Monday, September 14, 2015

Core vs. BS Tests

In US News, Robert Pondiscio of the Fordham thinky tank offers some reactions to the recent Education Trust report on teacher assignments.

Pondiscio is no dummy-- he knows the report is essentially bunk, and he says so. The report, icymi, was a survey of assignments in six middle school classrooms in two urban districts, so not really a representative sample of much of anything. The report finds that mostly teachers are not giving assignments that "reflect the higher, more rigorous standards set by Common Core," and while the "research" is tissue-thin, the conclusion feels right to Pondiscio and others.

We could have a whole other discussion about whether or not the Core standards are higher or more rigorous (as well as a discussion about what those terms even mean). But for today, I'm going to let that go so that we can talk of why classrooms have not been transformed into the wonderland of higher order deep critical thinking that Core supporters were sure we'd have by now.

Pondiscio himself hits paydirt with this:

One veteran public school teacher and staff developer worries that we are paying the price for years of "de-professionalizing" the teacher work force. "'Do these things, use these moves and you'll be successful' – that's been the message to teachers for the past 15 years," she says. "Many teachers throw up their hands and say, 'Just tell me what you want me to do' or, 'Is this the right way?'" 

Well, yes. One of the Fellow Travelers of Common Core has been the notion that classrooms can be teacher-proofed, and so we've had giant pieces of poo like EngageNY and it's "If It's Tuesday, You Must Be on Page Twelve" tightly wound instructional pacing.

This has been exacerbated by the sales approach taken by Core promoters, which can be summarized as, "Teachers, you are doing everything wrong, so stop, and do things our way!" And THAT has been made worse by the top-down approach to Common Core which has all but guaranteed that nobody below the David Coleman level (and perhaps nobody at or above it, either) really knew exactly what the hell they were now supposed to do. Add to that a general background noise about how teachers just stink and anybody with five weeks-- or less-- of training can become a teacher, and teachers did indeed throw up our hands. Or maybe not so much throw up our hands as just say, "Screw it," and went back to using our own professional judgment to operate in our classrooms, and you Common Core types can get back to us when you know what the hell you want and can communicate it through some technique other than condescending PD and having non-teacher book salespersons throw manuals at us.

This created a perfect opening for publishers (you know-- them same guys who helped write the Core in the first place) to pop up and say, "No worries. We have everything you need in this box right here, now available at special bargain prices! Act now!!"

And all of that would have been bad enough, but then we throw in what has emerged as the greatest enemy of the Common Core.

The Big Standardized Test.

The BS Tests suck, and they suck in large, toxic, destructive ways. But if you're a Common Core advocate, you need to see that the so-called Common Core tests are not aligned with the Core, that, in fact, no standardized test will ever be aligned with the Core. I've written about this before, but for now, let's just use one example-- if indeed the Common Core is all about the critical thinking, there's very little critical thinking that can be assessed in a BS Test.

In fact, since the BS Tests are skill-focused and content-averse, or at least content-agnostic, the best way that's emerging as a good way to prep for the BS Tests is to just say screw content and focus on daily drill-- a short reading and some BS Test style questions. I could do a pretty good job of getting my students ready for the BS Test with a whole year of nothing but newspaper clippings and paragraphs ripped from any random novels as long as I had them attached to a barrage of BS Test style multiple choice questions (because, yes, drag-and-drop answers are still just multiple choice).

Despite the rich content crowd's insistence that CCSS just love the rich content, the BS Tests absolutely couldn't care less. So for teachers in situations where the state or local leaders are demanding high test scores Or Else, the kind of content and pedagogy that Pondiscio would like to see is highly unlikely to happen.

In other words, the mysteries of unlocking the hidden wonders of the Core and the mysteries of how to raise test scores are two entirely different mysteries, and faced with the choice between the two, many education leaders are choosing the mystery that is directly tied to their professional future. Teaching to the test never died-- it just changed its format a little, and got a whole lot more weight thrown behind it thanks to teacher and school evaluations.

Yes, I think there are other reasons for the lack that Pondiscio and the researchers think they see, and those reasons have a lot to do with the built-in weaknesses of the Core. But without even going there, I think we can explain much of the phenomenon.

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