My response to Arne Duncan’s Common Core speech

July 1, 2013

Dear Mr. Duncan,

It was disheartening to read your remarks about the Common Core that you made at the American Society of News Editors Annual Convention on June 25, 2013. I am an ESL teacher at a Title I public elementary school in Brooklyn, NY and wish to share with you some of my reactions.

1.) You said, “I’d like to make the case that these standards have the capacity to change education in the best of ways—setting loose the creativity and innovation of educators at the local level, raising the bar for students, strengthening our economy and building a clearer path to the middle class. But for these new standards to succeed, Americans will need to be clear on what’s true and what’s false.”

What is true and clear to me as a working teacher is that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) do not stand alone. They are not just a set of standards as you claim they are. In New York, they are attached to an educationally unsound, high-stakes testing program. Have you seen the tests? I am not at liberty to discuss the content, however I do wish to share with you an excerpt from a letter I wrote to Dr. John King – with a copy to you – after the administration of the ELA Common Core test in April.

Here’s what I wrote: I administered the grade 5 Common Core English Language Arts (ELA) test to a group of 10-year-old former English Language Learners (ELLs). Over the course of three consecutive days, they were asked to answer a total of 63 multiple-choice questions on two different answer grids, and eight short-response questions and two extended-response questions in two different booklets. In order to do this, they had to first carefully read and re-read a large number of reading passages.

Most of the grade 5 students throughout New York State received 90 minutes each day (a total of four and a half hours) to complete the tests. As former ELLs, the students I tested received an additional 45 minutes of testing time each day. Thus, they sat in a testing environment for a total of six hours and 45 minutes. If they had not received extended time, most of the students would not have finished any of the exams at the conclusion of the standard allotted time of 90 minutes. While I was impressed by the students’ stamina, resilience and overall positive attitude, by the end of day two their test fatigue and frustration were visible. This week, they will receive the same amount of time as the state administers to them the 2013 Common Core Mathematics test. By the end of Friday, April 26, this group of former ELLs – fifth graders – will have tested for a whopping total of 13.5 hours.

I ask you to picture your own children – even your 10-year-old self – sitting for that long to complete such lengthy standardized tests. I have a three-year-old daughter and my stomach tightens at the thought of her being subjected to such excessive testing. This brings me to my next point. The 2013 Common Core ELA and Math tests come at the culmination of months-long test preparation in our public schools that include four Acuity Benchmark Assessments (two for each subject area) and countless hours of teacher-created test prep practice. This egregious amount of classroom time devoted to standardized tests is robbing our students of their right to a meaningful education.

Common Core test prep (teaching to the test) and standardized tests – which together consume a great deal of the school year – do not foster creativity and innovation.

2.) You also stated, “Curriculum —on the other hand—is what teachers teach to help students meet those standards. Curriculum is generally chosen at the district or even the school level—and in many cases individual teachers actually decide on the curriculum and classroom content.”

Have you visited any New York City public schools recently? The NYC Department of Education has selected and recommends new math and ELA Core Curriculum options for grades K through 8 that are aligned to the CCSS. While terms such as ‘options’ and ‘recommended’ are used by the NYC DOE in promoting their CCSS curriculum, schools feel pressured to adopt them, and as an incentive, the options are being subsidized by the NYC DOE (a comparison could arguably be made to Race to the Top money being contingent upon a state’s adoption of the Common Core).

These options bother me because the so-called flexibility of the CCSS that was promised to us is compromised. Contrary to your speech, I do not feel free to educate “creatively and innovatively” in terms of math and ELA instruction. Remember, a huge chunk of class time is devoted to CCSS state tests and now we feel compelled to use the NYC DOE’s CCSS Core Curriculum.

I wish to note that two of the NYC Core Curriculum options – ReadyGen for ELA and Connected Math Program 3 – are published by Pearson, the publishing giant that creates New York State’s ELA and math assessments as well as the Next Generation Assessments. ReadyGen is not yet ready, and New York City schools that have signed onto the program are expected to start using it in September. While the NYC DOE is offering summer professional development on these new CCSS programs, schools cannot afford to send even half of their staff to the trainings. Also, NYC schools have already begun using NYC DOE Common Core performance tasks. Some are developmentally inappropriate and frustrate both teachers and students. For example, kindergarteners who don’t yet know all their letters and sounds are expected to write multiple drafts of a persuasive essay, and an 8-page multiple choice assessment is administered to them in October.

It is appalling to me how much money is being spent – wasted – on yet another ‘solution’ to closing the achievement gap. At a time of deep budget cuts – my school is having to excess teachers – it is unconscionable that financing the CCSS assessments and the CCSS curriculum, the latter of which, to me, is essentially a re-wording and re-packaging of what many of us already do, are prioritized over what I believe could be much more effective ways to raise student achievement: smaller class sizes, collaborative team teaching, especially in kindergarten, and more small group and one-on-one instruction. In other words, invest in teachers instead.

3.) Your remarks included, “Some of the hostility to Common Core also comes from critics who conflate standards with curriculum, assessments and accountability. They oppose mandated testing and they oppose using student achievement growth and gain as one of multiple measures to evaluate principals and teachers. They also oppose intervention in chronically low-performing schools. Some seem to feel that poverty is destiny.”

In your speech, you don’t mention parent responsibility as a contributing factor to the achievement gap. This, to me, is where we should begin in raising student performance, and I don’t believe it’s a novel idea. In 1935, Gandhi said, “There is no school equal to a decent home and no teachers equal to honest, virtuous parents.” I commend you for prioritizing early childhood education for all, but without continued parental support and involvement students, particularly those living in poverty, are much more at risk for academic failure. How will the CCSS help my student who missed 50 days of school in first grade and lags behind his classmates? How will the CCSS benefit my non-reading second grader whose mom ignores our persistent requests to get her daughter evaluated? Even with the best teachers, this child will slip through the cracks if she remains in a mainstream class with 25 -30 students.

Your speech indicates to me that you are not fully aware of the realities of our public schools. The impression I get is that you’ve primarily made only pre-arranged visits to model schools that boast high test scores. Please correct me if I am mistaken. For a more accurate picture, I suggest the following. Without consulting your advisors, pick a Common Core public school (in New York, for example) at random and make an unannounced visit. See firsthand – without all the fanfare of a pre-scheduled visit – how the CCSS package – and it indisputably is a package – is impacting our students, teachers and administrators. In fact, you are welcome to observe me at any time. I also suggest that meeting with a wide range of working teachers should be your priority. Again, for the most accurate results, select the teachers at random. Teachers know better than anyone else what students really need. If you make the teachers feel comfortable, safe and valued, it is more likely that they will speak candidly with you.

Kind regards,
Katie Lapham

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8 thoughts on “My response to Arne Duncan’s Common Core speech

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  5. Sounds like your issue is with the state. If Sec Duncan did impose half the things you suggest to ensure that states do thing effectively, he would be charged with too much federal oversight. Love the advocatingbut really direct energies to school, district, and state administrators. I hope someone listens and stands up for quality implementation for the students of NYC and not just lining their pockets with money from Pearson. Good luck!

    • Direct the issues to school, district and the state??!! You do understand that the Race to The Top is what fueled CCSS and all the teacher-student testing performance non-sense, right?

  6. Katie…more in efficacy you cannot say. Sadly, my guess is that Arne’s and Barack’s response will be the same as the reply to Anthony Cody’s “Teacher’s Letters to Obama.” Zip.

  7. Eloquently stated. You are right on target… Not for only NY, but for many other states as well. Being in Montana, your sentiments hit home to several different state and local obligations for CCSS. I would love to hear if you receive a response!

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