Screen Shot 2015-11-04 at 9.14.01 AMA Wall Street Journal piece calling attention to the $7 billion spent so far on the primarily failed implementation of Common Core has been getting a lot of attention.

Jay P. Greene commented on that article focusing on the billions spent unsuccessfully by the Gates Foundation to enact their education vision on America. Yes I meant to say it that way. Gates has a vision of the American school system as an efficient production line that simply needed uniformity and an injection of technology to make it produce a high quality finished product. He just forgot one detail, that the line was working on people, not widgets. He worked to have his plan enacted by executive fiat, not voted on by the public or passed by the governance system already in place. It was simply placed on the states as a condition of continued federal funding. Unfortunately his system was not self sustaining in that it was neither accepted by the general public, who historically has continued to fund programs they like, nor successful in performing as promised.

Even local efforts by the Gates Foundation to implement its teacher quality strategy are falling apart.  Gates pledged $100 million to the Hillsborough School District in Tampa, Florida to make it the model of its reform strategy.  As the district is running out of Gates money and discovering the unsustainability of its own financial commitments, the whole effort of using new teacher evaluation methods, mentoring, and merit pay is about to be dismantled… Despite all of this investment, Hillsborough is getting lousy academic results.

Peter Greene over at Curmudgication focused on the cost of implementation which is sinking local school districts and state budgets and posits this might be the actual plan, to destroy public schools in a push to privatize K-12 education.

[T]the most telling quote of the piece:

“It was something of a perfect storm, where expectations were rising while resources were diminishing,” says Christopher Shaffer, Philadelphia’s deputy chief of curriculum, instruction and assessment.

Dang– it is like a perfect storm. It’s almost as if someone wanted schools to fail, so that they would just have to be replaced by privately run schools set up to provide investment opportunities for hedge fund managers. But no– that’s crazy talk.

But the WSJ piece tells us more than just that the cost of common core is sinking it. It inadvertently exposes what Common Core really tried to do, and that may explain its great failure. WSJ highlights the situation in Philadelphia which struggled greatly with CC implementation. Their deputy chief of curriculum called it “the perfect storm” of rising expectations and diminishing resources.

Some grant money was spent on summer training that wasn’t well attended. “The teachers were all on vacation,” says Anh Brown, then a district curriculum official.

Ms. Brown says district leaders sent the new standards to school principals without sufficient guidance. Teachers were struggling with the new standards when she arrived at the George W. Nebinger elementary school as principal and began to train them.

Since then, the district has created a teachers’ guide for integrating the standards into lesson plans. Administrators conduct weekly training sessions. But budget problems have meant little has been spent on buying new instructional materials, officials say.

This explanation for common core’s failure lays the blame on the teachers; for not showing up for training and for not being able to figure out how to adjust their lesson plans to the new focus of the standards. There is a massive disconnect here. Someone who has spent years learning their subject and then potentially years in front of students should not need massive amounts of summer school and additional education in order to shift to a new set of standards in their subject. Think of it this way. A math teacher should be well versed in the broad topic of mathematics. A set of standards merely says “Focus on these elements.” Why did teachers and principals need so much “guidance” on a set of standards that we were told over and over again, did not dictate curriculum and did not tell them how to teach? What has changed so dramatically in the field of mathematics, or reading and writing, that we would need to purchase so much new instructional material that it would bankrupt our school districts?

Take a look at a CCSSI English Language Arts Reading Standard for Literature grade 5.

“Compare and contrast two or more characters, settings, or events in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., how characters interact).”

Could a teacher who has been teaching great, or even not so great, literature not be able to do this with 11-12 year olds with virtually any published work? Would a teacher need extensive re-training to be able to do this? Certainly not one that has passed a state licensing exam, one would think. So why all the chaos over implementation? Why the need for massive purchase orders for new materials? Most likely it was associated high expectations that were driving this training and materials frenzy. The expectations were that students would score higher on a standardized test so really the training and materials were needed to meet that expectation.

WSJ said it was difficult to tease out the cost of common core implementation since many of the activities associated with its roll out are normal functions of the school district: updating standards, new curricular choices, professional development, testing costs etc. The point then is that the price of doing those normal things rose dramatically with the implementation of common core. Isn’t price gouging what happens in a monopoly?

The name common core has now become toxic because it is associated with excessive cost, confusing lesson plans, data collection and increased testing. It should be noted that it is not toxic because the public blindly rejects common standards, or even better standards. John Engler, the former Republican governor of Michigan was quoted as saying  it is now fashionable to simply refer to them as “higher standards.”  Higher standards is a marketing term meant to appeal to the American appetite. Slap “new”, “improved”, “faster acting”, “stronger”, “bold” or any other positive sounding adjective on a product and we want it. But grill a teacher or principal on exactly what “higher” in this context means and most will struggle. You are not going to find a meaningful consensus on the definition of higher standards. Does it mean driving more advanced concepts down to lower grades? Does it mean adding more standards so the overall number of things we must teach children is higher? Does it mean matching those of other countries? If so, which countries and why choose those countries? Is there a link between education standards and the reasons you chose those countries? If not, why do you think matching their standards will make ours better?  Does it mean more complex sounding standards, which could make teachers and students struggle with them, but not necessarily provide a better outcome?  And since higher is a comparative term, we should ask, higher than what? How do you measure higher? How can you prove that one set of standards is higher than another?

Americans are not averse to spending money for a better product that works. Marketing hype can convince us to pay more for a product if we think it is better than what we currently have. We could be expected to fork over more money for “higher” standards that promised college and career readiness. We are even able to withstand a little glitchiness in our products (see almost every Windows update and most Apple roll outs) if they basically deliver on their promises.  But promise us something new and improved that should provide a better and equal outcome for all, think ACA, that actually costs a lot more and doesn’t deliver on most of its promises and you are going see wide scale rejection. The recent SBAC, PARCC and now NAEP test scores tell us the product isn’t working. We paid for a Jaguar only to find it still needs to spend a lot of time in the shop. Jay Greene said, “I’m convinced that a top-down strategy that falsely invokes science to identify “best practices” and then attempts to impose those practices on our highly decentralized education system is always doomed to fail, regardless of how it is ‘messaged’ and no matter how earnest we are about implementation.”

What the common core implementation failure may be pointing out more than anything is a structural weakness in our teacher training programs. Good or bad, confusing or not, true content experts should not struggle with a new set of standards that focus their teaching on certain concepts within their area of expertise. Spending vast amounts of money to retrain the professionals you hired, while they are on the job site, is not a cost effective way to operate. There are some who advocate for closing all teaching colleges. Dr. Stotsky of MA has been advocating for the elimination of an undergraduate degree in teaching. She recommends teachers be pulled from the ranks of the subject majors and provided two years of post graduate work on pedagogy combined with real world (because everyone loves real world problem solving) mentored teaching experience. Then standards could be a true guideline for the minimum we think our children should be taught. The focus and amount of testing should be in proportion to that expectation. We could then unleash the knowledge and creativity of our teaching professionals to take their students as far as they can go.

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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