Common Core 'Goes Way, Way Too Far': 5 Questions with N.Y. Principal Carol Burris

Common Core 'Goes Way, Way Too Far': 5 Questions with N.Y. Principal Carol Burris
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'I didn't do my due diligence': New York high school principal and book author Carol Burris discusses why her views reversed on the Common Core State Standards.

A lot of people have strong feelings about the new Common Core State Standards that schools in more than 40 states have adopted. But Carol Burris may be unique. She’s had strong feelings for the standards and against them. And that’s just in the past two years.

Burris is principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre, N.Y. Her 2012 book, Opening the Common Core: How to Bring ALL Students to College and Career Readiness, which she co-authored with Delia T. Garrity, was seen as a key instructional booster for the states-led Common Core across American classrooms. Its promotional materials blared: “Do you wish you could leverage the Common Core State Standards to equip all students -- not just high achievers -- with the higher-level thinking skills they need? You can, and this book will show you how.”

Since the book was published, Burris, who was named High School Principal of the Year in 2013, has done a 180 and is now among the most vocal critics of the standards. Her arc follows the fortunes of the standards, which in just a few years have gone from being a bipartisan success story to a punching bag for the political left and right. Facing critics who call her a flip-flopper, Burris says her now-opposition to the learning benchmarks in math and English language arts is a product of experience, exposure, and her own education.

RealClearEducation caught up with Burris last week to talk about the Common Core landscape and why and how her views have changed. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.

What led you to write a book that at the time in 2012, was hailed as one of the definitive books on how Common Core could improve instruction?

I was actually writing the book before the Common Core. We had always wanted to do a sequel to Detracking for Excellence and Equity because readers of that book said they wanted more. As we were writing the book, the Common Core standards came out. Essentially, we looked to find standards that would match with what we were already writing -- we would think of different topics and lessons that we had, and then we would look in the standards to see if there was a match, and we did find some standards that matched both lessons.

At the time, we had a superficial view of the standards. The high school math standards, for example, had not come out yet. A lot of our knowledge of the standards at the time was what we read about the standards, and it all just seemed to make some sense.

How have your views changed since you wrote Opening Common Core in 2012?

I think they’ve dramatically changed. As the Common Core rolled out in New York, my first impression was that some of the problems were implementation problems. Because [lawmakers and state education leaders] conflated the Common Core standards with evaluating teachers by test scores and with testing, I figured that a lot of what we were experiencing were really just problems with implementation.

I’m a high school principal, so my exposure to the standards is not as intense as they are at the elementary and middle level, but a lot of my teachers are also parents -- and what started happening was they would come into my office very frustrated, talking about their kids not enjoying school as much as they used to, bringing in worksheets that they believed, and I believed, were inappropriate, confusing homework assignments. The first couple times it happened I still was thinking it was perhaps implementation, but the more I saw, the more I began to question. And I began to read and take a deeper look at the standards -- comparing the standards to the standards of Finland, the old Massachusetts standards, which had been held in high regard, and also the former standards of New York state. That’s when I began to believe there were problems with the standards themselves.

I didn’t do my due diligence. I did not see the push toward informational text in the high school standards the way I should have. The curriculum in New York for 9th graders has very little literature. Instead, it has a lot of informational text, including what they call a novel, Wizard of Lies, which is a biography of Bernie Madoff, as well as articles about Madoff. I don’t think that should be part of an English Language Arts program. I’d much prefer our kids read To Kill a Mockingbird, Glass Menagerie, Red Sky at Morning, some of the more classical texts in a 9th grade program.

What did you prefer in the previous New York standards compared to the Common Core?

The New York standards weren’t perfect either, but they were clearer. The major difference I see between the Common Core and New York standards was that the New York standards were more typical of standards in that they were pedagogically neutral -- they did not include instructional shifts. Instead, they identified the math concepts kids needed to know at a particular grade level. There was not any prescription in terms of the proportion of informational text that should be read as compared with literature. We were free to choose from both genres when we taught our English language arts program. The math standards did not emphasize the composition and decomposition of numbers.

What I object to in the Common Core standards is the push toward certain pedagogical practices. I think that standards, both state and national, should be pedagogically neutral, and that decisions as to how a teacher teaches should be left to the individual district.

You tweeted a few weeks ago that you couldn't support Common Core because, "I believe in respecting the needs of young learner." How does Common Core disrespect those needs?

Starting with the standards for kindergarten math, [Common Core] says that kids should be able to count by 1s and 10s from 1 to 100. It seems innocuous enough, but the problem with it is that most 5-year-olds are capable because of that mixture of biology and learning that happens with little kids to count to 20. Some can count more, some can probably count to 100 in French, but then there are also going to be kids that just cannot do it at that point in time.

If you look at the old standards, Massachusetts and New York standards, for example, say kids should be able to count to 20. It doesn’t appear from what I read that there was a lot of thought put into where kids were in their cognitive development when the standards were written.

I don’t think that [Swiss developmental psychologist Jean] Piaget is the be-all and end-all of education, but I think he really did inform our work as educators, and was more often right than not. When you take a look at some of the standards and put them alongside some of the developmental stages of Piaget, you see that there are a lot of places where there are mismatches.

Would you be more comfortable with the Massachusetts standards in place of Common Core right now?

It’d be a great place to start. I’m not an expert on the Massachusetts standards, I don’t want to make the same mistake I made a few years ago, but from what I’ve seen of them, I like them much better. There is greater respect for literature in those standards, and they’re also very clear. There’s not this conflation of pedagogy and content.

This would be my dream: The state of New York would say, “Look, we need to take a time-out on the testing for two years and get this right. Let’s use as the starting point the standards of Massachusetts. Let’s involve parents and educators and see if we can come up with standards that better serve the needs of our kids than the Common Core.”

It’s not that every standard is awful, it’s not that kids shouldn’t be reading more informational text, they should. It’s not that close reading shouldn’t be part of the repertoire and a habit in classrooms, certainly it should. It’s just in the Common Core, it goes way, way too far.

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