Sunday, February 9, 2014

When Good People Love Bad Standards

It's fun to write big ranty posts in response to people who I think are just full of it. But where I learn more is in reading and responding to people with whom I share some values. If you and I agree about many educational values, can I figure out why you think the CCSS are swell and I would rather dance with a one-legged zombie? That's when I can learn something.

Starr Sackstein guest-wrote a column for Peter DeWitt this week. Sackstein and I agree on many things, but Sackstein thinks the CCSS are just fine. I started to respond  in the comments section, but I have a verbal diarrhea problem, so the response is here instead. I think her column is meant to argue against bubble testing, but for me it runs aground on the shoals of CCSS Island and never quite recovers.

The intro ends with this: Creativity and innovation must be the end goal, nurturing the symbiotic relationship so we can all become better together. This cannot be assessed with short answers or multiple choice. And I am absolutely on board. But then we hit our first subheading:

Teach with purpose rather than complain about the test.

I agree absolutely that we must teach with a purpose (you know I believe it because I just blogged about it ), but how do you say "Don't worry about the test" to teachers whose professional future depends on those test results? "Value learning over test numbers" are words I'd like on a t-shirt or a billboard, but how do you propose to stand up for that value in the current climate? That's not a rhetorical question-- teachers need hard, practical specific ideas about how to main that value in a script-drill-test world. 

As long as there is meaningful, transparent learning happening, the test will take care of itself.

I think I've heard this roughly a zillion times. Teachers like to hear it from administrators because it means, "Your job is not test prep." But we already have our NCLB experiences to tell us that such administrative attitude lasts only until the test scores start coming in too low.

It's a point of view I appreciate and understand, but it involves a level of faith in The Test that I simply don't share. Badly designed tests get bad results, whether it's a matter of terribly-constructed reading questions, requirements for small children to use fine motor skills for unfamiliar tasks, or writing evaluations based on bad ideas about writing.

Learning is a life experience, not a cram session with a finite number of things to know; it is nuance and individuality and freedom to explore both of those however the student sees fit.

And boy do I ever agree with that. But the challenge for today's teacher is how to make that real in a classroom that is marching in rigid lockstep to the point where a high stakes test will decide the fate of any number of people (students, teachers, admins, etc).

Don't be a hater, understand the Common Core

The Common Core didn't do anything to you, why do you hate it so much? Standards are inherently positive and create a structure by which to assess our students. These particular standards are focused cross-discipline and skill based - what's bad about that?

Oh boy. First of all, standards are not inherently positive. Historically, policies from the Holocaust to Jim Crow rest on a foundation of standards.  The whole point of standards is to codify values, to create a yardstick so that even people who don't share the underlying values can act as if they do. So standards are only as positive as the values that they encode. And standards additionally codify one other value-- the idea that there is value in getting other people to follow the values that you want them to.

The Common Core codify values that, in my eyes, contradict much of what you've said so far. There is no standard in CCSS for "nuance and individuality and freedom to explore both of these as the student sees fit."

The challenges that have arisen are mostly due to poor implementation or vision myopically focused on excessive testing, closely tying teacher success to student success on these unbalanced exams.

And other than that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln? The implementation is not a bug; it's a feature. The base assumption of CCSS is that everyone MUST do this, and that means very tool in the bag MUST be used to FORCE them to do it. Again, nuance and individuality have no place here.

This is a central point, and it has been addressed all over the internet, so I'm not going to recap it to death here. But for me, CCSS and the bad implementation and the bad testing are no more separable than twins conjoined at the heart. 

Collaborate across content to insure skill development

Writing and reading skills don't just happen in an English classroom; students utilize these skills in all classes, so why not work together to scaffold and practice them. 

Absolutely dead on. I so want to work in a school where this happens, and we a\have been getting there step by step for the last twenty years. It is absolutely the right way to go.

Making students college and career ready

When are we going to accept as a society that testing and grading or any other quantitative means associated with learning will only quash the intrinsic value of curiosity and creativity? We keep saying that we want innovation yet we breed standardized clones studiously pursuing a meaningless number... the highest one which ultimately doesn't serve to actually tell us anything about what they know.

Again, I'm on the same page. A score on a bubble test tells us nothing useful at all about how ready a student is for college or career. So what do you think we should do about living in a world where the belief in the power of the test is central to the reformy education picture? What should we tell students whose scores will be tucked into their cloud-based data profile to follow them quite possibly for the rest of their lives, to be consulted by future colleges and/or employers?

Graduate students life ready

But that's not the goal set out by the standards. The CCSS are quite explicit on this point-- the purpose of education, as the standards have it, is to prepare students for college or career (and as further explained by some experts, a career is work that will support you well with more than minimum wage).

In one of your earlier defenses of CCSS, you wrote "If each of us is trying to prepare students for life, why not have a common set of standards nationally that help to define what those standards are?" My answer is that the CCSS is not that set of standards, and it doesn't even claim to be. The CCSS says nothing about preparing a student "for life."

I suspect that you, like me, have the privilege of working in a setting where circumstances and administrators have kept the heavy hand of CCSS standardization off teachers' backs. But you have to know that our circumstance is not everyone's. I also think you and I share many core values about teaching, and while it is important to take those out to examine and confirm them, these days we also have to be thinking and talking about how to live out those values in a system that is increasingly hostile to them.

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