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Critics blast education's new 'core'

Common Core gets scrutiny over cost, training, assessments


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Susan Barrett, co-founder of the group Oregon Save Our Schools, speaks at a rally last Thursday to protest corporatization of public schools. Students in Portland Public Schools don’t know it, but they’re learning math differently nowadays.

They’re learning more about fewer key concepts; they’re focusing on skill building, speed and accuracy; and they’re using real-world examples to understand and apply concepts.

It’s all part of the new Common Core State Standards, the latest movement in public education reform.

If you don’t know about it, you soon will.

If you’re among the 80 percent of Portland residents who don’t have kids in the public schools, your tax dollars are paying for the Common Core.

Oregon and Washington are among 45 states that have adopted the Common Core, after the standards were coordinated by The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Districts in Oregon began rolling it out in 2011, and to date PPS has introduced the more rigorous math curriculum to all students except fourth- and fifth-graders.

PPS expects to be fully aligned with the math and English language arts standards in the next two years, and will launch a Parent Academy in January to bring parents up to speed.

By spring 2015, Oregon districts will bring on a new test, called the Smarter Balanced Assessment, billed as a better way to pinpoint what students do and don’t know. It will replace the old way of testing, the multiple-choice Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

In short, it’s the government’s latest effort to get all kids to succeed in college and careers and compete in a global economy.

So what’s the problem in all of this?

Increasingly, a chorus of critics here and nationwide have begun raising questions and concerns, making it one of the most divisive topics in school reform today.

Since influential education historian Diane Ravitch came out against the Common Core in February, dozens of groups such as Stop the Common Core in Oregon have sprouted up nationwide.

A Beaverton parent, Jason Schmidt, recently created a Facebook page called “We the People,” encouraging parents to opt their children out of the Common Core. He was part of a protest before the Beaverton School Board last Thursday, saying he was inspired by a viral video of Robert Small, a Baltimore parent who was arrested after questioning the Common Core at a school meeting.

Finding solutions

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - School activists with Oregon SOS are raising their visibility lately and will soon to publish an action guide on the Common Core. They rallied last week outside the Oregon Convention Center.  Progressive Portland school activists are riled up, as are conservatives. The Oregon Republican Party’s State Central Committee in August passed a resolution opposing the Common Core, calling it an effort to subordinate local control of Oregon’s public schools to a nationalized and standardized American education “one-size-fits-all” system.

According to their resolution, “More than 500 K-3 education professionals have signed a statement opposing Common Core.”

Their resolution also cites the cost to Oregon taxpayers of implementing the Common Core at an estimated $182 million.

While Common Core critics shout from one corner and school district officials do their best to comply, teachers are stuck in the middle,

left to implement the standards within the confines of their own classrooms.

One Portland advocacy group called Oregon Save Our Schools sees the nuances in the debate. The group is creating a Common Core position paper that will serve as an “action guide” to its members and the public.

“Our organization as a whole is torn; it’s a tricky situation,” says Susan Barrett, a PPS parent of two and co-founder of Oregon SOS. “Every single item in the Common Core is costing a ton of money. Why are we putting money towards that instead of just doing a good job? ... If we didn’t like the standards we currently had, let’s have a conversation about what they should be and how we should change them.”

Oregon SOS formed two years ago, the result of Barrett’s publicly defecting from the Portland advocacy group Stand for Children.

Barrett had penned a national column, then was quoted in an Aug. 1, 2011, Portland Tribune story about her frustration with corporate sponsorship of education reform.

Once again, the topic came up at an Oregon SOS rally last week, as the Oregon Business Association recognized Stand for Children’s Executive Director Sue Levin as its Statesman of the Year.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supports the national activities of Stand for Children, and also has contributed millions to the Common Core effort.

Barrett, who lives in Northeast Portland, is moving out of state soon, but hopes her comrades will carry on the group’s work.

Members of Oregon SOS have been at every meeting of the Oregon Education Investment Board and worked with state legislators on education-related policy. One of their bills sponsored by state Rep. Lew Frederick was signed into law. It calls for the state Department of Education to evaluate how state law deals with the effects of poverty in students’ assessments.

“My hope is that we carry on more of that work and be more proactive in coming up with solutions for things rather than always being reactive and fight things we don’t like,” Barrett says. “It’s a challenge that will take more organizing with other groups, getting better at how we can explain things to a broader public.”

Gearing people up

In two years, Oregon SOS has grown to attract nearly 900 Facebook members and a core of about 20 members that includes PPS School Board member Steve Buel, a retired teacher.

Former school board candidate Rita Moore, who serves on the district’s Citizen Budget Review Committee, is also a member and has been asking the district how much they estimate will be spent on the Common Core adoption. She was told they weren’t tracking it specifically.

From her viewpoint, Moore says, “PPS and other districts are forced to divert very scarce resources from classrooms. So I would like the district to look very carefully at the costs as well as the purported benefits of all programs. In order to do that, we need to be more precise in both the tracking and reporting of expenditures.”

Kimberly Matier, PPS’ director of instruction, curriculum and assessment (formerly in charge of the Talented and Gifted program), gave the Tribune a lengthy answer to the cost question, involving shared alignments of materials with other districts and states.

She offered up a single figure: PPS spent about $60,000 this past year on teacher costs to work with district teacher committees to align reports and other curriculum resources. “Costs predicted for next year will be minimal,” she says, “as our alignment will be complete.”

Will teachers be ready?

Oregon SOS expects to have their action guide out by the end of the year, framed around the issue of “who controls the schools,” says Gary Obermeyer, a former teacher who is the lead on the project.

“We want the public back in public schools,” he says.

Yet another point of concern is how, exactly, teachers will be trained to teach and test to the new mandates.

“We have a long history of trying to drag schools into a better place with the tests we use,” says Rick Stiggens, an Oregon SOS member who runs an assessment consulting firm that does national work. “By itself, that does nothing for us, unless we back it up with the kind of professional development it takes to gear people up to do the new job.”

In fact, it appears that teachers will not be getting any extra training specific to the Common Core.

“The Office of Teaching and Learning focuses all of their professional development budget on instruction, curriculum and assessment resources that are culturally and linguistically responsive,” Matier, the PPS curriculum director, told the Tribune.

Costs related specifically to the Common Core “were embedded in already routine professional development activities,” she says.

If that is the case, Stiggens doesn’t think this move will be any different than any of the other tests the federal government has been trying to drive school improvement with since the 1960s.

“Well, show me the evidence that (the tests have) been a good investment,” he says. “It couldn’t, it didn’t, it was never going to deliver. This could be another version of that, unless we give people the tools to do the job.”