Protest Builds Against Pearson, Testing, and Common Core

My big problem with Common Core is that its focus is on the acquisition and measurement of student skills at the expense of learning, understanding, and applying content knowledge about our world.
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When it comes to standardized testing, students and schools don't usually have a choice. But now, 61 schools across the state, including 47 in New York City, are flat-out refusing to participate in the latest round of tests . . . a growing number of students won't be participating. On Thursday morning [June 7, 2012], they stood outside Pearson headquarters in Midtown to protest. Students sold t-shirts and built costumes in honor of a confusing and now infamous question on this year's exam about a talking pineapple . . . 'They're just trying to use our brains like we're lab rats,' said a third-grade student. 'They just want to make more money off of testing and the DOE is allowing this.'

Scores of local elementary and middle school students this week simply refused to answer questions on a state-required test designed to help a private testing company better formulate questions. The students politely declined to participate in the field tests, in many cases writing 'refused' on the answer sheet and pulling out books to pass the 40 minutes allotted for the tests. Others were absent the day of the test, or left before the test was given. All of it was part of a boycott organized to protest a private testing company giving tests to help them craft questions for future exams. Tarrytown has gone in a different direction. Organizers there plan to bill the company, Pearson Education, $20,000 for the time the students and teachers missed from class.

Sixty-seven of the 68 students studying to be teachers at the middle and high school levels at the Amherst campus are protesting a new national licensure procedure being developed by Stanford University with the education company Pearson. The UMass students say that their professors and the classroom teachers who observe them for six months in real school settings can do a better job judging their skills than a corporation that has never seen them. They have refused to send Pearson two 10-minute videos of themselves teaching, as well as a 40-page take-home test, requirements of an assessment that will soon be necessary for licensure in several states.

At the end of May, the Obama administration granted eight states, including New York, waivers from Bush era No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education mandates. The waivers were necessary because a highly partisan Congress would not mend the law and because it is now clear that it is impossible for every child, no matter what their circumstances, to achieve at the top level in every subject. Lyndon Johnson could have made any rule he wanted to in the 1960s, but there was no way I was going to learn to speak French, study for chemistry, or carry a tune. Nineteen states have been granted waivers already and more are in the pipeline.

It is always good to get rid of a silly law, but based on an examination of the New York State waiver, it looks like the Obama Administration has sold out the American educational system to the Pearson publishing company and its now infamous pineapple. In exchange for its waiver, New York State had to promise to implement "common core standards" for students and "Develop and adopt guidelines for local teacher and principal evaluation and support systems" that use student scores on standardized tests as a significant measure of teacher performance.

In the meantime, Pearson is busy marketing common core textbooks, common core staff development, and common core student and teacher assessments. Its website brags "Pearson's close association with key authors and architects of the Common Core State Standards ensures that the spirit and pedagogical approach of the initiative is embodied in our professional development."

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Thomas B. Fordham Institute estimates the national cost for compliance with common core will be between $1 billion to $8 billion and the profits will go almost directly to publishers. According to Peter Cohen, CEO of Pearson's K-12 division, Pearson School, "It's a really big deal. The Common Core standards are affecting literally every part of the business we're involved in." However, as publishers are preparing to rake in the money, Shael Polakow-Suransky, the chief academic officer of New York City schools is warning principals to be wary: "There's lots and lots of books that have got fancy, pretty stickers on them saying 'Common Core,' but they actually haven't changed anything in the inside."

I am generally very suspicious of top-down mandated magical formulas such as Common Core that are guaranteed to revolutionize the way teachers teach and students learn. My big problem with Common Core is that its focus is on the acquisition and measurement of student skills at the expense of learning, understanding, and applying content knowledge about our world. Bottom line is that skills devoid of content are boring and students will resist mastering them. If you are unsure about this, just remember how much you hated the meaningless repetition of piano lessons, which I think are the model for Common Core instruction.

I have tried to follow the defense of Common Core. Lauren Davis, senior editor of Eye on Education is one the big advocates for the Common Core standards. Eye on Education is distributing a pamphlet, and for a price, offering staff development workshops and keynote speeches promoting "5 Things Every Teacher Should be Doing to Meet the Common Core State Standards." For Davis and her associates, "The Common Core State Standards highlight five shifts that should be happening in every classroom. They want teachers to lead "high-level, text-based discussions"; "focus on process, not just content"; "create assignments for real audiences and with real purpose"; "teach argument, not persuasion"; and "increase text complexity."

My first reaction was that I must be an idiot. I have been a teacher for over forty years and I could not figure out what here was in any way new. They want me to promote high-level discussions as opposed to low level ones. I thought teachers focused on BOTH process and content; I certainly did. Were my assignments designed for fake audiences without purpose? Was I encouraging students not to listen to each other? Was I using easier texts as the students became more sophisticated?

David Coleman and Susan Pimentel, two authors of the standards, recommend teachers begin with "relatively simple questions." Is the problem with learning in the United States that the questions are too hard?

At its best, Common Core draws the attention of teachers to the need to be conscious and systematic as they work to develop student academic skills. If Common Core promotes this level of skill and understanding by students as they master content knowledge and formulate their own questions about the world, it performs a useful function and should be broadly supported. If it does not, it is just a boondoggle for publishers, politicians, and consultants and it will quickly go the way of reading programs like "Success for All" and national policies like "No Child Left Behind" and "Race to the Top."

Personally, I do not have confidence in the publishers, politicians, and certainly not in the expert educational consultants. I think the difference makers will have to be teachers. Teachers will be the ones to decide whether this educational change or any educational change provides real substance and prepares students not just for college or work but for active participation as fully engaged citizens of a democratic society.

In the meantime, let's hope the protests continue to grow.

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