Sunday, January 19, 2014

Van Roekel Needs Our Help

Mercedes Schneider has put out the call to assist the sadly confused Dennis Van Roekel. In an EdWeek article, Van Roekel is quoted here:

"When I sit on panels and someone chastises us for supporting the common core, I always ask: 'Are there specific things you believe should not be there?' I never get an answer," NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said. "Second, I ask, "What's missing?' I don't get an answer. And the third thing I ask is, 'What is the alternative? What do you want? Standards all over the ballpark, tests all over the ballpark?' "

In point of fact, Van Roekel continued, "the Common Core State Standards are our best guess of what students need to know to be successful, whether they choose college or careers. If someone has a better answer than that, I want to see it." 

I'm ashamed to admit that Van Roekel is my president, but I'll be happy to offer my assistance here. Let me try to answer some of his questions.

What is the alternative?  

When I teach logical fallacies, we call this a "complex question." In the sales world it's called "assuming the sale." Either way, it is (and has been) the most odious part of DVR's rhetorical strategy. Because "what's the alternative" assumes that we need one.

It tacitly accepts the reformatorium assumption that US public ed is a hodge-podged mess of incompetent educators who don't know what they are doing and who desperately need guidance and direction. What I would expect from my union president is something along the lines of, "Hey! My members are doing great work!" and NOT "Yeah, I need something to help these poor dopes that I'm president of."

This question, and the assumptions imbedded in it, skip over one hugely massively crucial point. The people who insist we must have CCSS have not offered one shred of evidence that national standards-- not just CCSS but ANY national standards-- work. Nothing. I get that from up on Mount DC, things would look neater and it would be a lot easier to run a national school district if everybody were on the same page. But that is not about providing the best possible education for every student in America; it's about providing a better management experience for government bureaucrats.

This is like having a doctor say, "Well, since your headaches are so bad, I guess we could take out your spleen." And when you protest that you don't want your spleen removed, the doctor says, "Well, what do you want me to take out instead. It's just a hodgepodge of organs in there. Which one do you want removed."  And then he can tell you that this is his best guess, and in a decade or so we'll see if it pays off.

So, DVR, this question is void. The burden is not on me to provide an alternative national standards program. The burden is on you to prove to me that this national standards program (or ANY such program) would be beneficial. And that will require more than just calling CCSS your "best guess."

Are there specific things you believe should not be there?

With my big picture rant out of the way, I can move on to other questions. I'm going to limit my response here, because I don't want to break the internet, and hope that other bloggers take up Schneider's call. Let's just focus on two standards from W.9-10.3, the narrative writing cluster.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.3a Engage and orient the reader by setting out a problem, situation, or observation, establishing one or multiple point(s) of view, and introducing a narrator and/or characters; create a smooth progression of experiences or events.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.3e Provide a conclusion that follows from and reflects on what is experienced, observed, or resolved over the course of the narrative.

These are fine standards if you want to teach sophomores to writer Aesop's fables. They are typical of the language assumptions built into CCSS-- that there is one right way to do writing. Here the assumption is that narrative always flows exactly according to the tried-and-true plot curve, with exposition in the front and some sort of denouement in the back.

Like many of the reading and writing standards, it presents a curious disconnect because although we're touting these as 21st Century standards, in this narrative writing unit, Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoyevsky get an A, and William Faulkner, Kurt Vonnegut and Ernest Hemmingway flunk.

The narrative writing standards need to be yanked and rewritten entirely.

What's missing?

Again, I don't want to break the internet. Let me pick one specific item and one global issue.

The literature standards in grades 9-12 complete ignore any study of the cultural context or background from which the literature emerges. This fits with CCSS ties to a twisted version of Close Reading, a vision of literature that exists in a cultural vacuum. In this world, we are supposed to read "A Modest Proposal" without knowing why Swift would suggest such terrible things, read The Great Gatsby with no knowledge of the 1920s, read Animal Farm without hearing about the Bolshevik Revolution, and read the Gettysburg Address without talking about Lincoln or the Civil War. (In short, we are to read all literature as if it's practice for cold reading excerpts on a standardized test).

In this respect, the reading standards are grossly inadequate. And the need to "fix" them underlines the global issue.

There is no review process, no revision process, no process whatsoever to revise or improve the standards.

The strategic planning process employed by both local school districts and multi-national corporations, includes a review process, a means by which the stakeholders periodically take the document out and assess how well it's working. No company can earn an ISO 9-Whateverwe'reuptonow certification without it.

CCSS has nothing. No feedback process, no number to call and say, "Hey, about this one standard..." Viewed as a product, CCSS has the worst customer service ever, and no quality assurance process at all. There is no mechanism for feedback, no process for assessment of the standards. Just the CCSS, sealed in copyright-cemented amber, to sit unchanged and unchangeable (save the meager 15% we're all "allowed" to "add") and defended to the death by its corporate owners.

At a local manufacturing firm, there is a process by which guys on the assembly floor can go back to the engineering department and say, "Hey, this one thing you drew? When it come time to put it together, I think you need to look at how this works out." In fact, there's a process by which the engineers go to the assembly floor and ask them. That's how they've stayed at the top of their particular industry.

But there is no process for improving or fine-tuning the CCSS. And that is a huge thing to be missing.

I hope this answers your questions, at least a bit. I hope other bloggers will be along to add some more. And if you aren't getting this sort of information whenever you sit on panels, I suggest you get on line and look at the many well-researched, well-written, well-thought out blogs that are addressing all of these questions every day. If you really want to find out what teachers are thinking about these questions, I bet you could find out without too much trouble.



  1. Great post! Check out my post that expands on your argument:

    1. Thank you for that, Matthew-- that's just what I was talking about.