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Copyright © 2014 jsd

Common Core Policy Briefing
John Denker

We need to have at least three conversations:

  1. The executive summary, aka the “elevator” talk. This includes the sound bites and catch phrases suitable for communicating with voters who aren’t paying close attention, sufficient to let them know where you stand without burdening them with details they neither need nor want. See section 1.
  2. The next-level follow-up. See section 2.
  3. The deeper backstory. See section 3.

*   Contents

1  Executive Summary
2  Next-Level Follow-Up
3  Deeper Backstory
3.1  Professionalism
3.2  Do Not Underestimate the Enemy
3.3  Standards Document versus Whole Contraption
3.4  Loose Coupling
3.5  What Students Need, and What Teachers Need
3.6  Scope of Common Core versus NGSS
3.7  Alternatives
3.8  The Standard is Open to Interpretation
3.9  Follow the Money
3.10  A Modest Proposal: Validity
3.11  Many Teachers are Underwhelmed by Common Core
4  References

1  Executive Summary

Talking point #1: If somebody asks about common core, try to shift the topic slightly.
Let’s talk about what students need.
Let’s talk about what teachers need.
Talking point #2:
The term “Common Core” means different things to different people.
There are about 10 different things it could mean.
One part has the potential to be nice. Other parts not so much.
Talking point #3:
The American Federation of of Teachers is “outraged” and “opposed” to the way the Common Core Contraption is being implemented.
Talking point #4: To borrow a phrase from then-Senator Barack Obama:
I’m not opposed to all testing.
I’m opposed to stupid testing.

2  Next-Level Follow-Up

Talking point #1: If somebody asks about common core, try to shift the topic slightly.
Let’s talk about what students need.
Let’s talk about what teachers need.

At the next level of detail:

Teachers need more respect.
Teachers don’t need more mandates.

Also:

If you can’t trust the teachers, you’ve got big problems...
the kind of problems that no amount of standardization is going to fix.

In particular: The Common Core standards document is open to interpretation, as discussed in section 3.8. If you don’t trust teachers to interpret it correctly, you’ve got a serious problem, as discussed in section 3.1. You’re not going to fix the problem by mandating some grueling multiple-guess test to be given in late spring, where the results don’t come back until months later.

If you can’t rely on the teachers in the classroom to interpret the standards document wisely, you certainly can’t rely on some bureaucrat in a far-away cubicle to interpret it for them.

For more about what students and teachers need, see section 3.5.

You probably don’t want to say the following, but it’s the truth, and might be useful if you get boxed into a corner:

If you find one or two teachers who can’t be trusted,
get rid of them and replace them with ones who can.
Talking point #2:
The term “Common Core” means different things to different people.
There are about 10 different things it could mean.
One part has the potential to be nice. Other parts have the potential to be disastrous.
If you’re asking whether people should hold themselves to high standards, the answer is yes, sure, everybody likes high standards. If you want to know exactly how we should achieve that, the devil is in the details. If you’re asking whether we can trust Mr. Huppenthal to get the details right, the answer is no, absolutely not.

As another way of saying more-or-less the same thing:

A standard does not implement itself.
If you start with a perfectly fine standard and screw up the implementation, that’s worse than no standard at all.

For more about how the parts relate to the whole, see section 3.3.

Talking point #3:
The American Federation of of Teachers is “outraged” and “opposed” to the way the Common Core Contraption is being implemented.
The AFT was heavily involved in crafting the Common Core Standards Document. Within the AFT, a majority still supports the “promise” of Common Core, but even that is controversial. There’s a sizable minority that wants to walk away from the whole thing.

For more about teacher’s support (or lack thereof), see section 3.11.

Talking point #4: To borrow a phrase from then-Senator Barack Obama:
I’m not opposed to all testing.
I’m opposed to stupid testing.

Also:

I’m all in favor of standards, if they’re done right, which is not what we have now.
I’m all in favor of tests and assessments, if they’re done right, which is not what we have now.
I’m all in favor of accountability, if it’s done right, which is not what we have now.

For more about tests and their validity, or lack thereof, see section 3.10.

Also:

I’ve seen good standards.
I’ve seen good tests.
I’ve even seen good standardized tests, based on national and international standards.
Alas, the current AIMS is not good. It is not valid. It does not even remotely resemble a good test.
  
It is management malpractice of the highest order to make important decisions
about students, teachers, and entire schools based on an invalid test.

3  Deeper Backstory

3.1  Professionalism

Teaching is supposed to be a profession. Part of the definition of professionalism specifies that the professional is allowed to choose the tools and methods for obtaining a given goal.

Standardizing the goal is fine. However, some folks want to micro-standardize every detail of the process, thereby reducing teaching from a profession to a menial blue-collar job. If you want to go down that road, you might as well replace the teacher with a wind-up automaton. However, I suggest you reeeeally don’t want to go down that road.

I say trust the teachers. If you can’t trust the teachers, the whole game is not worth playing. If you can’t trust the teachers, you’ve got serious problems that no amount of standardization is going to solve.

