Tuesday, December 30, 2014

PBS's Common Core Lifeboat

On Christmas Day, PBS Newshour ran a piece about Common Core that was, if nothing else, organized around a fun central image. "Special correspondent" John Tulenko harkens back to the film classic Lifeboat (which he incorrectly places in the 50s), about survivors stuck in the titular conveyance.

The dilemma of that old film, who stays on board, who gets thrown over, that’s a great way to think about the Common Core these days.

It was launched in 2008, a lifeboat full of big ideas to save public schools. But, out on open seas, it’s had to toss aside key parts of the plan just to stay afloat. And the water is getting rougher.

2008? Now I know Tulenko's in trouble, because even wikipdia and the Core's own website mark launch year as 2009. He goes on to cite an unknown survey that says 60% of Americans don't love the Core, and then cuts to a Louis C. K. core-joke clip, because television. Good news, though-- he's landed three experts to help "navigate these troubled waters." Because Tulenko may be loose on facts, but he is tight on metaphor-maintenance.

Our experts? Neal McClusky from CATO, Chris Minnich of CCSSO, and Catherine Gewertz of Education Week. Each gets an opening sound bite (because television). McClusky goes with, "People sure hate the Core, and they hate the brand name most of all." Minnich floated a cool new talking point saying, roughly, "The fact that everyone hates the Core and we're still in the game just shows how vast is the mountain of money that our backers are willing to throw at this." Ha, no, just kidding. But he does claim that "We're not dead yet" is proof that the Core is still vital and viable. Minnich observes that opponents come in many stripes, and many of them hate the Core origin story than the contents.

Tulenko starts ticking off the parts of the Core that had to be tossed overboard. First to go? The hope that states would adopt CCSS voluntarily. When states were "slow to adopt" standards that, in 2009, still hadn't been finished yet, Obama jumped in with Race to the Top.

McClusky: In 2011, 2012, the backlash began as soon as schools started to see the actual standards and started asking what the heck are these, and who decided they were a good idea. "And so we moved to a system of national standards without ever having had a meaningful national debate about doing that."

Tulenko notes that the boat was rocked further by teachers who weren't given the tools or support to implement the new standards, and many of those teachers jumped ship (Tulenko's commitment to his metaphor is a beautiful thing).

Minnich says it's actually going great, and that the places where it's not going great are just places that flubbed the implementation, but with a little tweakage they'll be right along. I am wondering if Minnich set milk and cookies out for Santa on Christmas eve. His childlike boosterism is sort of inspiring, despite its total disconnection from reality.

But then, Tulenko says, everyone hates the testing. And to someone's credit, nobody in this conversation wastes our time trying to argue that the testing and the Common Core are like unrelated complete strangers who didn't even make eye contact on the dock and it's just random fate that they now share the same berth on this trans-educational cruise ship. With teachers about to have their careers put on the line over unproven tests used to measure not-yet-implemented standards, educators squawked loudly.

Now here's the thing about an extended metaphor; if you're not careful, it leads you to say wacky things just for the metaphor's sake. Like this:

Sharp criticism from teachers forced U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, arguably the ship’s captain, to alter course.

Oh, John. The "arguably" signals that even you know that's probably wrong. And in truth, I don't think you could find anybody on any side of this issue who thinks that Arne Duncan is actually a leader of anything. There are days I almost feel sorry for the guy because he's certainly not the captain of this ship. Deck hand? Carved mermaid on the prow? Keel? But not the captain.

Tulenko makes the point that testing has many people and states backing away, despite Arne's 11th-hour sort-of-reprieve. McClusky gets to point out that testing is also expensive as hell between technology and infrastructure.

Tulenko references the name "Next Generation Content Standards and Objectives," which appears to be the rebranding being used in West Virginia. Tulenko takes a moment to underline the use of rebranding to "right the ship," and Gerwetz allows as how that's a popular approach.

Minnich gets the last sound bite, sounding kind of small at this point: "This blip was to be expected because, as you raise the expectations on any system, there will be — there will be pain points. But I think we have weathered the storm." Minnich must have been stuck in the lifeboat after the USS Reality went down.

Ultimately the story doesn't tell us much, but it's important to pay attention to what is being repeated in the almost-mainstream, and here is PBS, an organization that has shown no inclination to take any kind of critical look at the Core, depicting the standards as a ship barely afloat and struggling to stay on course, and providing air time to more than just the usual slate of cheerleaders. It's not a real journalistic look at the Core yet (c'mon John-- take time to google at least), but at least they are drifting in the right direction.


  1. On a lifeboat in the high seas, almost everyone gets seasick. I think the metaphor was not applied in its entirety!