A Mental Health Professional’s Perspective on the Common Core
Dear Mrs. Swasey & Mr. Beck:
I am writing this note on behalf of your joint request to address issues surrounding the Common Core State Standards Act (CCSS) that is currently in the process of being implemented in the vast majority of our public school systems in the country.
By way of background, I’m an African American Doctor of Clinical Psychology (Psy.D.) currently serving as Director of Clinical Training & Community Advocacy at a private child psychology clinic in South Jordan, Utah. I completed undergraduate education at both the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, and Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. In addition to my personal experiences involving my four children in public schools, I have completed multiple thousands of hours in training/therapy/assessment/legal advocacy work with children in both the private and public school settings in multiple western states. I am also the author of a award winning doctoral project/dissertation which tackled the ago old problem of why many African American school aged children underperform in public schools titled, “Cracking the Da Vince Code of Cognitive Assessment of African American School Aged Children: A Guide for Parents, Clinicians & Educators” (Thompson, G. 2008).
As a “local clinical community scientist”, I have an ethical obligation to our community at large to provide unbiased opinions regarding issues that affect the education experiences of school-aged children and their respective guardians. The “Common Core States Standards Act” (CCSS) falls uniquely into this category. I have devoted many hours reading commentaries and studies, both pro and con, regarding the overall efficacy of CCSS.
In a nutshell, the (mostly) progressive public education community speaks highly of CCSS and its stated goal of raising educational standards across the board in a effort to improve the educational process for all students in the country, particularly under performing African American and Latino students nationwide.
The (mostly) conservative opponents of CCSS claim that involvement in public school education should be primarily a local/statewide process, and that Federal intrusion into public school education is not effective for multiple alleged reasons. In addition, there are disputes involving the CCSS curriculum itself whereas proponents cite multiple sources of research that allegedly support the efficacy of the education content.
Opponents also cite similar competing references that support their contention that CCSS curriculum stifles’ teachers’ creativity and that the content, especially in math, is not effective for early learners, gifted students, and children with diagnosed learning disabilities. The amount of information available to voters and parents by “experts”, both for and against CCSS, is overwhelming in its length, complexity and emotional intensity. Like the Affordable Care Act, the implementation of the Common Core State Standards in the vast majority of public schools nationwide, has caused a seemingly unbridgeable divide in many quarters of this country.
I am not an expert in the development and implementation of core educational curriculum in public schools, so I will not comment on the issue. I am not an expert on the effects of federal government involvement, verses local involvement, in public school education, so I will not comment on the issue. I am not a forensic accountant with expertise in the areas of national and local financial accounting tax monies submitted towards public education, so I will not comment on that issue. I am also not a politician, nor do I represent any special interest groups that could even be remotely tied to the multiple and complex issues surrounding CCSS. I find the political process in this day and age to be ineffective and personally unfulfilling, and will not comment on the efficacy of education platforms set forth by the three main political parties. I am, however, an expert in psychological and educational assessment/testing, as well as privacy acts surrounding the use of these tests in both private and educational settings. My remaining comments will focus on these two issues as they are addressed by the CCSS.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, CCSS will authorize the use of testing instruments that will measure the “attributes, dispositions, social skills, attitude’s and intra personal resources” of public school students under CCSS (USDOE Feb, 2013 Report). In a nutshell, CCSS simply states that it will develop highly effective assessments that measures….well….almost ”everything.”
Our clinic performs these comprehensive IEE’s (Individual Education Evaluations) on a daily basis. These test measure “attributes”, “dispositions”, “social skills”, “attitudes” and “intra personal resources” as stated by the USDOE. In addition, we utilized state of the neuro-cognitive tests that measure the informational process functioning of children in school (Cognitive Assessment System, Naglieri 2002).
A careful, or even a casual review of a “comprehensive evaluation” would clearly show that the level of information provided about a particular child is both highly sensitive and extremely personal in nature. They are also extremely accurate. In a private clinic such as ours, we follow strict privacy guidelines regarding patient privacy (HIPPA) and when dealing with educational institutions, we also make sure that we comply with the FERPA Act (Federal Education Reporting & Privacy Act).
