Going Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Nothing sets me off more than politicians who lie, regurgitate what they’ve been told without checking to see if it’s accurate, or pretend that the bow tied cow patty they’re trying to sell me doesn’t stink.  A few weeks ago I went off on a diatribe on the PWC Ed Reform facebook page about comments Mrs Lillie Jessie had made during board matters.  After I posted that diatribe, several kind people called and sent me messages inquiring about my state of mind.

Since my mind is what it is, I thought I’d elaborate on what Mrs Jessie said that made me so angry.

Mrs Jessie said the new ESEA had replaced NCLB and called for a new and better way of teaching.  Sounds pretty innocuous, right?  Unfortunately, what she said is 100% totally and completely false.

NCLB has not been replaced

The original Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was passed in 1965.  In 2001 President Bush and Senator Ted Kennedy proposed a massive overhaul of the existing ESEA with an act known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  NCLB was approved by Congress with overwhelming majorities, was signed into law by President Bush, and effective in 2002 (384 Congressman and 91 Senators voted in favor of it – see here).

Practically before the ink was dry on the bill, states and politicians began complaining about it.  Despite near constant moaning and complaining about it for more than a decade from both major political parties and practically every teacher and parent in this nation, NCLB has neither been amended nor repealed.  President Obama not has proposed anything to replace or amend NCLB.  He did not propose anything to amend or repeal NCLB when the Democrats held majorities in the House and Senate and has not proposed anything since the Republicans took control of the House.

NCLB is the law in this county.

However, there are ways of circumventing the law if you’re President and Congress is unwilling to hold you accountable.

Waviers Against NCLB

While NCLB is still the law of the land, the US Department of Education, with the approval of President Obama, has been granting states waivers from adhering to NCLB.  No one in Congress has said a word about it, so they must either agree with the President or they lack the courage to oppose him.

The Department of Education’s terms,  grossly oversimplified, are (a) implement the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for Math and English as your  state’s academic content standards; (b) administer end of subject or course exams developed by one of two consortia to gauge how well your students have learned the Common Core State Standards for Math or English; and, (c) report test scores and other data deemed necessary by the US Dept of Education to a national database at whatever level deemed necessary by the US Dept of Education, OR do all of the above but with academic content standards and assessments that you can demonstrate are college or career ready.

Got it?  States have two choices – abdicate responsibility for what students in their public schools will be learning in Math and English to the whomever is behind the Common Core State Standards or prove that their state standards meet the federal government’s definition of “college or career ready”.  Thus far, 45 states have agreed to abdicate, 4 states have refused to do so, and 1 state is trying to have it both ways.

The state trying to have it both ways is Virginia.

Virginia takes the coward’s way out

Virginia, at the behest of the VA Dept of Education and with the full knowledge and approval of Governor McDonnell, says it hasn’t adopted the CCSS.  However, the VA Dept. of Education, which has the authority to set academic content standards for K-12 public education in the state, has revised our state SOLs to reflect the CCSS for Math and English (see here).  Our SOL exams have been revised and updated to reflect the CCSS aligned SOLs.

Because we have not formally adopted the CCSS, Virginia applied for and received a waiver against NCLB.  In that waiver the VA Dept of Education cited the fact that our SOLs were aligned with the CCSS as evidence that our state standards were “college or career ready”.

In short, Virginia has abdicated what our students in public school will learn to the CCSS but our political leaders don’t want to admit it, so they’re playing semantic games and hoping we citizens are too stupid or disinterested to notice.

So far that’s working pretty well for them.

What are the Common Core State Standards?

The Common Core State Standards are a set of K -12 academic content standards for Math and English (see here).  They were the vision of the National Governor’s Association (NGA) through an organization called Achieve.  Achieve initially came up with the idea of creating a common set, or core, of K-12 academic content standards that each state could voluntarily adopt and implement in their public schools.  The theory was that if every state taught to at least this common minimum, then every student in every public school in every state would at least have achieved a uniform level of knowledge before moving on to the next level.

