Editorial: Make the Common Core standards work before making them count

In an editorial pointing out how far from ready its state is to transition to the new standards, the Los Angeles Times printed a tweet from one teacher that said it perfectly: “Within a couple of years, ‘we start testing on standards we’re not teaching with curriculum we don’t have on computers that don’t exist.’”

That teacher speaks for many teachers throughout the country who have not yet been trained or prepared to teach in the manner envisioned by the Common Core. In that same poll in which 75 percent of teachers supported the Common Core, a similarly overwhelming majority said they haven’t had enough time to understand the standards, put them into practice, or share strategies with colleagues.

The writers of the standards have voiced the same concerns. William McCallum of the University of Arizona, who co-wrote the Common Core math standards, says, “Implementation is everything. … Preparation of teachers … is crucial.”

But what McCallum deems as “crucial” is being treated as “optional” in too many systems and by too many policy makers— including the federal government, which is spending $350 million on new high-stakes tests aligned to the CCSS but nothing specifically targeted to prepare teachers.

There’s a logical and effective way to turn these standards into classroom practice and student success. First, educators need to unpack the standards—which means they need to fully understand what they are. Then, as UFT president and AFT vice president Michael Mulgrew has repeatedly said, they need a curriculum, which New York City just said won’t be in place until this coming September. Then, teachers need time and support to adapt their teaching, and need try it out in classrooms with their kids, both of which we saw at NEST+m. Then you can see, through a bunch of different measures, if it’s working.

That’s what assessment and accountability are supposed to be. You see if the whole shebang works, before you say it’s ready for prime time.

But that’s not what’s happening. Instead, in New York state, the assessment has been fast-tracked before the other pieces were put in place. And the result is this destructive anxiety that kids and teachers have endured these past few months. Throughout New York, students in grades 3-8 just took math and English tests on material they may never have even seen.

The New York City Department of Education’s recent announcement of a K-8 curriculum is welcome, but announcing a curriculum one month before assessments are administered begs the question: Is this about deep learning or desperate cramming?

And it looks like they’re repeating the same mistake for high school students. A year from now, the Regents Exams will be aligned to the Common Core, and there’s still very little instructional material available at the high school level.

With the tests that students here in New York have just taken, scores will drop—not because there is less learning, but because the tests are evaluating skills and content these students haven’t yet been taught.

A parent from Queens, quoted in the Daily News, summed it up: “It’s unethical to give kids a test when you know they’re going to fail.” The Wall Street Journal quoted a superintendent from Long Island who reported that a couple of kids started throwing up during the tests. One child went to the bathroom and refused to leave. He said that a number of children walked out of tests crying.

There are ads all over New York telling parents that scores will drop, which is the responsible thing to do, but I can’t help but think that if more time on the front end were devoted to getting this right, they wouldn’t have to spend so much time on the back end inoculating against the results.

And while you can argue that the drops will just reset the baseline, that’s not the case. Across the state, scores from this spring’s assessments may be used to determine whether students advance or are held back, to designate a school’s performance, and even to determine whether schools stay open or shut down. And they will be used as 20 percent of teacher evaluations.

Can you even imagine doctors being expected to perform a new medical procedure without being trained in it or provided the necessary instruments—simply being told that there may be some material on a website? Of course not, but that’s what’s happening right now with the Common Core.

The fact that the changes are being made nationwide without anything close to adequate preparation is a failure of leadership, a sign of a broken accountability system and, worse, an abdication of our moral responsibility to kids, particularly poor kids.

The AFT has tried to fill the breach, as have others. For example, we’ve built a powerful online tool to provide educators with resources aligned to the Common Core standards. With TES Connect, our British partner, the AFT created Share My Lesson—a web-based resource for teachers to share materials with each other. I compare it to a digital filing cabinet full of materials, lesson plans and ideas. Some teachers have told us that Share My Lesson is their only source for resources to teach to the Common Core standards.

…But it’s not enough for the AFT and our members to walk the walk. Others must walk with us.

I cannot say this more simply: We are committed to the success of our students. That means getting the transition to Common Core standards right. That’s why today I am calling for a moratorium on the stakes associated with Common Core assessments.

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