The teachers’ unions should vehemently demand that teachers be given the privileges that professionals are due ... along with the corresponding responsibilities.

3.2  Do Not Underestimate the Enemy

The entire notion of public education is under attack, and has been for 60 years, ever since Brown v. Board of Education.

There are a lot of folks out there who do not want their children to go to school with the filthy kids of the “wrong” race, religion, and/or political party. They say fine, if you desegregate the public schools, we will nuke the public schools and leave you with the glowing crater.

These people are smart, well funded, determined, and persistent.

This is where school vouchers and charter schools come from. Vouchers and charters are a highly effective scheme for re-segregating the educational system along racial, sectarian, and partisan lines.

This is also where the harshly punitive provisions of the NCLB law come from. Burdening the schools with ever-increasing mandates and savagely punishing schools that fail to achieve the unachievable is part of this scheme.

You need to understand this ... but I’m not suggesting you should mention any of this in public. I reckon it would flip the tea party from opposing Common Core to strongly supporting it, for all the wrong reasons.

3.3  Standards Document versus Whole Contraption

It is imperative to distinguish the following:

Overall, the Common Core Initiative is a huge thing. It’s basically a Rube Goldberg contraption, like the one shown in figure 1.   The Common Core Standards Document is only a tiny part of the overall contraption, rather like the measuring tape in figure 1.

bill-collectors
Figure 1: Rube Goldberg Contraption

The overall Common Core contraption, as it stands today, is missing some critical pieces. What’s worse, based on the blueprint we have been given, even if the missing pieces were put into place, the whole thing wouldn’t work very well. It’s not even clear what purpose it is supposed to serve.   The measuring tape is not the problem. The Common Core Standards Document is not the problem.

A standards document is a tool. It is well known – indeed proverbial – that the tool, by itself, does not give you a good result or a bad result; everything depends on how the tool is used.

If the only thing on the table were the Common Core Standards Document, nobody would be arguing.

Again: The problem has essentially nothing to do with the tape-measure itself. The problem lies with the other 99% of the contraption.

3.4  Loose Coupling

The wording of the standard does not determine the rest of the contraption.

A good standard could lead to a good book, or to a bad book.

A good standard could lead to a good test, or to a bad test.

3.5  What Students Need, and What Teachers Need

Let’s talk more about what students need, and what teachers need.

But wait, you say, I haven’t mentioned the Common Core Standards Document. Indeed, that’s because a standard is waaaay down on the list of what real people need in a real classroom. Seriously, when was the last time you heard a teacher say, “Boy, if I just had a standards document, all my problems would be solved.”

Hypothetically, a standard could be used to guide the creation of good textbooks and videos ... but this hasn’t happened yet.

Hypothetically, a standard could be used to guide the creation of a good series of tests and assessments ... but this hasn’t happened yet.

So, we are missing some important things. The standards document itself, narrowly speaking, is not directly important, and not worth arguing about.

3.6  Scope of Common Core versus NGSS

I’m not sure this is important, but it might be nice to know, as part of the backstory:

All in all, the standardization process, as it stands, is nowhere near complete.

3.7  Alternatives

I wonder why the Common Core effort started from scratch, rather than starting from something like the International Baccalaureate (IB) program.

The IB is well known and widely respected. Compared to Common Core (or even Common Core + NGSS), it covers a far more complete range of topics. It is supported by a full range of textbooks, videos, tests, and other materials. See reference 1.

Obviously the rednecks would be outraged by anything with the word “international” in the name, much as they were outraged by the idea of “common” as opposed to state standards, only more so. However, this can be dealt with in the same way, by repackaging and renaming the product.

3.8  The Standard is Open to Interpretation

The Common Core Standards Document is very much open to interpretation. This should come as no surprise; it is the nature of the beast. If you tried to spell out all the details, you would find yourself writing a textbook, not a standards document.

By way of background: Good teaching requires a spiral approach. That is, we first introduce a number of topics, mentioning them only very briefly. Then we spiral back, investigating each topic in more detail and (!) connecting it to the various other topics. Then we spiral back again, investigating each topic in yet more depth. And so on.

The Common Core Standards Document is particularly open to interpretation as to the appropriate depth for each topic. For example, the standard (reference 2) requires students to “understand” conditional probability. If you interpret that strictly, it’s insane. It’s not age-appropriate. I know lots of college seniors who have little if any “understanding” of marginal and conditional probabilities. On the other hand, in the spirit of the spiral approach, it seems reasonable to introduce high-school students to the idea.

3.9  Follow the Money

Bill Gates spent some $200 million dollars lobbying state officials, to get them to adopt Common Core (reference 3). That seems like a lot.

Furthermore, some states are spending tens of millions of dollars per state to to implement Common Core (reference 4). That seems like a lot.

It seems to me that if you spend that amount of money on things people actually need, like textbooks, instructional videos, and other teaching materials, you wouldn’t need a standard at all. Rather than teaching what’s in the standard, teachers could just teach what’s in the book.

