Monthly Archives: January 2014

Common Core Standards Breaking Bad?

29–remember this number–we’ll get back to it.

Meanwhile, what is going on with the Common Core State Standards? From reading the sensationalized media, it seems in a matter of months the Standards have broken bad as their cachet reveals cracks through supposed flawed rollout programs, accountability measures tying student achievement with teacher and principal performance, communication with parents problems, and threats of new assessments. What began five years ago as a solution to many of public education’s ills, including declining US competitiveness on international student achievement measures has now seemingly become problematic. What started as a pathway to nationwide rigor and consistency has become fragmented and politicized in some states. What promised to increase literacy and math skills for all students is now accused of stressing children (and parents) and lowering their sense of worth. What in the world has happened? Are things really that different? Are the standards no longer worthwhile and valid? Are they beyond our children’s capacities? Are they too hard? No, No, No, No. Rather, the standards are now more critically important than ever (Remember that number, 29). What’s happened is the Standards are being confused with other challenging elements of school reform including standardized testing and student assessments tied to teacher performance.

As a refresher, the Common Core State Standards were created five years ago through the efforts of the National Governors’ Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. They were designed to ensure students in every state of the nation graduated high school ready for college or career, leading to fewer remediation classes at college, less time for new employee training on communications, basic skills, team work, and so on.  In other words, the Common Core were written to pull America up by its boot straps by raising the proverbial bar of academic rigor. To be exact, two years increased rigor were part of the package. What was once reading material at 5th grade would now be found in 3rd grade, 9th grade literacy expectations were now required in 7th grade. The same rules applied for math. The elementary math curriculum was heavily pruned to remove the excess baggage that bogged students and their teachers down, and at all grade levels, there was a call for mathematical fluency, process skills, and application of mathematics in familiar and unfamiliar scenarios. Increased academic rigor are what the standards  promised and are now delivering in schools across the nation.

Five years ago, the Common Core Standards were advertised quite rightly as a game changer!! From Common Core State Standards InitiativeThe Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy. Well, with the challenges of implementing large-scale school reform, some are beginning to balk at the inherent difficulty of such reform and confusing Standards with other reform elements. As my good friend and colleague, Mike DeCaprio, said, “Part of my current push is for clarity about just what we really dislike. Are the Standards actually breaking bad? Or is the roll out breaking bad? Or was the assessment requirement? Or VAM? Or….” It’s all so confusing, but it needn’t be.

To be clear, the standards have not changed–at all. They still prepare students for college and career readiness. They remain rigorous, and continue to demand higher level thinking across all grade levels and subjects. No one is exempt from teaching or learning the standards, and theoretically, it no longer matters in what state you graduate high school from. As long as the state is one of the 45 which has adopted Common Core, the high school graduate will be prepared for success. What has changed, sadly, is people’s eagerness to lump Common Core Standards with the messiness of standardized assessments, performance reviews, federal intrusion in schools, etc…

It’s hard reforming a nation’s curriculum, particularly when politics enter the equation. It’s hard when student report cards include letters of the alphabet beyond A and B, and it’s hard when this is all done during times of economic duress. And yet, there has been immense progress made in implementing the Common Core. Students are now reading more complex text at earlier grades, learning fractions, ratios and proportions beginning in elementary school, and most significantly, using evidence to support positions. In this region of New York state, parents and educators are finding students can do Common  Core Standards work. Some are downright gleeful with the level of work being done by their children. For a variety of reasons, many of the success stories don’t pass muster in the news media. Instead, recent headlines and political whirlwinds suggest much like in Mary Poppins, a change in the weather is approaching for the Common Core.

With NPR, Lehrer Newshour, Fox News (Yes, I watch both Fox and Lehrer News Hour for my contrarian views), CBS, NY Times,……all reporting regularly about education and Common Core topics, I did a Google search January 22nd on “Common Core News.” What I found is disconcerting, and demonstrates the noise occurring in parts of the nation regarding Common Core Standards.

