Thursday, June 27, 2013

Common Core: Teaching to the New Test – PART I

By Mary Grabar | June 13, 2013 

This originally appeared here and I wish to thank Mary for allowing me to publish her work.  There are three parts to this series and all three are posted here.  Please take the time to read these articles thoroughly.  RK  
It took the sleeping giant a while to figure out what was going on with the Common Core (so-called) State Standards. Put together largely by a well-connected Washington, D.C., non-profit called Achieve, these education “standards” were attached to the Race-to-the-Top contest in 2009 for $4.35 billion in stimulus funds. Forty-eight states entered the contest. Today, promoters claim 45 states plus the District of Columbia are still signed up, but a bipartisan grassroots effort is changing this.
While Alaska, Nebraska, Virginia and Texas refused to adopt Common Core standards, the Michigan governor signed legislation passed by both houses that defunds Common Core. In Indiana and Pennsylvania, lawmakers have voted to pause on implementation. Seven other states are presenting serious challenges, and the Republican National Committee recently adopted a resolution rejecting the standards.
Common Core defenders seem to be a bit surprised that the public should even notice. They have been pushing back with op-eds in the Wall Street Journal and other places.
The New Math
In the May 6 Wall Street Journal, UCLA mathematics professors Edward Frenkel and Hung-His Wu began their attack on the RNC’s resolution—“Republicans Should Love ‘Common Core’”—with claims that could have come from a sales brochure. Common Core standards, they insisted, are “rigorous academic standards in mathematics and English language arts” that are the “culmination of a meticulous, 20-year process initiated by the states and involving teachers, educators, business leaders and policy makers from across the country and both sides of the aisle.”
The Common Core standards are needed, they warned, to halt a “deep crisis” in math education, which is coming from a “fraction-phobia,” which in turn arises from “incomprehensible and irrelevant textbooks” that explain fractions by using pizza slices or “ill-defined notions like ratio.” Their own presumably superior explanations involve ratios “defined geometrically as points on a number line,” with multiplication then being “the area of the rectangle formed by the two line segments.”
My Ph.D. is in English but I understood the “concept of ratios” in sixth grade, as well as the formula for multiplying numerators and denominators. I do not follow their explanation.
Common Core also confuses students and their parents by stressing word problems and explanations over understanding concepts and formulas. Students who do not come up with the correct answers can acquire partial credit for explanations—offering a ready means of closing the “achievement gap,” the overriding goal of the Obama Department of Education. Parents across the country are alarmed, though, when their children who do the math correctly only get partial credit when they do not provide explanations using the educators’ jargon and charts. For example, one school boy had points taken off even though he correctly identified one bridge as being longer than another. The reason? He did not “explain” why through the elaborate codes and byzantine drawings that Common Core demands.
Earlier this year, educator James Shuls, in his article for Education News, “Why We Need School Choice,” explained why he had to withdraw his children from their public school: administrators refused to consider his pleas to return to the simpler pre-Common Core math. (He reproduces some of their homework assignments in his article.)
Barry Garelick, who is credentialed to teach middle school and high school math, in his article, “The Pedagogical Agenda of Common Core Math Standards,” in the same publication, reported that at seminars on implementation “process” still trumps “content.” He concludes that adoption of the math standards “will be a mandate for reform math—a method of teaching math that eschews memorization, favors group work and student-centered learning, puts the teacher in the role of ‘guide’ rather than ‘teacher’ and insists on students being able to explain the reasons why procedures and methods work for procedures and methods that they may not be able to perform.”
Professors Frenkel and Wu ignore such issues, as well as cost and constitutionality. They instead use a small problem (explanation of fractions) as an excuse to revamp an entire system. Even if their explanations proved to be better than the old ones (giving them the benefit of the doubt) they could simply suggest changes to textbooks or publish new ones. No doubt, in a free marketplace, their superior ideas would prevail.
Common Core for Common Knowledge
Another thin argument for Common Core came a week after Frenkel and Wu’s column. On May 13 the Wall Street Journal published a column by Sol Stern, of the Manhattan Institute, and Joel Klein, former chancellor of New York public schools and currently vice president of News Corp. (parent company of the Wall Street Journal) and CEO of Amplify, the News Corp.’s education division that offers a plethora of Common-Core aligned digital curriculum materials for sale. They wrote that Common Core presents an alternative to “progressive education philosophy,” which “opposes any set curriculum for the schools.”
“Progressives,” they explained, “tend to favor pedagogical approaches in the classroom such as ‘child-centered’ instruction and ‘teaching for social justice,’ rather than rigorous academic content.”
