"But if it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by...any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward [district], it is a belief against all experience." --Thomas Jefferson

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Common Core: Where Are We Getting Our Assessments?

(This is the fourth of eight blogs on Common Core.  For previous blogs, click here: Intro, Point 1, Point 2)

UPDATE: The Utah State Board of Education applied to be removed from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium in August, 2012.  They then selected the American Institutes for Research (AIR) a "behavioral and social sciences organization" not a testing organization to create the Common Core-aligned state tests to be administered in 2014.  To read about AIR, go to my blog here

3. Common Core proponents say that the standards do not determine assessments.

In discussing Common Core (CCSS) , I have had proponents say things like, "It's just standards.  It doesn't dictate testing or curriculum".  Standards will require testing aligned with those standards.  So, who is involved in creating those tests? After three days of blogs on this subject, I assume no one will be surprised by the answer...the Federal Government.  The US Department of Education is funding the assessments for the Common Core.

Many of you have read my first blog on this topic.  Some of it will be repeated here, for clarity.  In short, the US Department of Education gave a grant of $330,000,000 to two consortia to develop assessments.  The Smarter Balance Consortia (SBAC) is the one Utah belongs to, along with about 30 other states.  The assessments are to be computer-adaptive and available in 2014.  Computer-adaptive tests use a series of more detailed questions to determine the knowledge of the test-taker.  For example, if you answer an initial question correctly, the subsequent question goes into greater depth and so on. 

An emphasis is being placed on the testing by US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.  He said:

As I travel around the country the number one complaint I hear from teachers is that state bubble tests pressure teachers to teach to a test that doesn't measure what really matters... Both of these winning applicants are planning to develop assessments that will move us far beyond this and measure real student knowledge and skills.
One concern with this approach is the SBAC consortium doesn't appear to focus on content knowledge.  While there is concrete knowledge included in the Common Core Standards, the emphasis in all the meetings I've attended, and apparently in the assessments, has been on processes and communication instead of content. 

Dr. W. Stephen Wilson, a professor of mathematics and education at Johns Hopkins University, reviewed the assessment plan for Smarter Balance.  He is concerned by the emphasis on mathematical processes over actual math knowledge and skills.  (Read his full comments here.)  Dr. Wilson says:

The conceptualization of mathematical understanding on which SBAC will base its assessments is deeply flawed. The consortium focuses on the Mathematical Practices of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSS-M) at the expense of content, and they outline plans to assess communication skills that have nothing to do with mathematical understanding....

Mathematical Practices, or what was usually called “process” standards in most states, do little more than describe how someone pretty good at mathematics seems to approach mathematics problems. As stand alone standards, they are neither teachable nor testable. Mathematics is about solving problems, and anyone who can solve a complex multi-step problem using mathematics automatically demonstrates their skill with the Mathematical Practices, (whether they can communicate well or not)....

Ultimately, the actual assessments will tell us all what SBAC thinks is important.... It appears that the assessments will focus on communication skills and Mathematical Practices over content knowledge. [emphasis mine]

Another critique said:
Both [CCSS assessment] consortia appear poised to develop subjective assessments rather than objective tests. SBAC plans to assess deep disciplinary understanding and higher-order thinking skills. Will either PARCC or SBAC test student content knowledge and skill? [emphasis mine]
Additionally, I was able to review some sample test questions.  I saw a lot of free-text, explain-your-answer questions.  Let me give you one example. 
First, you have a 4-paragraph description of a family concerned with their gas bill and a page of the bill. 

Part A: Using a free text response: Assess the cost-effectiveness of new insulation by researching "heating degree days" on the internet. The response must include:
  • Compare the heating costs from Jan. 2007 to Jan. 2008
  • Explain the savings after the insulation
  • Identify circumstances under which the Jan. 2008 bill would have been at least 10% less than the Jan. 2007 bill
  • Decide if the insulation was cost-effective and provide evidence of this
Part B: Create a short pamphlet from the gas company to guide customers in increased energy efficiency:
  • List the quantities the customers need to consider in assessing cost-effectiveness
  • Generalize a method of comparison used for the gas bills with a set of formulas, and provide an explanation of the formulas
  • Explain to customers how to weigh the cost of energy efficiency measures with savings on their bill
Then upload your pamphlet...to the computer for grading.
While this might be a good classroom exercise, this is a math test, remember? I don't even want to go into how a computer accurately grades something like this.  I assume the program is looking for certain numbers and words in the response, but there are so many variables to how one answers this.  One computer science person stated he is familiar with the capabilities of natural language programs and worried this would exceed those capabilities.  In short, our kids may not be able to do math problems, but, at least, they'll be able to explain about the math problems and make pretty pamphlets. 

I haven't even gotten into Language Arts yet.  There are more concerns about the Language Arts assessments, not the least of which is the writing piece.  How does one effectively measure writing without a human involved?  I will go into my concerns with Language Arts in greater detail when I address curriculum next time.

Assessments will drive the curriculum.  We will teach what is on the tests.  It is important to know who is writing the tests and what they are evaluating.  Who are the people involved in SBAC?  What are their backgrounds, their biases and their agendas?  How do we prevent these biases and agendas from spilling over into our very verbose computerized tests?  The assessments are too big of a player to turn over to some "experts" and the Federal government.

Two additional points of concern are peripherally connected to the assessments.

