••• Education •••

Common Core Standards – Sometimes even reformers get it wrong

I don’t have idols.

Years ago I learned idolizing can lead to great disappointment. The more you learn about people, the greater the chance that, as this guy would say in his unique style, “sthumpin’s a misth.” A case in point is Michelle Rhee. If I did have an idol in education reform, it would be her. She’s even married to one of my favorite NBA players of all time who is also an education reformer.

For those of you not familiar with Michelle Rhee, in 2007 she was appointed the first chancellor of the Washington, D.C. school district vowing to make real reform in one of the nation’s lowest performing school districts. In her first year she closed 23 schools, dismissed 36 principals and reduced central office staff by 15%. Two years later Rhee fired 241 teachers based on poor performance and took on the teachers’ union to make significant changes in order to improve student outcomes. Saying she was controversial would be a colossal understatement.

She was a Muhammed Ali in the square circle of education reform.

But, not surprisingly, she became the victim of politics. The 2010 mayoral election in D.C. was considered a referendum on Rhee. The new guy won and she was out. She went on to start a school reform organization called StudentsFirst, and her overarching approach is to put students ahead of adults.

What could be better than that? I hadn’t heard much about her in the past few years; that is until a few Mondays ago. I was on the treadmill (seriously), trying to get through a grueling walk aided by Bret Baier’s Special Report on the Fox News Channel. He had just floated a teaser that his in-studio guest was going to be none other than Michelle Rhee and she was going to discuss Common Core Standards and charter schools. You can imagine my excitement. I even took the treadmill from 3- to 3.5 mph!

Then I was reminded why I don’t have idols.

Much to my chagrin (and also Bret’s), I learned in the interview that Michelle Rhee is a supporter of Common Core standards. Say it ain’t so, Joe! When pressed by Baier, she proclaimed, “unless we increase the standards and expectations of our kids, we will continue to fall further and further behind [other countries].” She expressed concern that the U.S. is now lagging behind the Slovak Republic. When Baier quoted a Brookings Institute study that Common Core standards have not yet produced significant gains Rhee challenged that postulate by saying that in 2013 Tennessee “blew the other states out of the water,” by “(1), implementing a rigorous teacher evaluation system and (2) they’ve been doing a very good job of investing in Common Core.”

It’s a good thing the treadmill has handles or I would have been on the floor.

That last quote brings me to why I’m writing this and underscores one of several of my issues with Common Core standards. Why does anyone, especially one as brilliant as Michelle Rhee, believe that changing standards will improve outcomes? What about that “implementing a rigorous teacher evaluation system” thing? You think that had anything to do with it?
Outcomes are not going to change just because you change standards, whether it’s in business, sports, education or any other walk of life. Could the Royals win the World Series this year simply because it becomes their standard?

Baier questioned her about the “push-back” from many who complain that the standards are too tough. She brushed away those concerns with a logic that left me thinking “This is an education reformer?”

Her dismissal of the standards as being too difficult at the elementary level reminded me of a recent article in the Salina News. Soon-to-be former Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker, while defending Common Core standards at a Salina Rotary Club luncheon, cited a standard for kindergartners that requires them to count to 100 by ones and tens. She followed that with this statement. “I don’t think there’s anything sinister about that.”

Well, here’s one of the other 21 kindergarten standards (from Topeka Public Schools) she left out:

Compose and decompose numbers from 11 to 31 into groups of ten ones and some further ones, e.g., by using objects or drawings, and record each composition or decomposition by a drawing or equation (such as 18=10+8); understand that these numbers are composed of groups of ten ones and one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, or nine ones.

Everybody got that? Perhaps not sinister, but certainly something from which nightmares could spring. When I was in kindergarten (and the U.S. was number 1 in the world) our most challenging standard was don’t eat the paste.

What’s frightening is that many influential individuals and organizations outside education are on the same page. Potential presidential candidate Jeb Bush is a big supporter. The US Chamber of Commerce released this video last month. They all miss the fundamental point. If you don’t have an improvement in the quality of teachers and even more importantly, better managed public schools, along with more school choice for parents, standards aren’t going to matter one bit. Period.

Rhee believes Common Core will work at producing better outcomes “as long as the adults stay strong and firm and know our kids can do this.” Huh? As an elementary teacher in a school that desperately needs marked improvement, I know I stayed strong and firm and I also know it’s going to take a lot more than that.

If that’s the best defense an education reformer like Michelle Rhee can come up with to defend Common Core standards, it’s yet another reason to dump them.

And let me get back to the treadmill in peace.