Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Arguing with Your Brother-in-Law (about ccss)

"I'm arguing with my brother-in-law (or uncle or cranky neighbor or postal delivery person) about the Common Core, and I need some points to really shut him up."

Can we help? Lots of folks have answered this need, and done it well (in particular, I recommend Anthony Cody's "Ten Colossal Errors.") But your brother-in-law may require something a bit more pithy. Let me offer some suggestions.

1) College and Career Ready Is Not Enough

In its very first sentences, Common Core redefines the purpose of education. It declares that the one and only purpose of education is to get students ready for a job (because in CCSS-world, college is just a way to get higher-level job training). That's it. Anything else we ever thought education was for-- fostering well-rounded humans, preparing good citizens, allowing students to reach better understanding of themselves  and their place in the world-- that is all thrown out. Education has one purpose- to prepare students for work.

Not only that, but CCSS also redefines what "college and career ready" means-- it means English and math. That's it. Want to be a musician or a lion-tamer or a physical therapist or a nurse or a machinist or a advertising executive? Your preparation is exactly the same as every other profession, and it's all about English and math.

"College and career ready by studying English and math," is a sad, tiny redefining of what it means to be an educated person.

2) There Is No Flexibility

"Well, teachers will just adjust. After all, the Core are a floor, not a ceiling. They may not be perfect, but I'm sure they'll get better."

But CCSS allows no flexibility. no adjustment, no room to move. There is no process for review and revision, no number to call with your suggestions. The Core will not get better. They will not change. The only improvements  will be made outside the system; the only teachers who tweak the Core will be those who go rogue.

The Core are copyrighted. Nobody is allowed to change them, ever. You will need to remind your brother-in-law of this may times.

3) The Standards Are Bad

Amateur-hour bad. I can point you at long, involved explanations of exactly what is wrong with them, but the short explanation is that we know many things about how different humans at different stages of development learn how to read and write, and the Core ignores all of them. "Well, just add in all that stuff you know," your BIL says? Go back and reread #2, I say.

4) Standards Don't Do Anything

Some folks keep saying that CCSS will help us close the achievement gap. They have no evidence. Not only do we not have evidence that standards close the gap, but we also have evidence that they don't.

Lots of states, most states, have had standards in place for a while now, and this achievement gap that we keep talking about inside the state. Every single state has a pocket of urban poor and a pocket of suburban wealth. If standards helped with that gap, would we not see that within states?

In other words, if Dunlevania had no, or poor, standards, we would expect to find a huge gap between its urban poor and its wealthy. That could be compared to South Borgia with its super-duper states standards, and a much smaller gap between its lower and upper student achievers. But we don't see that. If there is a secret formula for using state standards to shrink the achievement gap, nobody has discovered it yet.

Or, we could look at international achievers and see that, hey, this nation with great test results also has high strict standards, and this country with lousy scores has none.

The international scene and the fabled fifty-state standards hodge podge should have provided ample opportunity to demonstrate real linkage between standards and educational achievement. And yet, chirping crickets. There is absolutely no reason to believe that national standards will improve a thing.

5) The Core Turns Schools Backwards

Under the Core, students exist to serve schools. A school needs a student to put out certain numbers, show certain results, perform in a manner that serves the needs of the school itself. Witness who schools have tried to enforce the taking of The Test-- not because they think Junior will have his growth stunted if he doesn't take the PARCC, but because the school needs his numbers. What a student wants or needs, what a student expects to get out of education-- none of that matters. The student has to show that the school is succeeding, and that can only happen if the student performs as the state says he must. What the student wants is simply unimportant under the Core.


1) Wacky assignments

We really need to leave this one behind. Bad math problems, confusing readings, misprints-- these have been around since the dawn of time. If CCSS went away tomorrow, there would still be terrible number line problems and writing assignments that asked students to imagine things that their parents disagree with. Do not offer that up as a reason to revolt unless you want the revolution continuing in your classroom long after CCSS have been swept away.

2) CCSS Was Created By Corporations and Profiteers

Yes, that aspect burns my toast, too. But it's not a winner in arguments with civilians, unless you want to try to argue that you would reject the best education program in the world if it came from non-teachers. Diane Ravitch-- not a classroom teacher. Founders of BATS-- not classroom teachers.

