Three Things I Know about the Common Core

MonNatForestBy Tom

One of my fourth graders began school in a part of the country known for its spectacular natural beauty. Unfortunately, it’s also know for subpar housing, poor health care, and high illiteracy. Sadly, this student started the year well behind his peers and is still struggling to catch up. When I talked to his mom, she explained that he was an average student in his old school and she noticed a huge jump in terms of what he was expected to do in our school.

In other words, standards.

People across the country, both conservative and progressive, are balking at the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, either because they fear too much federal government involvement in what has traditionally been a state issue, or because they fear the Common Core is leading to over-testing of students and profiteering by the companies that produce those tests. While these concerns probably have some merit, there are three important facts concerning the common core that need to be considered:

First of all, we’ve always had, and always will have, standards. And it’s not just us. Doctors have standards. Plumbers have standards. So do engineers, pharmacists and the guys that build train tracks. We had standards before the Common Core and we’ll have other standards if we abandon the Common Core.

Second, standards imply assessment. Think of those guys and their train tracks. From time to time, one of them has to stop what he’s doing and check to see that their tracks are just the right distance apart. Otherwise they’ll have to start over. Likewise, from time to time we have to stop what we’re doing every once in a while to see if our students are learning the stuff we’re trying to teach. It’s inconvenient for everyone, but it’s also important.

And finally, it makes no sense for different places in the country to be teaching to different standards. Particularly math, ELA and science standards. People move around a lot, and kids all over the country will eventually compete for the same jobs and college seats. It’s ridiculous for their respective states to focus on different standards. Because by “different” we’re talking harder or easier; and in this case, harder is better.

The Common Core is not perfect and testing is no fun. I get that. But there’s a kid struggling in my classroom right now, mostly because the beautiful state where he was born and the beautiful state where he lives now each decided on a different set of standards.

That doesn’t make any sense.

Standards and Fallacies


Two key standards I strive to teach my students:

  • Regarding informational text: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.
  • Regarding speaking and listening: Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, identifying any fallacious reasoning or exaggerated or distorted evidence.

False statements, fallacious reasoning, exaggerated or distorted evidence: I can think of nothing more important for literate 21st-century students to be able to decipher, as these are rampant and pervasive in our culture and media today, from reality TV to TV news and from advertising to politics.

In our complex, fast-moving world of constant stimuli from vibrating little screens, one of the easiest categories of fallacy to fall victim to are the fallacies of distraction.

Simply put, this fallacy arises in an argument when the listener distracts the arguer from the issue by raising a point that is tangential or only tenuously related, and thus hijacks the argument so that in the end the original issue never gets resolved.

This is exactly what is happening in debates and discussions about public education today. Why is one of the greatest and most vehement arguments in modern public education about the Common Core State Standards, for example?

As I see it, this argument is a fallacy of distraction.

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Connecting to the Conversation


Recently I got better connected to conversations on public education in the United States. I got my Twitter account up and started following people talking about our K-12 schools. You might know how that story goes. I knew a few people I wanted to follow, and then this person connected to that person and before I knew it I found it was hard to keep up.

My entire Twitter experience is all about professional engagement. My head is spinning with all of the information, but I have very little chance to be grounded in those conversations here in my school where we can craft solutions, visions, and help shape the course of a student’s day, month, year, life. Follow Diane Ravitch’s blog alone and your head will probably spin too.

One of the people I follow who makes a great deal of sense to me is Pasi Sahlberg. I had the opportunity to be a part of a one-day “Finnish Lessons” seminar with him at UW a couple of years ago, and I saw him again last year at the Teaching and Learning Conference in Washington, DC. He makes a number of compelling arguments about how schools in the United States could revolutionize their approach to teaching and learning. There are many societal issues that are out of reach for schools to take on, so I’d like to focus on one that seems accessible and almost desperately necessary for teacher survival:

for Collaboration.

