Thursday, April 17, 2014

Paul Bruno's Advice for CCSS Supporters

Paul Bruno is a science teacher who writes a blog of his own while occasionally contributing to This Week in Education over at Scholastic. He calls himself a CCSS agnostic and generally writes about the standards with a fairly even hand.

After spanking CCSS supporters for abandoning an affirmative case for the standards, Bruno was asked by Morgan Polikoff to provide a positive suggestion, and so today Bruno responded with four suggestions for Core supporters. If you're a regular reader, you know I find value in the perspective of people beyond the usual dichotomy of Hate CCSS With A Blinding Passion and Pushing CCSS With Feverish Intensity. So let me take a look at Bruno's three suggestions, and why I don't think anybody's going to listen to him.

1. CCSS supporters need to acknowledge that they overestimated the potential for standards per se to improve curriculum and instruction.

Here Bruno and I are seeing something different, because I don't think CCSS supporters ever really believed that standards alone would raise anything. I think people who have espoused this view have always used "standards" as short-hand for "standards backed up with some kick-evaluations and sanctions so that people will by gum meet those standards or else." I think this is one of the reasons that The Core arrived in the states with high-stakes punitive testing programs already welded onto them. But Bruno gets this next part right:

Teachers already think their pedagogy is about right for whatever learning objectives you want to establish; if you want them to think differently you need to convince them directly. It is also increasingly apparent that you can’t avoid nasty battles over curriculum by saying “standards are not a curriculum”.

 2. CCSS supporters should acknowledge that the new standards are not really as unambiguous as they had thought.

Bruno correctly notes that CCSS fans aren't really doing themselves any favors by repeatedly responding to criticism with "But that's not what the CCSS say."  But Bruno tracks the issue back to peoples' pre-existing edu-confusions. I don't think it's that simple. I think this is an insolvable problem inextricably linked to CCSS by virtue of the top-down creation of the standards.

One of the built in problems of top-down reform is that only the people who were in the room for creation know what they really meant-- and in a top-down program, that's a small group of people, none of whom are going to be directly involved in the implementation of their ideas. And so the battle over what the Original Text really means is endless (as endless, say, as the centuries of interminable battle over what that Jesus guy actually had in mind)

Add to that the suspicion in some quarters that the writers of the Core didn't even really mean what they said in the first place, either because they didn't know what they were talking about (particularly applicable to the all-amateur-hour ELA standards) or they were just writing standards with an eye on the billion-dollar pot of testing gold at the end of the Common Core rainbow, and not trying to write true standards at all. And then the Founding Fathers of Common Core simply released their creation and dispersed, back to their real jobs or to new cash cows.

Add all that together and you have a "movement" with neither a strong controlling text nor a group of active involved leaders. Which opens the door for all manner of vendors, profiteers, and power-hungry reins-grabbers to declare, "Why yes-- what I want to do totally belongs to this package."

I don't think we're seeing peoples' pre-existing confusion so much as we're seeing the built-in confusion of CCSS (some of which is deliberate). It's an ambiguity that makes the CCSS regime profitable, and it's an ambiguity for which no correcting mechanism exists. The few die-hards saying, "But-but-but this isn't what the standards really say" carry no more weight than Leon Trotsky declaring, "You're doing my revolution all wrong."

3. CCSS supporters should focus more on Common Core-aligned assessments.

 What the CCSS “really” mean will be determined in large part by the tests used to hold teachers and schools accountable. So while it’s all well and good to assure us that, e.g., the CCSS “require” a “content-rich curriculum”, that won’t really be true unless the eventual assessments require a content-rich curriculum. 

Bruno is correct, though the real answer is that "content-rich curriculum" won't happen until we're facing "content-rich assessment," and that will be happening never (aka "the same day the assessment includes collaborative performance tasks").

The assessments are the curriculum and the tests are the standards.

4. CCSS supporters should spend more time highlighting “good” Common Core-aligned lessons.

Bruno is correct in noting that CCSS is losing in the court of public opinion in part because it is solidly linked to all manner of dopey lessons (including many that aren't really Common Core lessons). But people talking about CCSS "success" always face the same problem.

Let's say we're discussing the oft-made much-beloved assertion of CCSS-fan teachers that the Core now lets critical thinking into their classroom. The problem is that from this assertion we can only conclude one of two things:

         1) The teacher either didn't know or wasn't able previously to include critical thinking in her classroom. The only explanation for this is that the teacher is a dope.
         2) The teacher was not previously allowed to include critical thinking in her classroom. From this we must conclude that the school administration is a dope.
Neither of these problems requires a multi-million-dollar retooling of the entire American public education system. When someone shows me a good CCSS lesson, my first question is always "How did Common Core make this possible?" (My second question is usually "Who wants me to pay them to use this?") It only highlights for me that the CCSS have always been a solution in search of a problem.

They are the educational equivalent of a salesman at my door telling me, "For only a few thousand dollars a month, we will install equipment that will guarantee that there is air inside your home." I'm in favor of air-- a huge fan, in fact. But it's not clear to me why I should give you my money, or free reign of my home, and I'm pretty much waiting for you to break into a chorus of "Trouble" right here in River City.

So it's not that I think Bruno's advice is wrong, exactly. I just don't think there's anybody in a real position to take it.


    They are the only standards that matter
    They are the de-facto curriculum
    They are the pedagogy
    They are the lever that forces the implementation of CCSS
    They are the driving force behind most school activities
    They are the reason money is wasted on consultants and coaches
    They are the stressors in the system for students, parents, teachers
    They are the reason kids hate school more than ever
    They are the primary focus of attention
    They are the educational money hole
    They are a threat to the careers and reputations of good teachers
    They are the point source for the Gates business plan
    They are the wet dream of corporate reformers/profit makers

  2. Since you went w/ Music Man reference at end of blog, thought you might enjoy this if you have not yet seen it. Yes, it's Koch, not CCSS, but it's the same thing in many ways.