Is Common Core Taking Away the Joy in Learning?

15 Apr, 2014

By Loop Contributor

Annie ward, colleen melnyk, summit, common core

Annie Ward, left and Colleen Melnyk

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 Submitted by Linnet Tse

Although students in the Mamaroneck Union Free School District have done significantly better on the new state assessments relative to their peers across the state, at a recent Larchmont-Mamaroneck Local Summit meeting, District educators admitted that it’s been a very challenging and often frustrating time for both teachers and their students since New York State adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in 2010.  In a district where teachers are used to working together to develop curriculum, and where they have had “authority and leeway” as educators to figure out how best to help their students achieve, “what has happened over the last two years . . . feels so top down – an imposed structure . . .” explained Murray Avenue School 5th grade teacher Colleen Melnyk.

At the Larchmont-Mamaroneck Local Summit’s monthly meeting on April 8th at the Nautilus Diner, Mamaroneck’s Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, Annie Ward, and Colleen Melnyk provided community members with an overview of the Common Core State Standards as well as their take on the impact that these new standards are having on students and teachers.

Common Core State Standards: What? Why?

Noting that the concept of standards is not new to NYS – the NYS Regents Examinations were first administered in 1865 – Ms. Ward pointed out that what IS new is the shift away from local control to national standards.

As Ms. Ward explained, the shift began in 2001 with No Child Left Behind, which required all states to adopt standards and standardized testing in English Language Arts (ELA) and math in grades 3 through 8. In New York State, which had already been administering ELA and math assessments in grades 4 and 8 since 1999, this meant adding tests in grades 3, 5, 6 and 7.

Ms. Ward continued to explain that in 2009, two national groups, the National Governor’s Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers partnered with Achieve, ACT and the College Board to develop a national set of learning standards, the goal of which was to promote college and career readiness. This move came as a result of studies, including one in NYS, showing that a large number of students with high school diplomas needed vast amounts of remediation in college. “The judgment was that NYS standards were not high enough,” said Ms. Ward.

Why the Fuss?

Ms. Ward believes that the standards themselves were not the primary reason for the fuss. Instead, she attributes the controversy surrounding the CCSS in NYS to: 1) the state’s aggressive implementation schedule; and 2) the linkage of assessment results to teacher evaluations.

1)     Implementation: NYS was among the earliest adopters of the CCSS, and made the decision to almost simultaneously align the grades 3-8 tests with the new standards.  According to Ms. Ward, “rather than give educators a period of time to design curriculum in a teacher-centered way and roll it out,” NYS decided to assess mastery of the brand new standards almost immediately, with the first CCSS-aligned assessments given in the spring of 2013. (Note that the CCSS also impacts high school, but with a more delayed rollout, which has allowed schools a more planned transition, and, therefore, has not created the same fuss.)

2)     Linkage to teacher evaluation: NYS also tied teacher evaluation to student performance on these brand new tests. Teachers are given a “growth score” from NYS reflecting their students’ growth over time, as measured by the state assessments, which factors into their professional evaluation. In Ms. Ward’s view, it was “a situation engineered to cause teachers to be overly concerned and put undue emphasis on the tests themselves,” and resulted in “unproductive stress and anxiety.”

A third reason for the “fuss,” as State Senator George Latimer pointed out, was NYS’s plan to participate in a controversial student data collection project funded by the Gates Foundation and operated by an educational technology nonprofit called inBloom. Latimer informed the audience that in response to protests from parents, educators and other student privacy activists, NYS ended its relationship with inBloom and new legislation prohibits the NYS Education Department from participating in any similar type of storage of student data. State Senator Latimer himself advocates for local control of student data. (Note that prior to this NYS decision, Mamaroneck had opted out of the Race to the Top funds, so that it would not be subject to the collection of student data.)

Impact on Students and Teachers

  • “A very restrictive and scripted curriculum:” Ms. Melnyk noted that in the case of the ELA curriculum, the shift to the CCSS was fairly easy “because the standards to which our units of study had been written were already so high.” However, as she explained, the changes in math have been much more dramatic, with many concepts having been shifted a grade level back. Thus, topics that used to be taught in 5th grade are now taught in 4th . Rather than let districts roll out the changes, beginning with Kindergarten and working its way up, NYS imposed the changes all at once. As a result, the district was forced to adopt a brand new state-developed math curriculum which she and her colleagues find very restrictive, scripted and time-consuming.

  • No time for reflection or collaboration:“Teaching has to be a reflective process . .  but the standards that have been imposed have left little to no time to reflect and discuss with colleagues,”Ms. Melnyk lamented.  She noted that the central administration is very aware of this issue and is seeking to restore opportunities for reflective conversations.

  • Taking the joy out of teaching and learning: one substitute teacher in the audience, along with a parent, asserted that there is undue emphasis on testing in the elementary schools.  A mother of two Central School students (a 1st and a 4th grader), Nathalie Orans, shared that there is “a lot of crying, a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of emotional distress” due to the rigor and fast-pace of the new curriculum. She complained that as a result of the changes, “there’s no joy for the children . . . the message they’re getting at school is that the tests are the end-all and be-all.”

  • Tests not shared with districts . . . teachers unable to learn from them: one of the biggest complaints from educators is the secrecy around the tests, which Ms. Ward speculated is tied to the costs associated with developing test questions. In previous years, test questions and results were available to educators, enabling them to analyze performance and adjust their curriculum/instruction accordingly. That is no longer possible with the new tests.

  • “An across-the-board political answer: ” State Senator Latimer maintains that the faulty premise that students are failing led to “an across-the-board political answer” in the form of the CCSS, which when applied to districts that have functioned well, is “disruptive to the educational process . . . and a cost districts can’t afford with the tax cap.”

What’s Next?

With a year under their belts, both Ms. Ward and Ms. Melnyk are optimistic that the joy can and will return to the classrooms, and already are seeing signs of such. The challenge, according to Ms. Ward, is to “design a curriculum that addresses the standards but promotes the things that we consider to be so vital for lifelong learning . . . that is responsive to the new standards, but not overly channeled into those narrow outcomes. We want kids to use these skills to do things that are meaningful, purposeful and joyful.”

And the outlook for the CCSS? How long will it last given the opposition? Ms. Ward and Ms. Melnyk aren’t making any bets, but stressed that the curriculum changes they are making in response to the CCSC factor in the possibility that it could evaporate, and focus on the district’s core values.  State Senator Latimer noted that in recent weeks, Indiana pulled out of the CCSS; if more conservative states do so, he pondered if it might be the end of national standards.

With the huge transformation that the teaching profession is undergoing, both speakers emphasized that the focus must remain on the kids.  As Ms. Ward offered, their mission continues to be “to stimulate and educate and nurture the hearts and minds of kids.” Ms. Ward assured the audience that, as the world of education continues to evolve, Mamaroneck will “hold true to its core values.”

This breakfast forum was hosted by The Larchmont/Mamaroneck Local Summit, an informal community council that seeks to make life better for all in the community. Its monthly public meetings are usually held at the Nautilus Diner in Mamaroneck at 7:45 a.m. on the third Tuesday of the month. The next meeting will take place on Tuesday, May 20th with guest speaker County Legislator Catherine Parker.                                    

Submitted by Linnet Tse
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