The Best Evidence Against Common Core

Classroom-Management2

There were hands in the air. Lots of them.

It wasn’t just the same one or two I was used to seeing, either. It was almost all of them.

My classroom of 8th grade Language Arts students had something to say, and they could barely contain it.

We sat together in a circle, the desks piled in the center and forgotten. We peered across that distance at each other’s faces and waited for someone to be called on.

It wasn’t me who did it.

The student who had just spoken picked a girl across the room from him. A smile cracked her face wide open as she began to speak.

This wasn’t the norm in my room. At least not yet.

We had only been together a few weeks. In that short time, this group of children from impoverished families – many of whom had criminal records, behavior contracts and folders full of write up slips in the office – had really been putting me through my paces.

If you left them in a room alone, there would probably be a fist fight in 5 minutes. If you peeked at their IEPS, you’d see a host of pharmaceuticals needed just to get them through the day. And if you only looked at their standardized test scores, you’d assume they’d need help to tie their own shoes.

But here they were sitting comfortably, discussing societal racism, gender roles, and how we treat the disabled.

If you closed your eyes and just listened, you’d think it was a class of college freshmen.

That’s what a Socratic Seminar does to a class full of troubled teens.

For the uninitiated, Elfie Israel succinctly defines Socratic Seminars as follows:

The Socratic Seminar is a formal discussion, based on a text, in which the leader asks open-ended questions.  Within the context of the discussion, students listen closely to the comments of others, thinking critically for themselves, and articulate their own thoughts and their responses to the thoughts of others.  They learn to work cooperatively and to question intelligently and civilly. (89)1

Socratic Seminars acknowledge the highly social nature of learning and align with the work of John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget, and Paulo Friere.

In short, it’s the kind of thing teachers used to do all the time before No Child Left Behind, Common Core and Race to the Top replaced it with something more rigorous – test prep.

The text we were discussing was “Raymond’s Run” by Toni Cade Bambera. The story centers around Squeaky, an African American girl tasked with looking after her mentally challenged brother, Raymond. At first this is just a chore assigned by her parents. Her real goal is to defeat all comers in various track and field events. However, by the end of the story, she discovers that helping others is its own reward.

But hush. Destiny is speaking.

“Squeaky is kind of a Tomboy,” she read from the question sheet I provided. “Should girls do girly things like being ‘flowers or fairies or strawberries’ or should they be allowed to do more masculine things like play sports? Why or why not?”

“Girls should be allowed to do whatever they want,” she answered. “If they want to play sports or do things that we usually think of as boy things, no one should stop them.”

“In fact,” she went on, “boys should be able to do girl things if they want, too. It’s just like in the story when Squeaky says girls can’t be real friends with other girls because they’re too busy being something other people expect them to be. If people were allowed to be themselves, there’d be less fights.”

Destiny was a girl who only last week sullenly sat with her head down refusing to answer any of my classroom questions with a suck of the teeth. Now she sounded like Gloria Steinem.

And she wasn’t alone. She chose Pablo to continue answering the question about gender roles. He brought up how people in our school treat gay kids.

Pablo said it made him sad that other boys were afraid to be seen hanging around with some kids because they thought their friends would call them gay. “Two girls can hug and hold hands and no one says anything, but if boys did that – they’re gay.”

This from a child who is often absent from school and still had the remains of a black eye that the guidance councilor would only explain by saying the school was aware of it.

Serina took the floor next and had to actually calm herself down before speaking. She told us about her brother, who is gay, and how it makes her cry when people make fun of him. In fact, there may have been a tear or two she calmly rubbed out of her eye with her palm.

At this point – had he been there – David Coleman would put a halt to our discussion.

The co-author of the Common Core famously said, “People don’t really give a shit about what you feel or think.

So shut up, kids. No one cares what you have to say.

Drawing from his deep zero years of training in the field of education, Coleman said:

Do you know the two most popular forms of writing in the American high school today?…It is either the exposition of a personal opinion or the presentation of a personal matter. The only problem, forgive me for saying this so bluntly, the only problem with these two forms of writing is as you grow up in this world you realize people don’t really give a shit about what you feel or think. What they instead care about is can you make an argument with evidence, is there something verifiable behind what you’re saying or what you think or feel that you can demonstrate to me. It is a rare working environment that someone says, “Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.”

This attitude is reflected in the standards Coleman helped write and Bill Gates coerced state and federal governments to force on our public schools.

It’s embodied in an emphasis on close reading – going over a text multiple times to squeeze every drop of intention from the author. It’s a fine way of understanding what the author may have meant. It’s not a fine way of teaching or even understanding the full scope of a literary text.

To be honest, this isn’t exactly cutting edge stuff. It comes from the New Criticism of literary theory of the 1940s. Most schools of education replaced this outdated orthodoxy with Reader-Response theory thirty or forty years ago. Reader-Response sees the author as merely one of many factors making meaning in a text. Of equal importance is the world in which the author lived and the particular point of view of the reader.

Think about it. To Kill a Mockingbird is a very different book written during the Civil Rights Movement than had it been written in the 1990s. It’s important to know that many of the characters are based on real people in the author’s life. It’s important to know about the violence and civil unrest that came to a head at the time of the book’s publication. Moreover, an inner city African American boy has a different experience reading it than a privileged white suburbanite.

Reader-Response criticism opens up the act of reading and allows for classroom activities like the Socratic Seminar. But Coleman wouldn’t know anything about that. He was an English Literature major, and when given the chance to write education standards, he paid no attention to what was most pedagogically significant. He simply favored his pet literary theory over those of more modern thinkers.

