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School Vouchers and the Enemies of Public Education

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By Lee Quinn, Wake County Teacher

In his defense of the state’s ill-conceived voucher law, Darrell Allison states that “NC simply doesn’t educate poor children well” and that such children are “victims of an inferior educational model”. I fundamentally disagree. His self-serving reasoning follows that the way to improve our public education system is to abandon it and participate actively in its destruction.

While stating that children in our poorest schools tend not to perform well on state tests, he fails to ask the seemingly obvious question of why students at poor schools tend to struggle most on these tests. In declaring that vouchers are a benefit to poor communities, their advocates reveal their underlying assumption: they believe that poor communities are failing their own children, but that poverty itself must have nothing to do with why.

This highly insulting notion reeks of the malfeasance motivating the actions of political voucher advocates. Communities in poverty have poorly performing schools because their students must overcome greater obstacles and challenges to perform at their educational best. It is not due to some intrinsic fault in those students or their teachers that they don’t score as well on bubble tests as wealthier schools, and poverty certainly isn’t a problem that began inside a school.

Does Allison think it’s a coincidence that all of the so-called “failing” schools in our state have unacceptably high degrees of poverty? Or does he believe that poor communities are unable to educate their children, and that the teachers, students, and parents in those communities are to blame for their difficulties?

We know how the anti-public education narrative in the legislature works: declare that public schools are failing, and then make it increasingly difficult for them to succeed by taking away human and financial resources and by treating teachers like piñatas, so that experienced educators leave and our brightest young people shun the profession. Add to that the privatization of schools with vouchers and the expansion of charters, neither of which have an obligation to serve the entire community as public schools do, and you begin to see how the narrative created by the legislature starts to become reality as the result of their own destructive actions,  thus expanding their rationale for further starving our schools of all manner of resources.

There are no educational standards, teacher training, or staff background checks required for the private schools receiving millions in taxpayer subsidized vouchers. Quite literally anybody can teach anything on the taxpayers’ dime with nary an iota of oversight at voucher schools. This lack of accountability means that students can be exposed to a buffet of outlandish ideas in science and history without any academic oversight whatsoever.  Vouchers have nothing to do with “educational freedom” or choice; parents already have the right to send their children to whatever school, teaching whatever curriculum, that they like.

Unlike our public schools, private schools who receive these millions of taxpayer money are not required to submit to the legislature’s asinine A-F “grading” system for schools. That is because the A-F system wasn’t designed to actually measure school performance; it was designed to give legislators another maliciously-conceived and arbitrary way to condemn public schools in order to pave the way for voucher schemes like this one.

It’s not a coincidence that as $17 million was allocated to unaccountable private schools via vouchers, the elimination of  8700 teacher assistant positions –  the largest layoff in North Carolina history – was set into motion. Both actions by the legislature are in concert; they represent the progress of their plan to eviscerate public education and the teaching profession.

We who do the work of educating our children in public schools realize well that our duty is to all of the people of this state. We know well the legislature’s plans for public education, and we seek to shed light on it. At least so far, they can’t gerrymander teachers. Either Mr. Allison is oblivious to the fact that his organization is a pawn in the legislature’s attempts to dismantle public education as a public good, or he is knowingly complicit in that dismantling. Rather than participate in the improvement of this vital pillar of our democracy for all of our children, he and his organization gleefully celebrate and facilitate its enemies.

The way to improve the schools in our poorest communities is not to tear down public education, but to honestly identify and address the causes and conditions of poverty that created these educational challenges in the first place.

 

 

Walking in the Footsteps of a Teacher

I shadowed a 2nd grade teacher last month and it was an eye-opening experience.   I witnessed the degree to which teachers struggle to meet the ever-growing needs of their students, are not treated as professionals, and are being exploited.

To protect myself and the people involved (including students and parents), I will use pseudonyms for everyone involved.  I am a parent and have security clearance; I simply wanted to know more about what teaching is like in North Carolina today.

The school is a magnet school within an affluent part of a major metropolitan area in North Carolina.  Many faculty members said they felt lucky to be at a school with a great principal within a supportive community.  Several confided they were afraid to think what teaching must be like in less affluent rural areas.

7:15 a.m. – Ms. Ray was in her classroom, after making some copies in a workroom that morning.  She was eating oatmeal while she readied her classroom.

