jasonbwatson

November 5, 2013

What About Common Core?

Unless you live under a rock or pay no attention to the news you have undoubtedly heard of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), most often referred to simply as the Common Core. It would be silly for me to spend multiple entries here addressing the state of education in America today and not address Common Core. In reality, I may even need more than one entry to do it justice, so bear with me.

The odds are probably good that you have heard about Common Core mostly by way of hearing complaints about it, hearing or reading why it so terrible. Now, this may surprise you if you have read the other posts on education, but I am not convinced that the CCSS are as horrible as many people, groups and talking heads have made them out to be. Are they flawless? Of course not. What is? For starters, though, let’s look at what exactly the CCSS are…

First, I should acknowledge that whatever the flaws of the CCSS may be—and I will address that issue shortly—the motivation behind the CCSS is a noble one. The Common Core State Standards Initiative has as its slogan, “Preparing America’s Students for College and Career.” Though certainly not a complete overview, that is what every school strives to do for its students. Furthermore, it is difficult to find something in the CCSS Mission Statement with which to disagree:

The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are 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.

That the mission of the CCSS is one on which just about everyone can agree is evident in the fact that the CCSS have been adopted by forty-five states, the District of Columbia and four territories. At the same time, it is certainly not necessarily true that something is good just because it is popular, and I am not suggesting that, either.

To date, CCSS have been developed for Mathematics and English/Language Arts. Please note that the standards themselves serve only to outline a basic level of knowledge and understanding that students in the United States should have. In other words, the CCSS is not a curriculum.

At the same time, it is important to remember that these new standards are likely going to indicate in many areas—particularly in many public schools—that students are not achieving the level of success that the many groups endorsing the CCSS want them to achieve; indeed, that they should achieve. For example, Kentucky was the first state in the nation specifically tied to the CCSS, having adopted the math and English standards in 2010. When the assessment results for the 2011-12 school year were released, “the share of students scoring ‘proficient’ or better in reading and math dropped by roughly a third or more in both elementary and middle school the first year the tests were given,” according to an article in Education Week.

It is important for anyone considering the CCSS debate to keep in mind a very important distinction between adoption and alignment. Any good school adopts its curriculum, textbooks and materials based on the quality of the content and (at least for Christian schools) the worldview of the text, always aiming to adopt the textbooks and supporting materials that will most effectively meet the needs of its students. It is the responsibility of the school to carefully consider each textbook selection and to choose those curricular materials that will best meet the needs of its students.

Contrary to what Glenn Beck and others may say, there is nothing in the CCSS that will strip local schools of their control of their curricular choices any more than there was in previously existing state standards. The CCSS is just one more in a long line of outcome-based education models, concerned almost exclusively with whether or not the skills enumerated are achieved by the students as evidenced through their performance on standardized tests.

Now, make sure you come back for the next post, because I do not want you to go away thinking I am an unabashed defender of the CCSS. There is still more to the story….

November 4, 2013

Loud and Clear

Though I took a hiatus for a few posts from talking about education, I still have more to say about the subject, so I turn again to that.

One unfortunate reality of public education is the overwhelming influence of the National Education Association (NEA). The NEA describes itself as “the nation’s largest professional employee organization” and its purpose as “advancing the cause of public education.” That troubles me, and it should trouble you. Why? Because the NEA’s focus seems to be on almost everything but student learning. That is not to suggest that the NEA never addresses learning, but it certainly does not seem to take the focus.

Last July the NEA held its annual convention in Atlanta. At that convention the NEA adopted this resolution, listed as New Business Item 30: “NEA will encourage all states and NEA Affiliates to use existing means of communication to promote developmentally appropriate instructional resources in order to help all educators integrate lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) history, people, and issues into their instruction such as, but not limited to ‘Unheard Voices’ an oral history and curriculum project for middle and high school students created in collaboration by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and Story Corps.”

