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Topic: Everything you need to know about Common Core - Ravitch
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Everything you need to know about Common Core - Ravitch
Posted: Jan 22, 2014 2:16 PM
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From The Washington Post [The Answer Sheet by Valerie Strauss],
Saturday, January 18, 2014. See
Everything you need to know about Common Core - Ravitch

Valerie Strauss: Diane Ravitch, the education historian who has
become the leader of the movement against corporate-influenced school
reform, gave this speech to the Modern Language Association on Jan.
11 about the past, present and future of the Common Core State
Standards. Here's her speech:

By Diane Ravitch

As an organization of teachers and scholars devoted to the study
of language and literature, MLA should be deeply involved in the
debate about the Common Core standards.

The Common Core standards were developed in 2009 and released in
2010. Within a matter of months, they had been endorsed by 45 states
and the District of Columbia. At present, publishers are aligning
their materials with the Common Core, technology companies are
creating software and curriculum aligned with the Common Core, and
two federally-funded consortia have created online tests of the
Common Core.

What are the Common Core standards? Who produced them? Why are
they controversial? How did their adoption happen so quickly?

As scholars of the humanities, you are well aware that every
historical event is subject to interpretation. There are different
ways to answer the questions I just posed. Originally, this session
was designed to be a discussion between me and David Coleman, who is
generally acknowledged as the architect of the Common Core standards.
Some months ago, we both agreed on the date and format. But Mr.
Coleman, now president of the College Board, discovered that he had a
conflicting meeting and could not be here.

So, unfortunately, you will hear only my narrative, not his,
which would be quite different. I have no doubt that you will have no
difficulty getting access to his version of the narrative, which is
the same as Secretary Arne Duncan's.

He would tell you that the standards were created by the states,
that they were widely and quickly embraced because so many educators
wanted common standards for teaching language, literature, and
mathematics. But he would not be able to explain why so many
educators and parents are now opposed to the standards and are
reacting angrily to the testing that accompanies them.

I will try to do that.

I will begin by setting the context for the development of the standards.

They arrive at a time when American public education and its
teachers are under attack. Never have public schools been as subject
to upheaval, assault, and chaos as they are today. Unlike modern
corporations, which extol creative disruption, schools need
stability, not constant turnover and change. Yet for the past dozen
years, ill-advised federal and state policies have rained down on
students, teachers, principals, and schools.

George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind and Barack Obama's Race to
the Top have combined to impose a punitive regime of standardized
testing on the schools. NCLB was passed by Congress in 2001 and
signed into law in 2002. NCLB law required schools to test every
child in grades 3-8 every year; by 2014, said the law, every child
must be "proficient" or schools would face escalating sanctions. The
ultimate sanction for failure to raise test scores was firing the
staff and closing the school.

Because the stakes were so high, NCLB encouraged teachers to
teach to the test. In many schools, the curriculum was narrowed; the
only subjects that mattered were reading and mathematics. What was
not tested-the arts, history, civics, literature, geography, science,
physical education-didn't count. Some states, like New York, gamed
the system by dropping the passing mark each year, giving the
impression that its students were making phenomenal progress when
they were not. Some districts, like Atlanta, El Paso, and the
District of Columbia, were caught up in cheating scandals. In
response to this relentless pressure, test scores rose, but not as
much as they had before the adoption of NCLB.

Then along came the Obama administration, with its signature
program called Race to the Top. In response to the economic crisis of
2008, Congress gave the U.S. Department of Education $5 billion to
promote "reform." Secretary Duncan launched a competition for states
called "Race to the Top." If states wanted any part of that money,
they had to agree to certain conditions. They had to agree to
evaluate teachers to a significant degree by the rise or fall of
their students' test scores; they had to agree to increase the number
of privately managed charter schools; they had to agree to adopt
"college and career ready standards," which were understood to be the
not-yet-finished Common Core standards; they had to agree to
"turnaround" low-performing schools by such tactics as firing the
principal and part or all of the school staff; and they had to agree
to collect unprecedented amounts of personally identifiable
information about every student and store it in a data warehouse. It
became an article of faith in Washington and in state capitols, with
the help of propagandistic films like "Waiting for Superman," that if
students had low scores, it must be the fault of bad teachers.
Poverty, we heard again and again from people like Bill Gates, Joel
Klein, and Michelle Rhee, was just an excuse for bad teachers, who
should be fired without delay or due process.

