"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A New Atmosphere in Jefferson City Around Common Core?

Yesterday, the House Interim Committee on Improving Government Responsiveness, Efficiency and Accountability met to talk about Common Core, among other agenda items. Chaired by Representative Sue Allen (R-100) the committee contains several teachers and ex school board members who were not afraid to tackle to topic of education.  They heard testimony from the general public and then spent time grilling DESE personnel.

Several members of the public provided testimony on their frustration with trying to get answers from DESE regarding common core. Among them were:

Gretchen Logue who addressed DESE's claims of only collecting limited student perdonally identifiable data which conflicted with numerous Agreement signed by DESE and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortia which clearly state the intent to collect and share with the US Department of Education who in turn, through changes to the FERPA intends to share individual student, teacher and principal data with other federal agencies and third party researchers and vendors.

Anne Gassel who spoke of the limited information local districts have been given regarding the costs of implementation of common core and the SBAC assessments. She outlined the information she has gathered through her own research, as nothing was available on DESE's site, that show the cost of the testing alone could be very high ($40/student) compared to the current $18/student for MAP. DESE has never done a cost feasibility study for districts to implement the on-line tests nor made clear which portion of the testing will be passed on to them. Districts only have a few election opportunities before the testing begins to have additional costs approved by the taxpayers.

Mary Byrne addressed eight false or misleading statements made by DESE regarding common core like their continued assertion that it was state and the state played any significant role in its development. She also discussed the Delphi Technique which was used by DESE at the May 2nd meetings around the state to marginalize the public and really prevent any meaningful dialouge between the agency and the public who had a number of valid concerns and questions about common core.

Elise Kostial offered a young person's perspective on common core and urged the committee not to let standardized testing scores become the basis for determining to quality of education. 

In addition, several brave mothers from around the state who had never testified before a legislative committee detailed their attempts to get answers to their questions and the run around they got from DESE. They were exposed to a circle of finger pointing which told them to find answers from someone else. DESE's most common target was district superintendents who, it turns out, were even less informed than DESE and generally unable to answer these mom's questions.

Jill Carter from Granby detailed her journey from her principal, to school board, to Superintendent, to DESE, to legislator, to MSBA, all the way to the governor's office only to be sent back to DESE who had no response. Stacy Shore spoke as a mother who watched her son's math ability drop precipitously when common core curriculum was introduced in her school. Her emotions surfaced when she talked about how no one at her child's school would listen to or take seriously her concerns, and how the teacher seemed to actively work against her efforts to help her child understand math through traditional algorithms by telling him "Do you want to do it the old fashioned way or the right way?" Even Rep May (D-84) on the committee, who is a certified teacher with a masters degree in education, noted that her child's math homework was marked wrong because he used standard algorithms to get the correct answer instead of the method used in class.

Marcie Calvin and Tonya Long from Raymore had similar stories about trying to get someone to respond to questions they had about common core, accreditation, and student data gathering. Long eventually asked the committee, "If DESE does not answer to the citizens of Missouri because they are not elected, then who do they answer to?"

Committee Chairwoman Allen made it clear during the next portion of the meeting that DESE  answers to the legislature. She opened the question session with DESE representatives by chastising Commissioner Nicastro for failing to attend the meeting and instead sending DESE staff and some additional outside presenters. She informed those present that the committee would not tolerate excuses from DESE in the future and would have no trouble subpoenaing Nicastro to appear before them to answer questions. Rep Flanigan (R-163) further noted that none of the other agency heads, like social services or insurance, had failed to appear before the committee when called, and asked what made education think they were an exception.

Allen asked Mark Van Zandt, DESE Government Affairs Director to explain the costs for common core and detail who was responsible for paying which costs. DESE indicated it had no detailed cost information at this time because it was still waiting to get bids back from vendors to supply the tests. He explained that the high costs listed in the RTTT grant were  heavily tied to the cost of supplying high speed internet to all districts in the state. Van Zandt said that all businesses, such as hospitals, would need this infrastructure anyway so the state should begin laying the groundwork with schools.  When asked by Rep Rick Stream (R-90) if it thought it was the state's responsibility to fund broadband , DESE responded yes.

What followed was an unprecedented gloves off questioning of DESE that indicates a new atmosphere in the capitol when it comes to education. Rep Bryan Spencer (R-63) peppered the DESE representatives with a list of questions that really got at the questions the public has and the frustration mothers and teachers around the state are experiencing with common core. In a brilliant piece of questioning he easily demonstrated the kind of double speak the public gets from DESE that contributes to their frustration.  He asked who DESE believed was in charge of a child's education. Van Zandt replied that it was the parent. However, when asked if the parent could opt a child out of SBAC testing, Van Zandt replied that they could not because DESE required it. The only way to get out of testing, he said, was to choose another means to school your child (i.e. private or home school). Spencer asked if that didn't mean that DESE was in charge of children's education. There was no response from DESE to that question.

