Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Bill McCallum, CCSS Author & Sad Scientist

When movies present us with science-related disasters, we generally involve one of two sciency types-- the mad scientists and the sad scientist. The mad scientist is the one genetically engineering giant gerbils to take over the world (cue maniacal laugh). The sad scientist is the one who believes that he is Doing Great Things, like creating no-leak ice cream cones for poor children everywhere, only to discover that his patron, whether its an evil millionaire or an evil businessman or an evil military leader, plans to use his great creation for Evil Purposes!

"No!" cries the Sad Scientist as the villagers approach his genetically modified lima beans with pitchforks and torches, "You don't understand! They won't harm you! They're really quite yummy!!" And when the Sad Scientist discovers that his GMO ferrets have actually burned down an orphanage, he still sticks up for them. "They're just misunderstood."

I was thinking about the sad scientist as I was reading up on Bill McCallum. McCallum describes himself as someone who was “born in Australia and came to the United States to pursue a Ph. D. in mathematics at Harvard University, a professor at the University of Arizona, working in number theory and mathematics education.” He's also one of the creators of Common Core, having represented Achieve on the 2009 panel that created the College and Career Ready vision of what a high school grad should look like, and then serving as one of the three lead writers on the math standards.

I encountered him when a click-pursuit led me to, a website that McCallum and Jason Zimba (another math CCSS writer) started last August. McCallum does most of the blog writing on the site, assisted for stretches by his colleague Aubrey Neihaus. The lead post started like this:

The Common Core State Standards present a rare opportunity to advance the way we teach our children mathematics, reading, and writing. But change is hard, especially as forces amass to tear the standards down.  This blog is for those who want to see the standards succeed and are willing to receive the occasional call to action in support of them. I recognize that you are all busy and not everybody can respond all the time. But if there are enough of us that won’t matter. 

Well, almost a year later, it appears there aren't enough. The site has 323 subscribers and many fairly silent comment sections. There are a smattering of short, supportive comments; many of the comment sections are closed to comment. There are some resources, most from October 2013 or earlier, including items such as the Hunt Institute videos about CCSS. Links to "Share Your Story of Support" and "Stand Up and Be Counted" both lead to big empty nothings. A link to "Voices of Support" garners a "page not found" message.

But just as the few sad furnishings in a big empty house can tell you something about the owner, I found the website revealing. Well, sad, but revealing, too.

We have a tendency to characterize all CCSS backers as evil geniuses, malignant mad scientists, or greedy underhanded businessmen. But I've characterized CCSS regime supporters as three groups

               1) People who make a living/profit from CCSS
               2) People who see things in the CCSS that aren't actually there
               3) People who haven't actually looked at the CCSS yet

I think Bill McCallum is part of group #2.

I've read most of what he posted here, some interviews, material he posted at his other website. Bill McCallum is no David Coleman. He appears to have a sense of humor (prior to the launch of the support site, he promised that there would be jokes, and the site includes a link to one of Colbert's CCSS bits). He is by and large respectful of CCSS opponents; he occasionally engages their argument as if it's worth talking about (at one point he wishes that the new Diane Ravitch had been around twelve years ago to fight the influence of the old Diane Ravitch). He does not, a la Coleman, suggest that he is a gifted amateur who is just making a WAG that should be fine because he's so damn smart.

Like the typical sad scientist, he seems to truly not grasp how his creation is actually being used and harnessed in the real world. In the midst of the one conversational thread on the site, he writes this:

My vision of CCSS is consensus about what we want kids to learn but not a rigid script for how they should learn it.

He says many things like that. It's not that we haven't heard a version of the point before, but I'm struck by how he frequently uses the simple language of someone who's sincerely trying to explain a truth, and not the convoluted jargonny blather of someone who is trying to hide a truth.

Searching his writing, I found more of that vision. CCSS should provide standards that can be interpreted locally. The infamous Appendix is meant as a suggestion or example of how to extend the standards, not a directive or guide. Curriculum and assessment should be based on the standards, but created by local entities.