These two federal programs, which both rely heavily on
standardized testing, has produced a massive demoralization of
educators; an unprecedented exodus of experienced educators, who were
replaced in many districts by young, inexperienced, low-wage
teachers; the closure of many public schools, especially in poor and
minority districts; the opening of thousands of privately managed
charters; an increase in low-quality for-profit charter schools and
low-quality online charter schools; a widespread attack on teachers'
due process rights and collective bargaining rights; the
near-collapse of public education in urban districts like Detroit and
Philadelphia, as public schools are replaced by privately managed
charter schools; a burgeoning educational-industrial complex of
testing corporations, charter chains, and technology companies that
view public education as an emerging market. Hedge funds,
entrepreneurs, and real estate investment corporations invest
enthusiastically in this emerging market, encouraged by federal tax
credits, lavish fees, and the prospect of huge profits from taxpayer
dollars. Celebrities, tennis stars, basketball stars, and football
stars are opening their own name-brand schools with public dollars,
even though they know nothing about education.

No other nation in the world has inflicted so many changes or
imposed so many mandates on its teachers and public schools as we
have in the past dozen years. No other nation tests every student
every year as we do. Our students are the most over-tested in the
world. No other nation-at least no high-performing nation-judges the
quality of teachers by the test scores of their students. Most
researchers agree that this methodology is fundamentally flawed, that
it is inaccurate, unreliable, and unstable, that the highest ratings
will go to teachers with the most affluent students and the lowest
ratings will go to teachers of English learners, teachers of students
with disabilities, and teachers in high-poverty schools. Nonetheless,
the U.S. Department of Education wants every state and every district
to do it. Because of these federal programs, our schools have become
obsessed with standardized testing, and have turned over to the
testing corporations the responsibility for rating, ranking, and
labeling our students, our teachers, and our schools.

The Pearson Corporation has become the ultimate arbiter of the
fate of students, teachers, and schools.

This is the policy context in which the Common Core standards
were developed. Five years ago, when they were written, major
corporations, major foundations, and the key policymakers at the
Department of Education agreed that public education was a disaster
and that the only salvation for it was a combination of school
choice-including privately managed charters and vouchers- national
standards, and a weakening or elimination of such protections as
collective bargaining, tenure, and seniority. At the same time, the
political and philanthropic leaders maintained a passionate faith in
the value of standardized tests and the data that they produced as
measures of quality and as ultimate, definitive judgments on people
and on schools. The agenda of both Republicans and Democrats
converged around the traditional Republican agenda of standards,
choice, and accountability. In my view, this convergence has nothing
to do with improving education or creating equality of opportunity
but everything to do with cutting costs, standardizing education,
shifting the delivery of education from high-cost teachers to
low-cost technology, reducing the number of teachers, and eliminating
unions and pensions.

The Common Core standards were written in 2009 under the aegis of
several D.C.-based organizations: the National Governors Association,
the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve. The
development process was led behind closed doors by a small
organization called Student Achievement Partners, headed by David
Coleman. The writing group of 27 contained few educators, but a
significant number of representatives of the testing industry. From
the outset, the Common Core standards were marked by the absence of
public participation, transparency, or educator participation. In a
democracy, transparency is crucial, because transparency and openness
builds trust. Those crucial ingredients were lacking.