There were ninety-three new business items on the convention’s agenda, all of which can be seen on the NEA web site. Here are a few examples of those items that were adopted…

* The NEA shall encourage the Obama administration to ensure all legally married people have equal access to federal benefits regardless of their state of residence.
* Using existing resources and publictions, the NEA shall educate its members about the problem of homelessness among U.S. military veterans and publicize the work that organizations including “Soldier ON” are doing to combat it.
* A lengthy resolution on what the NEA could do to end the cholera epidemic in Haiti.
* NEA will gather stories of members who have been victims of age discrimination and other workplace harassment, share them using existing communication vehicles, and provide members with a toolkit they can use in this situation.
* NEA will support efforts to fully restore and extend to all states the effective protections of the Voting Rights Act, to fight state legislation that assaults voting rights, to support state legislation that expands voting access, to mobilize our members, to partner with other organizations to maximize civic participation, and fight voter suppression.
* NEA will use existing resources, assist state affiliates in urging policy makers on the district and state level to push for legislation similar to California’s FAIR Education Act (Senate Bill 48) that requires schools to integrate factual information about social movements, current events, and history of LGBTQ people and people with disabilities into existing social studies lessons along with all historically underrepresented groups.
* NEA will write an article through existing digital communication to elevate awareness around the need for state laws to prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
* The NEA RA commend Texas State Senator Wendy Davis for her courageous filibuster to protect women’s rights and her continued ongoing advocacy on behalf of students and staff who serve in great public education.
* NEA stands in solidarity with striking Bay Area Rapid Transit Workers. NEA supports Service Employees International Union 1021 and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 now on strike against Bay Area Rapid Transit Management and will send a letter of support to them acknowledging the just demands of striking workers….
* The process for NEA’s approval of sponsors of major giveaways and corporate partners of the NEA shall include a preference for companies who have an active union presence among their workforce unless labor unions are not actively organized in an industry.

Not much in there about actual teaching and learning, is there? Now, there were a few things in the new business items addressing teaching and learning, but most of them were about high stakes testing, Common Core State Standards, and support for making physical education a mandatory subject nationwide.

By the way, what did Wendy Davis do in Texas? She filibustered for thirteen hours, attempting to derail a law that imposes some of the toughest regulations in the country on abortion clinics. A proposal submitted to the NEA convention to “prohibit the use of dues money to support abortions,” by the way, was squashed, after attendees booed that pro-life educators introducing the proposal. The NEA kept in place, though, its support for “school-based family planning clinics.”

I am incredibly tempted to comment further on the NEA, the influence it has on public education, and the warning sign that should be for any parent truly concerned about their children are taught at school, but I think I am going to take the less-is-more route here; I think the NEA has pretty well spoken for itself…loud and clear.

October 11, 2013

Sabotaging the Lighthouse

As I alluded to at the end of the last post, there is considerable disagreement among Christians over the way in which Christian parents should respond to the reality of public school education. These differences of opinion are clear in the first three letters printed in the Mailbag section of the October 19, 2013 issue of WORLD Magazine. All three are in response to the September 7 issue of WORLD, their “Back to School” issue.

The first letter, from a gentleman in California, says, “The questions and issues listed on your Sept. 7 cover are vital ones that I fear too many, even Christian parents, are unaware of. Do we understand scientism? Do we discern that all schools teach secular humanism in the state systems?” Without coming right out and saying so he certainly seems to be of the opinion that the public school is not a safe environment for Christian children because of the worldview that is presented.

The second letter, however, refutes any assertion that Christians should abandon the public schools. “My husband is a minister and I teach in the public school system,” writes a lady from Missouri. “Our four children thrived in public schools because we taught them Christian values. Things have gotten bad, but if Christians continue to withdraw, schools will only get worse. My children and I are missionaries every day.” This is perhaps the most common objection I hear from Christian parents who do not want to remove their children from public schools. As I have indicated before, I believe each parent is ultimately charged by God with raising their own children and I cannot clearly know God’s will for anyone else, so I am not going to suggest that everyone who holds to this position is wrong. I will suggest, however, that the number of Christian children who are “missionaries” in the public schools pales in comparison to the number of public schools that are missionaries to the Christian students that attend them. By that, I mean that more often than not I think the school influences the students more than the students influence the school.