7:45 a.m. – Ms. Ray and nine other female educators met in a professional learning team.  Four were 2nd grade teachers, one was a special educator, one a literacy specialist, one an assistant principal, and the rest were student teachers.  They went over a few announcements, including that:

–          Report cards were to go out tomorrow and paper just came in.

–          According to their Positive Behavior Intervention and Support system, it was their turn to plan an event to help relieve faculty stress.  All expenses would come from the teachers’ own pockets.

–          Teachers are no longer referring kids to administration for bad behavior, as the new system for doing so (ironically named “EASI”) is hard to navigate.  A tutorial has been posted on the internet.

–          For future “M class” reading assessments, teachers will not be allowed to test their own students.

–          They then began discussing specific kids who are performing below grade level.  They call this part “Kid Talk”.  The stated goal was to share knowledge about the kids to see if they could gain greater insight on how to meet their needs.  They talked about 18 kids total, always referencing recent test scores (mainly Mclass reading scores) as a part of the discussion.  A few kids stood out:

Tabitha:  She rarely talks.  They have referred her for testing but can’t get the necessary forms back from mom.  The family only speaks Spanish.  It was recommended that a staff member do a home visit.

Greg:  He is autistic, and all involved agreed he probably needs a one-on-one aid.  He cannot stay on task and has a very hard time knowing what to do when left alone.  A county representative came and observed and said the teachers need to write out every instruction for every part of the day so he could refer to those directions when lost.  The teachers realize this will take at least an hour of writing a day, as there can be as many as sixteen transitions in a typical day.  They don’t know how they will do this, but if they don’t, Greg will not get the one-on-one aid he needs

Anthony:  He is a new student.  This is his third school this year.  He came to school with scabies, and he has places on his body that are irritated and bleed.  He reports he doesn’t sleep at night.  He tries to sleep all day, and the teacher does not know what else to do but let him.  It’s agreed someone should do a home visit.

I later find out that teachers must provide and document that they provided interventions for all 18 kids for at least ten minutes three times a week.

8:54 a.m. – Back to Ms. Ray’s room where kids are doing morning work, which is to “solve two math problems using any strategy and then write a word problem to match the equation”.  A teacher assistant is there named Ms. Grace.  She starts pulling kids out who are below reading grade level to read to her for 5 minutes.  She does this every day.

8:57-9:07 a.m. – Maddy’s mom is here to talk about Maddy’s seating assignment.  Kids are lining up to have their morning work checked and get a sticker.  Ms. Ray says that this mother comes in, unannounced, to meet with her about something most every morning.  This is the sixth time she has requested a seating change.

9:07 – 9:14 a.m. – Ms. Ray circulates, checking morning work and praising the kids.

9:14 a.m. – The bell rings.  Ms. Ray leads the pledge of allegiance and the singing of this month’s song about America.    She then leads them in reading a “fluency poem”, out loud, three times.

9:20- 9:31 a.m. – Ms. Ray facilitates a Letterland lesson, a new requirement this year. She’s teaching words that have “ea” in them and make the “eh” sound.  Cards are distributed, kids get up and spell a word she calls out, and the other students give a “thumbs up” or down to evaluate correctness.

9:31 – 9:35 a.m. – She helps them glue their spelling words into their notebooks.

9:35 a.m. – Daniel is crying.  Ms. Ray asks Ms. Grace to handle a transition while she meets with him.  She ends their brief discussion with “Let’s talk more about this at recess, ok?”

9:37 a.m. – Carpet time.  They learn about the three purposes authors have when they write:  to inform, entertain and persuade.  They discuss examples.  Ms. Ray gives instructions for the next activity.

9:45 a.m. – Ms. Ray has prepared four stations for kids to work in to improve their reading and writing skills.  Lots of materials have been prepared ahead of time:  directions placed in a tray, labels printed, an evidence worksheet copied, clipboards, a computer station is prepped, and she has pulled and prepared to meet with a reading group.

9:45 – 10:05 a.m.  – Ms. Ray simultaneously runs a reading group and supervises the other stations.   She praises and redirects kids throughout the room.  Ms. Grace assists.

