Sunday, December 28, 2014

More Fantasy from NYT

In yesterday's New York Times, reformster David Kirp tried to stand up for the Common Core, instead displaying just how weak the argument for the Core has become. It's a short piece, and it won't take long to spot the holes in his argument.

Our first clue of where he's headed comes from his source for the history of Common Core-- the Allie Bidwell puff piece from last February in US News which tried to argue that CCSS was a "carefully thought out educational reform." So Kirp reduces the history of the Core to the idea that in the mid-90's, "education advocates" began arguing that national standards would level the playing field for students. So in 2008, the governors and state school chiefs spearheaded a drive to create "world-class standards." This is perhaps the most stripped-down creation story of the Core yet, omitting Coleman, Gates, and imaginary teachers writing the standards. So both facts and fictions have been pared down.

Kirp also likes the old "CCSS = critical thinking" line, because nobody ever taught critical thinking before. Let me just renew my usual request for somebody, anybody, to point out the critical thinking portion of the standards. Is it right next to the singing unicorns portion?

Kirp belongs to the Blame Obama crowd, saying that administration backing of the standards. "The mishandled rollout turned a conversation about pedagogy into an ideological and partisan debate over high-stakes testing." This is baloney. The Core was created and pushed through ideological and political means. It has ideology and partisanship in its DNA. Without political gamesmanship and ideological leverage, Common Core would not even be a twinkle in someone's eye. The conversation about Common Core was never "turned into" something political and ideological-- it was political and ideological from the first moment. At no point was the push for Common Core fueled by pedagogy. At no point did the CCSS initiative involve educational experts discussing the educational or pedagogical merits of how to launch it.

Kirp also offers this: "The misconception that standards and testing are identical has become widespread." This is a distinction without a difference. Standards and tests are different things, but CCSS and testing were designed to be strapped together from day one. The Core are standards chosen specifically for their testability, and I don't believe that anyone pushing the Core considered doing it without high stakes testing attached for even five seconds. Advocates of the standards routinely talked about how testing would allow them to enforce the standards and drive curriculumn. Tests and the Core were meant to go hand in hand, and so they have. Without the testing, the standards are pointless bad suggestions. Without the standards, testing would be revealed as the invalid punitive crapshoot that it is. In short, there really is no misconception involved, other than the original conception of national standards and testing that would go hand in hand to control education.

Kirp goes on to catalog the backlash from conservative to lefties, and he includes acknowledgment that VAM is a baloney. But he'd like to work his way around to further indictment of the Obama administration:

The Obama administration has only itself to blame. Most Democrats expected that equity would be the top education priority, with more money going to the poorest states, better teacher recruitment, more useful training and closer attention to the needs of the surging population of immigrant kids. Instead, the administration has emphasized high-stakes “accountability” and market-driven reforms. The Education Department has invested more than $370 million to develop the new standards and exams in math, reading and writing. 

He goes on to note that trying to buck the administration's priorities can get you some trouble, and he hits some highlights from Arne Duncan's Great Moments in Attacking Critics (white suburban moms, anyone?).

Kirp is correct to note that these are all stupid things the administration has done. He is incorrect to suggest that somehow these actions were the administration somehow horning in on an otherwise robust and healthy reform party. They are not. Duncan appears to get just as many marching orders from the leaders of reformsterdom as he does from Obama, and the administration has faithfully performed as leaders of the reformy movement wanted them to, adopting as policy the reform framework laid out by NGA and Achieve.

It’s no simple task to figure out what schools ought to teach and how best to teach it — how to link talented teachers with engaged students and a challenging curriculum. Turning around the great gray battleship of American public education is even harder. It requires creating new course materials, devising and field-testing new exams and, because these tests are designed to be taken online, closing the digital divide. It means retraining teachers, reorienting classrooms and explaining to anxious parents why these changes are worthwhile. 

