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October 15, 2013

Common Core had little input from educators

By Cary Brunswick
The Daily Star

---- — It seems as though every decade there are reforms, new curriculums or so-called higher standards coming out of Washington or Albany to make our schools and students perform better. They have been going on in earnest for 30 years now with no end in sight.

When the only constant is a flux mandated from on high, you have to wonder if all the changes are instituted prematurely and are at least partially misdirected.

The latest “new” standards, the Common Core, originated with bureaucrats in Washington, were sent to the states and adapted by bureaucrats in capitals such as Albany. It is not surprising the standards are controversial with parents and educators, because the latter (you know, the people who actually work in classrooms) had little to do with devising them.

There is nothing wrong with trying to do better with schools and education. Clearly, teaching and learning cannot be a static process, and they require constant evaluation and adaptation. 

In the late 1950s, it took the launching of Sputnik by the Russians to lead to put math and science education into sharper focus. A quarter century later, the “A Nation at Risk” study illustrated that our schools had achieved a level of mediocrity that was placing our student achievement below that of many other countries.

While math and science remained a major emphasis, the experts also began asking “why Johnny can’t read.” Or write. Or find places on a world map. Or understand some basic events in U.S. or world history. The report called for higher standards, longer schools days and years, better teacher pay, and, to achieve all this, more school funding.

At that time, the fledgling federal Department of Education was not in the business of telling states or locales how to teach and run schools. In New York, it was up to the state Education Department to document student achievement and raise standards. So began the focus on standardized testing, from elementary school to high school Regents exams, which now has become so controversial.

But we should have known it wouldn’t take long for the federal government to try to impose its control on the nation’s schools. First, it was the “No Child Left Behind” initiative under President George W. Bush. Now, we have President Barack Obama’s contribution, the Common Core State Standards.

The Common Core is the government’s attempt to nationalize a school curriculum, which it says is “designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.”

Opponents, however, see it as an “effort by those outside of the classroom to exercise control over the classroom by standardizing what is taught in classrooms across the nation.”

It is not so much the standard curriculum that has many educators and administrators upset. The feds left it up to the states to implement the Common Core, and beginning with the last school year, New York handed down specific instructions to schools on what and how teachers should teach.

And, of course, assessing and evaluating teachers and students for their success in imparting and learning the curriculum is to be achieved through more-rigorous testing. The early results were not impressive, with just 31 percent of pupils in grades 3-8 passing the exams last spring for math and English.

Many educators and parents are unhappy that the state rushed into the Common Core so quickly, giving the new tests during the first year of the new system. Many teachers also believe their instruction is hamstrung by the strict adherence to modules and scripts handed down from Albany.

Ken Sider, a third-grade teacher, told the Oneonta school board recently that the modules provide minute-by-minute directions that teachers don’t have the authority to change.

“We have become a tool,” he said, as the modules have “stripped the joys from learning.” Students are no longer allowed to be “spontaneous or unique,” he added. “We are here to ask the board to loosen the stranglehold these modules have on our children.”

Many schools and teachers in the state are experiencing the same problem.

Fortunately for Oneonta, school Superintendent Joseph Yelich is sympathetic and is forming committees to address the issue.

The state obviously pushed the Common Core into schools too quickly, without enough time for educators to learn and adjust, when schools do not have the resources to speed up the process with teacher training. And the last thing we need now is a new testing regime while the system is still being instituted.

Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor. He can be reached at brunswick@earthling.net. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of The Daily Star and its editorial board.