Saturday, December 28, 2019

Dana Goldstein's Common Core Ten Year Tale, Annotated

Dana Goldstein's NYT ten year retrospective of Common Core has been sitting on my desktop since it was published, making me grumpy. It's yet another example of how the stories we are told about modern disruptive education reform are subtly sugared and carefully crafted to avoid discussing some of the larger issues. I don't know-- after all, Goldstein is a published book author and writes for the
Alas, poor standards.
New York Times, and I'm sitting here next to a sleeping baby on the couch, blogging for free, so it's always possible that I don't know what I'm talking about. But there is just so much stuff going on in her piece that I'm just going to quote and respond. For full fairness, you should go read the full piece, but these are all the little moments I experience reading this piece. Some of this is about how Goldstein reports the story, and some of it is just a chance to re-experience the anger of the last decade all over again. Yay, nostalgia.

So let's wade in.

The plan was hatched with high hopes and missionary zeal:

First sentence and already we're passive voicing our way right past a critical CCSS issue--just who decided to push this whole scheme, anyway?

More than 40 states signed on to the plan, known as the Common Core State Standards Initiative, after it was rolled out in 2010 by a bipartisan group of governors, education experts and philanthropists.

Actually, many states signed on ahead of the actual roll-out. And "rolled out" is a nice end run around the question of who actually wrote the standards. "Education experts"? That's a bit of a stretch.

American children would read more nonfiction, write better essays and understand key mathematical concepts, instead of just mechanically solving equations.

There would be no discussion about the educational soundness of these goals.Yes, I know-- Goldstein is reporting, in a fairly economical matter, what the vision was. I just wish the CC story included a discussion of where that vision came from (e.g. David Coleman's personal amateur-educator beliefs about what students ought to read).

“We are being outpaced by other nations,” President Barack Obama said in one 2009 speech, in which he praised states that were moving toward the Common Core. “It’s not that their kids are any smarter than ours — it’s that they are being smarter about how to educate their children.”

We are being outpaced on test scores. Again, did that actually matter? Was there any reason to believe that PISA scores relate to anything? One of the unreported stories of Common Core is the bipartisan success in pushing the idea that US schools are failing--with practically no evidence. But she's not going to examine that premise, nor the premise that the Big Standardized Test tells us anything important about the state of US education. Instead, she'll jump-cut to the present to point that BS Test scores are stagnant and we're still not winning internationally at PISA.

The disappointing results have prompted many in the education world to take stock of the Common Core, one of the most ambitious education reform projects in American history. Some see the effort as a failure, while others say it is too soon to judge the program, whose principles are still being rolled out at the classroom level.

This is an odd piece of reporting. In trying to hang her story on the peg of the decade anniversary, Goldstein seems to be ignoring that people have been "taking stock" of the standards pretty much continuously for the decade. Calling it "one of the most ambitious education reform projects" is fair, but it reminds me that there's an interesting story to be written comparing the Core to other education revamps.

The Common Core got caught up in an old-fashioned culture war, one that pitted activists on both the right and left, who came to detest the Core, against an education policy establishment that was sometimes surprised by the fierce resistance to its actions.

I'm not sure what's "old-fashioned" about a culture war that makes allies out of people all across the political spectrum, but calling the CC debates a "culture war" is dismissive of those opponents, suggesting they just had their ideological knickers in a twist rather than voicing legitimate educational objections. I would be tempted to rewrite this as "The educational amateurs behind the Core botched the writing, the roll-out, and the implementation, and consequently suffered a shit-ton of push back."

But in Goldstein's version, none of the problems of the Common Core were created by the folks pushing it. Her next quotes come from Amy Wilkins, a senior vp of the National Alliance for Public [sic] Charter Schools (which reminds me that the whole issue of how CCSS were a tool to help push privatization and choice will also get short shrift here), who correctly notes that "there is so much space between the people who cook up these policies and the classroom" but doesn't note that they could try to do what they falsely claimed they had done-- involve people who work in the classroom. And then she offers this lousy comment:

We underestimated how difficult it is to change a big, entrenched system.

This construction is not uncommon among reformsters; it's an elegant way to blame the education system for the reformsters' failure. "It's not that our idea was lousy, or that we did a lousy job of putting it out there," it says. "It's that Those People are thicker and slower than we realized." It's not that we built a plane that couldn't fly; it's that the air and gravity refused to cooperate.

