Updated Mon, Jun 30, 2014 3:34 pm
The nation’s largest teachers’ union is meeting this week in Denver to focus on three main issues: Common core, standardized testing and school safety.
Becky Higgins spent 19 years as a first-grade teacher with Copley-Fairlawn schools. She’s seen the state adopt the national Common Core standards with little controversy. And she’s seen the second-guessing begin. Overall, she said Ohio educators support the standards with an important caveat.
“Like anything that’s new, we … need the time to get the standards right," Higgins said. "Time to learn them, time to collaborate with fellow teachers, getting meaningful professional development in order to be able to implement them (standards) in the best way we can with our students because our students are depending on it.”
Practical applications may reveal problems
In all, she said it should take about three years to learn, train for and implement the standards “and then see if those implementations are the correct ones.”
Time for course correction is key, Higgins said “because we come up with lesson plans, because we come up with ideas, but sometimes it doesn't always meet the needs. So we need to go back and change.”
Common Core – like other education reforms – will be measured in large part by standardized tests. Higgins said that’s a problem.
High-stakes testing for third-graders
“The high-stakes standardized tests have put undue pressure on teachers and schools, but especially on the students,” Higgins said.
And with Ohio’s third-grade reading guarantee, “I am most concerned about because we’re putting a lot of stress on a third-grader to take one test on one day that will make a decision if they’re going to go onto fourth grade.”
Supporters of the third-grade guarantee say children need to be proficient at a certain level of reading in the third grade or they have little chance of succeeding beyond.
But Higgins maintains – even if the children move on, “reading does not cease to be taught after third grade. … Starting in kindergarten, all students do not come to school at the same readiness level.
“So teachers are differentiating our instruction, giving assessments that are going to help inform instruction. What people are forgetting is that there are many other factors that go into a child being able and being ready to take a test.
“Are they hungry? Are they homeless? Are their needs not being not being met? This might sound funny, but did their puppy die the night before?
“I’m a first great teacher," Higgins said. "I can tell you all these things have a great impact. So when they come to take that one test on that day, sometimes they’re not ready to take that test.”
So how to measure?
Much of the call for more standardized testing arose about three decades ago, when national reports questioned whether grades from individual schools and teachers were consistent and valid measures of student performance.
Higgins said the system may have gone to the other extreme.
“As educators we know there are all kinds of ways to measure if a student is learning. Some of that is observation, (and) assessments do come into play. But again assessments are usually used to inform instruction, seeing what we need to do to meet the needs of that child, meeting them where they are.”
Then there’s safety
A third issue Higgins expects to be a big one at the National Education Association conference is school safety. Higgins wants to see a comprehensive approach with input from parents, educators and community that focuses on “expanding mental health services, investing in infrastructure and critical programs in schools and on campuses, and common sense gun safety.”
But “we believe that each school district should develop its own plan, train relevant personnel and make careful decisions on school safety and security measures.”
Higgins, the new president of the Ohio Education Associations, is one of nearly 9,000 unionized educators attending the National Education Association Conference in Denver this week.