Making Rhode Island public schools great for every child!

What’s wrong with Common Core?

Editorial by Larry Purtill, NEARI President
December 12, 2013

The Common Core State Standards were hailed as the next game changer in education. Unfortunately, the way it is going, they may ruin the game, not just change it. Despite what I believe may have been questionable reasoning for the people behind Common Core, I always had faith that the concept was a good one.

Students, especially in urban areas, are extremely mobile – and certainly educated adults are – so what is wrong with having a common set of standards whether you are in South Kingstown, RI or Tacoma, Washington? Set realistic standards, let local educators decide the best way to meet those standards, and trust teachers to be creative and motivational in helping students reach them.

Instead of widespread support, opposition grows over concerns, and rightly so. Parents across the country, including Rhode Island, are pushing back, in the belief we are dumbing down education. (A description I very much dislike but understand their meaning.) The goal now is to teach to a future test, PARCC, and the concern is growing that creative teaching and learning will disappear.

We have already seen cuts in programs across the country as the test becomes more important than anything else. It is supposed to guarantee that students are college and work ready. Obviously these are worthwhile ultimate goals, but what about the entire education experience: arts, music, sports, history, etc.? Parents have a reason to be nervous.
Educators are angry, not necessarily about the standards but about how they are being implemented much too quickly. Anecdotal evidence abounds about the confusion and wasted hours preparing for Common Core and PARCC. Teachers recently spent three months working on lessons and tests to only be given a new set of rules which required them to do much of the work over.

There is a constant stream here and around the country of “clarifying” documents changing what teachers had already spent hours developing. Confusion abounds. Elementary educators are preparing lesson plans the night before to teach to a new curriculum the next day because of rapid changes and lack of advance information.

Some states have started to slow down and put off implementation and testing until the change is complete and everyone is on the same page. This cannot be about testing companies making millions and corporations trying to control curriculum and education. It should be about high expectations where resources are available to reach them, and an education system that provides every student with the preparation to be what he/she wants, whether doctor, teacher, firefighter or poet.
Narrowing curriculum for a test and doing only half a job of it welcomes failure. If students and teachers are going to be evaluated with this system, it needs to be done correctly.

Conservatives and local politicians are opposed as well, although I might disagree with some of their motives. The bottom line is that local control and decision-making have been removed.

I started off by saying that we should set standards but trust our teachers to develop how we get there. To prove my point, all the so-called experts (most who have never taught) point to the success of Finland. Its secret? Teachers are trusted to do their jobs – and guess what, it works! Common Core and PARCC are edicts from on high and the truth is local educators are left scrambling without support and resources.

The cost to implement PARCC will be staggering. The commissioner says we will be ready, but local school officials tell me a different story. Think about this: Los Angeles intends to spend $1 billion on iPads for the Common Core Technology Project, to help prepare for the standards. The tests will be online so I assume they will be used for that as well. Where is this money coming from and at the expense of what other programs? I am all for students using technology but with all this profit at stake you can easily see why the technology industry is behind this movement.

Supporters of quick implementation say it is just the usual suspects who are complaining, but they shouldn’t ignore parents, teachers and administrators who voice serious issues and concerns. “The Common Core standards emphasize critical thinking and reasoning. It is time for public officials to demonstrate critical thinking and stop the rush to implementation and do some serious field-testing. It is time to fix the standards that don’t work in real classrooms with real students.” (From CNN Opinion by Diane Ravitch, 11/25/2013.)

Calling something a game changer is just one of the many phrases the ed reformers like to throw around. It sounds hip and important, but if you really want to be a game changer you would set high attainable standards and give educators the resources and trust needed to get there, not rush through something half-baked because corporations and test companies want it.

This is not a game – these are real classrooms with real students, and when parents, teachers and administrators, i.e. those directly involved, say there are problems, it might be time to listen, learn and act.
Then and only then will Common Core have a chance, and not be just another fad for which we spent billions and did nothing to close the achievement gap. It seems an easy choice. For once, let us as a society act on the side of students and educators and not the side of power and money.

Gist's embargoed dissertation: disrespectful, self-serving, unprofessional

An open letter by Jay Walsh, Ph.D., NEARI UniServ Director
December 9, 2013 

Deborah Gist’s decision to embargo her doctoral dissertation – a dissertation that she based on policies developed and implemented as the Commissioner of Education in Rhode Island – is disrespectful toward the Rhode Island community, self-serving, cowardly, and unprofessional.
Gist’s ability to lead any education institution, especially a state department of education, should be questioned because neither policy makers, scholars, nor the general public have had access to her work since its completion.

