Friday, July 4, 2014

Van Roekel, Fordham and Defending the Brand

What a difference a year can make.

A year ago, Dennis van Roekel's message to NEA members was, "Well, if not Common Core, then what in its place?" This year, his message was, "Common who? Hey, look at this toxic testing badness!"

With all the tight aim of a finely-crafted focus-group-tested PR campaign, DVR used the NEARA convention as a launching pad for a campaign to push back hard against The Big Test while also, as Fred Klonsky put it, building a firewall around Common Core.

DVR's keynote seems (full disclosure-- I wasn't in Denver and I am depending on the reports of those who were) a work of exceptionally fine tuning, the kind of careful tap dance that you can't perform without knowing every inch of the dance floor.

He led off with a history of the last several decades of school reform, name-checking the usual rage-inducing suspects (even in a speech, it seems, She Who Must Not Be Named is red meat click bait) without getting lost in details. But somehow a study of the evolution of various ill-fated, teacher-blaming, education-crushing reforms did NOT bring DVR to Common Core. Rather, the evil bad boy of school reform is high stakes testing, first bullying its way into the spotlight and now ruining the entire show.

Look! Look over there, at that Bad Testing!! No no no-- not over here at the CCSS! It's the tests! That's what done it!

DVR outlines four points for getting the accountability train back on track:
1) expand early childhood education to improve school readiness, 
2) redirect resources away from testing companies and toward  improved conditions of learning and teaching,  
3) create high standards for all learners and 
4) take ownership of and responsibility for a quality teacher workforce.

1 is harmless. 2 is an interesting pipe dream. 4 is perhaps the most interesting, representing an intention of the union to finally get involved in teacher quality. And 3, of course, reaffirms the NEA's devotion to the Common Core. Not that DVR ever mentioned the Core. Focus-testing apparently made it clear that it was not a guaranteed applause line. 

No, the purpose of this initiative is two-fold. Attack the tests. Defend the brand.

It helps that the tests deserve attacking. They're a weak target at this point, and they are the backbone, teeth and testicles of the entire CCSS movement. And they are odious, awful, wretched excuses for anything useful. They are every bit as bad as DVR said they are, and that's part of the campaign's strength-- it's based on truth. It just stops telling the truth once we get to the question of why we have these tests in the first place. Because for some reason, the imperative is to protect the CCSS brand.

Gates proposed moratorium on testing is likely the same thing. At all costs protect the brand.

CCSS is a hot air balloon struggling to avoid crashing back to earth, and testing is the overweight guy who may have been our BFF when we took off, but now we need to get rid of anything that is dragging the CCSS balloon down, so over the side with you, buddy.

Likewise, CCSS foes were chortling yesterday to see Robert Pondisco at the Fordham Institute's blog eviscerating a model teaching example from engageNY's Kate Gerson, who demonstrated an example of why Common Core is often associated with students who would rather have their eyebrows plucked bald one hair at a time. Gerson appears to be channeling the worst teaching techniques of the 1960s, and my heart goes out once again to NY teachers who have to deal with this drivel.

But is Pondisco, shooting holes in the Core? Of course not. The Fordham has been relentless in defending the brand-- from everybody and anybody including She Who Must Not Be Named and Arne Duncan himself. The Fordham applies the same technique over and over again-- they spot something egregious or stupid, and instead of making the amateur hour mistake of trying to protect it because it's Core, they get out their knives, carve it up, and declare, "This is NOT Common Core. This is what you get when some idiot does Common Core wrong." They have mastered a not-easily-mastered skill, because defending yourself from your enemies is easy; defending yourself from your friends is way harder.

Look, I welcome NEA attacking tests. As I've written before, the tests are the very worst, most destructive part of the reformy beast. But if we keep supporting the idea of national standards, we are going to keep getting national standardized tests. Railing against the testing while defending the CCSS is like cutting off dandelions and carefully tending their roots.

