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Maintaining rigor and listening to teachers in the debate over academic standards

As the North Carolina Academic Standards Review Commission enters its sixth month of work, several recurring themes have emerged that are raising eyebrows among those advocating for rigorous academic standards that will help our schools prepare all our state’s children to succeed in college, careers, and life.

Some commissioners don’t think all children can meet high standards.

More than 15 years ago, then-Governor George W. Bush spoke to the Latin Business Association about his support for higher academic standards. “Some say it is unfair to hold disadvantaged children to rigorous standards,” Bush said. “I say it is discrimination to require any less—the soft bigotry of low expectations.” During his two terms as President the phrase “soft bigotry of low expectations” reappeared often as a rallying cry against the notion that some children can’t be expected to meet high standards.

Just two weeks ago, North Carolina Senate Leader Phil Berger affirmed President Bush’s view in his response to the state’s release of A-F school performance grades. “We’re troubled by early knee-jerk reactions [to the grades] that appear to condemn poor children to automatic failure,” he said. “And we reject the premise that high-poverty schools are incapable of excelling.” 

Unfortunately, some members of the state’s Academic Standards Review Commission seem bent on pushing a contrary view. At one of the commission’s first meetings in October 2014, Jeannie Metcalf from Forsyth County, who this week stepped down as co-chair of the Commission, offered her view that the standards expect too much from students: “Some of them might not be able to achieve some of these higher-level expectations.” Tammy Covil, New Hanover County, who was elected to replace Metcalf as co-chair on Monday, echoed that view. “There are varying degrees of ability in the classroom,” Covil said. “I see this as geared toward the highest students. I can see them achieving this, but the average to below-average students will never achieve this.”

What makes these comments even more concerning is that they fly in the face of one of the five criteria set forth in the law creating the commission: “The Commission shall … ensure that [the modified standards] are among the highest standards in the nation.” There are no caveats or grey areas here, no invitation to ignore this directive if some commissioners believe some North Carolina children are incapable of meeting standards that are among the nation’s highest.

Teachers, particularly beginning teachers, strongly endorse the current standards, but their voices are being lost in the debate.

A second area of concern arose in January for those watching the commission’s work unfold. At the meeting, commissioners considered the results of an educator survey administered by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. The survey asked, for each current standard in mathematics and English Language Arts (ELA) (i.e., the Common Core), whether educators felt the standard was acceptable as written or needed revision.

Out of more than 850 standards covered by the survey, over 450 standards (more than half) were endorsed by at least 90 percent of responding educators, meaning fewer than 10 percent of respondents felt revisions were needed. Approximately 775 standards (around 87.5 percent) were endorsed by at least 80 percent of responding educators, meaning fewer than 20 percent felt revisions were needed. There was not a single standard for which a majority of responding educators felt revisions were needed.

These results align with our own discussions with educators in our work at the Public School Forum. Some of the most vocal supporters of the current standards are early career teachers, such as those participating in our new Beginning Teacher Network. They emphasize that their education and training has prepared them to implement the new, rigorous standards, and they firmly believe the new Common Core standards encourage critical thinking and problem-solving skills their students need to succeed. That’s why early career teachers have become some of the standards’ strongest proponents.

Rather than recognizing the strong support for the standards reflected in the survey results, some commissioners speaking at the January meeting attempted to dismiss the survey because they felt there were too few responses. The survey covered every K-8 grade in mathematics and ELA, as well as Math I, Math II, Math III, Grade 9-10 ELA, and Grade 11-12 ELA. Most individual grade levels in each subject received several hundred responses.

It would be unfortunate if the commission failed to give serious weight to the opinions of these educators, who offer the most credible voices on the acceptability of the standards as written, and who are best positioned to propose revisions to any standards that need modification. Teachers can also speak authoritatively from their experience about the challenges they experienced implementing the current standards, and the need for improved training on whatever new standards come out of this process.

Common Core foes want badly to avoid engaging directly with the current standards.

Above all else, most North Carolina teachers crave stability, and they fear the impact on teachers, parents, and students if the commission and the State Board cast aside all of the current standards, including those that are working well and have earned the support of educators and education experts. Nevertheless, some commission members have proposed doing exactly this, ignoring the actual standards in place or using other standards as the “baseline” to avoid discussing the standards on their merits. Again, this flies in the face of the commission’s legislative mandate: “The Commission shall conduct a comprehensive review of all English Language Arts and Mathematics standards that were adopted by the State Board of Education under G.S. 115C-12(9c)….” Ignoring the current standards is not be an option.

At the commission’s January meeting, State Board of Education Staff Attorney Katie Cornetto rebutted some commissioners’ efforts to conjure up a phantom copyright issue that would have justified their attempt to avoid dealing directly with the current Common Core standards. Cornetto explained that when the State Board modifies the standards, if they keep any part of the Common Core, they will need to give attribution to the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, which created the Common Core. Beyond that simple requirement, Cornetto’s comments exposed the copyright issue as a red herring.

On Monday, the Department of Public Instruction launched a new web portal to give education stakeholders and parents the opportunity to comment on individual standards (visit http://ncdpireview.weebly.com/). This will be uncomfortable terrain for those who want to bypass the current standards, and for those who want to keep relying on vague pronouncements that the standards are unclear, inflexible, and not developmentally appropriate. On the other hand, those who live with the standards every day, particularly teachers, will be able to offer specific suggestions to improve the standards. Commissioners should carefully consider their input.

Conclusion: Adhering to the law and listening to teachers can make our standards, and our state, even stronger.

Before North Carolina adopted the Common Core, our state’s standards received a ‘D’ grade in ELA and math from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C. The Common Core, by contrast, received a ‘B+’ in ELA and an ‘A-‘ in math. The Common Core grades show that there is still room for improvement. The process outlined in the statute and currently being undertaken by the State Board would facilitate modifications of the current standards to make North Carolina’s standards even stronger. 

High standards should be the bedrock of our education plans, underpinning North Carolina’s movement toward mastery-based, personalized learning and initiatives that create highly-paid career advancement opportunities for teachers that don’t require them to leave the classroom. Adhering to the review criteria in Session Law 2014-78 (Senate Bill 812) will allow the commission and the State Board to retain what is working from the current standards while improving standards that experience has shown need to change.

By ignoring the teacher’s voice in all this and suggesting that the current standards are too difficult for some students, the commission is setting the stage for a watering down of North Carolina’s academic standards, despite some commissioners’ public comments to the contrary. Lowering standards is not only contrary to the legislative text, but it is the wrong direction for our state if we truly want our children to be able to succeed in an ever more competitive and rapidly changing world.

 

Sources:

  • Session Law 2014-78
  • Berger, P. (2015, February 5). Berger Statement on Public School Grades.
  • Hui, K. T. (2014, October 20). “NC review commission says Common Core too hard for some students.” News & Observer.
  • Khrais, R. (2014, October 21). “Common Core commission: Standards could be simpler.” WUNC/North Carolina Public Radio.
  • Herron, A. (2014, October 20). “Panel discusses school standards.” Winston-Salem Journal.
  • Fikac, P. & Ward, M. (2014, April 10). “Equal education a civil right, Bush tells LBJ summit.” Houston Chronicle.
  • The New York Times (1999, September 3). “Excerpts From Bush’s Speech on Improving Education.”
  • ELA and Math Standards Educator Survey Feedback (from January 16, 2015 commission meeting materials posted at http://www.doa.nc.gov/asrc/pastmeetings.aspx)
Keith Poston

Keith Poston is the president and executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina.