We respond to another set of Common Core objections

Below, the quotes set off are from Frank Breslin’s op-ed on NJ.com, here. The work has been copyrighted and is being quoted here for the purpose of fair criticism. Mr Breslin retired from the public school system, where he taught English, German, Latin, and social studies for 40 years.

It’s an open secret among the education community that standardized tests are not prepared by educators; that some of the test questions are often too difficult by two or three years beyond the age group for which the test is intended; and that last year in the state of New York, they resulted in a failure rate of 70 percent.

Teachers have more important things to do than design test questions or look at point-biserial statistics for those test questions. We, the taxpayers, pay them to teach, not to design statewide tests for accountability purposes under federal law. They probably don’t even know what a p-value is or much about item response theory, for that matter.

Teachers are very good, because they have been well trained, at writing test questions that assess the material they teach to their kids. When it comes to assessing material taught across an entire state, which current federal law requires us to do, they are, quite predictably, not as talented. I say again, petition the federal government to repeal the No Child Left Behind law immediately so we can get this right. Stop blaming test publishers for doing what they are very good at doing. It’s not helping.

Instead of pointing out that test designers aren’t teachers, which is about as close to irrelevant a point as can be made, let’s think of a solution: Repeal No Child Left Behind. Can you get that straight? And then we can talk about teachers writing their own tests for use in their own classrooms. As long as we have to test kids by the state-load, teachers are not qualified to write tests. If Mr Breslin is suggesting we violate federal law, he should not be writing for NJ.com.

When test questions are field tested, as they always are, statisticians review the performance of each and every question. If questions are too difficult for the state’s students, they are usually excluded from any score determination. I can’t promise this happens every time, of course, because I’m really not privy to that information, but in an ideal world, questions that are too far above kids would be excluded.

The situation in New York last year was inexcusable, so we agree on that.

According to Diane Ravitch, America’s premiere education historian, the problem with the Common Core standards embodied in standardized testing is that they were written in a way that violates well-established nationally and internationally recognized canons of setting standards and are so fundamentally flawed that these “standards” have no legitimacy whatsoever.

Here, Mr Breslin is absolutely correct and justified in his indignant tone (“whatsoever” etc.). He doesn’t even have to quote Diane Ravitch, but it’s a nice way to summarize the point. How are standards normally set in those well-recognized canons of standard-setting? Usually by consensus, by “request for comment” documents that circulate for years among those in the profession.

For example, the RFC 821 standard for email messages took years to become finalized. The HTML standard (now version 5) took more than 20 years of input, feedback, commentary, discussions, and general consensus among browser manufacturers.

The Common Core was nothing like that. The writers put the cart before the horse a little, but I ask, how long were we supposed to wait? How much longer could Louisiana, Mississippi, and so on, turn in NAEP scores that were far below those coming out of New Jersey, Massachusetts, etc., while still posting numbers as rosy for their schools? Standards in Mississippi had deteriorated into meaninglessness, while those in New Hampshire were bolstered. Thus a high school diploma in Alabama didn’t mean the same thing as one from Minnesota.

We had to do something, and people, who wanted results, left the federal government in a situation that required them to use existing laws to produce something that looked like results. The standards, therefore, have the legitimacy of the law, but not of education. It is a meritorious claim, in my judgment as well, to say they have no relevant legitimacy in terms of preparing our children for college and the workforce.

These standards were developed in secrecy by a small group of people, most of whom were from testing companies, and few, if any, experienced classroom teachers, subject-area experts, early-childhood educators or teachers of children with disabilities. Nor were these standards field-tested; nor is there any process for appealing or revising poor test questions.

The secrecy claim has been reported, but I cannot vouch for those reports. Furthermore, “small” is a relative term, so I can’t prove it wrong. But again, I’m not sure classroom teachers are the right people to involve in writing statewide standards. It’s a very labor-intensive process, and I want our best teachers in classrooms or mentoring other teachers in classrooms directly, not sitting in an office in front of a computer screen.

However, it was wrong not to listen to early-childhood experts. Some of the standards in kindergarten through second grade (and even higher) are wrong. They will frustrate kids and could turn them off to additional learning, which would be very harmful indeed.