This circling of the wagons around the Core is good news for those of us in the resistance. For one thing, Core supporters are way over-estimating how easily CCSS can be cut loose and protected from the effects of things like a testing system that was built right into the Core's dna. For another, the fact that they're willing to try is a measure of how much trouble they're in.

And if, a year after defiantly defending it, DVR is ready to go through his last speech without even mentioning the Common Core, there is hope that my national union might be starting to get the beginning of a clue.


  1. I agree with most everything you wrote, but why is #2 a pipe dream? Creating a functional alternative to standardized tests is the only way out of the morass. Why couldn't we use teacher created authentic assessments that get aggregated and reported in realistic, responsible manner?

    1. I'm sure we could go ahead and do that for free. But I doubt that any politician is going to turn to Pearson et al and say, "Yeah, we're going to go ahead and redirect that mountain of money you've been enjoying and just use it to fund all these swell teachers over here. You don't mind, right?"

  2. Why does DVR have such a love affair with Duncan? He is trying too hard not to upset the apple cart while Arne is proving himself to be more of a moron daily. For the first time I am really questioning what the hell my union is doing.

  3. Mr. Greene,

    Thanks for the link. I'm afraid I will disappoint you if you want to cast me as the villain who will slavishly "defend the brand" of Common Core. If you read any of my (far too many) pieces about CCSS, you will see a fairly consistent patter of noting I favor Common Core as a means of increasing the number of kids who get a well-taught curriculum rich in knowledge and vocabulary. My very first piece on CCSS, before the connection between content and reading comprehension was made explicit, pronounced a draft of the standards "dead on arrival." When the connection was made clear, CCSS won my support. But in my opinion, what really needs to be overthrown is a skill-based view of literacy. Comprehension is not a skill to be taught, it's a condition to be created. Properly understood, CCSS moves us in this direction. But much depends on implementation, clearly. But I'm just as clear that one cannot blame implementation. If standards or a curriculum are too complicated to be well implemented, ultimately that's on the author of those standards or curriculum. But that's a blade that cuts both ways. If our existing teacher corps is not up to CCSS, the next round of reform will almost certainly be more restrictive, not less. That's another reason I wish for the success of Common Core.

    1. Thanks for your response. I'm not much for villains, and slavish defenders of the Core seem to be hard to find these days (except, ironically, within my own national union leadership).

      I do think you belong to the group of Core defenders whose position is "If you hold it up to the light like this and turn it this way and squint hard, you can see how it could be used to do what I think ought to be done." From where I sit, the rich curriculum supporters of CCSS see something that just isn't there. It's particularly not there when you set CCSS alongside the connected testing, which emphasizes short disjointed selections with maximum boredom content.

      It's not an unusual situation. Every school reform to ever come down the pike is followed by a spirited argument about what the reform "really" means and how it should be "properly understood"; it's just that this time, the high stakes tests are in place to trump all other arguments.

      Common Core could conceivably be used to further the rich curriculum agenda, but that agenda is not in the Core's dna. It's not worth saving or defending.

  4. "Comprehension is not a skill to be taught, it's a condition to be created."

    I suppose then, in your mind, that CCSS has not created the condition for all those lousy teachers. It's on the authors. Or not. I see what you did there.

  5. Well said, Bill.

    My issues with CC are two in number:

    1. How do you know? There is a cultish insistence that CC is the Holy Grail. It will lift up the poor and make the U.S. number one in the world. Where's the evidence? Where's the research? WHERE'S THE FREAKING DATA?

    Answer? Crickets.

    2. We know how children learn and what's being done in the primary grades is contraindicated by that research. Indeed, coercing 5 to 8 year olds to learn what they are NOT ready to learn is abusive and that is not hyperbole.

    So what do we have? No research and its attendant data that supports the claims of CC "promise," and instruction that ignores the research we do have about cognitive development.

    As an English teacher I am very sensitive to irony. We are being told that our instruction must be research based and data driven, but this does not apply to the people telling us to do so.