Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Common Core? Still Crap.


Over half the states have now agreed to implement the Common Core standards as their own. I think it is now time to think about how quickly we can expect these standards to be met.

We are told that Common Core is a high quality, rigorous set of standards for K-12 education, far more challenging and explicit than what most states have been using as their own standards. I am going to accept that that is true.

If states could immediately begin to implement Common Core in the classroom (i.e. if we had the curriculum, unit plans, materials and lesson plans ready for September), there would still be problems. There is no way that today’s students are ready for those more rigorous standards. Today’s 12th graders obviously are not up to the high bar that Common Core sets for 11th grade work, because last year they were only operating at the level set by their states’ lower standards. So, next year’s graduates will not be up to the level of Common Core.

Similarly, next year’s 11th graders are not ready for Common Core’s highly rigorous 11th grade work, because their 10th grade work was only at the level of their states’ less rigorous old standards. And if they can’t do 11th grade Common Core level work this year, then they will not be able to do Common Core 12th grade work the following year. So, the high school graduating cohort of 2012 will not be up to Common Core’s standards.

By induction — yes, even we former ELA teachers can resort to math and logic every now and then — this means that it will be 13 years until we get Common Core graduates. After all, how can 4th graders do Common Core level work without having been prepared up through Common Core’s highly rigorous grade 3 standards?

And let’s be honest. This work can’t begin until we have curricula based on the Common Core standards. And then we will need unit plans, materials and lesson plans. That’s going to take a couple of years at least, especially if we consider that teachers themselves will need to get used to their new curriculum, units, materials and lessons. That means it will be more like 15 or more years before we get Common Core level high school graduates.


Some might argue (i.e. some surely will argue) that it won’t take 13 years for everyone to catch up. They will argue that given a few years, we can raise everyone to the Common Core level — a level on which they can then proceed at Common Core’s pace.

This means that people think that for the next few years, students and educators will work extra-hard to get up to the Common Core standard. Sure, they may be well behind this year, but next year they will be less behind, and the year after that a bit less behind Common Core’s levels. And eventually, they will catch up.

In other words, for the next few years, we would expect all students to do more than a full year of learning — as Common Core defines it. This means that September’s 8th graders (i.e. students and educators, both) will have to work especially hard, because these kids and their teachers have been slacking for 8 years already (i.e. kindergarten and then grades one through seven). And we probably expect those who are not even in high school next year to be able to graduate from high school passing the Common Core aligned tests in five years.

I am sorry, but I think that this is crap. Total crap. Here’s why:

* If students and educators truly are capable of working at such a pace as to be able to catch up like that, then Common Core is not that rigorous. If they are capable of working at such a pace then Common Core coddles them, allowing them to engage in far less learning per year than they are capable of achieving. If we can get next year’s 8th graders to meet Common Core’s complete high school standards in just five years, either Common Core’s K-7 standards are irrelevant or its high school standards are far too simplistic. I have yet to hear anyone make that claim, even defenders of the most rigorous preexisting state standards.

• If today’s 8th graders can learn the 60-75% more per year through high school that catching up to a Common Core would require (assuming that Common Core demands 25% more learning each year), why would our rigorous new standards not demand that greater amount of learning? If students and educators can work at the pace for the years we need to catch up to Common Core, shouldn’t they be able to work at that pace even after everyone has caught up?

* Some might argue that most students are already quite close to Common Core’s grade-by-grade standards. But those people would be saying that Common Core is really just a tweak, and not really a big reform that does not ask for very much to be changed. Or…

* Some might argue that most students perform well above their state’s current standards, and Common Core is just aimed at those few students, schools or districts who do not. These people would be granting that state standards are irrelevant to most students and educators, who already operate well above them.

And yet, Race to the Top is being used to strong-arm states into adopting Common Core. Lots of money is going into developing Common Core aligned assessments (i.e. tests). And both politicians and the public expect these tests to be passed soon, and will have no tolerance for talk of waiting fifteen years for high passing rates. But if it will be possible for students to catch up to Common Core’s standards in just a few years, then Common Core’s standards do not push students and educators nearly as hard as they could take, meaning the standards are not really that rigorous – certainly not much more rigorous than existing standards.

