(Guest Post by Sandra Stotsky)
As the nation knows, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to adopt Common Core’s English language arts and mathematics standards on July 21. At least one Bay State English teacher is aghast at what the Board has imposed on the state’s English teachers. A member of the Blue Mass Group, she immediately blogged an open letter to Governor Deval Patrick, Secretary of Education Paul Reville, and Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester the day after the vote, explaining: “There is no way that I, as a high school English teacher with a Master of Arts in English Literature, am going to be either interested or particularly successful in teaching kids to read primary documents in American history or assessing the content of Physics II papers (after I’ve had my intensive five-year retraining program). The idea is simply preposterous.”
Apparently, none of the reviews generated by the Commissioner of Education’s own staff and appointed committees, or funded indirectly by the Gates Foundation to elevate the quality of Common Core’s standards and demote the quality of the Bay State’s own standards, addressed this teacher’s overarching question: Do Common Core’s ELA standards reflect what English teachers typically teach or are trained to teach? At any rate, the Board never saw fit to discuss the matter on July 21 or earlier, after I called national attention to the problem in an invited essay published by the New York Times online on September 22, 2009.
We don’t know if most Board members even took the time to read Common Core’s ELA standards, in addition to the barrage of “crosswalks” sent to the Board within a week of the vote. The one Board member who called me before the July 21 meeting to talk about them (the night before the vote, as a matter of fact) said he had read them all but had not looked at Common Core’s mathematics or ELA standards themselves! Although he commented that Achieve, Inc.’s material read like propaganda, he unhesitatingly voted to adopt Common Core’s standards the next morning.
Achieve’s materials, however, were not the only problematic materials the Board received. The effort to elevate the quality of Common Core’s ELA standards and demote the quality of the Bay State’s current standards is apparent in Fordham’s report. Anyone reading the pages of critical comments on Common Core’s ELA standards would wonder how such a deficient document ever merited the B+ it was given, which meant that Fordham could say that the differences between Common Core’s ELA standards and those of Massachusetts (whose document was graded A-) were “too close to call.”
On the other hand, the only critical comments on Massachusetts’ ELA standards are as follows:
“Unfortunately, some of these excellent standards are difficult to track, due to a somewhat confusing organizational structure. As discussed above, the 2001 document provides standards by grade band only. The 2004 supplement provides additional standards, but only for grades 3, 5, and 7. While the intent of this supplement is to help teachers piece together grade-specific expectations for grades 3-8, the state doesn’t provide explicit guidance about how these standards fit together, leaving some room for interpretation.
Furthermore, no grade-specific guidance is provided for grades Pre-K-3 or 9-12. While the standards are clear and specific, the failure to provide specific expectations for every grade, coupled with a complicated and difficult-to-navigate organizational structure, earn them two points out of three for Clarity and Specificity.”
In fact, however, Massachusetts does provide explicit guidance in the supplement itself because these additional grade-level standards were developed for testing purposes for NCLB and have been used every year since 2004. There is no wiggle-room for interpretation and there has been nothing confusing to the Bay State’s elementary teachers about what standards were for MCAS and for them to teach.
Moreover, because of the supplement, there are specific grade-level standards for 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 in the Massachusetts document. Fordham demoted the Bay State’s ELA standards not only by setting forth an outright error in its critique but also by using a double standard. Massachusetts has standards for PreK-K, 1-2, and 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8, as well as for high school, which are organized in two-year grade spans exactly as Common Core’s are: 9-10 and 11-12. But, Common Core’s standards were not criticized for not providing Pre-K standards or grade-level standards in high school—in either ELA or mathematics.
It is worth noting that, for full credit for “organization” in earlier Fordham reviews, standards had to be presented for every grade or two-year grade span. This definition for organization no longer appears in the criteria used by Fordham in 2010.
It should also be noted that the abandonment of this definition for “organization” as well as a puzzling approach to “rigor” clearly contributed to the rating of A- for Common Core’s mathematics standards. By themselves, its high school standards do not warrant that grade. They are not organized by grade level, by grade span, or by course. Instead, they are listed in five unordered categories of mathematical constructs, leaving it totally unclear which standards belong to each of the three basic courses of: Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II. Moreover, its high school geometry standards reflect a new approach with no record of effectiveness to support it. Thus one cannot say that they are rigorous because we don’t even know that they can be taught in grade 8 and high school. In fact, there is some evidence to the contrary.
In sum, one cannot discern the rigor of Common Core’s mathematics standards “for the targeted grade level(s)” in grades 9-12 since there are no grade level standards for grades 9 to 12. Nor, more important, can one readily discern the academic level, or rigor, of the high school standards addressing Common Core’s goal of “college readiness.” Nevertheless, Common Core’s mathematics standards as a whole received full credit on the “Content and Rigor Conclusion”
“The Common Core standards cover nearly all the essential content with appropriate rigor. In the elementary grades, arithmetic is well prioritized and generally well developed. In high school, there are a few issues with both content and organization, but most of the essential content is covered including the STEM-ready material. The standards receive a Content and Rigor score of seven points out of seven.”
There needs to be more public attention to the quality of Common Core’s ELA (and mathematics) standards. There also needs to be public attention to the methodology of the reports of several national organizations all claiming to show that Common Core’s ELA standards are among the best in this country, all being used to sway the vote of our state boards of education.
[Updated to correct typos]