1. From, TN lawmakers balk at Common Core school standards.

Republican lawmakers are putting the final touches on legislation that would delay the implementation of Common Core education standards and the companion test in Tennessee, perhaps setting the stage for the type of fight playing out in statehouses across the country. Around a dozen House Republicans, according to Rep. Rick Womick, R-Rockvale, are united behind a bill to take a pause from the controversial curriculum — for up to three or four years —

2. From the Pensacola News Journal, Education chief defends changes to Common Core standards

MIAMI — Education Commissioner Pam Stewart defended proposed changes to the Common Core on Tuesday, saying they will set Florida apart and strengthen the state’s academic standards. Stewart presented the changes and fielded questions from the Board of Education at its meeting in Miami. The benchmarks for learning in language arts and math were adopted by Florida in 2010… In Florida and elsewhere, the standards have been criticized as being part of a “federal intrusion” into state education and a strategy to force children to take more high-stakes testing.

3. From Alabama Media Group’s Mike Cason, Superintendent Tommy Bice, panelists disagree sharply on Common Core standards at forum.

Bice defended the use of Common Core as an Alabama-driven approach to set benchmarks that prepare students to succeed in higher education and careers. The detractors described Common Core as a poor substitute for traditional approaches to education that focused wrongly on work preparation and indoctrination.

4. From the Syracuse Post Standard, Cuomo calls for panel to take ‘corrective action’ on Common Core.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced today that he will assemble a panel of educators and legislators to fix what he said was a “flawed” rollout of the Common Core learning standards in New York’s schools.

As the preceding news articles indicate, there are pockets of angst with Common Core. However, to fully appraise what’s happening, one has to have a ground level look to see the problem is not Common Core Standards but the churn, implementation dips, and struggles significant change brings. And at the ground level, one would see we’re moving through the change process. Teachers, students, principals,….are adjusting to the new rigor and challenges. Progress is being made, and students CAN DO the work. Another confounding element is the emphasis by many states on using student achievement data to rate teacher and principal performance. That is a dicey concept at all times, but particularly so when the rules have been changed with new curricula and assessments. People get stressed when there are unknown variables out there, especially when jobs are on the line. A final factor is the misinformation being sent out via the blogosphere, twitter, Facebook, and other forms of media. It so often seems when the going gets tough, the tough get going and the rest complain.

So, about the number 29. 29th is our country’s international ranking  on the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).  That is not good, and in stark contrast for a country that prides itself on being number one. We really must look in the mirror and accept that we are losing when it comes to P-12 education. If we truly believe that a first class education system really, really matters to our longterm global success, then we must address the income inequality gap that exists in the U.S.. 23% of our children live in poverty, which places us 23rd among industrialized nations in terms of childhood poverty. That is unacceptable and damaging to our country’s welfare. Not surprisingly, our students perform much better when poverty is not factored in to the PISA comparisons. We must also continue to demand more from students, teachers, parents, principals, community members, politicians… (The good news is the vast majority of people are rising to the challenge). Lastly, if we want to rise up the international education rankings, we must stop poking holes in quality standards that have pushed students to succeed at higher levels of rigor. Simply put, it’s important to remind ourselves that the Common Core Standards are more rigorous than what we’ve had in the past and as a result provide a pathway to inch back up the rankings list.

Let’s put as much energy and commitment into our PISA ranking as we will do at the upcoming Winter Olympics. Let’s earn the gold medals for academic performance by addressing childhood poverty, pressing all stakeholders to do more, and staying the course on the Common Core Standards and academic rigor. Too much is at stake to do otherwise.


Another Climate Reality Session

Last night I was thrilled to have an audience of over 100 people at the Crandall Public Library in Glens Falls, New York join together to learn about climate change and what we can all do to adapt and mitigate its impacts. The event was advertised by the Saratoga-Glens Falls Chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club which did a real nice job marketing the program. It’s always satisfying to present Climate Reality sessions, and I also appreciate the opportunity to briefly let people know about the SUNY Plattsburgh at Queensbury Branch Campus before beginning the presentation.

