Willful Ignorance Is Not A Desired Trait For Elected Officials

Last week, by majority vote, PWC School Board chose to send a letter to Governor McAuliffe asking him to allow Virginia to remain independent from the Common Core State Standards initiative.  The vote was close, with 4 in favor of sending the letter (Trenum, Johns, Satterwhite, and Otaigbe) 3 against sending the letter (Bell, Jessie, and Williams), and one abstaining from voting (Covington).  Several school board members stated that they didn’t know enough about the Common Core to vote either way.  (Bell, Williams, and Covington).

I have to admit that I was more than a little surprised that individuals elected to the school board for our county wouldn’t know much about the Common Core. The Common Core first burst onto the US stage in 2009 and have been one of the biggest issues in public education since then, so I found their lack of knowledge more than a little concerning.

I believe elected officials have a responsibility to research issues before them, rather than rely solely on reports from staff.  School board members aren’t elected to blindly nod their heads at everything staff says or suggests.  Staff will present whatever information supports their viewpoint.  I expect elected officials to view staff’s assertions with a degree of professional skepticism and to do their own research, particularly if the issue before them is controversial.  If they’re unwilling or unable to do that, then I question why they’re serving.

During the discussion Mrs Covington said that she was confused; that to hear Mrs Jessie talk about the Common Core it sounded like the greatest thing ever, but I made it sound like the worse thing ever.  Staff’s thin presentation did little to shed light on the issue and made things more confusing.

Since I only get 3 minutes every other week, I’d like to clarify a few points.

I don’t think the Common Core are the worst thing ever.  There are quite a few things I can imagine that are worse than the Common Core.

I don’t think the Common Core are right for Virginia’s children because I think Virginia can do better.  Whether we will, is another issue.

As I said in my comments, the Common Core are two things – standards and assessments.  They’re just like the SOLs, but for the nation as a whole.

At face value, they sound great.  Having the same standards in every public school in the nation means kids can move from one place to another and not be behind.  It means kids can do half of high school in public schools in one state and the other half in public schools in another state without losing credit.

Sounds awesome, doesn’t it?

In fact, the Common Core’s content standards are OK. The Common Core’s Math content standards are better than the Virginia’s content standards for K – 6 ; it’s their high school math standards that leave a bit to be desired.  The Common Core’s Language Arts content standards are almost as good as Virginia’s.

For example, the Common Core’s math standards don’t require fractions until 3rd grade, and the standard they set for understanding is high.  Virginia’s Standards of Learning begin introducing fractions in kindergarten and, by 3rd grade, meet and even exceed the Common Core’s standards for fractions.

The authors of the Common Core’s math standards defended omitting fractions in Kindergarten through 2nd grade by stating that they wanted to leave the choice of when to introduce fractions to the school districts.  They say they set the standard for what they felt students needed to know about fractions by the end of third grade, but expected that developing that level of understanding would require fractions to be introduced before 3rd grade.  They do that with other content areas as well, not just fractions.

If the goal is the same knowledge or capabilities at every grade level across the nation, then that gap is problematic.  If one school district waits until 3rd grade to start fractions and another begins them in kindergarten, then uniformity hasn’t been achieved.  A child moving from a school in the first district to a school in the 2nd district in 2nd grade will  be behind.  Since this happens in several other content areas, the goal of uniform knowledge across the nation at every grade level is unlikely to be achieved.

Virginia’s SOLs aren’t perfect either.  While Virginia’s standards for fractions may exceed the Common Core’s and provide for common sequencing between school districts in kindergarten through 3rd grade, their standards for fractions in 4th, 5th, and 6th grade stink.  They’re vague, fail to develop the concept of common denominators, and are limited to “friendly” fractions.  The Common Core’s standard for fractions in 4th – 6th grades are superior to Virginia’s.

What concerns me is whether states and / or school districts would be allowed to tweak the Common Core’s content standards to make them better.  If the goal is one uniform set of rules that applies to every public school in the nation, then tweaking can’t be allowed.  That means schools can’t start fractions until 3rd grade, but achieving the level of understanding set by the Common Core in one year will be difficult.

Who has the authority to determine how much tweaking will be allowed, is a whole other story.

The Common Core burst onto the scene nationally when Race to the Top was announced.  Under the rules set for competing for Race to the Top, states got points for agreeing to adopt academic content standards that they shared “in common” with other several other states.  The only “common” standards existing were the Common Core State Standards that were being developed by Achieve under the guidance of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and National Governors Association (NGA).  Many states, including Virginia, agreed to adopt the CCSS, sight unseen, in order to compete for Race to the Top.  Virginia subsequently withdrew from the initiative.

