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Citizens Speak Out – Stop Common Core

Comments to the State Board of Education

Members of the Board, thank you for this opportunity to speak to you regarding the Common Core State Standards.

I would like to start my remarks today by talking about what is wonderful about education in Wyoming.  Our state is blessed with a lot of superb resources and we would all be remiss if we didn’t address those first.

  1. Wyoming has caring, dedicated parents.
  2. Wyoming has committed, well-educated, experienced teachers. 
  3. Wyoming has strong communities.
  4. Wyoming has strong traditions of local control over education in our communities, which make children feel safe and rooted.
  5. We have the skills and expertise in our own state to develop excellence in our educational system, from setting standards to developing curriculum.  Our local education systems have principles that reflect our unique culture and heritage and that equip our children for the future.
  6. We have an elected citizen legislature, elected local school boards, as well as yourselves, a board appointed by our elected governor.  Folks who are willing to serve their state in a voluntarily, often working long, exhausting hours with very little reward.
  7. And finally, we are blessed with large amounts of mineral wealth.  Wealth that has kept Wyoming consistently in the top 10 slot (often in the top first or second slot) of per pupil funding. We have the ability to fund education generously here.

Here is a vision for your consideration: let us use the abundant resources we clearly have here at hand to build Wyoming practices that truly address the needs of our Wyoming children at home. Goals that exceed commonality and result in excellence — practices based on tried- and- true methods that invite the skills necessary to sustain our Wyoming culture, that ground children in the culture they experience in their homes and communities and in the studies most relevant to their childhood, while simultaneously equipping them for their bright future.   Concern for sustaining what is best about our way of life over generations is shared by the parents, grandparents, and taxpayers who have joined us today.   Their study of the issue has led them to conclude that Common Core Standards will not invite the skills necessary to sustain what we treasure in our way of life here in Wyoming.  

But let us take a closer look at the history of standards and the Common Core Standards themselves.   The Board will be familiar with this, so I will be brief. 

Standards have been used in education over the past 20 years.  They have been a part of the national education debate since the early ‘90s when the standards-setting movement first took hold during President Bill Clinton’s administration.  Since that time and with the passage of Goals 2000 under President Clinton and then No Child Left Behind under President George W. Bush, states have been pushing themselves to comply with federal edicts regarding standard setting and standard testing.  

Certainly Wyoming, like other states, has had standard setting as a part of our educational basket for a very long time.  Some time spent at the Wyoming law library reveals that Wyoming has had very broad and general standard making authority in our statutes since the turn of the previous century.  But as we look back over the history of education we will find that standards were not and have never been the foundation of excellence in education.  The personality and character of our teachers, our parents, our children and our communities plays a far more vital role in ensuring excellence in education locally than has standards. 

Indeed, there is no good data to support the significance of national, uniform standards, or even the significance of the standards themselves on academic excellence.  When we compare high and low scoring countries internationally we find no data that links high test scores to a highly centralized education system. Countries with both high and low test scores have uniform standards and centralized education systems. 

Alfie Kohn, a former teacher and educational writer and researcher said it best when he wrote a piece in the New York Times discussing the Common Core Standards: “It may be convenient – particularly for companies that produce curriculum and tests – to have all 4th graders learn the same thing, but that benefit is more than out weighted by the degree of control required to make communities and individual teachers get with the program even if they’d rather create lessons and assessments suited to their students.”  Kohn, like many others educators, has seen the negative effects of uniformity requirements in standards-based programs over the past 2 two decades. 

Certainly this “silver-bullet” in grand education experiments has seen its strongest unveiling before the Common Core Standards, with No Child Left Behind, a piece of federal legislation that emphasized the need for states to set their own standards and test for those standards under the hypothesis that this would raise test scores.  So, what has happened in the past decade since No Child Left Behind was signed into law?  Test scores remained flat, as they have for the previous decade.

National test scores reveal no significant rise in the past decade.  Indeed most states, like Wyoming, have clamored to receive the waiver, offered by President Obama in September 2011, to get out from under the punitive aspects of No Child Left Behind.  

The promised gains from No Child Left Behind have not been fulfilled.  States have not seen test scores rise significantly under this piece of federal legislation which centers on standard setting and high stakes testing.  Rather the only significant rise that can be tracked to this movement has been the phenomenal rise in education spending, which nearly doubled in the past decade, Wyoming included.

