Monday, August 18, 2014

CCSS & the Men Behind the Curtain

Starr Sackstein is over at Education Week trying to make a case for the Core once again. And I'm going to disagree with her, once again.

Sackstein has apparently evolved. The last time I responded to her, she was espousing the old "teach to the standards and the tests will take care of themselves" line. She has now moved on to "Well, yes, the tests are not good, but the Core is still delightful." So, she's moved a bit, but she's still wrong.

Arguing against testing but for the Core always produces arguments with sudden jumps of logic (because that's the only way you can produce such an argument). Sackstein puts hers right in plain sight.

Granted, no one likes to change curriculum maps that have taken them forever to generate, but when one looks closely at what the Common Core is saying, it's not really bad... not bad at all.
As a matter of fact, most of us do it already and advocate for it. [her emphasis]

Which brings me back to my same old question. If all the Core is really asking us to do is stuff that all fine teachers are already doing, why do we need it. Why should we change curriculum maps and buy new materials and generally spend a buttload of the taxpayers' money if we already have sound educational practices in place? Either we are wasting a whole lot of taxpayer money that could be spent elsewhere, or we aren't really already doing what the Core says we're supposed to. Pick A or B-- I cannot think of any other options.

To pivot to the next part of her argument, Sackstein asks a rhetorical question:

If each of us is trying to prepare students for life, why not have a common set of standards nationally that help to define what those standards are?

First, the question needs a rewrite, because when we discuss CCSS, we're not talking about anything that is trying to "help us define" the standards. So here's the question Sackstein means to ask:

If each of us is trying to prepare students for life, why not have a common set of standards nationally mandated so that all schools and teachers must follow them?

Sackstein's version of the question sidesteps one of the central issues of the Core, which is that they are mandated, top-down standards, imposed from above. Sackstein either doesn't know or chooses to gloss over that concern. For instance, earlier in the piece, she says, in defense of the infamous 70/30 split, "They [the standards] put the emphasis on non-fiction texts, presumably to prepare students for career or college readiness."

Presumably? Who exactly is doing the presuming? And why do we have to presume? Isn't there some research to back up that presumption? (spoiler alert: no)

See, this is where Sackstein and I part ways. She seems to assume that standards come from some objective, trustworthy Higher Source, as if they were delivered on stone tablets and a burning bush. She has reproduced a paragraph's worth of the Core's own puffery to show how reasonable the standards are. Let me interrupt in red to demonstrate my issues:

"As a natural outgrowth (natural according to whom) of meeting the charge (whose charge is that, and who gave it to the chargees?) to define college and career readiness, the Standards also lay out (the standards did not lay out a thing-- some guys in a committee did that) a vision (their vision) of what it means to be a literate person in the twenty-first century (based on what-- what special prescient skills did the people on the committee have that lets them see this more clearly than anyone else?). Indeed, the skills and understandings students are expected (by whom?) to demonstrate have wide applicability outside the classroom or workplace. Students who meet the Standards readily undertake the close, attentive reading that is at the heart of understanding and enjoying complex works of literature (who says so?). " (Taken from the Common Core website)

Nothing in that paragraph suggests that a teacher will be stifled by these new standards. It's about moving education into the 21st century. It's about making kids viable in this world.

Oddly enough, I find that most of that paragraph suggests that teachers will be stifled, because what I see is a group of faceless individuals hiding behind a mask of Objective Standards in order to impose their ideas about what an educated American citizen should look like. I don't see a call for dialogue or an attempt to sway my professional judgment. Instead I see a requirement that I not only ignore the man behind the curtain, but pretend there is no man and no curtain, just the great and powerful Wizard of CCSS.

Like the Constitution, it's all about interpretation. Here are the standards, how we define and implement them in our classes is on each of us.

Except that it isn't. And it was never going to be, and to fulfill the promise of the Core, it can't be.

The whole point of having national-level standards is to get everyone the same page, to make sure that education is one-size-fits-all across the country. And that means we cannot have people deciding on their own how to define and implement the standards. Check out the unusually candid Rob Saxton, Oregon Deputy Superintendent, explaining that he will not tolerate "independent contractors."

And he has a point. If each teacher is going to come up with her own definition of the standards, why do we need the standards?

No, the Core promised that we would all be on the same page. It promised that one textbook would be marketable in every state in the union. And it promised to hold us all accountable for doing What We're Supposed To Do (as determined by the men behind the curtain). And that means tests-- big fat standardized tests, all across the country.

To reiterate, the standards are NOT the tests, even if the testing companies have adopted and abused them. We can't let testing companies control how we run our classrooms or how we interpret the standards.

Sackstein is sort of correct-- the standards are not the tests so much as the tests are, in fact, the standards. Particularly in those states where the tests will determine school closings, teacher job security, and teacher pay, the testing companies are in fact telling us exactly how we are supposed to run our classrooms and interpret the standards.

Without testing, the Core Standards are nothing but a list full of mild suggestions, pointless, unnecessary (and as Sackstein says in her piece-- twice-- things we are already doing, anyway). The people who created the CCSS had no intention of letting them languish as mild suggestions that teachers might interpret (or ignore) as they wished. A national-scale accountability measure-- a standardized test-- has to be part of the CCSS program, or the Core will just be a waste of everybody's time. High stakes testing are like a law threatening imprisonment for anyone who fails to describe the Emperor's new clothes correctly.

It should not surprise us that the Core and testing go hand in hand. Not when so many people tied to the testing industry are among the men behind the curtain.

1 comment:

  1. Ding! Ding! Ding! Bullseye!

    *hands Peter a kewpie doll