The U.S. Department of Education is legally prohibited from
exercising any influence or control over curriculum or instruction in
the schools, so it could not contribute any funding to the expensive
task of creating national standards. The Gates Foundation stepped in
and assumed that responsibility. It gave millions to the National
Governors Association, to the Council of Chief School Officers, to
Achieve and to Student Achievement Partners. Once the standards were
written, Gates gave millions more to almost every think tank and
education advocacy group in Washington to evaluate the standards-even
to some that had no experience evaluating standards-and to promote
and help to implement the standards. Even the two major teachers'
unions accepted millions of dollars to help advance the Common Core
standards. Altogether, the Gates Foundation has expended nearly $200
million to pay for the development, evaluation, implementation, and
promotion of the Common Core standards. And the money tap is still
open, with millions more awarded this past fall to promote the Common
Core standards.

Some states-like Kentucky-adopted the Common Core standards sight
unseen. Some-like Texas-refused to adopt them sight unseen. Some-like
Massachusetts-adopted them even though their own standards were
demonstrably better and had been proven over time.

The advocates of the standards saw them as a way to raise test
scores by making sure that students everywhere in every grade were
taught using the same standards. They believed that common standards
would automatically guarantee equity. Some spoke of the Common Core
as a civil rights issue. They emphasized that the Common Core
standards would be far more rigorous than most state standards and
they predicted that students would improve their academic performance
in response to raising the bar.

Integral to the Common Core was the expectation that they would
be tested on computers using online standardized exams. As Secretary
Duncan's chief of staff wrote at the time, the Common Core was
intended to create a national market for book publishers, technology
companies, testing corporations, and other vendors.

What the advocates ignored is that test scores are heavily
influenced by socioeconomic status. Standardized tests are normed on
a bell curve. The upper half of the curve has an abundance of those
who grew up in favorable circumstances, with educated parents, books
in the home, regular medical care, and well-resourced schools. Those
who dominate the bottom half of the bell curve are the kids who lack
those advantages, whose parents lack basic economic security, whose
schools are overcrowded and under-resourced. To expect tougher
standards and a renewed emphasis on standardized testing to reduce
poverty and inequality is to expect what never was and never will be.

Who supported the standards? Secretary Duncan has been their
loudest cheerleader. Governor Jeb Bush of Florida and former DC
Chancellor Michelle Rhee urged their rapid adoption. Joel Klein and
Condoleeza Rice chaired a commission for the Council on Foreign
Relations, which concluded that the Common Core standards were needed
to protect national security. Major corporations purchased full-page
ads in the New York Times and other newspapers to promote the Common
Core. ExxonMobil is especially vociferous in advocating for Common
Core, taking out advertisements on television and other news media
saying that the standards are needed to prepare our workforce for
global competition. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsed the
standards, saying they were necessary to prepare workers for the
global marketplace. The Business Roundtable stated that its #1
priority is the full adoption and implementation of the Common Core
standards. All of this excitement was generated despite the fact that
no one knows whether the Common Core will fulfill any of these
promises. It will take 12 years whether we know what its effects are.

The Common Core standards have both allies and opponents on the
right. Tea-party groups at the grassroots level oppose the standards,
claiming that they will lead to a federal takeover of education. The
standards also have allies and opponents on the left.

I was aware of Common Core from the outset. In 2009, I urged its
leaders to plan on field testing them to find out how the standards
worked in real classrooms with real teachers and real students. Only
then would we know whether they improve college-readiness and equity.
In 2010, I was invited to meet at the White House with senior
administration officials, and I advised them to field test the
standards to make sure that they didn't widen the achievement gaps
between haves and have-nots.