10:06 – 10:30 a.m. – They rotate roles and repeat the stations.  Ms. Grace has to leave to go to another room.  Things get a little dicey; Greg, the autistic student, needs redirection.  A student tells on another student for sneezing on a desk and not covering their mouth.  Ms. Ray wipes down the desk.  Many students suddenly need Ms. Ray attention – lost library books, they want a sip of water, they are unsure where to put their finished work.

10:30 a.m. – Snack time!  Ms. Ray provides goldfish crackers to kids who don’t have snack.  The extras are provided by parents.  Kids take turn sharing stories in front of the class.  Others raise their hands and ask questions.

I take a peek at the calendar on Ms. Ray’s desk.  On Tuesday she had an after school meeting.  Today she had a meeting before school and has a meeting during planning. Thursday she has two parent conferences, one during planning and one after school.  Friday she has an after school meeting.

10:35-10:40 a.m. – Ms. Ray does hall duty while students go to electives.

10:40-11:20 a.m. – Ms. Ray teaches a reading elective in her classroom.  She has read and selected award winning books that she will read aloud.

11:25 a.m. – Kids change classes again.  Ms. Ray gets a love note from a student .  “You are my favorite teacher and only teacher and I appreciate how you teach me everything.  Thank you.”

11:30 – 12: 00 – Ms. Ray teaches a social studies elective in another room.  She has prepared a lesson on relative and absolute location and reading a map grid.

12:00 p.m. – Recess!  Ms. Ray circulates on the playground, supervising and chatting with colleagues.  My interactions with staff are interesting.  One teacher tells me this is her 17th year teaching, her 11th in NC, and she still doesn’t make the pay she received her first year teaching in New York and California.  Another tells me she has 27 students, and anything over 20 means she “is not able to meet anyone’s needs”.  Another teacher tells me there are three kids suspected of having diabetes in her class, and they must draw blood 5 times a day, but there isn’t a nurse so she has to do it.

Greg skins his knee and Ms. Ray applies a band-aid.  Another student reports his arm is hurt and he “heard something pop”, but he claims to be sick or hurt in some way most days.  Teachers gather to assess the situation.  They decide they better call home.  He comes back the next day with his arm in a cast.

12:30 p.m.  – Recess is over.  Ms. Ray takes the class to bathroom.  A parent volunteer speaks to her while they go.  The parent reports that two students need to be disciplined for misbehavior during a pull-out reading program.  While Ms. Ray handles it, the kids go to lunch.

12:40 p.m. – Ms. Ray appears at the faculty table in the cafeteria with her lunch.  She has 14 minutes to eat.  I ask Ms. Ray if she works on the weekends.  She says Sunday is a “workday” when she does about 3-4 hours of work.

I ask if there is a teacher’s lounge.  They report it was converted into a teaching space, so now they eat with the kids.  Teacher assistants supervise the kids while they eat.  They tell me there is not a vending machine for their use in the school.

12:54 p.m.  – Ms. Ray went to the bathroom for the first time.  All the bathrooms in her building are dedicated to special needs students or general student use. There is only one staff bathroom at the front of the building.

12:55-1:00 p.m. – Ms. Ray takes the students to the bathroom as they return to class.

1:05-1:20 p.m. – Ms. Ray reads from a novel as the kids listen attentively on the carpet.  Ms. Ray is very expressive and draws them in with predictions and questions.

1:20 p.m. – Time for a Common Core math lesson.  Ms. Ray reveals that her laptop has been broken for two weeks, and she has no idea when she will get it back.  She has a loaner laptop that has no battery power.  Until she gets her laptop back, she cannot use her SMART board or document camera.

Kids are given two-digit addition and subtraction word problems and told to solve them using at least two strategies. Ms. Ray circulates; Greg is lost.  Students begin presenting their solutions on the board.  They demonstrate number lines that relate math to space, “math mountains” and math ladders.

A  special educator comes in to assist Greg in math.  Ms. Grace comes and takes two students out for math remediation.

The kids are getting squirmy.  They keep analyzing the problems with lots of firm redirection from Ms. Ray.

1:45 p.m. – Ms. Ray assigns two new problems.  She circulates.  She has prepared a math challenge activity for students that finish early.

1:56 p.m. – Ms. Ray gathers the students on the carpet to process the math they just learned.

