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The Common Core and Its Discontents

Owen Davis Apr 4, 2014

Preparation for standardized tests given at the end of third grade would begin at the start of the second.

Hearing that baffling announcement, Brooklyn parent Janine Sopp knew something was amiss. It was 2011, and her daughter’s school had just received a “C” from Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Department of Education (DOE). Another year of low scores could result in dire sanctions: teacher layoffs, a new administration, even closure. So the school, rationally, would begin test prep 18 months before kids would fill in their first bubbles.

Sopp transferred her daughter to the progressive PS 146, or Brooklyn New School, but even there the millstone of yearly testing hung heavily from the school’s neck. Sopp began meeting with a group of parents to discuss opting their kids out. “That much focus on test scores,” Sopp says of her daughter, who has a reading disability, “would erode what made her brilliant.” 

Sopp sent a letter to the principal explaining that Kya would be sitting out during the six-day testing period. The school responded graciously: Kya spent the week as an aide in a kindergarten class, reading to students. Heartened, her mother continued speaking with parents and helping build Change the Stakes, a New York-based anti-standardized testing group that emerged from meetings Sopp and other parents held in 2011. 

Last year, Kya and five others opted out at PS 146. This April, when New York’s exam period for grades 3-8 begins, 80 percent of the school’s 300 test-age students will join her. 

PS 146 students will make up part of the largest opt-out movement in modern education history. In cities from Seattle to Denver to New York, students will be pushing aside high-stakes tests in a repudiation of policies that pressure teachers to post high marks for the sake of their jobs and schools to increase scores or risk being closed. They aim to reverse the march of standardized testing and provoke a reappraisal of the ever-heightening stakes attached to test scores. 

Fueling the fire is the onset of the Common Core State Standards, a set of educational benchmarks forged in nonprofit committees, promoted with gobs of philanthropic cash and guaranteed widespread adoption by the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program. The standards’ rapid and top-down implementation has parents and educators across the political spectrum up in arms.

This confluence of policies has brought Sopp innumerable allies. “I’ve never seen a body of parents so determined to stop this testing,” she said.

Birth of the Testing Regime

When Jesse Hagopian and other teachers organized a standardized test boycott at Garfield High School in Seattle last spring, the reasoning was clear: “Standardized testing is the lifeblood of the whole corporate reform movement,” said Hagopian. Many in the opt-out community cite that successful boycott as inspiration to participate in what Hagopian hopes will be “a revolt against the initiatives of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.” 

Passed in 2002, the No Child Left Behind act laid the groundwork for the federal school accountability regime. The bill requires standardized testing in grades 3-8 nationwide and forces consistently low-scoring schools to undergo mass layoffs or outright closure. Obama’s Race to the Top program, structured as a competitive grant, pressured states to attach test results to teacher evaluations, raising the stakes of assessments considerably. 

Both initiatives function on what some, like Tim Slekar, dean of education at the Madison, Wisconsin-based Edgewood College, call the failing schools narrative: Since public education is broken, the reasoning goes, states must close “failing schools,” open new ones (usually privately-run, publicly-funded charter schools) and lay off teachers deemed ineffective — all on the basis of test scores. 

After pulling his own children from tests, Slekar helped found United Opt Out, a test resistance organization that provides opt-out manuals for every state in the union. Though reform policies are often sold on the language of equity, says Slekar, “accountability has done nothing but disrupt neighborhoods.” 

In the wake of No Child Left Behind, thousands of public schools have been closed, notably in cities like Chicago and Philadelphia, where 49 and 22 schools were shuttered last year, respectively. Those closings came in tandem with massive layoffs: 2,100 employees in Chicago last year, and nearly 4,000 in Philadelphia.

Most states now employ teacher evaluations based in part on yearly assessments. As a result, Slekar says, “we’ve seen punitive measures that have reduced extracurriculars and reduced deep learning in music and arts.” In the years following, No Child Left Behind test preparation and administration have grown to consume up to a fifth of the school year, according to an American Federation of Teachers study. Arts education has declined for all students and a range of research finds that high-stakes testing has narrowed
curricula.

But it’s another policy that promises to swell the numbers of test resisters this spring: the onset of newer, tougher Common Core standards and the tests aligned to them.

Enter Common Core

Few people other than Glenn Beck have been more active in stirring the pot on Common Core than Mark Naison, professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University. 

Naison became aware of the Common Core in the midst of New York’s first foray into Common Core-aligned tests last year, when he says, “largely white and suburban parents” became upset about the testing aligned to the standards. Naison, who previously fought school closings in communities of color, quickly became a Common Core critic. 

Along the way he helped found the anti-Common Core Badass Teachers Association, whose 40,000 members across 50 states range from old-school racial justice progressives to fuming Tea Partiers.

