A teacher's response to common core standards
VillageSoup recently published an editorial online called “Standards: Enhancing Our Schools” by Assistant Superintendent Maria Libby.
In her editorial, Ms. Libby offers an explanation of the state’s new Proficiency-Based diploma law, the Common Core standards, and the ways in which standards are being addressed in the Five Towns. Although Ms. Libby’s column does accurately explain the requirements of the state’s new proficiency-based diploma law, I am compelled to respond to Ms. Libby’s editorial because so much of what she wrote reflects only a single perspective. It would be a mistake for the public to be led to believe that everyone in our schools – the teachers, the students, the parents, or even the administrators —“shares the exact” perspective that Ms. Libby articulated. Her opinion piece is just that — opinion. Ms. Libby has chosen to explain her perspectives, which is more than appropriate. My concern is that she is using her position as a district administrator to explain perspective as if everyone in the schools agrees with it. This action leaves any district employee who may disagree with her in an awkward position. Many people may shy away from publicly disagreeing with someone who holds such an important position at the central office. At the same time, their silence might be interpreted as being in agreement with Ms. Libby’s opinions.
While I respect Ms. Libby and value many of her opinions, I am compelled to respond to her most recent column. To begin, standards have been a cornerstone of curriculum in all of our schools since the mid-1990s, when the first edition of the Maine Learning Results, which I helped to write, was introduced. Since that time, the standards that schools are supposed to address have changed numerous times, and our schools have kept pace with those changes. At Camden Hills Regional High School, all departments have worked extensively over the years to embed required standards into our courses. Thus, standards are nothing new. Our courses are based on standards, and our teachers are quite seasoned in using them.
What is new, however, is the system of grading that Ms. Libby introduced to Camden-Rockport Middle School shortly after she became principal there. Variations of this system have just recently been put in place in the Lincolnville, Appleton and Hope schools. As many in our community already know, this grading system eliminated percentage and letter grades, and replaced them with a 1-4 scale for each “standard” that students were supposed to master. But beyond this, the new grading system rests on a philosophy called “Zeroes Aren’t Permitted,” which means that if students do not complete assignments, teachers are not allowed to give them zeroes for missing work. The idea behind this is that grades should reflect only a student’s achievement of “academic” standards, and that they should not be influenced by “behaviors” (like turning work in on time). Under this system, “time is the variable.” Students are supposed to be able to learn and complete work at their own pace. Grades are no longer impacted by attendance, punctuality, or class participation. These “behavioral” aspects of learning (and they are things that schools are supposed to help kids learn) are reported separately as “Work Habits.” Although Ms. Libby characterizes this as a positive change that is widely supported by many teachers, in fact there is a wide range of opinion among teachers in all of our schools about whether this philosophy has been beneficial. It is fair to say that many people do not share Ms. Libby's view of the impacts of this grading system.
Ms. Libby's viewpoint sounds very good in theory and she states that the transition to standards at Camden-Rockport Middle School “improved school climate, academics, and intervention.” Frankly, that is a matter of opinion. As a high school teacher in this district for 50 years, my perspective is very different. As soon as Camden-Rockport Middle School switched to this new grading system, teachers at the high school began to see a notable decline in the work habits of our incoming ninth-graders. Students have a great deal of difficulty adjusting to the traditional high school system of grading in which lateness causes a reduction in a grade. They are also coming to the school with an expectation that projects, essays and tests can be redone or resubmitted many times until the grades are improved. This is because they are used to the new middle school system in which “time is a variable.” I do agree with Ms. Libby when she states that, “there is a lot of concern about the potential implications for grading within this system.” Yes, there are.
Ms. Libby makes many other claims that are simply a matter of opinion. She implies that teachers widely support this change when she states: “There are highly effective veteran teachers at CRMS who feel the move to standards based grading has made them better teachers. They are more in tune with student learning and are better able to tailor instruction to meet student needs.” While her statement may be literally true, it is equally true that there are many highly effective veteran teachers in all of our schools who feel that these changes have lacked merit, and have in fact negatively impacted the quality of education we provide. Perhaps even more importantly, students at the high school have provided very clear feedback that the new middle school grading system is not working. Last fall, the high school administration surveyed all of the students about their transition from the middle schools to the high school. Several questions on the online survey asked the current ninth- and 10th-graders which grading system – the middle school standards-based system or the high school traditional, percentage system — motivated them to do their best work and was easier to understand. More than 80 percent of the students who had experienced both ways of grading preferred the high school system. Additionally, students at the high school talk frequently about their negative view of the new grading system at the middle school. Results of this survey were made available to the high school staff months ago, but I am not sure they have been made available to teachers in the other buildings or to the general public.
Finally, Ms. Libby states “Some people fear this transition, assuming the worst (e.g. schools becoming test prep factories).” It would be a mistake to conclude that people who oppose the changes Libby issued into the middle school are reacting from fear of change. This assertion really denigrates the professionalism of those who have a different perspective. Like many of my colleagues who do not agree with Ms. Libby about this matter, I am not afraid of change. I simply think that this particular change lacks merit. I would challenge anyone to find a comprehensive, peer-reviewed study that supports the fact that standards-based grading improves student learning at high-performing high schools because I am pretty sure that no such study exists. And unless it does exist, it seems foolish of us to be putting this amount of time and effort into an unproven initiative.
Let me close by stating that everyone, including Ms. Libby, wants to do what is in the best interest of our students. It is also fine for people to have different opinions and perspectives. I for one value rich dialog around sensitive and important issues. In my opinion, it is regrettable that a one-sided view of standards is being promoted in a vacuum, by a key member of the district. We need to handle differences of opinion professionally and on a level playing field. The fact that Ms. Libby has chosen to state her views publicly, and as the Assistant Superintendent of Schools, makes disagreeing with her very risky. I urge colleagues, parents and community members to get involved, stay informed and speak their minds on this and all significant educational issues.
The standards issue is extremely complex and important. Ms. Libby insists that “Standards Will Enhance Our Schools.” That is a bold and risky statement and Camden Hills has a lot to lose. According to US News and World Report, Camden Hills Regional High School is the No. 6 high school in Maine. We have a long history of academic excellence and student achievement. We have a dedicated and highly trained staff who work to ensure rigor, equity and compassion. While we agree that we can always improve, we believe we should approach improvement with laser-like precision – identifying our weaknesses using data that pertains to our schools and developing home-grown solutions that will work for our students.
Sometimes change is not a good thing and because of the movement to Ms. Libby’s standards based vision of schooling, I have decided to run to represent Rockport on the CSD Board of Directors when I retire at the end of this school year. It is very important that other perspectives and opinions on this issue are heard.
Faith Vautour has been a teacher at Camden Hills Regional High School for 50 years.