I heard Cal Thomas address this issue a few years ago. At that time he stated that ninety percent of Christian children go to public schools. I am not sure where he got that figure, but I suspect it is not far off. One of the things he said about the assertion made by the wife and mother in Missouri that the influence of public schools can be countered by teaching them Christian values at home stuck with me. He said, “You wouldn’t send your children off with a healthy breakfast and be unconcerned if they ate lead paint for lunch.” The same, he said, is true intellectually, spiritually and morally when students go to public schools. I would have to agree; after all, students are almost certainly getting more direct instruction from their schools than they are from their parents; even the best case scenario might be only fifty-fifty. So why would Christian parents concerned about the development of their students knowingly and willingly send their children to an environment in which much of what they learn, or at least the perspective from which they learn it, is in opposition to what the parents believe and the Bible teaches?

To the point of being missionaries or ambassadors in the public school setting, I think there is a tremendous amount of merit to that argument for Christian adults working in public schools. I think the weight of that argument diminishes exponentially when talking about children. It is not coincidental that the United States does not send children or teenagers as ambassadors to other nations. I realize that is not a perfect example, and yes, children and teens can absolutely be salt and light in the world. Truth be told, I was probably more bold about sharing my faith with strangers as a child than I am now, much to my own dismay. This argument is flawed, though, because children and teens are still having their faith, their worldview and their understanding shaped. They are still extremely susceptible to influences and their minds are still quite pliable.

I have always considered lighthouses to be a terrific metaphor for Christians and the role that Christians are to have in the world. A lighthouse was a carefully constructed building. The bricks needed to be placed correctly and secured carefully in order to build the structure up high enough for its light to be seen from a distance. It also needed to be strong enough to support the staircase that wrapped its way around the inside of the light tower so that the keeper could make his regular trips up and down the stairs. If the tower fell, the light would be useless. If the stairs collapsed and the keeper could not light the light (in the days before automation) the light would be useless. In other words, the light itself only had any value if the lighthouse itself was securely constructed. There might be a perfectly goof Fresnel lens sitting on top of the lighthouse, or sitting on the ground next to a lighthouse being constructed, but without the properly constructed light and usable stairs within the tower the light would be worthless.

The same is true of Christians. The light the we have is perfect and good and complete, because the light that we have is the Gospel message, the truth of God’s Word. But if our towers are faulty, if we cannot or do not light the light, the light in our towers is worthless.

No one charged with the task of constructing a lighthouse would spend mornings, evenings and weekends constructing the tower and knowingly and willingly allow another person or group of people to spend six to eight hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year, sabotaging the tower he was building. Imagine how long it would take to construct that lighthouse! Think of the adage two steps forward, one step backward. Even worse, think of one step forward, two steps backward. The one charged with building the tower would have to spend so much time repairing and fixing what he had already done that he would seldom if ever make progress in building the tower higher. Getting to the point where the lighthouse was complete and the light could accomplish its purpose would take an extremely long time! This is exactly what happens when Christian students go to public schools. They have a light to show to the world, but it is seldom visible because the world is continually sabotaging their tower by attacking and undermining their faith and their worldview.

I always find it particularly troubling when parents send their children to Christian school for elementary and perhaps even junior high school and then send them off to public school for their high school years. More often than not this is due to the athletic, music and other co-curricular activities that public schools offer than many Christian schools cannot (or not at the same level). Sometimes it is also because parents question whether or not the academic in the Christian school are as rigorous as those in the public schools. Regardless of the reason, I find the decision incredibly uninformed. Teenagers are perhaps more susceptible to the influence of others than any other humans. They are already trying to figure out who they are and what they think. They are already prone to question authority and what they have been raised to do, think and believe. Why in the world would a Christian parent insert their child into an environment where they are surrounded by the influences of the world at exactly that age? Quite simply, I don’t get it.

I mentioned three letters published in WORLD. I will talk about the point made in the third one next time.

August 6, 2012

The Right to Read

In an attempt to force a unique application of an obscure law in Michigan, the ACLU has filed a class action lawsuit against the state of Michigan and a school district in Detroit, claiming that the state and the district have not educated the students in the district schools at an adequate level, and have therefore violated the students’ “right to learn to read.” According to the lawsuit, there are hundreds of students in the Highland Park School District that are “functionally illiterate.”

Quoted in an article in the Washington Post, Kary L. Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan, said, “None of those adults charged with the care of these children . . . have done their jobs.” Moss alleged that the Highland Park district–a district consisting of only three schools–is one of the lowest performing districts in the nation.