As reported by the blog November 11 and the Providence Journal’s brief mention of the problem in "Political Scene" a week later, we learned Gist requested her Ed.D. dissertation be embargoed by the University of Pennsylvania. She defended this dissertation in April, 2012 and completed it in June, 2012.

Choosing to withhold knowledge built upon the work of previous scholars is disrespectful and self-serving. Fear of what others might think is natural, but not being brave enough to submit the work to scholarly examination is cowardly. Expecting educators under her supervision to demonstrate learning while hiding her own smacks of hypocrisy and lacks the type of modeled behavior we should expect from educational leaders.

All knowledge is created through shared learning. We formally and informally share experience and learning with others. Sometimes this happens through simple discussions in the community or work place and other times it happens through published work. In either instance, what we think to be true may be openly questioned by some or used as an opportunity to move learning to a new level.

Gist acknowledged this herself when she thanked previous scholars in her dissertation abstract. The fact that she would use the work of these scholars to help guide her research but not make her research available for others to dissect is selfish. Her decision to embargo the dissertation is also disrespectful of every other scholar who has published their work.

The point of writing a dissertation, or any other research, is to make it freely available for scrutiny or emulation. Others may learn how to make improvements in public education or learn which mistakes and policies to avoid through reading Gist’s work. Hiding one’s work is disrespectful and selfish, no matter how scary it may be.

Elliot Krieger, Gist’s spokesman, told the Providence Journal, “Commissioner Gist wanted to be able to write her dissertation without thinking about what others [aside from her faculty advisers] would think about her scholarship and analysis.”

By keeping her work secret and failing to acknowledge what “others” might think, Gist displays her arrogance and self-doubt. Anyone who has written with the intent of strangers reading their work can attest to the fear often produced by such an activity.

I know what it feels like to be afraid of publishing a dissertation. I have described my feeling as “standing naked in Times Square,” where anyone walking by is free to judge and critique. I am certain Gist felt the same way. This fear should not permit her, or anyone else, to keep their work secret.

My fears of what “others” may have thought helped by causing me to check assumptions, clearly explain my work, and make the results relevant to others. Rather than hide her work, Gist should have allowed the thoughts of others to do the same for her, it makes the final product stronger in the end. If she cannot stand by her work despite what “others” might think, then perhaps the research is not of high enough quality. 

Failing to model the behavior she expects of others is hypocritical and unprofessional. As Commissioner of Education, Gist has initiated expansive education changes in Rhode Island, one of which was the Rhode Island Model Educator Evaluation. In fact, her dissertation is entitled “An Ocean State Voyage: A Leadership Case Study of Creating an Evaluation System with, and for, Teachers.”

There is a connection between Gist’s refusal to share her dissertation and the expectations of teachers outlined in the Rhode Island model, by which she may be defined as an “ineffective educator.” For example, the evaluation system expects:
• “Modeling high standards of professional behavior.” (pg. 25)
• “It’s the teacher’s responsibility to model how to engage in respectful interactions with one another.” (pg. 76)
• “The teacher models the process to be followed in the task [effective communication].” (pg. 85)
• “The teacher is a role model of respectful and direct interactions.” (pg. 97)
• “The teacher models good leadership behaviors for students and colleagues.” (pg. 97)

Rhode Island deserves great public schools in order to educate citizens capable of dealing with complex and contentious political, economic, and social issues. We will never be able to realize an energetic, empowering, and educative school system under the leadership of Deborah Gist.
The embargoing of her dissertation is disrespectful to the public. Hiding from criticism and shrinking away from the responsibility of owning her work is contrary to effective leadership. Expecting professional behavior from educators while not exhibiting the same in her work is hypocritical.

The RI Board of Education renewed the Commissioner’s contract for two years in June and added quarterly reviews as a condition of employment. We are approaching the end of the second quarter and expect the Board to employ the same standards applied to teachers in measuring the professionalism of Deborah Gist. Rhode Island deserves better than an educational leader who disrespectfully, selfishly, hypocritically and unprofessionally hides behind embargoes.

May 20, 2013

RI educators...

You came in droves to tell your stories May 20 - and here's what you said.

Now keep the momentum going by signing this on-line petition to help spread the word about the changes we need to make for a better future in Rhode Island. It's time to listen to the people who educate our children.

Amazing Members - Barbara Walton-Faria
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