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Washington State Democrats Oppose the Common Core

By Tom

Over the weekend, the Washington State Democratic Party passed a resolution opposing the Common Core State Standards. This is a pretty big deal, given that the primary opposition to the Common Core has been from Republicans. But while Republican opposition focuses mostly on federal intrusion into state matters, Democratic opposition is mostly a reaction to over-testing and big businesses who profit on that over-testing. Were Washington to drop the Common Core, it would be significant; it’s not only a solid blue state, it’s also the home state of the Gates Foundation, which has backed the new standards since the beginning.

This is a surprising development.

First of all, no matter what you think of the Common Core, you have to hand it to the people behind this resolution. They are an intrepid group. According to their Website, they’ve been working on this project for a year, lining up their ducks and putting the pieces into place. It’s a group of concerned parents, activist teachers and progressive Democrats and it doesn’t look like they’re going anywhere soon. We can probably expect anti-Common Core bills in both the House and the Senate in the very near future.

There’s still a long way to go, of course, before any change in policy. Anything can happen in the legislature. But there’s absolutely no way for anyone who supports the Common Core to see this as anything but bad news. It doesn’t bode well, especially since the Republicans have already come out in opposition to the Common Core and especially since Patty Murray, one of our US Senators, is trying to get the ball rolling on rewriting NCLB. She’s made it clear that she still supports yearly testing, and the only tests we have these days are the ones that are pegged to the Common Core.

As a teacher, I find this whole mess extremely frustrating. Like most districts, mine rolled out new curriculum in both math and ELA just before the Common Core was written. So, like everyone else, I’ve spent the last five years trying to figure out how to teach to the Common Core with materials that don’t quite fit. It’s been a struggle, but I’m getting there. I’ve also worked hard to get my students prepared for the SBAC, the Common Core-aligned test used in Washington State.

And quite frankly, I like these standards. They make sense. They might not be perfect, but they’re better than the ones we used to have and they’re sure better than what hasn’t been proposed by the people who want to get rid of the Common Core.

We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Teachers – and students – have enough to work on without having to abandon everything we’ve done over the last five years and refocus on another set of standards. And while I admire the idealism and determination of the folks who got this resolution passed, I resent their ultimate goal.

We’ve adopted the Common Core. Let’s focus on implementing it.

TeachToLead Summit, Part Two: Us versus Them.

Grand Canyon

One theme that kept coming up again and again during my weekend at the Denver TeachToLead Summit earlier this month: Us versus Them.

The “us” was universally the same: teachers and teacher leaders.

The “them” varied depending on the project. In some cases they were unwilling principals, myopic departments of ed, or whoever “they” are that design and mandate clunky policy.

In our movie-plotline fantasies about leadership, we might envision the lone, passionate advocate standing up to “them,” converting “them,” and having waved the wand of leadership to magically change their minds, rather easily change the world.

The reality of Us versus Them is more complicated. And I believe that the first step in successful teacher leadership is the honest admission that this dichotomy does not actually exist.

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The Girl Who Wasn’t Here

empty desk

Note: I wrote this post six or seven years ago (can’t remember now) and it was the first post for which I was called to the principal’s office. It was one of those ominous Friday evening Outlook “meeting requests” to meet with admin on Monday morning before school. The only note in the request: “blog post.” I called the principal at home to see if I needed to bring a union rep.

When you read it, you’ll likely see that it isn’t particularly controversial, which was what at first confused me about my reprimand. Still relatively early in my career, and very new to blogging, I made the rounds apologizing to administrators and ultimately pulled the post down from Stories from School even though it had already garnered several comments and reposts…and even though I had modified enough details of the kids’ stories to protect the innocent while still emphasizing the impact of the policy. Their concern was that a parent could read the post, read through the modifications, and still see themselves and their student, then be upset.

A recent conversation with a teacher at Denver’s TTLSummit reminded me of this post, as this teacher was struggling with building-level policies that she wanted to see changed for the benefit of students.

A few weeks ago, she and her family moved into my district. It was perfect timing to join my class, as we were just starting to read the next novel and she could step right in with us.

Two days after she arrived, she was absent.