2:03 p.m. – Ms. Ray takes them for another bathroom break.

2:10 p.m. – Ms. Ray projects a “brain break” video where they watch a video and do rhythmic movement.

2:15 p.m. – Ms. Ray calls them to the carpet, reads two sample book reviews to them, and they analyze the elements of each.

2:25 p.m. – Ms. Ray circulates while students begin working on writing their own reviews.  She works one-on-one with students.  Derek claims he can’t think of a single book, and says he has no books in his home.  Ms. Ray reminds him of ten titles they have read together.  Pulling teeth comes to mind.

2:40 p.m. – Students leave for electives.  It’s Ms. Ray’s planning.   She and Ms. Grace brainstorm why forms and homework are no longer coming back in folders sent home.  Ms. Ray decides to send home an internet-based reminder.

2:45 p.m. – Meeting.  Ms. Ray is the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports chair and she needs advice on how to get ready for a county inspector / auditor.  Two other staff members are in the meeting.  One of the women, a counselor, announces she is leaving her position to begin a private practice.  No explanation seems necessary; everyone seems to understand the wisdom of her choice.

3:15 p.m. – Meeting is over.  Ms. Ray returns to her room and begins cleaning out the desk of a student.  I have observed that that student has an acute motion disorder, and he just can’t keep things orderly, but the mess drives her crazy.  So she takes on the task.

3:20 p.m. – The kids return and it’s time to “Read to Self”.  Ms. Grace comes to watch the children while Ms. Ray takes Greg to another room to do a “running record” assessment to gauge his progress in reading.

3:22 – 3:42 p.m. – Ms. Ray attentively works with Greg.  He does really well, and she is exuberant.  She worries that when another teacher tests him, though, he won’t do as well.  He might become shy and nervous.

3:45 p.m. – Dismissal!  Greg comes to get Ms. Ray for the “hugging ritual” they do at the end of the day.  At his insistence, she tells him three things each day: “You followed all the directions, you acted like a second grader, you are going to third grade.”  Then they hug.

3:45-4:16 p.m. – Ms. Ray straightens desks and puts away materials.  Ms. Grace is cutting and pasting to create journals for the students.

4:17 p.m. – Ms. Ray fills out a daily behavioral report for Maddy.   She then moves several desks around to move her to a new group, as her mother requested.

4:35 p.m. – Ms. Ray begins entering elective grades and comments into report cards.  If another teacher is accessing the file, she has to wait and do it later.  She makes notes as she goes.

4:43 p.m. – She open her email for the first time today.  There are 18 that need a response.  She decides to do that at home.  Ms. Grace says goodbye for the day.

4:50 p.m. – She begins preparing for the parent conferences the next day.

5:20 p.m. – Ms. Ray puts the morning work question on the board.

5:30 p.m. – Ms. Ray leaves, with plans to grade papers, answer emails, and send parent reminders after dinner. 

It had been a ten hour day.  I was merely an observer, but I was exhausted.  I later calculated that based on Ms. Ray’s take home pay and hours she works, she earns $11.86 an hour.  According to recent reports, the national rate for babysitting nationwide is $13.44.  Ms. Ray teaches 24 children.

A Concerned Parent

 

Good Teacher / Bad Teacher: Why NC’s Value Added Measurement (VAM) Teacher Effectiveness Data Has This Teacher Confused

The state of North Carolina has contracted with SAS Corporation to devise a way to measure teacher effectiveness.  Teachers now get EVAAS (Education Value Added Assessment System) score reports that are factored into their yearly evaluations.  We are in the second year of implementation, and so far, my results have been, in one way, confusing, and in another sense, exactly right.

I teach American History II to 11th graders.  By the time my students get to me, many of them have been in NC public schools for a period of time and their “data” (past standardized test scores) are used to project their future performance.  The statisticians at SAS have devised predictive models that project how students should score on the state assessment based on past test scores.   I teach the class and another teacher comes and administers the state-made final exam at the conclusion of the course.  My students’ performance on that single multiple choice assessment on that single day is the only data point that is used to generate my effectiveness score (never mind that some of my best performing students have calculated that they need just a 50 to “keep their B” and don’t study).  Each year, I get an email that informs me that I can view my “dashboard” and see how well I am doing.  I see a graphic that tells me I am “in the red” (uh-oh, my students are not meeting expected growth on average), in the expected growth range (whew), or “in the green” (exceeding expected growth – yay!).