First, some people feel they don't need to worry because they homeschool, or go to private school or send their kids to charters.  Well, the charter schools are treated the same as the district schools when it comes to standards and assessments: they're going Common Core.  But home and private schools may not be free and clear either.  The Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) is concerned with not just the influence of Common Core on public schools, but private and home schoolers, as well. Congress reauthorizes their Elementary and Secondary Education Authorization (ESEA) bill every year.  The ESEA is the main way the feds create their own standards for our schools and appropriate funding for education to a large degree.  This year's version has made HSLDA very nervous.  In short:

In addition, one provision in the Senate’s bill mandates that any state taking federal funds must put in place “College and Career Ready Aligned Standards.” Mandating that each state have aligned standards with aligned coursework will guarantee the creation of national academic standards, national curriculum, and national testing. We believe this will result in the eventual requirement that homeschoolers use these national standards, curriculum, and testing. [emphasis mine]
A few years ago when ESEA created No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Utah tried to opt-out of federal education dollars and the NCLB constraints.  The feds responded that we could go ahead and do that, but they would provide NO federal funding to the state.  That means we wouldn't lose just the education dollars, but road funds, Medicare, Medicaid, etc.  Given the above ESEA concerns, the state would be forced to forgo $5.2 Billion or "ensure", through state law, that all education venues (public, home, private) meet "College and Career Ready" standards and assessments, aka Common Core.

The other concern has to do with privacy and data collection.  As part of the stimulus bill, the US Department of Education (DOE) has required the states to create longitudinal data systems.  The idea is that your child's information is tracked from preschool through college.  This will allow for greater information for research in education.  How does this tie in to Common Core?

The Common Core standards were the vehicle to get the longitudinal database. … They want to get all these systems where they interconnect. … The data sets already exist and are coded.

To protect your child's privacy, the feds have a rule called FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act).  Currently, certain people (e.g. elected school board members administrators) can view personally identifiable information (PII) about your child.  Any data the school collects, they can have access to.  Up until this month, they did not have the right to share that information, except under very specific circumstances.  Now, this data can be shared, without your consent, to bureaucrats in other agencies or private organizations as "authorized representatives". 

Thus, for example, a school may turn over PII to DOE as part of regular procedure and not be told that DOE is disclosing that data to a research company. And if the school discovered, and objected to, the redisclosure, DOE would not even have to point to an express legal authority for its action.
Read more about these concerns here, realizing this was written prior to the adoption of these new FERPA standards. 

And just to make you even more comfortable, here's more information about data collection on students.

Under regulations the Obama Department of Education released this month, these scenarios could become reality. The department has taken a giant step toward creating a de facto national student database that will track students by their personal information from preschool through career. Although current federal law prohibits this, the department decided to ignore Congress and, in effect, rewrite the law. Student privacy and parental authority will suffer.
How did it happen? Buried within the enormous 2009 stimulus bill were provisions encouraging states to develop data systems for collecting copious information on public-school kids. To qualify for stimulus money, states had to agree to build such systems according to federally dictated standards. So all 50 states either now maintain or are capable of maintaining extensive databases on public-school students
The administration wants this data to include much more than name, address and test scores. According to the National Data Collection Model, the government should collect information on health-care history, family income and family voting status. In its view, public schools offer a golden opportunity to mine reams of data from a captive audience. [emphasis mine]
To view the pieces of information to be collected, including religious consideration and diseases, illnesses, etc. go here

The Feds are incentivizing the assessments, but do we have to adopt them?  Not yet.  Our agreement with SBAC says we will contribute to their consortium.  There is no statement of obligation to the tests, I am told.  However, in a discussion with a State Office (USOE) employee, she said there would be no reason to belong to the consortium unless we implemented Common Core now and were able to give feedback on the assessments.  Some of the State Board of Education members do not want us to adopt SBAC because of the costs and/or concerns about the content of the assessments.  They are supportive of the Common Core standards, but would like Utah to develop its own assessments.  Another USOE employee stated that the USOE/State Board will select the questions for the assessments from a database of those created by SBAC.  Also, one of our USOE employees is high up in the SBAC consortium.  The assumption is that those USOE employees will effectively screen anything that doesn't maintain Utah values from the assessments.  They say there is no need to worry, and we will always be able to back out. 

Having said that, why am I bothering to give you this information?  It's all good, and if it isn't, we can opt out at a future date.  I believe my role is to give you the information, both the positive and the negative.  The positive is already out there.  But there's always a downside.  We, the people, need to be empowered to make our own decisions and hold our elected officials accountable.  Providing only one side of the story is not sufficient.  There are pros to Common Core, but there are also cons.  You need to see both sides, make your own decisions, and then act on those decisions.

There are, at least, three entities you should contact about Common Core: the State School Board, your legislators, and the governor.

First, you need to let the State School Board know of your concerns and that you are watching the assessment process very closely.  Utah should not have signed on to a program without data (or textbooks) to back it up.  What concrete protections are they putting in place against encroachment by the Feds or even areas of concern in the standards and assessments when accepting things from other states?

Second, your legislators need to be aware of and remove (if found) any direct references to Common Core, SBAC (Smarter Balance) or standards from a consortium of states in any of the legislation that may discuss education standards or assessments.  This could be a backdoor approach for enshrining Common Core into law.  (It currently is only the policy of the State School Board; not the law of the State.)  They need to know if you favor Utah creating its own assessments.  The legislators also need to be asked about the protections they will be putting in place to prevent Federal overreach into the area of education.  Education is a state issue, not a Federal one.  We should not be willing to grant that authority to any government or organization outside of Utah.  If (or should I say, When) the Feds use their power of the purse to 'encourage' us to tow the line, we need to already have legislation in place to prevent them, other states, or outside organizations from dictating our standards, assessments, or curricula.

Third, the governor signed on to Common Core.  He needs to hear of your concerns as well.

Please know, however, it requires some digging to find this information I'm presenting.  Those who decided on this were presented only the roses of Common Core, not the thorns.

In conclusion, the Feds are paying two consortia to develop assessments.  These assessments appear to test communication and processes over actual content knowledge or skills.  Additionally, several pieces of legislation and DOE regulations could require all students to meet Common Core standards (often phrased as college- and career-ready) and take Common Core tests.  Finally, using the vehicle of Common Core, we have a nice data-collection system.  I don't believe this is what the State School Board had in mind when they adopted the Common Core standards, but this is what it has become.  We have sacrificed the principle of local and parental control on the alter of (supposed) better educational outcomes and a desire to keep up with "other states".  We will reap the rewards of less control and greater bureaucracy with no guarantee of the original outcome.  There is never a right way to do the wrong thing.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Common Core: From the Governors...No Feds Allowed

(This is the third in a series of eight on Common Core.  Click to read the introduction or the first point.)

