Welcoming Parents to the State Standards Conversation: Interview with Ranjini Govender, Stand for Children Massachusetts
Unless they’re working in education, chances are parents today don’t have much time to research educational initiatives like Common Core, and don’t think there’s much they can do to change the way their children are being taught in the classroom.
Stand for Children hopes to change that. The education advocacy group works with parents to get them more involved in their children’s education at the school, district, and state level. To find out what Stand for Children does and how they communicate things like Common Core to parents (and what they communicate), we spoke with Ranjini Govender, executive director of Stand for Children Massachusetts.
Interviewed by Jake Murray of the Boston University School of Education, Ranjini shares her role in communicating state standards, the public’s misconceptions about Common Core, and her own perspective on why forming high standards is important.
Jake Murray: Hi this is Jake Murray, and I’m at the BU School of Education where I write about Education Policy and practice, and lead a bunch of education improvement initiatives. Today I will be interviewing Ranjini Govender, from Stand for Children, for EdTech Times, specifically focusing on the Common Core. So, Ranjini, it’s great to have you join us, and could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself, and Stand for Children.
Ranjini Govender: Sure, and thanks so much for having me Jake, thanks for having me. Yeah so Stand for Children is an education advocacy group, we work to promote parent voice at the school level, the district level and the state level. So we do that through parent organizing. We have a full time organizer on the ground for Boston Public School system, and the Springfield public school system. So we primarily focus on high needs school districts. And we work with parents to empower them to make them the best advocates they can be for their kids, we also plug our parents into state level advocacy works. So in the past we’ve worked on teacher effectiveness, school funding standards and assessments. So we’re really excited today to dig in a little bit to Common Core and talk to you hopefully about some of the things we’re working on now as well.
JM: [1:15] Great. Great. So let’s start with the Common Core, and to go through some of the quickly the history, so beginning in 2010, most states adopted the Common Core set of national standards, for K to 12 education, so let me begin by asking a basic question or sort of a framing question, why do we need national standards?
RG: So that’s a great question, so I think we need high expectations for our kids. We also need to set expectations on what they will be learning every year. So I think that oftentimes, the issue gets a lot more complicated than it needs to be. I think on a very basic common sense level, we as parents, as the community, and as educators should have a set of standards, a set of expectations, that are high, that every student will meet, and that every educator will meet, no matter where a kid goes to school. So there needs to be a sort of common baseline across the country, and I think that Common Core meets that need. I think that there are high expectations for kids that really are preparing our kids to be college and career ready. And I think that is so key for today.
JM: [2:28] Great, and was it your sense that some states were doing well with standards and some weren’t? And is that why there needed to be some national collaboration around standards?
RG: Yeah, certainly we had some nationwide and international benchmarks. And so Massachusetts, I think, we should be really proud where we consistently come out as number one. And I think that is due in large part to us and our state being in the forefront of thinking about standards and accountability starting back as you know in 1993. So I think some states were most likely doing it better than others, I think that Common Core was sort of born out of that idea that we should have a set of common expectations and so when the governors got together and the chief state officers of education got together to think of these common standards, I think it probably was born out of the need to have a common base line and to set standards for states who maybe weren’t as far along as Massachusetts was.
JM: [3:30] The Common Core standards came out, there was a bunch of different reactions. Anywhere from teachers to teachers unions to parents to education policy analysts. What do you think are some of the common misconceptions around the Common Core?
RG: Yeah, so that’s a great question. I’m often shocked by some of the misconceptions that are out there about Common Core. I think that for whatever reason, the issue of Common Core has become highly politicized, but at its very core it is an education policy. And so in that way, I think there have been two major misconceptions here in Massachusetts. So, one, is that these are in some way substandard to what we used to have in Massachusetts, where as the reality actually is that Common Core was based on Massachusetts standards. So I think that for folks in Massachusetts that are extremely proud, as I think we should be of being number one, I think it’s really important to remember that these standards were based on Massachusetts standards. And I think that the second one is that they can’t be state specific. Whereas in reality, up to 15%, and in Massachusetts 15% of standards are unique to Massachusetts, which I think is great in order to be tailored to our unique system here in this state, and that educators were involved in every step of the process along the way. And so I think that when we think about the high expectations of Common Core, particularly, to the unique situation that we have here in Massachusetts, with our strength of the education system, I think we have to look to first the fact that Massachusetts laid the groundwork for this as we mentioned before. But also that educators were involved, and that they are very unique to Massachusetts.
JM: [5:15] Great. Well, let’s shift from educators to politicians. We’ve had a recent election, we have a new president, many of the Republicans including the new president, have been vocal in opposition to Common Core. So where does Common Core stand today?
