Thursday, April 9, 2015

Charters, the Core, and the Changing Attack on Public Ed

The attack on public ed has come from many directions over the past decade, and not always with the same intensity from all sides.

For instance, remember not so long ago when one of the leading issues was data gathering? Now it's a less visible issue in the ed debate, probably for a combination of two reason-- 1) some notable public defeats (bye-bye, inBloom) and 2) because the Data Overlords have learned to go about their business more quietly (I think it's entirely possible that they did not initially realize that not everyone would share their enthusiasm for data gathering).

Attack of the Common Core

And, of course, Common Core. CCSS was the one-size-fits-all, top-down, imposed, test-driving monstrosity that looked to many folks like one of the greatest threats to public education out there. We wrote, we talked, we complained, we made uncomfortable alliances, we created facebook groups, all to battle the Biggest Edumonster of All.

But now, after a few years, the fearsome Core is starting to look like the Abominable Snow Monster of the North after Hermie the dentist-elf performs an emergency chomperectomy.

Both its defeats and victories have worked against it. The brand name (Common Core) is firmly ensconced in the public consciousness, but the brand itself is hopelessly hollowed out. People know it when they see it, but everybody sees something different. Kind of like pornography.

I've made this point at length elsewhere, but the short form is that between books and programs and local interpretations and tested versions and the general arble garble of its supporters, Common Core as a national set of standards uniting all US schools on the Same Page simply doesn't exist. And the teacher-supporters haven't helped their cause with their ridiculous attributions to the Core of everything form the discovery of critical thinking to fundamental teaching skills. Together with the loons blaming Core for Communist aggression and fluoridated water, they've shown us the way, and I wish I had seen it sooner-- whatever it is you're doing in your classroom, just nod and say, "Yes, this is totally a Common Core thing!" Nobody anywhere is on solid footing to call you a liar.

Common Core is still the one-size-fits-all product of dabbling educational amateurs. but you know what happens to a one-size-fits-all sweater when it gets worn and passed around by hundreds of human beings with hundreds of different builds? It gets all stretched out of shape until you can barely tell it's a sweater.

Common Core is a meaningless hash, and there isn't a soul in a position of real power willing to stand up and defend it at this point. It can still do real damage to the extent that state or local authorities will try to enforce one stupid piece of educational malpractice or another by hoisting it under the name of Common Core. The Core is still lurking around and doing harm, but the Core of New York State is not the Core of Arizona, which is also not the Core of the PARCC nor the Core of your Pearson textbook series. There will still be hundreds or thousands of terrible ideas ramping about the countryside with the name of CCSS, but the Core's days as The Single Most Serious Threat To Public Education are passing. Common Core has gone from being the name of a very specific large threat to being a name like "Kleenex," used generically to describe many different products.

So, Where Did the Spotlight Go?

I first noted the space opening between charter and core folks last November.

Originally, the Core was going to make a great marketing tool. The Core would be the basis for the tests that would provide the proof that public schools are failing, failing FAILING OMGZ!! and that would open the charter school floodgates. But two things happened.

One was that Core-o-philes frantically called for decoupling the Core from the Big Standardized Tests, thinking that reaction against the BS Test would hurt the Core. Turns out that the tests are pretty resilient. The opt out movement is powerful and gaining strength, but lets be honest-- in the majority of the country, it turns out that if you plunk down something and call it a standardized test, most people will roll over and have their kids take it. Only now and only in certain regions is the opt-out movement gathering real steam.

It also turned out that if you bathed the BS Tests in rosy rhetoric about making sure that students are college and career ready, you don't actually need the standards. In fact, you never needed the standards, because the tests drive instruction all by themselves.

Meanwhile, charter operators embraced a simple truth-- the Core is not necessary for creating a narrative about failing public schools. In fact, in some areas, the Core is part of the proof that public schools are failing (Get your kid into a charter and away from evil Obamacore).

The Hammer and the Broom

The national standards fans and the charter choice crowd were never natural allies. But reformsters of many stripes needed the Big Hammer of Common Core Standards to crack the hard rock shell of public education, to open up that institution to private enterprise. But once the Hammer has done its work, it's not really needed any more.