Once burned, twice wary.  Have we seen this movie before?  The people of Wyoming and those elsewhere are reaching for the “pause” button and taking time to reconsider the Common Core Standards and subsequent high-stakes assessments now that the standards themselves have been fully “unpacked” and parents are seeing a radically new curriculum emerge.  Examples of these pauses can be seen in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia and Florida.  

Certainly proponents of the Common Core have presented their viewpoint to this Board; we would be most happy to address those points in detail should the Board request that of us. But today let us examine some of the thoughts of the people who have taken time to join us for this presentation.

It bothers us that we are encouraged to be frightened about “competitiveness in the global economy.”  America is still the most creative country in the world.  And what happened to the pursuit of happiness?  Doesn’t that have something to do with creativity, kindness, art and music, and even productivity? 

As Kohn says so eloquently, “Finally, what’s the ultimate goal here? It’s not to nourish curiosity, help kids to fall in love with reading, encourage critical questioning, or support a democratic society. Rather, the mantra is “competitiveness in a global economy” — that is, aiding American corporations and triumphing over people who live in other countries.

The biggest fans of standardizing education are those who look at our children and see only future employees. Anyone who finds that vision disturbing should resist a proposal for national standards that embodies it.”

It bothers us that we are promised college and career readiness as the ultimate educational goal, as though this is the highest outcome we wish for our children; to make someone a great worker.  When children are trained to be fully functioning citizens they are ready to contribute to society in every facet, work included.  Who are we serving when we look at our children and think only to train them to be workers?

It bothers us that once again we are seeing more promises made with no proof to back them up – I refer you back to my comments on the history and decade- long outcome of No Child Left Behind. 

To quote the well-known and well-respected education historian and education policy analyst Dr. Dianne Ravitch:, “Maybe the standards will be great. Maybe they will be a disaster. Maybe they will improve achievement. Maybe they will widen the achievement gaps between haves and have-nots. Maybe they will cause the children who now struggle to give up altogether. Would the Federal Drug Administration approve the use of a drug with no trials, no concern for possible harm or unintended consequences?” 

In other words, we don’t know.  We are experimenting on our kids and we don’t know if the promises made by the authors and sellers of these standards will actually be able to deliver.  It would seem that the loudest voices hawking the Common Core Standards have been accepted as the ones with all the answers.  And the myriad of educators and parents who have been too afraid or not loud enough have been virtually ignored or vilified into silence.

Prior to the standards movement and the push to make standards nationally uniform and linked to accountability testing, standards were applied as a general and broad guiding light for teachers and local districts rather than a harsh, authoritarian interrogation light demanding conformity and uniformity. 

Since the standards were first adopted in 2010 our districts have been converting their old curricula over to Common Core aligned curricula.  For many parents this change has been startling, and can leave no one in doubt that these standards have had a very large impact on curriculum development. 

Like a creeping vine, these new standards have begun to twist and tighten themselves around local curricula, narrowing the amount of real control our local communities and our parents have over the education of their children. And without a doubt, as our high stakes testing comes online under the new Wyoming Accountability Act, we will see even more prescriptive teaching to master these high- stakes tests with less and less ability by the local districts to make changes on the ground.

Wanting standards that guide teachers to create excellence in their classrooms is a worthy goal, and Wyoming can achieve it without rushing to sign onto the latest shiny new educational toy. 

There is a lot of wisdom in the saying, “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.”

The past two decades of the standards movement has shown us that focusing on setting standards and testing standards has not garnered the results promised. Instead it has created more and more government spending and more and more federal and state government meddling in local education to the detriment of our local schools, our parents and our children.

Finally, I would like to talk briefly about the experiences of our local families and teachers under the Common Core as well as make some brief comments on the national debate over these standards and then give a few policy suggestions. 

While I cannot possibly articulate all of the many stories of both the people behind me and those all over the state who could not attend this meeting, I am going to do my best to bring you just a few, because it is important for you, the State Board to Education, to hear what happens outside these walls, the walls of the Department of Education and the walls of local administrators.