“Common Core is like the nightmare of both the right and the left,” Naison says, “government and corporate control together, each time undermining the ordinary citizen’s input into education policy.” Many who are wary of the Common Core acknowledge the importance of strong national education standards, like those in Finland and Singapore. It’s the nature of the Common Core’s implementation that has them crying foul.

The idea for these standards hatched in a 2008 policy paper by David Coleman, now mastermind of the SAT overhaul. Bill and Melinda Gates were smitten with his recommendations, and their foundation began lavishing what became over $150 million in grants to organizations developing the standards. 

Race to the Top tied funding to states’ adoption of new standards, and in short order 45 states had committed to the Common Core, all with very little in the way of public discussion. “There have been no trials, testing, debate or discussion,” says Naison. “It’s a profoundly undemocratic initiative.” 

Common Core representatives confirm that no trial runs of the standards have taken place, though they emphasize that four rounds of comment periods from teachers and parents took place during development.

Despite outcry elsewhere, businesses and investors haven’t hesitated to line up behind the Common Core. “The adoption of common standards” wrote Joanne Weiss, chief of staff in the DOE, in 2011, “means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale.” That’s music to the ears of companies like testing behemoth Pearson, which recently paid $7 million in fines for illegally using its nonprofit to develop Common Core curriculum products for its corporate parent. 

Parents’ concerns hit closer to home, though. At root, new standards promise to ratchet up testing pressures. According to Nancy Cauthen, a Manhattan parent and Change the Stakes member, parents increasingly report students bringing home vexing new assignments and experiencing unprecedented test anxiety. “Even among parents who are divided on the Common Core,” Cauthen says, “more parents are seeing the damaging effects of high pressure around the tests.” 

Parents opting their children out of 2014 New York State tests, from a Change the Stakes YouTube video. Credit: Change the Stakes

PS 146 parent Elizabeth Elsass, whose third-grade son Atticus will be opting out for the first time this April, bristles most at the amount of time spent testing: “As a parent I find it almost abusive.” After months of prep, practice tests and benchmark assessments, New York students in grades 3-8 will spend at least six days taking tests starting in April. More states adopting new Common Core assessments expect aggregate testing time to increase, some reaching as high as ten hours. 

According to guidelines that de Blasio’s DOE recently released, “the principle should respect the parents’ decision” in opt-out cases. Students would face no direct consequences, though they may be disadvantaged when applying to selective high schools and gifted programs that use test scores in admissions. And although no schools in New York have been punished for test refusal, some principals, afraid for their funding, have reportedly pressured opt-out students to change their minds.

Testing aside, parents and educators fear that the standards are developmentally inappropriate, especially in younger grades. The standards cite a range of established research, but as Lesley University early childhood education professor Nancy Carlsson-Paige has noted, of the 135 individuals in Common Core development teams, none were K-3 teachers.

“The Common Core contradicts decades’ worth of child development theory and research that helps us understand how young children learn,” Carlsson-Paige says. She worries that the test-driven focus on concrete standards “will be responsible for influencing pedagogy toward more direct instruction, much less experiential, multidimensional learning in early grades,” by crowding out hands-on learning and play and consequently hampering imagination and curiosity.

“Kindergartens today don’t look like they did a few years ago,” Carlsson-Paige says. “Classrooms for young kids have really become much more factories for learning standards than the kind of multidimensional learning we know works.”

More broadly, there’s not much to indicate that introducing newer, higher standards as a stand-alone policy necessarily reduces learning gaps or makes students any better at reading and math. In a paper sometimes cited (ill-advisedly) by Common Core advocates, Joshua Goodman of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government found that in every state studied, “changes in the quality of standards have little impact on overall student achievement.” 

That hasn’t stopped states from bringing the Common Core to the vast majority of the nation’s 50 million public school pupils. Within this whole, the ranks of families opting out are miniscule, but their movement carries more water politically than their numbers would suggest.

Parents in Long Island, rallying around a 16,000-strong Long Island Opt Out Facebook group, have pushed State Senator Dean Skelos to co-sign a call for a two-year Common Core moratorium. “After having spent months listening to parents, teachers, administrators and educational professionals at public hearings,” GOP majority leader Skelos announced, he had “grave concerns over this flawed rollout” of the standards.

Test resistance is already taking shape elsewhere. Teachers in two Chicago schools boycotted state exams this year, with backing from the progressive Chicago Teachers Union. District authorities in Worcester, Mass., recently affirmed the right of parents to opt their kids out of Core-aligned tests.

Everyone involved in the opt-out movement sees a bumper crop in store. According to Cauthen, the Common Core “is absolutely fueling the opt-out movement.” Change the Stakes predicts at least three times more opt-outs in New York City this year compared to last, a total that may approach a thousand students. Slekar foresees something larger: an “Education Spring.” 

White Suburban Moms?

There’s an apparent wrinkle in the coalition, though.

