A Brief History on NCLB and Common Core (Part 1)

This concentration on CCSS has created a teach-to-the-test mentality for many teachers. I have heard many colleagues across curriculums say: "If it's not explicitly stated in the standards for my grade level, I'm not teaching it."
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The last few weeks I've been putting together my thoughts on the current educational system to explain, in detail, why I wrote my resignation letter. Since it was a lengthy post, I decided to split it into two posts: Part 1: "A Brief History on NCLB and Common Core." Part 2: "The Perfect Storm: Common Core, Standardized State Testing, and Teacher Evaluations."

A Little Perspective

In my resignation letter, I listed many reasons why I was leaving the profession I love and the community I served after eleven years of teaching. In one paragraph, I mentioned Common Core State Standards in conjunction with high-stakes testing:

I am supposed to help them think for themselves, help them find solutions to problems, help them become productive members of society. Instead, the emphasis on Common Core Standards and high-stakes testing is creating a teach-to-the-test mentality for our teachers and stress and anxiety for our students ... That is what school has become: A place where teachers must give students "right" answers, so students can prove (on tests riddled with problems, by the way) that teachers have taught students what the standards have deemed to be a proper education.

To my amazement, I received national attention about my resignation and was asked to appear on Fox News America's Newsroom for a live interview. I was thrilled to get the opportunity to tell a national audience how I wanted to change the current educational system so that more people could become part of the solution. The folks at Fox News did not alert me to the subtitle they would be running alongside my interview: "Colorado English Teacher Resigns in Blog Post Due to Common Core." Therefore, when Martha MacCullum asked me pointed questions about Common Core, it took me a few seconds to get started, and then it was difficult to fully explain my position in a three-minute segment that included four questions. While I am not a fan of Common Core, those standards are not the primary reason why I resigned.

What's ironic about the debate over Common Core Standards is that these standards are supposed to prepare our children to be free and critical thinkers and give them the ability to make up their own minds, something that seems to be lacking in most discussions on the subject!

The other interesting result of appearing on a national station is that people have brought me into their political discussions. I have never aligned myself with any political party. I investigate candidates' educational positions and make informed decisions based on what I discover. I want to fix what is happening in education, and, as far as I can tell, it isn't just one administration's fault.

I am thankful for this platform I've been given. It has helped me find like-minded individuals: people who care more about our children than they do about their politics; people who care more about helping children become engaged with their education again, rather than people who are only interested in creating more problems; people who put children first, as individuals, and support and respect the teachers who educate and pour their lives into those children.

A Brief History on the Precursor of Common Core: NCLB

When I first started teaching Language Arts in 2003, we worked with the Colorado Model Content Standards for Reading and Writing (specifics are below). In our school, we had quite a bit of freedom to teach what we wanted as long as we stayed within those guiding principles. In our departments, we started discussing the alignment of our curriculum and added standardized common finals to our core courses because the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was also pushing standardized tests; we wanted to give our students more practice with that format. NCLB's purpose was to close the achievement gap. The government professed they would close the gap with "its expansion of state-mandated standardized testing as means of assessing school performance" (Time).

In 2002, the NCLB Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush:

The legislation, modeled on Bush's education policy as Governor of Texas, mandated annual testing in reading and math (and later science) in Grades 3 through 8 and again in 10th Grade. If schools did not show sufficient "Adequate Yearly Progress" (AYP), they faced sanctions and the possibility of being taken over by the state or closed. NCLB required that 100% of US students be "proficient" on state reading and math tests by 2014, which was regarded as an impossible target by many testing opponents. According to the Pew Center on the States, annual state spending on standardized tests rose from $423 million before NCLB to almost $1.1 billion in 2008 (a 160% increase compared to a 19.22% increase in inflation over the same period). Combined state and federal government spending on education totals $600 billion per year ... [emphasis mine] (standardizedtests.procon.org)

Besides the financial repercussions, the other difficulty with these assessments was that the tests were meaningless to students. They were neither rewarded nor punished for their scores. The schools, on the other hand, began to worry about sanctions, funding, and meeting AYP.

For a time, our school (as well as many others around the country) tried a reward system to encourage students to put forth their best effort on the tests. Students who worked hard (based on a proctor's subjective evaluation) could put their names into a box; each year a few lucky students won iPods, flip cameras, gaming devices, or similar items.

Near the end of the Bush Administration, the NCLB movement was losing steam:

After No Child Left Behind (NCLB) passed in 2002, the US slipped from 18th in the world in math on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to 31st place in 2009, with a similar drop in science and no change in reading. A May 26, 2011, National Research Council report found no evidence test-based incentive programs are working: "Despite using them for several decades, policymakers and educators do not yet know how to use test-based incentives to consistently generate positive effects on achievement and to improve education." (standardizedtests.procon.org)

The biggest problem with this program was that there were students who either didn't care about the tests no matter what the school offered as incentives or students who were struggling learners, making progress but not anywhere close to "proficient" as defined by the test. With these irrefutable facts, the government still wanted to punish teachers and schools for something that was out of their control.

Race to the Top

With a new administration, came a new push to fix the issues in education:

On February 17, 2009, President Barack Obama's Race to the Top program was signed into law, inviting states to compete for $4.35 billion in extra funding based on the strength of their student test scores. On Mar. 13, 2010, Obama proposed an overhaul of NCLB, promising further incentives to states if they develop improved assessments tied more closely to state standards, and emphasizing other indicators like pupil attendance, graduation rates and learning climate in addition to test scores. Testing opponents have decried both initiatives for their continued reliance on test scores, a complaint Obama seemed to echo on Mar. 28, 2011, when he said: "Too often what we have been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools."

