Force is not going to recommend any of these obvious means of achieving their alleged goal. They are like a spouse who, caught cheating with somebody they picked up in a bar, promises not to go to that particular bar on Wednesdays.

Recommendation Ten: Involve all sorts of stakeholders in reviewing the state standardized tests.

Interesting. Does this mean that teachers and other stakeholders will actually be allowed to see test questions? I don't think this recommendation will make it past the test manufacturing lobby.

Recommendation Eleven: Gather student feedback on tests.

Good idea. I suggest checking twitter starting roughly five minutes after the test is handed out.

Recommendation Twelve: Provide ongoing transparency,

They call for releasing test items (good luck with that), the standards weighting and more detail in student scores. I'd suggest adding to the list how the tests are scored, how the test items were validated (if at all), and how the cut scores are set.

Recommendation Thirteen: Reduce number of days and duration for standardized tests

Sure. Good idea. Next, reduce punitive uses of test results so that nobody feels compelled to spend half the year doing test prep.

Recommendation Fourteen: Provide teacher flexibility to use authentic formative assessment.

What?! Trust teachers to do their jobs??!! That's crazy talk, Task Force. Unless.... Uh-oh.

The State and local school districts must support the use of standards-based formative assessments and authentic assessments woven into the routine curriculum along with periodic diagnostic and benchmark testing. The goal of these assessments is to monitor student learning to provide ongoing feedback throughout the school year that teachers can use to improve instruction and students can use to improve learning.

Okay. That could mean "let teachers teach" or it could mean "bring on the highly profitable Competency Based Education."

Recommendation Fifteen: Check out an untimed approach

Another surprising finding. When you give students a high stakes test with a time limit, they get anxious.

Recommendation Sixteen: Provide flexibility for students with disabilities.

Recommendation Seventeen: Protect and enforce accommodations for students with disabilities.

Recommendation Eighteen: Explore alternative options to assess the most severely disabled students.

These are aimed directly at the feds, who, as part of their ongoing program to make all disabilities to vanish by just expecting real hard, denied New York's request to make testing accommodations for students with disabilities. It's hard to predict how hard Acting Pretend Secretary of Education John King (whose previous job, you may recall, was making a hash of education policy in New York) may push back on this, and the real battle will come down to the future Secretary of Ed.

Recommendation Nineteen: Prevent students from being stuck in academic intervention based on one test.

Once again, we are mystified by how anybody ever put sooooo much emphasis on one standardized test. How did such a thing happen? It;s a puzzlement. But a student definitely shouldn't be automatically put in a remediation just because she did poorly on the test used to rate schools and teachers. A more holistic approach is called for, with parents and teachers working together to determine what is in the best interests of the child. And nobody should ever tell a student that the student is too unsatisfactory a student based on just one test (unless it's the state making that determination based on one test, in which case it's totes okee dokee).

Recommendation Twenty: Eliminate double testing for ELL students

New York has an exam for English Language Learners to take. The feds only give a one-year exemption for ELL students, leaving ELL students often taking double tests-- during the years that they have not yet shown English proficiency. The Task Force thinks this is dumb. They are correct.

Issue Four and Recommendation Twenty-One

"The implementation of the Common Core in New York was rushed and flawed," says the task force, which does not go one to say, "because the Common Core were the rushed, flawed work of amateurs, and you can't do a good job of implementing a bad policy." So they have this half right.

But they recommend that "until the new system is fully phased in" (which will be determined how, exactly?) test results should only be advisory and not used for any teacher or student evaluating. They are assuming it will take till 2019-2020 to get everything up to speed, which is pretty awesome, because that gives many governors, many legislatures, and many various policymakers and lobbyists ample time to do God knows what in the meantime. Might as well pick any old year, since nobody knows how long such an undertaking should, would or has taken ever.

Bottom line?

So the Task Force has basically hit three areas. They have lots of ideas to clean up the administration of testing, but nothing that addresses the fundamental problems with the testing. They have several ideas for trying to clean up the curriculum and pedagogy tied to the standards, but nothing that addresses the incorrect assumptions and ideas underlying the state's approach. And they have an idea about rewriting new standards, but nothing that would address any of the foundational problems and incorrect assumptions underlying the Common Core.

So, change without change. We'll keep the same twisted frame and try to drape it with pretty new cloth. It's a big bowl of nothing, and it's not even a new bowl.


  1. Even in rural NW Pennsylvania you can smell a rat from Albany and this one stinks. As someone who was given the opportunity to speak to the task force I can tell you they have paragraphs of information that showed heard our concerns, spit them out in a bunch of talking points, but then did little to address the concerns and suggestions of NYS parents and educators in the recommendations. If anyone thinks between the ESSA, NYS Common Core Task Force and Elia's Toolkit will fool parents- not likely. The opt out will continue to grow.

  2. I love the comment for recommendation #13 about reducing time on tests: "Sure. Good idea. Next, reduce punitive uses of test results so that nobody feels compelled to spend half the year doing test prep."

    Yes. Yes. Yes. Test prep is the biggest waste of instructional time. Period. Just this one change would be such a huge improvement in so many ways.

  3. Of course, we should also note that Governor Cuomo's announcement of the Task Force report makes mention of transparency seven times (as in establishing "transparent and open processes"). Don't steal transparent. Don't corrupt language consistent with the dishonest way you and New York's phony legislature operate. The report is a crock. Don't introduce it by usurping a concept your actions dishonor.

  4. Fifty years ago: "In the name of progress and method, innovation and statistical research, educationists have persuaded the world that teaching is a set of complex problems to be solved. It is no such thing. It is a series of difficulties. They recur endlessly and have to be met; there is no solution — which means also that there is no mystery. Teaching is an art, and an art, though it has a variety of practical devices to choose from, cannot be reduced to a science."
    –Jacques Barzun, reprinted
    in Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning, pg 5

  5. Since 2000---misguided by visions of "fixing" public education with high stakes testing---we've squandered both the intellectual resources of people of good will like Peter Greene and his readers, and also the financial resources of tax-paying citizens.

    Jacques Barzun pointed at such educational nonsense fifty years ago: "In the name of progress and method, innovation and statistical research, educationists have persuaded the world that teaching is a set of complex problems to be solved. It is no such thing. It is a series of difficulties. They recur endlessly and have to be met; there is no solution — which means also that there is no mystery. Teaching is an art, and an art, though it has a variety of practical devices to choose from, cannot be reduced to a science."
    –Jacques Barzun, reprinted
    in Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning, pg 5

    1. Yes. Beautifully put. And it's kind of reassuring to know that none of this is new.

  6. Do you know what the Task force decided about Regents tests? They talk about sparing kids in grades 3 to 8 the consequences of exams but are not clear about the Regents. They mutter some clap trap about kids graduating and needing lots of remedial courses so they want to keep the standards high. I have an 11th grade daughter with special needs who is passing all her classes but struggling with the Regents? I suspect no news is bad news but the uncertainty is worse than than the sure knowledge of the disaster.
    Thanks for listening.

  7. What struck me was the head of the Task Force saying the recommendations will " on the long history of excellence that preceded this period." Are they actually saying that education was doing okay -- or better -- BEFORE CCSS?