Stern has been a long-time opponent of progressive education and a promoter of E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum program. Hirsch is an old-style liberal whose idea of Cultural Literacy, also the title of his 1987 bestseller, is aptly described by Wikipedia as “the idea that reading comprehension requires not just formal decoding skills but also wide-ranging cultural background knowledge.” Hirsch found that a common knowledge in the sciences and humanities was necessary for cultural cohesion and academic achievement. For this, of course, he was reviled by progressives.
Stern believes Common Core (as “standards”) can be used to adopt the Core Knowledge program that has proven beneficial in the ten schools in which it was implemented in New York City (under the direction of Klein). In the Summer 2012 issue of City Journal, Stern wrote that the “standards” are “creating a historic opportunity to introduce Hirsch’s curriculum to many more schools and classrooms.”
Furthermore, according to Stern, “the standards themselves make clear that they do not constitute a curriculum; they merely state what children should know at the end of each grade level and the skills they must acquire to stay on course toward college or career readiness. Each school system still needs to find a curriculum—that is, the particular academic content taught by teachers from lesson to lesson and from grade to grade—that will help its students achieve the standards.” Common Core, presumably leaves the “content-rich curriculum” up to the districts, while at the same time it refers (quoting from the standards themselves) to “some particular forms of content, including mythology, foundational U.S. documents, and Shakespeare.” Stern seems to be reassured by both the vague references to the classics and promises of freedom allowed to the districts.
But that is not the way the authors of the report evaluating Common Core national tests see it (“On the Road to Assessing Deeper Learning: The Status of Smarter Balanced and PARCC Assessment Consortia,” produced by the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards & Student Testing (CRESST)). The UCLA professors concluded that the new assessments will send “powerful signals to schools about the meaning of the CCSS [Common Core State Standards] and what students know and are able to do. If history is a guide, educators will align curriculum and teaching to what is tested, and what is not assessed largely will be ignored.”
This and what other Common Core testing enthusiasts have said should have injected a jolt of reality into Stern’s and Klein’s wishful thinking. Oddly, as we shall see in the next installment, Part II, they are the very same progressive educators that Stern has opposed in the past. What these progressives mean by tests/assessments is very different from what most of us think.
Common Core: Teaching to the New Test – PART II
Characteristics of “teacher-centered” education include a “core curriculum based on the traditional disciplines,” emphasis on learning content and skills, and letter and/or percentage grades based on tests that determine the student’s aptitude and mastery of the subject matter. Yet, Common Core ignores such research.

By Mary Grabar | June 20, 2013 This originally appeared here
The New Testing Converts
Although scores have slipped and classroom discipline has deteriorated, progressive teachers insist that the classroom of old, with its discipline and tests, was repressive. But with Common Core, suddenly, testing opponents become advocates.
Among the converts is Columbia Teachers College professor Lucy Calkins, whose progressive ideas and programs have been the object of Sol Stern’s attacks. Ironically, last summer, Stern blasted Calkins’s progressive “child-centered” reading and writing program “that disdained content knowledge and any prescribed curriculum.”
Calkins is co-author of the popular Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement. This teacher’s guide decries the “skill and drill” of the previous administration’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program in favor of “deep reading” and “higher-level thinking.”
The publisher, Heinemann, also produces ready-to-go curricular material and offers workshops on Common Core by Calkins and her colleagues.
Another convert to testing is Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, Obama’s education director on his presidential transition team, and Bill Ayers’s choice for Education Secretary, as he campaigned in the Huffington Post in January 2009. She, of course, did not get that job, but was instead put in charge of $176 million of stimulus funds to develop tests under one of two consortia (to bypass the questions of constitutionality that would arise by administering one test).
Darling-Hammond has been promoting Common Core widely. In a 2009 Harvard Educational Review article, she announced that Common Core would eclipse “the narrow views of the last eight years” by encouraging “deep understanding,” employing “multiple measures of learning and performance,” and “developing creativity, critical thinking skills, and the capacity to innovate.” In 2010, in Education Week, she again asserted that her assessment system would go “beyond the recall of facts” (of NCLB testing). These new assessments would show “students’ abilities to evaluate evidence, problem solve and understand context,” she promised.
Preview from Sample Test Questions
Testing will not get underway until the 2014/2015 school year, although at least one state, Arizona, is preparing by incorporating Common Core test questions into its own tests.
But we have a preview of what test questions will be like in Joan Herman and Robert Linn’s previously cited CRESST report. The authors give four examples of test questions offered by the two consortia, PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) and Smarter Balanced (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium), the latter Darling-Hammond’s group.
