“I feel like a failure”, one of our top teachers muttered with downcast eyes. They had just gotten a glimpse of the data trickling out from the latest tests in California, the first that reflected the new, more rigorous, Common Core curriculum standards. This from a teacher who is on top of their game, has high expectations, is 110% committed, and historically has shown very strong outcomes for students. Now those proficiency numbers are being cut in half.
As the scores are released in the next few weeks statewide, we can expect to hear a chorus of similar sentiments, further emphasized by the collective groans from families, who will learn, that their previously proficient student, is no longer so. It’s also likely that disadvantaged students will fall the furthest, if results in other states are predictive. This is ultimately bitter medicine, whose administration and sourness falls mainly on the teachers and students. And we need to work to get beyond the pain of this moment to realize the gains that the new curriculum promises.
These new standards are another ball game, with an emphasis on critical thinking and deeper understanding rather than rote memory and superficial test taking skills. And the transitions will be painful, teachers who have had their practice narrowed by No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and more scripted curricula, are being asked to do a 180, to differentiate lessons for all students, and to teach to a much deeper and more complex set of standards, which ultimately rests on students being literate and developing critical thinking skills. We have moved from tee ball to the majors in the space of a year.
So given the discouraging effects on teachers, students, families, and the likely disproportionate impact on disadvantaged students, why would I support the Common Core? Because what we have done for the last decade in NCLB has been a lie and a fraud. States had to promise to reach 100% student proficiency by 2014 to get federal funding, so did they? A) raise the bar and support for high quality teaching, B)increase funding and support in research based ways, C)lower standards D) teach to the tests.
C and D are largely the correct answers. And this lie is not without a cost, roughly 68% of students entering CSU need remedial courses, despite doing everything the State required, they are not academically ready for college. They pay for these classes, but don’t get credit, and disadvantaged students are more likely to need remedial classes. So we have been lying to students and families for a while now, and the jig is up. Our long developing tab is being called for collection, and those holding the bag; current students, families, and educators will bear the cost unless we take some of that burden.
So what can we do? First, reframe the debate, where teachers and students are not “failures”, and we must develop accurate mechanisms to measure progress, taking account of where students are starting. We had a middle school student, who was new to the US, had intermittently attended school in their home country and did not recognize words like “and” and “the” on sight. This student, realistically, will take some time to reach proficiency in even the best of circumstances, and they nor their teacher is a “failure.”
Second, schools need more supports, and learning needs to extend beyond the traditional school day and school year. A place like Oakland is its own museum, laboratory, and canvass. There are literally hundreds of opportunities for students to be engaged in informal learning year round, from Lake Merritt, to the shoreline, the parks in the Hills, not to mention the diverse array of businesses and non- profits. There are tens of thousands of residents who are dedicated to making Oakland better and have some time they could regularly give to schools and students. We need to find ways to identify our vast human and social capital and to align it and mobilize it for students.
In the end, teachers and students are not “failures.” We are for setting them up, and we have to do better to create the conditions for success, rather than trying to blame and shame those left holding the bag.