Bluntly put, if a client’s records somehow get into the hands of anyone besides the parents without written consent from the parents, or a court order, our clinic would be shut down in a heartbeat and the clinician who released unauthorized comprehensive assessments would lose their license. Clinical Psychologists in graduate level classrooms and clinical training sites spend years getting these basic privacy rights pounded into our heads. Failure to articulate and implement strict privacy guidelines issued by the Federal Government, State licensing boards, or the American Psychological Association (APA) would result in immediate dismissal from graduate school academic institutions, as well as any clinical psychology training sites in either Internship or Residency settings.
The accuracy of psychological testing has grown in the past 10 years to astonishing levels. The same tests used in our clinic for assessments, are used in part by federal law enforcement agencies, the military, local police departments, and the Central Intelligence Agency. (Interesting enough, these agencies are also interested in finding out about alleged terrorist’s, serial killers, or airline pilots “attributes, dispositions, social skills, attitudes and intra personal resources”). When placed in the “right” hands of trained mental health professionals, psychological testing can save lives. Placed in the “wrong” hands, psychological testing can ruin lives as well as cause psychological trauma to people if they have knowledge that their results were used for nefarious purposes.
Below are issues regarding CCSS “testing” policies that have not been addressed by the Common Core to State’s Governors’, State Superintendents, State School Boards, local school district superintendents, local school boards, to parents of children in public school education:
Common Core does not address what types of tests will be utilized on our children.
Common Core does not address, specifically, exactly who is developing these tests.
Common Core does not address the fact that these tests have not yet been developed, and are not available for public consumption or private review by clinical psychology r
esearchers and psychometric professionals.
Common Core does not address if the soon to be completed tests will be subjected to the same rigorous peer review process that ALL testing instruments are subjected to prior to being released to mental health professionals for their use in the private sector.
Common Core does not state which public school employees would be administering or interpreting these tests. There is a reason that School Psychologists cannot “practice” outside of their scope in school districts. As hard working and as wonderful as this group is, their training pales in comparison to the average local clinical psychologist.
Common Core does not address the well documented, peer-reviewed fact that both African American and Latino students, due to cultural issues, tend to have skewed testing results when cultural issues are not addressed prior to the initiation of such testing. This should probably be addressed if these results are going to be following a student “from cradle to high school graduation.”
Lastly, once these highly intimate, powerful, and most likely inaccurate testing results are completed, who EXACTLY will have access to all of this data? Common Core DOES address this issue and it is the subject of the next section.
I mentioned above that our private clinic is subjected to multiple federal, state, and professional association regulations when it comes to protecting and releasing mental health records. The rationale behind these regulations is obvious in nature both to the professionals, as well as their clients. Records do not leave our clinic unless the guardians of the children instruct us, or unless a District Court judge orders the release of the records. In some cases, we are even ethically obligated to fight court orders that request private mental health records.
Common Core State Standards radically changes this game.
Prior to CCSS, public school districts were required to adhere to the same rules and regulations regarding private records as our clinic is subjected to. HIPPA tells us how to store records, were to store records, and whom to release them too. FERPA (Federal Education Records Protection Act) is subjected to HIPPA requirements when it comes to protecting sensitive education records. As show herein, educational testing records are highly sensitive and it only makes common sense that this practice of protecting these sensitive records continues.
Buried in all of the fine print of the CCSS is a provision that allows participating school districts to ignore HIPPA protections. The newly revised FERPA laws grants school districts and states HIPPA privacywaivers.
Department of Health & Human Services Regulation Section 160.103 states, in part,:
“Protected health information EXCLUDES individually identifiable health information in education records covered by the Family Education Rights & Privacy Act (FERPA), as amended 20 U.S.C. 1232 g”.
CCSS also states that this “information” may be distributed to “organizations conducting studies for, or on behalf of, educational agencies or institutions to develop, validate, or administer predictive testing.” (CCSS (6)(i).
In summary CCSS allows the following by law:
Grants school districts a waiver from FERPA in terms of deleting identifying information on their records.
Allows school districts to then give these identifiable records basically to anyone who they deem to have an viable interest with these records.
These organization or individuals chosen by the government to use this data to develop highly accurate predictive tests with no stated ethical procedures, guidelines, or institutional controls. (What are they exactly trying to “predict”?”
All without written parental consent.
The “Comprehensive Statewide Longitudinal Data System,” employed by CCSS that will hold this sensitive data, per DOE webpage, states, “all States implement state longitudinal data systems that involve elements specified in the “America Competes Act”. I spent two hours pouring over this Act to see if there were any further guidelines to Federal of State officials as such may pertain to privacy issues. None could be found.
