Do Teachers Really Hate Common Core? From the Floor of ISTE 2014

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These days, the phrase “Common Core” brings up a whole mess of tightly-coupled issues. There are the written standards. Then there are questions around how those standards are implemented in classroom teaching. And finally, who can forget the testing? Or, more to the point, who can forget that the results of these tests may end up shaping the budgets of schools and the salaries of teachers?

At the end of the day, the two groups of individuals who come face to face with Common Core on a daily basis are educators and students--not the policymakers who passed the initiatives. So how are educators examining these issues? Various reports have tried to quantify reactions, with mixed results.

EdSurge tried its very own, highly unscientific approach: We took to the floors of the ISTE Atlanta conference to get some direct feedback. What did we hear? Teachers can live with--or work through--the standards. But the biggest worry? It’s not the standards that are the problem--educators are feeling stifled by the testing.

The Good: Standards aren’t so bad when they change curriculum for the better

Many ISTE educators are pleased about anything--including the Common Core standards--that support teaching students skills and how to process information, as opposed to merely memorizing facts.

“We’ve always said that we shouldn’t teach [students] math, but rather teach them to be mathematicians. Common Core is more about skills than content,” notes Barbara Barreda, principal of St. Catherine's Academy in Orange County, CA.

Moving towards skills and competencies is something that Jake Firman, Education Technology Manager for the Denver School of Science and Technology, says has been coming for a long time--yet the arrival of such standards still took some by surprise: “The rigor from the past ten years on English Language Arts just wasn’t there," he says. When Common Core arrived, “it was like a fist to the mouth.”

Barreda believes that the benefits of the standards go beyond students and present positive opportunities for educators. Schools in Orange County's archdiocese, for instance, are banding together to jointly plan lessons. Barreda notes:

“Common Core calls for a lot more collaboration. No more silos--but it will take us a little while to get there. The most helpful tools in this process are teacher-created Common Core lessons. A lot of schools have gone to curriculum mapping, with more individual teachers sharing their work.”

Breathing life into collaborative efforts to teach is something that other educators also see as a high point of Common Core. Bob Dillon, Director of Technology and Information for the Affton School District in Missouri, says he is seeing curriculum becoming revitalized. “I do think [Common Core] is asking folks to take a fresh look at documents,” he says. “Curriculum should be alive. I think that is good!”

And many teachers who aren’t passionate fans of Common Core--but are not opposed--are “sucking it up” and changing their mindset, several educators said.

“Common Core is asking teachers to think differently; some will crossover, some won’t,” Dillon observes. “But 80% to 90% of districts [in Missouri] are moving to Common Core,” he adds.

STEM educators and Maker expert, Sylvia Martinez, adds that she believes “teachers are resigned” to the changing standards--and are taking the high road, committing themselves to teaching the standards as well as they can. Ginger Lewman, a Kansas educator who spent 19+ years teaching in public school classrooms, piggybacks off Martinez’s comment with, “We’ll tick off the standards, but [we’ll] do a lot of other things in the classroom, too.”

Ask about testing, however, and educators’ answers are quite different.

The Bad: Let’s not make Common Core into No Child Left Behind

In the aftermath of PARCC and Smarter Balanced’s recent pilots, “testing” is the acrid word on most ISTE educators’ tongues when it comes to negativity around Common Core.

”Testing, teacher evaluation--that’s what starts to create a mess,” Dillon says, in reference to Missouri. He isn’t the only one pointing towards high-stakes constructions around the standards as the source of ill-sentiment towards Common Core.

But that reaction isn’t just Missouri-specific. ”[Individuals] didn’t opt out because Common Core standards were bad; they opted out because of testing,” Barreda says.

“The tests are weighing heavily on everyone’s mind,” Martinez shares. “Where’s the deeper assessment?”

There’s two groups of educators who lack concern about testing, and rightfully so. “For Catholic schools and independent schools, these tests can be used as formative testing not summative testing,” Barreda shares. In the Catholic and independent schools, educators don't rely on government funding, which could be tied to test performance in public K-12 systems. That means teachers can use elements of Common Core testing throughout the year to track student progress--without the pressure of an end-of-year summative exam.

But in public and charter schools, the concerns are achingly real.

Lewman points out that No Child Left Behind began ratcheting up high-stakes testing. “Let’s not make Common Core into No Child Left Behind,” she says.

Also weighing on educators is that their schools are having to spend more to administer the tests--either to buy hardware, software or even to take the tests on paper. Some worry that the focus on buying gear to take the tests is distracting schools from what could be positive opportunities. “We’re diverting technology for kids into something imposed on kids,” says Martinez.

Dillon notes:

”Until we come up with a different set of metrics, we won’t be able to break out of this testing mentality. In the meantime, every time we buy a computer for testing (as opposed to creation and creativity), we’re losing potential for edtech.”

The Ugly: Potential impacts of Common Core high-stakes testing on classroom teaching

We won’t sugarcoat it for you: not a single educator EdSurge interviewed at ISTE was 100% content with the relationship between Common Core and testing--even if their state hasn’t adopted Common Core. But what’s still deeply troubling to some is how testing could change the way teachers approach the profession--particularly in math and English language arts.

In Missouri, Dillon observed, some teachers are quitting English language arts and math classrooms: “There are really good math and ELA teachers who are moving to teach something else because they don’t want to be in a Common Core-tested subject,” he says.

Yet for all the complaints, educators are by nature optimists: They believe in their students, they believe in their colleagues, and they believe in their ability to craft a strong education future--given the right steps. Lewan puts it best when she says, “I believe that Common Core has the ability to really help. How it’s going to be implemented is the problem.”

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