Friday, May 2, 2014

Petrilli's Kool-Aid Stand Still Open

I have a confession to make-- I kind of like Mike Petrilli. I've never met him. I've never met any of the big names in the ed biz, because I'm a high school English teacher in small town USA  (isn't the internet cool), so I depend on long-distance close-reading of all these folks, and while many of the Reformsters seem lost or confused or walking in that kind of dull cloud that people fall into when they practice self-delusion for long periods of time, Petrilli always seems sharp and peppy, like he really gets a charge out of running a marketing group pretending to be a thinky tank and bouncing around the country to sell folks (particularly the conservative ones) on the glories of the Common Core. I admire his pep and his occasional flashes of wit (the House of Cards parody in which he plays an evil genius who dupes the Secretary of Ed into making a dumb comment about white suburban moms is kind of funny).And he is sometimes willing to check the kool-aid for seeds before he drinks it.

But at the end of the day, he drinks it. And TBF has made a good living selling that same CCSS kool-aid to others.

Take this latest entry on the School Administrator website. His thesis-- there hasn't been enough change under Common Core. It's one of his longer trips around the block, so it will take me a few words to unpack the fertilizer.

Setting Up the Case

Petrilli leads off with a popular new talking point-- the debate about CCSS is all about politics, and not that responsible professional educators think the CCSS complex is bad education. He also nods to conservatives-- "to be sure" we have to keep the feds from meddling in curriculum and messing things up as they have in other areas.

And here's a cool new argument. Top down centralized reforms never produce uniformity anyway, so the complaint that CCSSetc is a top-down centralized reform can be dismissed. And when people try to shoot other people with handguns from over fifty feet away, they usually miss, so if someone is shooting at you, you shouldn't be alarmed.

Moving Testimony

Petrilli tells the story of some moving anti-CCSS testimony from a student in Ohio, and he pulls no punches. But his point ultimately is this: while what happened with the student sucks, can it really be blamed on CCSS? Sure, the materials involved were sold by Pearson as "written entirely to the Common Core Standards," but given the time frame, is it possible that Pearson was fibbing a tad there?

The political problem is that everything bad is being blamed on CCSS, just as ten years ago everything bad was blamed on NCLB. This might be a good place to discuss just how much these two initiatives do in fact deserve to be blamed for much educational malpractice, but that's not where Petrilli is going.

But it also highlights the fragmented, decentralized nature of Common Core implementation. In a system that prizes local control over curricular decisions, 10,000 school boards will be making the most critical calls over Common Core implementation. Will they make good choices?

Short Answer: No

The Fordham Institute published a study finding that while many teachers think they are aligning to CCSS, they are not.

Petrilli's first example is a great illustration of how many real problems intersect. He points out that the standards clearly indicate that elementary teachers should  assign texts based on grade level, not reading level, and yet teachers keep assigning texts "leveled texts."

There are several problems with Petrilli's point. One is that assigning texts based on grade level without regard for the student's reading level is educational malpractice. There isn't a shred of evidence on the planet that teachers can improve reading ability by demanding that students read texts above their level. Teachers don't require third-graders to do that for the same reason they don't require third-graders to be five feet tall-- it's developmentally inappropriate, which is a fancy way of saying that it doesn't do any good. Challenging, sure. Above a student's frustration level, simply destructive and demoralizing.

But here's the other problem-- the standards do not clearly indicate any such thing. Just to be sure, I went back and  looked just at the third grade standards for reading literature, non-fiction and foundational skills. None mention text complexity level at all-- except to say that the students should reading and comprehending texts "at the high end of the grades 2-3 text complexity band independently and proficiently" by the end of the year.

Petrilli and I agree on one thing here-- the universe is loaded with people who see things in the CCSS that are not there. Petrilli, for all his thinky tank standards-studying wonkery, is one more of those people. And he goes on in that same paragraph to contradict more CCSS conventional wisdom.

Furthermore, the standards encourage teachers to focus on text selection first and building skills second. Yet most teachers continue to do it the other way around, picking a skill to teach and then finding a text to help them accomplish that.

I think it's hugely arguable that the standards "encourage" any such thing. But why do people think otherwise? Because the alignment process in schools all over the country is the same-- it is, in fact, the same process that high-priced "consultants" hired by states and districts come fully packed and prepared to implement.

