Common Core and Oak Park's elementary schools

Opinion: Columns

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John Duffy

Part I - These essays focus on the sponsors, motives, and assumptions behind CCSS, a national reform effort, and how these elements relate to our history of seeking the best schools possible for our children in Oak Park.

Why have 45 states so quickly adopted the Common Core State Standards, and why was there great interest but so little critical questioning when Advance Illinois joined with District 97 to pitch the Common Core at Irving School on April 29?

A few immediate answers are apparent. To be freed from the unrealistic goals and punishing sanctions imposed by NCLB (No Child Left Behind), states signed on to the CCSS under the Obama administration's education reform program known as Race to the Top (RTT). These states were then permitted to compete for federal education grants ($4.35 billion).

Yet some pretty strong and controversial impositions came with CCSS. By opting in, states also had to expand their number of charter schools, adopt new value-added measures tying student test scores to teacher evaluations, and even consider the expansion of merit pay as an incentive to better teaching. These reforms have a strong commonality — none are well supported in educational research.

One additional requirement for states that most citizens are not focused on is the new battery of national tests coming soon. The standardized testing logic of the Business Roundtable and the National Governors Association, who sponsored the creation of the CCSS with massive funding from the Gates Foundation, carries forward a key element of NCLB. With the reporting of student performance on national tests, the federal government now hopes to leverage pressure for school improvement with state comparisons that will replicate the harsh tradition under NCLB of openly comparing the scores of schools, students and communities.

And what impact on student learning has that kind of public accounting produced? Study after study tells of how it narrows the curriculum, reduces actual student learning time, demoralizes teachers, and closes schools across America's urban landscape while turning them over to private operators. And improvements in achievement measured by these tests? Little, if any.

The selling of the Common Core as the solution to the so-called American education crisis is the latest chapter in modern national education reform that promises to make a difference in American schools. Thirty years ago the Reagan administration threw down the gauntlet on U.S. teachers and students with the release of A Nation at Risk (NAR). Without equivocation, NAR unfairly blamed schools, teachers and our children for the downward spiral of the American economy. NAR's solution, in short, was for all of us to run faster and jump higher educationally. We just were not taking learning seriously enough. Public humiliation and punishing regimes of standards, tests and sanctions of all types followed in the 1990s, reaching their apex, ironically, not in NCLB but in Obama administration policies.

Under Arne Duncan and the Department of Education, Race to the Top imposes a new round of regimentation and punishments on teachers and students who fail to measure up. In this flawed effort to do better for our children, we are coerced with prescriptions for reform nationally that are being driven, financed and delivered by the Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and, in this state, by Advance Illinois, which is funded by an array of influential but unrepresentative corporations and private foundations. These advocates are most adamant in their sponsorship of education policies, including national standards, high-stakes testing, union-busting, charter schools, privatization and even vouchers. Advance Illinois, and other well-financed campaigns parading as independent efforts, continue to promote their sure-fire solutions to our educational challenges, even when such practices have weak substantive support in educational research.

John Duffy is a member of the Oak Park - River Forest Committee for Equity and Excellence in Education.

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Former test scorer  

Posted: May 8th, 2013 10:39 AM

Great article, thank you! As a former test scorer, I've seen firsthand how pointless these high-stakes tests are and am following closely the opt-out movement among parents who are simply refusing to have their kids take part. I'm not comfortable with my own kids being part of this broken system. Better education requires more holistic approaches. We need to reject this model and come up with practices more tailored to individual students.

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