Thursday, February 05, 2015

Below is the text of a letter I sent last week to Mississippi's Senate Education Committee.  I also sent one to the House Education Committee regarding HB 1117.  This is a very important time in our state.  We can blow it, or we can do it right. 

Dear Members of the Senate Education Committee,

I am growing increasingly concerned about the inflammatory rhetoric surrounding the Common Core standards in our state. Initially,  as I witnessed the escalation of the discord, I was primarily concerned that the high ELA standards of the Common Core would be replaced with standards less tied to readying students for the literacy demands of citizenship in a democratic republic.  Recently that concern has become secondary to the fear that the continued divisive rhetoric used by some state legislators is fomenting community unrest and even hostility. I am sure you have come to realize, as I have, that whether or not the Common Core State Standards survive this legislative session, one thing is certain: the sacred bond of trust between the public schools and the communities they serve will most assuredly be a casualty. 
The literacy crisis in our state is real and should be approached with both calmness and urgency.  I see neither of those at work right now.  As a 28 year educator, a National Board certified teacher, a K-12 literacy specialist, and an early childhood specialist, I have watched Mississippi students fall behind the nation in literacy acquisition for many years due to low literacy standards and low expectations of the capabilities of our students.  If we raise those standards and expectations, our students will most certainly encounter challenges.  Supported and encouraged by adults who remain calm and maintain a sense of urgency, our students will be able to meet and embrace those challenges. 

As a Newton County native and a graduate of Lake High School in Scott County--valedictorian, STAR student, recipient of multiple academic awards in both Math and English--I was accepted into the Honors College at USM in 1983 and knew immediately that I was behind in academic achievement compared to my Honors College classmates from other states.  I was privileged to be born into a literate family, many of whom served in the state legislature and were educators, doctors, and businessmen.  Though a lifelong avid reader, I found it quite challenging to read, discuss, and write about the complex texts required of me in college.  It was a baptism by fire, so to speak, and I had to discipline myself to embrace the discomfort that comes from being stretched beyond the literacy demands of previous experiences. I had been taught by adults not to back away from challenges but to work through the discomfort to eventually gain proficiency. 
 If I had been taught using the higher standards of the Common Core or something comparable, I would have been more prepared for college, as the literate capacities in the CCSS were exactly those required of me at USM.  Much has been made of the fact that "not everyone goes to college."  As I think back to the typical literacy experiences in my own K-12 education and those of most of the Mississippi schools that I visit as a professional development provider and World Class Teacher Program director, I am convinced that "college and career ready standards" are even more necessary for those Mississippians who choose not to pursue education beyond college than for those who do, since all citizens will be making the same difficult decisions about navigating systems, budgeting for their own and their children's futures, and choosing political candidates for whom to vote.  A high literacy level enriches the lives of all of our citizens, not just those who earn college degrees. 

 I taught in schools with a high level of poverty and worked hard to raise the academic bar for my students.  I planned challenging lessons and created engaging experiences  that would enable my students to achieve as much as their same-age peers in other communities in the state and nation.  Most of my students were being raised by grandparents who trusted me and trusted the entire school community to do what was best for their children.  There was a sacred bond of trust in place between the school and the community.  I didn't need the huge tomes of research that have been churned out over the last several years to tell me that the bond of trust between schools and the communities they serve is a key contributing factor to student achievement. I am not describing nor advocating a relationship in which parents merely accept school policies.  In fact, every school district in Mississippi has mechanisms in place for both parental input and feedback into almost all aspects of school operations. 
Senate Bills 2690 and 2249 both call for the formation of committees to choose new standards of learning for Mississippi students.  In my opinion, SB 2690 is so strictly prescribed that there is little need of a committee; one or two people could carry out the prescribed actions fairly quickly, pulling from pre-2010 standards of states that are no longer using them.  SB 2690 seems more thoughtfully crafted and takes into consideration several logistical factors, including the need for professional development for teachers once the committee has chosen new standards and they have been adopted by the State Board of education.  Both bills create a gap period of uncertainty for teachers.  The members of this committee will be charged with choosing and/or creating standards that will have a huge impact on the future of our state. Their task should be approached not only with courage but with fear and trembling.  I will pray for each member to have clarity of mind and purity of motive as they respond to this challenge.
However, I fear that no matter what standards are adopted and implemented in our state, so great a level of discord exists in many communities, along with the attendant atmosphere of mistrust that comes with such a state of agitation, that those standards will be met with suspicion and dissatisfaction.  No bill can be written to form a committee to restore the sacred bond of trust between schools and the communities they serve.  Until this bond is restored, if indeed it can ever be, no amount of work on the part of a standards committee will make one bit of difference. 
Robin Atwood

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