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Sandra Stotsky: Common Core gets things backward

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In a crowded room at the Marriott Courtyard Hotel in Bridgeport Aug. 24, members of the Legislature, parents, teachers, school board members and concerned citizens gathered for an open Common Core curriculum town hall forum, featuring Sandra Stotsky.

Originally part of the Common Core Validation Committee and one of five who refused to sign off on Common Core State Standards, Stotsky has since traveled to 30 states, sharing her story of why she considers the state standards not only mediocre, but “backward” in academic delivery.

When it comes to credentials, Stotsky's list stretches almost as long as the number of states she's visited.

Currently, she is professor of education at the University of Arkansas and served as senior associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, where she was in charge of developing or revising all of the state's K-12 standards, teacher licensure tests along with teacher and administrator licensure regulations. She also served on the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, on the National Mathematics Advisory Panel and was editor of the research journal, Research in “Teaching of English,” published by the National Council of Teachers of English. Additionally, Stotsky has published in professional journals and written several books. She completed her undergraduate work at the University of Michigan and her doctorate in reading research and reading instruction at Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

Violation of Civic Procedures

Stotsky, who “has always loved the idea behind open town hall meetings” and “being able to participate in the affair's of one's own community that you live in and pay taxes for in some way,” said she found common core curriculum “to be in violation of almost everything (she) had ever learned about civic procedures.”

Because the state standards were developed by three private Washington, D.C.-based organizations — the National Governors Association, The Council of Chief State School Officers and Achieve Inc.— and all funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Stotsky said she finds herself “in the position of constantly contradicting one of the major talking points,” which are that the standards are state-led.

Because they are all private organizations, there is nothing to request under the Freedom of Information Act for detail.

“There was no way anyone could ever get information from any of these organizations about why anyone was appointed to the committees, what their charge was, what they were paid,” Stotsky said. “To this day, you can't find out why people were chosen for the committees they were put on to create the standards and why the chief writers were chosen.”

The absence of high school math teachers, English professors and high school English teachers throughout the process is what prompted Stotsky to ask to be placed on the validation committee and the first thing that “hit me and woke me up — figuring out why the very people who should have been on these standards development committees weren't there,” she said.

Not only were the expected types of people absent, Stotsky said, but the fact that those within the Common Core project set up their own validation committee also left much to be desired.

“If you want something evaluated, you do not ask the people who carried it out to evaluate what they carried out themselves. That makes common sense,” she said. “You ask for an independent group to do it.”

New Approaches, Old Subjects

Once on the validation committee, Stotsky said she quickly realized “we were intended to be rubber stamps” and simply “supposed to do what they told us to do.”

When it came to the public comment draft in math, Stotsky said James Milgram, professor emeritus of mathematics at Stanford University and also a member of the Validation Committee, didn't understand what happened behind the scenes after seeing the final draft. Changes from the public comment draft were so drastic, Stotsky explained.

By 10th grade, many states teach the Euclidian approach to geometry, a proof-based approach to Euclidian geometry and an approach Milgram understands well.

“It's been going on for about 2,000 years so it's nothing new,” Stotsky said. “In any event, the approach that is put into Common Core is so bizarre — it was tried out in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and it was so bad they got rid of it in a few years.

“It's never been tried on a large scale anywhere else. So the question is, ‘Why is it here?'''

Another issue Stotsky pointed out about Common Core curriculum was the disappearance of the pathway to science, technology, engineering and math that was supposed to be included.

“Since we do not have access to any private records, we do not know why Common Core math standards do not allow a pathway to STEM careers,” she said. “(Or) why David Coleman, lead writer for English Language Arts, was allowed to mandate a 50/50 division between literary study and informational text at every grade level.

“Who was he, that he had this authority and power with no approval from English teachers across the country or from the parents with children in public schools?”

In the Mountain State, traditional math has been renamed Math 1, Math 2, Math 3 and Math 4. As previously explained by associate state superintendent at the West Virginia Department of Education, Robert Hull, the majority of high school math will cover algebra, along with some geometry and some trigonometry.

Problem is, Stotsky said, most engineering and STEM higher education programs call for incoming freshman to have mastered much more than just some trigonometry in order to take freshman math classes. It could be especially problematic to the Mountain State and the expected rise in oil and gas careers, she said.

Higher Education Link

Common Core state standards also provide a link to higher education through college readiness standards, she said, signed by various chancellors and presidents of higher education institutions agreeing to accept whatever “college-ready standards” may be.

If students pass the 11th grade college readiness test, that would be based on those standards in 11th grade English and math, they would automatically be entitled to credit-bearing freshman courses.

What does that mean in practice for engineering and STEM collegiate institutions?

If the highest level of math at the culmination of high school is lower than what is expected at the freshman college level, then those colleges with engineering and STEM backgrounds will be forced to teach to lower standards due to the fact that passage of the eleventh grade college readiness test guarantees incoming freshman to credit-bearing freshman courses, Stotsky said.

Look at English Language Arts

The ELA Standards, which are Stotsky's specialty, don't fare much better under Common Core, in her evaluation.

According to Stotsky, most of the ELA standards are content-free skills and not true standards.

“They stress writing more than reading, and anyone who's ever taught K12 knows that good writing comes from good reading,” she said. “All good writers have been good readers. You cannot become a good writer without having been a good reader. Common Core got it backwards.”

However, Stotsky said her biggest issue is the Common Core state standards' call for the reduction of literary study by half to supplement with informational texts. The reduction of literary study and the addition of more informational texts fail to develop critical thinking, Stotsky said. Analytical reading and writing typically come from what the teacher does in using complex literary texts to get kids to learn how to read between the lines.

“It's not about what the words literally mean; you have to figure out what the (author) is trying to say by reading between the lines,” she said. “That is partly how we learn to develop analytical reading because you're going to be doing more than just literal understanding of a text.

“So, if you reduced literary works in the curriculum, you're going to reduce the opportunity to teach kids how to read between the lines and they can't do critical thinking in an intellectual vacuum. You've got to know something in order to think critically about it and if you're not focusing on knowledge to being with, how do you think critically about anything?”

Effects on Testing

Another issue Stotsky raised is that of the testing aspect and how no other country in the world spends eight to 10 hours testing students every year.

While she said she doesn't know if the tests are going to be an increase from No Child Left Behind standards, she said they are going to be longer.

“To expose kids and impose that much time on testing is an abuse of the children and does not serve good educational purposes,” she said.

Other countries, Stotsky said, give tests after eighth grade, high school exit tests and tests going into university, but not tests after every grade level.

Due to the fact that many college entrance and academic measurement tests, like the ACT and SAT, are aligned or plan to align to Common Core, an independent academic predictive test may become something harder to come by.

The ACT and SAT, which were predictive-based tests, now resemble a Common Core achievement test, Stotsky said.

Wrong Standards

The real question isn't whether the Common Core State Standards are higher or lower, Stotsky said, but that they are the wrong standards.

“They're wrong in every way in English and math,” she said.

During a question and answer session following Stotsky's presentation, one parent in the audience expressed frustration his remaining children in the school system aren't learning as much as his older children, who are out of the school system, did.

Ohio House Representative Andy Thompson, R-Washington, traveled to the Mountain State in order to participate in the event and said that the Common Core issue draws concerns from “people of all stripes,” especially when it comes to privacy and the “not inconsiderable data issue.”

Along with Ohio, several states and state lawmakers are pushing for action to end or halt Common Core in parts or its entirety.

States with pending legislation include: Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Missouri, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey. In Minnesota, Common Core math standards have been rejected and in Indiana, Common Core implementation has been halted. Alaska, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia rejected Common Core in the beginning.