2. Developed by the Governors: State-Led Initiative

In reading the Common Core website, I can appreciate why our State School Board and so many of our education leaders in Utah are drawn to the idea of Common Core.  Who doesn't want our kids to learn more?  On so many levels, it seems good to make sure all kids are taught specific things in each grade.  We want all Utah's children to have a quality education, regardless of school district. We also want to know Utah isn't falling behind other states.  The problem with this thought is what it opens us up to.  As Congressman (and former Utah public school teacher) Rob Bishop stated in this video on Common Core, "Ever since the Federal Government, in the mid-sixties, became heavily involved in public education, we've been consistently fighting that battle over standardization versus freedom. Freedom should be our goal."  If freedom is your goal, please read on.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending a legislative committee hearing on HB15: Computer-adaptive testing (Cost: $6.7M).  It was amended to remove a direct reference to the Common Core standards.  During the hearing, State School Board President Debra Roberts said something to the effect that Common Core was developed by the Governors' Association.  She mentioned, in brief, some of the benefits the State School Board saw.  But, she went on to say that the Federal government had gotten involved and, essentially, messed it up.  (I'm paraphrasing, but if someone wants to find the audio link, I'll post it.)  My point exactly.  This structure was created by the states for the states' own use.  However, it is perfectly created for the more powerful entity, the Federal Government, to take over and remove all semblance of local control.  This is why every presentation has to begin with "It's not a Federal Program."  To which I respond, "If you build it, they will come."

Common Core was 'developed' by the National Governors' Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). In Utah, our chief state school officer is the State Superintendent.  We are told it isn't a Federal program because the Governors all came together and decided to create these standards.  We are left with the impression of the governors hitting upon this great idea and going to work on it.  In fact, many of these ideas have been around for 20 years, waiting for an opportunity to gain traction.  The idea was presented to them, and the governors signed on.  Most of the heavy-lifting was done by other organizations, some with financial grants and some with long-term desires to implement a national education to jobs program.  (For an interesting video and research paper on some of the entities and monies involved, go here.)

First, let's address the money.  Since we don't really think the fifty governors were sitting around designing math and language arts standards, who, exactly was involved?  Well, the NGA has a separate arm called the NGA Center for Best Practices.  This organization has staff who are involved with researching, investigating, and promoting policies on behalf of the Governors' Association.  The NGA Center has several divisions of which education is only one.  When we say, "developed by the governors", we need to understand we are referring to this Center with its education-division employees.  The CCSSO is the other organization usually linked to Common Core development.  In association with the NGA and the CCSSO, however, is the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE). The NCEE provided some of the main people who spearheaded the Common Core Initiative, some of whom worked on previous standards initiatives, including the New Standards Consortium.  So, this is the main group behind Common Core standards. 

These Common Core developers, interestingly enough, each received grants from the Gates Foundation to develop and implement Common Core.

Here are the amounts, as per the Gates Foundation website, of years and grants to each of the above organizations.

CCSSO: 2009--$9,961,842, 2009--$3,185,750, 2010--$743,331, 2011--$9,388,911
NGA Center: 2008--$2,259,780
NCEE: 2009--$1,500,000
Total: $27,000,000

In fact, quite a few entities have received Gates Foundation money to develop, implement, and provide support for Common Core. Please see the pdf link here. (I have gone through the pdf download, and checked the Gates Foundation website. Some of the links listed are no longer valid, and some of the grants have been combined. It took some digging, but I was able to find links on the Gates Foundation website for all of the entities listed, with roughly equal or larger donation amounts, as in the diagram. I encourage you to do your own research on this, as well.) For an interesting list, you should search the grants from http://www.gatesfoundation.org/ and limit your search to College-ready education (US) and 2009 or prior.  Not all of these are directly related to Common Core (as far as I can tell), but many of them are.  2009 is when the Common Core-related grants begin.  It is fascinating to see how much money and to whom it was donated. 

Additionally, the major textbook publisher, Pearson Publishing, has received $2,999,047 from the Gates Foundation to create materials for the Common Core. Not inconsequentially, Pearson recently acquired America's Choice, a subsidiary of the NCEE.  I'm not saying that the money is bad or the Gates Foundation money is problematic, I just think we need to be aware of the money behind this initiative. Money talks and we need to understand its influence.  It isn't as simple as saying the governors of the fifty states got together and came up with this great idea called Common Core.

So, who spearheaded this initiative?  Marc Tucker is the president of NCEE and helped establish America's Choice, now part of Pearson Publishing.  Mr. Tucker has been very involved in standards-based education over the last 20 or so years.  He is very interested in cradle-to-grave education leading to careers (as he calls it human resources development) overseen by the government. He started the New Standards Consortium (that sounds vaguely like Common Core) in the nineties.  Here are some quotes from a letter read into the Congressional record by Congressman Bob Shaffer on Sept, 17, 1998. Although the letter is addressed to Hillary Clinton, the concepts appear to be the same ideas that motivated Mr. Tucker and the NCEE in their Common Core Initiative.

We think the great opportunity you have is to remold the entire American System for human resources development...

First, a vision of the kind of national—not federal—human resources development system the nation could have. This is interwoven with a new approach to governing that should inform that vision. What is essential is that we create a seamless web of opportunities, to develop one’s skills that literally extends from cradle to grave and is the same system for everyone—young and old, poor and rich, worker and full-time student....