Rocky Start

Next, Goldstein rolls back the clock to capture the "rocky start" of the Common Core, placing the roots as a response to No Child Left Behind. "The law was largely seen as a disappointment," she says, once again hiding the Deciders behind passive voice. Then she offers this paragraph, one of the least reality-based in the whole article:

In response, in 2009, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, a coalition of state superintendents, formed a working group of consultants, educators and experts tasked with drafting shared national standards in English and math.

Consultants? Sure. Educators? By whose definition? Experts? In what, exactly? In place of that paragraph, please insert Lyndsey Layton's important story of how David Coleman got Bill Gates to make this all happen. And never forget that David Coleman bragged about how "unqualified" he and his crew were. There were no teachers or education experts given a strong hand in this process, and that was on purpose-- these plucky outsiders were going to show all those "experts" how to fix America's stinky schools.

Goldstein says that after 2010, the standards started hitting "both logistical and political roadblocks." Well, yes. Almost as if in their amateur haste, the architects had not bothered to look at the landscape before they put the car in gear. Goldstein focuses on a young Kentucky teacher who notes that publishers didn't have materials ready in time, so there was a rush to write-it-yourself (difficult because nobody knew exactly how the standards were supposed to work). Then there's this:

In the early years of the rollout, Ms. Wilkerson recalled, there was so much pressure for students to do well on the math and reading tests associated with the standards that science and social studies lessons were sometimes canceled to make more room for the tested subjects.

"In the early years"? Actually, in all the years. But then, high stakes testing had been a feature of education since NCLB, and the "disappointment" that some reformers felt over that was that different were testing different stuff. Part of the whole point of Common Core was to answer the question, "How do we get all these states to test the same stuff?" Somehow Goldstein skips over SBA and PARCC, tests intended to be nation al high stakes Common Core-linked tests. But she does note the opt-out movement as part of the pushback.

She notes that folks on the right were not happy about it, in no small part because it was associated with Obama, who didn't create it, but did push it (Goldstein also skips over the way NCLB's insane requirements became the leverage with which states were pushed into Core compliance).

She moves into a recap of conservative social media pushback, with angry parents posting all the latest terrible Common Core homework (she pictures them "sitting at kitchen tables and squinting at" their kids' homework). And of all the critics of Common Core aligned pedagogy, she goes with Louis C. K. which--okay, that represented a sort of pop culture moment for rejecting the Core.

And in a short quote from Lindsey M. Burke at the Heritage Foundation, she hints at one of the side-effects of the whole mess-- Core backers had used political means to get their educational program in place, and opponents soon realized that it would take political action to get rid of it.

A Retreat

By the mid-2010s, the Common Core had a public relations problem.

Well, yes. I suppose you could say that cholera and fascism have PR problems-- but dismissing something as a PR problem is a simple way to dismiss all objections and critiques as matters of taste and optics, not substantial issues of substance. Core fans have repeated blamed messaging and implementation as a way to avoid any suggestion that the standards themselves have some problems.

But mostly, as Goldstein correctly notes, using Kentucky as an example, states dealt with the issue cosmetically, by rebranding the standards and not really changing anything. Her Kentucky teacher (who, like virtually every single person interviewed for this story, thinks the Core is dandy) says that's a good thing because the Core's priorities are good (more non-fiction is good college prep!) and other things are getting better:

The issue of lost time for history and science has gotten better, she said, as educators become more aware of research showing that rich social studies and science lessons build background knowledge that improves reading comprehension.

Just spitballing here, but there might be reasons to study social studies and science (and art and music) beyond just getting your reading scores to go up. This is part of the legacy of the Core-- the notion that every single thing has to be justified in terms of how it affects reading (and math) scores. And Goldstein makes the point that the Core maintains influence in classrooms.

“It’s a bell that can’t be unrung,” said Sandra Alberti, a senior fellow at Student Achievement Partners, the consulting group founded by three of the lead writers of the Common Core.

Sigh. Yep, that's a headline-- "Representative of Group Promoting a Particular Policy Announces That Said Policy Is Important!"

Still, not everyone agrees that the Common Core was faithfully implemented at the classroom level.