We are two years into the system.  My first year of checking my “dashboard” was like a punch in the stomach.  In an interesting turn of events, a documentary filming crew caught my reaction and it can be viewed at this link:  www.indiegogo.com/projects/teacher-of-the-year–5.  You can see there that EVAAS plotted my score in the red zone – below expected growth.  This was disconcerting.  I am a passionate veteran educator.  I was doing everything I knew to do to help my students succeed.  I had “flipped” my classroom – putting my own instructional videos online – to help my students with learning disabilities, limited English proficiency, and high rates of absenteeism.  I was teaching bell to bell, I’m rarely sick, I know my subject, I provide remediation and retesting, I created a 1300+ slide review Powerpoint as a scaffolded review of the whole course that students could access anytime online to help them succeed . . . I was dumbfounded.

I did not alter the way I taught after seeing those scores.  Not the least bit.  Why not?  I honestly could not think of anything more I could do.  It’s not like I have some cool ideas or approaches that I am holding off on in case I need to bring out the big guns.   I was putting it all on the table every day.  So, I just tried to put the scores out of mind.  But they still bugged me.

I recently received my latest “dashboard” notification, and with a good deal of trepidation, I opened the file.  The good news?  I somehow in one year magically transformed into a fantastic teacher!  I’m now in the solid green – way on up there in “Yay!” territory.

I’m suspicious.   If I’m a “bad” teacher, aren’t I “bad” all the time?  And isn’t a “good” teacher good all the time?  That’s how it is in the movies, and that’s how it seems in casual conversation.  Teachers are good or bad.  Or “meh”.  But they aren’t all three at the same time.

Until they are.  Teaching performance, like any performance, is a chemical interaction.  Have you and a friend ever sat in a movie, and upon leaving the theatre had different opinions about it?  My husband and I do this all the time.  We like different kinds of movies.  In the first five minutes, we each know if we are “hooked” or not, and while I might sit politely through an entire feature, I might be mentally making my grocery list half the time.  It doesn’t mean the actors didn’t care, or the screenwriters stunk it up.  My husband, remember, is riveted.  If I take a test on the movie later, I might reflect badly on the director.

In the classroom, it works the same way.  I have what I call the “carriers of the fire”.  These kids love history and we connect immediately.  Then I have my visual spatial learners –  I’m visual spatial, too.  I try to reach out to the other learning styles in the room, but visual spatial is my default setting.  And then I have some female students out there looking for a role model of a strong, positive, confident woman.  I can get them on board through sheer force of personality.  But, there are students that will always be politely sitting through my class, but they aren’t buying. They might need a nurturer who calls them sweetie and keeps snacks in her desk drawer, or a teacher that connects with them on a personal level.  My perky professionalism might seem inauthentic; maybe I remind them of their annoying aunt.  It’s personal, but it’s not.  Unlike business or the movies, we can’t cut our losses and move to a different target market or audience.  For the next 89 days, I will try my best to win over those recalcitrant members of my audience.  It’s kind of exhausting, actually.  But, those first few moments and impressions are extremely powerful and often predictive.

If we reward the teachers who consistently connect with the largest segment of students, we might get what I call “blockbuster” instruction.  It’s tempting, but might have unintended consequences.  Like directors who manufacture the hit summer movie and can reap huge profits, would instruction take on the same “formulaic” tone?  And would this benefit kids who need to learn to interact with a diversity of people in positions of authority?  Just as we treasure independent and documentary films- and would be outraged by an artistic space that made their existence impossible- so should we be skeptical of any attempt to blot out individuality in our classrooms.  That unique teacher in room 205 might not appeal to the majority, but her presence might be a lifeline to a minority of students that don’t respond to the most popular teachers in the school.   Her appeal may not be broad, but she may be doing more to stem the dropout rate than we can ascertain using “data metrics”.

I’ve made my peace with the fact that SAS is right.  I’m a good teacher, and a bad teacher, and a “meh” one.  But here’s the catch:  It’s at the same time, in the same space, with the same “audience”.  Just like the movies.  And just as we will not tolerate a narrowing of the type of performance we allow in the entertainment industry, we should not allow that trend to overtake our classrooms.  Perhaps we should quit paying SAS millions of dollars to show us what is obvious, and we should apply those funds to approaches that will attract highly qualified teachers of all types to our state’s classrooms, and keep them there.