After all, raising the bar might make more students fail, and
failure would be greatest amongst those who cannot clear the existing

Last spring, when it became clear that there would be no field
testing, I decided I could not support the standards. I objected to
the lack of any democratic participation in their development; I
objected to the absence of any process for revising them, and I was
fearful that they were setting unreachable targets for most students.
I also was concerned that they would deepen the sense of crisis about
American education that has been used to attack the very principle of
public education. In my latest book, I demonstrated, using data on
the U.S. Department of Education website that the current sense of
crisis about our nation's public schools was exaggerated; that test
scores were the highest they had ever been in our history for whites,
African Americans, Latinos, and Asians; that graduation rates for all
groups were the highest in our history; and that the dropout rate was
the lowest ever in our history.

My fears were confirmed by the Common Core tests. Wherever they
have been implemented, they have caused a dramatic collapse of test
scores. In state after state, the passing rates dropped by about 30%.
This was not happenstance. This was failure by design. Let me explain.

The Obama administration awarded $350 million to two groups to
create tests for the Common Core standards. The testing consortia
jointly decided to use a very high passing mark, which is known as a
"cut score." The Common Core testing consortia decided that the
passing mark on their tests would be aligned with the proficient
level on the federal tests called NAEP. This is a level typically
reached by about 35-40% of students. Massachusetts is the only state
in which as many as 50% ever reached the NAEP proficient level. The
testing consortia set the bar so high that most students were sure to
fail, and they did.

In New York state, which gave the Common Core tests last spring,
only 30% of students across the state passed the tests. Only 3% of
English language learners passed. Only 5% of students with
disabilities passed. Fewer than 20% of African American and Hispanic
students passed. By the time the results were reported in August, the
students did not have the same teachers; the teachers saw the scores,
but did not get any item analysis. They could not use the test
results for diagnostic purposes, to help students. Their only value
was to rank students.

When New York state education officials held public hearings,
parents showed up en masse to complain about the Common Core testing.
Secretary Duncan dismissed them as "white suburban moms" who were
disappointed to learn that their child was not as brilliant as they
thought and their public school was not as good as they thought. But
he was wrong: the parents were outraged not because they thought
their children were brilliant but because they did not believe that
their children were failures. What, exactly, is the point of crushing
the hearts and minds of young children by setting a standard so high
that 70% are certain to fail?

The financial cost of implementing Common Core has barely been
mentioned in the national debates. All Common Core testing will be
done online. This is a bonanza for the tech industry and other
vendors. Every school district must buy new computers, new teaching
materials, and new bandwidth for the testing. At a time when school
budgets have been cut in most states and many thousands of teachers
have been laid off, school districts across the nation will spend
billions to pay for Common Core testing. Los Angeles alone committed
to spend $1 billion on iPads for the tests; the money is being taken
from a bond issue approved by voters for construction and repair of
school facilities. Meanwhile, the district has cut teachers of the
arts, class size has increased, and necessary repairs are deferred
because the money will be spent on iPads. The iPads will be obsolete
in a year or two, and the Pearson content loaded onto the iPads has
only a three-year license. The cost of implementing the Common Core
and the new tests is likely to run into the billions at a time of
deep budget cuts.

Other controversies involve the standards themselves. Early
childhood educators are nearly unanimous in saying that no one who
wrote the standards had any expertise in the education of very young
children. More than 500 early childhood educators signed a joint
statement complaining that the standards were developmentally
inappropriate for children in the early grades. The standards, they
said, emphasize academic skills and leave inadequate time for
imaginative play. They also objected to the likelihood that young
children would be subjected to standardized testing. And yet
proponents of the Common Core insist that children as young as 5 or 6
or 7 should be on track to be college-and-career ready, even though
children this age are not likely to think about college, and most
think of careers as cowboys, astronauts, or firefighters.

There has also been heated argument about the standards'
insistence that reading must be divided equally in the elementary
grades between fiction and informational text, and divided 70-30 in
favor of informational text in high school. Where did the writers of
the standards get these percentages? They relied on the federal
NAEP-the National Assessment of Educational Progress-which uses these
percentages as instructions to test developers. NAEP never intended
that these numbers would be converted into instructional mandates for
teachers. This idea that informational text should take up half the
students' reading time in the early grades and 70% in high school led
to outlandish claims that teachers would no longer be allowed to
teach whole novels. Somewhat hysterical articles asserted that the
classics would be banned while students were required to read
government documents. The standards contain no such demands.