What do you think is going to happen? Assuming that you try to adopt a more thoughtful approach to examining Common Core as a powerful lever for school reform, what do you expect?

Charter Schools Are Still Not Public Schools


Last week, I explained why I no longer think that charter schools are public schools and asked for comments from GothamSchools readers. I’ve given a lot of thought to the ideas that others have presented.

First, no one has come close to rehabilitating the argument that charter schools are public schools simply because they accept public funds. Many organizations have their operations paid for — in whole or in part — by public funds, and not all of them are public in the way that “our public schools” are. If charters are public schools, this is not why.

Second, I raised the issue of democratic accountability. To what degree do elected officials and their appointees have authority over arbitrary aspects of charter school operations and staffing? For example, years ago Mayor Bloomberg required all schools to hire parent coordinators. Under mayoral control, Bloomberg can mandate curriculum and spending decisions, and any spending not controlled by existing contracts. Generally, elected officials and their appointees can even remove principals and other administrators for arbitrary — though not discriminatory — reasons. (Because New York City principals have a union contract, this authority is severely constrained. But this is unique to the city and could be negotiated out of the contract.)

There have been many arguments raised against this point, but they generally fall into two camps. One was that there are other public institutions that are led by people who cannot be so removed, but these responses have been based on admitted ignorance (e.g. how are members of the NY Board of Regents appointed and how can they be removed?, what are the laws regarding removal of charter board members? etc.). The other response has been that elected officials and their appointees can pressure charter schools to remove a principal. My understanding is that this pressure only comes in the form of withdrawing a school’s charter. I am sorry, but I do not think this argument works. By this argument, major accounts of a private company have the authority to fire salesmen at that company because they can threaten to move their account if the company does not accede to their demand. Going back to one of my examples, the private construction firm who builds schools for a district could be threatened with losing the job if some kind of site supervisor is not fired. That does not make the company part of a district or a public entity.

To state this more plainly: Demands that only have power if backed by the threat to pull a charter or contract do not equate to the sort of ongoing democratic oversight that fits into to my understanding of public schools

Third was my most important criteria, the obligations to educate all comers. One reader, Gideon, wisely pointed out that this would imply that our so-called public universities would be excluded. I do not have a problem with that. I think that the distinction between public and private higher education is rather thin and am therefore happy to say that public universities are not public at all like our public schools are.

Another response, perhaps the most common one, has been that many public schools do not serve all comers. There are exam schools, for example. And the kind of school choice model we have in New York City means that few, if any, schools serve all comers. However, I anticipated much of this argument before writing last week. School districts have a responsibility to educate all comers. It is our public schools who collectively – in the form of districts – meet that obligation. District offices are obliged to figure out how to do this and may not direct children to charter schools as part of their solutions

Let me be clear: Charter schools are not district schools. Virtually the entire purpose of charter schools is to free them from districts and their authority. Any argument that states that charter schools are part of the public schools because they are part of the mélange of schools that educate our children applies equally to unquestionably private schools. If those who advance this argument cite the use of public funds, they would have to claim that private schools that accept publicly funded vouchers are also public schools, an argument that I do not think they want to make.

However, I am also willing to concede that in most meaningful ways, selective so-called public schools are really not public schools. And I would further say that meaningful public status is certainly questionable for any school that students cannot attend simply by following the standard normal procedures that all students/families must follow — including my own high school.

Ken Hirsh and others have raised the point that charter schools are subject to government oversight, including inspections and perhaps various well or lesser known state and federal legislation. The mere fact of regulation and inspection however, does not a public entity make. Meatpacking plants are subject to federal inspection. Restaurants are subject to government inspection. Most organizations are subject to regulation in one form or another, though the degree of regulation often varies from industry to industry.

In fact, there are many regulations that only apply to those who receive public funds. For example, the City of New York enforces much of its own legislation by requiring compliance as a condition of contracting with the city. The fact of regulation does not make these entities public.


So, what am I getting at? I think that public schools must be both responsive to and responsible for the public.