Radical changes in attitudes, values and beliefs are required to move any combination of these agendas. The federal government will have little direct leverage on many of the actors involved. For much of what must be done a new, broad consensus will be required. What role can the new administration play in forging that consensus and how should it go about doing it? At the narrowest level, the agenda cannot be moved unless there is agreement among the governors, the President and the Congress. [emphasis mine]

To read the entire letter in the Congressional Record, go to page E1819, lower right corner here

I mention this information to provide context for the Common Core Standards.  Mr. Tucker has been advocating standards-based and outcome-based education for over 20 years.  His group has created other off-shoot groups that have become involved in many aspects of the education establishment, and currently Common Core.  Remember, his goal appears to be the government perfectly managing the education and human resources system of our nation.  This is not just about better math standards. 

I understand how, given the basic information of the governors developing Common Core, higher standards, greater accountability, and better assessments, our good representatives on the State Board and across our state (and nation) could see a bright educational future for our children.  I don't doubt that the original concept of Common Core was a noble idea.  However, Americans have always seen education as the responsibility of the families.  Local schools exist to support and assist the families in this endeavor. The state's traditional (pre-1984) responsibility was to aid the parents and local schools in that local effort.  We have gradually switched focus from a local approach to ceding our responsibility to "experts" successively farther and farther away from our local families.  We justify it in the name of outcome.  But we have not seen good fruits from those distant laborers.  Common Core, whatever its intentions, has become the ultimate top-down approach.  Unfortunately, the more power you give away, the less you retain for yourself.  In signing on to Common Core, we were shown only the idea of a state-led initiative, without realizing all the forces behind it.  If you build the Common Core standards and assessments in 47 states, the Feds WILL come...and, in fact, they already have.  Utah needs to opt-out before it becomes too difficult to do so.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Common Core is NOT a Federal Program...technically

(This is the first point of several blogs about my research into Common Core.  To read the introduction, click here.)

UPDATE: In August 2012, Utah sent a request to SBAC to exit the testing consortium.  The SBAC agreement states that the US Dept of Ed must give their permission for this exit.  To date, I have received no information that this permission has been granted.  Utah is now signed up with AIR to do testing, beginning in 2014.

1. Federal Control:

At every presentation on Common Core I've attended, the first thing the presenter says is, "There are a lot of myths about Common Core.  The first thing you need to know is that Common Core is NOT a Federal Program".  Common Core was not developed as a federal program.  I realize that.  I am more concerned about what it will develop INTO, and not who did what at the outset.  We are placing a noose around ourselves that will enable the Federal Government to exercise extensive control over our education.  We are lulled by the promise of better education, higher test scores, and more competition in a global marketplace.  But we are blind to the power that will remove whatever vestiges of local control we still have.  Even if this is a wonderful set of standards, setting ourselves up for greater Federal control is a mistake.

Technically, the US Department of Education did not develop the Common Core Standards. However, with 45+ states involved, it IS a national program. From the Common Core website: (Note: The website has been redesigned and less information about federal involvement is listed.  Here is a link to an archived copy of what used to be there. Search on about May 3, 2012.)

Q: What is the role of the federal government in standards implementation?

A: The federal government has had no role in the development of the common core state standards and will not have a role in their implementation.

However, the federal government will have the opportunity to support states as they begin adopting the standards. For example, the federal government can

  • Support this effort through a range of tiered incentives, such as providing states with greater flexibility in the use of existing federal funds, supporting a revised state accountability structure, and offering financial support for states to implement the standards.
  • Provide long-term financial support for the development and implementation of common assessments, teacher and principal professional development, and research to help continually improve the common core state standards over time.
  •  Revise and align existing federal education laws with the lessons learned from the best of what works in other nations and from research. [emphasis mine]

Nope.  Not a Federal program, right? So, the Feds control the purse strings AND the legislation. They can 'encourage' any way they see fit. Currently, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has indicated that states will be granted waivers from meeting the current No Child Left Behind (NCLB) standards, if they are "transitioning students, teachers, and schools to a system aligned with college- and career-ready standards for all students," read Common Core. One article indicated that they must adopt, not only the standards, but also the full complement of assessments, as well. Glad we're not talking about a Federal program.

The two assessment consortia, Smarter Balance (SBAC) and PARCC, split a grant of $330,000,000 from the US Department of Education to create the assessments.  (You can read my original blog on the assessments here.) Once the assessments are in place, the curriculum will follow.  The assessments are not just the end-of-the-year tests, but also "formative" tests.  These would include intermediate tests along the way to help teachers evaluate their students' on-going progress.  So, it's not enough we have to pass the state-mandated, federally-funded, end-of-the-year tests, but we get those chapter tests in between. 

Additionally, it isn't hard to imagine how the Federal Government could use standards and the results of national (because that's what they are) assessments to reward or punish states and schools.  As the FAQ says, the Federal Government will be able to "revise and align existing federal education law" as well as being able to "help...improve the common core state standards over time."  The Feds didn't develop the standards, but they will help improve them. 

Utah is aligned with SBAC, whose head researcher, Linda Darling-Hammond, was rumored to be on the short list for US Secretary of Education or deputy Secretary of Education. In February, 2009, she declined, saying, "I wanted to let you know that several things have converged in the last two weeks to persuade me to stay in California and support the President's agenda from here."  She stated there was a new Policy Center opportunity "that will examine a variety of education redesign issues, including standards and assessments".  As the head researcher for the SBAC assessment consortium, it isn't hard to infer that those "standards and assessments" were referencing Common Core.  I'm sure the assessments will "support the President's agenda".

Also, the Obama Administration implemented the Race to the Top (RTTT) Program.  Originally, Secretary Arne Duncan made adoption of the Common Core a requirement for RTTT applications.  As things went along, it wasn't a requirement for application, but those states that adopted Common Core got more points for "adopting common standards" and "developing and implementing high-quality assessments".  Utah adopted Common Core, which allowed us to hedge our bets on RTTT funding.  It didn't pay off. 

