common core standards


This week, I’m writing blog posts based on people’s submissions to my Facebook page right here. My second one is based on online friend Theresa DeVore’s suggested title, “How can we keep our compassion in this era of high stakes accountability? When told to make sure test scores are raised but in the classroom students are not motivated. I have had to personally remind myself that I teach children and not to become frustrated or angry at them.” Let’s go …

On normal days, I teach my more difficult class starting at 8am sharp.

OK, that’s not exactly true. It’s more that I start telling them to sit down, take out a pencil or something to write with, open up a notebook, get them to start the “Do Now,” wait for the daily pledge of allegiance and morning announcements to finish, and THEN get started.

Yet, that’s what I’m doing. The first few students trickle in with shuffling feet, a few outbursts, and the unwrapping of a few sandwiches from the delis across the street. I’d rather not choose between them having breakfast in my class so they could function properly or not having breakfast so they could disrupt everyone else’s learning.

I didn’t sign up for this, either. At least not explicitly.

Today’s New York State ELA test broke from our traditional schedule, letting me proctor 18 English Language Learners, many of whom I teach or have known from different school activities. Unlike my usual mornings, the lack of sound is deafening to an 80s baby used to a little din in his ear. The ELA test hung over their nervous heads for the first twenty minutes of the period. A little after the morning announcements, some administrators came to reassure them.

They left. The students looked at me. I looked at them. One of them blurted, “Now I’m even MORE nervous.”

While I’m not at liberty to discuss the proceedings of the ELA test, I can tell you that, afterwards, kids wondered why the hell they even came to school. They got that it was an important part of their promotional criteria, and they remembered how to write so they didn’t blame their teachers in the slightest. They did, however, feel like they could have given a better shot at passing the test. A couple of people even brought the idea of a portfolio for a final evaluation.

A few nodded. Does this make kids smarter than the test makers?

Because, really, one might make the case that math depends on fluency, meaning getting it right and getting it quick, whatever “it” is. However, reading and writing don’t have the same limitations in real life. There might be “deadlines,” but nothing like the 135 or so minutes we give students to finish an essay in response to a speech or a piece of literature they’re given. How does anyone “get” anything they’ve read when only given a few minutes to read it?

Then again, on testing days, the attendance rate is almost perfect in a school where it’s already 94% and above on most days. The fact that some of our students even make it to school on time encourages me to put my best foot forward, even when it feels like they’d rather stay outside, away from the rules, the uniforms, the tests, and the grades that, to others, often become reflections of the student as a person instead of the student as an academic performer.

These thoughts run through my mind while pacing back and forth not as math teacher, but as proctor for an exam I otherwise can’t stand. Some finished. Some didn’t. All of them became kids again shortly after I took the last booklet from the students in front of me. The mix of angst and prayer remained during their stadium-loud discussion about how they felt they did on the test with each other. After this is all over, I’ll tell them this doesn’t mean a thing about how much they’re worth, but it might be too late for them.

I observed their discussions from the front of the room, thinking this Common Core stuff is a lot more complex than the A, B, C, D answer sheet they’re given.

Mr. Vilson, whose got more of these to go …


Chancellor Dennis Walcott Visits School of the Future

To Chancellor Dennis Walcott, David Coleman, Merryl Tisch, and McGraw-Hill Publishers:

First, I’ll mention that, since the discussions of the Common Core Learning Standards came to the fore, I’ve had a plethora of chances to immerse myself in the new vision for a quasi-nationalized education paradigm. In NYC, as usual, education policy makers feel the need to set the standard for the nation, from Bloomberg’s mayoral control dictates to the plethora of interim, field-testing, and high-stakes standardized assessments from third grade onwards. On the surface, one might think I’m at the forefront of the work done around the Common Core.

Yet, my earlier concern about the chaotic approach to transforming education via the Common Core concerns me still.

We can obviously start with Dr. Diane Ravitch’s contention that we haven’t actually field-tested whether the standards would actually get our students “college and career ready.” From a teacher’s perspective, I’d like to get more focused, coherent, and yes, rigorous about my argument.

We can talk all day about these standards and the three tenets of focus, coherence, and rigor, but without the means to make pedagogy more viable and focused on the whole child, we miss out on yet another opportunity to do something important: growing better people.

For instance, yesterday and today, New York City elementary and middle school children had to take an English-Language Arts and Math test (respectively) as part of the NYC Benchmark Assessments, with the assumption that these tests will give stakeholders a chance to see how much students learned in the past few months.

After a careful glance of the material along with conversations with students and teachers, these assessments seem to do more to assess what students don’t know than anything else.