There is no question that charter schools — like many private organizations and entities — are somewhat responsible to the public (as expressed in the form of democratic government). They certainly are more responsive to the public than traditional private schools, but it is not at all clear that they are more responsive than other private entities (i.e. other than traditional private schools) that accept large portions of their operating budgets from the government. By design, they are less responsive than traditional public schools, even if they are more responsive than traditional private schools

Clearly many charter school operators do personally feel responsible for the public and its children. Many charter school leaders work hard to build a school culture that will outlive them and that is infused with that sense of responsibility. I, therefore, understand why some who work in charter schools think of their schools as public schools. However, they build this culture voluntarily; it is not intrinsic to charter schools generally or even a requirement of their charters. The very fact that they are only required to select a student body from among those who apply in the first place makes for a qualitative difference from public schools. Districts cannot place additional students in charter schools when all district schools are overcrowded, nor can they enroll students whose families failed to take part in the normal school selection process in charter schools. In this respect, charter schools are more like traditional private schools than they are like traditional public schools.

And so, while charter schools are clearly not traditional private schools, by design they are not like traditional public schools, either. Even if we acknowledge that there are differences between different charter schools, and between charter school laws, neither of these terms seem appropriate. Those who insist that they are “public schools” or “private schools” clearly have some sort of agenda and some idea other than a full examination of the meaning these terms carry. This leaves us with a need for a third term, as neither “public” or “private” would be appropriate.

Luckily, we already have the term “quasi-public” from other sectors. I do not love this term — or even really like it — but it is surely better than either of the others.

Are Charter School Public Schools? I’m Afraid Not.


In the past, I have been very careful to talk and write about “charter schools” and “traditional public schools,” the latter of which is often abbreviated TPS. I have even tended to favor others’ claims that charter schools are, in fact, public schools. But I’m afraid that I was wrong. I have tried to be more thoughtful about this question and I simply cannot find a compelling argument that they are, and can find too many that they are not.

First, let’s acknowledge what charter schools are. They are publicly financed schools that are run by private – usually nonprofit – organizations. Sometimes they are independent, and sometimes they are part of larger charter school organizations or chains.

The primary argument that charter schools are public schools is that they are paid for out of government funds. While they do get most of their budgets from tax dollars, that is not enough to render them public schools. There are many other organizations that pay for operations with public funds but are still private organizations. Defense contractors receive enormous sums of money from the government to provide design and manufacturing of weapons systems, but they remain private corporations. Blackwater provided labor, training and services to the Department of Defense and the State Department, but it remained a private organization.

If a construction firm is hired by a school district to build a school, it remains a private firm. If a new firm is formed to bid for a school construction job, and wins the project, it still remains a private firm. Even if that firm does such a good job that it wins future bids and does all the district’s construction work, it remains a private firm.

Frankly, I’ve not heard any other arguments that charter schools are public schools. Meanwhile, there are lots of ways in which they most definitely are not public schools

I think that it is pretty clear that at least some level of oversight of the day to day operations of our public agencies must rise up to our elected officials. Public agencies and offices must have some level of democratic oversight. Abuses, mismanagement and bad policy are subject to review by elected officials or those they appoint. Policies can be changed, budgets cut and/or senior personnel removed as a direct consequence of this oversight. This is quite different than contracted services. So long as the terms of the contract are met, the government cannot reach into the management of a contractor and force changes. They may try to embarrass the contractor, but they do not have authority to require changes. On the other hand, public schools are accountable to elected school boards, legislatures and/or mayors. There may be changes in who is ultimately responsible for a district, but it always is an elected official.

Charter school principals cannot be removed by elected officials. Their board members are not subject to removal by public elections. The executives of charter management organizations are not accountable to the government for their jobs.

More important, however, is the difference in moral mission. It is the responsibility of the public schools to educate every child who shows up. All children who live in a school district have a right to attend a district school. Furthermore, no public school can in good conscience “counsel out” a student. Private schools are well known to engage the practice of “counseling out” when a student does not seem to fit in or is too disruptive or the school believes that it cannot well meet that student’s needs. As the student has the public schools to fall back on, the moral import of this practice is surely debatable. But the public schools must find another placement for students whose needs they cannot meet, because they – in the form of the district – have a moral and a legal obligation to educate every child that shows up.

