(Photo: Courtesy of U.S. Department of Education)
Students across Colorado are trying out the new computerized tests that will replace the state’s old ones. The tests are intended to see how well students perform on the new state and Common Core standards.

 CPR’s education reporter Jenny Brundin talks with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner about how this new testing has ratcheted up emotions over what and how students are learning. And we’ll hear one scholar’s provocative thesis that suggests America’s drive to catch up in test scores to the international leaders like Singapore and Finland is misguided.

The following Q&A captures their discussion:

Ryan Warner: Several months ago, we gave listeners a primer on the Common Core – this is a set of rigorous national academic standards in math and English that most states, including Colorado, have adopted. They’re supposed to develop students’ skills in critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving and collaboration.

Jenny Brundin: In late 2009, Colorado adopted new, tougher standards in 10 content areas, giving districts four years to transition to them. In 2010, the state adopted the Common Core standards in math and English. Education officials estimated there is about 90 percent overlap between the Common Core and the state standards. Students were tested for the first time this month in the new science and social studies standards. They also field tested the new state tests in math and English earlier this year.

Ryan Warner: In our earlier primer, we talked about the many arguments for why the standards are needed.  But you want to share a different viewpoint with us today.

Jenny Brundin: Yes. I attended a lecture on Thursday sponsored by the Public Education and Business Coalition, a non-profit partnership based in Denver. The guest speaker was Yong Zhao. He grew up in a peasant family in rural China and is now an internationally recognized scholar in his field, working out of the University of Oregon. And his comments were provocative:

Yong Zhao: I think America in our drive, trying to become better than others, is leading us to a very suicidal path – that’s my own assessment.

Ryan Warner: Wow, a suicidal path in the country’s drive to become better?

Jenny Brundin: Yes – he says America’s drive to catch up in test scores to the international leaders like Singapore and Finland is misguided. And he thinks the Common Core standards will just fuel the testing frenzy. His thesis is that we shouldn’t be chasing international benchmarks. In his perspective, they are the wrong indicators for what makes students ready to contribute to society.

Ryan Warner: How are they wrong?

Jenny Brundin: Well, he thinks standards tied to high-stakes tests stifle creativity, and he believes they homogenize talent. He’s not against standards, but is against them being “common” and “core” – meaning leaders should look at what isn’t being taught when schools emphasize just a handful of subjects. His view is students start school with individual differences, multiple intelligences, passion and creativity – and what schools are doing is giving students a single set of skills that those in charge have deemed “employable.” And, he believes, the Common Core accelerates this trend. He calls it the sausage-making model, which, he says, Asian countries do the best.

Yong Zhao: A sausage-making model is not bad if our society needs sausage. It’s not a bad idea – there are certain times when we love sausage  it only becomes a problem when sausage is no longer valuable.

Ryan Warner: So there’s this race to raise test scores  a lot of alarm about American students falling behind their peers internationally  but you say Zhao pointed out that this is nothing new. For decades, Americans haven’t compared well internationally.

Jenny Brundin: Zhao showed a Life magazine cover from 1958 – during the Cold War – depicting American students lagging behind their Soviet counterparts. And that lag has continued up to this day. Yet still for the past several decades, the U.S. has had the largest, most prosperous economy in the world and, he says, there are no workers who are more productive.  

Yong Zhao: American schools so far don’t teach creativity better than Asian systems, they just kill it less successfully.

Ryan Warner: They’re just less successful at killing creativity?

Jenny Brundin: He says America’s system of locally-controlled, very diverse schools, is a sloppy system. Unlike schools in Asia, he says, it gives students a second chance if they flunk out – but he also says it allowed people like Steve Jobs to survive. He believes that what educators are doing now – building a system more like the Asian one, in which kids are aggressively tested on their knowledge of a set of common standards, inevitably leads to kids being judged solely on their mastery of these testable subjects.

Yong Zhao: When students come to school, they may be otherwise talented in other areas. That could be very valuable but now you want to fix them so they can read before they could do something else. If we did the same thing to Michael Phelps, the great swimmer, if you want him to be able to read before he could swim  he was kind of ADHD  he would still be hooked on phonics in some basement.

Jenny Brundin: In the end, Zhao believes common standards and tests will deprive children – especially poor ones – of sports, art, music. He says it’s inevitable as districts increasingly focus their scarce resources on the testable subjects.

Yong Zhao: So when we raise test scores, we should ask at what cost?

Jenny Brundin: Zhao showed a number of graphs looking at achievement on PISA – the set of international tests used to compare nations. They show the higher nations scored on those achievement tests, the lower their students’ entrepreneurial spirit and confidence.

Ryan Warner: So what does Zhao propose?

Jenny Brundin: He believes educators should be putting all of their time, energy and money into creating personalized curriculum, not state or national curriculum. One that capitalizes on the strength of every child, not what they can’t do. One that gives teachers the autonomy to spark creativity and passion for learning in a child, not one that has them thinking about the upcoming test.

