Understanding the backlash to Common Core and PARCC

Last week I looked at some of the myths surrounding the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), a set of learning goals in language arts and math which seek to promote educational equity and excellence across America.

CCSS represents a collaborative response to the acknowledgement that American schools are not effectively preparing children for college and careers. According to this new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 66 percent of America’s 4th graders are not proficient in reading and 66 percent of America’s 8th graders are not proficient in math. (In New Jersey the averages are, respectively, 58 percent and 51 percent; in Pennsylvania the averages are 60 percent and 58 percent.)

Noble aspirations aside, the CCSS have ignited an increasingly fractious debate. The National Governors Association, which led the initiative, was too timid to put it on this year’s annual agenda. The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers once avidly supported CCSS but now appear on the brink of denouncing them. Forty-five states signed up to adopt the Common Core in 2010; nine have dropped out.

But that’s nothing compared to the churning outrage at the standardized tests that will measure student proficiency in the Common Core. These tests were developed by two consortia, Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, and Smarter Balanced. Initially, all states that had adopted the Common Core signed up with one or the other. Now fewer than half of those states will actually administer the tests. (New Jersey is sticking with PARCC, albeit with a less aggressive launch; Pennsylvania, which had signed up for both PARCC and Smarter Balanced, has dropped both.)

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The tests themselves are computer-based with less reliance on multiple choice. (For a kick, see this video, “I Choose C.”). While there are fewer questions, students will have to use higher-order reasoning and critical thinking skills rather than regurgitation of facts. Some questions will require extended written responses. Third through eleventh grade students in PARCC states will be tested five times a year for language arts and four times a year for math. In N.J., the testing schedule will add three hours a year with no increased costs. Some schools, however, will have to ramp up their computer inventory and broad-band width. Test results will be available quickly, unlike N.J.’s old ASK and HSPA tests.

While the Common Core inspires resentment, the new assessments inspire outrage, from both the far right and left of the political spectrum. Some of that anger is just silly, like Florida State Rep. Charles Van Zant’s insistence that both the Common Core and its attendant tests are a conspiracy to “attract every one of your children to become as homosexual as they possibly can.” But some of this resistance is more troubling and stems from two primary sources: fear of loss of local control and fear of accountability.

The first fear is a no-brainer for New Jerseyans because it echoes our Tea Party-ish worship of home rule. Keep your frickin’ hands off our local schools! Nationally, this effort to ensure that a child in Mississippi has access to the same course content and benchmarks as a child in Massachusetts pushes a familiar hot button. Just this past Monday, for example, Tennessee GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander’s claimed that President Obama is trying to create “a national school board for 100,000 public schools.” (The Washington Post awarded him “two Pinocchios” for factual errors.)

The second source of anger stems from America’s toddling steps towards educational accountability, or holding states, schools, administrators, and teachers responsible for student academic growth. While we’ve historically been focused on measuring input –money spent, teacher requirements for licensure, curricula, supplies – there’s now a recognition that we need to measure output, primarily student growth. And our output isn’t good enough, even when weighted for contributing factors like poverty and disability.

The Common Core – the input — raises the learning bar for all students. The other half of the accountability equation, the output, will be measured through assessments that are aligned with the material that students are learning, like PARCC and Smarter Balanced, although states are free to design their own tests.

No Child Left Behind had many flaws. One was that states were free to define “proficiency” any old way, and many simply lowered benchmarks to create the perception that their schools were successful. The new assessments disable that façade, and that’s scary.

In addition, a growing number of states are revising teacher evaluations to include some element of testing data and linking those metrics to job security. This school year in N.J. 10 percent of teacher evaluations will be linked to student testing data, or output, and eventually ramp up to 30 percent. And many states are revising tenure rules. That’s another form of accountability that raises red flags and tempers.

Here come the unions. NEA and AFT leaders were already thin-skinned because of the Vergara ruling in California, where a county judge ruled that impoverished students were deprived of effective teachers because schools handed out tenure like restaurant mints. (There’s a similar case now in New York.) The advent of tests aligned with more rigorous material, along with an infusion of that output into teacher evaluations and tenure decisions, has them furious. Last year AFT President Randi Weingarten called for a moratorium on testing. On Sunday NEA president-elect Lily Eskelsen Garcia told Daily Kos that this new accountability represents “the forces of darkness and evil.” An offshoot of the two unions, the Badass Teachers Association recently released an “Anti-Obama Agenda.”

Suddenly the teacher unions, which poured tons of money and member dues into President Obama’s elections, are now are aligning in protest against his signature education program and, in fact, against an accountability initiative that draws much of its membership from moderates of both major parties. Most strikingly, the unions, with their long history of alignment with and support from the Democratic Party, are suddenly on the outs with their former partners and patrons.

That’s a big gamble. On the one hand, the unions correctly point to flaws in the roll-out of the standards and the tests, and they’ve successfully rallied an anti-testing cohort. On the other hand, they invite the perception that they’re willing to sacrifice changes that benefit students in order to conserve an unaccountable system that benefits adults.

Of course, that’s their job. They are, after all, labor unions. But the downside is considerable as they position themselves to satisfy a newly-radicalized, if minority, constituency and alienate themselves from mainstream Americans who just want better schools for their kids.

Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.

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