Let Teachers Teach

This afternoon (10/24/13), from 4-7pm there will be a forum with New York State Education Commissioner Steve King at Albany’s Harriet and Stephen Myers Middle School on the implementation of the Common Core Standards in New York’s schools.

Expect it to be feisty. After all, the commission canceled his original round of forums after parents got cranky in Poughkeepsie about being lectured and then being interrupted during the modest comment period they got. Then this forum, the first of the hastily arranged replacements, was scheduled for 4-6pm, with people needing to line up beforehand to get a slot to speak, essentially shutting out a wide swath of parents. It was extended to 7 in the face of mockery about King not being able to take the heat, but I don’t know if that will actually allow a wider range of people who can’t make it there at 3:15 to speak.

Now while King is feeling the heat, it seems there’s also a need for more light around the subjects that parents and teachers are angry about. I’m no expert, but here are a few important points I’ve teased out that I think are good to keep in mind going in:

The Common Core Standards are standards, not curriculum. There are two major, very different sets of critiques of the standards themselves. One is a very serious concern that they emphasize academics too early, pushing kindergarteners on things like sight words and not recognizing the developmental appropriateness of play and a range of ages of reading onset. The other is a set of not-fact-based right-wing fear-mongering about how Obama wants to indoctrinate your kids to be “Soviet Men” who think evolution and climate change are real. Let’s be clear: outside of the early years, the standards are aiming for good things—critical thinking, cross-disciplinary connections, etc. And they weren’t created by Obama. Let’s not let the other critiques get drowned in that garbage.

There is a big, humongous caveat to the “standards not curriculum” point. And that is that the common core is being implemented tied to even more high-stakes testing, multiple times per year. There are two major problems with this. First, there’s the whole bundle of problems with over testing itself that is just getting magnified: our kids losing so much learning time to tests, tests being horrible ways to measure many if not most children’s progress, high-stakes testing putting horrible, anxiety-inducing pressure on teachers and students alike, and teaching to the test. The idea that you can drive teaching by test results reduces to absurdity, quickly, as this teacher describes. This is the “education reform” movement

Second, if the tests are so damn important, then there’s unacceptable pressure to buy the curriculum put out by the corporations who make the tests. I’d like to see a law against any one company being allowed to produce both, frankly. That’s a racket that a first grader could identify as unfair.

So, the whole idea of teachers having freedom to figure out various ways to implement the Common Core Standards in their classrooms is great in theory, but it’s not panning out in reality, say too many teachers. And this is going to be even more true in the schools that face more pressure on test scores because of the socioeconomic struggles of their students. Other teachers point out that the curricula they’ve been handed has been hurriedly written and is untested, not “aligned” as the term goes, to even show that it really helps kids learn what they are supposed to learn. This is a train wreck.

At roughly the same time, leading to quite a bit of confusion, New York has also been rolling out a whole other set of teacher evaluation standards, which include some testing. Known as the APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review), they evaluate teachers based on improvements in scores on a state test (20 percent), a collectively bargained other testing assessment (20 percent), and a set of collectively bargained other measures. Because it’s negotiated at the local level, what this looks like varies. Measuring improvement versus absolute scores sounds like a good idea to me, but the problem is it has added even more time and emphasis on assessments, uncoordinated with the others.

New York has choices. Without demonizing the principles behind the Common Core Standards, we can still choose to put on the brakes and do this better. We can choose to hold all our kids to consistent, high, 21st-century standards without testing them to death, and let teachers teach. We need to let Commissioner King know that we expect him to make better choices going forward.

(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on Oct. 24, 2013.)

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