Friday, April 11, 2014

Anti-Test & Pro-Core

I have explained repeatedly why I don't believe that the CCSS can be cut free from The Standardized Test Program that accompanies them (both here and here). But it really should come as no surprise that a large (and possibly growing) number of people are calling for just that. I think it's because they're a little fuzzy on what CCSS actually is.

We've seen this in the world of ed reform before. In decades past, when a new reformy idea appeared, a large number of people looked at it like a big projection screen. College professors see an opportunity to plug in their favorite educational theory. Consultants see a chance to shift some of the language in their presentations and make some new money riding the coattails of the Big New Thing. Even classsroom teachers get to thinking, "Now I can finally do that unit with widgets and flying squirrels that I've always wanted to do."

And beyond the projection problem, each reformy blitz, by its top-down nature, has come with its own game of telephone. The folks at the top tell their underlings, who tell their middle managers, who tell the state ed department regional functionaries, who tell the principals, who tell department heads, and by the time we arrive at the classroom teacher, "Implement outcomes based education with clear performance standards" has become "Staple hedgehogs to waffles in the granulator."

CCSS has been prime for both of these factors. It is the top-downiest ed program ever, providing superior opportunity for garbling the message. And the messaging was so vague and so filled with puffery that many, many people simply heard, "Core blah blah blah CRITICAL THINKING blah blah blah blah AWESOMENESS blah blah blah QUALITY." But of course, everyone has a separate idea of what "awesome quality" looks like.

I am convinced that the vast majority of CCSS supporters have no idea what the standards actually say. In all fairness, that's also true of many opponents, but still, to really look at the CCSS is to realize they are the bad work of some unwise amateurs, so the bus runs only one way-- from Supporterville to Land of Disenchantment.

These supporters, whether they're rich content fans like Sol Stern, or "now I can teach thinky stuff" like Kathy Powers, or creative innovative teacher fans like Starr Sackstein, or more rigor for those darn kids (now where's my check) folks like the Fordham Institute gang-- what they see when they look at the Common Core is not actually there.

In earlier reforms, this kind of disunity of vision was not a big deal. Everyone went about his business, wrestling for his vision, and classroom teachers just sort of sorted it out. Nobody knew for sure what Outcomes Based Education meant, ever. There was no single controlling document to bind everyone to a single vision.

But the People In Charge saw this, and saw that it was Not Good. They wanted more uniformity, more control of the process, and so The Test. "You will teach to The Test," they said. "Or else."

So now The Test is the controlling document, and for the first time in reformy history, people are faced with an independent corroboration of what the True Face of Reform looks like. And all the people who had their own happy vision of what the imagined Common Core should be are freaking out.

"But-- but-- but that's not what I meant at all!" Like somebody discovering that their date does NOT look like Brad Pitt, they are shocked. All the Sterns and the Powers and Sacksteins and Petrillis are exclaiming, "Well, there must be some mistake! This test is not at all what the Common Core Test is supposed to look like."

Sorry, folks. Yes. Yes, it is.

Granted, they're entitled to some of their shock. The PARCC, SBA, and various state knockoffs are deeply stunted. But you didn't really think we were going to get measures of collaboration or true close reading in there, did you? "Oh," cry the supporters of the imaginary CCSS in their heads, "but this isn't how I thought it would be at all. You are not my gentleman caller! There must be some mistake!"

And so they want to decouple, to delay, to rewrite, to pull pack, to somehow pry the test off the face of the imginary CCSS that they love so much, because this test, this ugly stupid miserable unfair invalid pointless data-mining child-abusing test is sucking the life out of their CCSS dreams!

I am past wanting a reality check for these folks. I cheer them on. I hope they do damage the test, pull it back, take it away. For one thing, it's doing serious damage as an assessment tool. For another, removing the tests hurts the CCSS.

See, I've come to realize I had it wrong. What I said was "You can't decouple the standards from the tests," but what I meant was, "You can't decouple the standards from the test without damaging both of them." So bring it on. Decouple away. Strip those tests and send them back to their cave. The tests, as deluded supporters of CCSS are learning, are the big ugly fangs of the CCSS regime. Pull the tests, and you pull the teeth. Let them attack the tests while believing they won't hurt the CCSS in the process. I welcome their assistance, witting or un.

Without the testing program, the CCSS are just a big bunch of not-really-enforceable suggestions about what to cover. Everyone would go back to pursuing their own personal imaginary version of what they mean, and in disorder there would be weakness, weak national standards yielding to de facto local standards. Without the testing teeth, the CCSS would be, in the words of the great philosopher Yukon Cornelius, a humble bumble.


  1. This is an excellent point about how reforms have gone before as well as why we're stumbling on CCSS. As much as we'd all love to make this better in the classroom, to make it all standard and uniform so all teachers are interchangeable and replaceable, there have to be the awful tests.

  2. Excellent post! You give me hope that this nightmare could end.

  3. Yes, that's one argument for going along with Lily's disingenuous happy-talk about what the CCSS COULD be. But the brutal truth on the ground is that the "preparation" for the return of the tests after some mysterious improvement is choking us to death this year.

    People actually defending public education have to have the guts to stand up to the CCSS, as you've done here. Petrilli is just trying to set a backfire line.

  4. You capture the truth of schools better than anyone I know. Your virtuosity with language reminds me of Saul Bellow's.