Common Core execution is flawed

Most of us in education have come around to the view that it’s no longer appropriate for students to spend the bulk of their time on the memorization of facts and the rote use of math and science algorithms.

In large part, the Common Core standards were an attempt to address this, by refocusing classroom instruction on conceptual understanding and the development of higher-order thinking skills — something the better teachers have always tried to do.

The other rationale for Common Core is that, in a highly mobile society, we should have some measure of consistency from one region of the country to another. The parents of a reasonably successful fifth-grader in Mississippi should not be shocked to discover that their child is reading at only a third-grade level in Pennsylvania (a recent true story).

Though far from perfect, and despite the fact that there was almost no input from actual teachers in the development of these standards, the majority of educators are of the opinion that Common Core reasonably meets these two objectives.

So, what’s the problem? There are several.

First, the corresponding student assessments are still being developed. We have no idea how well these assessments will measure what we want them to measure — the tests have yet to be tested. Plus, how can you assess a student’s ability to “construct arguments and cite evidence” — key components of Common Core — with a standardized, multiple-choice test?

Nevertheless, we are already attaching high stakes, such as high school graduation requirements and teacher evaluations, to the results of these untested tests.

In Pennsylvania, the new Keystone exams were developed independently of, and are in many respects incompatible with, the new “PA Core” standards. Even the Gates Foundation, an early and enthusiastic proponent of the standards, has called for a delay in the implementation of these high-stakes assessments.

In spite of all this, I believe the new standards provide a potentially useful framework for teaching 21st centrury skills, and there are good examples of what that might look like. But they are not a panacea.

The key to any new education practice is the teachers. And this is where the implementation fails miserably.

For some teachers, adjusting to the spirit of the new standards will require a significant change in practice — more “coaching,” less sage-on-the-stage direct instruction. This is not the sort of thing that can be accomplished in one or two days of drive-by professional development. As with any meaningful change, a successful, systemwide implementation will require time and commitment.

Meanwhile, little in the way of resources has been committed at either the national or state level toward helping teachers make this transition. There are many, many new standards but no guidance as to which ones should be emphasized, which is one consequence of not involving teachers from the beginning.

Perhaps most astonishingly, many of our teaching colleges have yet to even acknowledge the existence of Common Core standards.

We’re trying to fly a plane that we haven’t finished building.

Finally, the principals who have the responsibility for administering the new state-required teacher evaluations have not received much more than drive-by professional development themselves.

How are teachers supposed to have confidence in this, let alone the other major component of the new evaluations: student test scores, which are a notoriously unreliable way of measuring teacher “effectiveness”?

If teachers don’t have confidence in the evaluation model, it’s almost guaranteed to fail. Not surprisingly, the state Department of Education’s solution is to have principals use a check-the-box approach, which puts us right back where we started, while pretending to have made great progress.

State College is probably ahead of the curve. The district has embraced the Danielson model for effective teaching, and our superintendent has made it clear that our teachers will not be held accountable for things over which they have no control. Even so, this is going to be a challenge.

If we want our students to benefit from the Common Core standards, we have to disconnect them from the current high-stakes assessments, involve the teachers and take the time to do it right.