So yes, technically, the Common Core is not a Federal program.  Legally, it can't be because the US Department of Education is prohibited, by law, from directing, supervising or controlling curriculum or selection of content, textbooks, etc.  (I think we know why Ms. Darling-Hammond felt the assessment consortia would accomplish the President's agenda better than the US Department of Ed.) It begs the question, where there's funding, how can there not be direction?  If RTTT "prefers" states and issues waivers to those who adopt Common Core, is that not implicit direction and control? 

Common Core is not a Federal program.  But the US Department of Education is very heavily invested in making sure as many of the states implement Common Core as possible.  They will use every incentive, both legislative and monetary, to "encourage" us to adopt and implement it.  If Common Core were as wonderful as everyone thinks it is, why would you need to bribe states to adopt it?  Over a short amount of time, wouldn't we naturally gravitate to what works, without government coercion? 

It also seems strange to me that there are no pilot implementations.  Why not have a few districts try it, test it, revise it, and let the rest of us learn from them?  Why is it that all these states had to implement within one or two years?  The textbook publishers are scrambling to keep up.  The assessments won't be done till 2014.  Why must we all hurry and jump on this bandwagon? What is the harm in waiting and watching how it goes in other states and districts?  Normally, a major change that incurs this level of expense should be discussed at the district-level, reviewed by the SCC's, tested in a few schools, and then rolled out.  This massive expenditure was mandated without any real, public input in Utah.  Upon inquiring who, locally, had been involved in the 'extensive parental and teacher input', I was told, if it had been a Utah-based initiative, we would have had more local involvement.  Instead, many parents and educators throughout the nation had input.  Glad to hear my responsibility for my child's education has been co-opted by 'other parents and educators, nationally'.  No public hearings, no pilot programs, no textbooks, no assessments.  But we do have Federal grants, Federal financial incentives, and Federal legislation.

A few weeks ago, I attended a class on "The Utah Core".  The presenter from the State Office of Education told me, when I asked about data to support the Common Core, there wasn't any because it wasn't fully implemented anywhere.  She did have anecdotal data from one teacher, however.  If I proposed this kind of leap-before-you-look adventure in business, based solely on the "expert opinion" of others but no pilot program, no hard data, it wouldn't even be considered.  For those of you interested in a good, but long, read (originally published by the American Association of School Administrators) on the lack of data, click here.

"Where is the evidence to support the rhetoric surrounding the CCSS? This is not data-driven decision making. This is a decision grasping for data.
The evidence offered by the NGA and CCSSO to make the case for a cause and effect relationship, or any significant relationship for that matter, between test result ranking, economics, and the need for national curriculum standards (and eventually national testing) amounts to nothing more than snake oil.
Yet this nation will base the future of its entire public education system, and its children, upon this lack of evidence."

Thomas Jefferson said, "The way to have good and safe government is not to trust it all to one, but to divide it among the many, distributing to every one exactly the functions he is competent to perform best." (Letter to Joseph Cabell, 2/2/1816)  Either we, as individual districts or states, after 230 years of local control, are incompetent to the education of our children or this is not the way to have good and safe government...for we are trusting it all to one.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Who Decides What Your Child Should Learn?

Education is taking a radical turn from where it has been over the last century.  In the name of better standards and increased rigor, the relationship parents have to their child's education will forever be obstructed and second-guessed.  This was all done without your knowledge and your consent.  It was done, in most cases, by well-intentioned people who believe they have the best interests of your child at heart.  You need to know how Common Core changes your ability to influence your child's education, the overall educational establishment, and where you stand.  If this change is, in your opinion, the best option at this point in time, then, having made an informed decision, I'd recommend sending thank you letters to those who decided on this course of action for you (the governor, the State Superintendent, the state board of education, Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, the NEA, etc.).  If you disagree with what is happening, like me, then you need to take action.   But either way, we, the people, need to be informed as to how Common Core came to be, the pros and cons, and what, if anything, should be done about it.  We are at a crossroads in American education.  Will posterity praise us for our foresight or curse us for our slumber?

Once upon a time, parents were in charge of their own child's education.  They were involved in selecting the teacher and the curriculum.  Even when public education first came on the scene in the mid-1800's, parents were still highly involved in what would be taught to their child.  Thomas Jefferson, who advocated a very basic education (reading and some math) for all, said the schools should be managed by "the parents in each ward [district]", not a government entity.  The reason for this management, said Jefferson, was "to have good and safe government...[by] not trust[ing] it all to one."  The school board is supposed to be the 'local control', but how much input have you had on Common Core?  How much input has your local school board had in deciding to adopt Common Core?  The answer is none.  It was handed down from the State Office, and we will be implementing it.  The School Community Councils (SCC) will be selecting the math curriculum from a set of curricula designated by the district and the state.  There is no current process  for parents to influence the Language Arts component.  You are not managing your child's education.  Your community is not.  Your teachers are not.  Your local school board is not.  And, now, having made this decision, the State School Board is not.

As a parent, the responsibility for educating your child, lies with you.  How much control should you be willing to give away?  And at what price?

Parental control of education is a principle that dates back to the first American colonists.  In Utah County, we have a culture that values education but places parental responsibility for that education first and foremost.  Common Core changes the fundamental relationship between the parent and their child's education.  Under the Common Core standards, should you wish to change an aspect of the core, you must get the parents, not just of your school, your district, or even your state to band together to lobby for a change.  You must get a majority of parents in 44+ states to put pressure on unelected individuals in a private organization to change those standards.  You must also get the Federal Government to go along with it, since they are funding and legislating based on that core. 

"The Common Core train is already on the track," you say.  I have been asked if it is possible to change it.  There are options from the local implementation all the way up to the state legislature.  (Oklahoma adopted Common Core and there is a push in their state legislature to rescind it.  Utah could do the same thing.)  The most common question people ask is, "Isn't it too late to change it?"  Is it ever too late to do the right thing?

I will publish a blog on each of the following items every day this week.  However, here are the claims about Common Core and my rebuttal.