Step One-- Look at the standard and "unpack" what skill it's really talking about.
Step Two-- Find the box in the chart next to that standard/skill
Step Three-- Fill in the box with whatever content you're going to use to teach that standard

Pick the standard-- the skill-- first, then plug in some content to go with it.

The problem, it appears, is that the standards are turning into something of a Rorschach test for educators. Many of us like to see the standards as endorsing our own view of effective teaching and learning. So we focus on the parts we like and overlook the parts we don’t. We revise and adapt them to our own priorities and preconceptions. 

Well, yes. Of course. That's what we've always done. That's especially what we do when the standards are imposed top-down style, because a guaranteed feature of any set of standards is that only the people who were in the room to write them know for sure, exactly, what they meant. So all reforms of this sort come filtered down through layers of thinky tanks and consultants and college professors and administrators and department chairs until they finally arrive on the desk of the classroom teacher who must, as always, look the actual children in the eyes and decide what is in their best interest. This is just one of many reasons that it's best to have a seasoned, trained professional educator at the bottom of that chain (instead of, say, a dewy eyed untrained product of a five week training session).

But we should set aside our own priorities and preconceptions and replace them with the priorities and preconceptions of the writers of the CCSS because.... well, nobody ever has a good answer for this. A teacher's professional judgment is not okay, but David Coleman's amateur judgment should be the law of the land. Because, standards.

The Test

Petrilli correctly identifies the other part of this problem: "...educators might be setting themselves up for a rude awakening when their students face the new Common Core–aligned assessments—and they’ve only been prepared for a fraction of the items."

We are all waiting on The Test, because The Test is the curriculum.

We know the Test will be a rude awakening. You can already hear the noise from the many people who have been rudely awakened just in the last couple of months.

We already know that portions of the CCSS won't be on the test. Collaboration will not be on the test. For all the talk about content-rich text, students will not be reading anything longer than a page or so, and for all the talk about deep close reading, what students will actually have to do is pull deep understanding out of a text in 10-15 minutes.

So while the CCSS may tell me that building a curriculum around three or four great novels that we study at considerable depth over a great deal of time, working in groups, and writing extensive papers built around long careful study of the text, what the CCSS Test tells me is that I better drill my students on how to mine a few boring context-free paragraphs for particular types of details to answer multiple choice quickly, and do it quickly.

It is one of the huge disconnects under CCSS, as it was under NCLB-- the assessments do not line up with the standards. In fact, national assessments don't line up with much of anything useful at all. But suggesting that working the standards real hard will lead to great test scores is like suggesting that combing your hair every day will lead to stronger thigh muscles. 

Helpy Things

Petrilli's advice is aimed at school administrators. It comes in two parts.

1) Study the standards carefully.

2) Buy some consulty materials from an outfit like, say, Student Achievement Partners (an outfit founded by CCSS writers David Coleman, Susan Pimentel and Jason Zimba to help cash in the artificially-created demand for educational Core and curriculum consultants).

Stay true to the spirit of the Common Core and prepare students for what comes next. What he fails to acknowledge is that those are two separate and unrelated activities. 

Did I Mention "No National Curriculum"

Petrilli closes with a reminder that CCSS will not lead to a national curriculum, and local control is still the rightful Boss of All Education.

What Did We Learn

Don't fear CCSS, because it won't actually work. But do be concerned because it's not working properly now. Use your local judgment, but only after you've infused it with the nationally-based judgment of Wiser Persons. And beware the test.

Petrilli's writing always leaves me with the same odd feeling-- the feeling that he's just made another convincing argument for dumping the Core, and yet he seems to be sure he's done the opposite. Hey. At least he's well paid and having a great time.


  1. Excellent post. I think Michael Petrilli is one of the most dangerous proponents of CCSS because he is well spoken and comes across very convincing.

  2. I find it hard to take someone with so little ed cred as seriously as Petrilli seems to take himself.

  3. Did you read his article that suggests one type of school for the children of the poor and another type for children of the middle-class?

    I can't admire anything about him.

  4. Brilliant takedown of Petrilli. You are a genius.