The first Smarter Balanced Sample Performance Assessment Task for 11th grade English Language Arts uses the topic, “Nuclear Power: Friend or Foe?” This complex and highly contentious (and non-literary) issue is thrust upon teenagers in a 20-minute discussion where the teacher is instructed: “Using stimuli such as a chart and photos, the teacher prepares students for Part 1 of the assessment by leading students in a discussion of the use of nuclear power.” The discussion should entail having students “share prior knowledge about nuclear power” and discuss “the use and controversies involving nuclear power.” Afterwards, for 50 minutes, students are to complete “reading and pre-writing activities,” in which they “read and take notes on a series of Internet sources about the pros and cons of nuclear power.” They then “respond to two constructed response questions” that ask students to evaluate the credibility of the arguments discussed.
The writing assignment directs students to behave as activists as they use 70 minutes to “compose a full-length, argumentative report for their congressperson in which they use textual evidence” to justify their pro or con positions.
The report authors look for DOK, or Norman Webb’s Depth of Knowledge criteria, a favorite measurement tool of progressive educators. DOK distinguishes presumed levels of knowledge, from 1 to 4, broken down as 1) recall, skill/concept, 2) application of concepts, 3) applications requiring abstract thinking, and 4) extended analysis that requires “synthesis and analysis across multiple contexts and non-routine applications. “ Level 1 is the lowly disparaged “skill and drill,” the ability to recall facts. “Deep” and its cognates pepper the Common Core academic, promotional, and sales literature.
Open-ended questions and group projects that test for such high DOK levels, however, open the door to subjective analysis. How does one assess “creativity” and the “capacity to innovate”? The nuclear power assignment allows for only the shallowest kind of analysis when it comes to understanding the science, but records a high level on DOK.
On May 29, the Smarter Balanced consortium also released sample questions. For eleventh grade ELA (English/Language Arts), the questions similarly concerned ideological and trivial questions about public art, meditation, and “sustainable fashion.” The other questions concerned anonymous passages written in a pedestrian prose style or spoken by a computer-generated voice about Ferris wheels, a volcanic island, arachnids, and fluoridation. These questions did not even approach the complexity of content and style associated with classic works of literature.
For sixth-grade math, the CRESST report showcased another activity-based assignment that involved group discussions on “Taking a Field Trip.” The teacher is to introduce students to the topic and “activate prior knowledge of planning field trips” by leading students in a “whole class discussion” about previous field trips and “creating a chart” of the top choices determined by a class vote, “followed by a whole class discussion on the top two or three choices.”
Student tasks then are to: Recommend the place for the field trip, based on the class vote; determine the per-student cost for various choices; evaluate a student’s recommendation about going to the zoo based on a given cost chart; and write a short note to the teacher arguing for a destination.
The next assessment, for PARCC seventh-grade ELA, is based on using textual evidence from books and articles about Amelia Earhart. It seemed to be directed in a feminist direction, i.e., involving discussions about Earhart’s “heroism” as a woman.
The last sample question is a PARCC Performance-Based Mathematics Task Prototype for High School, “Golf Balls in Water,” which, according to the report, “exemplified DOK4 through a multipart investigation of linear relationships using an experiment involving the effect on the water level of adding golf balls to a glass of water.” It is not clear if students are to do this as a group.
The authors of the CRESST report conclude, “the increased intellectual rigor—DOK level—that both consortia’s assessments are intended to embody is both a tremendous strength and a potential challenge to implementation.” While praising the new assessments’ abilities to “address much deeper levels of knowledge, application, communication, and problem solving than do current state assessments,” they note that the “availability of resources” will make a difference in how well they are accepted.
The vendors are standing at the ready to accept “resources” from taxpayers.
The Failure of Constructivist Learning and DOK
As Barry Garelick pointed out (see Part I) in his article criticizing Common Core math, “[students] are called upon to think critically before acquiring the analytic tools with which to do so.” In the nuclear power assignment students are asked to make quick judgments and then act as advocates. Such pedagogy opens the door to indoctrination.
This kind of pedagogy also fails to improve student learning as Paul A. Kirschner, John Sweller, and Richard E. Clark reveal in their 2006 Educational Psychologist article, “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching.” They conclude, “After a half-century associated with instruction using minimal guidance, it appears that there is no body of research supporting the technique. In so far as there is any evidence from controlled studies, it almost uniformly supports direct, strong instructional guidance rather than constructivist-based minimal guidance during the instruction of novice to intermediate learners.”