Proponents of the CCSS point to volumes of articles and promises and policies that state that our children’s data will be private and protected by the national and state data systems that will shortly be implemented per CCSS guidelines. I have very little doubt that the computer systems employed by Federal, State and local districts that contain this data will be state of the art computer systems. Others whom are experts in this field may differ strongly). The point however is this: CCSS does not specify who can have access to their records, or for what specific purposes this sensitive data will be utilized. When it comes to addressing privacy issues, the CCSS contains abundant, generalized “legal speak”.
In terms of privacy issues, below are issues regarding CCSS “privacy” policies that have not been addressed by the Common Core to State’s Governors, State Superintendents, State School Boards, local school district superintendents, local school boards, to the parents of children in public school education:
Exactly WHO will have access to records obtained by this national/state database? The generic political answer of “Appropriately designated education officials or private research entities” does not “cut the mustard.”
For what EXACT purpose will this sensitive data be utilized?
What organizations will have access to identifiable academic records? Other than generic information regarding race, age, gender and geographic location, why does the Federal database require identifiable information to be accessible?
If the political responses to these questions are “all information contained in the database is unidentifiable and securely stored,” then why were changes made to FERPA to allow an exemption to educational privacy rights when it comes to the implementation of Common Core State Standards?
What type of “predictive tests” are currently being designed and who will have access to results of whatever is being measured?
Like the infamous “No Child Left Behind” laws that on some levels (with the sole exceptions of the 2004 IDEA Act included in NCLB), have set back progress of public school education years, I honestly believe that a few lawmakers with good hearts and intentions honestly wanted to find solutions to our public school systems. I believe also that the Obama Administration wants every child to have a proper and rigorous education and that the implementation of Common Core will bring them closer to that goal.
I am also, however, a local clinical community scientist. In this role I have several serious questions concerning CCSS noted herein which have yet to be answered to my satisfaction as a scientist, education advocate, and parent. I would implore every Governor, State Superintendent, and State School Board member in the country to honestly and openly explore the issues cited above and provide accurate answers to these issues to the public in “plain speak”.
Given the gravity of these issues, I cannot professionally endorse the Common Core State Standards as currently written until pointed clarification is provided by politicians and educators from both party’s endorsing CCSS. Nor in good conscience can I enroll my toddler in a public school system that utilizes CCSS until these issues are clarified to my satisfaction.
The issues involving psychological testing and privacy are issues
that should be of concern to every parent with a child enrolled in public school. The power granted federal and state education administrators via the regulations of CCSS are unprecedented in nature. Some parents will be quite comfortable with CCSS even in light of the issues detailed in this letter. Some parents would be aghast with the same provisions. Regardless, parents deserve to be clearly informed about these and other issues surrounding CCSS in a clear and straightforward manner so that they can make educated choices regarding their children’s educations.
On a final note, I wish to publically show my support to the underpaid and overworked public school teachers nationwide. If I had the power, I would elevate their status to that of a medical doctor in terms of pay and prestige. What they do with the limited resources available, and with the burden of bureaucracy following their every professional move is simply nothing short of amazing. Our clinic employees several public school teachers (One is a former Utah Teacher of the Year), and school psychologist due to their amazing talents and abilities of reaching the hearts and minds of our young and diverse educational psychology clients.
There are answers to most of the perplexing questions facing public school officials. I believe these answers can be readily found in multiple peer-reviewed journals in neuropsychology, clinical psychology, education and public policy. Answers can also be found by mining the experiences, wants and needs of our hardworking public school teachers on the local and statewide ground level, as well as local parenting organization of various stripes. Once science and cultural based solution are found and implemented, I believe even cynical conservative lawmakers nationwide would be more willing to pony up additional tax payer money when presented with imaginative, science based educational models in pubic school systems. On the other hand, simply adding billions of dollars towards a 150-year old foundational system of education in crisis without implementing massive changes is irresponsible, unimaginative, and most likely politically and monetarily motivated.
When politics and money are taken out of the public school education policy arena and replaced with common sense and culturally sensitive science, mixed in with local value systems, I believe we, as a nation will make great strides in the goal of educating our children.
Until that time comes, it is my wish that regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation and political affiliations, our country will join together at the grass roots to amicably reach “common core” grounds of restoring our once proud public education system.
Dr. Gary Thompson
Director of Clinical Training & Community Advocacy Services
Early Life Child Psychology & Education Center, Inc.