More importantly: There is no way for anybody to make money off the Common Core Standards Document, narrowly speaking. All of the money is elsewhere in the broader Common Core Contraption. We’re talking about books, videos, reference materials, experiment kits, teacher-development courses, and especially tests. As discussed in section 3.4, these things are only very loosely coupled to what is said in the standards document.

This is yet another reason why arguing for or against the Common Core Standards Document utterly misses the point. In figure 1, there is nothing wrong with the tape measure. The problems are elsewhere.

3.10  A Modest Proposal: Validity

I understand the State Board of Education is looking at a half-dozen vendors, shopping for something to replace the AIMS test.

Here is a deceptively simple idea for you to consider:

Anybody who wants to become a test supplier must:
a) State in detail what the test is supposed to measure, and
b) provide clear, objective evidence that the test actually measures what it is supposed to.

In educationese, part (b) is called “validity”. A test is “valid” if it measures what it is supposed to. Of course this is meaningless without part (a). Conversely, part (a) is meaningless without part (b).

This seems like a reasonable requirement, indeed a very low bar. Who could object to requiring a test to be valid?

On the other hand ... this requirement is sorely needed. Vendors have a long history of foisting grossly invalid tests onto the states. On the other edge of the same sword, states have a long history of pretending that tests measure things that they were never intended to measure ... and then making life-changing decisions about students, teachers, and entire schools, based on invalid tests.

Perhaps the Board of Education could be persuaded to adopt this requirement. On the other hand, if anybody at the BoE – or at the vendors – objects, it gives you a tremendous campaign issue. Why are we spending money on tests with no demonstrated validity?

It might help to spell out requirement (a) in more detail:

These are very pointed questions, because as far as I can tell, the tests are not valid assessments of any of those things ... yet the state pays money for the tests, and then makes important decisions on the basis of invalid tests.

3.11  Many Teachers are Underwhelmed by Common Core

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) is the second-largest US teachers’ union: 1.5 million members (as opposed to 3.2 million for the NEA).

The AFT was heavily involved in crafting the Common Core Standards Document.

A majority within AFT still supports the “promise” of the Common Core Standards document narrowly speaking, but even this is controversial. Even those who support Common Core in any way say that changes are needed.   The organization as a whole is “outraged” and “opposed” to the way the larger Common Core Contraption is being implemented. See reference 5.

What’s more, there was a contentious debate at the 2014 national convention. About a third of the members voted against the Common Core resolution, presumably because they favored more complete opposition to Common Core.

The Chicago chapter of the AFT has expressed outright opposition to the way the Common Core Contraption has been implemented; see reference 6.

In April 2013, AFT headquarters put out a press release (reference 7) saying

AFT’s Weingarten Calls for Moratorium on High-Stakes Consequences of Common Core Tests

Tests Should Be Decoupled from Decisions that Hurt Students, Teachers and Schools until Standards Are Properly Implemented and Field-Tested

4  References

1.
International Baccalaureate Organization,
Home page:
http://www.ibo.org/

“Diploma Programme curriculum framework”
http://www.ibo.org/diploma/curriculum/

2.
Common Core State Standards Initiative,
“High School: Statistics & Probability ≫ Conditional Probability & the Rules of Probability”
http://www.corestandards.org/Math/Content/HSS/CP/

3.
Lyndsey Layton,
“How Bill Gates Pulled Off The Swift Common Core Revolution”
Washington Post 7 June 2014
http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/how-bill-gates-pulled-off-the-swift-common-core-revolution/2014/06/07/a830e32e-ec34-11e3-9f5c-9075d5508f0a_story.html

4.
Valerie Strauss,
“Following Common Core money: Where are millions of dollars going?”
http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/11/24/following-the-common-core-money-where-are-millions-of-dollars-going/

5.
American Federation of Teachers,
“THE ROLE OF STANDARDS IN PUBLIC EDUCATION”
http://www.aft.org/about/resolution_detail.cfm?articleid=19597

6.
Stephen Sawchuk,
“Chicago Union Passes Resolution Opposing Common Core”
http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/teacherbeat/2014/05/chicago_union_passes_resolutio.html

7.
American Federation of Teachers,
“ AFT’s Weingarten Calls for Moratorium on High-Stakes Consequences of Common Core Tests”
http://www.aft.org/newspubs/press/2013/043013.cfm

8.
Stephanie Grace,
“Forget Obamacare. Common Core is the Republicans’ new big enemy”
http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/07/11/forget-obamacare-common-core-is-the-republicans-new-big-enemy/

9.
Common Core State Standards Initiative,
“Read the Standards”
http://www.corestandards.org/read-the-standards/

10.
Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers
http://www.parcconline.org/about-parcc

11.
Cathryn Creno,
“Arizona withdraws from PARCC testing group”
http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/arizona/politics/2014/05/30/arizona-withdraws-parcc-testing-group/9773249/

12.
Diane Ravitch,
“The Excellent But False Messaging of the Common Core Standards”
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/diane-ravitch/the-excellent-but-false-m_b_5577845.html
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Copyright © 2014 jsd