At the Feb 5, 2014 school board meeting, staff presented what was supposed to be an overview of the Common Core State Standards, which you can find here. The presentation was, in my opinion, incomplete.
I’ve talked about the Common Core here before. You can find my previous comments on the Common Core here.
School board members asked a number of questions about the Common Core that I thought I’d address here.
States participating in the Common Core State Standards Initiative are expected to do two things: (1) replace their state standards with the Common Core’s content standards for Math and Langauge Arts, and (2) evaluate their students’ performance via one of the two assessments being developed by the consortia authorized by the Initiative. Contrary to what has been said in the media, the Common Core are nothing more than content standards and assessments.
How do the CC’s content standards stack up against the VA SOLs?
This report was prepared by the Fordham Foundation comparing Virginia’s SOLs to the Common Core. The VA DOE was not happy with the author’s conclusions, particularly their conclusions about Virginia’s math standards. The VA DOE’s response to the Fordham report is here. Virginia’s concerns largely boil down to the fact that Fordham’s reviewer didn’t have the Curriculum Frameworks that accompany the SOLs. Their assumption was that if he’d had them, his evaluation of Virginia’s Math SOLs would have been better.
The gentleman who conducted the review of Virginia’s standards for Fordham is Professor Stephen Wilson. He found the VA DOE’s response rather interesting as they were the one’s who failed to provide him with the Curriculum Frameworks when he notified them about the study and requested information from them.
In my opinion, the VA SOLs for English / Language Arts are better than the Common Core’s standards for ELA, primarily due to Virginia’s greater emphasis on reading proficiency in elementary school, support for multiple genres, and flexibility given to school districts and teachers to select texts they believe are appropriate for their students (as opposed to being forced to cover 70% non-fiction and 30% fiction in high school).
When it comes to Math, things are a bit trickier.
In my opinion, the VA SOLs for Math for Kindergarten through 6th grade are inferior to the Common Core’s K – 6 Math Standards. Virginia’s K – 6 Math SOLs have too many standards that are unnecessary, namely statistics concepts that elementary students will never see outside of an SOL exam, they de-emphasize arithmetic and computational fluency, their standards for fractions are watered down, the sequence of lessons is poor for fractions and decimals in 4th and 5th grades, and calculators are over-emphasized in instruction.
However, Virginia’s middle and high school Math SOLs are superior to the Common Core’s middle and high school Math standards because they support multiple different pathways to graduation and are more rigorous than the Common Core’s. The Common Core’s sequence of instruction says students aren’t ready for and should not take Algebra I until 9th grade. They only provide standards for Algebra I, Geometry, and a watered down version of Algebra II. They do not provide a pathway to Calculus in high school or math higher than their watered down version of Algebra II. The authors of the CCSS for Math said they believe high school students simply aren’t ready for mathematics concepts above Algebra II.
Virginia Tech’s general admission requirements call for students to complete three units of math: Algebra I, Algebra II, and Geometry. Their College of Engineering requires students to have a fourth math unit that must be in a higher-level math course like Trigonometry, Pre-calculus, or Calculus, which aren’t supported by the Common Core. The Common Core’s “college ready” Math standards don’t meet the minimum admission requirements for Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering.
Virginia’s middle school and high school math standards provide pathways for Algebra I in 8th grade, which means students can take Pre-Calculus and / or Calculus in high school, and the standards provide for a more robust version of Algebra II than the CC provides. Virginia also provides pathways to graduation that don’t require Algebra II, something the Common Core does not provide.
Common Core Assessment Consortia
The Common Core assessments are being developed by two consortia, SBAC and PARCC. Neither of the assessments have been released for use nationwide. They are currently being piloted in selected states and school districts and will be released nationwide in time for the 2014 – 2015 school year.
The pilots of the assessments have met with backlash from the states participating in the consortia. Thus far 11 states have withdrawn from their assessment consortia and 6 more are considering withdrawing. Diane Ravitch’s blog has some of the best information about the CC Assessment Consortia and the problems states have encountered with them.
If Virginia chooses to participate in the initiative, we will be expected to join one of the assessment consortia and will be expected to administer the CC exams on the schedule proscribed by their consortia. Alternatively, Virginia could choose to develop their own assessment, like the 11 states that have withdrawn. To maintain the waiver from NCLB’s accountability requirements, the Va DOE would have to demonstrate that their new exam would accurately gauge whether students were “college or career”, something they’ve already demonstrated with the current SOL exams.
Controversy About the Common Core
The Common Core have not been without controversy. Outside of concerns about the quality of the content standards and the assessments, the concerns are about things that are wrapped around the Common Core but aren’t part of it. Most of these concerns are about non-stop testing, instructional materials, and student privacy.
The non-stop testing is the result of the requirements to receive a waiver from NCLB’s accountability requirements. Virginia isn’t a Common Core initiative participant but is testing students all the time. That’s because of the waiver we received.
Race to the Top was the first carrot the US Dept of Ed dangled to entice states to agree to join the Common Core initiative. Now that Race to the Top has expired, they’re dangling waivers against NCLB’s accountability requirements as enticement. To receive a wavier from NCLB states must, among other things:
- adopt the CC’s content standards for Math and ELA or demonstrate that their state standards are college and career ready
- implement and administer the exams being developed by SBAC or PARCC or demonstrate that their state exams accurately gauge college or career readiness
- tie teacher performance to student achievement data
- report data gathered on students into statewide data systems and share that information with the US Dept of Ed and third parties identified by them to the state Dept of Ed.
