Responding to Ravitch

I got the following message recently from a Washington higher education faculty member in response to our reminder to folks about the opportunity to participate in the Smarter Balance online panel process in the fall:

Before my colleagues and I sign up for work on what’s clearly an important movement in education, I’m wondering if you can read and comment on the article I’m linking here, which indicates the lack of democratic process involved in writing the common cores standards, which seem to favor the corporations that sell testing and other testing-related materials to our schools. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/diane-ravitch/time-for-congress-to-inve_b_5473992.html .

Thanks so much for your help in this.  I had no idea that these standards had been formed in this way, and your response will certainly inform my decision on whether or not to become involved in this.

My response is below:

Happy to provide my perspective, though I should preface it by saying that of course participating in the Smarter Balanced online panel to provide input on the college readiness achievement level for the 11th grade assessment is completely optional; the note below is just an invitation to anyone who might be interested in getting involved in the work!

 

That said, and without wading too far into the current completely politicized and ideological “education war” happening across the country, I’ll say that I, too, had no idea the standards had been formed that way, mainly because it’s not true. You can see more about the development process for the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) here, but groups of teachers and higher education faculty ere deeply involved in creating and refining the standards, along with (and led by) resource experts and consultants. [One example: here’s a report from a national Validation Committee for the standards, including a list of the people involved.] Given the number of teachers and faculty in the country, I’m sure it was a very small percentage, but that doesn’t mean the process wasn’t democratic; it’s not practical to include huge numbers of people in design processes like that. There was, however, a very open “public comment” process to allow for broader input; whether people who are criticizing the process now were paying attention or offering input then is another story.

 

I would argue that the standards were no more or less democratically-defined than any of the existing state standards around the country, but that in any case, they should be examined and critiqued less on myths and half-truths about the process and more on the substance, e.g.,

  • do the standards reflect what really matters with respect to K-12 student learning in mathematics and English language arts?
  • do the standards capture what college faculty believe students need to know and be able to do to be “college-ready” for entry college-level courses in those disciplines?

 

Frankly, that would require far more time, careful thought, and expertise than most of the national pundits and blogosphere have or care to invest, so they argue about democratic processes, the role of foundations in education reform, and federal intrusion, none of which has much traction with the CCSS, in my opinion. There are legitimate concerns about the details of the standards in some areas, but on the whole the Washington faculty—both 2-year and 4-year—I’ve asked to review them as part of our Core to College work have been impressed with the nuance and thoroughness of what they’ve seen. [Here are a couple of national studies along the same lines, and with similar results, conducted by David Conley’s Educational Policy Improvement Center at the University of Oregon.] Based on a number of studies and polls, K-12 teachers are also generally supportive of the standards; while it varies somewhat by state, the CCSS are seen as a significant improvement over previous state K-12 standards (even in Washington, where the existing standards were considered pretty strong)—one reason why organizations like the NEA support the CCSS.

 

Some, including Ravitch, have argued that one of the big problems K-12 seems to have is this magical belief that better (“world-class”) standards will make a difference for students and student learning. I don’t know anyone involved in this work naïve enough to actually believe that improving the standards alone is sufficient; certainly the work in Washington is focused on shifting the whole system to support helping teachers and students address the standards. Standards are just standards, not curricula, and certainly not instructional support for teachers; to me the real challenge will be how well state K-12 systems engage in building capacity to tackle the learning outcomes and implicit pedagogical shifts defined in the CCSS. That’s a legitimate and very real concern, but not a critique of the Common Core.

 

Looking more specifically at the Diane Ravitch post you sent, it’s also worth considering a couple of different takes on her current arguments from John Merrow and David Brooks. Personally there are things I agree and disagree with in all 3 perspectives; the bottom line for me is that I see the issues as much much nuanced and “both/and” rather than as “right/wrong” or  “either/or” (my advantage is that unlike pundits, I’m not trying to attract attention, mouse clicks, or advertisers!) Basically her argument boils down to:

 

1)      poverty and profound inequity by race and class are serious problems in this country, often exacerbated rather than lessened, by our educational system;

2)      as a nation we are overly obsessed with standardized testing;

3)      foundations like Gates are trying to take over the education system.

 

I find the third point puzzling and preposterous, to be honest; funders like the Gates Foundation are certainly making investments in public education, but the amount provided is only a tiny percentage of the roughly 500 billion spent nationally on K-12 education. It’s true that money usually comes with expectations, but that’s far more true—with far more intrusion—for  state legislatures than for private foundations. The reality is that in many places foundation money is supporting innovations in ways impossible otherwise as state funding lessens; if that’s a disturbing trend, it needs to be addressed at a societal level in terms of tax structures and generating greater public willingness to support the common good, including public schools. But it’s not a legitimate critique of the Common Core.

 

On the first 2 points I happen to agree but like Brooks, I come to differenty conclusions than Ravitch does. First, I see the potential the Common Core has for helping to reduce inequity if taken seriously and implemented thoughtfully. At the same time, I believe we should do far more about poverty and inequity than we’re currently doing; to me it’s not an either/or choice. Second, also like Brooks, I see the negative effects of K-12 assessments as largely a function of ignorance, fear, and politics, not inherently the assessments themselves (though clearly there are plenty of bad tests out there—including, if one believes the recent national research in the area, Compass and Accuplacer). Given that it’s extremely unlikely that states, the federal government, or political leaders would ever eliminate testing altogether (and that they can play a useful role in the overall education system), I also believe we should push for high-quality assessments that move toward assessing the things that matter in learning rather than just the things that are easily assessed. I think the Smarter Balanced assessment system, while not perfect, is a step in that direction, and that’s why I support it.

 

The Smarter Balanced system, including summative and interim assessments along with an extensive Digital Library of classroom resources supporting teachers—will serve as a replacement for the current tests used for federal accountability purposes (grades 3-8 and high school). Whether we choose to support it or get involved in the work or not, the new assessment system is being implemented in the Washington K-12 public schools beginning in 2014-15, including all high school juniors, and to me that’s the other reason for studying it closely to see how the information we could get from the 11th grade assessment could be useful to us in the placement process for students coming to our system directly from high school.

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