The lawsuit is attempting to apply a 1993 Michigan law requiring that students receive special assistance if they are not proficient in reading according to standardized tests given in grades 4 and 7. The “special assistance” in question is supposed to bring the less-than-proficient students up to grade level reading proficiency within one year.

While there are samples of the writing efforts of several students provided in the story in The Washington Post, one getting the bulk of the attention in that article is a young man named Quentin. Quentin just finished seventh grade, but according to ACLU experts reads at only a first grade level. Students were asked to write a letter to Michigan governor Rick Snyder with suggestions for improving their schools. Quentin’s effort reads: ““My name is Quemtin [last name blacked out] and you can make the school gooder by geting people that will do the jod that is pay for get a football tame for the kinds mybe a baksball tamoe get a other jamtacher for the school get a lot of tacher.” (There is a link in the article on washingtonpost.com where other examples of student letetrs can be viewed).

Quentin’s writing sample is both disheartening and frustrating. According to the WP article, 65 percent of fourth-graders and 75 percent of seventh-graders in Highland Park are not proficient in reading according to scores on their most recent tests.

The Highland Park district also faces a crushing debt and a severely-decreased enrollment over the past several years as a result of Chrysler no longer employing people in the area.

All of the above, at least according to the ACLU suit and the WP article, are the facts. And while I will be curious to see how this suit proceeds in the courts, several questions come to my mind.

One, what is the home situation of the students in Highland Park? While schools and teachers are responsible for educating their students, they do not bear this responsibility alone; rather, they share the responsibility with the parents of their students. Well, according to Highland Park’s own web site, the number of single-parent families outnumber the number of two-parent families nearly three to one. Obviously not all students from two-parent families succeed and not all children from single-parent families struggle or fail, but there is significant research that indicates that students from two-parent families tend to do significantly better in school.

Second (and I realize this relates, in many ways, to the first question) what accountability is there outside of the school for the students to do their part in learning? When I first started teaching I took students’ failing grades personally. I felt that if a student received an F on a test or quiz, I certainly must not have taught effectively. And while less-than-adequate student performance may be an indicator that the teacher is incapable or not fulfilling his or her responsibility, is does not necessarily mean this. Even the best teachers will from time to time have students who fail, either because they do not care, because they do not apply themselves, and/or because the student has not been appropriately placed (i.e., he or she is in a grade requiring skills he or she does not yet possess). Based on the information in the WP article–specifically the high number of students testing below proficiency in reading–it seems that the teachers/schools may bear a significant portion of the blame, but this is a legitimate question nonetheless.

Third, how is that even with laws like the one at the heart of this case in Michigan and the No Child Left Behind act mandating highly qualified teachers and adequate yearly progress, there are still students–and entire school districts–failing to meet the established standards?

One answer has to be the teacher’s unions, and the manner in which they fight tooth and nail against any kind of meaningful evaluation and accountability within the public school system. One need look no further than the way in which Michelle Rhee was treated when she attempted to transform the public schools in Washington, D.C.

Another part of the answer has to be the way in which the public school system works, if not perhaps the very continued existence of a public school system. The federal government has demonstrated an inability to effectively manage most of the things it tries to do (see the Post Office as Exhibit A), and yet the federal bureaucracy involved in education at the state and local level spends millions and billions of dollars, yet continues to produce (among successes, granted) school districts like Highland Park. The truth is that the public school system in the U.S. is nothing more than government subsidy of education. If true competition existed within the educational sphere in America I am convinced that we would see a drastic improvement in the scores of American students within a very short period of time. School choice and school vouchers programs have proven incredibly effective wherever they have been given the opportunity to be tried fairly. As I have argued here before, true competition will produce better results than any alternative every time.

What it comes down to at the end of the day, though, is that Quentin and his fellow students are the ones are suffering, and will continue to suffer. They are the victims of one or more of the following: adults who parent children and fail to fulfill their responsibilities as parents; teachers who fail to teach students and ensure that they are really learning; administrators who fail (or are unable) to remove ineffective teachers; teachers’ unions that look out more for the good of their members than for the good of the students; bureaucrats that are more concerned about the implementation of various laws than about the success of students; and politicians who continue to think that the government is more capable of making decisions than the people are.

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