Facing pushback on the Common Core, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan snickered last fall that it was only “white suburban moms,” afraid of unflattering test results, who composed the Common Core rebellion. 

Were it just a flub, the comment wouldn’t have sparked the firestorm it did. But it contained a kernel of truth that made some deeply uncomfortable. 

The anti-testing contingent spans the political spectrum. Mostly white Tea Partiers who cast the Common Core as big-government overreach have pushed deep-red states like Georgia and Indiana to delay implementation or withdraw from Core-aligned test coalitions. The progressive flank of the movement also skews white, though. Change the Stakes’ Cauthen notes that opt-out parents in New York tend to come from the professional class, concomitant with a whiter demographic. In the past, schools with opt-out activity, though diverse, skewed disproportionately white. But an increasingly diverse pool of opt-out schools are emerging. For instance,  the predominantly black and Latino PS 446 in Brownsville has a strong contingent of third graders opting out this year.

Still could it be that Arne Duncan, who once mused that the Common Core was “among the most important things to happen to public education in America since Brown vs. Board of Education,” put a pie in the face of the opt-out movement?

Karran Harper Royal is no fan of the standards-based reform movement. An advocate for children with disabilities and New Orleans public school parent for more than 20 years, she’s seen her struggling district transform after Hurricane Katrina into a fractured system of school choice where 91 percent of children attend privately-managed charters. 

Royal has seen “two different school experiences” in the course of her two sons’ educational careers. “I was able to see the quality of the work and the quality of material covered over time from my first son,” she says. “Standardized testing over the last 15 years has served to dumb down public education. It’s narrowed down to what is on this test.” 

But she’s not going to be opting out any time soon. Though she supports Common Core resistance, she says, “here in New Orleans it’s not the greatest area of concern.” In a city facing a class-action lawsuit over discrimination against children with disabilities, and a state under Department of Justice investigation for impeding desegregation, “most parents just don’t see danger in the Common Core.” 

Moreover, some elements of the opt-out movement seem to preclude it from becoming a racial justice project. “I don’t see me, as an African-American mom, aligning myself with the Tea Party,” Royal says. 

Jose Luis Vilson, an author and New York public school teacher who “totally agrees with the movement to opt out of testing,” echoes this sentiment. “I’m black, I’m Latino,” he says. “If you’re going to work with me, you need to consider me your equal.” The Tea Party, with its spurts of racism and overt hatred toward a black president, makes for a bit too odd a bedfellow. 

And test-based sanctions have been rattling schools in communities of color for years. When low test scores doom a school to closure, it’s overwhelmingly black and Latino kids who are sent packing. The students of Chicago schools closed last summer were 87 percent black, compared to 43 percent of the whole district. As Vilson says, the testing “became a tool by which you could castigate people, castigate entire neighborhoods.”

In the era of accountability, black and Latino students have lost far more arts and music than their white peers. According to Americans for Arts, less than a third of black and Latino children now receive a full arts education, and the number is slipping. 

What Duncan’s “gaffe” indicates is that, with public education systems in communities of color already in upheaval, the standards-based reform machine must now lurch toward middle- and upper-middle class enclaves.

If the Common Core aims “to continue to prove the failing schools narrative” in previously impervious communities, as Slekar supposes, it’s already working. Test scores have cratered in states that already implemented Common Core exams. New York saw its Common Core trial run last year sink scores by about 30 points, just as education officials like Commissioner John King predicted.

This is the “train wreck” that education reform champion Jeb Bush anticipated in 2012. “My guess is there’s going to be a lot of people running for cover,” he warned. The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, noted last year that Common Core advocates “expect the results to mobilize suburban and middle-class parents to the cause of education reform.”

Common Core resistance reflects an awareness of the metastasis of standards-based reforms into broader swaths of the American school system. “The changes in public education beginning to touch suburban communities, white or black” says Royal, “have touched us already in urban communities.” 

Opt-out parents like Brooklyn New School parent Elsass, who is white, acknowledges this dynamic. “We’re somewhat insulated from what’s happening at other schools,” she says, citing Brooklyn campuses where arts have been eclipsed by test-focused instruction. “It’s pushing us down a bad road for education.”

There is a silver lining, though. According to Slekar, Common Core resistance has opened dialog between cities and their vanilla suburbs. More affluent parents, Slekar says, “have finally burst out of their bubbles and see the harm that’s being done in the cities.” Royal considers it “good entrée for them into the whole problem of what public education has become.”

In this light, Jose Vilson sets his sights beyond the Common Core battle. “If there is a resolution to the Common Core,” he wonders, “do all the other things — the racism, classism, sexism that are pervasive throughout a lot of communities — go away? Will you keep fighting for those people that are marginalized by these situations?”

For more, see timeoutfromtesting.org and changethestakes.wordpress.com.

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