No big deal, I thought.  Then, she proceeded to miss two more days.

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TeachToLead Summit – Denver: Part One… Washington is Different


This past weekend I was surrounded by people ready to change their worlds. Teacher leaders from all over the nation converged in Denver for the regional Teach to Lead Summit hosted by the U.S. Dept. of Ed. and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

It was inspiring, enlightening, and exhausting (in a good way).

Much of it was also about forging connections, perhaps future partnerships. I had the opportunity to deliver a breakout session with CSTP’s Katie Taylor, and serve as a critical friend and consultant to teams of teachers from Colorado, Minnesota, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and other states who were seeking feedback on the teacher-leadership projects they were building back at home.

One thing I figured out quickly, though, was that Washington is unique.

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The Inslee Budget, Part 2: Compensation

By Tom

The other night I was sitting in my living room, on my recliner, preparing lesson plans for the next day. (That’s how I roll, by the way; one day at a time.) As I was working on my math lesson, I looked in my Math Expressions Teachers’ Guide and noticed that the next day was all about finding the area of a triangle. A bell went off in my mind; I remembered something from some Common Core workshop sometime in the last couple of years. So I check the CCSS website and sure enough, area of a triangle is no longer a fourth grade thing. Sixth graders get to do it.

Now, a smarter man would have simply shrugged it off, turned the page to the next lesson and planned accordingly. But I’m not smart. I thought to myself, “I wonder if there’s something in the fourth grade standards that isn’t covered by our textbook. And if there is, maybe I should teach a lesson on that.”

There was. Fourth graders are supposed to “Recognize angle measure as additive; when an angle is decomposed into non-overlapping parts, the angle measure of the whole is the sum of the angle measures of the parts. They’re supposed to know how to solve addition and subtraction problems to find unknown angles on a diagram in real world and mathematical problems.”

In other words, my students are supposed to know that you can take a ninety degree angle and divide it into a sixty and a thirty degree angle. Or you can take a ninety degree angle and combine it with two 45-degree angles to make a 180-degree angle. Stuff like that.

So I went online to see if there were any resources available. There are. Actually there’s some great stuff from New York State’s “Engage NY” site. So I found myself some resources, came up with a plan for my students, and wrote it up.

Then I checked the time. Continue reading

Teaching Canned Curriculum

WANTED: Highly-qualified teacher to implement district purchased curriculum. Must attend trainings. Must follow pacing guide. Must give students consumables. Must move quickly. Must ignore reteaching. Must trust the model. Must regularly update online assessment collection tool.  Must share results with building data team. Must not question the process.

I had completely forgotten the existence of this wanted ad when I clicked on the email attachment with excitement, nervous about the courses I would teach in the fall. I’d requested Sophomores and AP Language. Four sections of Sophomores glowed on the screen. That meant I’d have roughly 120 fifteen year olds to guide through the themes of Sophomore year. I love 10th graders because they sort of know how to play high school. They think they are better than the freshmen. They consistently under or over-estimate how much time it actually takes to accomplish an academic task.

They think they know everything.

This is the year that many high school students transition from thinking about themselves to thinking about others. Throughout the nation, tenth graders are learning to “think globally”. Sophomore year a student could read texts like Siddhartha, Things Fall Apart, and Macbeth. They learn about the cellular makeup of the world in Biology, discover that Geometry is simply argumentative writing with numbers, and explore how civilizations rose and fell through World History.

Following the lead of others, my own district adopted Springboard, a College Board developed, Common Core aligned, “culturally responsive” curriculum that prepares students for rigorous, Advanced Placement courses. I was certainly excited about  these qualities when I attended the district workshop last year. Nonetheless, after five months of implementation what I’ve found is that this curriculum—much like most outsourced programming—is problematic. Instead of concentrating this post on an analysis of the issues, I want to emphasize what teaching Springboard curriculum has illuminated for me.

My classroom isn’t more rigorous, engaged, or common core aligned because of Springboard—those qualities already existed. What Springboard has done is remind me that teachers still need the flexibility and autonomy to modify any curriculum to meet the needs of the diverse students in their classrooms.