RG: Yeah, you know I think that as with a lot of the things that we’ll see now with President Trump, I think that we’ll have to wait and see. I think it’s really important for politicians and educators alike to come together and say we support high standards, we support accountability, we support assessments that will give us an accurate picture of where our kids around the country really are. And so that’s what we hope to see. So we at Stand for Children, and I think most of the education community here in Massachusetts, is squarely focused on that, so I think in some ways we’ll have to be reactionary to what in the rhetoric will actually come to fruition. But I know here in Massachusetts we’re squarely aligned. We have again, strong standards, a strong accountability system, and I think that we should be able to stay there.
JM: [6:30] So you mentioned assessments, and so there’s the common standards on the one hand, and then there is assessments for those standards — whether it’s the PARCC or the partnership for assessment readiness for college and careers, or the other assessment which I believe is the SMART Balance, yes. So in the one sense, the standards have been accepted by most states and the movement towards the assessment has been much more difficult and tricky. So you’ve had parents who have opted out of the testing in certain states, you’ve had the teacher’s unions opposed to them. Even Massachusetts has pulled out of the PARCC assessment, what’s your perspective around the pushback on assessments?
RG: [7:11] Yeah, sure so I think that on a very common sense level, assessments that are aligned with our high standards are key in giving us data on where our students are. So in order for us to be able to best support our educators, and our kids in schools, we have to have accurate information about where they need help, where they’re doing great, and where they may need more supports. And I think that very basic point has gotten lost, in this sort of political idea around sort of kids are being tested too much. I think that the reality is that in the United States we don’t test our kids than other high performing countries across the world, and I would be happy to share some of those things that I have recently learned, that I was my own self surprised about. And so I think that our commitment to our own understanding of where our kids and where our educators actually are, I think that goes hand in hand with having high expectations. And so I think that when folks talk about how our kids are over tested, I think that it sort of muddies the waters a little bit between there’s a reason that we have assessments in place and that’s because we want to measure how we’re doing, and how we’re doing for our kids. And I think that become especially important in high needs communities. I was a teacher myself in a high needs district just a few miles from here in Chelsea, Massachusetts and I know that for me as a teacher having very clear standards and understanding that the assessment at the end of the year was going to track how my kids were doing to those standards was a very positive thing for me in order to measure along the way and at the end of the year, where they actually were. I think that’s very important.
JM: [8:45] So you don’t think there’s over-testing.
RG: I don’t. I think that it’s more of a perspective issue. I think that we need to be smart about where our kids are spending time, I think where we’re headed now with the next generation MCAS and really thinking of a test that will eventually be on computer and preparing our kids to really be global citizens for Massachusetts to be at the forefront of that, I think is going to be very important. I think testing is an extremely critical piece of that, and as a former educator and a parent too, I have two kids in public schools, it’s going to be really important for me to understand where my kids are and in relation to their peers, on a school level, on a district level, and then around the country as well. So I think testing is, you know, it’s never fun to be tested, no one likes to sit down and take tests, but I think it’s a very necessary part, if we want to be real about understanding where our kids, and like where we can support our educators.
JM: [9:45] It sounds like you’re in support of Massachusetts developing its own version or its own assessment. That this sort of MCAS 2.0 that’s aligned with Common Core, you see as a good way forward.
RG: Yeah, you know, there was as you probably remember recently a big debate where the Department of Education did solicit feedback, and we had some parents giving testimony, around you know, we support quality standards, we support a test that is aligned with those quality standards, and I think that going back to sort of the unique situation here in Massachusetts, there were folks who believe that we should have a different test that does incorporate a lot of elements from PARCC, but then can go beyond too with maybe that 15% that we have unique to Massachusetts. So I think that it’s the right choice for Massachusetts, and I think that we’re looking forward to the first year of the next generation MCAS being assessed this year.
JM: [10:45] Let’s shift to parents, and their views on both standards and assessments. What are you hearing from parents, what do you think the views are of parents, and do those views differ across different subgroups of parents?
RG: So that’s a great question, as I previously mentioned, we primarily work with parents in high need communities. And so I have to say that when we said “what do you think of PARCC, what do you think of Common Core, what do you think of next generation MCAS” they didn’t always know exactly what we were talking about. So I think for you and I and folks who are involved in education topics on a daily basis, you know we’re well immersed in these issues. I think for the average parent who’s dealing with work outside of the education sort of world, there needs to be education around what Common Core actually is. So we did some really basic things, let’s look at 7th grade geometry standards, what does this actually mean, what actually are these standards? And we went in with our parents, we gave them a brief tutorial about the the history of Common Core, where we were in Massachusetts back in 2010, when we began adopting these standards, and when we really got down to the nitty gritty, saying let’s do a math problem and see how this plays out in the classroom, there was an extremely positive response from our parents in particular saying this all makes sense, I now understand this, it’s all very clear. And I agree with having high expectations for my kids and all of their peers.
