Common Core State Standards (CCSS)

The False Arguments of Carol Burris Against High Standards

When you can’t make an honest case against something, there is always rhetoric, exaggeration or falsehoods, but it’s disheartening when it comes from an award-winning principal and educator like Carol Burris. In a piece that appeared on Valerie’s Strauss’ Answer Sheet blog opposing the Common Core State Standards, Burris says a number of things that are plainly misleading or wrong. For example, she insists against all evidence that states cannot adapt or revise the standards. They can and they have. Over the past year Tennessee’s Board added in expectations to the ELA writing standards, Florida went through a statewide public process to get feedback on the standards and ended up making dozens of  changes to the Common Core standards, which the department now refers to as “ Florida Standards.” Other states that have made changes to standards include Massachusetts, Arizona, Colorado, New York, California and New Mexico. Burris says that the standards will dictate curriculum but teachers all across America say otherwise. From Connecticut to Ohio to California, countless educators are on record describing the flexibility, opportunity and innovation that Common Core allows in their classrooms. A few teachers have directly responded to Burris on this point — see posts by Erin Dukeshire and Maricela Montoy-Wilson on our blog. While curriculum experts like Bill Schmidt of Michigan State have concluded that Common Core math standards are similar to the highest achieving nations and more coherent than most of the state standards they replaced, Burris insists there is no research behind them and they are not internationally benchmarked. I leave it to the people at Fordham to follow up with further evidence. She also resorts to the tiresome tactic of attributing false claims around closing achievement gaps to advocates of Common Core so she can shoot them down. We all know that standards by themselves are simply learning goals. Great instruction from dedicated, caring teachers is the only thing that will close the achievement gap, and thanks to their hard work, we are making progress. Massachusetts, which adopted high standards years ago, is getting better results among at-risk students than states with low standards. For example, in 2013 (the most recent NAEP data) African American students in Massachusetts scored 277 on the 8th grade NAEP mathematics assessment, 14 scale score points above the national average for African Americans. Conversely, in Mississippi, with lower standards and simpler tests, African American students only score 255, the fifth lowest score in the country. More recently, black and Latino students in NYC gained the most of any subgroup on new tests aligned with higher standards. Burris also points to the Mass Insight Education report on Massachusetts as evidence that standards based accountability hasn’t closed the achievement gap and therefore we should change course. In fact, the report concludes that, thanks to standards-based accountability, “Our top students are among the best in the country – and are holding their own internationally.” It further argues for multiple measures of accountability to ensure that students, especially minority and high need students are prepared for college. It certainly does not argue for reversing course. Burris also sets up a false choice suggesting that advocates of standards are somehow ignoring, “The problems of racially isolated schools, inequitable funding, and insufficient academic and socio-emotional resources in high poverty schools.” Again, not true at all. We all acknowledge these challenges and numerous reformers at every level of government as well as in the non-profit sector support countless efforts to address them, from expanded health care to initiatives that link social services to schools. The case for raising standards is clear. For years, many states and districts have been masking achievement gaps with low standards only to send young people off to college where 60% of all students and 75% of two-year college students  have to take remedial classes. Periodic international tests show that we are falling behind more and more countries and employers will tell you that young people coming out of college need better math, writing and thinking skills if they want the good jobs of the future. When all else fails, opponents of high standards, simply default to politically-driven rhetoric describing them as “national” standards, a “nationalized test” and a “standardized curriculum.” The goal of this kind of talk is to create fear and confusion among the public and defies the fundamental fact that the standards were created and adopted by states, and remain one hundred percent voluntary. If states don’t want them, they can drop them. If they want to change them, they can. And if they don’t want to use the new tests being created by the states, they don’t have to. The most inexcusable aspect of Burris’s argument is that she offers no constructive ideas for actually improving schools, when the American public is clearly looking for solutions. If her real complaint is, as she says, “botched implementation,” then why isn’t she focused on addressing that rather than retreating? Americans are losing confidence in public education, disheartened by the resistance to common sense changes and turned off by the toxic rhetoric. When it comes to the quality of the public debate, we all need to meet a higher standard.
UPDATE: Ann Whalen responds to many of the comments below in a follow-up post, Let’s Get to Core of Debate on Standards, Waivers.
Ann Whalen
Ann Whalen is senior advisor to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Prior to returning to the U.S. Department of Education, she served as the director of policy for Education Post. Whalen has served more than five years in the Obama Administration with the U.S. Department of Education. At the department, Ann was director of the Implementation and Support Unit, providing technical assistance to ...

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