Thursday, February 6, 2014

Note to CCSS Supporter

This morning Rick Hess of AEI featured a guest writer on his EdWeek blog. Kathy Powers is a reading and language arts teacher in Arkansas, where she was teacher of the year in 2011. She offered a defense of CCSS, and there were many things I wanted to say to her. But of course here in Blogsylvania, we like to have these conversations out in public. So here's my reply.

Dear Kathy;

You open by suggesting that some critics of CCSS sound a little overwrought, and I agree with you. There are people out there who feel mighty passionate about this issue, and that passion can lead them to overstate their case sometimes. I think I'm what passes as a moderate these days; let me offer my perspective on your observations.

Celebrating Student Individuality

You say that you are "pleasantly surprised over the high level of sophistication and creativity students have shown in their writing and logical reasoning under the Common Core standards," and that meeting one of the standards about synthesizing multiple texts and evidence to support a point has empowered your students. Then you give some concrete details about what happened when you "tasked my fifth grade students with answering the question, 'How does imagination lead to discoveries in the real world?'" And you described a project that did, in fact, sound pretty exciting. I'm not going to deduct style points for your use of "task" as a verb, but I am going to ask you one simple question:

What the heck did you do before CCSS?

Are you saying that you previously did not know how to do such a project, or are you suggesting that previously your administration would have forbidden you to do this kind of work? Surely you're not suggesting that you could never even conceive of such a project before CCSS came along.

My students routinely do multiple text writing assignments, and they always have to support their statements with specific text evidence. I've done that for thirty-some years. My honors 11th graders have a research project that requires them to search out primary and previously unused sources to create original writing about local history; I've been doing that for twenty years. (You can buy last year's product on amazon-- custom printing is a new wrinkle). I say that not in the spirit of nanny-nanny-boo-boo, nor to suggest that I'm an awesome educator. I think I'm a pretty average teacher-- and THAT is my point. The work I've been doing is good, solid teaching, but not unusual in the field, and like all the good solid teachers out there, I've been doing it without CCSS. What do I need it for? How will it improve my teaching by giving me "permission" to pursue all the educational goals that I've already been going after?

Iron Teacher

With all due respect, this paragraph is a non-sequitor. You start by saying it's great that all teachers will have the same standards. Then you talk about Iron Chef and proteins. I am not sure of your point. Because all teachers have the same standards, they will now be better suited for a televised competition based on an entirely inauthentic unrealistic situation? Are you suggesting that all restaurant goers in the nation would benefit if federal regulation required all restaurants to serve dishes based on the same limited set of proteins?

Love Local, Teach Global

You suggest here that education is the great mobilizer, that a good education gives students more options to travel far and wide in search of their dreams. You apply this to college in particular; our students need to be ready to compete for spots.

I keep hearing this argument, but I don't really understand the connection. Do we need standards to predict college success? We already know the best predictor of college success, and it's high schools grades, no matter what high school, no matter what local standards. Even the SAT, king of the standardized tests, doesn't predict as reliably.

Do we have a problem with students getting into college who can't hack it? I can believe this might be true, though I think some of the problems are self-inflicted by the colleges. And what I still need to know is, by what process did somebody establish that the standards included in CCSS are the ones that will insure greater college success? I'm willing to be convinced here, but I have yet to see any evidence.

Standards vs Standardized Tests

I have read too many recent articles touting the problems of Common Core when the real focus of the author's frustration was not with the standards themselves, but with the testing process which will be used next year to measure students' learning of the standards. 

I agree (with the understanding that for some folks, "next year" is actually "last year"). People conflate the two frequently. You open by suggesting that some people hate tests because, like bathroom scales, they deliver news that nobody wants to hear. I would agree with that analogy if we assume that the bathroom scale is untested and uncalibrated. We have no reason to believe that the tests rolled out with CCSS measure what they claim to measure. Add the idea of an uncalibrated, untested scale that can get your pay cut or your job terminated, and surely you can see why people get a bit touchy.