Charter schools do not have that obligation, either legally or morally. To the extent that many charter schools are oversubscribed, it would be difficult or impossible for them to do so. While the public schools have to cram in more students – hopefully, eventually, leading to more classrooms and even schools – charter schools only have to serve as many students as they specify. Charter schools are free to say that they do not offer support services for English language learners or autistic children, but the public schools must provide schooling for every child. Charter schools are free to “counsel out” students.

Charter school employees do not work for the government; they are not public employees. While the government has contracted with charter schools to provide a service, they do not act as the government when the provide it. Their operations are not subject to democratic or public oversight; rather their contracts (i.e. their charters) come up for review for possible extension periodically.

If you can make a more thoughtful argument about why charter schools are public schools, I would love to hear it. If you agree or disagree, please share your own thinking as to why.

[Note: I have posted a follow up piece, and the conversation has continued there.]

Misusing Language


We all know about strong and weak regulation. In this era of economic crisis we debate stronger regulations, and decry the weakening or loosening of financial industry regulations.

We all know what that means. Stronger regulation means some combination of more laws, more controls, closer scrutiny, stricter limits, etc.. Strong price controls would be strict, and weaker regulation of the airline industry has lowered prices dramatically.

And yet, many charter school proponents have twisted the language around 180 degrees. They think that having few charter schools is “weak,” and having multiple authorizers (each of whom might have its own criteria) is “strong.” They think that freedom from preexisting school regulations makes a “strong” charter school law, and many believe that imposing strict requirements on schools as a condition for them to remain open after their initial characterization period is “weak.”

On Friday, The Quick and the Ed’s Chad Aldeman complained that Iowa’s strict charter school law is “one of the weakest charter laws in the country.” The Center for Education Reform’s annual report ranks states from “strongest” (DC, Minnesota & California) to “weakest” (Kansas, Virginia & Iowa). Note, of course, that CER‘s URL is charterschoolresearch.com — clearly marking them as charter school proponents. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools uses the same language, as do many many others.

Of course, I have heard countless people use this kind of language at academic conferences and around schools of education.

Shouldn’t a “strong” charter school law be one that is very stingy in who can open a charter school, and provide for close oversight of charter school operations and strict accountability (in terms of whether or not they can stay open)? Without addressing the question of whether this kind of strength is good or bad for education, this would clearly be  more consistent with how we generally speak about regulation.

How did this twisting of language happen? Why do charter proponents claim that permissive laws are “stronger” stricter laws? I do not ask why they claim such laws are better, because that is an entirely different issue. Does not this smack of the dishonesty of doublespeak?

Dumb Arguments for Stupid Ideas


The reauthorization of NCLB should require states that accept Title I money (i.e. all of them) to require all public school teachers to get buzz cuts. Seriously*. This would benefit our schools and our students.

Think about it. With buzz cuts, teachers could get ready for work faster in the morning, and spend less time touching up their hair each day. That might give them an extra 10-30 minutes each day (fact**), time they could spend meeting with students, giving students better written feedback or creating better lesson plans. Not only that, but it would actually be like giving them a pay raise!!

Think about it. Our nation’s most efficient public service is the military (fact***). It requires all recruits to get a buzz cut (fact***). It is the strongest military in the world (fact). We want our schools to be the best and most efficient in the world, right? Why not follow the military’s model? This also returns us to traditional values for teachers, in this case discouraging their dating (fact). The time they are not spending on dating, preparing for dates and thinking about dates could then be poured into their teaching, as it should have been in the first place (fact***).

As for the pay raise, this is the genius part. The average amount of money public school teachers in this country spend on a hair cut – including tip — is $32.47 (fact**), and the median number of hair cuts per year is 11 (fact**). Plus, the average public school teacher in this country spends $157.32 on hair products each year (fact**). Requiring teachers to get buzz cuts would put an extra $500+ in their pocket each year. Moreover, this is all after tax dollars (fact), and when one takes the local, state and federal tax rates of the average teacher into account, this is the equivalent of more than a $1000 raise (fact**).