Defenders of the Common Core standards said that the percentages
were misunderstood. They said they referred to the entire
curriculum-math, science, and history, not just English. But since
teachers in math, science, and history are not known for assigning
fiction, why was this even mentioned in the standards? Which
administrator will be responsible for policing whether precisely 70%
of the reading in senior year is devoted to informational text? Who
will keep track?

The fact is that the Common Core standards should never have set
forth any percentages at all. If they really did not mean to impose
numerical mandates on English teachers, they set off a firestorm of
criticism for no good reason. Other nations have national standards,
and I don't know of any that tell teachers how much time to devote to
fiction and how much time to devote to informational text. Frankly, I
think that teachers are quite capable of making that decision for
themselves. If they choose to teach a course devoted only to fiction
or devoted only to non-fiction, that should be their choice, not a
mandate imposed by a committee in 2009.

Another problem presented by the Common Core standards is that
there is no one in charge of fixing them. If teachers find legitimate
problems and seek remedies, there is no one to turn to. If the
demands for students in kindergarten and first grade are
developmentally inappropriate, no one can make changes. The original
writing committee no longer exists. No organization or agency has the
authority to revise the standards. The Common Core standards might as
well be written in stone. This makes no sense. They were not handed
down on Mount Sinai, they are not an infallible Papal encyclical, why
is there no process for improving and revising them?

Furthermore, what happens to the children who fail? Will they be
held back a grade? Will they be held back again and again? If most
children fail, as they did in New York, what will happen to them? How
will they catch up? The advocates of the standards insist that
low-scoring students will become high-scoring students if the tests
are rigorous, but what if they are wrong? What if the failure rate
remains staggeringly high as it is now? What if it improves
marginally as students become accustomed to the material, and the
failure rate drops from 70% to 50%? What will we do with the 50% who
can't jump over the bar? Teachers across the country will be fired if
the scores of their pupils do not go up. This is nuts. We have a
national policy that is a theory based on an assumption grounded in
hope. And it might be wrong, with disastrous consequences for real
children and real teachers.

In some states, teachers say that the lessons are scripted and
deprive them of their professional autonomy, the autonomy they need
to tailor their lessons to the needs of the students in front of
them. Behind the Common Core standards lies a blind faith in
standardization of tests and curriculum, and perhaps, of children as
well. Yet we know that even in states with strong standards, like
Massachusetts and California, there are wide variations in test
scores. Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution predicted that the
Common Core standards were likely to make little, if any, difference.
No matter how high and uniform their standards, there are variations
in academic achievement within states, there are variations within
districts, there are variations within every school.

It is good to have standards. I believe in standards, but they
must not be rigid, inflexible, and prescriptive. Teachers must have
the flexibility to tailor standards to meet the students in their
classrooms, the students who can't read English, the students who are
two grade levels behind, the students who are homeless, the students
who just don't get it and just don't care, the students who
frequently miss class. Standards alone cannot produce a miraculous

I do not mean to dismiss the Common Core standards altogether.
They could be far better, if there were a process whereby experienced
teachers were able to fix them. They could be made developmentally
appropriate for the early grades, so that children have time for play
and games, as well as learning to read and do math and explore nature.

The numerical demands for 50-50 or 70-30 literature vs.
informational text should be eliminated. They serve no useful purpose
and they have no justification.

In every state, teachers should work together to figure out how
the standards can be improved. Professional associations like the
National Council for the Teaching of English and the National Council
for the Teaching of Mathematics should participate in a process by
which the standards are regularly reviewed, revised, and updated by
classroom teachers and scholars to respond to genuine problems in the

The Common Core standards should be decoupled from standardized
testing, especially online standardized testing. Most objections to
the standards are caused by the testing. The tests are too long, and
many students give up; the passing marks on the tests were set so
high as to create failure.