You argue for waiting to test and properly implementing the standards, but here's my point-- as long as the tests are high stakes, determining the fates of teachers, administrators, schools and students, the CCSS simply don't matter. At all.

Look, the Core includes standards that we know will never be tested. Collaborative processes. Deep reading of long, complex texts. Things that will never, ever be on a standardized test. When all is said and done, we'll be right where we were under NCLB-- teaching to standardized tests that serve as de facto curriculum, depending on how hard our local administrators want to fight for us.

By Teachers, For Teachers

I agree absolutely that sharing and collaboration among teachers is a great thing. But as with the first point, I don't really see what it has to do with CCSS. Did we need CCSS in order to know how to share? I don't think so.

Kathy, I'm glad that implementation has not been a difficult adventure for you. If I judged strictly by my own experience, I would conclude that CCSS was a pretty harmless piece of bureaucratic ephemera. But I'm reading the stories from around the country. Stories about school systems shuttered and turned over to private charters because test scores are bad. Teachers who are disciplined because they are teaching Tuesday's prescribed lesson on Wednesday. Elementary students becoming discouraged and crushed because they cannot comprehend or meet the demands of their new curriculum. The implementation of that curriculum may be a local failing, or a state-level failing, or actually the fault of CCSS itself, but that doesn't matter to a child who, like any other abused child, assumes that the fault must lie in his own heart or head.

Unlike some of my more strident colleagues, I assume that many supporters of CCSS are pure in heart and intention, sincere in their support. I actually welcome hearing from those folks, because unlike the people who stand to make huge profits from reform, these sincere foot soldiers might be able to show me what there is to love in CCSS simply because I can trust their motives to be pure. But it hasn't happened yet, and it hasn't happened this time. Please understand that I say the following not with bitterness, anger or any metaphorical content. I say it as what I believe is literally true. You do not know what you are talking about.


  1. Your posts are reasonable, logical, and balanced and I look forward to reading them. I have one question--how much time do you spend writing a post?

    1. Thank you. I am criminally fast most day, hence the pieces that are considerably less polished than the work of many others in blogopolis. But I do a bunch of thinking before I write, so it's hard to put a clock on the process. I write to vent, and most of the time the column is just a thought that has been rattling in my head and clamoring to get out.

  2. I agree with Dante, that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in a period of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality
    Martin Luther King Jr.

    1. I agree. Although I also think that hell is created by people who insist on screaming insults at anybody who doesn't agree with them 100%

  3. I have heard this comment before also from teachers who were brought in to testify on behalf of CCSS - "With CCSS I can now teach critical thinking skills." What kept you from it before, and where in CCSS does it give release or direction for something you obviously didn't know how to do before? My conclusion is that some teachers would rather be told what to teach and need a guided or scripted lesson. It relieves them of responsibility. And I don't necessarily blame them for that, rather the lack of mentoring and effective professional development.

  4. That's a good piece.And yes-- I have met teachers who think working from a script is great. IME, these are folks who really want to be sure they're doing the right thing, or as you say, don't want to be responsible if they do the wrong thing. What an unfortunate life approach to model for students.

  5. Thank you for your thoughts. I was excited when I saw the CCSS, because I have been teaching that way all of my career, and thought, "They've finally caught up." Many of my colleagues and other teachers I know are much more comfortable being told what to teach, and for them, I believe CCSS holds better promise in the long run for the education of our young people.

    1. I'm less hopeful about that than you. A critical element of teaching anything is knowing why you're teaching it. "Because somebody told me to" is not a very compelling reason, and no amount of direction from a curriculum or administrator will pick up that particular piece of slack.

  6. I've met several people who have praised the newfound freedom for thinking critically and the great gains made by their students once exposed to the CCSS. I am always stunned by this. What were they doing before? How could you not have thought about critical thinking before you saw CCSS?