(* OK. Not seriously.)
(** = Not really a fact, but filling in the actual fact would not change the value of the argument.)
(*** = Not really a fact, but it suits my argument to say that it is.)

Last week, Corey Bunje Bower offered the world the most ironic piece that I know of to have come out of Vanderbilt’s School of Education. He argued against Kim Marshall’s recent commentary in Education Week on merit pay for teachers by claiming that “Ms. Marshall” presented a paucity of facts to support her case, and decried the lack of “discussion[s] of merit pay…[that are] based on facts rather than conjecture and [that] approach[] the topic in an unbiased way.”

The irony of this piece stems from its own amazing lack of facts. First, Kim Marshall is a man, not a woman. (This fact is very easy to ascertain. Google “Kim Marshall” and click on the first link. You’ll get a picture. Once I pointed this out to Mr. Bower, he fixed the pronouns.) Second, Marshall claims that all merit pay programs for teachers are collectively based, rather than individually based – though he leaves himself an out. As Mr. Marshall is arguing against individual merit pay programs, it is hard to understand why Mr. Bower thought it appropriate to argue with him. In fact, Mr. Bower writes that he knows of no such programs, but still argues against Mr. Marshall, decrying conjecture and Marshall’s lack of facts.

I do not write this to point out how wrong Mr. Bower is – though on individual merit pay I think he is very very wrong – but rather to note the flaws in his approach. He claims to be offering “Thoughts on Education Policy,” but is he not doing so very thoughtfully.

Yes, conjecture (i.e. “an opinion or conclusion formed on the basis of incomplete information”) is often a problem in policy discussions and education discussions (e.g. Mr. Bower’s post, ironically enough). No question about that. But the opposite of conjecture is not “facts” or even “research.” In my ridiculous argument above, I offer any number of facts – or place holders for facts – and they do not actually make for a strong argument. It remains a ridiculous argument, regardless of how many facts it purports to present.

You see, the opposite of conjecture is informed analysis, something that Mr. Marshall offered and something I strive to offer myself. Mr. Brower closes by calling for “sober analysis of research,” which is a good thing, but it is not enough and might not even be required. Some issues do not need to researched (e.g. buzz cuts for teachers). Some ideas can be dealt with well without research, though research can be useful and at times can be necessary.

A well designed thought experiment can tell us everything we need to know. Let us look at the potential elimination of free Metrocards for students to get to and from school in New York City. The Bloomberg administration has been encouraging the move away from neighborhood schools in favor of greater use of school choice in NYC. Without the numbers in front of us, I think that we could agree that students probably travel a lot further to school today than they did 30 years ago. We do not need research to tell us that there are many families in the city for whom buying Metrocards for their multiple children would be an incredible burden. A single parent with two kids in school, making three times the minimum wage would have to pay 5% of his/her take-home pay to get a paid for Metrocard ten months out of the year. ($870/week before taxes, $666 after. $1780 total for the Metrocards, $35,000 total take home pay.)

We do not need to research the policy to know that it is a bad idea. We can tell that a lot of kids will not get Metrocards. Lower income families will not be as able to take advantage of school choice. And we can easily predict that many kids will be absent or grossly tardy due to a lack of money to pay for the bus or subway. We do not need to do research, or to soberly analyze the results, to thoughtfully examine this proposal.

I will address the basic problems with individual merit pay proposals another time – I do think that Mr. Marshall left out some critically important issues. For now, however, I just want to urge everyone to look hard at the quality of the thinking behind the arguments people make, without decrying them simply because they do not happen to cite “research” as an academic would.

Report Cards and Test Scores


Did you see that the state wants to evaluate teacher training programs by their graduates’ students’ test scores? Of course, the usual sources think that this is a great idea.

Did you see Michael McCurdy’s post this week in the Community section on what a kindergarten report card — at least for a G&T student — looks like? Apparently, there are nearly 100 criteria — I counted 98— each which gets rated on a scale from one to four.

Of course, high school students’ report cards are far simpler. Just one grade for each subject, something like six to nine marks total. It’s amazing that in nine years schools gets so much simpler and less complex that reporting can be simplified by a factor of ten or more.

