Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Answering Petrilli's Questions: What Does CCSS Opposition Mean?

Mike Petrilli at the Fordham Foundation offered a set of nine questions to ask political candidates who trumpet their Common Core opposition. As one might expect, they are not so much a plan for inquiry as a series of moves in a game of Gotcha.

This is one of the things I find vaguely charming about Petrilli-- he seems like that overeager kid on the debate team who enjoys making a verbal jousting match over anything from the death penalty to the correct side on which the loose end of the toilet paper should hang. Political advocacy/thinky tankery seems like his dream job.

Petrilli has occasionally asked for a more civil and better-toned discussion about the Core. I'd offer him this set of questions as an example of why we don't more easily get that-- these are not questions designed for dialogue, but are instead designed to try to force the Core-attacking politician into a corner. They assume that the pol is engaging in dishonest discourse and therefore can be poked at with similar dishonest tools.

But as someone who is, in fact, opposed to Common Core, I wondered if I could come up with answers to these questions. I don't know that any of these will be useful for the politicians in question, but it's a nice thought exercise, at least. Here we go.

1) Do you mean that you oppose the Common Core standards themselves? All of them? Even the ones related to addition and subtraction? Phonics? Studying the nation’s founding documents? Or just some of them? Which ones, in particular, do you oppose? Have you actually read the standards?

Yeah, when Petrilli says nine questions, he's being liberal with his use of the traditional counting methods.

I have, of course, read the standards, and the correct question is not to ask exactly which ones I object to. I would ask, instead, why I am supposed to search through all the standards looking for the unobjectionable ones, like hunting a piece of uncooked spaghetti in a stack of needles. I would not hand a teacher a textbook and say, "Some of the pages of this book are good and usable, so keep the whole thing." I would not serve someone a meal that is part nutritious food, part plastic, and part arsenic. The fact that some standards are unobjectionable does not mean the whole thing shouldn't be thrown out.

2) Or do you mean that you oppose the role that the federal government played in coercing states to adopt the Common Core? 

Well, yes. That and the role it continues to play. Petrilli suggests that doesn't make a GOP candidate special among other GOP candidates. So be it. It's better to be right than to be special.

3) Do you mean that you think states should drop out of the Common Core? States like Iowa? Isn’t that a bit presumptive, considering that you’re not from Iowa and the state’s Republican governor wants Common Core to stay

This is not so much a question as a dare. Go ahead, it says. Go ahead and declare yourself in favor of setting aside the will of the state. The correct answer is, of course, that Iowa has the right to be a damn fool if it wants to, but that doesn't make it any less foolish, and any sensible person would offer the opinion that Iowa ought to stop being foolish.

4) If you do think that states should reject the Common Core, which standards should replace them? Do they need to be entirely different, or just a little bit different?  And could you cite a specific example of a standard that needs to be “different?”

Let's back up the assumption truck, and let me hear your support for the idea that national-ish standards are necessary or in any way useful. Which highly successful nations on the globe are successful because of national standards? Which studies show the value of national standards? Because I think the states should get rid of the standards, period. But if the state thinks they need standards, they can best design them from the ground floor up. The Common Core does not need to be (nor should it be) a rough draft, and there is no need to compare future hypothetical standards to it. If your brother gets divorced, and then remarried, you do not go to Thanksgiving dinner and ask for an accounting of how different his new wife is from his previous one.

5) Or do you mean that you oppose the way Common Core has been implemented? If so, everywhere, or just in some states? Or just in some schools? You are running for president; do you think the president of the United States has a role in fixing Common Core implementation?

Can you catch in features such as the repeated "or" how Petrilli wants you not to just ask these questions, but pepper the candidate with them? But the President does have a role in fixing it, because the President had a role in making implementation both A) necessary and B) too fast in the first place. The President's role is simple-- step back and say, "As far as I'm concerned, everybody can adopt whatever standards they want, or not, whenever they want, or not." And then sit down and shut up.

6) Do you mean you oppose any standards in education that cross state lines? Several years ago, the governors came to an agreement about a common way to measure high school graduation rates. Do you oppose that, too?

If states want to imitate each other or get into cooperative agreements, that's their business, not DC's. Do I oppose measuring graduation rates? These are starting to smell of flop sweat and desperation, not political gamesmanship. Who the heck is going to oppose graduation rate measurement? Out loud?

7) Or do you mean that you oppose any standards, even those set at the state level? Since states have the constitutional responsibility to provide a sound education, don’t you think they should be clear about what they expect students to know and be able to do in the basic subjects?

I'm a pretty anti-standardization guy, but this is about as close as this list gets to a legitimate question. My answer is that they should be clear, but not very. The clearer standards are, the more prescriptive and restrictive they are, and the more it become impossible to impose and oversee them without becoming punitive. Plus, the more specifically educational goals are developed through a political process, the crappier they will be. Any system that doesn't trust teachers is doomed to failure (and, ironically, if teachers really were untrustworthy, strict standards would not help, anyway).

8) Or do you mean that you oppose standards that aim to get young people ready for college or a good-paying career? Do you think that’s too high a standard? What standard would you prefer?

Can you tell me, right now, exactly what a five year old needs to learn over the next thirteen years in order to be ready for a career? If you say anything but "no," you're either delusional or a liar. The future is wide open, mysterious, murky, and ever-changing. Government is fundamentally unable to create any set of standards that are nimble and robust enough to meet this requirement.

There are so many problems with career and college readiness as the definition of an educated person (does this mean future stay-at-home parents can drop out now? what is the government doing to make sure there will be enough good-paying careers available?) but the biggest is that defining a human life in terms of a job is a small, meager, cramped, sad measure of human worth. Let's educate students to be happy, fulfilled, contributing members of society, good citizens and great people. And most of all, let's give them a system that lets them define success for themselves, instead of beating them into whatever version of success that the government has defined for them.

9) Tell us again: Why do you oppose the Common Core?

Well, because it sucks. Hey. Ask a short, snarky question, get a short snarky answer.

That's it. Other than some serious and fundamental policy disagreements with the GOP, I think I'm totally ready to run for the nomination.


  1. "This is one of the things I find vaguely charming about Petrilli-- he seems like that overeager kid on the debate team who enjoys making a verbal jousting match over anything from the death penalty to the correct side on which the loose end of the toilet paper should hang. Political advocacy/thinky tankery seems like his dream job."

    That's it in a nutshell.

    Frankly, I'm kinda jealous of his job - I'd like one where I get to do that all day and rake in the bucks too. LOL

  2. These are "Do you still beat your wife?" questions...

  3. Actually, they attempt to be "do you still beat your wife" questions. But they're really not that good as far as that line of questioning goes. I don't think it's because Petrilli is not up to that type of task; it's that Common Core has handed him Weak Sauce to cook with. If those are the best "gotcha" questions they can come up with, Common Core won't be around much longer.

  4. Oh, look - more questions, this time from that bastion of "Education Conversation," Education Post. :P