The origin story of CCSS is important because it explains why the standards are such a hash, and because understanding the purpose of CCSS (making a buttload of money) helps make sense of how it unfolded. But something civilians seem to get that teachers are reluctant to admit-- all that stuff about profiteering and backroom deals and underhanded double deals could be true AND it could also be true that the standards are great. So don't argue that the Core has a bad pedigree-- argue that it is bad education. The pedigree just explains where the suck came from.

3) Federal Overreach

Again, I agree that this is a problem with the Core, but it's not necessarily a winner when arguing with your BIL.

The two political wings are united in one opinion-- federal power should be used to make people act as they should. Conservatives and liberals alike get this. Tea Partiers are perfectly happy with federal overreach that keeps The Gays from being, you know, all gay and stuff. Liberals hate activist judges unless they are reaching the correct conclusion.

"Federal overreach" is an argument add-on. It will get people more steamed about something they already hate, but it will never make them turn against something they actually like.

Good luck. You have till the Fourth of July family picnic to get your arguments in order.


  1. This is a most excellent (and important) topic. I have been having the "CC talk" with many friends, neighbors, and relatives. I have tried most of these talking points and one of them resonates very strongly with anyone who is actually listening and thinking. It stops them right in their tracks every time. It is a slightly re-worded version of #2. I think the word "flexibility" is a little to mushy for people like my BIL.

    Keep it this simple and watch the incredulous look on their faces; be ready for the questions; usually sincere and concerned.

    Common Core standards (affecting 75 million students) CANNOT be FIXED.
    Common Core standards CANNOT be IMPROVED.
    CC = Carved in Concrete!
    Never. Ever.
    This allows for a lead in to #3 and #4 if you have an especially willing listener.
    Definitely not my BIL.

    I also throw in a little of #1:
    Common Core EXCLUDES almost every single subject in the curriculum yet it
    has become the main focus in schools, sapping almost all resources including time, money, and energy.

    And yes, we shouldn't make a big deal out of poorly written worksheets.
    But yes, we should make a BIG DEAL out of the secretive TESTS designed for failure. tests that CANNOT improve instruction or learning. The PARCC and SBAC roll out next spring will be the train wreck we've all been waiting for.

  2. What if the brother-in-law (a well-educated, certified teacher who has thought about the CCSS and reached the decision they’re worth supporting) responded to your numbered points in the following way?

    1. Common Core defines base-level English and math standards. That’s it. Schools are in charge of the local program: arts, sports, science, electives, etc. And if a school (or state) feels the English and math standards are too low, they are free to expand upon them. I’m not sure how you think Common Core throws out “well-rounded humans, preparing good citizens, allowing students to reach better understanding of themselves and their place in the world” -- do you want standards for those things, too? Did state’s previous standards include those things?

    2. Again, you can say the exact same thing about states' previous standards. There was also no flexibility back then until their standards were revised. Not sure what makes Common Core special in this regard.

    3. Turns out that the Common Core standards align nicely with Montessori curriculum -- folks who know child development well. (See http://montessoricompass.com/blog/common-core-standards-an-opportunity-for-montessori-to-shine ) Also, the math standards and practices are informed by NCTM and NRC about how children learn mathematics.

    4. You are absolutely right here -- standards alone won’t do anything. But to quote Ilana Horn, a math ed researcher, “they are a tool to set a bar that is public and transparent for teachers, students, and communities. They say, ‘This is what algebra needs to include. Students, you have a right to learn this. Educators, you need to work out how to get students there.’” (from her post: http://teachingmathculture.wordpress.com/2014/05/04/the-tweet-heard-round-the-edu-world/ )

    5. Again, how is this any different than under states' previous standards? Schools are still held the to testing requirements of NCLB.

    1. 1. That's not it. It defines the purpose of education. It does not say, "Here are some things you should use as a foundation for a full, well-rounded education." It says that the purpose of an education is to make people ready for a job, and that the one way to do that is by meeting these math and English standards.

      2. Not true. Most state standards (I can't speak authoritatively for all) had a review and revision process for revisiting the standards and considering what needed to be changed or improved. The Core has no such process.

      3. I know a few Montessori people who would disagree strenuously-- but they're not bloggers. The vast number of teachers, districts and states complaining about the inappropriateness of the K-3 standards suggests they need to be more than just "informed."