One of the cited studies found that medical students who used problem-based learning (PBL) made more errors than those who were taught the traditional way. The problem with such minimal guidance pedagogy is that mental energy is wasted as the brain is asked to simultaneously search for knowledge, pull together data, and apply it.
Such studies back up what common sense and hundreds of years of education tell us: that one needs a base of knowledge first in order to know what to look for when conducting research, doing problem-solving, and even reading. This is precisely what E.D. Hirsch found when he first analyzed reading skills: those students who did not have a base of knowledge had difficulty in reading comprehension. E.D. Hirsch’s observations have been borne out by an analysis of studies conducted by the late Harvard education professor Jeanne Chall in her book, The Academic Achievement Challenge. Chall found that the traditional mode of teaching, “teacher-centered,” was more effective in academic achievement than the progressive “student-centered” mode—especially for low-and-middle-income students. Characteristics of “teacher-centered” education include a “core curriculum based on the traditional disciplines,” emphasis on learning content and skills, and letter and/or percentage grades based on tests that determine the student’s aptitude and mastery of the subject matter.
Yet, Common Core ignores such research. In almost every way it follows failed methods of “student-centered” learning by whatever name it goes by—constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, or inquiry-based.
So we need to wonder: do the bureaucrats have a different idea of education in mind? Do they not believe that the purpose of schools is to produce independent, civically engaged adults knowledgeable about science, history and literature, and prepared to employ their skills in writing and math?
The words of the most prominent test developer, the Secretary of Education, and our president, as we shall see, suggest a radically different view. The new “assessments” seem to be intended to eliminate excellence, promote collective thinking, and track “non-cognitive skills.” We’ll take a look at what they have said about such brave new world “assessments” in Part III.
Common Core: Teaching to the New Test- Part III
Common Core replaces individual excellence with collectivism. The rigorous debates between two individuals or two teams are replaced by consensus-building in “democratic” discussions in groups. Short in-class Internet research projects of less than two hours replace the in-depth research papers written individually, and over many days. There is barely time to form one’s own thoughts.
By Mary Grabar  June 27, 2013 - This originally appeared here…..
Common Core’s Promotion of Collectivism and Infantile Tasks
Common Core basically is the “student-centered” learning based on the ideas of progressive education theorist John Dewey, and disproven by the numerous studies analyzed by Jeanne Chall.
As Chall showed in her book, The Academic Achievement Challenge, progressive ideas have not raised academic achievement levels, especially when it comes to the lower and middle classes, where they are used most often. Private schools have consistently produced better results and have relied on a “teacher-centered” model. Now the Obama administration wants to impose standards that produce lower academic achievement on everyone. Call it the great new leveling.
As indication of lower standards, the education bureaucrats are adding a new component to ELA (English/Language Arts) assessments: “Speaking and Listening.”
Teaching “Speaking and Listening” skills is now deemed to be necessary even for eleventh- and twelfth-graders because of supposedly new demands of a 21st century technological age. These speaking and listening skills, however, do not entail public speaking or debate. Rather, they promote the basic behaviors once taught in kindergarten. They infantilize students, while pressuring them to conform to group consensus.
Under Common Core “Speaking and Listening” standards, students are rated under “Comprehension and Collaboration” through three steps. The first is to “initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions . . . with diverse partners on grades 11-12 topics.” Under this criterion are four components: a) preparation for discussion by reading and researching; b) “work with peers to promote civil, democratic discussions and decision-making, set clear goals and deadlines, and establish individual roles; c) propel conversations through posing and responding to questions;” and, d) “respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives.”
The second criterion calls for presenting data in diverse formats and multimedia, evaluating a speaker’s point of view, and then making a clear presentation, with strategic use of digital media. Students are evaluated on how well they adapt “to a variety of contexts and tasks, demonstrating a command of formal English, when indicated or appropriate.”
Note that this is not debate, as traditionally understood, in which debaters prove the superiority of their positions with evidence and delivery. Instead, there is mushy collaboration and uncritical openness to “diverse” perspectives.
Similarly, the writing tasks under Common Core slightly resemble research and writing of yore, but when looked at closely we see that students will be asked to uncritically gather and compile “evidence.” There is no assurance that students will have the needed knowledge to discern among all the information, like Internet sources and random isolated “primary texts,” to be able to make judgments, whether in writing or speaking. Behavioral modification is clearly an intent with the speaking and listening standards, however.
Common Core replaces individual excellence with collectivism. The rigorous debates between two individuals or two teams are replaced by consensus-building in “democratic” discussions in groups. Short in-class Internet research projects of less than two hours replace the in-depth research papers written individually, and over many days. There is barely time to form one’s own thoughts.