McCallum is baffled a bit by some opponents; last summer and fall he saw them as only as wackos on the far right, and he linked to a post suggesting that CCSS is neither panacea nor Satanic, but simply a better way to focus teachers, who remain the backbone of instruction. His frequent argument against CCSS opponents is that what they are complaining about isn't really the Common Core at all.

Like a writer who has sold his novel to Hollywood, McCallum seems not to grasp that he no longer gets to define what the CCSS are or mean. Coleman appears to have fully embraced the complete CCSS regime and has moved with gusto to cash in on the whole complex. But McCallum keeps insisting that his CCSS is simply standards, and no standardized curriculum nor tests nor teacher evaluation nor school evaluations are any part of it. It is also true that a communist leader shouldn't look like a Stalin or a Mao, but reality is just a bitch some times.

I actually feel a little sad for McCallum. I imagine that some of the atomic scientists who thought they were developing an awesome power source, not a new way to immolate hundreds of thousand of people, might have struggled as well. But the corporate profiteers and data overlords and anti-teacher public school haters have found in his work a perfect tool for their agenda, and McCallum's intentions, no matter how noble they may have been, no longer matter.

I don't know how well the real Bill McCallum matches my mental picture. Maybe he's a huge jerk, and I just don't see it in his writing. I do wish he would wake up and smell the proverbial coffee. Because when I say his intentions for his creation no longer matter, that's not entirely true. His repeated statements about his intentions for the Core help feed the CCSS machinery, allow the profiteers and the rest to publicize the Core based on what its creator says and not what's actually happening. And if McCallum were ever to look at any of the anti-education crap that has been welded onto his creation and say, "This is not what I meant at all. This is wrong. This is exactly the opposite of what was supposed to happen"-- that would be a powerful force for sweeping the crap away, and making it possible to do some of the things he apparently meant to do in the first place.

It's tough for the sad scientist to come to terms with he reality of what's been done to his creation. Sadly, right now, we're left with the sad image of Bill McCallum trying to rally support for CCSS on a ghost website by hawking buttons.


  1. Wow, that is quite the pin. I agree with your assessment. I do think there are those who support CCSS who are simply misguided. Their hearts are in the right place. It's a shame they can't see the forest through the trees.

  2. I feel sad for McCallum as well. Just like charter schools, the creation of the Common Core has been mutilated, twisted, and perverted into a monster used for sinister purposes, which was certainly not its original intent. Unlike the creator of the charter school movement, however, McCallum still has it well within his power to change the course of history and set things right.

  3. I think the analysis of Bill McCallum is hit and miss. I've had conversations with him, both public and private, via e-mail and by phone. He's not stupid. But I think it's easier to see in retrospect what the bigger picture is (and probably always was) with the overall Common Core Initiative than it was in the early days, particularly for those given a chance to write the Mathematics Content and Practice standards. And there was little consensus in those groups, I suspect strongly, just as in the end, elitists like R. James Milgram got to make the biggest splash by repeatedly and publicly trashing them (for all the wrong reasons).

    Like other progressive mathematics educators from the NCTM/NCSM world, McCallum believes in meaningful improvements over the dead model of mathematics instruction that have dominated this country for over a century. I don't know if he has been completely taken in by the prospect of seeing NCTM's underlying philosophy (see the Process Standards from, say, PRINCIPLES AND STANDARDS FOR SCHOOL MATHEMATICS (2000) put into place nationally with the force of the US DOE and a ton of state DOEs behind it. I do believe and have said repeatedly that some prominent progressive math ed folks, including much of NCTM's leadership over the last two decades, appears to have fallen, more or less, for that notion. It's understandable that they would. Having tried and failed since 1989 to get that philosophy into K-12 classrooms, they are desperate to give it another shot. If Big Government & Big Business seem to promise the realization of that wish, can we really blame people who worked so hard and long (and unsuccessfully) to see it come to fruition for biting the poisoned apple?

