(Editor's note: Patch columnist Jerry Heverly is an English teacher at San Leandro High.)
A report in US News & World Report this week says that the general public does not know about the coming new thing in American public education: the Common Core.
Since the CCSS (Common Core State Standards) may cost you money, I thought I should try to introduce you to what’s coming. But to explain CCSS I must first spend one column show reviewing recent developments.
This process started in 2001.
That's when George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy devised something called No Child Left Behind (NCLB) during Bush’s first term. (Yes, I know: other people were involved.)
Their argument was that the federal government had an obligation to force the various state education bureaucracies to improve education, by consistently and repeatedly measuring what kids were learning (annual tests). They wanted each state to reward improving schools that “demonstrated improvement” and punish those that weren’t making, in the words of the bill “Annual Yearly Progress (AYP).”
This year’s sixth graders should score higher than last year’s, for instance. Same for the other grades. And within each grade the policy insisted that subgroups like African-Americans and English Language Learners be monitored independently so that schools couldn’t rig the results by focusing on some students while ignoring the rest.
To avoid federal control of education, everything was dumped in the laps of the states. They were supposed to decide what a passing score was and what was to be taught.
Making schools accountable was one major goal of NCLB. Timetables were established to give schools a few years to improve, but if they didn’t do so there were prescribed consequences. If a school’s AYP didn’t go up for two consecutive years, for instance, a parent could transfer his or her child to another, presumably more successful, school in the same district.
The real meat of the consequences came in the fourth year. If scores didn’t improve for four consecutive years the law allowed for mass firings of staff, longer school days and other changes.
And all subgroups had to improve. So even if a school’s AYP was satisfactory on the whole, it still had to have every subgroup moving upwards or the state had the right to come in and reorder the entire school.
After six years of non-improvement a school could be closed down and replaced by a state-run school, a charter school, or some other fix.
The most formidable challenge of NCLB was its stipulation that by 2014 every child in the school had to be testing at grade level in math and reading.
You won’t be surprised to learn that the numbers that were being generated by NCLB were controversial—and that not everyone agreed on what they meant.
Did states set the bar too low to make themselves look good?
How widespread was cheating?
Some schools were showing startling improvement by devoting months of instruction to test preparation. Was this a good thing?
Did higher scores really mean that a school was improving?
What was clear was that a Judgment Day was approaching. A decade of NCLB showed that in 2014 there were going to be a whole lot of schools listed as failing, even in the wealthy suburban districts that had heretofore escaped any NCLB sanctions.
Congress made some efforts to modify the law, but the two sides had a fundamental disagreement that couldn’t be bridged: if schools are failing they should be held accountable—but the number of failing schools was about to swamp the system. If the penalties were removed or watered down that would probably negate the purpose of the law.
This was the situation that faced the incoming Obama administration.
In my column next Thursday, I’ll tell you what’s been going on lately.
(You can read more essays like this in the archives of Entirely Secondary.)