Common Core in Vermont, and beyond

by Mathew Strong

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) has a great goal. It is a program of testing assessments and minimum requirements for students at all grade levels based on two important factors; to have the same standards in all 50 states, and to have high-school seniors be “college or career ready” (without having to take remedial classes in college). By starting at the end result desired, they work backwards from grade to grade, forming a “staircase of achievement” from kindergarten to 12th grade.

In a recent commentary article, outgoing Secretary of Education Armando Vilaseca touted the promises of new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) being introduced this year into Vermont public schools;

For many years, as a Vermont educator, I could never understand why as a nation we had 50 sets of standards, and why each state had different sets of goals for their students to meet. I understand and support the concept of states’ rights, but this idea no longer makes sense when we have become such a mobile and transient society. Often these moves mean students miss information or have lessons repeated because of the incongruence of our state standards. Additionally, the assessments aligned to these standards are used to compare states even though the standards have varying levels of difficulty.

Great ideas, wonderful goals, and after watching hours of video of the writers of the standards it is very easy to agree with them. As a country our standards have fallen, and student achievement has drastically fallen over the past 40 years. Reducing educational “clutter”, focusing on critical thinking, reading more non-fiction, these are great goals. However, that’s where the good parts end.

The CCSS technically comes from the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, which are both non-profit trade organizations with no legislative authority.

These standards being adopted across the nation had only 4 lead writers, although many were involved downstream. The main figures are David Coleman and Jason Zimba. “David Coleman is founder and CEO of Student Achievement Partners, LLC (S.A.P.), an organization that assembles leading thinkers and researchers to design actions to substantially improve student achievement. The two also founded the Grow Network – acquired by McGraw-Hill in 2005 – which has become the nation’s leader in assessment reporting and customized instructional materials. Coleman spent five years at McKinsey & Company, where his work focused on health care, financial institutions, and pro bono service to education. He is a Rhodes Scholar and a graduate of Yale University, Oxford University, and Cambridge University.” While it is certainly impressive, what seems to be missing from these achievements is teaching experience. Jason Zimba also works at S.A.P.

The other two co-authors of Common Core (and lead writers of the math standards) are William McCallum, a math professor at the University of Arizona, and Philip Daro, an education consultant to states and districts. Both McCallum and Daro are also advisers to Student Achievement Partners.

According to VT department of education informational handouts for community members;

When Vermont accepted $22 million of the ARRA funds (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a.k.a. the federal stimulus package), we were required (emphasis added) to adopt college and career ready standards. The decision was made to adopt Common Core State Standards. Governor Douglas supported the adoption of Common Core State Standards to meet this requirement. Vermont educators will determine local curriculum, instruction, and educational resources, allowing for continued flexibility and creativity.

States were given the option of getting a No Child Left Behind waiver if they adopted these standards, meaning they would be exempt from the testing and minimum requirements imposed by that law. They were also required to adopt the CCSS in order to compete for $4.35 billion in “Race to the Top” federal education grants. At the deadline imposed for the states to sign up for the grants, the CCSS had not been completed, meaning they had to accept them prior to knowing the full extent of the program.

The drawbacks are many, and are still being discovered. There is a huge privacy issue revolving around data collection by the federal government on 400 possible variables for each and every child, which is stored by third party companies. It collects information on every facet of their lives, their parents’ religious and political affiliations, their bus schedule, their “attitudes about school”, their attendance, any disciplinary actions, special education requirements, allergies, their… everything. Why? Aside from the idea that teachers and guidance counselors will be able to point children towards specific professions at increasingly younger and younger ages, as Bill Gates put it;

Identifying common standards is just the starting point. We will only know if it’s a success when the curriculum and the tests are aligned to these standards. Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan recently announced that $350 million of the federal stimulus package will be used to create just these kinds of testing assessments aligned to the Common Core. When the tests are aligned to the common standards, the curriculum will line up as well, and it will unleash a powerful market of people providing services for better teaching. For the first time there will be a large, uniform base of customers…

Bill Gates’ foundation has awarded $76 million to teachers throughout the country to assist in the implementation of CCSS, on top of the tens of millions it donated to National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to develop CCSS in the first place.

Several states have already delayed or rejected major parts or all of CCSS, as they have found the risks associated with CCSS far outweigh the potential benefits. One such state is Massachusetts, arguably the best education system in the country based on test scores. They have delayed the implementation of CCSS for two years citing the fact that they like their current curriculum based on its results and will test the new system against their own for quality assurance. Sandra Stotsky, a former member of the Common Core Validation Committee and the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education wrote a powerful article for the Wall Street Journal basically saying that the math standards are too weak to give us engineers and scientists.

The CCSS is being implemented on a national level without any field studies or testing. This is basically nationwide education reform without representation of taxpayers and a federal hijacking of local control. The nearest thing to testing is Kentucky’s experience over the last two years as one of the earliest adopters. Their test scores fell by a third in the first year, and last year they were not much better. Now, to be fair, there are multiple possible reasons for this. One is that the new tests aligned to the “higher” standards reveal the true depth of the hole many states will need to climb out of in regards to properly educating children. Another is that the teachers and students had a rough year making the change. Still another possibility is that the educational process involved with the standards actually reduces actual education. What will determine success or failure is time, and how many of those first adopters are really prepared for college or career after completing school under the CCSS. With David Coleman now the head of the College Board, responsible for the SAT test, it may not be possible for anyone to escape the CCSS, even states who do not adopt them, or private or home-schooled children. By the time we are able to know if it works, an entire high-school generation of kids will have been the guinea pigs.

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Bill Gates Quote VIDEO: