Last week, on December 11th, I attend a “Town Hall” forum where John King, New York State Commissioner of Education and Merryl Tisch, Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, “listened” to 45 different people speak passionately either for or against the Common Core Learning Standards and the high stakes tests that accompany them. It was a depressing evening. Ms. Tisch sat silently while Mr. King gave glib sound bites to any criticism of the CCLS and of the high stakes testing.
As I sat through the two and a half hour meeting, I couldn’t help reflecting on my own teaching career. Didn’t I have high standards for my students? Didn’t I provide a learning environment where children were encouraged to widen their horizons and challenge themselves to reach for the stars? Didn’t the children thrive academically and socially in a classroom where we sang, played, experimented, and wondered? In a very moving speech at my retirement party in 2003, my colleague at the New York City Department of Education, Office of Instructional Support, Gabriel Feldberg, said, “She taught her preschoolers and kindergartners to call on their own senses and observations, to see meaning in everything from paintings in museums to pollution in the Gowanus Canal. She taught them to do what she must have done as a child: she taught them to teach themselves” How did I do this without the Common Core Learning Standards?
There seems to be a stigma attached to any criticism of these standards. The implication appears to be that anyone who questions the CCLS is, ipso facto, not in favor of having high standards for their students. How insulting!
I’m trying to be open to these new standards but I wonder about the legitimacy of micromanaging expectations for young children. In an article on young children learning to read, in the Scholastic publication Early Childhood Today, Sue Bredekamp, author of Effective Practices in Early Childhood Education: Building a Foundation, agreed that, “There is … a huge range of individual variation that is absolutely normal.” Anyone who knows 5, 6 and 7 year olds, particularly those who have raised siblings, will understand the wide range of developmental jumps from one child to another and from one year to another. How can we possibly mandate that every five year old child, by June, will “Actively engage in group reading activities with purpose and understanding” or “Isolate and pronounce the initial, medial vowel, and final sounds (phonemes) in three-phoneme (consonant-vowel-consonant, or C VC) words.* ( This does not include CVCs ending with /l/, /r/, or /x/.) “ I might feel more comfortable if the standards were written to say, “By the end of second grade, students should….” and leave it at that. Let there be some acknowledgement of the variety of learning styles and rates of young children. Teachers could see a goal for the future, but not have to lock step the instruction and strangle the joy of learning that we want to instill in our young students.
One of the speakers at the December 11th meeting was Liz Phillips, the principal of P.S. 321 where I taught for many years. She certainly represented a voice of reason as she presented her thoughts on the ill effects of high stakes testing. While we don’t necessarily agree on all issues, I was quite impressed with her talk. I asked her if I could share her speaking notes on my blog. Here they are:
FORUM WITH KING AND TISCH—12/11/13
Liz Phillips PS 321
• I really believe most of us here have the same goal—high quality education for all students; equity in education.
• We have some serious differences about how we reach that goal, and I am deeply concerned that current state policy is moving us so much further from this goal and increasing the achievement gap as some schools feel compelled to give up a rich curriculum to spend increasing amounts of time on test prep in place of the arts, recess, and hands-on activities that develop critical thinking, problem solving and collaborative skills.
• I’m in favor of having high expectations for children, in holding ourselves accountable, in assessing children—we do that daily. I’m not opposed to some standardized testing, used appropriately. I’M EVEN IN FAVOR OF THE COMMON CORE STANDARDS—RICH POSSIBILITIES.
• What I am strongly opposed to is the nature of the current tests; the way cut scores have been manipulated; the way the state is spending a huge amount of money to pay Pearson and outside consultants, and the high stakes decisions being made with very questionable data. I AM VERY SAD THAT SOMETHING THAT HAD A LOT OF PROMISE—THE CCS—HAS BEEN SO TAINTED BY INAPPROPRIATE TESTING THAT IS LABELED AS CCS ALIGNED.
• I DO NOT BELIEVE FOR A MINUTE THAT THE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL ELA EXAMS WERE COMMON CORE ALIGNED…Tested recall of minute details, not deeper understanding which the CCS is supposedly going for….SOMETHING VERY WRONG WHEN A LITERATE ADULT ME…CAN READ A PASSAGE AND NOT BE ABLE TO ANSWER A SINGLE QUESITONS WITHOUT REREADING SINCE THE QUESTIONS WERE ALL DETAILS TIED TO PARTICULAR LINES OF THE TEXT.
• THE TESTS ARE UNNECESSARILY LONG. There is no reason that a fourth grader needs to spend close to 5 hours…270 minutes on an ELA test and 5 hours on a math test. We can assess how our kids are doing on much shorter tests.
• FOR SPECIAL NEEDS CHIDLREN WHO GET EXTENDED TIME, WE ARE TALKING ABOUT A 9 HOUR TEST ON ELA AND A 9 HOUR TEST ON MATH. That is just not right.
• AND, BY TYING TEACHER EVALUATION TO MINUTE CHANGES IN TEST SCORES, WE ARE DOING A HUGE DISSERVICE TO STUDENTS. IN NYC. WE KNOW, FROM OUR EXPERIENCE WITH TDRS, THAT THE DATA SIMPLY IS INACCURATE AND MISLEADING…and that it will lead to a narrowing of the curriculum. We are using numbers that may seem to mean something when they don’t. One example…one year, one of our teachers had an average proficiency level of 3.97 (student’s scores from third grade)…OUT OF 4.5 at the end of the year her average proficiency level was 3.92. No statistician would claim that this is a statistically significant difference—and most of us would agree that kids scoring an average of 3.92 on the test means kids are well on the way to being college ready. This happened to be one of the strongest teachers in my school—by any other measure—parent satisfaction, children’s feedback, and my observations. Yet this insignificant change landed her in the 6th percentile.
WHAT NEEDS TO CHANGE:
• WE NEED TO CHANGE THE TONE OF THE CONVERSATION…TO VALUE THE VOICES OF TEACHERS, PARENTS, AND PRINCIPALS.…TO MAKE SURE THAT EXPERIENCED EDUCATORS ARE INVOLVED IN ADVISING THE STATE IN MEANINGFUL WAYS. This is essential if we want thoughtful, dedicated people to enter and stay in the teaching profession.
• The exams need to be significantly shorter, not shortened by 6-7 minutes as day as has currently been proposed.
• We need transparency—THE TESTS SHOULD BE PUBLISHED AFTER THE FACT AS THEY WERE FOR SO MANY YEARS…PARENTS REALLY CAN’T KNOW IF THEY ARE VALID IF THEY NEVER HAVE A SENSE OF THEM.
• We need to minimize the impact of test administration and grading by having the state centrally grade the tests…tremendous inequality when wealthy districts can pay outside companies to grade tests but in NYC school pick up the cost by having to send teachers to grade and hire substitutes. In my school we were mandated to send 5 teachers to score for 15 days each….and pay for 75 subs to cover them.
• There needs to be a change overall in the financial priorities of the state, with more money going to schools and less to outside companies and consultants.
• We need to make sure that test scores are not the determining factor in teacher evaluation so that the curriculum is not narrowed out of desperation.
We need to do this so that so that we can truly prepare all children to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, lifelong learners, and effective citizens in a democracy.