    The answers have always been completely lame and irrational. Usually something like 'you don't always realize the potential of something until your attention is directed there.' (!) It's like they have something riding on the outcome, but I can't imagine what that could be. If, as other commenters have suggested, there are really many teachers who wish that they'd be told what to teach, then we are in big trouble. The way that I idealize it, teachers should be the last profession to give in to conformity, regardless of what Bill Gates and the drones think.

  7. The Iron Chef analogy is really intriguing. I wish she had spelled it out more explicitly ;-)

  8. Peter,
    I applaud your post. I went to a training in Arizona about six weeks ago funded by Gates, and was instantly suspicious. It turns out, they flew in a couple hundred teachers and administrators and "power players" from around the country to fight the war on Common Core because (who knew?) they are dangerously close to losing the fight. While I am not anti-core per say, I am anti everything that goes along with it. Had the CCSS come out by itself, and the states said, "Let's try this and see how it goes" I wonder if people would have been more or less willing to see where the chips fell. However, because Race to the Top Points were awarded to states who adopted any college and career ready standards, because we refuse to remove high stakes testing from education reform, and because teachers are losing jobs left and right over scores, there is damn good reason to be concerned, and even anti- Core. I have offered to write a more balanced article on the Core, but because I refuse to whitewash it, my offers are ignored. This is a long winded way of saying that I believe this teacher, while well-intentioned is a Gates brainwash. Expect more of these to come out - a counter attack disguised as credibility.

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  11. I don’t know if Kathy Powers will read this, or know the depth parents and teachers have gone to uncover some unsettling aspect of Common Core.
    She may be correct that in her experience Common Core fills what ever educational requirement she desires. But, she is but one teacher and
    her opinion weighs no heavier than the tens of thousands of teachers across the country who are troubled, and have been instructed to “go back to the classroom and teach as you are told”.

    Or the parents who have trouble helping their children with homework which makes no sense, nor even relates to the subject.
    Or, the members of the CC Validation Committee who could not “sign-off” on the standard and where not allowed to have their remarks added to
    the final report, leading anyone who read the report believing the committee unanimously supported Common Core, even though five, including the only English and Math members did not.
    Nor, does Kathy know that the Federal govt. said if states did not adopt CC in 2010 they would not receive funding for Race to the Top, which is, or should be, separate from Common Core.
    Nor, I doubt Kathy knows the initial funding is gone and the good people of the states which adopted CC must pay more than $20 billion over the next six year.

    And, the standard, is "owned" by a private consortium, not the states which we have been told contributed to its development.

    Common Core, an untested education standard has been sold sight unseen, with elements of extortion to cash strapped states.

    Kathy Power may be pleased, but I hope she take the initiative to learn WHY so many of us are troubled and also WHICH businesses will benefit even more than the children they are anxious to help. I can be reached at ajbruno14 gmail

  12. I know a vaudeville-revival-style performer who does a routine called Nostradamus, Seer of the Obvious. It’s a delightful routine in which she goes around the room, grabs a head, enters a mystical trance, and says, “I’m seeing that someone close to you once died . . . or will die in the future.”

    What good there is in the CC$$ in ELA–and there is tiny, tiny bit stuck away in there–is the obvious and already widespread. It’s what decent teachers have always done. But the neophytes who wrote these “standards” knew so little about what they were doing that they created a slew of videos in which they alternated between a) making completely idiotic, counterproductive suggestions that any experienced teacher with knowledge of current best practice would discount out of hand and b) saying what EVERYONE already knows as though it were THE REVELATION: Look for evidence in the text! Ask text-dependent questions!

    Wow. Who knew? Gosh, David. Life changing. Really. I’m just in awe. And so grateful that you are now thinking for me. After all, thinking was so hard.

    It’s mind-blowing to listen to some of these members of the CC$$ pom-pon squad and glee club gushing about how now that they have DEFORMY MAGIC, their students are thinking about what they read. And, OF COURSE, the question to ask is, “And you never had them do that before?”


  13. Rereading this piece, it seems to have all the hallmarks of having been written FOR this teacher. Hmm. . . .