Ryan Warner: Now – many would argue that his view of the Common Core is too simplistic. That the Common Core standards are meant to open up dialog, promote vigorous debate – and they give freedom to teachers to teach them how they see fit. In fact, before Yong Zhao spoke, Governor John Hickenlooper spoke to the same audience. He cautioned them not to get too hung up on the testing part of the standards.

Governor John Hickenlooper: It’s always hard to measure – every kid is different. I’m dyslexic so me having to take the same tests as other kids. It’s always very frustrating to me – but it’s what it is. It’s the way the world works. We’re all different in our different ways. We still need – some flawed as it will be – some standard assessment.  There’s push back coming from all different directions on the Common Core. Don’t confuse it with the testing. There is such a thing as over-testing kids but don’t, don’t abandon the Common Core. It’s something that’s going to have huge benefit and huge impact to our country.    

Ryan Warner: So Common Core is very much in the news as its being rolled out across the country. The journal Education Week just did a big series on it that you want to talk about.

Jenny Brundin: Yes, it’s a very comprehensive set of articles looking at how Common Core is reshaping the American education landscape.

Ryan Warner: So what did the series say about how districts across the nation are thinking about the new testing?

Jenny Brundin: Well there are still worries. The worries nationally echo what’s happening in Colorado – cash-strapped districts lacking sufficient computers or reliable Internet connectivity.

Ryan Warner: But some are feeling good about the tests…..

Jenny Brundin: Yes. The articles explain how the new tests will measure students on a wide range of tasks. Children will have to do one or more complex, lengthy “performance tasks,” asking them to analyze and apply knowledge, and explain their mathematical reasoning. Reading passages will use real, authentic passages from novels. Colorado just field tested these and the Colorado Department of Education’s Jill Hawley said response from kids has been positive.

Jill Hawley: They find the online environment more engaging. They like the tools. They can use highlighters, they can do different colors, they like the drag and drop features that happen within the test. So we are getting overall positive feedback from kids saying, 'Don’t go back to the bubble test, please!'

Ryan Warner: Another article in the Ed Week series looks at how the sweeping standards and assessments are influencing how states and districts spend their money.

Jenny Brundin: Yes. There are several estimates out there about what Common Core will cost districts across the country – those estimates range from $12 to $16 billion dollars.

Ryan Warner: That’s a lot of money – why so much?

Jenny Brundin: Well, districts want to make sure that they have material that will meet the new, rigorous standards. They must also make expensive upgrades – buying thousands of computers and upgrading Internet connectivity to take the tests. Across the country, some argue the money and time spent on this is an enormous diversion – a waste of time for students who are in the middle of this experiment. Others argue that schools would have had to go down this heavily technology-centered path eventually.

Ryan Warner: In terms of curriculum, I imagine there are companies everywhere churning out products they claim are “aligned with the new standards.” What did the reporting find?

Jenny Brundin: Yes, there are companies of varying quality approaching school districts every day. So the article looked at two districts that have faced the new curriculum challenges in different ways. Orlando, Fla., has spent millions of dollars purchasing materials from a commercial publisher. Long Beach, Calif., is tight on cash and didn't like publishers’ offerings so decided to write its own.

Ryan Warner: Give an example of what a curriculum was like before Common Core – and what it might be like now?

Jenny Brundin: In Long Beach, before, a six-week language arts unit for fourth graders was a one-page, bare-bones outline of seven lessons in phonics, word analysis and grammar. Now, that fourth grade unit runs 23 pages. Its theme is the “mystery of medicine.” Students will have academic, collaborative discussions from the text; they'll learn about opinion writing and “explore societal and cultural impacts of modern health practices.”

Ryan Warner: What about in Colorado? What’s happening on the curriculum front?

Jenny Brundin: Well, Colorado seems to be taking more the approach of Long Beach. You also have to remember, this is a local control state so the state doesn’t collect figures on how much districts are spending to meet new standards. But Melissa Colsman of the Colorado Department of Education says the state did bring together more than 1,000 teachers from 116 districts to produce sample units, one for every grade and every subject.

Melissa Colsman: It’s an online resource right now where teachers can download these samples and build on them use them, adapt them, modify them, change them or they could also ignore them because this is completely voluntary.

Ryan Warner: You’d have to phone all 178 districts to find out if they are making any large purchases, but do we know if there are districts developing their own curricula?

Jenny Brundin: Many are, yes. As you know, Colorado’s school districts are still digging out of the hole from four years of deep budget cuts, so most don’t have the money for big purchases. Many districts are making use of open source, free materials. One of the biggest names in the field is Khan Academy – it’s offering lots of free options for schools trying to meet Common Core demands. The state’s Melissa Colsman thinks that’s the wave of the future:

Melissa Colsman: There’s so much available right now that wasn’t available 10, 15, 20 years ago. Right now is a time for great creativity in education, being able to make sure there’s an organized plan about what it is you want to accomplish over a year and being able to find resources to help you get there is more open than ever before and I think we’re going to see less and less reliance on textbooks over time.

Ryan Warner: Jenny, there’s a lot of controversy over the amount of testing….but that’s for another day?

Jenny Brundin: Yes, definitely. That is a hot, hot issue right now but we'll talk about that another day!