Because the non-stop testing is the result of the NCLB waiver, it won’t end if Virginia joins the Common Core initiative or if we remain independent.
Concerns about Student Privacy
Concerns about student privacy are related to the data reporting requirements in the NCLB waiver. The US Dept of Ed has requested to be allowed to gather and transmit individually identifiable information about students to any third parties they choose, without parental consent or notification. Some of the data being gathered in the state-wide data systems doesn’t appear to be related to academic performance, and that has parents concerned. Like non-stop testing, because the data reporting requirements are part of the NCLB waivers, they won’t end if Virginia joins the Common Core initiative or if we remain independent.
The General Assembly is considering legislation that would require schools to notify parents when their child’s data will be shared outside their school or school district and what the consequences will be if they choose not the allow their child to be tested.
Poor and Inappropriate Instructional Materials
The Common Core are a potential money making bonanza for textbook and teacher training companies. Many are hocking their wares claiming alignment with the Common Core, yet few independent studies have been conducted to ascertain whether the products they’re selling actually do support or align with the Common Core. Many school districts have chosen to implement instructional programs that are controversial, like Math Investigations and EveryDayMath. Parents and teachers are expressing concerns about the books children are reading and the conclusions they’re being asked to make. The math wars we experienced here in PWC are being fought across the nation right now as a result of curricula choices being made by school districts trying to come into compliance with the Common Core.
The Common Core does not mandate instructional materials. They standards are silent when it comes to instructional materials and approaches. Contrary to claims by companies and individuals hocking their wares, the Common Core does not call for changes in the way we teach our children. They are content standards and tests, and nothing more. Claims about the need to fundamentally change the way we teach are simply marketing by people trying to sell their goods or services to uninformed and gullible school divisions and schools.
That won’t change or end if Virginia joins the Common Core initiative or remains independent.
The Cost of the Common Core
The cost of implementing the Common Core is unknown. It could be huge or miniscule.
The first potential cost is with instructional materials. New content standards usually means new instructional materials. PWCS adopted new Math materials 2 years ago and has just completed purchasing them for our schools. We just heard the briefing on the proposed ELA instructional materials last night. These materials may be aligned with the Common Core, or they may not be. They may need to be replaced in their entirety, may be fine as is, or may just need a supplement. These things aren’t known now, so the cost of instructional materials could be huge or it could be nominal.
Professional development for teachers is another unknown. Math and Language Arts haven’t changed – 2 + 2 is still 4 and a noun is still a noun. The Common Core doesn’t require that schools fundamentally change how they teach. However, the VA DOE and PWCS may require teachers to be trained on the Common Core. They may decide that fundamental change is necessary. PD costs are another unknown.
Testing is another unknown cost. If Virginia joins the Common Core initiative, PWCS will have to ensure that we have enough computers to administer the CC exams, that those computers have the hardware and software necessary to support the testing platform, and will have to purchase licenses to administer the exams from the consortia the state joins. PARCC says their licenses will be $29.50 per student and SBAC says their licenses will be $22.50 per student.
The Key Is Flexibility
The big issue about the Common Core is flexibility, and whether states and local school districts will be granted any by the US Dept of Education.
Will states and school districts be allowed to adapt the CC’s content standards to better align with the needs of their communities? For instance, is the 70 / 30 split for non-fiction/ fiction something states and schools must meet, or is just suggested and at their discretion? Or, since the CC’s 6 – 12 Math standards don’t provide the multiple pathways to graduation, college, and career that Virginia’s Math SOL’s do, could Virginia adapt them to provide those pathways and boost up the Algebra II standards so that they aren’t watered down?
Under Race to the Top, states were allowed to divert up to 15% of their standards from the Common Core. Race to the Top has expired and the money has been spent, but no one knows what flexibility states and school districts have. State Departments of Education from across the nation have been asking for guidance on this. Thus far, none have received it.
In my opinion, joining the Common Core initiative would not be in the best interests of Virginia’s children.
Our ELA standards, while closely aligned with the Common Core’s ELA standards, are better than the Common Core’s and give schools and teachers flexibility they don’t have with the Common Core.
Our K -6 Math standards need improvement. We could replace them with the Common Core’s K – 6 standards, with only minor changes needed to link the middle school standards to with them. We could keep our Math standards for 7th – 12th grade, which appear to be better than the Common Core’s. If Virginia joins the Common Core initiative, this flexibility might not be permitted.
When it comes to assessments, too little is known about the SBAC and PARCC assessments. The fact that so many states have withdrawn or are considering withdrawing from their assessment consortia is a red flag to me. That uncertainty leads me to conclude that implementing and administering the SBAC or PARCC assessment isn’t in the best interests of Virginia’s students.
Non-stop testing and concerns about student privacy are the result of the NCLB waiver and won’t go away if Virginia joins the Common Core initiative or if Virginia remains independent.
Concerns about poor and inappropriate instructional materials are the result of people and companies trying to sell their goods or services. They’ll continue whether Virginia joins the Common Core initiative or if Virginia remains independent.
The costs of the Common Core are unknown – from instructional materials to PD to testing. PWCS hasn’t given teachers a step increase in years. We have the largest class sizes in the region because of inadequate funding. Committing to this when the costs are a big black hole is poor decision making.
For those reasons, I think joining the initiative is the wrong choice for Virginia’s schools.