Wednesday, July 23, 2014

All Things Education: Tim Slekar vs. the Common Core

There aren't many things that liberals and conservatives can agree on these days, but one thing that seems to rub both sides the wrong way is the Common Core. But what ARE the Common Core Standards? How will they affect your kid? Will they destroy public education as we know it? Dr. Tim Slekar (Dean of the School of Education at Edgewood College / activist / defender of public ed) joins me to discuss this issue and the school reform movement as a whole.


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  2. Look, AZ has been trying to destroy public education for the last 15 years. We have the most open market for schooling in the country. Even if you are poor, you can attend any public school you can get yourself to and from. We have hundreds of districts to choose from or you can choose from hundreds of charters who will usually provide transportation. As a principal, I had to market our public school. I know how it feels to live in a non-public-school-friendly environment. I embrace the reform movement.

    True, Common Core doesn't do anything to improve the conditions that you are concerned about, but they are a good set of standards. Teachers were involved in writing the standards and states had the opportunity to add to the standards. There is now collaboration from the best-of-the-best across states. Nicole and I could actually work on a unit together for our dual language and ELL students...and you know that would be awesome.

    I've worked in Title I schools my entire career and I believe this set of standards is exactly what children in poverty needed. Yes, they need love, and healthy food, and access to healthcare, and safety. Yes, they need teachers who truly care and can differentiate their teaching. They also need rigorous standards that say it's important for the students to do the really be able to read on their own, to be able to analyze multiple texts and write their own conclusions, to be able to manipulate numbers and think critically. Poor kids need rigorous standards and exceptional teachers. Overall, they haven't had that and it's up to us to make sure they have the best of the best. That's why I'm for reform.

    I'm for reform because I am against privatization. Yes, I think we should test students. Some of those higher-stakes tests should still help teachers decide how to adjust their teaching. Some of those tests should be used to see which teachers are rock-stars, which teachers need support to become rock-starts, and which teachers shouldn't be teaching if after years of support, the data shows that this teacher hurts student learning. The reason I care how students in two states are doing is so I can tell if the teachers and schools are doing well. I'm doing that so I can make decisions that help incentivize the best teachers and the best leaders to work with the students who are struggling.

    Our teachers are designing their own tests based on the standards so that they can be judged based on what they actually teach instead of using the school's math and reading data. Instead of opting out, help work with teachers to design their own tests for accountability. Our profession needs accountability. It's so much more powerful and meaningful when the tests come from the teachers. We can be upset that Pearson is raking in the dough to create and administer these tests. I think the tests that are coming are finally to the level that can show some more complex learning. I'm not against them, yet.

    I'm with you on tackling poverty. Standards-based politics sounds good to me. We could use the education reform model as an example. Seriously, if you can get a break, come to Phoenix and see what we're doing!

    1. While I agree that the standards are solid and rigorous and that they have opened the lines of communication for teachers across the country, I am hesitant to say that I support this current model of school reform as it stands.

      What I have seen this past year, as we have rushed to implement all measures of compliance, is a lot of hasty decision making and the use of our students as data guinea pigs. As a member of our school leadership team, I fought to give teachers the ability to design their own "intervention/extension" classes (per RtI regulations), and was shut down because we had to do something--anything--immediately to show that we were trying to address the severe academic needs of our students to raise their achievement. I was told that we didn't have time to develop our own materials because we needed at least three data points over the course of the year (which meant springing this new class on teachers and giving them three weeks to plan it--in September, in addition to their regular course prep, with school in full swing). We then brought in boxes full of canned curriculum that teachers were told to follow "with fidelity" so that we could establish data points to build cases for students' growth or regression over the course of the year.

      I was particularly horrified to see English Language Learners overpopulate the class where the teacher was using the Rewards curriculum (phonics-based, scripted, and decontextualized language practice). This was wholly inappropriate for our ELL's, but we had to do "something," so this was it.