Why We Must Vote

October, 2014

For decades, North Carolina has been a leader in public education in the south. Legislators worked together across the aisle to recruit and retain quality educators not just from North Carolina, but from across the country. Bipartisanship helped to pull North Carolina from near the bottom of national measures of education to the national average. Public education became the cornerstone for progress, attracting businesses and families from across the country to establish new roots and new beginnings, adding to the promise of North Carolina’s future.

Republicans have typically been known as the “fiscally responsible” party – at least in relation to the Democrats. But education has also traditionally been a value for Republicans in North Carolina. An educated workforce is the cornerstone of a strong economy. When companies and businesses have a skilled pool of workers to choose from, innovation is the result. For decades, North Carolina has led the south in public education. Strong leadership in the governor’s office and in the General Assembly has adopted this philosophy to attract companies and entire industries to our state.

But in 2014, North Carolina is falling behind our neighbors in public education and is losing businesses and industries to competing states that can offer a sound public education system with the promise for innovation and economic growth. Many things have been said recently regarding public education in North Carolina, but only the numbers cut through the rhetoric and get to reality. As John Adams said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

Since 2008, the number of students enrolled in North Carolina Public Schools has increased by 2.3% but the number of teachers has decreased by 2.6% (a total of 2,510). This can only mean more students per teacher: 5% more (that is 1-2 students more per teacher). For decades, study after study demonstrate that smaller class sizes increase student learning because teachers can dedicate more time to each student. How do you make sure to recruit and retain teachers? Just like in any field, give them an incentive to enter the teaching profession or give them an incentive to stay once they have chosen to teach. Instead, North Carolina has chosen to do the opposite. Over the same time period (2008 to present) state funding for public education has decreased by roughly $100 million. Are you asking yourself, “By how much is that number inflated? What has been the rate of inflation over that time?” An important question! Adjusted for inflation, the $100 million is actually $965 million in real dollars, a decrease of 13.6%! Per school, that amounts to a decrease of $156,000 or, adjusted for inflation,$838,000. Per student, $1,300 inflation-adjusted dollars.

Why do our schools lag behind? Why is North Carolina racing to the bottom when it comes to public education? The state’s choice to not adequately fund public schools is the opportunity cost for changes in the tax code geared to benefit private sector businesses and the wealthy. The General Assembly has eliminated the graduated personal income tax system in favor of a lower flat tax of 5.8% in 2014 and will be 5.75% in 2015; the wealthy, more able to contribute to the society as a whole, will shoulder less of the burden. Corporate income taxes have been cut from 6.9% to 5% by 2015 making NC more attractive to relocating businesses but when they seek educated and skilled labor they will be hard pressed to find it. North Carolina spends $495 less per student than it did in six years ago and ranks seventh among 14 states in which 2014-15 per-pupil funding is more than 10 percent lower than in 2008 when the recession hit. (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities). According to a NC Justice Center report, the money spent this school year on public education falls $277 million short of what is needed to maintain the same service levels in place two years ago. And Public Schools First NC’s fact sheet, Impact of the 2013-15 State Budget, notes that budget cuts have dramatically impacted the number of teacher assistant positions, classroom materials, and instructional supplies; textbooks are funded at an unrealistic $20 per student.

While our government has decided that faceless businesses, some responsible for the financial collapse, are too big to fail, they have decided that our children are not. Billions of dollars can be spent to rescue businesses, but cuts continue when it comes to our children and their future. We must take a stand and let our representatives know that our children, their potential, and the potential for North Carolina are “too big to fail.” North Carolina’s future needs a bailout. It needs to be rescued from the grip of politics and special interests on Jones Street. That bailout will take the form of the votes from the people who are tired of the corruption in Raleigh. It will come from the votes of those who will go to the polls to take back their government and their political parties from the extreme factions buying our legislators and give North Carolina a chance to rise again as a leader in the region.

