Two Moms Against Common Core

Monday, February 25, 2013

Speaking Back to Common Core

I came across an excellent article tonight written by a Thomas Newkirk.   
A former teacher of at-risk high school students in Boston, Tom is Professor of English at the University of New Hampshire, the former director of its freshman English program, and the director and founder of its New Hampshire Literacy Institutes. He has studied literacy learning at a variety of educational levels—from preschool to college.
The full text to the article can be found here: Speaking Back to Common Core 

You must read but in case you don't follow the link I'll post a few key phrases.
The Common Core initiative is a triumph of branding. The standards are portrayed as so consensual, so universally endorsed, so thoroughly researched and vetted, so self-evidently necessary to economic progress, so broadly representative of beliefs in the educational community—that they cease to be even debatable. They are held in common; they penetrate to the core of our educational aspirations, uniting even those who might usually disagree. We can be freed from noisy disagreement, and should get on with the work of reform.
     This deft rollout may account for the absence of vigorous debate about the Common Core State Standards. If they represent a common core—a center—critics are by definition on the fringe or margins, whiners and complainers obstructing progress. And given the fact that states have already adopted them—before they were completely formulated—what is the point in opposition? We should get on with the task of implementation, and, of course, alignment.
     But as the great rhetorician Kenneth Burke continually reminds us, all arguments are from a debatable perspective—there is no all-encompassing position, no argument from everywhere. The arguments that hide their controversial edges, their perspective, are the most suspect. “When in Rome act as the Greeks” (1931/1968, 119), he advises us. So in that spirit I would like to raise a series of concerns.
Professor Newkirk lays out 7 arguments against the standards focusing on the English Language Arts.

1. Conflict of interest.

It is a fundamental principle of governance that those who establish the guidelines do not benefit financially from those guidelines. We don’t, for example, let representatives of pharmaceutical companies set health guidelines, for fairly obvious reasons. But in the case of the CCSS, the two major college testing agencies, the College Board and ACT, were engaged to write the standards, when it was obvious that they would create products (or had created products) to test them. The College Board, for example, almost immediately claimed that “The SAT demonstrates strong agreement to the Common Core Writing Standards and there is very strong agreement between the skills required on the SAT essay and the Common Core State Standards” (Vasavada et al. 2011, 5). In fact, the College Board claims that there is also a strong alignment between other products, the PSAT/NMSQT and Redistep, which starts in eighth grade.  Clearly, there is a conflict of interest here.

2. Misdiagnosis of the problem.

A central premise of the CCSS is that students are not reading difficult enough texts and that we need to ramp up the complexity of the texts they encounter. I would argue that the more serious problem is that students cease to read voluntarily, generally around middle school—and fail to develop the stamina for difficult texts (Newkirk 2008).

3. Developmental inappropriateness.

It is clear now that the designers of the CCSS took a top-down approach, beginning with expectations for eleventh and twelfth graders and then working down to the earlier grades. The process, it seems to me, is one of downshifting; early college expectations (at least what I do in my college classes) are downshifted to eleventh or twelfth grade, and the process continues right into kindergarten.
Given the experience with the unrealism of the No Child Left Behind demand for 100 percent proficiency, it seems to me unwise to move to a new set of unrealistic expectations. 

4. A sterile view of reading.

So the model of reading seems to have two stages—first a close reading in which the reader withholds judgment or comparison with other texts, focusing solely on what is happening within “the four corners of the text.” And only then are prior knowledge, personal association, and appraisal allowed in.
This seems to me an inhuman, even impossible, and certainly unwise prescription.

5. Underplaying role of narrative.

The CCSS present us with a “map” of writing types that is fundamentally flawed—because it treats “narrative” as a type of discourse, distinguished from “informational” and “argumentative” writing. In doing so (and the CCSS are not alone in this), they fail to acknowledge the central role narrative plays in all writing, indeed in human understanding.

6. A reform that gives extraordinary power to standardized tests.

It all comes down to the parable of the drunk and his keys, an old joke that goes like this: A drunk is fumbling along under a streetlight when a policeman comes up and asks him what he doing. The drunk explains he is looking for his keys. “Do you think you lost them there?” the policeman asks.
“No. But the light is better here.”
We have here a parable of standardized assessment. There is the learning we hope to evaluate (the keys) and the instruments we have to assess that learning (the streetlight). The central question of assessment is whether our instruments help us see what we should be looking for—or are we like the drunk, simply looking where the light is better?

7. A bonanza for commercialism.

We are already seeing at work a process I call “mystification”—taking a practice that was once viewed as within the normal competence of a teacher and making it seem so technical and advanced that a new commercial product (or form of consultation) is necessary.
Blogger note:  You may be thinking so what?  This is Capitalizim at work.  Not true - see #1 Conflict of Interest.  There are many conflicts involving those that have a product to sell and were in on the development of the standards.  When businesses influence government without going through the proper channels, namely the voice of the people, that is not Capitalism.

8. Standards directing instruction.

The creators of the CCSS were clearly aware of the delicate political situation they were working in—specifically finessing the opposition to any form of national curriculum. That is why they are called “state” standards when they are clearly intended as national standards (another nice branding touch). They are replacing diverse state standards. Another way in which they walk a fine line is the claim that they are not dictating curriculum or teaching methods; promoters claim these decisions should be made at the local level, by teachers and curriculum directors. The mantra is that the standards indicate where students are going but not how they are to get there.
But can this line hold?
Can goals be so clearly distinguished from methods? It would seem that this line has already been breached by the writers of the standards, Coleman and Pimentel in particular, when they prescribe percentage of “text dependent” questions that should appear in basal readers. Or when they dictate the proper proportion of nonfiction to fiction texts that should be taught. Although the CCSS don’t dictate particular texts (though they suggest them), these “guidelines” are clearly curricular decisions, pedagogical decisions; they deal with means as well as the goals. As the standards become operational in standardized tests, this line will be even fuzzier; testing strategies will be transformed into classroom tasks. I realize that this may not bother some, who would argue that if the tests are innovative it will be useful to teach toward them. But the claims of pedagogical freedom obscure the invasive role the standards are already playing.
9. Drowning out other conversations.
In economic theory there is the concept of “opportunity cost”—in any choice, the consumer is foregoing other choices, other opportunities that cannot be pursued. In schools, if all of the discussion is about A, we pay an opportunity cost of not discussing B, C, D, and other topics. 
The principle of opportunity costs prompts us to ask: “What conversations won’t we be having?” Since the CCSS virtually ignore poetry, will we cease to speak about it? What about character education, service learning? What about fiction writing in the upper high school grades? What about the arts that are not amenable to standardized testing? What about collaborative learning, an obvious twenty-first-century skill? We lose opportunities when we cease to discuss these issues and allow the CCSS to completely set the agenda, when the only map is the one it creates. 
I don't pretend to be a scholar and my problem with the Standards has to do with the loss of local control and  the expansion of centralized government but I found this article to be very interesting and thought provoking.  Newkirk closes with the following:

But I’m left with the question: Who watches the watcher? Who assesses the assessor? That’s our job. We’ve come too far, learned too much, invented too much to diminish our practice by one iota to accommodate the Common Core. When and if we see it impeding our best work, it is not too late to speak up.
Take a minute and read the entire piece.  It's only 7 pages...
Speaking Back to Common Core

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