Sunday, March 29, 2015

EdWeek's Big Package

The latest Education Week features a package of essays about the Common Core from the perspective of "five leading educators." The package was paid for by the Gates Foundation, but EdWeek retained "total editorial control" of the package. Before you roll your eyes, I can vouch for at least some of that; I am one of the five contributors and at no point did I feel as if EdWeek or Gates were tying to mess with my part of the package (although EdWeek did call me a "leading educator" which calls their journalistic judgment into question). Clearly EdWeek did get to control who they asked to write in the first place, but I can't help feeling that if they were looking for five CCSS cheerleaders, they should have chosen differently.

In the interests of full disclosure, I will also report that EdWeek paid me more for this piece than anybody has ever paid me for a single piece of writing ever. The only effect this had on me was that I felt obliged to eschew juvenile behavior (like sophomoric "package" jokes). Also, I had an actual editor to notice when I made mistakes. You readers get juvenile behavior and mistakes for free. You're welcome.

These articles also ran in the print version, which means you may have paywall issues accessing them, but you may be able to find a print version. Is it worth your trouble? Let me give you the quick rundown-- what did Gates get for their big State of the Common Core journalism package?

Ariel Sacks contributes "Decoding the Common Core: A Teacher's Perspective."

Sacks is a New York City English teacher who has published a book about teaching whole novels in a student-centered approach. She blogs over at the Center for Teaching Quality Collaboratory and while CTQ can feel a bit reformy at times, I've found lots of smart, interesting teachers over there, Sacks among them.

Her take on the Core is familiar. She sees much that aligns with what she already does, but she also sees some problems that can be traced to Core creation by non-educators, including the backwards scaffolding that produces so many developmentally inappropriate standards in lower grades. She also expresses some issues with the fiction vs. non-fiction issues. Her conclusion:

All in all, I feel that, if the common standards had never been developed, teachers wouldn't necessarily be worse off, and we might have been able to put our attention toward something equally or more beneficial to students. Yet, if the standards were to disappear today, I would also feel that a valuable conversation had been cut short, an opportunity to connect and expand students' learning in classrooms across the country abandoned rather than developed.

I disagree on what would be lost. I haven't encountered that many valuable conversations sparked by the Core, and I don't see any Core connection to expanding and connecting learning. Her other conclusion is that the standards will survive only with teacher input, but that assumes that the standards can be changed or re-interpreted. That is possible on a local level, if local leadership supports it. But that's about it.

John Troutman McCrann contributes "Teaching the Common Core Requires Fine-tuning School Policies."

McCrann is an America Achieves fellow who teaches math at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City; he's also a local UFT leader. McCrann is, for me, another fine example of a teacher who does whatever he thinks is best in his professional judgment and then just chalks it up to the Common Core. If it were a few decades ago, he'd likely be doing exactly the same thing in his classroom and calling it Outcomes Based Education with some Authentic Assessment Sauce on the side.

In fact, Common Core appears in McCrann's first and last paragraph. In between, he discusses some initiatives and policies that his school implemented. It is perhaps early to announce success; Harvest only opened in fall of 2012 with its first 9th grade class. But these are interesting ideas about how to operate a school and Harvest's website is intriguing. But I'm not convinced that McCrann's article couldn't be entitled "Teaching the Common Core Requires Ignoring It and Using Sound Professional Judgment."

Jeff Riley contributes "Why My School District Is Holding Off on PARCC Tests."

Riley is the receiver/superintendent of the Lawrence public schools in Massachusetts. Lawrence is an interesting study, a district in receivership that has not been turned, a la New Orleans, into a charter playground.

Riley's piece is an interesting inclusion in the package, because he's not all that interested in the Core. "Yeah, yeah, we had standards before. These are new ones. Whatever-- I have a bunch of poverty-soaked children to try to educate." Riley's argument about holding off on PARCC and using the old MA test is that he can use another year of comparable data to see how he's doing. But he is pretty relentless in his piece about poverty as a factor, observing among other things that poor students and rich students who graduate with the same scores do not enjoy the same college success.

All students should be challenged to reach high standards. Whether these are set locally, at the state level, or nationally, I will leave it to the politicians to decide. The real question—given that over half our nation's public school children now live at or near the poverty line—is whether we can ensure that all children receive a great education and a chance at the American Dream.

Charlotte Danielson contributes "Helping Educators Overcome 'Initiative Fatigue'"

I'm not going to bother explaining who Danielson is. Her contribution is some research, conducted by interviewing 500 educators in four school districts between March 2013 and June 2014 and she found that lots of teachers think dealing with CCSS-based changes is hard.

There are some other findings as well, but for several reasons, I am not inclined to pay much attention to her findings.

First of all, March of 2013 is a long, long time ago on teachers' reform timeline. In March of 2013, I would have told you that this Common Core stuff looked challenging, but probably no big deal, and I was hopeful it could be used to move us forward. I was looking forward to getting a look at it. The 2013-2104 school year was the year that many teachers finally looked Common Core in its beady eyes and realized they didn't like it a bit. It sucks to be a researcher in such a rapidly-shifting environment, but reporting two-year-old data on educator attitudes about the Core is like reporting my three-year-old dog's weight from two years ago.

The other problem is the focus on just four districts. Again, I know researchers are human beings with limits, but implementation of CCSS is so hugely varied in style, severity, autonomy and programming choices from place to place that a sample of four school districts is pretty much meaningless as a nationwide picture of how the implementation is going.

So move on. Nothing to see here.

Finally, there's my contribution. My point is pretty simple, and it's actually supported by the other pieces of the package:

If the goal of Common Core was to provide a consistent framework within and across state lines, to get all the teachers and schools and students in the country on the same page at the same time, then Common Core is a complete and miserable failure. At this point there are a myriad, a plethora, a giant honking mass of versions of the Core, from the version espoused by each state, to the versions that are being tested, to the versions being pushed in programs and textbooks, to the versions being pushed by teachers and PD vendors. We no longer have the slightest assurance that two different people using the term "Common Core" are even talking about the same thing.

And there isn't even a controlling body or authority in place which could settle the argument; those guys are all busy making money on various other companies' versions of Common Core.

There are some interesting pieces here, a conversation-worthy idea or two, but if The Gates was hoping for a Common Core pep rally, they did not get the package they were hoping for.

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