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

The fact that the changes are being made nationwide without anything close to adequate preparation is a failure of leadership, Weingarten says.

[Editor’s note: This is an edited version of remarks made by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, at the Association for a Better New York on April 30.]

Our obligation as a nation, and my obligation as an educator, is to help children achieve their potential, participate in our democracy, and propel our economy forward. In today’s world, that means our students must be prepared to compete—not on the basis of their test-taking skills, but on their ability to solve problems, analyze and apply knowledge, and work with others.

So, what if I told you there is a way to transform the very DNA of teaching and learning to move away from rote memorization and endless test-prep, and toward problem solving, critical thinking, and teamwork—things I know many of you have been advocating for years? And what if I told you there is a way to do that not a generation from now, but for students today, who will be the employees you’ll hire tomorrow?

In these are the potential to do that.

(Next page: More of Weingarten’s speech)These are the Common Core State Standards for Math and English language arts that have been adopted by the District of Columbia and 45 states, including New York. The pages within these binders lay out the kind of learning I have seen in classrooms in Finland, Singapore, and other top-performing systems throughout the world. These standards establish high expectations for all students, regardless of whether they’re from Bed-Stuy or Beverly Hills, Bay Shore, Long Island, or Birmingham, Ala.

…I predict these standards will result in one of two outcomes: Either they will lead to a revolution in teaching and learning—or they will end up in the overflowing dustbin of abandoned reforms, with people throwing up their hands and decrying that public schools just don’t work. And the coming months will determine which outcome comes to pass.

There is reason for both optimism and pessimism.

What has me optimistic is that teachers want these standards to succeed. We recently polled our members, and 75 percent of our teachers support the Common Core standards. That’s no surprise—because teachers, including many AFT teachers, played a fundamental role in the design and review of these standards.

We’re talking about less memorization, less racing through a course of study, and more searching for evidence and conceptual understanding. All of which help students to be college- and career-ready.

I recently visited a public school on the Lower East Side that’s making this transition—the NEST+m School. I saw fourth-graders learning about Columbus’ New World expeditions in a manner aligned to the Common Core standards. It was remarkable. There was none of the “In fourteen hundred ninety-two / Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” that you might remember. These students were reading passages from Columbus’ diary describing his experiences in his own words. They delved deeply into multiple perspectives, including making inferences from works of art from the vantage point of both Native Americans and the European explorers of the time.

In the movies, this type of dramatic change could take place in the space of one inspirational montage set to song. But not in real life.

Teachers at NEST+m told me that it took them roughly 50 hours last summer to review and understand the standards, to work through how they shifted their approach to teaching and learning, and to develop lessons aligned to them. They’re still at it— meeting weekly to discuss what’s working and what isn’t, as they use these standards in their classrooms. And they’re getting a lot of help from faculty at Hunter College, corporate partners at Sony, and others.

It’s fantastic that those teachers have the opportunity to approach the standards that way, and that their students are already benefitting. But it’s deeply troubling to realize that what’s happening at NEST+m is by far the exception, not the rule.

And that’s what has me pessimistic. These standards, which hold such potential to create deeper learning, are instead creating a serious backlash—as officials seek to make them count before they make them work. That’s what we’re seeing here in New York, as you have witnessed in the last few weeks. And it is happening throughout the country.

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.

I am proposing that states and districts work with educators to develop clear tasks and a clear timeline to put in place the crucial elements of Common Core implementation. And until then, the tests should be decoupled from decisions that could unfairly hurt students, schools, and teachers.

When scores drop as sharply as they’re expected to, it will send an inexcusable message to parents: Your child is far from meeting the standards. And she needs to meet the standards to get into college. But we don’t have a plan, and nobody’s accountable for getting her there. Except for the teacher, who hasn’t been trained. And you can just imagine how that teacher feels.

…Let me be clear about what this moratorium is and isn’t: We aren’t saying students shouldn’t be assessed. We aren’t saying teachers shouldn’t be evaluated. We’re not saying that there shouldn’t be standardized tests. We’re talking about a moratorium on consequences in these transitional years.