This might be the funniest line in the piece. Of course not everyone agrees, because there's nobody who can authoritatively declare what faithful implementation looks like. And because many teachers are actual professionals who adapt every single thing in their classroom to best fit the students in front of them. "Well, this would work, but it's not properly aligned with the standards, so tough luck, students," said no decent teacher ever. Look, at this point, alignment is a paperwork exercise-- you make your plans based on your best professional judgment, and then you pick out the standards that you can slap onto that lesson.

She tells the story of a Massachusetts charter school teacher who notes that his school met its non-fiction requirements with biographies instead of argument-driven essays and articles. She will once again pass up the opportunity to question what basis exists for that reading requirement.

More Time?

Many of those who developed the Common Core said a key weakness was that the standards were not rolled out with lesson plans, textbooks and widespread teacher-training programs.

That's probably because, at the time, they were all desperately trying to claim that the standards were not a curriculum and weren't trying to micromanage the classrooms of every teacher in this country. It is a measure of how disconnected they remain from actual teaching in actual schools that they now imagine that doing more micromanagement would have made things go better. "What I need is someone to come in and tell me exactly how to do my job," said no teacher ever.

Goldstein actually only follows up with one of the three architects-- Bill McCallum, who is now getting into the curriculum biz after being a bit, well, at sea for a while. The other math guy, Jason Zimba, was, last I knew, working as a consultant for big time districts like New York City. David Coleman is, of course, running the College Board.

“Part of what we’re doing is playing catch-up,” said Allan Golston, president of the United States program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a lead philanthropic backer of the Core. “We did learn about the importance of wider community engagement.”

I wonder what they learned. What a curious lost sort of quote.

Goldstein finally in the last paragraphs talks to someone who is not a Core booster. Jack Schneider, ed profesor and co-host of the education podcast Have You Heard, says

it was “naïve” to expect them to make a big impact on student achievement without broader investments in early childhood education, teacher training and school integration. Ultimately, he added, “I would say that poverty alleviation programs are a better investment than standardized tests.”

And so ends Goldstein's curious ret-con of the Core, covered like a political race with attention to the horse race aspects but no thought for the actual qualities of the horse. She has managed to recap without analysis, while trying to leave the impression that the Core is still alive and kicking and not a shambling zombiefied shadow of its former self, most of its golden aspirations now dust. The Core deserves something more like eulogy and less like hagiography.

1 comment:

  1. This should have been a nearly 20 year retrospective on the absolute failure (and illegality) of standards based, test-threaten-and-punish public education reform laws.

    The 2002 NCLB act's impossible, and therefore unconstitutional requirement of 100% student proficiency in math and ELA by 2014 produced the pressure necessary for state's to fall Race to the Top *money grab and/or the Duncan NCLB waiver. The Common Core standards were part of the five-headed beast that swallowed public education in the last decade. The other heads (requirements) included companion tests (SBAC and PARRC), increased charter caps, data driven instruction, and linking teacher evaluations to test scores.

    By far and away the most damaging aspect of this federal coercion was the linking of test scores to teacher evaluations. An idea that made perfect sense to the average outside observer but became a toxic ingredient of CC reform in classrooms across the country. This was of course exacerbated by standardized tests (PARRC and SBAC and Pearson) that became academic death traps for the vast majority of our youngest and most vulnerable learners. Many wondered how standards that produced impossibly difficult tests was a solution for students who struggled with simpler standards and easier tests.
    But instead, the push for increased academic "rigor" was labeled the "civil rights movement of the 21st century". This new rhetoric, was similar to that of "no child left behind" (100% proficiency: Which kids do you want to leave behind?), creating a false nobility of purpose and to quell the opposition of those who understood the realities of educating every child in America.

    Some viewed the test-and-punish movement in a more diabolical way; that by using artificially exaggerated, CC failure rates, reformers "proved" that public schools were indeed failing our children, thus opening the door for the charter school industry - the privatization and a corporate take over of the public schools.

    Yes, a near 20 year failure that continues with the ESSA thanks to an institutional inertia that may take another 20 years to turn around.

    *The role of the Great Recession in 2009 and 2010 cannot be understated as states desperate for money were easily enticed by Obama's RTTT scam.