Friday, August 28, 2015

No, NYT, Common Core Is Not About Knowledge

In today's New York Times, Natalie Wexler offers an op-ed from some parallel universe in which Common Core and reformsterism are-- well, maybe Opposites Day is today and I missed the memo.

She opens by arguing that the Big Standardized Test is not narrowing the curriculum, claiming that it's narrow anyway, and right off the bat she establishes herself as someone who doesn't understand how schools work. Heck, back in 1977 elementary teachers only spent 50 minutes per day on science and social studies, and that has only dropped by ten minutes. Some quick math tells us that over 180 days, that's a loss of 30 hours of instruction. I know in the private sector, ten minutes is nothing, but in a classroom, ten minutes is plenty of time to Get Some Stuff Done-- and it adds up quickly.

But that's just the overture. Wexler then launches into a full-blown opera about the romance between Common Core and Rich Content, the kind of knowledge-heavy education championed by guys like E. D. Hirsch. This shows a profound mis-understanding of the Common Core.

While critics blame the Common Core for further narrowing curriculums, the authors of the standards actually saw them as a tool to counteract that trend. They even included language stressing the importance of “building knowledge systematically.”

... Most educators, guided by the standards alone, have continued to focus on skills.

So Wexler's theory is that we're supposed to close read the standards and see, buried somewhere between a gerund phrase and optional appendices, a mandate to include rich content.

Like the rest of the rich content crowd, Wexler is so sure that rich content knowledge has to be there, she has convinced herself that it is.

She is wrong.

The standards are clearly focused on "skills" (whether the "skills" are really skills or not is another debate). David Coleman, the writer of the ELA standards, has given plenty of detailed and hugely clear demonstrations that in his standards, content is unimportant and literature is simply a conduit, a bucket, a paper cup for transmitting the skills to students. And the standards are written in the language of behavioral objectives-- students will "cite," demonstrate," "analyze." The quote that Wexler pins her "they even included language" hopes on is simply part of a tacked-on introduction to the standards-- not the standards themselves.

She gets the criticism of Common Core correct, quoting cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham to show that you can't improve reading skills without attaching them to content, and you can't test those skills without actually testing the students' prior knowledge. Her mistake is in reasoning that since you can't do those things, clearly Common Core and BS Testing are not trying to do those things. In this, she is incorrect.

Not only did Coleman intend ELA standards to be focused strictly on skills, but test manufacturers have gone out of their way to make prior knowledge irrelevant to the BS Tests, selecting passages that are obscure, strange, and just plain bizarre in an attempt to select items about which students are likely to have no prior knowledge. As Coleman loves to say, the idea is to stay within the four corners of the text, and to bring nothing into those four corners with you.

Wexler goes on to sing the praises of knowledge-rich curriculum, but she doesn't understand that knowledge-rich curriculum is irrelevant to Common Core, and that her explanation of why CCSS must include knowledge-rich curriculum is really an explanation of why Common Core stinks-- because it eschews knowledge-rich content.

Wexler is in a high state of denial here; what Common Core actually says is so wrong, she's convinced herself that it must actually mean something else.

But Common Core in general and the high stakes BS Tests in particular do not require, want, ask for or favor rich content. Tools like Depth of Knowledge are predicated on the very idea that the proper mental skills can be taught with any level of content.  I could spend an entire year having my students reading and answering practice questions about nothing but articles from the National Enquirer and still get them fully prepared to rank "proficient" on the BS Test.

Her finish is a fine symbol of the confusion in this piece. First:

While standardized tests didn’t cause the curriculum to narrow, they’re a useful reminder that some students have acquired a lot less knowledge than others.

Wrong. Of course the tests caused the curriculum to narrow. And no, they don't tell us a single solitary thing about what knowledge the students possess. On the other hand:

 But if we want to finally begin to remedy that, we can’t just teach the skills the tests seem to call for.

That's exactly right. It's a good argument against the Core, against the BS Testing, against the high stakes attached to those tests, and also an excellent argument in favor of the opt out movement. Even if Wexler didn't understand what argument she was actually making.

Note: For a more thorough and scholarly treatment of this issue, I highly recommend this piece from Johann N. Neem


  1. Peter, HuffPost finally has an article on Dyett:

    They have some info the Trib didn't but still left stuff out.

  2. I interpreted Wexler's Op-Ed as an elaborate way of damning Common Core by faint praise. I think this is clever rhetoric, addressed to the wealthy funders of so-called "reform," in a publication they are likely to read.

    It soothes the wealthy funders' egos by saying that the policies they endorse didn't cause the bad "skill-based" trend. We don't want those wealthy folks to get defensive! They are used to having people agree with them, so they have to addressed in this way and given the suggestion that they came up with the conclusion themselves.

    This Op-Ed purports to agree with the "reformers" by saying Common Core can somehow turn out to be a good thing. But the Op-Ed actually argues for the opposite policy.

    1. I should clarify that this rhetorical misdirection by politeness is a creepy symptom of the inequality of power in the US.

      It's not how I think people should talk or write. But it can be effective. "I'd agree them to death and destruction," says the narrator of "Invisible Man" at one point.

  3. I don't see Common Core as being a useful education initiative as much as a political agenda. The end game is CC is conformity of the citizens of the future. The teachers I've talked to dislike CC and those who haven't left public education yet are thinking about it or merely dealing with the program in frustration until they can figure the best way to extricate themselves from the system.

    My blog post today also addresses the issue of Common Core.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out

  4. Any thoughts on the math half of the CCSS?

    1. Greene is an English teacher. Some people have enough sense not to say too much about things they don't know much about.

    2. Dienne,

      Greene's post is "No, NYT, Common Core is Not About Knowledge". I assume that he meant the CCSS is not about knowledge, not just the ELA CCSS is not about knowledge.