Go ahead and try to count all of the assumptions piled into that paragraph about what is "required" by public education. Kirp uses it to wind around into his finish-- that this would all be going great if the administration had just listened to the calls for a high stakes testing moratorium. Really? There was one of those during the CCSS rollout? did it happen somewhere between the unicorn choir singing "Somewhere over the rainbow" and the ballet of the dancing ferrets? Because I stepped out then, so maybe I missed it. The only call for a moratorium came last summer when panicked reformsters thought they could manage pushback on their favorite initiatives by pretending to endorse a testing pullback (but not really).

In Kirp's world, that imaginary testing moratorium at roll-out time would have reduced resistance to the Core. Now it will be a "herculean task to get standards back on track." Which gives us one last false assumption, because standards can only get "back" on track if they were ever on track to begin with, or that they have somehow left the tracks they were traveling on.

Nope. Standards got to this place of pushback and association with toxic testing because that is exactly the track they were placed on from day one. There is no right track to get "back" on because the Core were never on that right track to begin with.

But is interesting to see this minimalist stripped-down version of the CCSS narrative and argument. The reformsters are running out of tools, which will make the "herculean task" of saving the Core even harder. We can only hope.


  1. Great piece, Peter.

    It is not apparent that David Kirp did any research for his essay other than an Internet search of pro-Common Core sites. He did not even bother to include a link to justify his claim that teachers love the Common Core because it encourages creativity.

    Let's at least thank the editor for giving the piece an accurate and provocative title. My rage will subside when my kids get the same type of education provided by Sidwell Friends and Lakeside, i.e. not Common Core.

  2. "...these tests are designed to be taken online, closing the digital divide."

    Is he SERIOUS? Online tests will most certainly NOT close the digital divide. They will make that divide even more profound.

    There is so much nonsense in his piece.

    Rage? How dare he?

  3. Be careful. This thing is not dead.
    All the institutional might of the corporate reformers is now bent on "capacity building". They're swarming over the schools with penalties and "grants" to put the data-driven personalized delivery, continuous standards-based "formative assessment" and "new accountability" apparatus in place anyway.

    They don't really need these particular "standards". That's why the actual CCSS is such a stupidly cobbled together piece of crap. If they control and monitor an expandable swarm of metrics and measures, they own our schools.

  4. Yeah, I can't figure out how the things Kirp says are required to turn around the "great gray battleship of American public education" (what a depressing, inappropriate metaphor) have anything to do with figuring out "what schools ought to teach and how best to teach it". At least he acknowledges VAM is baloney, which Arne won't yet.

    I always love it when you invoke the unicorns.

  5. Loved this. Well done.

    I did a short take down of that same piece yesterday after I finished cleaning my keyboard due to the spit-takes I endured while reading it.
    Linking your piece in the updates:

  6. Chemtchr is exactly right. This thing ain't over, not even close. There are WAY too many people whose work is now woven into the boondoggle that is Common Core--and many of them Non-profits and associations that we pay dues to, blog for and work with on PD initiatives. People we appear to like. It's no surprise that Randi Weingarten insists that the big push against CCSS is limited to NY--just look around the country at all the teacher-friendly organizations that are rolling out CCSS work, aided and abetted by classroom teachers. Often, classroom teachers with marks of distinction (TOYs, NBCTs, PMAS winners, etc).

    Yesterday, in a conversation with several other band directors, I made a comment about excessive testing creeping into music education--and a Bright Young Thing shot back: Without testing, how will we be accountable for teaching the standards?

    Which standards? Well, she was a little unclear on that--whether it was her own district's standards, the barely-used National standards for music (c. 1998), or the Common Core standards which say precisely nothing about benchmarks in music learning. But, you know, standards. Standards are good, right?

    And here's the thing--they can be useful. It's easy to see how pushback against CCSS (and I'm pushing back, too) is construed as a few cranky teachers who don't want to change. It isn't--and thanks for writing this very excellent blog explaining why--but of all the repulsive reforms rolled out in the last decade, simple academic standards are the least worrisome. It's all the aligned reforms--testing, curriculum development, boneheaded use of technology, teacher evaluations--that rest on the standards that scare the crapola out of me.

    Nancy Flanagan