Monday, June 15, 2015

Chris Christie Opts Out of Common Core

Hespe and Christie
How might we go about "revising" the Common Core?

I have an image I cannot get out of my head. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is moonwalking down the boardwalk in Seaside Heights trying to escape US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who is chasing him and waving a copy of the Common Core State Standards Christie signed four years ago, yelling, "Keep walking, keep walking!"

In case you missed it Christie, for years a staunch supporter of the Common Core, has declared the standards null and void in New Jersey. I won't pretend to think that this move is any more than a cynical political ploy designed to increase Christie's appeal to the right wing loonies in his party. I also won't pretend that State Commisioner of Education David Hespe would be a good choice to lead the "revisions." Stuck with the daunting task of explaining Christie's Common Core manuevering to the pro-Common Core State Board of Education, Hespe did not inspire confidence. Hespe promised a "deliberative process", but when pressed on what changes to expect he essentially said, "Well, I wouldn't expect much."

Me, neither. But what if for just a moment we chose to entertain ourselves with the idea that Christie means what he says about including New Jersey teachers and parents in the revision of the new "New Jersey" standards. What might this "deliberative process" look like? What would be some key changes we might want to see in the Common Core?

As far as process is concerned we would want to empower a panel that included public school parents, public school teachers, teacher leaders, public school principals and curriculum directors, college professors from various universities across the state including professors of education, early childhood education experts, representatives from the New Jersey Literacy Association and the New Jersey Association of Mathematics Teachers, and a test and measurement expert or two.

These groups should then open hearings inviting input on the various strengths and weaknesses of the current Common Core and suggestions on what would improve them for New Jersey's students. Hearings would lead to draft standards that could then be field tested in various school districts to see if they truly make sense, can be taught, and are developmentally appropriate for the targeted children. The period of pilot testing would lead to further revisions, public hearings and the adoption of the standards. A provision would then be made for a permanent standards panel empowered to consider amendments and revisions to the standards as they go into force across the state. At this point, the panel might also want to consider developing assessments that measure progress on the standards.

This process, you might notice, has many features that the Common Core process lacked: inclusion of  classroom teachers and parents in the development; inclusion of early childhood experts; open hearings; field testing of standards and a process for revision of the standards. The process also keeps teaching and learning, rather than testing, as the central driving force.

So much for process, what changes to the Common Core document itself would make the most sense?

The first change I would like to see would be in the organizing purpose of the standards. To me, "college and career readiness" is a narrow and limiting target. It is the product of minds focused on global competitiveness rather than human development. A better target for education in a democracy would be to prepare students for a rich and rewarding life as an individual and as a contributing member of society.

Getting down into the weeds of the Core itself, I would hope that the revisions would focus on the developmental appropriateness of the standards from K-8. The Common Core was rather famously built from the perspective of the college freshman on down, a process that inevitably lead to developmentally inappropriate expectations for younger children. If the New Jersey panel, with its early childhood experts, could instead focus on ranges of appropriateness, rather than grade level appropriateness,  the standards would be infinitely better. It is simply not possible to have rigid grade level standards for young children. Every elementary classroom is filled with students at various developmental levels and standards must acknowledge this fact and be able to accommodate this reality.

The Common Core emphasis on rigor, text complexity and close reading has been interpreted in many quarters as a call for all children to be reading harder texts harder. The architects of the Common Core have been complicit in this perception with some of their pronouncements and You Tube video model lessons. A more thoughtful implementation process could have prevented this, but I would like the revised New Jersey standards to address the issue more clearly. It must be clear through the revised standards that rigor, in the words of Robert Probst and Kylene Beers, is an "artifact of instruction and not of the text."  In other words we provide rigorous instruction without giving students texts that are beyond their ability to read and comprehend.

Further, the New Jersey Core should make it clear that background knowledge is central to reading comprehension. The chief architect of the Common Core in English Language Arts, David Coleman, famously declared that "Nobody gives a shit what you think and feel" about what you read. This dismissive attitude toward "reader responses" to their reading is potentially very damaging to student engagement and comprehension of text. It is well established in the research literature that the activation and building of background knowledge, including relating to the text personally, is central to building text understanding

Additionally, the role of fiction in the development of critical thinking and human empathy must be at the center of an ELA curriculum. Again because of a flawed model, which attended to the college freshman rather than the developing mind of the child, the Common Core called for an increase in the reading of informational text. Sandra Stotsky, a leading developer of learning standards, who helped develop the Massachusetts standards that are considered, even by education reformers, to be of the highest quality has had harsh words for the Common Core obsession with informational text.

A diminished emphasis on literature in the secondary grades makes it unlikely that American students will study a meaningful range of culturally and historically significant literary works before graduation. It also prevents students from acquiring a rich understanding and use of the English language. Perhaps of greatest concern, it may lead to a decreased capacity for analytical thinking.

I will let my math colleagues weigh in on the weaknesses in the Common Core math standards. For now, if Chris Christie is serious about having New Jersey educators and parents involved in the process of creating New Jersey standards and if Commisioner Hespe is serious about providing a deliberative process, then they should be sure that the process and product concerns cited here are addressed.

I am not holding my breath, but I think if the process falls short of the expectations outlined here, all New Jersey parents and educators should cry foul all the way to the statehouse in Trenton.