National TOY: Stop blaming teachers; Common Core

In a White House ceremony this morning, President Barack Obama honored Sean McComb, 30, who teaches English at Patapsco High School & Center for the Arts in Baltimore County, Md., and was named the 2014 National Teacher of the Year.

Remarks by the president:

Today is a chance to thank not just the teachers on this stage but teachers all across the country. We really can’t say enough about how important their role is in making sure that America succeeds. So thank you for what you’re giving our children and what you’re giving our nation.

Now, it’s been a while since I was in school, but I still remember all the wonderful teachers who made me who I am, who opened the world up to me, who made me feel that maybe I had something to offer, and maybe saw things in me before I saw them in myself. We all had teachers like that. Talk to anybody who’s succeeded in business, or written a play, or invented an app, or broken an athletic record, and they’ll tell you about a teacher or a coach who inspired them and who challenged them, and taught them values, and encouraged them to be curious and ask questions, and explore new realms and new ideas. Everybody has got somebody like that in their lives.

That’s what great teachers do. They set us on a better path. And they do it even though we ask so much of them.

On her Answer Sheet blog for the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss asked Mr McComb about the complexities of teaching, the challenges that face educators, and school reform policies that scapegoat teachers while ignoring many of the powerful factors that affect student performance.

She also asked his opinion about charter schools, teacher evaluations, Teach for America, and the Common Core State Standards. The Common Core has come to mean many different reforms, but the original meaning of the term was a list of minimal learning standards, not very different in character from learning standards in place in every state for several decades.

The Common Core State Standards, in the original meaning, were adopted by more than 40 states shortly after they were written in 2010. The standards specify what students should be able to do or what they should know at the end of each year of school, kindergarten through 12th grade.

The standards have drawn criticism from both ends of the political spectrum, although in classrooms, the main issues stem from implementation rather than politics. Here’s what Mr McComb had to say about the Common Core, using the original meaning of the term.

From my perspective as a secondary school English teacher, the standards that I know and am familiar with are strong, and I’m comfortable with them. Some people whose opinions I respect have problems with the standards for early years and think they are not developmentally appropriate. I think we have to look at that. We have to have a conversation that separates the standards from the tests and the business entities that get lumped into that conversation.

Looking at the standards might not happen—and revising them would be right out—if we continue to lump them together with tests now being developed. Yet this revision is what so many educators think is needed, as we study and learn how the diverse standards in the Common Core work in our classrooms. Feedback from the implementation should drive a natural revision of those standards, strengthening the ones that work and improving those that don’t.

For example, Mr McComb’s district, Baltimore County Public Schools, recently spent $2.1 million on a curriculum developed by a private company, a set of lesson plans and units for teaching English language arts in elementary school, a curriculum that district officials called “unsatisfactory,” the Baltimore Sun reports. The whole contract caused some feuding within the district earlier this school year.

“The outcry was almost immediate,” the Sun quoted Stephanie Foy, a fifth-grade teacher at Villa Cresta Elementary in Parkville, as saying. Over the year, the curriculum has improved slightly, she said, but “the lack of a coherent curriculum has put the kids in a situation of not necessarily feeling successful at the end.”

Instead of feuding about this, we need to learn something from the experience and disseminate what we have learned to teachers across the country so they don’t make the same mistakes Baltimore County did.

Maryland is trying to establish collaboration between school districts in the state about the implementation of the Common Core, State Superintendent Lillian Lowery said last week. In describing a three-year series of teacher training sessions, attended by teachers from every district, she said, “At the state level, we built out implementation with teachers and leaders, but we knew that the locals would have to build the curricula themselves, and we wanted to make sure there was some consistency across the state.”

Baltimore County, like so many districts in the nation, decided to purchase curriculum development services from a private company: edCount. The partial curriculum received by the county didn’t get good reviews, based on emails the Sun obtained through public record requests.

The idea is collaboration, not competition

However, other school districts in the state and across the country have successfully implemented every single part of the Common Core, as far as the standards themselves are concerned. If Mr McComb can lead the way and we can “separate the standards from the tests and the business entities that get lumped into that conversation,” we might find that teachers can share their best stuff, their best lesson plans, model units, etc., in a spirit of collaboration, not competition.

Scores, tests, ratings and rankings, by their nature, encourage competition. I will say this again: Competition is repugnant to the Common Core. That’s why we have to disentangle the standards from the tests that are used to measure them: Tests encourage competition, and we can’t expect teachers to collaborate with other teachers if they’re only competing with them.

Collaboration—between states, between schools, between teachers, and all around—was one of the primary forces that led to the development of the Common Core in 2009. Forcing states, schools, and teachers to compete in 2014 will ruin everything that we’ve worked for.

I know football coaches from West Virginia wouldn’t have shared their playbook and game films with those from Marshall if the two teams had played each other in the season that rebooted football at Marshall after a tragic plane crash, for example. Friendly competition is the only way in a world of standards-based learning. High-stakes tests just don’t breed friendly competition. Threatening to fire the “bottom” so many percent of teachers doesn’t, either.

With the help of technology, the state of Maryland hopes to enable stronger collaboration. “We want to be able to share that best practices opportunity across the state,” Ms Lowery said. “We have a learning management system and a curriculum management system, and what we are putting on those opportunities for technological support are … those materials and resources that have been vetted by us at the department, with teachers throughout the state.

“But also we’re letting teachers post what they think would be great to help other teachers as far as planning and informal assessments. And we will know by the way teachers use them if they are good or not, and we will vet them that way.”

We can, and we must, do better. Efforts of collaboration are being thwarted, at every turn, by competition in all its ugly forms.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more biographical information, see the About page.