Terrill L. Nickerson: The Paradox of the Common Core

rockies2 Terrill Nickerson commented on the previous post on this blog, 6 Reasons Why the Common Core is Not Progressive Ideology.  I thought his comments were important to share as a separate post.  Terrill Nickerson has written an interesting article on how he approaches the Common Core and high-stakes testing in his context of teaching, which is in communities serving marginalized and underrepresented families.

He writes:

In my twenty-six years teaching in schools with large numbers of marginalized, and underrepresented families, I do not agree with the assertion that high-stakes testing and Common Core State Standards (CCSS) sprang out of progressive ideology.  Most of my colleagues that work with these populations tend to believe the exact opposite.  The common feeling is that the high-stakes testing tends to be biased against the children that come from culturally different, marginalized, or economically poor families. Likewise, my colleagues would accuse the CCSS of failing to take into account the realities of the worldview and paradigms experienced by the these groups.

Realistically, I know these biases and shortcomings exist.  I have seen them firsthand, especially with regard to the high-stakes testing.  However, my paradox arises with the arguments, pro and con about the Common Core Standards.  I began my professional career as a scientist, not a science teacher.  After a decade of working in the professional science ranks, I decided to become a teacher.  I also continued to learn and progress, as I completed my M.S. Ed. in Science Curriculum and Instruction, while teaching.  I was working in a Native American school system and community.  So my professional growth and learning was applied to this community.

However, the communities, in which I taught realized that getting a mainstream education was the only way that their communities could survive into the future.  I was encouraged to challenge my students and present them with the highest level of education that I could.  I was also challenged to learn, and use the cultural strengths to carry out this task.  I did not find a contradiction in these expectations.

As a scholar and scientist, I see the value in creating a more consistent set of academic expectations.  Knowing what I know about what the science professions and the universities expect, I do not see the Common Core as a threat to our children.   The problem does not lie with the Standards themselves, but rather with the interpretation of how they should be implemented. I always insisted that if you teach sound scientific procedures and problem solving skills, students will do well on the high-stakes tests.

Teaching solid practices, regardless of your choice of content material, still builds a solid foundation.  This foundation teaches students solid test-taking skills by teaching them to be critical thinkers and to recognize inconsistencies and errors in logic through elimination.  My students were successful, and still are, even though the present educational setting insists that I follow the Standards more closely than before.

The Common Core doesn’t tell us how to teach.  Instead, it provides teachers with a guideline for what type of knowledge and information is both topical and cutting edge in keeping up with advances in our discipline.   Despite the emphasis upon the Standards teaching, I still find time to diverge and create projects for my students that are hands-on, project-based, and steeped in engineering and science methodologies, and still do justice to the Standards.

As I’ve always said, “I teach my high school students at a college level, with an understanding that the outcomes will reflect a high school level of sophistication and development, and grade accordingly  Do not tell them you are doing this, just expect it of them, and work with them in tandem to achieve it. They will rise to the occasion and expectations, and begin to accept them as the normal level at which they should be working.’  I have very few failures.

About Terrill Nickerson

Terrill Nickerson is veteran high school science teacher with 26 years experience.  His first 15 years teaching science began in the Native American community, beginning on the Hopi Reservation in NE Arizona, and then on to teach at Santa Fe Indian School in Santa Fe, NM.  He is now teaching in various charter schools in New Mexico and Southern Colorado.  He holds bachelor degrees in Archaeology and Geology, a Masters of Science in Education, and is working on his Ph.D.  After several years as a professional archaeologist and paleontologist, and experiences writing curriculum for CDC, he pursued a career in science teaching.  Terrill says that because of the width and breath of his experiences, he is able to bring real-life experiences to the classroom, and use the practical science experiences he used in the field.  He brings project-based teaching to his students, involving them in designing data collection devices to be used in their own investigations.  His work in the Native American community led him to become a practitioner of Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences.  He now teaches in a small rural, agricultural community, with a large migrant work population.  

Culturally Responsive Pedagogy Enhances Student Achievement

In an important article in Education Week, Willis D. Hawley and Jacqueline Jordan Irvine, explain why students’ cultural identities are integral to “measuring” teacher effectiveness.

As it stands now, student achievement test scores are being used as the measure of teacher effectiveness in terms of the value added measure (VAM).  VAM is a data driven measurement that is totally based on changes in test scores from one year to the next for an individual teacher.  Critics of VAM have noted that research studies show that VAM scores are very inconsistent.  Furthermore, the Board on Testing and Assessment (BOTA) of The National Academies issued a letter to the Department of Education on the Race to the Top Fund (RTTT).  The essence of the letter was a critique of the RTTT Fund’s insistence on linking student test scores to teacher effectiveness.  In the letter, the BOTA had this to say:

The initiative should support research based on data that links student test scores with their teachers, but should not prematurely promote the use of value-added approaches, which evaluate teachers based on gains in their students’ performance, to reward or punish teachers.

Drs. Hawley and Irvine  believe that the practices that teachers use should be part of any teacher assessment system.  Teaching practices, to be used in teacher assessment, need to be observed, or need to be described by teachers themselves.  In particular, the authors suggest that there are teaching practices that are called “culturally responsive pedagogy (CRP), and that these need to be included in any “high-stakes teaching evaluation.”

As Hawley and Irvine point out, culturally response teachers,

  • understand that all students, regardless of race or ethnicity, bring their culturally influenced cognition, behavior, and dispositions to school.
  • understand how semantics, accents, dialect, and discussion modes affect face-to-face interactions.
  • know how to adapt and employ multiple representations of subject-matter knowledge using students’ everyday lived experiences.

Hawley and Irvine identify six examples of CRP that taken individually can make a huge difference in embodying the racial and ethnical effects on student learning.  These practices are not new, but they reflect a more indirect approach to teaching and learning, and in all cases, the nature of the students is seen as fundamental in teaching.  Highly effective teachers use practices such as these, and they should be an integral part of the assessment of teachers.

  • Learning from family and community engagement
  • Developing caring relationships with students
  • Engaging and motivating students
  • Assessing student performance
  • Grouping students for instruction
  • Selecting and effectively using learning resources

As you look back at this list (see their article for details on each), these practices ought to be used as measures of culturally responsive teaching, and as the authors point out “these describe the practice of all effective teachers, regardless of the characteristics of their students.  By making sure that teaching practices such as these become part of the evaluation of process, we make assessment more closely aligned to what teachers are really doing in their classrooms, rather than simply depending on an average test score that students score during a one-two hour period in the spring.