Of course, this proposal would rate teachers’ programs even more simply than that, at least high school teachers’. Some teachers would be rated on a single test, and others rated on no test whatsoever (i.e. art, gym, electives). So, a truly a great way to judge teacher preparation programs, no? Remarkable how as we get older, our tasks get so simplified that others need look at less and less data to evaluate how well we are doing, isn’t it?

What is a “Good Student”?


In Horace’s Compromise, Ted Sizer problematizes* our understanding of what constitutes a good high school. He questions how much learning is really going on in our good schools (i.e. our suburban schools that send kids to fancy colleges). The compromise the title refers to is the deal between students and teachers, in which the students agree not to give the teachers any real trouble, so long as the teachers don’t give them any real trouble – or maybe it is the other way around. Schools don’t really challenge students with truly difficult lessons, and students agree to jump through the hoops that have replaced real and deep learning. In Doing School, Denise Pope makes clear what this looks like from students’ perspectives. She shows different strategies that teenagers might take to be a good student.

* Sorry. I really like that word.

But what really makes for a good student? Sizer and Pope make clear what our current system has worked so hard to teach kids about what it means to be a good student. But what if we could start from scratch? What if we considered the kinds of goals we really want our schools to aim for? Principally, what if we made learning – rather than achievement or attainment – the center of schooling?


I had a “cardiac event” this week. Chest pains, shortness of breath, numb left arm. A few other symptoms, too. The hospital did a lot to work me up to see what had happened and what might be done: blood work, EKGs, echocardiogram, MRI, cardiac angiogram, cardiac cathaterization. It was a lot of stuff, or at least it felt like a lot of stuff to me.

This was a very frustrating experience for me. The doctors – and physician assistants, nurses and technicians – clearly became very frustrated with me. They obviously felt like I was not being a very cooperative patient.

When you get a medical test or procedure, there are these forms to sign. By signing, you attest that you’ve been informed about the test or procedure, its purpose, the potential side effects, possible alternative treatments, and that you have had your questions answered. The doctors (or other medical personnel) come in to answer your questions – or so they say.

But it turns out that they do not really want to answer questions. Sure, they will answer a couple of questions. But they do not want to be pressed with lots of questions. Prior to one procedure – the one where they stuck a tube into my heart (via my groin!!) – I had forty-five minutes of questions, when they only expected a few minutes.

Later, with another procedure, I was actually told “It will go better if you don’t ask any questions.” Of course, that came after they told me that I should ask them any questions I had about the procedure, even during the procedure.

It will go better if you don’t ask any questions.


Have you ever seen a teacher get frustrated with a student’s questions? Ever seen a teacher at a loss for how to answer a question? Ever felt like your students’ questions were detracting you from the important lesson you were trying to teach?

Have you ever heard teachers complain about pushy parents? Ever wondered how much of that is being forced to explain or defend their actions? I mean, just a product of seemingly endless questioning – perhaps pointed – by non-educators.


Have you ever seen an administrator who claims to have an open door policy react poorly when teachers ask him/her about why s/he took a particular action?

A common thread that comes up in the comments here on Gotham School is the issue of the relationship between school administrators and teachers. How collaborative should leadership be? How much power and authority and decision-making should rest in the hands of principals – especially new principals?


It is not just doctors and teachers. It is lawyers and other professionals, too. Perhaps it is most obvious with the legendarily poor help desk personnel. When we are there to support others, to help them, to work for them, to best enable them to do whatever it is they do, when they are the final decision-maker or do the core work of the organization, do we really tolerate a relationship that best supports them?

What is a good patient, from a doctor’s point of view? One who follows (doctors’) instructions and doesn’t ask too many questions?

What is a good client? One who follows (lawyers’) instructions and doesn’t ask too many questions?

What is a good parent? One who follows (schools’) instructions and doesn’t ask too many questions?

What is a good student? One who follows (teachers’) instructions and doesn’t ask too many questions?

What is a good teacher? One who follows (administrators’) instructions and doesn’t ask too many questions?

What do you think?