Monday, January 6, 2014

Please Stop Saying There Are Fewer Standards

I wish I could just watch TV and stop reading. Life would be so much easier.

I've been looking through this December 10 statement from the state superintendent of public instruction, basically to see if there's anything in there that's true.

And I can't find anything worth mentioning.

It's about the Common Core, so it's bound to be full of nonsense, and it is, but I'd like to focus in on just a couple of things that I hear frequently and that I've never been able to clarify. So if you're out there, and you're a reformist believer, or if you're just an in-the-know reality-based person, can you possibly clear these things up for me?

Ok, first there's this, from whoever writes Chris Koch's material:

The recently named Illinois Teacher of the Year, Pam Reilly, a second grade teacher in Sandwich Community Unit School District 430, conceded that she often found it difficult to teach to the previous Illinois Standards, adopted in 1997, but she said the new standards provide the clarity and depth necessary for her and her students to succeed.

“I am excited about the collaboration that I now have with teachers in our district as well as teachers across the nation because of our common language and goals through Common Core,” Reilly said. ”We will be able to have meaningful conversations about what is working and what isn’t, and share our ideas for teaching to the Common Core with each other.”

Because there are actually fewer standards, students may cover less material within a single grade, but delve deeper into the most important concepts. For younger students, covering less material will mean that they have a solid foundation in math and ELA before they move on to more advanced topics in middle and high school.

Poor Ms. Reilly, suffering all these years... (the Teacher of the Year is rarely a dissident-- and is it weird that the teachers in her district couldn't collaborate with the old standards? Am I reading into it?)  I'm glad the future is looking brighter for her and for our great nation, but let me just have another look at the number of standards before and after the whole Arne Duncan era, and yes, I realize the number claim is coming from Koch, not from her.

In the 1997 standards, and I'm counting the ELA and math standards here, I find a total of 66 separate standards at second grade (I'm using the Early Elementary category.)

In the Common Core Standards, when I count the ELA and math standards, I find a total of 67 separate standards at second grade.

In other words, there are actually more standards now for a second grade teacher who is dealing with ELA and math. I could do each grade level if you like. It's a pattern, but I haven't proved it at each level yet because I'm busy with two webinars, a forum, and two large, ravenous dogs.

So how is it that people like Chris Koch keep saying that there are fewer standards?

Is it possible that this "fewer standards" meme is based on the idea that the 1997 standards also included standards in fine arts, physical development and health, foreign languages, science, and social science (fields that are not yet in the Common Core)? If so, it's strange that I haven't heard any superintendent come out and say, "We're not doing those things any more." If school districts want to come out and say, "You know, EFF those other things--- we're ONLY DOING THE COMMON CORE THINGS," then there's possibly room for the "fewer standards" meme to be true.

All public schools [with elected boards] are still doing fine arts, physical development and health, foreign languages, science, and social sciences. What isn't clear is whether or not those fields have any official standards in Illinois any more. Or if they have a future, frankly, given the standardized testing universe we're creating. I suppose districts could come out and say, "Yes, we're still doing all these other things but we're dumping their standards and just sort of winging it!" and in that way the "fewer standards in the Core" meme could become true.

It may also be that the "fewer standards" meme is based on the fact that the 1997 standards were later supplemented with extensive performance descriptors for each standard, to be used by districts on a voluntary basis only, and designed to give teachers a rubric for determining how well kids were doing vis a vis each standard. It may have looked to teachers like these were new standards but alas, they weren't. They were a tool for people developing material.

The performance descriptors are insanely comprehensive, and I'm guessing that's what frustrated people, including, I'm guessing, a certain Teacher of the Year. But they were basically a rubric for curriculum development and for talking intelligently about how kids were doing when measured against the learning standard. Personally, while I hated wading through all the verbiage as a busy young teacher, what I liked about them over time was that they recognized that there's going to be a range of achievement at every age and grade level. The 1997 learning standards themselves also recognized that there's going to be a range of achievement.

The Common Core standards don't recognize a range. They have a behavior listed for each grade level and presumably kids will be either be able to do this behavior or will be FAILING and their teachers will need to be crucified because they aren't "adding value"based on the "local growth model" or whatever they're calling it.*

So, to clarify and summarize, the truth of the matter is that at second grade, no matter what the state superintendent says, there is now actually one more standard to cover when you look at ELA and math combined.  This statement is probably also true at whatever grade you're interested in.

More standards, not fewer, if you're comparing ELA and math, 1997 versus Common Core.

The other thing that's bugging me about the superintendent's statement on January 10 (it's a statement full of untruths) is this one:

The Illinois Learning Standards for English Language Arts and Math, adopted in 2010 and based on the Common Core, establish clear, consistent and high expectations for what students should know in these two core subjects at each grade level, from kindergarten through grade 12, throughout Illinois, one of 45 states that has voluntarily adopted the standards.

Based on the Common Core? Like we tweaked the Common Core or something? It's misleading. The "Illinois Learning Standards for English Language Arts and Math" are the Common Core Standards. They aren't based on the Common Core Standards. The only thing Illinois did was change the name and wait in vain for the RttT money to roll in because federal ed policy is now based on a lottery mentality.

I don't blame him for renaming the standards, given the press the Common Core has been getting, but let's not mislead people. He and the governor signed up for the Common Core standards as is because that's what the deal was to compete in Race To The Top. The whole "voluntary" thing should make you snort with disdain, if you're given to snorting.

This post is getting way longish. I have a ton more to say about the 1997 ELA standards being better than the store-bought Common Core standards, because they were (and still are) better in every single respect, although they're way, way less uptight.  The Common Core ELA standards are better if you A) have a pole stuck somewhere and B) expect all kids to be these little pre-packaged, highly similar, compliant, verbally gifted automatons on the same learning timeline.

[NB. Just counted 8th grade ELA standards:

Common Core 8th Grade Standards: 68 separate standards, but really, an ELA teacher would be looking at only 38 separate standards because 30 of the total would be for other teachers, probably. So let's say 38. Except that within the 38, I count 19 seriously differentiated bullet points. But let's keep it at 38 just so it's clean. 

The 1997 ELA Standards for 8th Grade: (I'm using Middle/Junior High School): 39 Total. 

So, there is precisely one fewer standard in the Common Core ELA when compared to the 1997 ELA standards, and that's overlooking 19 seriously differentiated bullets. So, I'm declaring the "fewer standards" thing to be officially bullshit, at least in the ELA standards. Because one fewer standard does not merit a robotically repeated meme. Of course, if you were just blindly counting standards by grade level, the Common Core would have 30 more standards than the 1997 standards but that would be dishonest.]

*Weirdly, the almost-tacked-on Standards For Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects (beginning on p. 59) are banded into multiple grade levels (recognizing a range), in contrast with the rest of the standards. It gives me the impression that they just sort of gave up when it came to writing fussy language arts standards into other subject matters; maybe it was taking too long. In other words, in English Language Arts classes, there's a very specific little behavior kids are supposed to evidence at that grade level, but in, say, history class, you can evidence that behavior over 2-3 years. Whatever. I'm glad it provides clarity to someone, somewhere, regardless of whether it makes sense or not.

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