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A Superintendent's Perspective on Common Core: Interview with Dr. Benny Gooden

Tarsi Dunlop's picture

As states and districts across the country address the challenges inherent in the shift to new standards, superintendents play a critical role in facilitating the implementation of the Common Core State Standards. Implementation of the standards, with accompanying assessments, presents districts with competing demands and numerous decisions as they consider their technology capability for the new online assessments, necessary changes in instruction and curriculum, how to handle evaluations and data reporting, and the concerns and worries from parents and community members. As district leaders, superintendents take center stage as champions for kids and student learning, and their buy-in is essential for the success of any initiative at the district level. As such, their feedback and critiques on any effort are also invaluable. As part of our continuing series of interviews on Common Core, we're thrilled to highlight the perspectives of long-time education leader, Dr. Benny Gooden.

Dr. Benny L. Gooden is Superintendent of Fort Smith Public Schools in Fort Smith, Arkansas. He has had a distinguished career as a public school administrator and educator, and he served as the President of AASA, The School Superintendent's Association, in 2012-2013. He was kind enough to share some thoughts with Public School Insights on the implementation of the Common Core State standards in a recent email interview. Dr. Gooden acknowledged the challenges facing superintendents and districts while simultaneously addressing the concerns around the standards. They're not perfect, but they are not some evil plot and district leaders have a key role to play in communicating with communities the importance of the standards for our country in the long-term.

Public School Insights (PSI): Thank you so much for taking some time to share your thoughts and perspective on public education and the rollout of the Common Core State Standards. You’ve had a long and distinguished career as an education leader and advocate. From a superintendent’s perspective, what are a few of the most significant changes in the education landscape in the past ten to fifteen years?

Dr. Gooden: Without question the greatest changes during the period have involved a vast expansion of federal influence upon states and local school districts.  While every federal mandate or initiative purports to improve student performance—and to a certain degree many have succeeded—the obsessive reliance upon testing has actually detracted from teaching and learning. Measuring teachers, schools and students using instruments which are inappropriate or limited in what they reflect has had a negative impact upon public support for public schools. The cynic in me considers the possibility that this was the goal all along.

PSI: What do you see as the most vital components in supporting our education system and professionals, families, communities and students? How does the Common Core fit in?

Dr. Gooden: An overriding component of public school viability for the future is the joint “ownership” of local schools by all stakeholders. The Common Core should be just another validation of the consistent preparation which public schools provide to every student. If a measure of consistency such as the Common Core provides is not present, the confidence of all these stakeholders will be lost. 

PSI: As a former teacher and experienced administrator, would you mind sharing a few thoughts on the content and design of the standards and the process through which they were developed?  Are there aspects that you are partial to, or have concerns about?

Dr. Gooden: Any set of standards will have its strong proponents as well as detractors.  The strengths probably include the increased rigor and an increased focus on collaborative and project-based instruction. The inclusion of more experienced and practicing teachers in the development and review of the standards could have made them stronger.

PSI: The road to implementation is proving a bit challenging for most states and districts, but do you see some ultimately positive opportunities and outcomes associated with successful implementation of the new standards? 

Dr. Gooden: Attempting to implement a new set of standards while continuing to administer “high-stakes” tests on current standards is sure to create anxiety for everyone involved. A period of transition during which states, schools and teachers can adjust to new standards and assessments would smooth the process.

PSI: We know that superintendents nation-wide are facing a shortage of resources and extensive reporting requirements; how is this situation impacting the rollout of the standards?

Dr. Gooden: The proliferation of reporting requirement for all types of data is a tremendous burden to teachers and school leaders. Each new data request is presented as “essential” to the improvement of school performance and is also represented as without cost.  Unfortunately, both these assertions are probably false. Resources devoted to more data collection must be diverted from other essential activities.

PSI: What supports do superintendents need – from the federal government, states or their communities – to ensure successful implementation of the Common Core? 

Dr. Gooden: Access to technology to facilitate the new generation of assessments is essential. If sufficient broadband access is not available and networks, software and equipment have not been adequately tested successfully, the wholesale attempt to implement on-line assessments for students across America is certain to fail. In fact, the Affordable Care Act network debacle may look like a success in comparison.

PSI: Could you highlight some examples or best practices from the AASA perspective that would facilitate a smoother implementation process? What steps should districts take to build capacity?

Dr. Gooden: Time to train staff, time to test systems and the broadband access are all essential. AASA must continue to advocate for the support—time and resources—to ensure an orderly transition to the new processes. 

PSI: What steps can district leaders who are supportive of the Common Core, but facing intense political challenges, take to address some of the concerns around the Common Core, many of which relate to implementation issues?  

Dr. Gooden: District and school leaders must effectively communicate with those who will listen about the reasons the Common Core process is good for schools, teachers and students—and subsequently good for the nation. We must offset the mantra of those who brand the process as if it were some evil plot against all that is good and right. Is it perfect? NO. But, neither has been the 50-state shell game of competing standards and tests.  Most thoughtful observers must be tired of the “Our standards are better than yours” claims and the tests which accompany them. Our students and teachers deserve better.

PSI: Finally, as a superintendent, how are you gauging the level of awareness around Common Core in your district more broadly, and what steps are you taking to engage the community in the implementation process? And, how are you working to support educators and school administrators for the transition?

Dr. Gooden: The hard work of teachers to make the transition is reflective of how teachers have always approached their professional responsibilities. As leaders we must support these efforts and continue to improve standards and performance in our communities and across the nation.


The superintendent is clear

The superintendent is clear that taxpayers have been wasting a fortune overtesting our kids for way too long:

"the obsessive reliance upon testing has actually detracted from teaching and learning"

We see that in NY, whether it's a high performing school that has to take time out of a successful, rigorous curriculum to make kids sit and test for hours and hours, or a low performing school in the inner city, where the test scores come out consistently low but the attempted fixes (blaming teachers, closing schools, increasing rigor) have all failed to close the achievement gap.

In the end, it's because the old standards were not the main problem at all - solid research has shown, over and over for decades that socioeconomic status is the main predictor of success in school. The kids who live in extreme poverty or under toxic stress aren't learning, but it isn't because schools aren't offering the opportunity and teachers aren't trying to teach them.

It's because they don't have the home supports to support successful learning. So if taxpayers are going to spend money trying to fix this ill, let's not waste more time on testing and trying to "fix" classrooms, let's get social workers, counselors, cops, doctors, clinicians and professionals on the job to help kids living dysfunctional lives.

These kids stop all the others from learning every period of every day by monopolizing teacher and staff resources. Acting out in school is a form of crying out for help, but kids don't want to rat out their parents. I teach in these schools every day, it's as clear as can be - we are wasting billions on testing companies who offer NO help to our kids.

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