      4. That's a nice quote, but so what? What educational value is there in having a public, transparent bar?

      5. In this case you're correct-- it's not different. The testing requirements of NCLB were an monument to educational malpractice, and did in fact make the students' needs subordinate to the "needs" of the institution. That's why some of us call Race to the Top "NCLB on Steroids." That was bad. This is also bad. They should both go away.

    2. Responding to #3, I can tell you that I know a few Montessori teachers who are appalled at that exact link. CCSS mandates certain expectations and certain ages/stages, while Montessori is EXTREMELY flexible and student-directed, NOT top-down at all. Montessori's "prime directive" is "Follow the child;" if CCSS has a prime directive, it's more along the lines of "Because we said so, it must be true."

      I've had this argument already with Daniel Willingham who thinks CCSS is like Montessori because his wife teaches Montessori and those kids do MATH when they're FOUR, so there. *facepalm*

  3. fnoschese

    1) CC is all consuming. It is sapping the majority of our time, money, and efforts.
    Many elective programs are being shut down so more time can be devoted to
    math and ELA. Witness the latest news from Boston. They have just
    eliminated Social Studies/History from their curriculum. The opportunity costs
    are tremendous. the null curriculum is expanding thanks to CCSS.

    2) "no flexibility back then until their standards were revised"
    CCSS CANNOT be REVISED. CC = Carved in Concrete
    Nothing prevented states from improving their standards - EXCEPT the NCLB
    law itself. Under NCLB, Title 1 schools were punished is students didn't pass standard-based tests. States got to write their own standards. What did they think would happen? You must pass this math test or we will punish and humiliate you. Oh, and by the way, you can write your own test. Great incentive to continue improving standards that challenge students. Kudos to MA, CA, NY and a few others for not giving in. However, here in NY, under NCLB we saw the dumbing down of the tests over time.

    3) Total BS. Don't think they're doing close reads of the Gettysburg address in Montessori schools Montessori schools do not use standardized tests to threaten their teachers:
    Montessori education is an educational approach developed by Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori and characterized by an emphasis on independence, freedom within limits, and respect for a child’s natural psychological, physical, and social development. Although a range of practices exists under the name "Montessori", the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) and the American Montessori Society (AMS) cite these elements as essential:[2][3]
    Mixed age classrooms, with classrooms for children ages 2½ or 3 to 6 years old by far the most common
    Student choice of activity from within a prescribed range of options
    Uninterrupted blocks of work time, ideally three hours
    A constructivist or "discovery" model, where students learn concepts from working with materials, rather than by direct instruction
    Specialized educational materials developed by Montessori and her collaborators
    Freedom of movement within the classroom

    That does not describe the CCSS math or ELA classroom at all.

    4) You make no logical point here. Read #3 - Most CC standards suck. Just read
    them. And those that don't simply aren't anything new. Most NCLB standards followed NCTM as well as standards pre-NCLB as virtually all math textbooks were aligned.

    5) You must be out of touch on this whole reform issue. We have been begging Congress to re-write the ESEA so that it is a fair, reasonable, and non-punitive law. Either that or simply deep six it through legislation. We have been asking to end all standardized testing that is not diagnostic; to end all fear-based, punitive testing; period.

    If your BIL is open-minded and a good listener it would be easy.

  4. 1. Wow. The fact that you actually believe Boston eliminated Social Studies and History is telling. Go read their homepage: http://www.bostonpublicschools.org. Also, the elimination of history would be in violation of state graduation requirements and state law (Google it). The fact that you would believe and propagate such lies and hysteria calls into doubt anything else you say.

    2. I teach in NY, which revised its standards several times during my time teaching. Individual states can't revise CC, true. But the CC organization could revise them and then states would adopt the newer version. So, yes, ANY set of standards are "permanent" UNTIL they revised (by state/CC) and adopted.

    3. I guess you didn't check out the Montessori scope and sequence alignment with Common Core. (It's linked within the article I linked in my comment.) Wouldn't it be AMAZING if you could show your administrators the Montessori alignment and say LOOK, this is how we should be teaching!

    4. I've read them. Can you give me an example of one that sucks? The math teachers I know like the math standards, particularly the mathematical practices. It validates the concepts-first approach they've been using. It gives them ammo against administrators who think math class should be spent working quietly from a book or leaning algorithms without understanding.