    Where I DO blame them and other well-meaning folks who support the Common Core Math Standards for progressive educational reasons is in failing to see the biggest flaw in this entire plan, REGARDLESS of the politics, the money, the greed, the corporate worms writhing throughout the fruit: the failure to adequately plan for an effective change in the entire culture of American school mathematics. Such a plan would be gradual, and it would meaningfully engage EVERY stakeholder, most importantly parents, teachers, and administrators. It would include a flexible and well-considered long-term plan for changing how each new cadre of K-12 math teachers thought about mathematics content and pedagogy. It would adequately train teachers at every grade level to provide deep content and pedagogical content knowledge of mathematics necessary for the task they face with diverse students in real classrooms. It would have provisions for getting rid of the dead wood that cannot or will not adjust to the needs of contemporary mathematics teaching and learning (and I'm thinking in terms of Finland, not Michelle Rhee in that regard). And perhaps equally importantly, it would have a well-thought-out strategy for educating parents so that the next round of the Math Wars wouldn't simply be a repetition of the last two and a half decades' worth of losing battles against smarter, better-funded, more ruthless opposition.

  4. Sadly, none of that happened. As a breed, mathematics educators in this country have proven to lack political savvy. NCTM as an organization has proved to be so hopelessly naive and incompetent that it's little more than a sad joke in some circles (including cadres of very smart young math teachers who aren't waiting for NCTM or anyone else to finally wake up and smell the coffee).

    There are times when I think the only solution to making meaningful wholesale change in American mathematics education culture would be to take everyone over the age of 6 out to the middle of the Atlantic and sink them to the bottom. It's like trying to get this country to adopt the metric system, something we've only been trying since the early days of the 19th century, without success for some strange reason. Maybe if the Founding Fathers had gone ahead with their thought about dropping English and adopting Hebrew as the national language. . . ? After all, if they could have sold THAT one, they could have succeeded at anything.

    Meanwhile, I think McCallum gave things a reasonable shot given the limitations of his mandate and the fact that he was working with committees. Anyone who had tried to pull off anything vaguely like the vision of things I advocate would never have gotten the job or would have been dismissed or forced to resign sooner or later. That's how politics (educational and otherwise) works. The ridiculous critiques of much of the "problems" with the Math Standards have approximately ZERO to do with either the content or the practice standards as written. They reflect for the most part the same disgruntlement and abject distortions from 25 years of anti-progressive reactionary pushback against the 1989 NCTM Standards, replete with amazing propaganda and scare tactics that have parents beshitting themselves every time they see a problem they don't get. Couple that with a vast percentage of teachers and administrators who honestly don't get what progressive mathematics teaching is about, don't understand constructivism, don't understand the difference between a MODEL for a mathematical idea and an ALGORITHM for doing computation, approach progressive math teaching with the same narrow-minded, clueless rigidity with which they approached traditional math instruction, and you have . . . a freaking disaster. A quarter century of absolutely wasted time, money, and effort. A vast spinning of our collective wheels in which a vocal minority of elitists and reactionaries have been able to keep the bus from moving five feet forward without pushing it 20 years backwards. And the Common Core has simply been a gigantic juggernaut that repeats every error made in the previous 25 years and exacerbates matters with a host of new idiocies, including the hijacking of the democratic process, willful capitulation to corporate capitalism, destruction of the teaching profession, selling of public education to the highest bidder, and full-fledged surrender to high-stakes testing insanity.

    As Yakov Smirnov is wont to say, "What a country." I don't think Bill McCallum is the problem or the solution. We've met the enemy, and he is us.

  5. The disconnect between the progressive intent and the actual consequences is staggeringly large. The ELA "standards" are another matter altogether. They are, in a word, completely amateurish. A tragic joke on the country.