Common Core's stated purpose was to be the cement that bound together fifty-one higgledy-piggledy educational markets into what would function essentially like one national school district. The Data Overlords liked that idea. The Social Engineers liked that idea. The Profiteers used to like that idea, but it doesn't really matter any more. Corporations like Pearson now have the best of both worlds-- anything with "Common Core" on it can be sold anywhere, but what's between the covers can be any old thing and nobody can really tell the difference.

But the Charter & Choice crowd were never going to want a national school district. They just needed "proof" that Noname Local School is failing so they can rush in to save the poor children trapped in the zip code. Once the Standards Hammer had broken up the public school system into crumbly chunks, the Charter Choice Brrom could come in to sweep up the tasty crumbs.


You can see the new emphasis reflected in the proposed Senate rewrite of ESEA.

The proposed law does less than nothing to protect the idea of a Common Core Standards-based national curriculum; in fact, it explicitly ties federal hands so that pursuing such a vision becomes nearly impossible. I suppose you could still try to sell the standards to fifty states based on the merits of common core; you could also open a facility for training unicorns.

What the proposal does do is enshrine the other reformsters True Loves-- testing and charters.

It doesn't actually enshrine testing for any real purpose, seeming to settle for the weird construction that states must continue to give the BS Test, but it's up to the states themselves to figure out exactly why they are giving the BS Test. That's okay-- that's all the legislation necessary to keep the steady revenue stream flowing toward the test manufacturing corporations.

But the Senate ESEA absolutely loves it some charter schools. Money, help with financing, federal strong-arming to get more opened-- the Senate bill is ready to make it rain buckets of cash on the charter sector. This is just one more piece of writing on the wall-- charters are coming to eat punlic schools' lunch, and they are coming hard.

How Does This Change the Debate?

First of all, don't underestimate inertia. One of the reasons that no reformsters have to spend too much juice on CCSS or testing is that inertia is now on their side. Test-and-punish accountability, measuring education in test scores, aligning to amateur-hour bad standards, operating systems intended to create public school failure, ongoing crushing of the teaching profession-- these are the status quo. They have been how US schools work for at least a decade. All those high school grads who aren't going into teaching? Their entire school experience has told them that test prep and teacher bashing and mandated malpractice and teacher-as-dontent-delivery-system-- all these things are not some temporary aberration, but the SOP of how schools function.

We have a whole generation of people who do not know how schools could be any other way.

Second, alliances are going to shift. People who fight the Core will also find themselves more and more fighting a local battle against whatever version of the Core has raised its stupid head. There are plenty of people who hate the Common Core, but they kind of hate public schools, too, and they would be perfectly happy to see traditional public ed replaced with charters and homeschools and twelve kinds of choice. There are lots of folks who think a charter choice system is the perfect antidote to federal overreach.

The whole battle for the soul of public education is going to become more diverse. more spread out across many fronts. Lots of people thought that promoting CCSS was the path to riches and power through their favorite reformy idea, but the last few years have shown that many of them can pursue a more direct path. Common Core was the flashlight that could illuminate the path to privatizing education; now lots of folks can see that path clearly without any help.

If you want another analogy, try this. Common Core was like the breach in the fortress wall, but now the wall is breached, the barbarians are inside the barricades, and they are spreading out to loot whatever castle target they'd always had their eyes on.

CCSS is still worthy of mockery, still deserving of resistance, still an impediment to actual education.

But our problems now are more direct:

* the steady financial starving of public schools to bring on failure
* the use of testing to create a narrative of failure and target schools for acquisition
* breaking down the teaching profession to make it cheaper and more compliant
* the redirecting of public tax dollars from public education to private corporations
* the steady drumbeat to redefine the definition and purpose of public education
* the creation of two systems-- one for haves, one for have-nots

 If Common Core evaporated tomorrow, these issues wouldn't flinch an inch. I won't stop taking potshots at the Core, and I support those that wish to do so. But I think the heart of the debate is shifting. When it comes to the assault on public education, we have bigger fish to fry than the CCSS.


  1. This is the bottom line. LIsten and learn the truth. It's not just annoying education meddling. The agenda has been here a long time and the change agents behind it never give up. America has been sleeping and shamefully complacent for too long.

  2. Thank you so much for your writing.