 

Matt Caggia

Social Studies Teacher

Leesville Road High School

Wake County

 

Four Bad Arguments Against Common Core

September, 2014
As a high school English teacher, I am not a blind supporter of the Common Core State 
Standards (CCSS). I do recognize that there are flaws inherent within any system of
standardization. But some of the arguments I’ve heard are less than stellar.
Here are my favorites:
1.“The Common Core Curriculum is…” Stop right there. The Common Core isn’t a
curriculum but a set of standards. Wake County has its own curricula, and my course
syllabus and pacing guides are my own. Furthermore, how I teach what I teach is up to
me. I’m not required to teach specific texts — the standards suggest teaching
“Shakespeare as well as other authors.” And whether teaching Macbeth or Hamlet,
Common Core is only concerned that I help my students meet the standard.
“Whatever. The Common Core Standards, then, force all teachers to teach a certain
way.”
Again, I must disagree. In my experience, we have been encouraged to include more
informational texts, which is cool, and we have worked with the county to develop
performance based tasks as evaluation tools rather than multiple choice tests. Also
cool. My students find these things difficult. They also find them rewarding.
“Why will I need to know Hamlet in ten years?”
they ask.
“Um…because Hamlet is awesome and will help
you appreciate literature and gain cultural
literacy…” is usually my answer. “Why will I need to know how to write a resume?” or
“When will I ever use these strategies for understanding a political speech or
argument?” are not questions I get often.
2. and 3. “The standards are dumbing down the kids”/ “The standards are too hard for
the kids”
According to Glenn Beck’s website, “Many teachers, educators, and parents believe
Common Core is dumbing down America’s children.” At the same time, some find the
standards too hard. In a piece for WUNC, Reema Khrais featured parent Andrea Dillon
who “says Common Core is not developmentally appropriate for her son. ‘Just for an
example, they’re doing persuasive writing pieces in first-grade where he has to have an
opening sentence, three supporting sentences and a closing argument for a text he’s read,
and he has to do that on his own – he’s seven,’ she said.”
So which is it? Too simple or too difficult?
In the case of the first grade, the writing standards stipulate that students have “guidance
and support from adults” while learning to write, not on their own. But specific standard
arguments aside, this is not a Common Core problem. The fact that we have any standards at all necessarily means that some kids will find the standards “too easy” and
some will find them “too hard.” That’s what happens when one creates a standard. It’s
my job as a teacher to push the students who have surpassed the standards forward, and
to work hard to bring the kids below standard up to par.
The point is that no “standard” is going to be just right for all of the kids all of the
time. This is why we differentiate; we tailor assignments to meet students at their
level. Getting rid of the Common Core State Standards would do nothing to solve this
problem, mainly because North Carolina adopted the CCSS to replace our own – which
were deemed too simple, “dumbed down”, and not adequate enough to prepare our
students to compete nationally or globally. Speaking in support of the standards, the NC
Chamber, a nonpartisan voice for advocating businesses, calls them “high, globally
competitive standards that North Carolina students will need to compete for the jobs of
tomorrow.” Choruses of NC leaders have also voiced their support, something that didn’t
happen with the old standards.
4. “Getting rid of Common Core will help with the whole standardized testing situation.”
A great article by Rethinking Schools condemns the Pearson Inc.-developed Common
Core tests. It goes on to present a horror story of a testing situation, reporting that
“Students reported feeling overstressed and underprepared—meeting the tests with shock,
anger, tears, and anxiety. Administrators requested guidelines for handling tests students
had vomited on. Teachers and principals complained about the disruptive nature of the
testing process and many parents encouraged their children to opt out.” And teachers,
parents, and school boards are making the news for protesting these ridiculous tests.
Pretty cool. I also hate the amount of high stakes testing that we are doing.
But…
NC had high stakes testing well before the CCSS showed up, and I venture to guess that
repealing those standards won’t get rid of testing hereafter. It seems to me that the fight
isn’t about the standards but about the testing. Perhaps there should not be so many
standardized tests. Perhaps teachers shouldn’t spend so much time training students for
these tests. Certainly these tests should not represent such high stakes in a student’s
academic career. Definitely these tests should not be used as a sole indicator of a
teacher’s effectiveness. Either way, the argument that equates the standards with the
testing is overlooking North Carolina’s educational history since 1993 – well before Gates
got into the education game.
In the end, I respect a healthy dialogue about standards and I’m proud to be part of a
dynamic community that believes passionately in doing what is best for our students. I
do not doubt many on all sides of the controversy are thinking of the children, but I
cannot see what a complete repeal of the Common Core State Standards – which have
taken tons of money and time to implement – is going to do to solve many of the issues
raised by opponents. As the Academic Standards Review Commission meets to begin
reviewing the standards, I urge them to leave behind fallacious arguments and to address
the real issues behind these complaints that are facing our students and our state.
Alicia Burnette Whitley

