The atmosphere in our beloved Greenwich Village public schools was not filled with the usual exuberance for learning and discovery over the last few months. April was fast approaching when 3rd – 8th graders would be taking the New York State ELA/Math tests, and everyone knew, especially the kids, that this brand new test would be really tough. Ever since New York State adopted the Common Core standards, along with 45 other states, the NYC Department of Education (DOE) has been bracing schools and parents for a severe drop in ELA/Math test scores, while assuring that “statistical adjustments” would be made in its accountability systems during this “transition year.” However, the helpless feeling from not knowing how the chips will fall when the scores come in only raised anxiety levels, as the reality is that these scores still really mattered – for schools, teachers, and students.
Common Core Fuels Debate and an Industry
In its most theoretical and aspirational form, the Common Core model of education reform is compelling. Just reading from the DOE’s step-by-step facilitator guide for parent meetings to explain the Common Core is inspiring: “to qualify for good jobs in the 21st century, our students need to become good writers…they need to learn how to solve complicated problems…they need to develop their creativity…” Such hope and promise has fueled a Common Core industry, boosting sales at publishers now producing entirely new K-12 curriculum and testing materials. Private and government funding is also flowing to think tanks and non-profits representing a range of Common Core champions and detractors. One non-profit is developing Common Core math curriculum and teacher training programs under contract with New York State, while also commissioning research to prove that Common Core is crowding out art, music, and social studies. It recently launched a 19th century skills movement (how about honor, self-discipline, industriousness, and idealism?).
So Little Time to Cram
In the DOE’s race to roll out Common Core (New York is one of the first states in the U.S. to administer Common Core standardized tests), our elementary and middle school principals and teachers have been inundated with new materials, guidelines, and training. As Rick Hess, the renowned education policy scholar from the American Enterprise Institute, asks, “With a ton of instructional materials billing themselves as aligned with the Common Core, how [will] schools…separate the wheat from the chaff?” Teachers are pleading for implementation to be more streamlined and materials simplified, and there is an overwhelming sentiment that testing students on Common Core standards is premature. As one teacher puts it, “Sure the kids were taught fractions, but not in the Common Core way, and that is what’s on the test.”
Many teachers began scrambling in January to prepare their students, using hours of classroom time to teach new test strategies and give practice tests. “I’ve been preparing non-stop administratively for ELA tests since spring break,” reported a middle school Assistant Principal. One PS 3 parent, an admirer of the “amazingly talented” teachers at the school, empathizes with the intense pressure teachers are under. Still, she longs for the days when “the kids can get back to dissecting flowers.” A Clinton Middle School parent laments, “We are taking the fun out of school with less fiction reading – why does my 5th grader need to know how to read a corporate memo?”
To avoid cannibalizing too much classroom time, test prep was squeezed in before and after school. The Spruce Street School offered “early bird” test prep sessions at 8:00 a.m. before school started. NYC test prep company Bright Kids NYC saw a tripling in students for their ELA/Math prep and spring break sessions sold out. Founder and CEO Bige Doruk says the shift to Common Core has been “very rocky” for schools. In an effort to provide extra support, the company discounted its proprietary materials for schools in low income neighborhoods and is considering launching a scholarship program for students who can’t afford outside test prep services.
High Schools Have Reprieve
NYC high schools have one more year until spring 2014 when the DOE institutes the new ELA/Math tests based on Common Core. Perhaps more time was needed to fix inconsistencies between the new test and the Regents exam (required for high school graduation), as one trainer currently coaching Bronx high school teachers on Common Core noted, “Regents is not listening to the other parts of the State Education Department. They’re including a lot of questions on topics that the Common Core suggests should not be part of the math [tests], and that’s creating a big problem…” It will be especially tricky for the DOE to establish cut-off scores for the more rigorous state test without jeopardizing graduation rates which have been ticking up over the last few years.
DOE in Driver’s Seat for Long Road Trip
One of the major risks to NYC schools if Common Core is not implemented at the right pace and sequence is a widening achievement gap, where test scores become even more correlated with economic class and race. A Brookings Institute policy brief warns that “a virtually certain outcome of the Common Core assessments…[is] a much larger literacy gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students…” The Institute asserts that although rapid progress has been made on developing Common Core assessments, school districts still need to revamp curriculum in every grade and subject, and train teachers to help high needs children master the new standards. “Even the best possible standards cannot raise student literacy…[as] the new standards are only one step down a long road.”
As roll out of the Common Core continues in NYC schools and results of this first test come in, the DOE needs to be ready and willing to shift gears along the way. Speeding up and slowing down is always an option, as even some of the leading proponents of Common Core say that schools need more time. Some districts like Chicago are postponing Common Core tests and others are developing interim tests until teachers are adequately trained and accountability systems adjusted. Most importantly, the impact on students and teachers as they absorb this transformative new education system should be a key factor in setting the pace. Thus, keeping a close eye on the speedometer throughout this long journey might give Common Core the chance it deserves.