Furthermore, the following is more true now than ever:

  • Students need their classroom teachers to pre-assess their knowledge.
  • Students need their classroom teachers to develop engaging hooks.
  • Students need their classroom teachers to differentiate learning tasks.
  • Students need their classroom teachers to scaffold complex readings.
  • Students need their classroom teachers to create a safe place for all learners.
  • Students need their classroom  teachers to not be “good soldiers” rotely teaching curriculum developed by someone many states away from their school.

Above all,

  • Students need their classroom teachers to advocate for them when policies don’t.

TPEP Is Killing My Principal

I have a really great principal.

I’m not just saying that because I have a sense of loyalty to the school and the staff or because I like him and his Star Trek suit. (Which I do.)

I’ve lived in multiple states and taught at multiple schools. I’ve encountered many principals from mediocre to strange to bad to great. He really is one of the good guys.

Our elementary school is on tribal land. About half of our students are on free or reduced lunch. Our principal maintains a strong, positive relationship with the tribe and the community. He builds coalitions with a terrific PTSA, with volunteers and coordinators, with classified and certified staff. If we are all rowing our canoe in the same direction, he is the one calling out the rhythm.

In the past my principal has come by my classroom nearly every day, often twice a day. He comes in, sits down and soaks in a portion of a lesson, interacting with the students, asking questions, interjecting his own comments. When it comes time to write an evaluation of my teaching, he has a wealth of direct observation to draw on—he knows what my classroom looks like and how I interact with my students.

Well, in the past he had that.

This year nearly half the teachers in the school are on comprehensive evaluations—or, as I’ve dubbed them, the “Bataan Death March Version of TPEP.”

My principal has all the same job expectations he’s had in previous years, but this year the time he is spending on evaluations has quadrupled. (At least quadrupled.)

I have watched the energy drain out of him this year.

He still comes to my room, occasionally, once in a while, for a quick pop in and pop out. I know he wants to stay longer, but he doesn’t have the time. He’s off and running to the next room.

I know how driven he is to do a stellar job, but something has to give. If he must do evaluations and they take so much more of his time than they did in the past, how does that affect the rest of his job? What gets short shrift or what gets eliminated because there just aren’t enough hours in the day?

Principal burn-out is a national issue. Take a look at the article Churn: The High Cost of Principal Turnover. Two of the primary causes driving principals to leave their jobs are

  • excessive workload and managerial tasks that prevent more meaningful instructional leadership efforts and
  • personal costs—long hours and the physical and psychological toll.

I know my principal would enjoy more meaningful instructional leadership efforts than ensuring all the TPEP evidence is collected and all the TPEP paperwork is complete for all the teachers on the comprehensive evaluation form this year. Obviously, that’s another thing he would love to do. If he had time.

How could we make evaluations take less time? We have a handful of National Board Certified Teachers on staff at our school. Wouldn’t it make sense to exempt all the NBCTs at our school—all the NBCTs in the state—from the comprehensive level of evaluations for the term of their National Board Certification? After all, NBCTs have to undergo a rigorous certification process. It’s an objective review at a national level, far more extensive and impersonal than any local administrator could hope to manage. TPEP is, in many ways, redundant for the NBCTs.

If NBCTs were exempt from the comprehensive evaluations, my principal could do the focused form with all the NBCTs in the school for the ten years of their certification period. It would take those comprehensive evaluations off his schedule for a decade.

Principals in general might get more supportive of teachers who wanted to pursue National Board Certification since their certification would mean shorter evaluation forms in the future and reduced work load for the principal!

Having NBCTs on the focused form for the length of their certification would be an added incentive for teachers too, giving teachers another reason to do the difficult work of pursuing National Board Certification.

Meanwhile, there is no solution in sight.

The legislature created the more rigorous teacher evaluation system to make sure all the teachers in the state met high standards. Wouldn’t it be ironic if, in their effort to create more perfect teachers, they destroyed their principals?