Critics of the Common Core Learning Standards are hard to miss. They are vocal, organized and successful at bringing together local opposition to standardized tests based on the Common Core standards that have become a controversial factor in teacher evaluations.
But the group High Achievement New York is attempting to change that by actively cultivating local support for the Common Core among local organizations across the state. So far, this group – like many other education reform groups – has gained the backing of local business organizations like the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.
But High Achievement New York has also courted women, minority groups and civil rights organizations. On Monday, the organization came to Buffalo and joined with the Buffalo Urban League to host a roundtable discussion with other parents, teachers and Common Core trainers about the value and implementation of the Common Core, a common set of academic standards in English and math that has been adopted by a majority of states.
While Common Core support exists, generally as part of pro-charter school/pro-education reform groups, these groups have waged targeted public campaigns that have not generally yielded an extensive groundswell of local, grass-roots support.
“Opposition to something generates a much louder voice than support of something,” observed Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York.
But in reaction to the growing movement to opt students out of Common Core-based state tests and ramped-up campaigns by parent groups and teachers unions across the state, High Achievement New York is building its own countercoalition.
The group has been building a network of support from teachers, parents, administrators, education reform advocacy groups, businesses and community groups since it came into being a year ago. The group has the resources to do it, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – the primary foundation responsible for financing and promoting the Common Core – as well as the Helmsley Charitable Trust, and Robin Hood, a New York City anti-poverty organization.
In a meeting with Buffalo News editors and reporters Monday, representatives with High Achievement New York were accompanied by members of education reform group America Achieves, the Buffalo Urban League and the superintendent of Randolph Central Schools in Cattaraugus County.
Their main mission to is make the broader public aware that the Common Core is about more than just a test, they said. It’s about creating a new way of thinking and learning. Aside from wanting to counter what they consider bad information being espoused by anti-Common Core groups, they also say too few educators are taking advantage of everything the learning standards have to offer.
Randolph Superintendent Kimberly Moritz, for instance, said district leaders and principals need to be able to analyze and maximize the use of the Common Core testing data they receive, to help their teachers do the same. While some teachers complain that the Common Core testing information they receive isn’t transparent or useful, Moritz said the reality is that some teachers aren’t given the tools they need to examine the data in practical and meaningful ways.
A similar tone was struck at Monday’s roundtable discussion held at the Buffalo Urban League. In response to the opening question Sigmund raised about whether the Common Core standards are too hard, most answered, “No, but …”
The roundtable conversation included roughly 10 participants, all of whom clearly supported the Common Core. Representatives included Common Core trainers from of the University at Buffalo, local pro-Common Core teachers with the New York Educators Voice Network, and members of the Buffalo’s District Parent Coordinating Council.
But though all saw the value of the standards and witnessed major academic gains, they also saw flaws and shortcomings in the way the standards are being implemented. They talked about how some schools and districts were being urged to follow state-provided lesson templates as hard-and-fast scripts on a rigid timetable with no room for flexibility, creativity or adjusted pacing, counter to the way these modules were meant to be used.
“There were other districts where you could clearly see that the administration was misinformed,” said Tiffany Kwas, a teacher with Eden Central Schools. “Those teachers were completely stressed out.”
Roundtable participants said they noticed big differences between schools that embraced the Common Core challenge as a team and worked together to come up with lesson plans versus schools that let individual teachers flounder on their own. They also said not enough was being done to help teachers tailor their instruction so that all students make progress instead of some being left behind.
Sigmund said that his organization’s job is to help make sure the implementation of the standards improves so that they don’t get abandoned altogether.
“Part of what we’re here for is to listen to the folks on the ground who are doing the work,” he said, “and make recommendations on how you can improve the implementation of the standards so we keep moving forward.”