JM: [12:02] Right, your experience working with families where English is not their first language, their children are English language learners, what has been the process of engaging them and understanding Common Core and assessments?
RG: Yeah, I think some very very basic things that we do here at Stand for Children Massachusetts is we translate all of our materials, whether it’s trainings on Common Core, or our blog, our Facebook, our website, all translated into Spanish. So on a very basic level, I think it starts with awareness. And so I think if English were not my first language, I would feel very very disenfranchised by some of the things that are out there coming out from schools and districts, because I wouldn’t be able to read and be the best advocate for my kids. So I think on a very basic level that being aware is definitely important, we hear from our parents that we have this letter from school and I actually need help with it. So we have bilingual staff here which are very critical for us and being able to communicate with our parents. I think as it relates to standards, I think the communication around standards and the hardships that one faces if English is not the first language is common not only if you’re talking about standards but then also school and attendance and report cards that are coming home. So I think one of the things that we do is advocate with the Department of Education, I know that they’re thinking through how to revamp their own website to be more user friendly, and in particular more friendly to parents who might need more support within looking at content that is within different languages. So I think being aware is important, I think taking active steps and translating things to be bilingual, which I think we’re all working towards and can recognizing that. But it is a real problem as we look at communities who are speaking Arabic, we have numbers that speak Arabic as well. And I think just understanding that and making sure that we’re doing everything we can to amplify parent voice within that sort of sphere of making sure that everything is translated.
JM: [14:00] What are the criticisms that parents have raised around math or the way math is taught now? Or the new math, it’s not the way that I was taught or you were taught. What are some of the ways you know of others to mitigate that or try to explain the new math instructional approach?
RG: You know it’s really interesting, because when we talk to the kids of our parents, they don’t even know that it’s new math. I’m probably showing my age here, but I actually sat down and I said I want to know what this fuss is all about with the new supposed way we’re teaching math under Common Core, and so, they’re amazing, I encourage you to take a look. I am sure you have, you know there are these two, three-minute videos about “here’s how we used to learn it when I was in school,” X many years ago, mumble through that, but then also how kids would learn the same problem now under Common Core. And really at the heart of it is different ways of looking at a problem, so if you’re looking at multiplication, 5 times 8, we all know just to memorize 5 times 8, there are ways though to think of it visually where you’re thinking, 5 blocks on the bottom, 8 blocks on the side, so when we took our parents through, let’s actually do a simple math problem these two ways, one in which we’re all familiar with, and one in which our kids are learning, you see that it actually gives a different perspective, and could actually be more individualized to the different ways that kids learn. I think the fuss is probably more about the politics around how Common Core has been unfairly characterized, because as far as learning math I think our standards are high, I think Common Core standards are high, because I think we’re making even better revisions as the new now are under review in Massachusetts as well.
JM: [15:45] Besides Massachusetts, do you know of other states that are moving forward with Common Core and are having success in terms of training teachers around the standards, developing curriculum, and pushing forward assessments?
RG: Yeah that’s a great question, we should actually do a chart that sort of says here are the states that are moving forward, because I know that when a lot of the states were moving to make decisions between PARCC and sticking with their own assessments. I do know of successful strategies that for any new initiative, it’s smart to go to educators and have educators be trained on actually what the standards are. And then actually be able to go back to their communities and say “actually we’re not sure what the fuss is about these are really great standards and actually these are going to support me in the classroom.” So, I think, my hope is that as we move here specifically in Massachusetts to our new next generation MCAS and then also to the revision of standards, that we’ll see across the country that the trend is that we are squarely aligned with having assessments that are testing our high standards, and I think that, I might be wrong, but I think it was Tennessee that did a really great job around doing small teacher academies, to say that any new initiative that we’re going to be sort of putting out from the state level, we’re going to ask for your imput to be involved with the decision making process, and then we’re going ot make sure that you have the accurate information so you can go back and tell other teachers. So I think that’s going to be really critical for any state that’s moving in that direction.
JM: [17:10] Are there opportunities that you know of, for states that are still focused and staying the course with Common Core to come together and share some of their strategies and some of the ways that they are implementing the standards?
RG: Yeah, so I would assume that the council of chief state officers, I’m sure that they probably have some sort of alignment and collaboration around states that have adopted Common Core. I know that the national state legislature also has an organization and consortium where I was just able to hear just a few weeks ago that they have now formed a sort of smaller consortium of legislators that are now focused on education, so we have our chairwoman here Representative Peisch who has been the chairman on the joint committee on education here in Massachusetts, serving on that. So I think it’s going to be really important for states to support each other and I think we’re seeing pieces of that.