Many teachers throughout the state have been in contact to tell their stories.  With the only exception being a teacher, Christy Hooley, who is present with us here today, other teachers have been afraid to come forward and talk about what is happening in their classrooms.  And parents are speaking directly to teachers as well.  Many parents have called to discuss what happened when they spoke to their child’s teacher about the Common Core. 

One such parent, a former math teacher, relayed an all too familiar story of meetings with their child’s teacher to talk about the changes in the child’s homework.  When the parent asked the teacher where the new curriculum came from, the teacher replied that it was from the new Common Core aligned curriculum – in other words curriculum based on the Common Core Standards.  When the parent asked the teacher what they might think of the curriculum – teacher to teacher, the response was telling.   The teacher was visibly upset and repeated to the parent several times, “I have to keep my paycheck.” The teacher never shared a professional opinion on what they were teaching in the classroom, clearly too afraid of repercussions. 

Think about that for a moment.  This Wyoming teacher who is professionally trained to teach our children, who spends every day with them, who, after parents, has the most to do with that child’s potential educational outcomes, is afraid to speak out about these Standards because of a fear of losing their job.  That is stunning.  And we have been hearing this story repeated all over the state.

Parents of children between the ages of kindergarten and third grade have said their children are coming home frustrated and crying. One mother said her daughter, who was excited thru through the entire summer to start kindergarten, is now crying each night – not wanting to go to school. 

The lack of communication regarding the adoption of these standards and all other subsequent desires for communication has also been a common theme.  Parent after parent after parent has told me they had no idea these changes had occurred. 

One parent went so far as to research Dept. of Education press releases sent out during the three year “open comment period” and found that not one single press release, according to all of the newspapers in her area, which she called individually, had made it into their local paper.  She also checked with her local school board members and found that nothing was sent home in students’ backpacks to inform parents of these potential changes.  The district did acknowledge this as a mistake on their part, but the damage is already done.  And now, a culture of conformity seems to have settled over this state, discouraging real discourse on this very controversial topic. 

Reports have come back to me that district employees are being ordered to not speak about the Common Core.  They expect to demand parents point out what part of the standards themselves they do not like, hoping – one can only speculate – to intimidate parents, who are not experts, into silence.  This kind of narrow edict shuts down open and honest dialogue between parents and educators and clearly shows that education administrators from the top down are not willing to directly address parents’ concerns.

Holding on so tightly to theses standards has lead many at the top unwilling to engage in open dialogue with parents.  There are many, many more stories to share, but my time simply does not allow it. 

I will move to the national controversy around these standards, which are important to this discussion because these controversies speak to the validity of the standards themselves.

Included in your packet is a paper entitled “The Crisis in Early Education – A Research-Based Case for More Play and Less Pressure” put out by the Alliance for Childhood, a group of early childhood educators and physicians.  This group also released a “Joint Statement of Early Childhood Health and Education Professionals on the Common Core Standards Initiative,” – that is in your packet – a document signed by more than 500 early childhood professionals, including pediatricians, developmental psychologists, and researchers, many of whom are the most prominent members of their fields in this country, as well as featuring the signatures of three past presidents of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, all of whom oppose the standards grades K-3 as being developmentally inappropriate for these children.

Something parents in Wyoming are beginning to report to their school boards that kindergarten students are coming home frustrated and crying frequently at night, a sure sign of stress which this group warned the writers of the Common Core standards could happen, a warning that fell on deaf ears. The statement also voices strong concerns regarding the potential for these standards to lead to “drill and grill” teaching in the classroom, as well as resulting in more and more standardized testing for children at younger and younger ages, both of which this group of professionals opposes.

Also in your packet is the testimony of Dr. Sandra Stotsky regarding her experience serving on the National Validation Committee, a group of experts put together to verify the standards themselves as being legitimately “college and career ready standards.” 

Dr. Stotsky, the only English Language Arts content expert on the Validation Committee, refused to sign off on these standards, along with four other committee members, including Dr. James Milgram, Stanford Math professor and the only Math content expert on the Committee.

To quote Dr. Stotsky regarding the standards:, “Common Core’s K-12 standards, it is regularly claimed, emerged from a state-led process in which experts and educators were well represented. But the people who wrote the standards did not represent the relevant stakeholders.  Nor were they qualified to draft standards intended to “transform instruction for every child.” And the Validation Committee that was created to put the seal of approval on the drafters’ work was useless if not misleading, both in its membership and in the procedures they had to follow.”