    2. In another desperate attempt to gather whatever data we could use to establish baselines and defend our school model (we knew from the start that our students' MAP scores made our school look like a school in need of improvement--or an "intense touch school"--as our district office said), we started gathering running record data (AIMS and MAZE) and fluency checks administered by whatever support staff we could attach to a classroom. This seems minor, but the academic disruption and collective time not spent accessing core content, or adults doing their regular job duties (social work, counseling, etc.), was disconcerting to me.

      Students also have to take a barrage of computer-based "standardized" tests. They took the WKCE in the fall (the paper-based standardized test that our state is in the process of phasing out), the MAP three times over the course of the year (fall, winter, spring), and English Language Learners took the ACCESS for ELL's language proficiency assessment in December. I tried to add up the amount of lost instructional time due to these tests and their make-ups, and got lost somewhere around 30 hours. THIRTY HOURS that students are NOT accessing core content. To add insult to injury, the one test that I am actually vested in, the ACCESS for ELL's, doesn't even return our students' results until June, and so the scores do nothing for me as a teacher trying to modify or adjust my practice.

      Speaking of ELL's, it is also worth mentioning that research shows that until a student has reached a level 4.7 or above in their English language proficiency (I believe it's 4.7 in their literacy composite, but I need to verify), any standardized test administered to that student does nothing but test their language and not their knowledge of the content. This makes standardized tests, in many cases, invalid measures of what our ELL's know and are able to do.

    3. All in all, the data-driven education world, brought to us with heavy hand by the CCSS (and new special education law through RtI), has created learning environments that, in my humble opinion, are criminal in the way they affect children and their educators. Watching students struggle and feel defeated when they can't get the score to which they are aiming, and to see the looks of frustration and stress on their faces as they trudge toward the testing center is truly heart-wrenching and, to me, aggravating. Furthermore, watching English Language Learners get tripped up on the tricky sentence structures of questions or confused by cultural references with which they are not familiar, is infuriating to me.

      All this writing and I still haven't addressed the impending Smarter Balanced Assessment, which looks more complicated than the GRE...but, I digress...

      As if the tests themselves weren't frustrating enough, there is the secondary effect that is the fact that when the entire school has to take computerized tests as multiple points throughout the year, it monopolizes our technology so that students that need the technology for learning (another major component of the CCSS is use of technology) are unable to access it for long periods of time...often for several weeks and usually when their final technology-based projects are coming due.

      I hope this is all just growing pains as we are new to adopting and implementing these standards. I just worry that in the meantime, we are severely damaging our students' confidence and love of learning. The arts are quickly becoming unsustainable, and foreign language has become a tracking system as students who need remedial support (i.e. our students of color, English Language Learners, and those in poverty) are placed in intervention classes such as READ 180, System 44, or Do the Math Now! (expensive, scripted curriculum brought to us by the Scholastic corporation).

      I would love to visit your school to learn how you are able to provide a rich educational experience, complete with arts education and rigorous curriculum, and strong differentiation and cultural/linguistic relevance all within the demands set by the CCSS framework. I have come close to building some amazing, fully-integrated and bilingual (Spanish-English) curriculum that does this, but was unable to deliver the full package due to limitations in my current role.

      As a conceptual thinker, I can envision how this all works together for the benefit of our students, but, unfortunately, in our area there are no "model" schools for me to see it in action. I have thoroughly enjoyed writing standards-based curriculum for our students, but have been disheartened to see that I ran out of time in my scope and sequence due to testing and lack of access to technology.

      So, given all of the external factors with the CCSS, how can we make this work best for our students and staff? And is it ethical to rush to “compliance” when we haven’t entirely thought things through for our particular populations?

  3. Definite growing pains. Come visit Encanto's dual language school or some of the schools that are in our grant. I'm not sure I have any "perfect" model, but we have a number of schools and districts who have fully implemented CCSS, are teaching the whole student, and embrace what performance-based pay (and therefore assessments) have done for their schools. Come visit!