On March 9, 2011, US Education Secretary Arne Duncan told Congress that 82% of American schools could fail to meet NCLB's goal of 100% proficiency on standardized tests by 2014. Duncan proposed reforming NCLB to "impose a much tighter definition of success" that supports "our fundamental aspiration that every single student can learn, achieve and succeed." Individual states have cast similar doubts on their ability to satisfy NCLB's Adequate Yearly Progress goals. A 2008 study published in the peer-reviewed journal Science forecast "nearly 100 percent failure" of California schools to meet AYP in 2014. The primary reason for failure, the study concluded, would be poor results on standardized tests by English Language Learners (ELL) and children in low-income families." (standardizedtests.procon.org)

Despite the apparent failure of high-stakes standardized testing, it is obvious the government is still pushing these tests in order to measure student and school "success." With all the information available on the difficulties surrounding these tests nationwide (lack of student buy-in, ELL and low-income families' unique difficulties, children with learning disabilities), the education secretary still believes "every single student can learn, achieve and succeed." However, Arne Duncan's definition of learning, achieving, and succeeding is based on a rigid, poorly-written document that doesn't measure the growth and achievement of students with learning difficulties and disabilities: Common Core State Standards.

Common Core State Standards (CCSS)

According to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) website, the standards were created for consistency throughout the country: "Recognizing the value and need for consistent learning goals across states, in 2009 the state school chiefs and governors that comprise CCSSO and the NGA Center coordinated a state-led effort to develop the Common Core State Standards" (www.corestandards.org).

In 2010, forty-five of the fifty states adopted the CCSS with the plan of full implementation of the standards by 2013-2014 school year. Within months of schools working with the new standards, teachers began noticing the problems associated with the document itself. Teachers and parents began protesting the standards. In March of 2014, Indiana became the first state to withdraw from CCSS. Many states are now trying to get similar bills passed, or at least bills to slow down the full implementation of CCSS and the assessments created to evaluate schools, teachers, and students.

For those opposed to the CCSS, the greatest fear is that the federal government has taken far too much control of our children's education and is dictating to our teachers what must be taught at each level and when it must be mastered.

On the other hand, for some people, especially those who are transient because of their jobs, having the same basic experience for their children across the nation may be beneficial. Also, for new or struggling teachers, it might provide a guide for what needs to be taught at each level.

As far as I'm concerned, CCSS are just standards. There is nothing wrong with having benchmarks for our learning path. The problems I have with CCSS are that they are rigid, disorganized, and unreasonable, especially at the elementary-school level.

Common Core Specific to Colorado

While I'm certain there are similar experiences across states, I'm only familiar with the implementation process in Colorado, since my teaching experiences are limited to this state.

The biggest difference between Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the old Colorado Model Content Standards for Reading and Writing is how specific CCSS are. With the old reading and writing standards, there were six for elementary and secondary students:

1) Students read and understand a variety of materials.

2) Students write and speak for a variety of purposes and audiences.

3) Students write and speak using conventional grammar, usage, sentence structure, punctuation, capitalization, and spelling.

4) Students apply thinking skills to their reading, writing, speaking, listening, and viewing.

5) Students read to locate, select, and make use of relevant information from a variety of media, reference, and technological sources.

6) Students read and recognize literature as a record of human experience.

There were benchmarks for each grade level, but schools decided what they would do with those benchmarks. Most course leaders created a "Scope and Sequence" document that acted as a guide for the teachers. These standards trusted educators to teach their students what needed to be taught.

The Common Core State Standards for Reading, Writing, and Communicating have four standards:

Standard 1: Oral Expression and Listening

Standard 2: Reading for All Purposes

Standard 3: Writing and Composition

Standard 4: Research and Reasoning

These four are titles more than they are standards, but the CCSS document for reading, writing, and communicating includes detailed benchmarks, or "evidence outcomes" for all grade levels; this document is 173 pages long.

Truthfully, after teaching English for eleven years, I didn't have to change what I taught to align myself to CCSS. I have a solid understanding about what is essential for my students to learn. I've had tremendous success with my reading, writing, and grammar programs. I have shared them with my colleagues, and we have vertically aligned our teaching lessons beautifully. At my school, we have approximately 70% college enrollment rate. Students who go on to college tell me they are far ahead of their peers because of what I and my colleagues taught them. We have incredible English teachers at my high school who work extremely hard to make sure students can communicate effectively and become productive members of society. I've been proud to work alongside them.

What has been difficult the last few years is having to "unpack" the CCSS: We have spent countless hours reading through the document for each level we teach, lining up our curriculum to what the CCSS deemed as critical skills, and looking at the skills students would be tested on in the spring (which will now be a battery of tests instead of just one). We have had to switch our curriculum around, so our students will be ready in 2015 for the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), which is the new state standardized test completely aligned with the CCSS. The PARCC will replace the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program (TCAP), which was a replacement for the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP).

While I am not opposed to aligning our curriculum with CCSS, I am opposed to the hours spent away from my students. I would much rather be working with my students' current needs and developing ways to get them caught up than working with standards, statistics, and phrases in order to be ready for a test. This concentration on CCSS has created a teach-to-the-test mentality for many teachers. I have heard many colleagues across curriculums say: "If it's not explicitly stated in the standards for my grade level, I'm not teaching it." There is a huge problem with that position; it encourages minimum expectations instead of exceeding expectations.

Next: Part 2: "The Perfect Storm: Common Core, Standardized State Testing, and Teacher Evaluations"

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