I encourage you to take the time to read Dr. Stotsky’s testimony regarding her time on the National Validation Committee.

You will also find in your packet comments by Dr. Milgram and a document created by the grassroots organization called Wyoming Citizens Opposing the Common Core, which refutes a timeline recently created by the Wyoming Department of Education.

To say there is widespread universal agreement about these standards is simply not true and denies the reality of the chaos these standards have created in the public education system all over this country.

We need to stop vilifying national experts, teachers and parents who have been speaking out about the defects of these standards all over the country and in Wyoming.  When we set limits on what people can and cannot discuss everyone in our free society loses. 

Wyoming has so many blessings.  I listed just some of them at the beginning of my talk.  Caring parents, dedicated teachers and an abundance of natural resources.  We need to bring these resources together and develop a set of standards that will bring true excellence to our state without dictating conformity to our local communities.  No more paying lip service to the idea of local control.

The Common Core State Standards are not the best standards in this country, they are simply the “it” standards of the moment. 

Our recommendations to you, members of the State Board of Education, would be to:

  1. Stop the implementation of the Common Core Standards in English Language Arts and Math immediately.
  2. Bring together Wyoming’s best and brightest in a panel, including equal numbers of parents and education professionals, to take a look at alternatives to the Common Core Standards. 
  3. Take a look at revising how you publicize your standards review process to include more avenues for direct parent contact, such as notices going home in students’ backpacks.
  4. In your role under the Wyoming Accountability Act requiring your involvement in the implementation of a statewide accountability system, convene panels of parents and teachers from around the state to assess the potential effects of high stakes testing on students and the educational system. 
  5. Develop ideas to improve communication with parents around the state such as having individual board members host informal coffees in your community at times when parents are available to attend.

I hope you will take some time to think about these ideas and be willing and receptive to meet with and speak to parents who reach out to you about their concerns over the Common Core.  Without this open dialogue, you leave parents alone, with no place to go.

In conclusion, we cannot afford to continue down this path of adopting every new “it” idea proposed as the “silver-bullet” in educational improvement.  Wyoming’s citizens, our communities and our mineral wealth all afford us with incredible opportunities to create a system that is world class.  We simply need the courage and the vision to do it ourselves.

The history of federal involvement in education has not proven to be a factor in actually improving education; quite to the contrary.  And while proponents of the Common Core would like to have it both ways – that the Common Core is a state-led and not federally pushed initiative, their arguments for the standards prove this statement to be contrary. The standards, they say, are needed nationally so that all children are learning the same things at the same time no matter where they are in this country.  In other words, they would have us believe this was a state-led initiative to enforce a national set of standard on all states, uniformly, thereby eliminating states’ sovereign authority over public education. 

Proponents also want it both ways in that they say these standards can be changed at any time – and yet, I refer back to my previous point, namely that the initiative itself, according to them, calls for all children to learn the same thing at the same time no matter where they are in the United States.  Wouldn’t states changing the standards in any significant way take us right back to No Child Left Behind where states set their own individual standards?

Proponents also want it both ways in saying that the standards are not curriculum as though standards sit in a vacuum.  And yet they promise us the moon with these standards – saying that children will be college and career ready and competitive in the global economy.  That’s an awful lot to hope for in a set of standards that will, according to some, have no effect on what is taught day- to- day in the classroom.

When we look at the history of education in this country, we see that money has not made it better.  More and more federal control has not made it better.  And the latest and greatest in education ideas has not made it better.

Let’s believe in our founding principles again, principles that understand that it is the personality and character of our teachers, our parents, our children and our communities that plays the vital role in ensuring excellence in education. 

Let’s believe in Wyoming’s ability to create excellence in education locally and stop this experiment in standards for education, as if doing something a second time will get us different results.

 Let’s believe in our abilities to do what is right by our children. They are capable of meeting higher standards and being held accountable for accomplishing learning tasks without lowering the bar, handing over our authority and calling it rigor.

And let’s believe in our parents and our teachers to care the most for their children, in the classroom and at home, instead of devising new ways to remove parental authority and silence good teachers.  

Thank you for taking the time to listen to me today.

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Thursday, 19 October 2017
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