Under Race to the Top states were allowed to vary the content standards followed in their state from the Common Core by 15%.  Who was going to count the 15% and how it would be counted wasn’t defined.  That’s irrelevant at this point as Race to the Top has ended and the money that came along with it has been spent.

Now it’s the waivers from NCLB’s accountability requirements that the US Dept. of Education is offering that are setting the rules.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is still the law of this nation.  It has neither been repealed nor amended.  Bills have been proposed in Congress to repeal NCLB’s accountability requirements, which require 100% of public school students to pass their state exams this spring, but none have passed into law.  NCLB explicitly prohibits federally mandated standards and assessments.

Under executive order, the US Department of Education has been offering to waive NCLB’s accountability requirements if states agree to a few things.  Chief among those things are adopting the Common Core’s standards for Math and Language Arts and implementing the Common Core aligned assessments, or demonstrating that your state’s standards and assessments are “college and career ready”.  How much flexibility states will have to tweak the Common Core’s standards isn’t specified in the waiver.  Whether states or school districts will have to reapply for waivers if they tweak the Common Core’s standards is unknown.

It’s that unknown part that has me concerned.

The Common Core aligned assessments are unknown as well, and even more concerning.  Right now they’re being field tested.  They won’t be required until the spring of 2015, but they have already come under tremendous criticism.  Field test states have questioned the clarity and appropriateness of the questions being asked and states not participating in the field tests have seen their concerns ignored or disregarded.  Concerns have also been raised about the independence of the test writers as questions that appeared on the NY exam came directly from a textbook sold by Pearson in Common Core states.

Thus far 11 states have withdrawn from the testing consortia and 6 more are considering withdrawing.

Those are just some of the reasons I believe the Common Core are wrong for Virginia’s children.  We don’t know how much flexibility we’ll have to adapt the Common Core’s content standards, and they need tweaking.  We don’t know if we’ll be able to tweak the middle and high school sequence of instruction to allow children to take higher level math so that they can go to college and study STEM fields, and, the Common Core doesn’t provide the math needed for children to take Calculus their freshman year in college, as one of their authors recently admitted. The assessment consortia appear to be a mess.  Virginia has more flexibility now than we will if we adopt the Common Core.  While our standards and assessments aren’t perfect, we can tweak them if we want to.  We may not be able to if we adopt the Common Core.

In the meeting someone questioned why a state would consider the Common Core.  Politicians and government entities don’t like giving up control, and adopting the Common Core means giving up control over what public school children in our state will learn and how their achievement will be evaluated.  This individual argued that the Common Core had to be good, otherwise no one would be interested in them.

The money offered by Race to the Top was the first reason states were willing to give up control over education.  Waivers from NCLB’s accountability requirements were the second reason, after the money from Race to the Top had been spent. Race to the Top has expired and Virginia has already received a waiver from NCLB for demonstrating that our standards and assessments meet the “college and career ready” expectation set by the US Dept. of Education.

The last few reasons are a bit more touchy.

There’s big money to be made from the Common Core with textbook publishers, professional development companies, and data management companies set to make fortunes.  The Gates Foundation has issued over $150 million in grants to political organizations to entice them to support the Common Core.   Selected organizations include:

  • The CCSSO , the organizations that came up with the idea of the Common Core – $10.5 million (27% of their total revenue in 2010)
  • The NGA, of which the CCSSO is a subsidiary organization – $1.6 million
  • The National Association of State School Boards – $1.1. million
  • The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) – $5.4 million.

Who says you can’t buy love?

Which brings us back to the letter the majority of the school board voted to send.  The vote, as noted above, was close.  Were it not for Mrs Covington abstaining, the letter wouldn’t have been sent.  

Other than the lack of knowledge about the Common Core expressed by some school board members, several wondered why the school board would send a letter to the Governor when we didn’t know what decisions had been made.  I found that one highly entertaining.  Waiting until after the decisions have been made isn’t usually an effective way of making sure your concerns are considered.

I wish this was the first time I’d seen school board members exhibit a disinterest in independently researching  issues before them, but it isn’t.  When Math Investigations was approved many school board members did little to no independent research.  Few realized that choosing Math Investigations was more than choosing just a textbook. Few questions were asked of staff challenging their one sided presentation.

The Common Core is just like that, but on a larger scale with politics, money, and personal interest thrown in.

When it comes to elected officials, willful ignorance isn’t a trait I look for.


One Response to “Willful Ignorance Is Not A Desired Trait For Elected Officials”

  1. probationnation Says:

    So, Bell and Williams say they don’t know enough to vote either way… and then vote to not send the letter (which is a way of simply accepting a change they know nothing about, to me)? That’s a startling lack of rational integrity to go along with surprising ignorance on a controvercial, current topic. I’m more concerned with their willingness to vote yae or nay on issues they claim they have no knowledge of. Responsible and rational aside, that’s not even adult behavior.

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