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NHPR’s series on the Common Core: a missed opportunity, so far

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I have been visiting New Hampshire schools to tell the story of how they reach poor kids and help them learn.  As a byproduct of those visits and many conversations with educators, I’ve had a window into how they have approached implementing the new Common Core State Standards.  Here is one good example, as part of a larger piece about the New Franklin Elementary School in Portsmouth.

Most parents and voters don’t have the time to devote to this stuff, so I’ve looked forward to this week’s NHPR series that would explain the Common Core State Standards and New Hampshire’s experience in rolling them out.  I anticipated that we would have an important report on an important subject by one of the most important media outlets in the State.  People are listening hard and need to know what their schools are doing.

But now that the first three of the five stories have aired, I have to say it’s begun to look like a missed opportunity.  While the report is not agenda-driven or radically misleading, listeners are getting an off-kilter introduction to the Common Core standards story.

The Common Core State Standards are a long term project, led by the National Governors Association, to improve the achievement of American students.  Recently, the standards have become politically controversial.  But instead of doing a series on the standards, and reporting on the controversy in that context, NHPR has done a series on the controversy.

My own view, based on my school visits, is that teachers and students are thriving as the standards roll out.  It’s still early days, but the Common Core standards have proven to be a good thing so far in New Hampshire.  Even so, I think the controversy deserves a full airing and that educators must respond to the educational issues raised.  But the NHPR series has muddied the waters by presenting too little of value about the standards themselves, focusing on some of the froth in the controversy and often failing to get qualified commenters.

Here’s what I mean.

The first installment started right off with how the controversy came up at a Kelly Ayotte town hall meeting, quoting a questioner:

“I’m very concerned about this Common Core. It takes all the rights away from the states and put it smack dab into Washington, how do we get rid of this thing?” asked a woman from the crowd and got ringing applause in response.

Why start there?  The Common Core State Standards are an important subject in themselves.  There’s no need for a news hook like a controversy.

The report goes on to mischaracterize the controversy, saying:

“That concern is part of a growing conservative backlash to the Common Core Standards, which are being phased into New Hampshire schools right now.”

Actually, the opposition to the Common Core standards goes across ideological lines.  Diane Ravitch, no conservative, is a very vocal opponent, as are most others who agree with her on education issues.  On the other hand, President Obama and the very conservative Jeb Bush and his “Foundations for Excellence in Education” group support the Common Core standards.  Here is Jeb Bush’s effective knock-down of the anti-Common Core arguments.

So in the very first minute, the report starts in the middle of the controversy and sets the listener up for confusion about who stands where.  The discussion of the opposition and the credible objections they raise deserves a more serious treatment than that.

Then the report steps back and says, what is the Common Core?  After a couple of short snippets, the reporter says:

“…This is basically what the common core is, a big list of skills like that only for English and Math.”

The Common Core Standards include skill and knowledge but are actually more than that, demanding that students use skills and knowledge to demonstrate competence in performing certain English and math tasks.  In fact, a key benefit is that the standards get away from guiding curricula with long lists of skills and knowledge and, instead, strive to create a coherent structure.
But the standards are mysterious to people.  It would have been worth some demystification before moving on.  Instead, the report slides back into “the roots of the backlash,” saying,
“For many opponents, the Common Core Initiative is a direct descendent of liberal efforts to enact a national curriculum in decades past.”
True enough, but that’s one small thread in a much larger dynamic.  There are many sources for a more accurate perspective, but here’s one.  There no need to cover that whole controversy in detail, but whatever time is allotted should have been grounded in reality.
The question of where the Common Core came from is important because many opponents characterize the standards as a federal power grab.  The report confuses the matter, saying:

“The impetus for the Common Core was that because every state had its own standards and its own tests, there tended to be some dramatic discrepancies.”

The impetus actually came in 2008 from the publication of the 2006 PISA results in which the US did poorly.  I recently did this post featuring a seminal address by Uri Treisman about how American schools should be better in teaching math to poor and minority children.  The first few minutes are about the genesis of the Common Core.  He’s got great authority.  He was there.

And the story goes on to say,

“The federal government was not directly involved.”

Ahh, some will say, but was the federal government indirectly involved?  The answer is “no,” although the Obama administration now supports the standards.  The report should be clear about this key issue rather than leaving the question hanging.