The message about climate change is not a pleasant one, and I caution folks before the presentation that the news isn’t good, though we can make a difference and manage the inevitable changes if we act now and with urgency. Last night I was preaching to the choir. The folks who attended were aware of the problem and had great ideas and strategies. However, there were also a few moments of downright melancholy. When you start to really process the depth of change occurring in weather patterns, melting arctic ice, severe droughts, torrential precipitation events…., it can be depressing. These are moments when it is easier to just ignore the problem and hope it goes away. After all, it’s so painful to see a planet one loves under such human-induced pressures.

I try to remind people that we can’t let the problems overwhelm us. Rather, we have to see the solutions, and celebrate our successes. We must have conversations about the issue with those that deny the problem, and we must also use our votes and the mighty dollar as leverage for change. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Below is a simple Top Five Suggestions for Battling Climate Change. Short and sweet.


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A New Year and Investments for Lifelong Success

National Public Radio on WAMC recently aired a story ( about how the financial benefits of holding a college degree last well into retirement and that those individuals with college degrees earn three to five times more money than a person with a high school education during the retirement years. The story followed a 2011 publication by Cynthia Hess, Jeff Hayes, and Heidi Hartmann, titled, Retirement on the Edge: Women, Men, and Economic Insecurity After the Great Recession. The researchers confirm what we know about higher education and income, and reminded me that spending time and money to pursue learning is a good investment–at any age.

The WAMC retirement story makes one consider what other personal investments contribute to a long and satisfying life. My list includes lifestyle choices in the foods we eat, the time we make to exercise and strengthen our bodies, the social investments of networking and our efforts to be with friends and family. All these “investments” combine to enrich our lives now and well into the future. In fact, much as investing in education has a multiplier effect in retirement, it’s likely the same holds true for the other investments we make in our lives.

My favorite self-help “investment” book of all time is Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and it’s the only book I’ve taken the time to read twice. Covey’s habits are all critical “investments” to being an effective teacher, leader, administrator, manager, doctor, parent,…. However, Sharpen the Saw (Habit 7) is the habit which most aligns with investments that make for life-long well-being as it targets one’s mind-body-spirit. Effective people sharpen their saws regularly, and plan weekly per Covey’s suggestion on Physical, Social/Emotional, Mental, and Spiritual goals.

  • Habit 1: Be Proactive
  • Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind
  • Habit 3: Put First Things First
  • Habit 4: Think Win-Win
  • Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood
  • Habit 6: Synergize
  • Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw

With that said, best wishes for the new year and “invest” your time wisely.  Take a college or continuing ed class, get in the gym or out on the trails regularly, read Covey’s work, eat lower on the food chain, network more with colleagues, and have fun with family and friends. You’ll appreciate the dividends of your efforts.


Stephen Danna

Robin Phillips, The Yunque Rain Forest Educator

“Jail or attend and graduate from our Pinellas Marine Institute (PMI). You decide.” That was basically the admissions process 30 years ago when present day rainforest guide Robin Phillips taught 14-18 year old three-time felons who populated the Institute; an institute whose mission continues to this day on getting juvenile offenders back on track through a differentiated experiential program. Robin would spend six years at the Institute educating and counseling troubled adolescent students before life’s twists and turns landed him and his wife in a two-bedroom wooden house at the south entrance of Puerto Rico’s magnificent El Yunque Rainforest. I met Robin two weeks ago while vacationing with my family and in-laws in Puerto Rico, and just had to share my impressions of this fascinating educator and life-long learner.


It was five days till New Years Eve when our waitress overheard the morning planning for our rainforest trip going on over breakfast and suggested we do a tour with Robin Phillips. “People say his tour is the best. You eat all these different kinds of plants from the forest, and he’s a professor who knows everything about El Yunque. Google him.” Wow, that sounded good to me, but our plans were to do the Northern Entrance to El Yunque (which happened to get approximately 3,000 visitors a day vs. 100 at the south entrance). I did the research and googled Robin Phillips. From his site I read the following:

GUIDED EDUCATIONAL RAINFOREST DAY HIKE          Learn the ecology, history and natural wonders of this land while easy hiking, about 4 hours on this 6-8 hour tour.  We pass through Sierra palm rainforest, encountering 4 rivers and several beautiful viewpoints.  Tour, with consideration of group interest will include ecology, plants, animals, herbal, medicinal, history, and local folklore information.  English or Espanol.