I have several times called for a revision of the standards themselves, not for a simple rebranding, as so many states are doing. For example, in Maryland, we have renamed the standards the “Maryland College- and Career-Readiness Standards.”

Paradoxically, the federal government is legally prohibited from controlling public-school curriculum in any way, yet it illegally continues to mandate these tests throughout the nation!

I say again, repeal No Child Left Behind. If we didn’t have these tests, required under federal law—repeat, under federal law—we wouldn’t be having this discussion. And as long as we’re speaking paradoxically, Diane Ravitch was a strong supporter of the No Child Left Behind Act but has since reversed her position, probably after coming to her senses. To put that in perspective, though, almost everyone in Washington was behind the act as it made its way through Congress.

Standards are a good thing, and teachers have used standards since there were public schools. They are a road map, and those in the Common Core are pretty good. They have some bugs, especially, as we both pointed out, in early childhood and with disabled students, but they are a good beginning, a place from which we can work and gather that consensus of educators that would lead to legitimate educational standards.

Ravitch contends that student test scores don’t identify effective teachers, but rather the family income/socioeconomic background of the students who take them. Scores will be high for students with educated parents, and low for students from backgrounds of poverty, homelessness, joblessness, poor nutrition, absent parents or little parental support, as well as English-language learners and students with disabilities.

Ms Ravitch is absolutely correct, of course, but this argument is not about the Common Core; it’s about the standardized tests. Repeal No Child Left Behind so teachers can do their jobs and test manufacturers can do theirs. Also, then our government could do its job of looking after the poor, the homeless, the malnourished, those without parents, those who need to learn English, and so on. It all starts with the federal law.

Studies also show that teachers account for only 10 percent to 20 percent of student achievement, with home environment, parental involvement and other non-school factors explaining the rest. In the face of such evidence, low test scores have everything to do with poverty and home life and little to do with teachers. It’s a misuse of test scores to evaluate teachers on the basis of them, whereas if we fix students’ environment, we’ll begin to raise their achievement.

I am very skeptical of numbers like “10 percent to 20 percent” when they refer to “student achievement.” It is likely much higher for some students and much lower for others. Each kid is an individual and generalizing how much they get out of good or poor teachers is repulsive to me as a teacher. I know I have had very little effect on the success of some of my former students and a great effect on the success of others, and I resent any attempt to generalize them in this stereotypical way.

However, I don’t reject Mr Breslin’s entire line of reasoning. I think teachers should visit their students in their home and invite them (and their families) over to theirs. I did this, and in so doing, I got to know my students in a way that gave me great insight into their lives. When I saw that they had very little to eat in the house, even their 1-year-old brothers and sisters, I would, the next time, take them grocery shopping. It was a mathematics lesson we got to spend together.

Or, if one of my students was wearing inappropriate or trashy clothes to school every single day, I would take her shopping for clothes. It was a way not only of connecting but of walking a mile in their shoes. I believe, to this day, that it led me to make their lives in school—you know, that 10 to 20 percent Mr Breslin wrote about—a lot more successful. I can’t make their community right, of course, because I’m just one person, but I can help them through a tough week or get them a nice book to read so they can transport themselves to a more peaceful place more conducive to learning.

It’s much cheaper to hire people like the articulate Ms. Rhee to represent Corporate America and the political right, along with their crony capitalist friends and privatizers, whose ultimate game plan is getting rid of public-school teachers and turning public schools into charters. Hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars can be made for investors with no public accountability in these bonanza charter schools taught by poorly paid temps with no tenure or pension. Now, what parents wouldn’t want their children taught by happy teachers like that!

Right on! But while Mr Breslin seems to think this is about the Common Core, I put the blame squarely on federal law. If you take away the Common Core, other standards will take its place, and we’ll end up right back where we were with some states setting the bar too low for students to succeed in today’s world. If you repeal NCLB, on the other hand, teachers could teach to higher standards instead of to a test, corporations could be real partners with our public schools instead of trying to replace public schools with charters, and everybody, I think, would win.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.