Chris Christie and the Magical Mystery Standards

Back in February, I noted that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had begun to walk back his support of the Common Core State Standards.  The governor began sounding cautious notes about the implementation of the standards and about how the Obama administration has been involved in the adoption process and used funding as incentives for states to come and stay on board. These statements were directly contrary to the big, wet, sloppy kisses he gave to the standards and to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the KIPP School Summit in 2013:

Whoopsie.  How embarrassing.

Since it is now established fact that all Republican hopefuls for the nomination in 2016 who are not named “Jeb” have to be against the Common Core, Governor Christie assured Republicans in Iowa that his administration was really concerned about the federal role in the standards:

So we’re in the midst of a re-examination of it in New Jersey. I appointed a commission a few months ago to look at it in light of these new developments from the Obama administration and they’re going to come back to me with a report in the next I think six or eight weeks, then we’re going to take some action. It is something I’ve been very concerned about, because in the end education needs to be a local issue.

I suppose that commission got back to Christie as he decided to blow up the education section of most newspapers by announcing that he believed New Jersey should no longer follow the Common Core State Standards.  Speaking at Burlington County College, he declared:

It’s now been five years since Common Core was adopted and the truth is that it’s simply not working….It has brought only confusion and frustration to our parents and has brought distance between our teachers and the communities where they work. Instead of solving problems in our classrooms, it is creating new ones.

The Governor also announced he wants to form a group to develop “new standards right here in New Jersey,” and the news media went moderately crazy over the implications.  Observers closer to home and closer to classrooms were less impressed.  New Jersey parent Sarah Blaine noted that Governor Christie’s announcement took a swipe at the Common Core State Standards, but also pledged to keep New Jersey in the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) whose annual Common Core aligned testing debuted in New Jersey this Spring with widespread complaints and approximately 50,000 opt outs.  Ms. Blaine correctly notes the contradiction that Governor Christie wants to set aside the standards, but will keep the PARCC examinations that are designed to assess student mastery of the standards, and he will keep using the examinations as part of the dreadful AchieveNJ teacher evaluation system, thus keeping both the standards and the aligned assessments central to teachers’ work in New Jersey.  She concludes:

Christie’s announcement changes nothing, and shame on the media for lapping it up so naively. Christie’s so-called rejection of Common Core is simply a sound bite for him to take on the road to Iowa and New Hampshire while our NJ public school kids continue to deal with a language arts curriculum that doesn’t teach them to consider texts and ideas within their broader historical context….However, as long as the Common Core-aligned PARCC test continues to be the barometer to allegedly measure our schools, teachers, and children’s efficacy, Christie’s announcement is worth even less than the paper his speech was written on. If you believe otherwise, then man, I’ve got a bridge to sell you…

Peter Greene bluntly calls Governor Christie’s move an “empty gesture”, and New Jersey
music teacher and Rutgers graduate student Mark Weber, blasted the governor for “screaming hypocrisy” in suddenly claiming to care about what teachers think and about the integrity of local control:

America, take it from those of us living in Jersey: this man doesn’t care one whit about the Common Core, or education standards, or anything having to do with school policies. Chris Christie’s sole interest in education policy is in its worth as a political tool: a tool to diminish the strength of unions, demonize public workers, and shift the focus off of his own many, many failures as governor.
My colleague, Dr. Christopher Tienken of Seton Hall University, was not impressed by how seriously the governor wants new, locally developed, standards given his short time frame, noting, “This is years and years of work that it takes to do this.”  So in all likelihood, New Jersey can expect “New Jersey College and Career Readiness Standards” that are mostly Common Core but with a few definite and indefinite articles swapped around.
I am in complete agreement with Ms. Blaine that Chris Christie’s announcement is pure politics aimed at Republican Party caucus and primary voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.  Republican voters lead the nation in disapproval of the Common Core with perhaps three quarters having a negative opinion of the standards.  While reasons for opposing the standards are diverse, there is a strong impression that the kinds of activist voters likely to participate in the early contests represent that most extreme, and often inaccurate, ideas about what the standards do and do not do.  With Chris Christie’s public move against the standards, Jeb Bush is left alone in the Republican field.
So just to be perfectly clear, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, famed “tough guy” governor who “tells it like it is,” is throwing the Common Core brand off of his campaign bus so he can appeal to this guy:

For all of his declarations that the Common Core standards are not working and that the federal role has been too intrusive, Governor Christie still spoke the language of education reformers in his original remarks:

It’s not enough for most of our students to become proficient – we want all of our students, no matter their economic status or their race or ethnicity, to acquire the skills they need to compete in the 21st century.

And a look at the projected demands of employers in 15 years indicates that we will not be able to meet their needs unless we do a better job educating our children.

By 2030, it is projected that 55 percent of all new and replacement jobs will require people with a post-secondary degree. Yet in New Jersey today, only 42 percent of individuals over 25 have at least an associate degree.

Unless those numbers change – and they must change – that means that 15 years from now, nearly six out of every ten students will lack the basic requirement for a good job.