Yet the test scores will be used to rate students, teachers, and schools.

The standardized testing should become optional. It should
include authentic writing assignments that are judged by humans, not
by computers. It too needs oversight by professional communities of
scholars and teachers.

There is something about the Common Core standards and testing,
about their demand for uniformity and standardization, that reeks of
early twentieth century factory-line thinking. There is something
about them that feels obsolete. Today, most sectors of our economy
have standards that are open-sourced and flexible, that rely upon the
wisdom of practitioners, that are constantly updated and improved.

In the present climate, the Common Core standards and testing
will become the driving force behind the creation of a test-based
meritocracy. With David Coleman in charge of the College Board, the
SAT will be aligned with the Common Core; so will the ACT. Both
testing organizations were well represented in the writing of the
standards; representatives of these two organizations comprised 12 of
the 27 members of the original writing committee. The Common Core
tests are a linchpin of the federal effort to commit K-12 education
to the new world of Big Data. The tests are the necessary ingredient
to standardize teaching, curriculum, instruction, and schooling. Only
those who pass these rigorous tests will get a high school diploma.
Only those with high scores on these rigorous tests will be able to
go to college.

No one has come up with a plan for the 50% or more who never get
a high school diploma. These days, a man or woman without a high
school diploma has meager chances to make their way in this society.
They will end up in society's dead-end jobs.

Some might say this is just. I say it is not just. I say that we
have allowed the testing corporations to assume too much power in
allotting power, prestige, and opportunity. Those who are wealthy can
afford to pay fabulous sums for tutors so their children can get high
scores on standardized tests and college entrance exams. Those who
are affluent live in districts with ample resources for their
schools. Those who are poor lack those advantages. Our nation suffers
an opportunity gap, and the opportunity gap creates a test score gap.

You may know Michael Young's book The Rise of the Meritocracy. It
was published in 1958 and has gone through many editions. A decade
ago, Young added a new introduction in which he warned that a
meritocracy could be sad and fragile. He wrote:

If the rich and powerful were encouraged by the general culture
to believe that they fully deserved all they had, how arrogant they
could become, and if they were convinced it was all for the common
good, how ruthless in pursuing their own advantage. Power corrupts,
and therefore one of the secrets of a good society is that power
should always be open to criticism. A good society should provide
sinew for revolt as well as for power.

But authority cannot be humbled unless ordinary people, however
much they have been rejected by the educational system, have the
confidence to assert themselves against the mighty. If they think
themselves inferior, if they think they deserve on merit to have less
worldly goods and less worldly power than a select minority, they can
be damaged in their own self-esteem, and generally demoralized.

Even if it could be demonstrated that ordinary people had less
native ability than those selected for high position, that would not
mean that they deserved to get less. Being a member of the "lucky
sperm club" confers no moral right or advantage. What one is born
with, or without, is not of one's own doing.

We must then curb the misuse of the Common Core standards: Those
who like them should use them, but they should be revised continually
to adjust to reality. Stop the testing. Stop the rating and ranking.
Do not use them to give privilege to those who pass them or to deny
the diploma necessary for a decent life. Remove the high-stakes that
policymakers intend to attach to them. Use them to enrich
instruction, but not to standardize it.

I fear that the Common Core plan of standards and testing will
establish a test-based meritocracy that will harm our democracy by
parceling out opportunity, by ranking and rating every student in
relation to their test scores.

We cannot have a decent democracy unless we begin with the
supposition that every human life is of equal value. Our society
already has far too much inequality of wealth and income. We should
do nothing to stigmatize those who already get the least of society's
advantages. We should bend our efforts to change our society so that
each and every one of us has the opportunity to learn, the resources
needed to learn, and the chance to have a good and decent life,
regardless of one's test scores.


Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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