    5. So then you agree this an NCLB thing, not a CC thing.

    1. Back to the Montessori thing: Maybe Montessori is "how we should be teaching" (and I think it would transform our primary classrooms, myself, if we DID approach early grades learning that way), but CCSS doesn't allow for that. In Montessori, a child can be doing math activities at 3YO and that's cool - or not do any math until 5 or 6YO, and THAT is cool. The children direct their learning, and are pretty much autonomous during each 3-year span; they self-select, with adult guidance, at what age/stage they're ready for each particular activity in this or that subject, while CCSS mandates that in grade [X], ALL children will meet the SAME expectation THAT YEAR, not within a 3-year span. (That consistency is one of the selling points of CCSS, that being able to just pick up where one leaves off if one moves to another school district or another state, even if it's not always the case.)

      I guess you didn't take the time to learn a lot about Montessori beyond a quick Google search for "CCSS Montessori." Wouldn't it be AMAZING if you had?

  5. 1) You teach in NY and you don't know that CC has been all consuming? Seriously?

    2) Could you give us a link to the "CC organization" that was established to review and revise their work. I won't hold my breath.

    3) Wouldn't be amazing if people like you had the sense to realize that teaching the Montessori alignment has absolutely nothing to do with the existence of CCSS.

    4) ELA standards are a set of abstract and subjective skills that are most un-teachable by any known pedagogy. They are virtually content free. Math standards are nothing special except for the fact that they ignore all we have learned about brain development and cognitive learning theory at the early grades. And if you want the entire nation of math students to try and go down the rabbit hole of deep understanding of math concepts first, have at it.

    Now its time to remind you hat the TESTS are everything. They are the only standards that count, they become the curriculum and to a large degree they determine the pedagogy. I have seen the tests and ELA in particular, really do suck. in every imaginable way. Math this year seemed reasonable, to the point where it seemed no different than what we've been doing under NCLB. Really nothing special at all. And nothing I've seen comes anywhere close to testing higher order, critical thinking skills that CC proponents tout so loudly.

    5) CC is an NCLB thing. Wouldn't exist without the leverage the feds had with their waiver plan. You seem somewhat confused on the history of how and why this has played out.

  6. Oh and on the Boston SS thing. I find it interesting that the interim Superintendent had to post a disclaimer on their website regarding the confusion caused by their own inability to write clearly. From their website:

    "We could have done a better job explaining our thinking from the start. Some of the confusion may have come from an earlier decision to hire an assistant director for History and Social Studies. This did not lead to a clear understanding of our priorities and mission, so we have decided to make that position a Director-level position. Our History and Social Studies Department will have the right staffing support to be successful."

    Now if you doubt the influence of CC on NYS teaching, check out the line up of presentations scheduled for the New York State Middle School Association annual conference in Verona (October 2014).

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  8. (typo)I can't really add to NYTeacher's responses. But Valerie Strauss has a fairly complete rundown of the Boston SS flap


  9. Thanks Peter. And here's the tell from that article:

    "According to Eileen de los Reyes, deputy superintendent of academics, the school district is, for the first time in many years, reorganizing its academic departments to make them more inter-disciplinary and to help implement the Common Core State Standards. As part of the reorganization, job positions are being rewritten across the various departments and dozens of people are being asked to reapply for their jobs. People in the history department did get notices but they weren’t the only ones."

    And so fnoschese, tell us now how CC is not the tail wagging the dog.

  10. Common Core (Carved in Concrete)
    Implementations cost: $500,000,000 nationally (and counting)
    Billions of human-hours lost down the rabbit hole

    Opportunity costs: A generation of students that hate school more than ever.

  11. fnoschese: I just checked out your reference for the point that CC$$ aligns with the Montessori curriculum: "Turns out that the Common Core standards align nicely with Montessori curriculum -- folks who know child development well. (See http://montessoricompass.com/blog/common-core-standards-an-opportunity-for-montessori-to-shine )" Turns out that Montessori Compass is a company that is hoping to cash in on CC aligned materials for Montessori schools. There is no reference in the PR that confirms that any Montessori teacher or school believes that Montessori pedagogy aligns with the Common Core, nor could there possibly be. Do your homework!

  12. Still waiting on that "CC organization" link for the review and revision of the math and ELA standards fnoschese. Glad I didn't hold my breath.