What’s right about Common Core ... and how NJ is getting it wrong

Published on Monday, February 10, 2014

Today, NJEA president Wendell Steinhauer testified before the Assembly Education Committee about problems with the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the new teacher evaluation system in New Jersey.  Steinhauer reiterated NJEA's support for the Common Core, but also emphasized that it is unlikely to succeed unless it is implemented correctly, which is not yet happening in New Jersey.  He also used the opportunity to point out that the New Jersey Department of Education's rushed implementation of the new evaluation system, as well as its over-reliance on standardized test scores, is leading to serious problems and undermining confidence in that system as well.  He called on legislators to intervene to ensure that both Common Core and the new evaluation system are slowed down and implemented correctly.  

Here is his entire testimony.

“Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.  This is an important topic, and there is a great deal of misinformation and misunderstanding that is getting in the way of us making important progress toward improving teaching and learning in New Jersey’s schools.

“So let me begin by being as unambiguous as I can: NJEA supports the Common Core State Standards.  I want that to be very clear.

Wendell Steinhauer“The Common Core represents an important step forward in teaching and learning.  Its standards go beyond specifying what information students must learn to outlining how they should be able to use and interact with that information.  In short, the standards call for students to engage more deeply and critically with the material they are learning.  The Common Core also calls for teachers to foster that critical engagement and collaborate across disciplines so that students learn how to make connections between the things they are learning in different subjects. 

“It’s a smart, progressive approach to education.  I’m willing to go so far as to say that if I’d sat down with the teachers I respect most to create a set of standards, the final product would look very much like the Common Core.

“So why are we here today, dealing with concerns about the Common Core?  I don’t believe it’s primarily because of the standards themselves.  Rather, there are two major problems that are undermining confidence in the Common Core and its effectiveness in the classroom.  The first is implementation.  The second is wrongly tying the Common Core to a poorly conceived student testing and teacher evaluation regimen that actually works against the fundamental goals of the Common Core.

“Let me address those concerns in order, beginning with implementation.

“The Common Core is not a curriculum.  It is a set of standards around which curricula must be built to ensure that students meet those standards.  And despite a gold-rush mentality among curriculum providers to offer programs they claim are aligned to the Common Core, the truth is that no such curriculum exists off the shelf.  In fact, no such curriculum can exist and live up to what the Common Core calls for.  To implement the Common Core, teachers need time really to understand the standards.  They need time to adapt and refine the curriculum to meet those standards for the particular students they are teaching.  And they need the time and professional learning opportunities to adjust their teaching strategies appropriately.

“It’s hard work, and it’s time consuming.  I believe it is also very worthwhile.  And it’s not optional.  Without proper implementation, the Common Core has no value to students.

It’s a bit like buying a top-of-the-line luxury car, but not putting any gas in the tank.  You can park it in the driveway.  You can brag to the neighbors that you have it.  But it’s not going to get you anywhere.  In fact, it’s just going to get in the way.  And before long, the shine will wear off.

“So I urge you to do everything in your power to ensure proper implementation of the Common Core in New Jersey.  Make sure districts have the time and resources they need to do it right.  Make sure educators have the time and support they need to adapt to it so that students get the full value.

“We don’t have to be the first state to get that car in the driveway.  We need to be the first state to get it out on the freeway, running like it’s supposed to.

“So implementation is key.  But there is another concern that threatens to sink the Common Core if it’s not addressed.

“Simultaneous to its rushed implementation of the Common Core, the Department of Education is also rushing to implement a new evaluation and standardized testing regimen that in many ways is contrary to what the Common Core is designed to accomplish. 

“Because the Common Core, the new evaluation system and the new PARCC assessments are being implemented together, it’s easy for educators, parents and other observers to assume that they are one and the same.  And the rushed, misguided implementation of the new evaluation system, and especially of the PARCC testing that too much of it is built around, is dragging Common Core down with it in the court of teacher and public opinion.