The concept of common national academic standards has been around for decades but haven’t really taken off, namely because states don’t like letting the federal government or some federally backed national organization telling them what to do.  Achieve ran into the same problem with the added wrinkle that the common core standards hadn’t been written yet and very few states were interested in agreeing to adopt them if they didn’t know what they called for.

That changed when the US Dept of Education announced Race to the Top (RttT).

The Federal Government Backs the CCSS

RttT provided $4.35 billion to states and local school divisions based on a competition (see here).  Under RttT, states were eligible to receive large chunks of money from the US Department of Education if they, among other things, were participating with a consortia of other states to “jointly develop and adopt a common set of K – 12 standards that are supported by evidence that they are internationally benchmarked and build toward college and career readiness by the time of high school graduation” .    The only consortia meeting to develop common K – 12 academic content standards was Achieve and the CCSS.  (See Section B(1) on page 44 of the RttT application here ).

This is a point which lots of talking heads have chosen to distort but is vitally important. To be eligible to get RttT money states had to agree to join the CCSS consortia and to implement whatever they came up with as the academic content standards in K-12 public schools in their state.

Once RttT came out with the application that made it all but impossible to “win” any of that $4.35 billion without jumping on the CCSS bandwagon, states began joining by the bucketful.  Most joined long before the actual standards themselves had been written.  The names and qualifications of the individuals who served on the committees that wrote the standards were unknown for some time and states had no authority or representation on those committees.  Few K-12 teachers served on the standards writing or review committees.  Few College level English or Math professors served on the standards writing or review committees.

Now that RttT has expired the carrot to ensure “voluntary compliance” with the CCSS is a waiver from meeting NCLB’s requirements.

The CCSS have finally been released.  You can find the standards themselves at these links for Math and English.  National Science standards have recently been issued by the National Academy of Sciences, (see here) but they aren’t common core yet.

Are the CCSS any good?

Reviews for the Math and English standards themselves are mixed.

The English standards have been widely condemned for their emphasis on informative text, like the instruction booklet for your microwave, over literature, like Catcher in the Rye (see here).  As Dr Strotsky states, “A diminished emphasis on literature in the secondary grades makes it unlikely that American students will study a meaningful range of culturally and historically significant literary works before graduation. It also prevents students from acquiring a rich understanding and use of the English language. Perhaps of greatest concern, it may lead to a decreased capacity for analytical thinking.”

The Math standards are considered to be an improvement over many state’s content standards, but are still considered to be of questionable quality (see here).  As Heritage reports, Professor William McCallum, one of the few mathematicians on the standards writing committee said “overall standards wouldn’t be very high” and they are “not up to the standards of other nations.”

While the standards themselves are of questionable quality, what’s evolved since they were released has sent many who were on the fence racing into the strongly opposed corner.  Of particular concern have been the claims by so many that the CCSS require a new way of thinking and teaching.    Those of us who lived through the Math Investigations debacle in PWCS will recall that phrase.

The CCSS Do Not Call For a New Way of Thinking and Teaching.

Like most academic content standards, the CCSS standards are just that – a list of things students must know or be able to do before progressing to the next level.  Mastery of math facts through the 9’s is required in 3rd grade.  Fluency with the standard algorithm for multiplication is required in 4th grade.  Third graders are still expected to be able to distinguish between literal and non-literal language in text.  The standards themselves are the things students need to know or must be able to do before they can progress to the next level.  The CCSS don’t call for inquiry-based instruction or for deeper conceptual understanding or new and different ways of thinking or teaching.

So why is it that everything  we hear about the CCSS is about how they will revolutionize teaching and require “deeper understanding”,  “student centered instruction”, and “concepts over procedures”?   Money.

What’s Money got to do with it? 