Why Taking The High Road Can Make All the Difference in Parent-Teacher Communication

September, 2014

Most of us have been there. We’ve had the teacher who didn’t give our child (or us!) the grade we thought was deserved. Some of us have listened to the counselor say that our child should be in a standard-level class rather than the honors hoped for. And most of us have voiced our opinions or heard opinions expressed about these disappointments. Sometimes, however, these comments can sting or even do lasting damage.

This is a vulnerable time for public education and especially for public school teachers. We are, in fact, at a crucial crossroads as to where public schools are headed in our near future. What parents say and how they say it can greatly impact teacher morale. As critical allies of public schools, parents can do a lot of good by choosing the high road when faced with the choice between a positive, supportive comment and a disparaging one. Consider a few scenarios where you might encounter this dilemma:

At the bus stop with several parents, you hear the kids discussing something that happened during the school day. Some of you disagree with what a teacher has done or said at school and the conversation immediately turns negative. Instead of joining in, here’s an alternative: say to the other parents involved, “Let’s step away from the kids and discuss this further.” When you disparage teachers in front of children, your negative judgment gives them license to disrespect educators in the school setting.

In following up that bus stop conversation, another parent decides to let that teacher know exactly what he thinks. Please suggest that he give the teacher the benefit of the doubt. What a child comes home and purports happened may not be the entire story. Please encourage others to ask what happened rather than accuse. At a parent-teacher conference, you disagree with a teacher’s assessment that your child would perform better in a certain level class over another. Your child is upset with this evaluation and, understandably, you want to support him. Ask the teacher what led her to this conclusion. If a teacher believes your child might have the ability but has not yet shown the work ethic, ask what she has observed in class. Instead of denouncing a teacher’s assessment, communicate with her as a professional and ask how you can work with her to develop a plan that will help your child be successful in her class.

As you read comments shared in an email or posted on Facebook on teacher and/or class selection at your child’s school, you notice various pessimistic comments. Bashing public school teachers has become en vogue, whether in a social media comment (“Why does my child always get THE WORST teacher in the school??”) or a post-article discussion forum (“If they wanted to make more money, they should get a different job and stop complaining.”). As a supporter of public education, do not allow yourself to get stuck in the quagmire of this insult.

Even if you have concerns, voicing them over social media or in front of your child will not make a positive change, if any change at all. Instead wait until you meet the teacher and see how your child does in the class. If you notice problems, schedule a conference right away.

On your lunch break you and a friend compare your children’s homework load and grades. She says she has no idea how her child is doing because the teacher is non-communicative. Please suggest to her that she go online and check her child’s class website, Dojo, or Edmodo page. Ask her if she attended Open House or Meet the Teacher where teachers often disseminate much of that information. If her child has grades posted on PowerSchools, by all means, she should log on and get a password. Above all parents should find out how grades are assigned and posted and communicate directly with the teacher and/or principal with concerns about process.

Your child comes home and immediately settles in to his science homework. He says he wants to get it done because for the first time, he “gets it.” He even goes on to say that his teacher explained it so well that he feels confident he is going to do great on the test the following week. Now is the time to say something! Instead of walking away and saying nothing, tell a teacher when he does something effective or uses a strategy that really works with your child. Let a teacher know when something positive happens if you feel he has been part of that process. Those emotional pay raises make teachers believe they can continue another year, another semester, sometimes just another week.

So as you come upon that ubiquitous intersection of negative vs. affirmative teacher talk, let your GPS (maybe that stands for “Great Public Schools”!) take you the right way. Find the positive in your child’s school and teachers so that you and they can collaboratively build a supportive environment, relationship, and expectations for your child to thrive.

 

Heather Dinkenor

North Carolina English Teacher

NBCT

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