An Aggressive Reply to Common Core Advocates

My opinion of the Arizona College and Career Ready Standards has followed a path from cautious support to grudging support to undecided to qualified disapproval to outright opposition. My scorn for their implementation has never varied.

I’ve written that teachers who support the standards are too dismissive of reasoned opposition. Facebook friends link to blogs  and videos that seek to explain the greater good of homework that leaves young children in tears and parents complaining. These posts nearly always talk down to parents. The most egregious example I’ve seen is the teacher who tells a complaining parent (an electrical engineer) that teachers know math differently than engineers and offers a model letter for parents to use to express their frustration.

These posts never criticize teachers who send work home that kids aren’t ready to work on independently. They never ponder that leaving kids in tears isn’t challenging them; it’s breaking them. Nor does any proponent seem concerned about alienating parents, our natural allies. But these posts do get dozens of likes, shares, and “must reads.”

And things are about to heat up. We will soon know the results of how Arizona students did on the first standardized assessment of their mastery of the new standards. Fellow Arizona Stories from School bloggers already have a lot to say. For example, Jen Robinson posted a highly praised piece that I’m guessing will represent the thinking of most AzCCRS supporters.

Jen asks questions that seem mostly intended to rally supporters against the backlash that the dismal (her word) scores will generate. She ends by suggesting that failure to embrace the “new paradigm” amounts to insanity.

Here are my answers to her questions. You can decide how crazy I am.

How do we examine and analyze the data for what it is and stay focused on teaching and learning? 

I really can’t tell if Jen’s admission that the data will be a distraction from teaching and learning is intentional. But the data will be largely useless for their intended purpose of informing instruction – I’m not allowed to read the test so I don’t how students are questioned on the standards. Moreover, the data are incredibly ill-suited for how they will actually be used – to judge me and my school.

How do we stay mindful and focused on the benefits and importance of rigorous standards and not get caught in the numerical data?

We shouldn’t. We should focus on the danger to students, teachers, and schools that the numerical data pose. Jen knows that both teachers’ evaluations and schools’ grades depend on those data. And here it gets personal. My school may, by court order, be stripped of its magnet status unless we earn a B this year. That could mean no transportation for 60% of our students and the resulting decimation of our faculty.

A better question would be: How many years of collateral damage to careers, schools, and student choice are you willing to sacrifice while waiting to see if the benefits ever materialize?

Could this be the tipping point for education in Arizona? 

Could what be a tipping point? The dismal scores? They certainly won’t tip public education in any positive direction. More likely they will be used, ruthlessly by some in power, to shame Arizona’s teachers and tip opinion against public education.

When the results are released to districts and schools, how do we keep the message positive and keep the momentum moving forward? Expect More Arizona refers to the new state assessment as, “An annual checkup – an important opportunity to find out how students are doing… “

The only way to keep the message positive is to fake it. “We” (don’t include me) must pretend that the standards and their implementation somehow don’t illustrate the present failure of supporters’ lofty claims. And, sorry, Expect More Arizona, but the “annual check up” will never inform me better than my daily check ups of my math students. The results next year won’t tell me what I know right now: That these three students have learned the benefit of learning to stick with hard problems longer, that high school algebra is probably a bad placement for that student, and that those two students’ computational skills don’t transfer well to abstract concepts, but this one’s writing skills do.

What needs to happen in order to examine this data as a starting point for our teachers and students? 

To start, look at the test and admit the many ways in which it obscures students’ content knowledge rather than revealing it. Here’s one example. On some math questions, students had to write each character of their answer in a little box. Then, they had to scan down a column beneath each box and bubble in the correct character, be it a negative sign, decimal point, fraction symbol, or digit 0 – 9. One mistake in the bubbling and the answer is counted wrong. Find something positive to say about that, please. And then, please, rationalize how the time and concentration wasted on bubbling, as well as correct answers scored as wrong, demonstrate the benefits and importance of rigorous standards.

How do we shift from the common paradigm of testing to a highly effective paradigm? 

Well, not by creating the mother of all high stakes tests, delivering it all at once, and punishing those who fail. It might have been defensible to begin the implementation in small parcels that would reveal logistical problems that could be corrected with further implementation. But it’s too late for that now.

So what will your message to teachers, students, parents and policy makers be? 

My message to anyone will be to know the conditions and nuances that matter to you and weigh all other opinions and potential policies by how well they align with your values.

Are you going to stand your ground, embrace change and a new paradigm of education and what could be? Or are you going to default to what we have always done and expect different results? 

These two questions reveal the condescending and intolerant disposition taken by too many AzCCRS supporters. The first is a thinly veiled claim to pedagogical and moral authority. The second, an unattributed paraphrase of Einstein’s definition of insanity. That’s not bad if Jen’s intention is to derail any solution-oriented discussion between adversaries, but that’s at odds with every interaction I’ve ever had with Jen – so I’m bewildered.

To wrap up, I’ll claim that the conception and execution of Arizona College and Career Readiness Standards, combined with the unmitigated support and dismissive attitude of its advocates, will damage teacher moral, the public perception of teaching, and the quality of our schools as much as any of public education’s usual critics.

Furthermore, because of AzCCRS advocates’ unwillingness to seek middle ground or compromise, qualified or grudging support is no longer viable, which leaves outright opposition as the best option for me.


Sandy Merz

I grew up in Silver City, New Mexico and went the University of New Mexico, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology. After working for the U.S. Geological Survey in remote regions of western New Mexico, I moved to Tucson to attend graduate school at the University of Arizona, earning a Master of Science degree in Hydrogeology. While working as an intern hydrologist for a local county agency, I started doing volunteer work that involved making presentations in schools. At that moment I knew teaching was the path to follow. It must have been a good decision because I’m still on the path after thirty-two years. My teaching certificates are in math and science and I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Career and Technical Education. After teaching engineering and math and elective classes at the same school in downtown Tucson my whole career, I’ve moved to a different middle school and district on the edge of town to teach math. In addition to full time teaching, I am actively involved in the teacher leadership movement by facilitating National Board candidates, blogging for Stories from School Arizona, and serving on the Arizona K12 Center’s TeacherSolutions team. In January 2017, Raytheon Missile System named me a Leader in Education and I’m a former Arizona Hope Street Fellow.

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