Key revelations from the meeting include:

  • DESE's plan is to move forward with SBAC testing and membership despite not having even a ballpark idea how much it will cost. For comparison, Arizona, which is similar to MO in size and make up, has already estimated that the cost of the SBAC tests will add another 50% to their state education budget. Once everything is in place and all districts are prepared to give assessments in spring 2015, then it will seek money from the appropriations committee to fund what it has built. There is no official back up plan if the legislature refuses to fund SBAC.
  • DESE had no justification for the extensive "reteaching" of our teachers, who have received teaching degrees, that seems to be necessary with Common Core. What came out of the discussion was a sense that DESE doesn't trust teachers to know what to do in the classroom, so they adopted a rigid set of standards to define their work. Again, the agency pays lip service to teachers as being professionals but doesn't trust these professionals to do their job without numerous accountability measures.
  • Several parents commented on their teachers telling them that the school would focus on process, not answers, especially in math. Rep Spencer echoed this observation among other teachers he had spoken to. DESE said that this is a "misunderstanding" of the standards. Got that? Teachers should not place a heavier focus on process over correct answers.
  • Rep Morris (R-140) asked the panel if the following statement that he had heard from several school board members was correct. "We will lose our accreditation if we don't adopt common core." DESE said that no district should have had their accreditation threatened for failing to adopt common core.
  • DESE believed the reason there was so much public backlash was because it had focused it's education efforts too heavily on the local school boards and administrators, and that those people had failed to disseminate the information to the public. This of course cannot explain the numerous school board members around the state who knew nothing of common core when their parents came to them with questions. It also cannot explain the Superintendents who cannot answer parent's questions about common core and instead refer them to DESE who refers them back to the Superintendents. 
DESE descirbed Common Core like the rules of a game. The coach (being the district) decides what plays to make, who to play and how to handle the clock. Local districts have full control of how they use the standards. The ultimate goal is to get kids into college and careers. In fact, DESE believed that the copyright did not prevent districts from making changes to the standards or adding to them. Districts take note. So long as your numbers of kids doing well on the ACT and SAT or going on to technical training is high or increasing, you can teach what and how you want according to DESE.
In the typical double speak of DESE, however, it later noted that the Missouri School Improvement Plan 5 (MSIP5) which has been in development in tandum with Common Core for three years shifts the focus away from the allocation of resources towards judging a school's progress by examining student outcomes (i.e. scores).  So if your district wants a good MSIP score, your students are going to have to score well on the tests aligned to common core. Isn't MSIP tied to accreditation?
  • Rep Morris noted that, for an agency that deals in data and best practices, diving the entire state head first into common core and SBAC which have never been piloted, when no cost feasibility analysis was done and when there are still a lot of questions that even DESE cannot answer, seems like a foolish move. 
  • Committee members, through their questions, made it clear that there is nothing new or groundbreaking in the common core standards to justify the complete transition to them statewide. Their implementation, with all of the confusion brought out in the testimony today, is causing turmoil in all districts. Everything they claim to do has been done before but perhaps under another name like School to Work 1994, Reading and Writing Across Disciplines 1996,  and Goals 2000. The legislature is getting a little tired of the education establishment claiming there is a crisis in education that requires a revamp of the entire system (which isn't really a revamp just a new cover) and a lot of additional money to implement. It's time to get off the treadmill.
The public should note that it looks like the tide is turning on education in general in Jefferson City. It is no secret that many in the capitol have themselves been frustrated by DESE for a long time. What appears to have been missing in their ability to do anything about it is you, the public, standing up yourselves locally to push back and demand answers and to not accept the double speak that this agency practices. All of you around our state who have been asking questions and demanding answers, you are being heard loud and clear. The time may have actually come that the monolithic department of education gets its own restructuring to improve responsiveness, efficiency and accountability.

HICIGREA Committee members: Allen (R-100), Bahr (R-102), Conway (D-10), Conway (R-104), Curtis (D-73), Davis (R-162), English (D-68), Flanigan (R-163), Haefner (R-95), Korman (R-42), Kratky (D-82), Mayfield (D-20), McCahrety (R-97), Messenger (R-130), Newman (D-87), May (D-84), Parkinson (R-105), Rehder (R-148), Sommers (R-106), Spencer (R-63), Zerr (R-65)


  1. This gives me hope that our state has not forgotten our children! I only hope this is not just put on a shelf for a later date to deal with, as these children and parents are dealing with this on a daily basis, and they all deserve honest answers.

  2. I really liked how Nicastro was OUT OF TOWN which meant just down the street, which we had to adjourn because of the lack of respect that DESE has for the House of Representatives, who has the power of the purse.

  3. Excellent!!! We have to keep screaming!

    1. Indeed! I am discovering how much, even I, have allowed.
      I never would have noticed, if it was not for an only child in "the system".
      Oh how I wish the fight was stronger in the early 70's...though I myself rebelled against the education establishment.
      Looking back, I see my frustrations, more clearly defined, and how squelching my voice then, was not just because I was a foolish teen.
      Again I scream, even for those who are products of this crap over so many years.
      Indeed, local control is BEST!

    2. I will mail this to our School Board!

  4. I shared this on FB. I have been saying for years that I could pinpoint the downward spiral to "liberation" and "new math". Followed up by "hey, anti-depressants for everyone!" about the time that people started noticing the rotten results, and it's just another little hop and jump to where we are today.
    Get the kids from the parents (everybody working, Head Start), cut the parents out of the "education" process (new math, blah blah, common core), get everyone used to depending on the govt and doing what they are told DESPITE it ever making any sense, and you're ripe for the picking.
    Fight back!!

  5. Do it to it, Missouri! I also was able to confirm with a former member of DESE that as long as the kids meet the test requirements, they pretty much don't care what you are teaching. That would not sound so bad if it weren't for the terrible testing criteria.

    I hope that the parents in Missouri will use the momentum against Common Core to push back hard against federal AND state policies that have been infringing on your basic civil rights fr decades. Leave our kids alone!


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