It's NOT a Federal Program...technically speaking!
Here is what Common Core (now renamed in our state "Utah State Core" due to "concerns" about the word "common") is and is not, according to proponents.

1. It is not a Federal program.  I say, it is a national program.  More than forty-four states is national.  The tests are funded by the US Department of Education.  The Federal Government can 'incentivize' adoption of the standards and assessments.

2. It was developed by the governors of the fifty states; it's really a grassroots, state initiative.  The National Governor's Association provides the appearance of a state-led initiative.  However, those fifty governors didn't create the standards.  Big names and big money in the education establishment have been pushing for some type of national, not federal, standards for nearly twenty years.  The governors' signing on just gave legitimacy to their efforts. 

3. It does not determine assessment testing. The US Department of Ed is funding the assessments and "encouraging" states to adopt those assessments.  One of the advantages promoted by Common Core advocates is the standardized testing that will result.  We will be able to compare Utah against nearly every other state in the union.

4. It does not determine curriculum. I say it will.  Assessments drive curriculum.  Teachers will only be able to choose their curricula and other materials from among those things that have been shown to improve test scores, and hence, are approved for Common Core.

5. It is voluntary. If I make you an offer you can't refuse, is it voluntary?

6. The standards are more rigorous.  It depends on what state you're in.  In Utah, the math standards are rated the same (A-minus for both).  Also, who or what defines rigorous?

7. It will not take away local control. If the control over the standards, the assessments, the funding, and (if we implement more merit pay) the teachers isn't removing local control, I don't know what is.  We need to understand that every expansion of centralized education is done at the expense of local and parental control.  How can it be otherwise?

So, you see a discrepancy.  You may wonder how can I make the claims I do when the really smart people, with all the letters after their names pushing Common Core, claim the exact opposite.  I'm glad you asked.

Stay tuned for a new blog on each of these subjects every day this week.  If you read nothing else on my blog for the next three years, please read and understand this information on Common Core.  Share it with everyone in your neighborhood, your church, your family, and pretty much anywhere else in the nation.  Become informed and then take action, either in support of it, or against it.  This is too important an issue for you to passively accept what others have decided on your behalf is in the best interests of YOUR child.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Claims: Board Meeting Jan. 10, 2012

In this blog:
Claims and the 1/10/12 board meeting review
Mountain Ridge SCC: Math Meeting: Update: Math Meeting now tentatively scheduled for March 29
Board priorities from the 1/6/12 retreat: The direction we are going this year
Links to legislation on claims and an example of a claim.

Jan. 10, 2012 Board Meeting: Claims
There was no study session this week, and the board meeting was very short.  The only non-standard issue was a concern I raised about how we approve claims. 

Approval, to me, indicates I have thoroughly reviewed, understood, and agree with whatever the motion is.  So, in the case of the claims, my voting to approve would indicate I have given my consent and agreement to every expenditure on your behalf.  To read my post from last year on the claims, please go here.  After that post and subsequent discussions with the superintedent, I have been abstaining from the claims vote. 

For a district, the size of Alpine, thorough review of the claims is all but impossible.  The claims for the previous month are placed on the website about three or four days prior to the business board meeting.  There are roughly 400 pages containing about fifteen transactions per page.  Even if there were enough information on each line item to indicate the exact purpose and description of each item, it would be daunting to go through all 6000 transactions in that amount of time. 

Instead, the board has approved policies and procedures, specifying who can approve which purchases and for what amounts.  See the manual here.  We have internal and external auditors who verify these procedures are being followed, according to common auditing standards.  So, unless something meets the threshhold of needing specific board approval, everything in the claims has already been budgeted, approved, and paid for under our current guidelines.

My fellow board members do not see a conflict in voting for approval.  They have stated the guidelines are being followed.  We hire good people, and we trust them to follow those procedures.  I concur, all except for the approval part.  If the motion were to approve our procedures every month, I could vote yes.  If the motion were to trust our current administrators to follow those procedures, I could vote yes.  But, the vote is to approve the expenditures.  I cannot approve of something on your behalf without sufficient information for that approval. 

This week, I informed our board president, I would be voting no on the claims from this point forward.  I, then, requested we find a way of handling the claims to accurately reflect, not detailed, individual board approval, but rather the actual process of accepting the report of the business administrator or some system of placing the information into the public record.  (If you are interested, I have listed the links to the applicable legislation below.)  In short, I have not found a reason why the claims need formal approval.  The board will address this issue in a study session.  But in the meantime, I will vote no on the claims, and you will understand why.

Mountain Ridge SCC: Math Meeting
I attended the Mountain Ridge SCC where the Common Core Math process was discussed.  The current plan is to hold a parent meeting on March 29 (orignally said: March 22, updated 1/19/12) at 7pm to discuss Common Core, the options for the math curriculum, as well as, to give the parents information on which curriculum the SCC is selecting/has selected.  Most of the SCC members were intent on having textbooks for the curriculum, providing they were happy with one of the options selected by the district committee.  Having textbooks is an important thing for many parents at MRJH.  Also, the SCC created a PR committee for the purpose of getting the parents involved in this decision.  If you have reports on math/Common Core information from other SCC's, I'd be happy to share them.  I want to make sure this information gets out to as many parents as possible.  It is a fast timeline, and we don't want people who are interested to not be involved. 

