When movies present us with science-related disasters, we generally involve one of two sciency types-- the mad scientists and the sad scientist. The mad scientist is the one genetically engineering giant gerbils to take over the world (cue maniacal laugh). The sad scientist is the one who believes that he is Doing Great Things, like creating no-leak ice cream cones for poor children everywhere, only to discover that his patron, whether its an evil millionaire or an evil businessman or an evil military leader, plans to use his great creation for Evil Purposes!
"No!" cries the Sad Scientist as the villagers approach his genetically modified lima beans with pitchforks and torches, "You don't understand! They won't harm you! They're really quite yummy!!" And when the Sad Scientist discovers that his GMO ferrets have actually burned down an orphanage, he still sticks up for them. "They're just misunderstood."
I was thinking about the sad scientist as I was reading up on Bill McCallum. McCallum describes himself as someone who was “born in Australia and came to the United States to pursue a Ph. D. in mathematics at Harvard University, a professor at the University of Arizona, working in number theory and mathematics education.” He's also one of the creators of Common Core, having represented Achieve on the 2009 panel that created the College and Career Ready vision of what a high school grad should look like, and then serving as one of the three lead writers on the math standards.
I encountered him when a click-pursuit led me to isupportthecommoncore.net, a website that McCallum and Jason Zimba (another math CCSS writer) started last August. McCallum does most of the blog writing on the site, assisted for stretches by his colleague Aubrey Neihaus. The lead post started like this:
The Common Core State Standards present a rare opportunity to advance
the way we teach our children mathematics, reading, and writing. But
change is hard, especially as forces amass to tear the standards down.
This blog is for those who want to see the standards succeed and are
willing to receive the occasional call to action in support of them. I
recognize that you are all busy and not everybody can respond all the
time. But if there are enough of us that won’t matter.
Well, almost a year later, it appears there aren't enough. The site has 323 subscribers and many fairly silent comment sections. There are a smattering of short, supportive comments; many of the comment sections are closed to comment. There are some resources, most from October 2013 or earlier, including items such as the Hunt Institute videos about CCSS. Links to "Share Your Story of Support" and "Stand Up and Be Counted" both lead to big empty nothings. A link to "Voices of Support" garners a "page not found" message.
But just as the few sad furnishings in a big empty house can tell you something about the owner, I found the website revealing. Well, sad, but revealing, too.
We have a tendency to characterize all CCSS backers as evil geniuses, malignant mad scientists, or greedy underhanded businessmen. But I've characterized CCSS regime supporters as three groups
1) People who make a living/profit from CCSS
2) People who see things in the CCSS that aren't actually there
3) People who haven't actually looked at the CCSS yet
I think Bill McCallum is part of group #2.
I've read most of what he posted here, some interviews, material he posted at his other website. Bill McCallum is no David Coleman. He appears to have a sense of humor (prior to the launch of the support site, he promised that there would be jokes, and the site includes a link to one of Colbert's CCSS bits). He is by and large respectful of CCSS opponents; he occasionally engages their argument as if it's worth talking about (at one point he wishes that the new Diane Ravitch had been around twelve years ago to fight the influence of the old Diane Ravitch). He does not, a la Coleman, suggest that he is a gifted amateur who is just making a WAG that should be fine because he's so damn smart.
Like the typical sad scientist, he seems to truly not grasp how his creation is actually being used and harnessed in the real world. In the midst of the one conversational thread on the site, he writes this:
My vision of CCSS is consensus about what we want kids to learn but not a rigid script for how they should learn it.
He says many things like that. It's not that we haven't heard a version of the point before, but I'm struck by how he frequently uses the simple language of someone who's sincerely trying to explain a truth, and not the convoluted jargonny blather of someone who is trying to hide a truth.
Searching his writing, I found more of that vision. CCSS should provide standards that can be interpreted locally. The infamous Appendix is meant as a suggestion or example of how to extend the standards, not a directive or guide. Curriculum and assessment should be based on the standards, but created by local entities.
McCallum is baffled a bit by some opponents; last summer and fall he saw them as only as wackos on the far right, and he linked to a post suggesting that CCSS is neither panacea nor Satanic, but simply a better way to focus teachers, who remain the backbone of instruction. His frequent argument against CCSS opponents is that what they are complaining about isn't really the Common Core at all.
Like a writer who has sold his novel to Hollywood, McCallum seems not to grasp that he no longer gets to define what the CCSS are or mean. Coleman appears to have fully embraced the complete CCSS regime and has moved with gusto to cash in on the whole complex. But McCallum keeps insisting that his CCSS is simply standards, and no standardized curriculum nor tests nor teacher evaluation nor school evaluations are any part of it. It is also true that a communist leader shouldn't look like a Stalin or a Mao, but reality is just a bitch some times.
I actually feel a little sad for McCallum. I imagine that some of the atomic scientists who thought they were developing an awesome power source, not a new way to immolate hundreds of thousand of people, might have struggled as well. But the corporate profiteers and data overlords and anti-teacher public school haters have found in his work a perfect tool for their agenda, and McCallum's intentions, no matter how noble they may have been, no longer matter.
I don't know how well the real Bill McCallum matches my mental picture. Maybe he's a huge jerk, and I just don't see it in his writing. I do wish he would wake up and smell the proverbial coffee. Because when I say his intentions for his creation no longer matter, that's not entirely true. His repeated statements about his intentions for the Core help feed the CCSS machinery, allow the profiteers and the rest to publicize the Core based on what its creator says and not what's actually happening. And if McCallum were ever to look at any of the anti-education crap that has been welded onto his creation and say, "This is not what I meant at all. This is wrong. This is exactly the opposite of what was supposed to happen"-- that would be a powerful force for sweeping the crap away, and making it possible to do some of the things he apparently meant to do in the first place.
It's tough for the sad scientist to come to terms with he reality of what's been done to his creation. Sadly, right now, we're left with the sad image of Bill McCallum trying to rally support for CCSS on a ghost website by hawking buttons.