Follow the track of a 75-year-old mountain Railroad built by 2000 boys over a period of 4 years to bring electricity to the area by connecting 4 rivers to a 1929 turbine generator still in use today. Learn the secrets of Puerto Rico’s lost animals and native people, why we receive one of the world’s largest rainfalls and have the cleanest air and water on the planet.

Visit one of the most beautiful and remote waterfalls in Puerto Rico where the old growth forest offers a peek into the jungles of past times.  Weather permitting, scale the rock falls and ascend to a secluded jungle pool for a swim. Drink water naturally distilled from the Gulf Stream just a few hours earlier.  

I was sold and convinced the crew, including my wife’s parents, that this would be a good day. The hike would be “easy” with no bugs, a lovely swimming hole, pristine water, and a personalized tour. Later I would learn that “easy hiking” in Robin Phillips’ personal dictionary is a ten miles jaunt. Ignorance is bliss, however, and the nine of us embarked the following morning to the Phillips’ residence for our tour.

We arrived at Robin’s home after a short 45 minute drive that included scenic vistas and narrow, serpentine mountain roads. We parked ahead of Robin’s driveway which literally rose up the mountain at a 60 degree incline (good thing his wife, Sita, had recently powerwashed the drive or we wouldn’t have been able to scale its previously slimy surface to use the facilities). Robin met us at the road with a smile and walked us up to his humble abode to meet his wife and see the bathroom. There was a lot of stuff littered about the grounds of his perched concrete home, and three things stuck with me from that visit: 1) Eating juicy, sweet grapefruits picked right off the walkway of Robin’s home; 2) Sita showing us photos her son had taken of an owl ; and 3) sliding down a pole off the second floor to get back to ground level. I like unique people. I love their creativity, their brilliance, their curiosity, and their energy.  Robin and his family were truly one of a kind.

We’d literally been there ten minutes and were treated like friends. Seriously, I had no idea what to expect from our tour guide and his family. I didn’t know what kind of operation they ran, how they interacted with their guests, etc…  What I learned was they loved their vocation. Sita did the bookings and logistical work, and Robin did the maintenance and tours. They enjoyed their guests, many of which include students and professors from different colleges and universities. They also have a passion for the rainforest and the history of the region. Regardless how the day would proceed, I was hooked.

Robin Phillips is a lean, wiry man with greying hair. I guessed late 50s, but he surprised me by being 66 years old. He says his vegan lifestyle and clean, clear rainforest water are like fountains of youth for him. I’ll add the 10-20 miles of hiking he does with the 600 yearly visitors he takes into the forest to that tonic. Robin Phillips is also an informational maven, and his passion for the forest ecology and history were evident throughout the day. We learned a lot from Robin, and we ate many different and unusual rainforest treats throughout the hike. My daughter is in a foraging club at college, and she was truly loving all the foraging going on with Robin that day. We ate fern fiddleheads, rainforest blueberries, nettle berries, Chayote squash (tastes like carrot), Heliconia (tastes like cucumber), Baquinia plant (cures kidney stones), star fruit, mango, and many other things I either can’t spell or remember.

By day’s end, we were exhausted. Kudos to Jeanette and Dennie, my mother and father in law for trekking ten miles with their children and grand children through rain showers, muddy spots, and occasional up and downhill sections. Kudos to my family and extended family for daringly eating things they’d never seen or heard of before, and kudos to Robin and his family for a truly memorable hike through El Yunque National Forest. We learned so much from our time with Robin, and I personally was thankful to have a more authentic rainforest experience than one found at a “tourist friendly” location. Robin gave us what he had given his students 30 years ago, a differentiated experiential program that would reside in our memories for many years to come. And so it goes, Once an educator, always an educator.