Board Priorities
In my previous post, I outlined our procedure for defining the board priorities for the upcoming year.  Here is the official, prioritized list from the Jan. 6, 2012 meeting, as rated by the board, the superintendent, and the business administrator.
  1. Support the list of Superintendent and Cabinet Focus items for the next 6-12 months
  2. Continue to recruit quality teachers and administrators and retain them. Mentor and train leadership
  3. Filter out low-performing teachers and administrators
  4. Address class-size issue (especially elementary and possibly subject)
  5. Increase the use of technology in instruction
  6. Have plan to reduce debt
  7. Recognize "super stars"
  8. Achieve Master Boards Award from the Utah School Boards Association
  9. Find ways for the average person to become more aware of the role SCC's play in getting public feedback
  10. Find alternative ways to involve parents in the actual education
  11. Increase incentive pay
  12. Find ways for the committees to be more effective
  13. Allow the student body to directly elect the student body officers

Claims Example and Links to Legislation
Here's an example from Dec. 2011 claims:
AMS Products $440.32 Desc: WO 45309/AMS.  It's billed to the General Fund, Materials and Supplies, District, Support Services.  

1) The Business Administrator is required to present the claims information to the board each month. 
2) The monthly budget report must be presented to the board by state law, as well.  We also approve this each month.  I'm not sure formal approval for it is necessary either. 
3) Claims must be itemized
4) Board may approve identified purchases within the budget.  Anything else must be specifically approved by the board.  This last item, after discussion with some legislators, seems to indicate the board may set a policy that all amounts in the budget over, say $10,000, must come to the board.  Other than that, if it's within the budget, we give the administration authority to purchase whatever is necessary.  Outside of the budget, requires specific board approval.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Happy 2012: Where Are We Going This Year?

In this blog:
Math Committee for Common Core (Hint: School Community Councils)
Review of Board Training
Agenda for Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012.

Math Committee for Common Core Curriculum
The district has established a math committee to review curriculum for the Common Core. We will be implementing grades 6 -8 (some 9) this Fall. Those currently in 9 - 12, will continue with the current standards throughout their high school careers. The rest of the grades will implement in 2013. There are members of the district community council (Bruce Armstrong, Kim Paulson, and Melanie Westcott, among others), teachers, and staff that will be on this committee. Sometime before April 15, when textbooks need to be ordered, the math committee will make several recommendations. Then, the School Community Councils (SCC's) will decide on the curriculum their school will use. There will be school community council meetings where this information will be presented to the parents and the community at large.

In short, you need to get involved with the district community council members on the district committee, as well as make sure your views are reflected in your local school's community council. If you have an opinion, this is the point you get to provide feedback, and it is done via the SCC's.

I would appreciate information about the school community council meetings in your school (dates/times, etc), and would be happy to post any and all information on this blog, as well as Facebook. This is being done at a local level, so you must be the one to attend school community council. All SCC's are public meetings and open to everyone. The SCC's, in theory, should print their meeting notices on the Utah Public Notice website.

Board Training
The board met for our semi-annual board retreat/training.  We reviewed the board handbook and processes, and then set priorities for the coming year for the district staff.  This may sound boring, but this is the meeting where the board provides formal, overall direction to the administration and staff.

Every year, the board creates a list of Basket Items to give specific direction to the staff about our priorities for the district overall.  Each board member takes a turn, lists a priority, and then it is discussed.  After that, each board member, the superintendent, and the business administrator assign a priority to each item (1 -5, 5 being the highest priority).  The top five or six priorities are those that will be worked on.  The others will be done, if there are sufficient resources.

I suggested:

1) Put a plan in place to reduce our debt, so that when we bond next time, the bond amount will be less and our overall debt is less--not just reduced by the required amount of principal.  Some options presented were:
  • Create a fund where money is saved for future building needs and/or to reduce debt by paying some debt off sooner
  • Limit the amount of bonding to maybe just a high school next time, or to a specific, lesser amount. 
  • Instead of reducing some of the taxes that naturally go down as debt is paid off, go through a truth in taxation hearing every year to maintain the level of taxation to either pay off more of the debt or to fund additional buildings directly, instead of through debt.

2) Make sure we are emphasizing the role of the School Community Councils (SCC) as the "vehicle" through which the board requests feedback from the local community. The board currently receives feedback on everything from the bond, the math curriculum to the mission, visions, values and goals through School Community Council and PTA meetings.  During the bond process, every school's SCC/PTA received a presentation about the bond.  This was also one way for the public to indicate which projects they wanted to see included, to comment on the amount of the bond and the taxing implications, etc.  The SCC's will be used this spring to decide on a math curriculum to accommodate the new Common Core standards and assessments that the State Board of Education has imposed on each school district in Utah.  See the above section on the Math Committee.

3) Find ways to involve parents more in the actual education of their child.  I believe we have a large, untapped and very beneficial resource in having parents involved, directly, in their child's education.  This would require some thinking out of the box because we have been accustomed, for nearly 100 years, of sending our kids to school, and just making sure they do their homework.  Being able to use technology to customize the education for each child would allow parents the opportunity to be more involved in seeing and experiencing what their child is learning.  We know that parental involvement is the leading indicator of a child's academic success.  Unfortunately, we justify leaving this aside because "some parents can't or won't be involved".  As I've mentioned previously, there is no reason to penalize those families where the parents can be involved because some parents can't.  Why not focus, instead, on what we can do in those situations where parents do want to be more involved.  For myself, I'd be happy to mentor and oversee more of my children's work, alleviating that responsibility from the teachers, and freeing them up to accommodate more students or more involved learning/mentoring, etc.

One item that received quite a lot of discussion was reducing class sizes.  Everyone is in favor of this. However, to reduce class size by a single student across the board would cost $3.2M in on-going expenses.  Some teachers and parents prefer having aids to reduce the adult to student ratio, but leaving a larger class.  Targeted reductions (e.g. K-3 grades) were also discussed. A proposed bill that will be going through the legislature will limit class sizes.  ASD's impact would be $20M plus 10 new schools, to accommodate the new class size mandate, if passed.  One of the options we are using is the extended day in elementary schools, where the teacher only has half the class in the morning for reading and the other half in the afternoon.  That allows a smaller class size with limited resources, but targeted to the most important skills.