The Real Goals of the Test Maker: Closing the “Achievement Gap”
In many ways, Common Core is an attempt to fulfill the Obama administration’s overriding goal of closing the “achievement gap.” President Obama described this goal to parents and students at a townhall in Washington in March 2011, when he said, “’Too often what we have been doing is using [standardized] tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools.’” The March 29, 2011, Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that “Obama said Monday that students should take fewer standardized tests and school performance should be measured in other ways than just exam results.”
Common Core is designed to do that precisely. Short reading assignments in groups ensure that lagging readers keep up. Group projects and projects that presumably test for “creativity” and DOK levels allow for grade redistribution and extra points. (To iterate from Part II, DOK or Norman Webb’s Depth of Knowledge criteria is a favorite measurement tool of progressive educators.)
Linda Darling-Hammond, the Obama education transition team leader, now directing the development of one of the two tests, has been a long-time advocate of closing the achievement gap through such progressive educational strategies.
She discussed it in her November 2009 speech to the Grow Your Own organization in Chicago. The speech was then published in a 2011 collection titled Grow Your Own Teachers. Significantly, this is a title under the Columbia Teachers College “Teaching for Social Justice” series edited by Bill Ayers, the terrorist Weatherman-turned-education-professor, and close Chicago associate of Obama. Echoing her editor’s exaggerated claims and style, Darling-Hammond rejected “the imaginary model classroom where every student is learning in the same way at the same pace at the same time,” for a classroom culture of “revision and redemption.” She insisted, “Students can learn at high levels if they have the opportunity to undertake a challenging task with clear guidance and scaffolding, and if they receive feedback from peers with a rubric so that they can see what the standards are, and then attempt it again. . . .” In Darling-Hammond’s estimation, the opportunities for revision, with the additional help of “scaffolding,” should replace objective testing. Frequent assessment should be aligned to the student’s previous level and should be used only as a guide for future learning–and not to place the student in competition to others. Her vision of academic equity in assessment outcomes aligns with the idea of redistributing funds to poorer school districts, as the Department outlined in the February 27 report, For Each and Every Child—A Strategy for Education Equity and Excellence.
Arne Duncan’s Promises
Darling-Hammond was praised by Education Secretary Arne Duncan in his keynote speech to the American Educational Research Association (AERA) conference this year on April 30. Duncan promised conference goers holding signs protesting against testing that the new Common Core assessments being produced by Darling-Hammond would be to their liking. He mollified them by criticizing the “almost obsessive culture around testing” that hurts the “most vulnerable learners and narrows the curriculum.” He said it was “heartbreaking to hear a child identify himself as ‘below basic’ or ‘I’m a one out of four.’”
Nothing was said about efforts to help such children improve their scores and reach “‘above basic.’” Nor was anything said about high achievers, many of whom have left public schools because of the longtime emphasis on not leaving any child behind.
What was proposed were new assessments, assessments that would test students’ “soft skills” and “non-cognitive skills.” Duncan cited Paul Tough’s “outstanding recent book,” How Children Succeed, as well as “a multitude of studies, and James Heckman’s analysis of the Perry Preschool Project.” Duncan declared that “the development of skills like grit, resilience, and self-regulation early in life are essential to success later in life”—a direct reference to the Education Department’s report, “Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century” that promotes the disturbing ideas of behavioral psychologists interviewed in Tough’s book.
A “sea-change” is underway, Duncan said, thanks to educators’ favorite progressive:
“As Linda Darling-Hammond noted recently, ‘The question for policymakers has shifted down from, “Can we afford assessments of deeper learning” to “Can the United States afford not to have such high-quality assessments?”’”
Duncan’s stated hope in this speech, that a “richer curriculum” would follow these assessments, gives the lie to the idea that Common Core has nothing to do with curriculum.
Darling-Hammond was listed in the program at this AERA conference. Her colleague and collaborator Bill Ayers, who characterized Arne Duncan as “Obama’s ideological soul mate,” was listed on the program as participating in eight different events, including a tribute to Hugo Chavez. They were likely in the audience, nodding in approval to Duncan’s words, and not at all worried that our schools would abandon progressivism for a traditional pedagogy, like E.D. Hirsch’s.
Mary Grabar, Ph.D., has taught college English for over twenty years. She is the founder of the Dissident Prof Education Project, Inc., an education reform initiative that offers information and resources for students, parents, and citizens. The motto, "Resisting the Re-Education of America," arose in part from her perspective as a very young immigrant from the former Communist Yugoslavia (Slovenia specifically). She writes extensively and is the editor of EXILED. Ms. Grabar is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.

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