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Commentary: What Really Needs to Be Reformed?

What Really Needs to Be Reformed?

Elementary school students with their hand raised to ask a question. Focus on boy in red.

It’s hard being a moderate these days, because it seems as though the education debate is overpopulated with Reformers and Anti-Reformers. Moderates who suggest the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) aren’t that bad are seen as Reformers. Moderates who suggest assessments or high-stakes testing tied to teacher evaluation is flawed are seen as Anti-Reformers. Perhaps when we get past the vilification of each other we can move in a more positive direction.

For full disclosure, I consider myself a moderate, with a slight lean to the anti-reform side. It’s not that I think the Common Core State Standards are the best standards ever created, but I do believe they provide a base or starting point. However, I dislike what some building, district, state, and federal leaders (not to mention politicians) have done with the CCSS.

The CCSS are not the only issue we have to work out in public education. Teacher and administrator evaluation, preservice teacher preparedness, as well as high-stakes testing need to be worked out as well. High-stakes testing tied to teacher and administrator evaluation is the wrong driver to create positive change in educational practices. Many high-stakes tests do not provide schools with an item analysis or an explanation of the scores that students received. Receiving only test scores with no context is not effective feedback, making it difficult for teachers and students to learn from incorrect answers.

An unhealthy dynamic between teachers and students is created when teacher and administrator evaluations are tied to numbers that seem to fall from the sky using an algorithm to which most people are not privy. The assessment of learning should not be relegated to test-taking, because this makes positive learning experiences only achievable to a small percentage of students who are strong test-takers. High-quality learning experiences should be the pursuit of all students.

The Common Core Debate

There are still many of us who are unsure about whether the Common Core will have a positive or negative effect on student learning. It’s hard to weed through the noise. In a decade of the 99% vs. the 1%, some of the public distrusts anything with corporate involvement.

We do need to have higher expectations for students, and I hope the Common Core State Standards are meant to help students and teachers. I hope the CCSS are not the Trojan Horse to get businesses into public education. Unfortunately, states like New York have not helped advance the debate in a positive way. As most state leaders talk about the Common Core State Standards, New York calls them “Common Core State Curriculum.” Using the carrot and stick method of funding schools, the State suggests teachers use modules that are both scripted and timed. The State uses pacing charts that relegate teachers from being experts in the classroom, making them feel as if they are substitute teachers for their own students.

As a moderate, I would like to see state education departments offer proper resources and professional development to teachers, and even offer those opportunities to parents. Yes, parents. Parents need to understand what their children are learning, and learning cannot be left completely up to schools.

In the End

The hard part is trying to decide what each student needs to be successful, because students are not all the same. If we stop debating on who is right or wrong and actually work together to figure out how to move forward, we may find that our end goals are the same, and only our means are different. Perhaps I’m too idealistic.

If there is one thing that must be reformed, it’s the negative focus on everything in education, which is mostly made up of conversations about “failing teachers.” We need to shift our focus from “failing teachers” and put our energy toward creating positive learning experiences for students. Teaching is important, but learning is more important. Learning looks different for every student.