JM: [18:06] So in addition to sort of state collaboration, seeing how this next iteration of the MCAS rolls out, are there other things that you think are important to keep an eye on or to be more active in terms of supporting Common Core next?
RG: Yeah, I think as we think what are the levers that we can really pull? Especially in Massachusetts around helping kids get the best start, in life, in their early grades. So when we think about high quality early education, we think about kids starting school and starting kindergarten, being school ready, so that means a few key things. It means having kids in high quality pre-school programs. So getting kids into school, especially in high needs communities, when they’re three and four. And I think that something that I was really surprised to learn is that we really struggle with literacy in this state. So we have 40% of our 3rd graders are not reading where they should be. So I think that’s a big problem that often times gets masked, because our tenth grade scores are so amazing, and we continue to rank number 1. I do think that those third graders as we see a shift in demographics especially from our high needs communities as they move up and through school and as they become high school age, we’re going to face a real challenge in making sure that they’re ready for the world and ready for college and career. So as we think about where are the areas where we can practitioner agreement, meaning superintendents, principals, teachers, where can the education reform community get behind policies, and where can legislators get behind policies. I think there are some areas of cohesions, particularly among early education, and I think that can be even stronger even among early literacy. So what are we doing to help kids learn how to read and be reading on grade level by the time they get to third grade and even earlier? So how are we finding those kids, how are we supporting those kids, how are we supporting educators? You know I am a certified teacher in Massachusetts, I was not prepared to help the high school kids that I was teaching in Chelsea who were struggling with literacy at the age of 14 and 15, so how can we support educators with teaching kids how to read? My hope is that we’ll start hearing more about this, I know that our parents are deeply committed to the idea of early literacy and high quality early education. And I know that the legislature is thinking more and more about that, so I would love to hear from you what you think is important as well, but I think for us here at STAND it’s early education, something we’ve been working on for years, and thinking about how is literacy a lever to pull to actually influence where kids are going to be at 3rd grade and beyond.
JM: [20:40] Those are all things I agree with, and the other piece that I think about a lot is assessment, and how we use assessment. And often it can be an assessment ot make decisions, about teachers or about schools versus assessment that can be used in a very granular way to think about what’s going on with a kid. And how to shape your instruction, even personalize your instruction for a kid, and I think with the advancements in technology and the ability to quickly analyze assessments in order to offer them more periodically and in not such an overwhelming way that that could be the real use and power of assessment. Is to really hone in what’s going on with children to develop strategies and plans related to that. And getting it away from these political level decisions from the school is not good, the teacher’s not good. So I think that’s another big piece of this whole assessment question.
RG: That’s a really good ESA, the new federal rule requirements, and as Massachusetts looks to ways to be compliment with ESA, I think we’re going to see some positive things that I know the state is thinking about chronic absenteeism. How do we not only have an accountability system based rightfully so on level 1 through 5s that are based on primarily on those assessments, but then how can we also get a bigger picture of school climate, chronic attendance, how are ELL students doing, so I hope you’ll be happy with some of the recommendations that are being vetted right now.
JM: [22:15] No I look forward to reviewing them. And how I think that there are some other good ideas about time in schools, both sort of you know extending time both during the day and over the year to really maximize the amount of time that students are sort of learning different things and different content areas, that we have an older schedule system that doesn’t quite work for a lot of students, particularly students that are high needs. That could be another innovation, another part of ed reform, that could help ultimately with student outcomes.
RG: I think that makes a lot of sense. I think that one of the things that we see especially in literacy is that kids in their early grades, because they have in their summer vacation which is nice and fun that the reality is that the kids are losing a lot of learning that they do gain throughout the year, especially as you say about high needs kids so how we can support those kids over the summer, to make sure that they’re learning and fun and innovative ways. And also extended learning time, we’ve heard a lot about that and much to the credit of organizations here in Massachusetts that’s really become a fundamental piece of the conversation. The school day shouldn’t be ending 1:50, we should be finding ways to engage our students and enrich, and there are some wonderful partners doing that work as well. But I completely agree.
JM: [22:25] right right, that it’s more time but it’s not more of the same thing. It’s enrichment it’s all sorts of other opportunities, experiential learning, and so forth.
Read (and listen to) the rest of our “Demystifying Common Core” series:
Hannah Nyren is the General Manager of EdTech Times. A Texan by birth but a Bostonian at heart, Hannah is an educational writer, AmeriCorps alum, and one-time StartupWeekend EDU (SWEDU) winning team member. She started her career at a Pearson-incubated edtech startup, but has since covered travel, food & culture, and even stonemasonry in addition to education.