“Under the Common Core, teachers are supposed to collaborate.  English teachers work with Social Studies teachers to create lessons that blend together and reinforce each other.  The same goes for science and math teachers, and every other combination of disciplines.  When the Common Core is implemented correctly, it integrates horizontally – that is, among subjects – as well as vertically – from one grade level to the next.  It requires unprecedented levels of collaboration among teachers, which is a very good thing.

“Unfortunately, teachers are being subjected at the same time to an evaluation system that emphasizes student test scores.  That means that they are held personally responsible for those students’ test scores, as if no other teacher or factor in the school contributes to student success.  So the same English teacher who is asked under Common Core to collaborate with her colleagues on a broader approach to teaching and learning is told by the evaluation system that she alone is liable for the success or failure of that collaboration.  What’s more, her career is on the line. 

“It’s easy to see why the evaluation system, and especially the PARCC assessments that are so closely linked to it, concern both teachers and parents.  In addition to our serious concerns about districts having the resources to administer PARCC and students having the appropriate training to take it, we are also very concerned because results from those tests will be used to create something called student growth percentiles, or SGPs.  SGPs use very complex algorithms to assign students’ test scores to individual teachers, with very high stakes for those teachers. 

“For teachers in tested grades and subjects, the Department of Education is placing a tremendous amount of weight in their evaluations on their students’ PARCC scores and the SGPs that come out of them.  Teachers in tested subjects will be left with no choice but to focus on test preparation, and we’ve seen the damage done by that under No Child Left Behind.

“Remember our English teacher?  Now put yourself in her shoes.  The Common Core pushes her to collaborate, but the evaluation system rewards her for acting in her own self-interest.  Her evaluation is based on how her students – and only her students -- answer certain test questions.  It’s difficult to ask her to share the responsibility for educating those students when no one shares her responsibility for what they learn.  It’s precisely the wrong incentive if we want to see the Common Core succeed in transforming how we educate children.

“Recently, the State Board of Education scheduled an opportunity for open testimony, and we put out a call to our members and the public to share their concerns about these particular issues.  In less than a week, more than 500 teachers and dozens of parents wrote in with heart-wrenching stories of how the botched implementations of Common Core and the new evaluation system are hurting both teachers and students. 

“That State Board meeting was cancelled due to weather, but since last Wednesday we’ve already received a couple hundred more letters.  The atmosphere of concern and fear out there in our schools is palpable.  And it’s well founded, too, because these problems are real, and they are significant. 

“There’s still time to right the ship, but that time is slipping away.  Here’s what we need to do together to get this right.

“First, we need to take the time to implement Common Core correctly.  Teachers need time built into their work day to collaborate with each other on understanding the standards.  They need time to adapt their lessons and to adopt new teaching strategies to help students achieve the standards.  Districts need both the time and the resources to make that happen.

“Next, we need to ensure that the good teaching and learning practices that the Common Core encourages are recognized and rewarded under the evaluation system.  You cannot have standards and a curriculum that make teaching and learning a shared responsibility succeed alongside an evaluation system that says the very opposite.  But that’s exactly what the Department of Education is trying to implement in New Jersey.  It’s impossible for both things to succeed together, and it’s very likely that both will fail unless we rethink how we evaluate teachers.

“That must begin with the recognition that student learning is far too complex and important to be boiled down to so-called student growth percentiles based on standardized tests, with the results assigned to individual teachers.

“As educators and as advocates, we want the very best for our students.  And that is why we have raised these concerns about the ill-fated path we are headed down right now.

“We want the Common Core to succeed in New Jersey.  We want a smart, progressive evaluation system that looks at multiple measures of student learning and that recognizes and rewards collaboration and creativity in the classroom.

“We stand ready, as always, to be part of the solution.  We are already working with the Department of Education to share both our concerns and our solutions.

“We ask you in the Legislature to use your authority and your power to make sure our members have the time and the resources they need to implement the Common Core, as well as an evaluation system that measures what true supporters of the Common Core really value.

“Thank you.”

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