The second report then features the “widening backlash” about something that is really still a mystery to the listener:

Support and opposition to the Common Core does not break down cleanly along party lines. On the one hand, Florida’s Republican governor Jeb Bush is a big supporter of the standards, as are many liberal politicians.

On the other hand, many educators are skeptical of the entire “education reform” movement, and while their reasons differ,  they find that they have some strange bedfellows. Folks like conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck have been hammering away at the Common Core and its associated testing for some time. “You are going to be data-mined; your kid is going to be monitored; their brains are going to be scanned by MRIs!” Beck declared on a recent show.

“…brains scanned by MRIs?”  Glenn Beck is a non-sequitur.  He is a supporter of “education reform,” not a strange bedfellow with its opponents.  And he’s an odd choice to cite since he’s not a factor in the education debate.

These two paragraphs are confusing because they treat the standards as if they were part of the “education reform” agenda.  Actually, the Common Core standards are an independent initiative.  Many states and their educators reject the current “education reform” movement but are committed to the Common Core standards.  New Hampshire, for example,  does not buy into the reformist principles of harsh test driven-teacher evaluation, teachers and unions as the enemy, summary closure of low performing schools and heavy commitment to charters and private school vouchers – but the State committed early and strongly to the Common Core.

The report goes on to feature concern about “data-mining,” saying:

Manchester resident, Lisa Gravel turned to address a group of students who came to protest the cutting of AP classes. She told them “they’re going to be asking you information about your parents like what kind of political signs do you put in their yard. You know, that’s none of their business….

John Avard takes up their concerns….[saying]”This whole issue with the data mining is not founded.”

Data privacy does get brought up peripherally in connection with Common Core testing, but is not an issue relevant to the standards themselves.  It could have been put to bed in two sentences, if at all, to make room for the serious objections.

For instance, education reporter John Merrow raises a concern that “what doesn’t get tested, doesn’t get taught,” which I respond to in this post.  The story would have done NHPR listeners a greater service by reporting on these kinds of real issues rather than the politically motivated sideshow.

Then, the report entirely misses the opportunity to review real concerns educators have about the standards themselves, saying that,

Conservative critics like Ann Marie Banfield, with the New Hampshire conservative advocacy group Cornerstone Action, say the common Core is not rigorous enough. “That’s the question I think every parent should ask. Why are we settling for mediocrity?” she said in a recent interview.

Ann Marie Banfield is not qualified to be quoted on the quality of the Common Core State Standards.  There is plenty of debate among informed educators, but “mediocrity” is not one of the serious criticisms.

The report on the “Common Core controversy” ends with someone throwing up her hands at the whole debate – as the listener to these reports would probably do at this point:

I asked [Karen Jones] how she felt about the new standards. She lets out a long “umm” before saying, “it’s worth a shot, and I have faith in the people that run that committee that put all the work into it. So I’m putting my faith in them and I think it’ll be a good thing.”

Ultimately, every parent has to put their faith in the people educating their kids, and as the common core rolls out, it will be no different.

And then today’s report leads off this way:

One thing that visiting schools makes abundantly clear is that companies are jostling to make money off of helping schools make that change. In Donna Palley’s office at the Concord School Administrative Unit, with only a few weeks left in the school year, the boxes of text books keep rolling in.

Why would this be the lead?  The have always been textbook salesmen, but the idea that New Hampshire teachers will get their new curricula out of a box is just not real.

The report goes on:

Of the dozen or so teachers contacted for this story, almost all say they think the higher expectations of the Common Core are a positive development. But they are also uneasy, faced with big shifts in instruction and eventually a whole new regime of standardized tests.

….

For some teachers, the demands of these standards push them beyond unease. One, who asked us not to use his name fear of losing professional standing in his district, said: “Teachers are asked to produce more with less, year after year, and heaping the common core on top of that ever-growing pile really means less time spent by teachers preparing lessons, developing interesting projects, and providing meaningful feedback on student work.  In the end, it really just seems counterproductive.”

And on and on, from the many New Hampshire teachers who have not yet traveled the full path and begun teaching to the new standards.  There are highly engaged educators all over the State who are experienced in implementing the new standards and could provide great war stories that would give the public real information to chew on.

Tomorrow’s installment is on testing, a more controversial topic on which there is less real information because it will not start for awhile.  I hope it’s “the testing controversy.”

 


2 Comments

  1. johnmack34 says:

    Thank you for a very informative article/

    j.e.mack

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