It’s kind of amazing that it’s necessary to call on states and districts to implement the Common Core before making the new assessments count. But that is what I feel compelled to do today. Districts, states, and policy makers: Administer student assessments, perform teacher evaluations, but use them to understand and respond to student and teacher needs in this transition. Just like businesses let data improve products, let the data inform instruction and improve policy. That way we can help teachers and students master this new approach to teaching and learning, and not waste time punishing people for not doing something they haven’t yet been trained or equipped to do.

This moratorium—this transition period before high stakes are attached to the assessments—can’t be a period of inactivity. It must be a time of intense activity in order to properly implement the standards. In this time period, states and districts should put in place a high-quality implementation plan and field testing.

An implementation plan must include curriculum, professional development, and time—but they aren’t sufficient. A high-quality implementation plan also means involving the frontline educators who are responsible for engaging students in critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork, and the other skills expected in the Common Core. And the plan can’t just be imposed from on high. It needs to be designed with and by teachers—ideally through their collective bargaining agent. The only way this will succeed is if teachers have input and ownership. Teachers rise to the occasion. The more input and supports they have, the more confident they are about mastering these instructional shifts.

Parents must be a part of this, also. Schools and districts must keep them informed and engaged.

And this transition requires dollars. A recent study, from the Fordham Institute, estimated that the cost of implementation could run as high as $12 billion nationally. And let’s be real: If funds can be repurposed, great. But remember, schools and students have already endured four years of deep cuts to education. And this year, funding has dropped yet again in more than half the states. While the sequester may no longer be causing headaches at airports, it’s taking a hatchet to education funding for poor children.

In sum, implementation plans must lay out what is needed, spell out how to get there, and make it clear how they will be supported, financially and otherwise, by teachers, political leaders, administrators, parents, and the community.

Let’s talk about field testing: We need to ensure that the standards, the curriculum, the teaching and the testing are actually aligned. Timelines will vary, but we are calling for at least a year to field-test a sound implementation plan.

Field testing is important any time a new process or product is introduced. Just ask successful businesses. For the Common Core, it would serve as a time when teachers can give and get feedback, share ideas, and try out methods of teaching to the new standards in their classrooms every single day. So if businesses field-test new products as a matter of course, why, in education, would we do something less, especially with something as revolutionary as the Common Core?

Once those two parts—an implementation plan and field testing—are completed, that’s when it makes sense to attach stakes to the assessments. But even then, let’s stop this out-of-control fixation on testing, test-prep, and paperwork.

There is still an opportunity to give teachers and students the tools and time they need so students can meet the new challenges and higher expectations with confidence. New Yorkers should insist on this, as should those in every state that has adopted these standards.

…When students complete only a small fraction of the tasks required of them, they get a failing grade. Yet when officials responsible for implementing the CCSS fail to do what’s required of them, it’s students, schools, and teachers who pay the price. That’s wrong.

Everyone who has a responsibility for our children’s education has to take responsibility for making sure the Common Core is supported, implemented, and then evaluated correctly. That’s what making accountability real means.

So I come back to these standards. Revolution? Or dustbin?

This is our chance to realize the purpose of public education—to instill skills and knowledge, a love of learning; to foster an informed and engaged citizenry; to build a stronger nation. This is our chance to ensure that every child can not just read, write and compute—but think, problem-solve, work in teams and be confident about their place in the world. This is our chance to reverse growing achievement gaps by attending to the huge opportunity gaps and giving all kids the supports they need to achieve these goals.

This is our chance—and it must be our choice—to get this right. Rhetoric about urgency can’t trump quality, equity, and sustainability.

…If we’re able to step on the accelerator of high-quality implementation and put the brakes on the stakes, we can take advantage of this opportunity and guarantee that deeper and more rigorous standards will help lead to higher achievement for all our children.

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