Claims that the CCSS are anything more than the knowledge and skills students need to move ahead are lies.  Those lies are being perpetuated in large part  by textbook publishers like Pearon to “sell, sell, sell substandard remedial education programs” (see Cuomo, Common Core and Pearson-for-Profit).

When it comes to textbooks for subjects like Science and Math and English, the things that students have to learn don’t change much from year to year.  6 x 8 is still 48.  Anemometer’s are still used to measure wind speed.  “i” still comes before “e”, except after “c” and when sounding in “a” as in neighbor and weigh.

Since there isn’t a lot of change in many of the things K -12 students learn, schools can go a long time before they have to buy new textbooks.  If you’re a textbook publisher, that means you won’t sell as many textbooks and you need to sell textbooks to make money.

How do you get school division’s to buy new textbooks every few years so you can make money?  One way is to convince school divisions that your textbook presents topics in a new and different way that promotes “deeper understanding” without the boring “rote memorization” or “drill and repeat”  exercises of old that students hate.  Once you get your foot in the door all you have to do to guarantee a steady revenue stream is put out an updated edition every few years that schools will feel compelled to buy.

That’s exactly what they’ve done.  They’ve done even better because the programs they use to convince politicians and education bureaucrats to buy their textbooks were developed with grants from the US Taxpayers through the NSF.

Textbooks publishers can sell school divisions whatever they want, but they’d be hard pressed to stay in business if test scores don’t improve under their programs. Testing would provide an independent way of verifying the claims of new and better from textbook publishers and education bureaucrats.  Unfortunately, long ago states decided to let testing companies write test questions for them rather than doing it themselves, and many of the testing companies are divisions or subsidiaries of textbook publishers.

The Testing Trap

Some of you may recall the controversy this summer over questions about a “talking pineapple” on an English test.    The questions appeared on an exam given to middle school students in NY State and were thrown out after state officials realized they weren’t effective.  The questions were from Pearson’s 8th grade English exam which had been given for years across the nation in states where Pearson has been hired as the testing company.

Pearson is one of the largest testing companies in the country and provides assessment services in a number of areas, including state exams for Math, English, Science, and History.    They provide the platforms on which tests are taken and scored and provide data from those tests about “student progress and growth”.  As the “talking pineapple” demonstrates, they also write the questions students are expected to answer that are used to gauge their “progress and growth”.

Pearson is one of the largest K-12 textbook publishers in the US.  Their math textbooks include Math Investigations, enVision Math (formerly Scott Foresman Addison Wesley), and Connected Math.

Textbooks, and the instructional approach they follow, determine what things our children learn.  What things are emphasized in those textbooks and in classrooms tends to be dictated by what questions are asked on the tests. The questions on those tests and grading of those tests, in many cases, are written by the same companies that provided the textbooks.

Pearson provides the test questions that are supposed to gauge how well students have learned the things they’re supposed to learn.  They report the data from those tests to states and school divisions as student progress and growth.  They also provide the textbooks that cover exactly the things that are on the tests in the same manner in which they’re tested.

What’s missing?   If the same people are providing the instructional materials, writing the test questions, and grading the tests, then there is no way to ascertain whether students really are learning what they need to know to move ahead. Instead of testing providing independent verification that the instructional approach and materials are effective, it just shows that students are learning what the textbook publisher thinks they need to learn.

In fact, if one group is teaching the class (the teachers) and the other group is providing the instructional materials, writing the test questions, and grading the tests, who do you think will be blamed if scores go down?  Will it be the instructional materials with their new and different approach, the test questions which may or may not be reasonable, or will it be the teachers?  If every public school in every state in the nation is following the same programs, what recourse will parents have when the effort falls flat and their children are unable to do math or read and write fluently?

The things Mrs Jessie spoke of with such hope and glowing reviews in her comments a few weeks ago, in my opinion, are a tragedy unfolding before our eyes.   The fox isn’t just guarding the hen house here folks, he’s walking among then hens hoping no one will notice his fur and sharp teeth.

So far that’s working out pretty well for him.


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