Riding out the raging rapids of the CCSS debate

Last week, National Education Association (NEA) president Dennis Van Roekel published an open letter via the NEA website lambasting the botched handling of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) implementation in the 45 states who have committed to full-scale adoption and assessment in the present and coming years. Common Core State Standards were the brain child of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in order to supposedly address the growing gaps in student achievement through relevant curricula focused on an increased rigor in literacy and mathematics instruction, standardized across state borders. In addition to these noble aims, states were more pragmatically lured to adoption by Race to the Top funding tied to CCSS implementation and proposed merit pay measures put in place following the supposed vetting of assessments derived from CCSS – a lawmaker’s silver bullet to past issues with union negotiations and residual carryover of dissatisfaction with school politics. Van Roekel joins other critics of CCSS, including some conservative politicians vying for re-election in the coming year, in voicing concerns over how the experiment seems to be going. For now, as with many prospects in the field of education, the outlook looks bleak at best.

In the letter, Van Roekel outlines his main complaint with CCSS as not in the standards themselves – which he praises for developing “critical thinking and problem-solving skills” among students – but in the lack of time, support, and resources given to students, teachers, and schools caught in the uncertain tides of implementing the large-scale overhaul. To add insult to injury, he reminds us of the looming threat and practice of merit pay, which he considers an inherently flawed system of “malpractice” due to its basis in hastily adopted, statistically unreliable student accountability measures – i.e. stress inducing summative alphabet soup assessments. In many ways it echoes the similar sentiments conveyed by Randi Weingarten, the head honcho of the American Federation of Teachers, in a January Huffington Post piece. Weingarten points to California’s adoption of CCSS away from high stakes testing as the missing link to more effective teaching and learning. Both union leaders call for a moratorium on immediate high-stakes decisions resulting from CCSS-based assessments as well as provisions of appropriate support and resources to teachers in order to see the yield of actual high quality instruction for all students.

Of course not everyone is treating the new standards as a punching bag. Not surprisingly, union opposition has already garnered the attention of reform-minded CCSS advocates who are not only publically coming out in support of CCSS, but also taking swings directly at unions whom they believe are derailing student achievement and the teaching profession altogether. Tim Daly, President of The New Teacher Project, issued his own response to union opposition calling the complaints prolonged reminents of quickly-crumbling archaic principles, unjustified fear mongering through an unwarranted focus on teachers’ job security, and the unceremonious precursor to a divorce with the Democratic Party. Instead of slinging mud, Teach for America’s CEOs Elisa Villanueva Beard and Matthew Kramer offer a sidestep show to the dance with support masked in flowery pomposity. They offer an olive branch of partnership to “harness our collective strength,” though they seem to take no issue with freely using “our” as a catch-all for what is still a singularly posited view toward CCSS. Anyone who has had the fortune of experiencing life as a middle school girl understands that when the popular group extends you an invitation to the group, it implicitly means that you can be a part so long as you get contacts, stop sporting that army issued coat that makes you look like the second-coming of Che Guevara, and change all tenets of your individuality – a small price to pay for “our collective strength.” Ultimately the first word of the title – affirmation – and the decision to even feel the need to express this message in a public blog suggest a largely veiled affront to critics of CCSS.

Caught in the midst of this pissing match, I am struck by what the future holds for young people like me who are entering the profession amidst a battleground of insidious rhetoric. It is true that every profession contains ideological differences of opinion surrounding its discourse, leadership, and direction. Yet, for a profession supposedly built on the pillars of collaboration, communication, and relationships, the so-called experts seem to have strayed far from the farm’s bread and butter. Look no further than studies commissioned and disseminated by representatives from reform-minded groups and unions that directly contradict each other to see how the very nature of research requires a precursory statement of overt allegiance in its design. In addition to a lack of trustworthy sources, teachers new to the field get to also contend with repeated blows to their own respectability as qualified professionals, most painfully handed down by the very people purporting to lead the march. I was initially insulted by Daly’s suggestion that “most teachers are unaware of national currents” because I despise the common misconception of the oblivious teacher; however, even if this is the case, I can look no further than the recent gunfire from opposition camps as justifiable cause for a teacher to at least feign distance from what has long deviated from thoughtful conversation to full-out, take-no-prisoners war.

So what can we do with the sour lemons we’re getting? Both sides of this childish capture the flag game would likely agree that in order for any educational progress to take root, the U.S. must recruit, train, and actively retain individuals committed to effective execution and growth in their craft. While union reps might argue that privately endorsed alternative licensure programs, such as TFA, don’t really care about the commitment piece as much as building and continually re-supplying networks of reform-minded political minions to champion privately endorsed policy – likely true – it is equally bad that educational reform reps will argue that unions’ commitment to teachers blinds their ability to make and promote informed decisions that are student-driven – perhaps also true. Whatever the case may be, no one wins when leadership takes on a sink or swim mentality, except maybe those who adapt to the current and support others to follow suit in their own way. In the naïve utopia I imagine, I would propose both groups coming to a happy medium, though that is likely to never happen nor altogether the best answer for students. Compromise slows forward progress and often leads to future power struggles that are even more entrenched in contention.

Thus, instead of falsely committing myself to something ineffective at best, I propose this simple thought: an individually enforced moratorium on speaking before thinking. As a former TFA corps member and current graduate student of education, I have taken part in my fair share of conversations where I have spoken before truly thinking, often in a ring of crossfire that is far from forgiving. I do not mean to suggest that these public letters are lacking insight or purely reactionary garbage; they are in fact the product of many years of many people thinking and could even be viewed as far too late in their speech. However, if we all were to individually think in ways that engage all past experiences, knowledge, skills, and affects – weighing the useful and dangerous extremes of each of these thoughts – and then humbly submit to the many things we do not know and need others to even come close to knowing, we might become better adept at flexibly supplying wisdom and foresight to challenges that, contrary to popular belief, were not invented yesterday. The public debate over CCSS – and, inevitably, whatever the next curricula reform is called years down the line – will continue just as debates over what it even means to be a valuable human being continue on the surface of everyday lived experience. It is my sincere hope that I – along with others just now getting their feet wet in this raging river – will develop the personal fortitude to keep heads and hearts above water, paddles blazing, and eyes on all elements that make the journey not just rocky, but truly picturesque.

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