Common Concerns

Arne Duncan returns to Chicago

LUKE WHITE. New standards are no new phenomenon, but Duncan hopes the Common Core will get more students in the game.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan liberally sprinkles his points with sports metaphors. It’s his way, it seems, of constantly alluding to where he started, right here in Hyde Park, playing basketball with local kids when he wasn’t in class at the Lab School or helping at his mother’s afterschool program. Phrases like “getting in the game” and “leveling the playing field” anchor the powerful statistics and big-picture statements to the streets of his constituents, to the streets of his youth.

Duncan returned to Hyde Park last Thursday to appear on a panel with other academics and educators to discuss the Common Core State Standards, a federal initiative to establish higher learning standards to be implemented by individual states.

He’s quick to remind viewers, listeners, assembled teachers, parents, and students that the United States has dropped from first to twelth in worldwide college graduation rates. He reiterates frequently that a college education is absolutely essential to finding a job these days, and with the announcement of every new initiative, he concedes that there is no single, silver bullet for the problems American schools and students face.

Already adopted in full by forty-five states and the District of Columbia, the Common Core Standards are supposed to transfer the focus of learning from “breadth” to “depth;” while teachers must cover fewer topics in math and English, they cover the topics more thoroughly, thus raising the bar on what students should know and be assessed on.

For example, a formerly second- or third-grade reading passage is considered appropriate for first graders and kindergarteners under the Common Core. Where students were once asked to summarize the beginning, middle, and end of the story, they are now expected to participate in a “collaborative conversation” to “compare and contrast” characters’ experiences. Where old middle school math problems could be solved with arithmetic, the new standards demand the use of algebra.

New standards are no new phenomenon. Speaking to me on another matter earlier this month, one CPS elementary school teacher said that her school administered thirteen different standardized tests last year.

She compared the situation for teachers to the Milgram experiment, a controversial study in the 1960s that studied responses to authority figures by leading test subjects to believe that fellow subjects—in actuality, actors hired by the experimenters—were being delivered electric shocks for incorrect answers. “Someone in authority is telling us what to do and we just keep doing it,” she said. “When are we going to stop doing this?”

Duncan says that what sets the Common Core apart from past initiatives is “more political will and courage to do this.” Speaking to the press after the panel, he elaborated: “I don’t think any of you have ever seen so many states, so many education leaders, so many teachers, working so hard together.”

Waivers for the standards set by past federal education initiatives—namely, No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top—were incentives for states to adopt the Common Core. No Child Left Behind required that states give and report the results of state-wide standardized tests in order to qualify for federal funding. It did not create the tests, but required that they exist. Race to the Top set up a point system—with financial incentives to the tune of $4.35 billion—to encourage states to adopt new policies.

However, in what Duncan describes as “one of the most insidious things that’s happened in education,” about twenty states “dummied down” testing standards “to make politicians look good,” he believes, under No Child Left Behind. One might also point out, however, the draconian punishments meted out to schools that didn’t meet No Child Left Behind’s standards, which demanded an impossible one hundred percent proficiency in reading and math by 2014.

“We were telling kids they were prepared to be successful when they weren’t even close,” Duncan said. While forty-eight states adopted standards for K-12 education after Race to the Top, some of those—including Illinois—lifted restrictions on charter school enrollment to more easily meet the standards. The Common Core is not only meant to raise standards, but to keep states and districts accountable.

While the standards have been encouraged by the federal government and accepted by states, it will be on districts, schools, and teachers to implement curricula and support that will enable students to meet these new, higher standards. As Duncan’s pundit on the panel, Rick Hess, author and the director of education studies at the American Enterprise Institute, put it, “the Common Core is just a bunch of words on paper.”

“Making sure things are legitimately of high caliber, I don’t think that’s the federal role,” Duncan said. “I do think that should be done [by] non-profits, districts, states.”

Unfortunately, as Duncan conceded, implementation, “how we support teachers, and principals, and students themselves, and family members in the hard work of hitting this higher bar,” is the biggest—and least defined—challenge.

CPS began the transition to the Common Core in 2011, with the goal of full implementation by the 2014-15 school year. All schools and networks were asked to begin to “unpack” the new standards and develop appropriate lessons and curricula.

Sixty schools actually adopted the standards in 2012 to test run and refine the implementation, and a group of about thirty teachers were selected to develop each of the district’s curricula for math and English. The Office of Instruction set up summer training programs in the summer of 2012 for teachers to make the transition from development to implementation. Today, the Chicago Teachers Union is running workshops on implementing the Common Core and there are many resources and online forums geared toward sharing lesson plans and ideas.

For teachers, new standards require the development of new curricula, new lessons, and preparation for unfamiliar assessments. They don’t have time built into the workday for curriculum planning, so it can become work they’re not necessarily paid for. Aligning an entire curriculum to new standards is not an easy or quick task. Often it takes away the time that educators could put towards professional development or troubleshooting other challenges in the classroom.

For students, the higher standards might mean a rude awakening. Even students who have met standards in the past may be surprised by lower scores under the new assessments. Still, Duncan disputed the possibility that kids might be discouraged by the challenge.

“I just left a high school this morning that had a skyrocketing increase in the number of students taking AP classes,” he said. “Same kids, same socioeconomic issues, same whatever, radically different results. Why? Expectations, expectations.”

Duncan insisted that establishing higher standards can only mean greater success for American students. “Every time we raise standards, kids do better,” he said. “The vast majority of kids don’t leave school because it’s too hard, they leave because it’s too easy.

They’re bored, they’re not engaged in their own learning.”

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When asked by a member of the press how consequences might differ for students unable to meet the new standards, Duncan corrected her sharply. “You actually used the wrong word. It’s not what ‘consequences,’ it’s what ‘support.’”

If approved, Mayor Emanuel’s proposed budget for 2014 will allocate millions to a protected Children’s Fund, to be established with $65-70 million in anticipated revenue from children’s safety zones.

$11 million of that fund—part of a $36 million, three-year initiative—will be set aside to “provide early education to 5,000 kids,” with full-day pre-kindergarten for all city children. Speaking to the press after the panel, Duncan emphasized the necessity of early education programs. They prevent kids from having to “[play] catch up” later on.

Mentioning his own start in education at his mother’s afterschool program, Duncan also acknowledged the importance of extended services and programs. “We have to do wraparound services, we have to do healthcare clinics, we have to do afterschool tutoring, and academic enrichment, mentoring,” he said. The city’s 2014 budget also sets aside $13 million for afterschool programming and proposed around-the-clock tutoring in every library branch around the city.

But these are all plans, and the ball is still up in the air. “There are no guarantees in life in anything,” Duncan said. He and other leaders have made the pitch for the Common Core standards; whether it’s a ball or a strike, South Side schools now have to try and make a play.

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