An Uncommon Education Overhaul – Common Core [Letter]

January 27, 2014

Many politicians say they want to make a difference, but in my view there are only two places where one can truly make a difference, in the home or in the classroom. When a home fails a child there is only one place left, the classroom. Right now some people feel that the classroom is endangered.

Connecticut has always prided itself on its premier national standing in educational quality and attainment. Apart from having no income tax, education was Connecticut’s best competitive advantage. These advantages are now gone, we have an income tax and we lost a lot of ground on the education front. The last three decades of our state’s efforts to address issues of education equity, changing demographics and shifting academic priorities have resulted in a cascade of mandates.

Today, school districts are expected to hastily implement Common Core national standards and a new teacher evaluation system. No wonder our school districts feel overwhelmed and asking for a year delay in grading of their results.

The Common Core curriculum and the accompanying “Smarter Balance” tests, replacing the CT Mastery Test, are being adopted throughout Connecticut and the nation. What is Common Core, and why are people so concerned about it? The National Governors and State Education Executives Associations hired David Coleman and Jason Zimba to write a set of national unified educational standards and accompanying tests. Funding was provided by the Bill Gates Foundation among others.

It was argued that the resulting curriculum would be more rigorous, accountable, relevant and comparable. It would utilize computer adaptive testing, bring divergent state learning goals into alignment, reflect skills needed in the marketplace, and generally make students – college and job ready.

Nevertheless, the Common Core program has its critics. Some argue that Common Core mandates a one size fits all curriculum and is not written at a high enough level required for acquisition of 21st century skills. Others argue that the adaptive testing is not adaptive enough.

Like the CMT, it is pegged to grade-level ceilings, and is unable to measure academic growth of high achievers.

The lack of means by which the Common Core program can be revised and modified is considered another serious flaw, especially that the curriculum would be implemented without control group testing. It should also be noted that the curriculum was developed without input by parents, teachers, school boards or any state or national legislative body.

In the face of growing resistance to the insufficiently prepared implementation of the new system, some teachers and politicians from the left and the right have pulled their support of the Common Core. Some of the 45 states that agreed to implement it are now withdrawing, which may defeat the program’s stated goal of creating an alignment between states.
Both sides arguing this issue have undertaken media campaigns costing millions of dollars. Many believe that this money would be better spent on technology, software, social workers and additional reimbursement for special education and transportation. These funds could also help in opening more slots for wait listed preschool and Vo-Tech students.

All the controversy surrounding Common Core threatens to divert attention from what I believe should be the primary focus of education. To reclaim its education advantage, Connecticut’s priority should be to foster literacy at the earliest possible age. If a child cannot read, it is impossible for that child to succeed in school or in life.

Like millions of other immigrants I know this at first hand. I arrived in Naugatuck with my family from a farm in Italy when I was 5, speaking no English. Because of a father who believed that education was everything and thanks to great public school teachers, I was able to succeed and live the American dream. That dream can be quickly extinguished, however, for those who are unable to read.

Keep it simple

We must focus all our resources on teaching students to read, write, do math, and think critically and creatively. We must reclaim Connecticut’s reputation for educational excellence by making teachers and parents partners, not adversaries.

They are on the front lines every day, and know more than anyone what changes need to be made. Many of them believe that implementing a system that is still under construction is like building a ship while sailing it. They recommend pushing the pause button on Common Core. It may benefit us to listen to them.

Please click here to read my recent letter to State Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor concerning this very issue.

Senator Boucher is the ranking member of the Education and Higher Education Committees of the General Assembly. Boucher is also a former State Board of Education member and a local BOE Chairman from Wilton, served on the Board of Directors of the Wilton Education Foundation and was active in the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education (CABE) and the National Association of State Boards of Education.