Politics to the core

Reporter’s notebook: After a night with Glenn Beck, anti-Common Core crusaders look toward election, legislative session

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Jack Matthews, an organizer for Stop Common Core Colorado, watches Glenn Beck's "We Will Not Conform" live event via satellite at a theater in Aurora.

Anita Stapleton, one of the original Colorado crusaders against the Common Core State Standards, didn’t need the validation she felt on Tuesday night.

But it didn’t hurt, either.

That night, Stapleton was one of hundreds of theatergoers statewide who participated in a live event hosted by conservative-media personality powerhouse Glenn Beck, who recently authored a book of opposition on the matter.

Dubbed “We Will Not Conform,” the event — equal parts group therapy, sermon, strategy session, book-sale pitch — was filmed in Texas and beamed via satellite to cineplexes across the nation.

“For him to take this on, it’s been huge,” Stapleton said. Seeing the dozens of educators, parents, and politicians who stood with Beck Tuesday night “substantiated” everything Stapleton has done. “I’m not crazy,” she chuckled. “I’m not alone.”

Stapleton’s small but vocal protest against the standards, which Colorado adopted in 2010, has been a regular fixture at Colorado State Board of Education meetings for more than a year. Multiple times a month, she crisscrosses the state, sharing her reasons for opposing the standards with whomever will listen.

Opponents of the standards, like Stapleton, have a long list of concerns. Generally, they believe the standards — and new standardized tests created to match the standards — stifle local control of schools, parents’ and student privacy rights, and that the true intent of the new standards is to make money for private businesses — not boost academic performance.

Meanwhile, supporters of the new standards, which were designed by a coalition of states and later backed by the federal government, believe the benchmarks are more rigorous than previous standards and will help prepare students for the economy of the future.

“Beck’s book asserts that Common Core is ‘about creating workers, not thinkers,’” said Zack Neumeyer, chairman of Sage Hospitality and spokesman for Future Forward Colorado, the business coalition in support of the new standards and tests. “If he talked to Colorado’s CEOs, they would tell him that we need employees who can think deeply and solve problems. The Colorado Academic Standards, which include the Common Core, are higher expectations that give employers like me confidence that our job candidates will have the skills they need to run a hotel or restaurant or identify a good investment opportunity.”

The standards were also designed to ensure consistency in what schools are teaching across state lines. A student in Colorado, supporters argue, should neither be too far ahead nor too far behind when her family moves to Iowa. Their assessments, which debut next spring, are meant to allow states to compare results.

Beck’s aim was to catch up newbies to the issues and fire up those who have been opposed to the new standards.

And it worked, Stapleton said.

“This was a call to action — to help get the grassroots organized,” Stapleton said after the event. “It gave direction to those who didn’t have direction. We have needed help nationwide — to get to those areas where we haven’t been to raise awareness.”

The question now is whether the intended jolt of energy for those concerned citizens will translate into real political action and results.

To help ensure that translation, Beck’s team crafted a nearly 20-page “action plan” outlining next steps and emailed it to individuals who signed up for it at the event.

So far, three of the original 45 states that signed on to the standards have withdrawn from the Common Core. But in Colorado, as in a number of other states, efforts to abandon the standards have so far failed to gain substantial political momentum.

Stapleton’s organization, Stop Common Core Colorado, had organizers at 12 of the 21 theaters across Colorado that participated in the event.

The average theater, according to her organizers, had about 30 people. A theater in Grand Junction, she said, had the highest turnout with 165 people. In Aurora, where I caught the event, there were more than 60. Neither Beck nor a representative from Fathom Events, the distributor would comment on exactly how many tickets were sold at the 700 theaters that participated. But, in a statement, Josh Raffel, spokesperson for Glenn Beck said the event “would have placed it No. 2 on a per auditorium basis at the box-office when compared to movies showing the prior Tuesday.”

Stapleton said she heard reports along the front range of moviegoers staying out late into the night at nearby coffee shops and restaurants discussing their next steps.

But, she admitted, “I’ve been promised bus loads of people before” that haven’t materialized.

Turnout for a rally in February to support a bill that would delay the new standards and their aligned tests, organized in part by Stop Common Core Colorado and Core Concerns, was expected to be high, but in reality few materialized. (Plenty of folks showed up later to testify both in front of the State Board of Education and a legislative panel reviewing the bill — which later killed it.)

Still, Stapleton said she has renewed hope.

On Monday, Stapleton will kick-off a series of weekly statewide conference calls to better coordinate across the state. A leadership workshop is in the works to train activists across the state. Opponents to the standards are already eyeing the next legislative session.

And of course, there’s the 2014 midterm elections that includes a battle for control of the state Senate and the governor’s mansion. And when I asked if she and her cohorts would be taking an active role in the election, Stapleton replied: “Heavens yes.”

But other parents in Aurora were less committed.

“I’m still trying to digest it all,” said Jenae Hester, a mother of two. She pulled her daughter out of the Cherry Creek School District over her objections to the standards that she believes are a “one-size fits all” approach to education and age-inappropriate. “I took a lot of notes,” she said. “I’m going to some of the websites they mentioned.”

(For a national perspective on Beck’s event — and its possible impact on the debate — check out these articles from The Washington Post, and NPR here and here.)

Detroit Story Booth

Why one woman thinks special education reform can’t happen in isolation

PHOTO: Colin Maloney
Sharon Kelso, student advocate from Detroit

When Sharon Kelso’s kids and grandkids were still in school, they’d come home and hear the same question from her almost every day: “How was your day in school?” One day, a little over a decade ago, Kelso’s grandson gave a troubling answer. He felt violated when security guards at his school conducted a mass search of students’ personal belongings.

Kelso, a Cass Tech grad, felt compelled to act. Eventually, she became the plaintiff in two cases which outlawed unreasonable mass searches of students in Detroit’s main district.

Fast forward to August, when her three great-nephews lost both their mother and father in the space of a week and Kelso became their guardian. Today, she asks them the same question she has asked two generations of Detroit students: “How was your day in school?”

The answers she receives still deeply inform her advocacy work.

Watch the full video here:

– Colin Maloney

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.