If the intent is to help teachers, principals, and others get a feel for the tests in April / May, then why not let these parties into the assessment process rather than excluding them? If the intent is to show growth from today to the tests, then why give a test where you know the majority of students haven’t even covered all of this material? If the intent is to signal to everyone that they must raise their expectations, then why must we let them down so frequently with our lack of clarity?

From people I’ve spoken to throughout the city, we’ve had almost three re-arrangement in priorities in the last five months. At first, people thought we would have to address both New York State and Common Core Standards, specifically because the Common Core in New York State’s eyes was a draft. Then, people thought we would teach according to the first testing schedule given sometime in late August / early September.

For eight grade teachers, that meant we would teach exponents first. Sometime last week, however, the state sends out a document shifting priorities on topics again, giving some topics greater emphasis over others after almost three months of teaching.

We’re almost begging for schools to fail.

Even when schools had a clear roadmap like in the state of Kentucky, schools still dipped by as much as 35% in scores, and for good reason. Anyone familiar with the standards already sees the forestand the trees.

But we continue to perpetuate the myth that higher accountability will improve schools, no matter what the cost. After today’s interim assessment, I am convinced that, if we cannot make our school system more focused on children and their communities’ needs, we will continue to fail them, with or without a state test.

We can do better.

I’m not angry; I’m simply seeking answers. While I don’t speak for all teachers, I do speak because of them, and a plethora of other concerned citizens. Hope to hear from you soon.


Jose Vilson


Be Different

It’s like a few people sat around a table, steaming mad at their own opposing views on the direction of education, and said, “What’s a good word that we can all hold our hands around?” The minute they spread the word around, it became the go-to word for evaluators and validators across the country. People began to set up stations all around their classroom with no rationale for their stations. Teachers sat down for hours of PD on the word “differentiation” where people heard that this word, vital for the 21st century classroom, ought to appear out of thin air with no concrete examples to follow. Some person who is equally as qualified in differentiation (meaning, not at all) with a clipboard might come in your room and rate your differentiation skills on a rubric  created by one of your favorite validators, too.

But don’t be afraid because it’s not the first nor will it be the last time we’ve been thrown a quasi-scientific / pedagogical term that has been called a “best practice” without proper training or clear-cut examples of what that looks like.

As “differentiation” suggests, no one ought to be against differentiation. I know I’m not. You’d be crazy to do that. I think. I mean, we know it has something to do with trying to get the most out of every student no matter what level they land on whatever assessment we give them. I think one of the validators, Carol Tomlinson, defines it as “the process of “ensuring that what a student learns, how he/she learns it, and how the student demonstrates what he/she has learned is a match for that student’s readiness level, interests, and preferred mode of learning.”

That sounds great … except for the following contradictions:

  • According to Dan Willingham, different learning styles don’t really exist. Everyone needs to see things. They might interpret what they see differently because of their previous experiences, academic or otherwise.
  • In this age of hyper-standardized testing, many teachers don’t see the point of differentiating if they’re all being assessed against the same measure? (And no, giving a student more or less time to complete the task is not differentiating … is it?)
  • We all have “standards.” For some of us, they’re just the baseline for learning in the classroom, and we can / should exceed them as need be. Many of our higher-ups see these standards as the barometer for good teaching, and if that’s the case, then why differentiate if we’re held to these uniform guidelines?
  • Isn’t it weird for us to have differentiation in light of a Common Core?
  • Multiple pathways are plausible, but how many people are trained in the fine art of reading student work? The only problem I have with teachers not being able to check their own students’ work on extended-responses is this: who is most qualified to look at the students’ exam and understand what the person is saying more than the teacher who’s been with them for the better part of the year? If we’re saying that any random educator should be able to understand what the student said, and we’re measuring these responses against a rubric, then we’re admitting that student responses, no matter what level we perceive our students to be, ought to have a similar look and not too different.

I don’t mean to destroy our perceptions of the word “differentiation” so emphatically; I just have a core belief that we ought to be clear with what we think are best practices. We can’t just profess on the virtues of differentiation without being able to fully demonstrate that in some form. I’d substitute the word “differentiation” for “scaffolding” in that a) it provides a powerful image for what we ought to do in the classroom and b) it leads to discussion around multiple pathways more than differentiation. Differentiation places the onus on teachers to eventually discover what students gravitate to; scaffolding tells the teacher to provide and accept different ways for the student to approach the problem, and whichever the student gravitates to will make the most sense for the student.

There, I’m differentiating, too. But it’s no different than anything I’ve been saying about the execution of any well-meaning practice that comes from on high.

Mr. Vilson, who owns up to every word in his blog …