Common Core – Voluntarily Mandatory Curriculum

Common Core Catch-22

How will our school districts adopt curriculum that will align with the new and improved “robust and relevant to the real world” PA Core Standards?  Will the districts spend the money to develop their own PA Core aligned curriculum or simply use the PA Department of Education’s Student Aligned System (SAS) Portal which provides sample curricula based on the “core” standards? According to the PA Department of Education (PDE), the SAS portal:

“…  is an integrated and interactive website that allows teachers and leaders to access academic standards and drill down on each standard and the related eligible content that can be used in classroom activities, to build assessments and to individualize instruction.”

The PDE created a curriculum framework perfectly aligned to the “revised” PA Core Standards and to the Keystone Exams.  According to the PDE’s website:

The Pennsylvania State Board of Education has adopted academic standards in 12 subject areas.  … The standards are promulgated as state regulations. As such, they must be used as the basis for curriculum and instruction in Pennsylvania’s public schools. State requirements for curriculum, instruction and assessment can be found in the Board’s Chapter 4 regulations, available online at: Chapter 4.

In the first ‘Race to the Top’ grant application (funded by the “stimulus” bill),  representatives from the Rendell Administration told the US Department of Education that:

“The overarching goal of the SAS portal is to identify, organize and deliver educational resources that are aligned to the Pennsylvania standards. The primary example of this is the Voluntary Model Curriculum (VMC) that provides model unit and lesson plans, closely and directly aligned to Pennsylvania‘s academic standards. The VMC allows teachers to view individual standards and accompanying unit and lesson plans vertically (from K-grade 8 and through high school courses) and well as horizontally (from September through June in any grade level or subject).”

Month by month, grade by grade, vertical and horizontal lesson plans.  But don’t worry,  the PDE  is prohibited from meddling in local decisions with respect to curriculum and lesson plans.  Teachers are welcome to use the resources so that they can be sure to comply with the standards, which, make no mistake, are NOT curriculum. And every time a teacher logs in, the PDE can know which teachers are complying, I mean accessing the information.

The PDE insists that curriculum and other classroom tools are at the sole discretion and responsibility of the local school districts. But when representatives from PA testified in front of the federal government on March 16-17, 2010 to defend the ‘Race to the Top’ application and were questioned about the availability of the SAS Portal to the local school districts, a PA representative testified that the SAS Portal had been “made available to everybody.” Then, when asked to clarify what was meant by “available,” that is, are districts required to use it or is it just available to them? The PA representative responded by saying:

“… the SAS portal, which is our standards, our model curricula, that is available to the school districts, but everybody has got to teach to our standards — that’s required. And everybody has got to implement our high school end-of-course-exams. And that is required. So in order for them to successfully get to their high school exams, which will be aligned to the Common Core, they are going to need to access all that stuff… Our experience is that when we have made mandatory things available, pretty much everybody is using them.”

So, they’re voluntarily available in a mandatory sort of way.  The state is essentially telling school districts, “Here are lessons plans and materials “closely and directly” aligned to the standards that will help ensure students perform well on standardized tests, which are also aligned to the standards.  You are free to use whatever curriculum and lesson plans you would like, as long as they align to our state standards. But, if your students perform poorly on the tests, your school could be take over by the state and teachers face poor performance evaluations and possibly lose their jobs. The choice is yours.” Wink, wink. As with all top down, central planning schemes, school districts are left with a false choice.

In the Race to the Top Phase 2 grant application (pages 41-42) the PDE explains how it is counting on the fact that most districts have limited resources to fund the purchase of new curriculum, which rotates every few years, therefore they expect an “overwhelming majority” of districts will end up using the SAS portal for curriculum to make sure their instructional programs are in-line with the new standards. The pressure will be on the school districts to align since poor performance on state exams will result in “turnaround” schools and affect teachers’ performance evaluations.

In October 2012, representatives from PA gave the following testimony in front of the regulatory commission (IRCC)  (see ‘Response to public comments on proposed revisions to Chapter 4‘):

“With regard to redesigning curriculum, there is an expectation that districts, having local control, regularly engage in a cycle of curriculum renewal. The Board’s final rule published in the Pennsylvania Bulletin at 40 Pa.B. 5903 on October 16, 2010, initiated a multi-year implementation period for revised academic standards to provide districts time to adjust local curriculum cycles accordingly to prepare for the revised standards. The regulatory analysis produced at that time identified a negligible cost to the regulated community to incorporate standards revisions into curriculum and instructional practice due to the high degree of alignment between the revised standards and current state standards, supportive resources available from the Department on its Standard Aligned Systems website, and the statutory requirement for educators to participate in ongoing professional development.”

Sounds like a good old Catch-22 to me. The PDE is certainly not going to come out and tell the districts they have to, but the districts know they have to. Teachers will also feel the pressure to use the state provided resources. And they’ve just made it so easy to comply.  It’s all right there on the SAS Portal. And thus our local school districts get inextricably tangled in the web. Common Core, a/k/a, PA Core Standards, takes away what was left of local authority and decision-making from our school districts and puts it in the hands of unelected, unaccountable state and federal bureaucrats.

 Next: Big Data