Where Governor Christie gets his numbers for how many college graduates will be needed by 2030 is unclear because projections vary from under 30% to the mid-40%, but with wages for college graduates basically stuck in place, there is little evidence in the labor market that we are short on graduates.  A more important question is why Governor Christie, like most reformers today, seems to attribute standards with an ability to make classrooms better prepare students for their future in the workforce:

And that’s where we must focus our attention – in every New Jersey classroom and home.  That’s where higher standards can be developed.

We do not want to be the first generation in our Nation’s history to leave our children less equipped and less prepared to build for themselves and their children a nation stronger and more prosperous than the one our parents gave to us.

We owe our kids the educational foundation they need to thrive, not just survive.

In reality, the connection between “quality” standards and classroom achievement looks tenuous at best. For example, Massachusetts is widely regarded as having had excellent standards prior to adopting the Common Core, and it basically was at the top of the country in the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  Texas, meanwhile, was also recognized as having high quality standards prior to Common Core (which the Lone Star State did not adopt), but on the 2013 NAEP, it was only above 7 other states on 8th grade reading.  If quality standards were the elixir for student success, one would expect states with high quality standards to have convergent results from community to community, and yet, there is variability across communities within states as well.  Again, we can look at Massachusetts.   In 2013, Massachusetts urban communities were 32% at or above proficient in 8th grade reading compared to 28% nationally, and suburban communities were 52% at or above proficient compared to 39% nationally.  In 2005, those scores were 25% and 51% respectively.  So – 8 years with Massachusetts’ “high quality” standards, and there was no real movement in suburban achievement and some movement in urban achievement, a mixed bag still demonstrating significant variation in communities across the state even though their standards were the same.

What accounts for this?  The simple fact that standards are not magic and, on their own, do nothing to improve education.  Nor does tying school and teacher survival to standardized assessments aligned with those standards, the other favored tool of reformers.  What improves teaching and learning is often idiosyncratic, messy, and expensive.  However, general principles apply.  Writing in 1990, David Cohen presented the case of “Mrs. Oublier”, a California mathematics teacher who enthusiastically embraced the California math reforms and sincerely believed her practice was embodying them. Cohen, however, found her teaching more frequently belied a pre-reform understanding of the content of mathematics and dressed that understanding up in activities that looked like the reforms.  What held her back?  Her own insufficient education in the new ways of understanding mathematics and teaching mathematics plus the lack of a community consistently engaged in conversation and development on the standards.  Mrs. Oublier had one necessary component to reform and to improve her teaching, her own buy in and enthusiasm, but she lacked two critical other components.

This is something that modern reformers, Governor Christie included, never seem to acknowledge.  Standards, even high quality standards, mated with perverse incentives in the form of high stakes tests, do not reform or improve teaching.  Given the incentives to narrow the curriculum and to teach to the test, they can actually actively make matters worse.  When written clearly and in a developmentally appropriate manner, standards can, ideally, offer teachers end goal benchmarks from which they can “backwards design” instruction to take students from where they are to where they are going (hat tip the recently and too soon departed Grant Wiggins).

But on their own, they do not matter at all.  Teachers need to have genuine buy in, schools needs to be appropriately resourced with materials and meaningful professional development, and teachers need to work within genuinely collaborative learning communities where they and their colleagues are consistently engaged in what it means to teach and to improve teaching.  This cannot be done on the cheap by subjecting teachers and their students to stakes which make a standardized test the most important objective in the system.

And since we can pretty much guarantee that Governor Christie is not going to provide New Jersey schools with genuine respect and new resources, it will not matter if this Common Core backtrack of his results in genuinely new set of standards, a re-adoption of New Jersey’s previous standards, or simply a slap and dash rebranding of Common Core standards with a new name.  The Magical Mystery Standards that improve teaching and learning without a massive, lengthy, and expensive effort do school improvement the right way will never be written.

3 Comments

Filed under Chris Christie, Common Core, Funding, PARCC, politics

3 responses to “Chris Christie and the Magical Mystery Standards

  1. jcgrim

    Coincidentally, TN ‘s Gov Bill Haslam has instituted a similar “re-evaluation” of TNCore (Common Core personalized with the state name). Haslam set up a press conference announcing a new expert committee, put all 300+ standards online for about a month to get public feedback on each and every standard, and kept the aligned testing in place.
    Pivot to Jeb Bush and Arne coordinating a plan with FL’s Rick Scott to quell FL’s Common Core backlash:
    http://www.buzzfeed.com/ilanbenmeir/jeb-bush-emailed-with-education-secretary-about-rick-scotts?utm_term=.gh5DDB9e7#.wxN18WnaV

    e-mail from Jeb to Arne:

    ” I am on a plane.

    He is fearful of the rebellion. Wants to stop using the term common core but keep the standards. Wants to get out of PARCC. I asked him if he had specifics things that the federal government is doing or perceived to be doing. He didn’t have them when I spoke to him last thursday evening.”

  2. What started out as a needed reform movement, a nationwide common set of skills and curriculum standards, has unraveled because it was sprung too early on the education community. It should have been slowly, and gently approached. No wonder people are abandoning it. Our district is all in, and we meeting next week to vertically align the ELA curriculum, which had been needed for some time. So the CCSS actually prompted us to do what should have been done ling ago. That’s curriculum–don’t get me started about the testing aspect. Two words though: Badly done.

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