Another issue was incentive pay and recognizing "super stars" in our teachers.  There are two schools of thought on the incentive pay.  Currently, ASD rewards teacher teams (e.g. the 3rd grade at one school or the Math Dept. at another school) with incentive pay.  Alpine Foundation rewards individual teachers, but, starting this year, will also recognize one outstanding teacher team.  The concern about rewarding individuals for their work is it might limit teachers' desire to collaborate in our Professional Learning Communities (PLC's).  So, the desire is to reward an effective team for their collaboration.  The difficulty is by not rewarding (either monetarily or by some sort of recognition) truly outstanding performers, you are either ignoring those people or rewarding them along with those they are bringing along.  In short, you are rewarding non-performers for being part of a high-performing team.  The other concern brought up was who should decide.  Logically, the principals would decide, but like any organization, administration has its favorites.  It is an imperfect system.  Still, I would favor rewarding individuals for high performance, and that high performance would also include collaborating with and mentoring their fellow teachers.  I am uncomfortable with the idea of mandating a group reward, over individual recognition. 

Here is the list of basket items (in the order they were suggested), and the first two--according to memory--are the ones that took top priority.  I will post the actual priority when I receive it.
  • Continue to recruit quality teachers and administrators and retain them.  Mentor and train in leadership.
  • Support the list of Superintendent and Cabinet focus areas for the next 6-12 months*
  • Address class size issue (especially elementary and possibly by subject)
  • Increase incentive pay
  • Have plan to reduce debt
  • Recognize "super stars"
  • Filter out low-performing teachers and administrators
  • Achieve Master Boards Award (new award presented by the Utah School Boards Association)
  • Allow the student body to elect the student body officers
  • Increase the use of technology instruction
  • Find ways for the average person to become more aware of the role SCC's play in getting public feedback
  • Find ways for the committees to be more effective
  • Find alternative ways to involve parents in the actual education
Superintendent and Cabinet Focus Areas for Jan - July/Dec. 2012 (Italicized indicate the Areas of Focus)
1. Gifted and Talented program shift -- Question four (what we do if they already know it), ALL classes, Gifted classes (Student Achievement)
2. Language Immersion classes-Expansion (Chinese and Portuguese) (Comprehensive Curriculum)
3. Utah Core (Common Core) training and implementation for Math and Language Arts. (Hold community meetings at the school level this spring to educate parents and patrons.)  Train principals to engage the public in Utah Core implementation. (Teacher Quality)
4. Math committee at district level to review materials and recommend list for school selection. {Community Relations and Resources)
5. Training of Collaboration Team Leaders (CTL's) to continue support of PLC process with a focus on the four essential questions to improve Student Learning. (Leadership, Quality Teaching, & Student Achievement)
6. Refocus of East Shore High School.  (Comp. Curriculum and Student Achievement)
7. Expansion of online school and options (K-12). (Comprehensive Curriculum)
8. Extended year school (credit recovery at local high school during the year and at East Shore during the summer). (Student Achievement)
9. Evaluate program effectiveness -Using Hanover Research and BYU/Partnership to evaluate (double dosing, PLC's, summer collaboration, effective instructional techniques, etc.) (Teacher Quality)
10. Transition of AS400 System to new financial program - Review and focus technology to support student learning.  Unlock more features of Skyward. (Resources and Student Achievement)
11. Administrative appoints for July of 2012 (New Junior High, Diversity Specialist, Online School) (Leadership)
12. Facilities plan for expansion of Dream School, Summit, ATEC, Food Services, Media, Bus Garage, Technology and Maintenance. (Resources)
13. Bond implementation and purchase of additional land for schools - Plans for new high school design. (Resources and Community Relations)
14. Review the location formula for the distribution of ASD resources - new schools vs. Title 1 schools vs. schools in the middle. (Resources)
15. Keep Employee Morale High / Negotiation Process. (School and District Culture)

Board Handbook and Processes
The board has a handbook, outlining our processes and responsibilities.  Included in this is our Code of Conduct.  I have updated the Code of Conduct page on this blog to reflect the changes that were made at last year's meeting.  No changes were made this year. 

Some discussion took place on our collaborative governance model.  I asked for clarification on what other governance models there were and how they would differ from our current one.  The main difference was board members are invited to be on committees that the administration would have with or without our involvement, e.g. curriculum, technology, PR.  In the past, decisions were made that the board was unaware of (including Investigations Math).  This governance model allows for more involvement between the board and the administration than a traditional model.  The only difficulty I have with it, is the lines are sometimes too blurred.  It can be difficult to know when we are being provided information, just so we know, and when the information will come back later, like in the budget, for formal approval.  If there is not sufficient discussion because we don't want to micromanage, it may be assumed we are in agreement.  One of the board members said that over time these things would become clear to those of us who are still new. 

Another discussion involved the committees.  (See above for our role in the committees.)  The board members report on their committee meetings during the formal board meeting.  However, some have felt the committees aren't very effective.  Also, sometimes, the board presentation is almost the same as that made in the committee meeting.  In the interest of streamlining and to provide information to all board members, we will be receiving agendas for these committees in advance.  This will allow other board members to convey their thoughts to committee members prior to the discussion.  The committees are for the staff and the board to vet ideas before being presented to the full board for discussion and possible implementation. 

 We also discussed some tweaking on the superintendent and business administrator evaluations process.  The Board Handbook says in March the board selects an evaluation instrument.  Then, in April, that tool is used to evaluate the Superintendent.  My emphasis was on selecting the evaluation instrument at the time the superintendent or the business administrator is appointed, and that tool should be in effect, unless formally modified by both parties, until the subsequent evaluation (two years later).  I was told the instrument had, in fact, been selected, and the four new board members would be provided with this information. 

Jan. 10, 2012 Board Meeting Agenda
There will not be a study session prior to the regular board meeting.

575 NORTH 100 EAST

6:00 P.M.






1. Budget Report

2. Personnel Reports

3. Alpine Foundation Report

4. Student Releases - JB, CC, EH, BH, AH



5. Student Expulsion - JH


1. Membership Report