This is the second in a series of articles, editorials and op-ed pieces that examine Chicago Public Schools and the challenges that both parents and children face, in light of school closings, and dismal test scores. Today, we look at the Common Core Standards, and how controversy and politics have dogged them, even before their implementation.
For nearly the last year, the Chicago headlines have blared about the strikes, the squabbles between the union and the mayor, respectively Karen Lewis and Rahm Emanuel; the school closings, and then the threats of possible cross-fire as school children cross gang territory to get to their new schools, after their old ones were closed in what was one of the nation’s largest school closings.
But, behind the headlines lies the question of education in the country’s second largest school districts, and there are issues, problems, and seemingly little solutions.
One of the most tenacious of problems is that of the Common Core Standards, that were written by a panel of experts after being chosen by local governments and state superintends, who have stressed critical thinking and analysis rather than strict memorization and remembering formulas.
While the goals have been laudable: a general assurance that students “generally learn the same things in public school across the country,” according to the New York Times, last month.
The effort has also been largely politicized, as both the political right and left have opposed it, even before it has been fully implemented.
Tea Party conservatives view it “as an unwelcome edict from above,” according to the Times and have asked for the effort to halted, or at least put on hold.
Indiana has stopped them, in short order, and the Michigan House of Representatives is holding hearings on whether they should be suspended.
Illinois seems to have faced no political blockage – at least just yet, but there is controversy as many have wondered about the best way to implement them.
But, like nationwide the opposition is centering on gain for private entrepreneurs, at the cost of the taxpayers, and secondly an unwelcome national curriculum.
Professor Alfred Tatum, Interim Dean and Professor, Curriculum and Instruction, at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) of UIC wrote in February of this year, for the International Reading Association’s Quality Reading Instructions in the Age of Common Core Standards, that a new paradigm shift had to be created to help African American and Latino boys to make them not merely college bound, but college ready, and to increase their graduation rate.
He feels that this is paramount due to the rapidly shrinking rate of that population enrolled in American colleges, and that the standards may shortchange them in the long run, an undesirable occurrence, despite “45 years of reading reform legislation and initiatives.”
According to the CPS website, 41.6 percent of all students in Chicago schools are African American, and 44.1 percent Latino, or Hispanic.
Tatum, whose specialty is analyzing the reading patterns of African American males, asked to expand on his earlier comments, noted in an email to me Friday, “The focus on reading complex texts across a wide range of disciplines as called for in the CCSS aligns with a historical orientation of literacy development for African Americans in this nations. For more than four decades, educators have been given permission to use easier, less demanding texts with African American students to the detriment of this group.”
In fact, standardized test scores still show many students, not only African American males in Chicago, but statewide, are not college ready, and according to the Illinois Policy Institute, “overall inly 25 percent of the state’s juniors were considered college ready.”
While most of those scores have been in mathematics, critics point out that the test themselves have been made easier, thus reflecting test score inflation.
But, with reading, that most basic of skills, Tatum feels that “our students have lost confidence in reading and writing as tools of human development and capacity building. The CCSS will not resurrect this confidence, but if conceptualized appropriately and actualized in classrooms they will offer a pathway to focus on student’s intellectual development without apology.”
What he recommends are life-changing texts that reflect both the culture of young African American and Hispanic males, such as “The Columbian Orator,” that so effused and changed the life of Frederick Douglas, an example Tatum feels of “life-altering texts.”
But, test scores have met the great political divide, with most conservatives coming down hard against the standards, but yet it was President Ronald Reagan, the icon of late 21st century conservatism, who sounded the alarm, in 1981, that led to increased testing.
Data sets have become almost the new normal in education, but there are those that feel that if the teachers are not trained on how to use them, then they are useless.
But, much of where they can use the data has fallen victim to the draconian cuts that the Emanuel administration has made to the budgets, especially the reading instructors.
The future looks bleak for improving those scores, especially with the Common Core Standards, which in 2014 will be matched to the standardized test scores across the country.
Much of the controversy surrounds the frequency of the tests that CPS students are confronted with, and in March The Chicago Reader focused on the issue in a story titled, “Overtested.”
In the piece, parents and teachers, and students, bemoaned the increased frequency of the tests, given, in both third and eighth grades.
One particular aspect that angers teachers is that these test scores may be used to evaluate teachers, and affect both their pay, promotion, and salary. They note that there are many variables in the mix that affect test results: poverty and racism, heading the list.
Yet, Carol Caref, research director, for the Chicago Teacher’s Union, said, “We reject that whole idea, there are plenty of things you can do to improve schools that wouldn’t involve teacher evaluation at all.”
Much of the political left are against testing because it limits creativity, and rewards only those students who are good as taking them; and with many Chicago parents, agreeing, many choose a little known opt out clause.
But, last week the Chicago Tribune noted, in an editorial, that there was a dramatic decrease in test scores for Chicago, revealed that the CPS reported that scores had “plummeted,” in 2012, from 82.1 percent to 61.9 percent due to lowered expectations to meet the standards of the Bush initiative, “No Child Left Behind.”
The challenge for the CPS and other Illinois school districts is that the scores for 2014 will be tightened to match Common Core Standards, and whether, or not, they will be achievable for students; one which Tatum feels, they might not, “because many of their students will fail to meet the standards and they will be penalized as a result.”
But, the National PTA says that local districts, “will have a great deal of flexibility adopting the standards.”
Globally, such low figures have resulted in the United States on the whole, having students with much lower scores in math and science, respectively, than their European counterparts.”
If, as the old adage states, “all politics are local,” then the perception that the Emanuel administration is disinvesting in education, especially in comminutes of color, has a greater effect, beyond the city of Chicago.
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