But if Coleman and the architects of Common Core could be in my classroom, they might see the error of their ways.

Allowing students ownership of the text – allowing them to take their proper place as part of a complex relationship between the text, author and the world – is so much more engaging an experience than just being an authorial archeologist.

When we insist on strict adherence to the author’s message – and only that – we create a false objectivity. Language Arts is a subject that is at most times open to interpretation. But Coleman makes it a guessing game to get the “right answer.”

Literature is not math. We shouldn’t try to turn it into something it isn’t.

This is why at the beginning of the year, my students take my innocent questions about the meaning of a text as an affront. They see me as just another adult trying to trick them. They assume I’m trying to get them to guess what I’m thinking – about what the author was thinking. There has to be only one true answer, they suppose, and if they haven’t been good at guessing it in the past, why try now?

It takes a while, but through lessons like the Socratic Seminar, I try to broaden their horizons, to show them that they have a vital place in this dynamic. Without a reader, a text is nothing but words on paper. Without a larger societal context, those words lack their full meaning.

Moreover, not all texts are created equal. By this I don’t mean that some aren’t rigorous enough. I mean that literary texts are richer and deeper if they come from a multitude of cultural points of view.

We used to know this. Schools used to encourage students to read works by the full spectrum of Americans – African Americans, Latino-Americans, Asian Americans, Jewish Americans, Muslim Americans, etc. Now we shove all that under the carpet in favor of “rigorous” works by the same safe vanilla European Caucasian males.

Common Core doesn’t stop schools from using multicultural texts, but it doesn’t value them, either. There is no standard about the importance of reading diverse authors. In fact, the only diversity I see valued is that students should view diverse kinds of media!

Great! Read an essay, watch a video, play a song. But what about being exposed to diverse cultures and points of view?

Oh! I almost forgot. Coleman says no one gives a shit about that stuff.

My students do. When they read a work by an African American woman like Toni Cade Bambera, they can see themselves in her work. I’ve taught an awful lot of Squeakies in my years as a teacher. (I’ve even taught a few David Colemans.)

When you can open a book and see yourself looking back, what a motivation to read! But how unfair that we only value providing this experience for the white kids!

If we had truly high standards, we’d recognize this. We wouldn’t ignore the value of multiculturalism. We wouldn’t dumb down Language Arts to a simplistic and anachronistic formula designed to fail and humiliate.

Coleman and the Common Core designers would know that if they had ever led a classroom of students. But hardly any of them are educators. They’re bureaucrats, politicians and millionaire philanthropists.

They’re missing the true picture.

Because the best evidence against Common Core is denied them.

Because the best evidence against Common Core is in the classroom.


NOTES:

1 – Israel, Elfie.  “Examining Multiple Perspectives in Literature.”  In Inquiry and the Literary Text: Constructing Discussions n the English Classroom.  James Holden and John S. Schmit, eds.  Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2002.

-For more information about Socratic Seminars, professional development and even ideas about how to extoll their Common Core benefits (lesson plans, people!) please visit Socratic Seminars International.

This article was also published on Diane Ravich’s blog and the Badass Teachers Association blog.

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12 thoughts on “The Best Evidence Against Common Core

  1. excellent piece on the faulty pedagogics of common core. the colemans et al miss the true picture because their point is not education–it’s the business model applied to education. and part of the problem is the lack of critical thinking on the part of still too many educators who unthinkingly go along with with this framework.
    i was recently asked by a colleague who teaches ela not to mention in my social studies class on opposition to ww1 that helen keller opposed ww1 & was a socialist because she was prepping them to write an essay based on an excerpt from a bio about her, because it would throw her students off from the narrow task of “deep reading”. this is absurd–park your background knowledge at the door.

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  2. If out in the world, “People don’t really give a shit about what you feel or think”, then the world is broken. We shouldn’t break our children to fit a broken world.

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  3. The best evidence against CCSS and any state standards comes from Noel Wilson in his never refuted nor rebutted 1997 dissertation that totally destroys any epistemological and/or ontological validity for the basis of those educational malpractices. To learn why they are COMPLETELY INVALID read and understand his “Educational Standards and the Problem of Error” found at: http://epaa.asu.edu/ojs/article/view/577/700

    Brief outline of Wilson’s “Educational Standards and the Problem of Error” and some comments of mine. (updated 6/24/13 per Wilson email)

    1. A description of a quality can only be partially quantified. Quantity is almost always a very small aspect of quality. It is illogical to judge/assess a whole category only by a part of the whole. The assessment is, by definition, lacking in the sense that “assessments are always of multidimensional qualities. To quantify them as unidimensional quantities (numbers or grades) is to perpetuate a fundamental logical error” (per Wilson). The teaching and learning process falls in the logical realm of aesthetics/qualities of human interactions. In attempting to quantify educational standards and standardized testing the descriptive information about said interactions is inadequate, insufficient and inferior to the point of invalidity and unacceptability.

    2. A major epistemological mistake is that we attach, with great importance, the “score” of the student, not only onto the student but also, by extension, the teacher, school and district. Any description of a testing event is only a description of an interaction, that of the student and the testing device at a given time and place. The only correct logical thing that we can attempt to do is to describe that interaction (how accurately or not is a whole other story). That description cannot, by logical thought, be “assigned/attached” to the student as it cannot be a description of the student but the interaction. And this error is probably one of the most egregious “errors” that occur with standardized testing (and even the “grading” of students by a teacher).

    3. Wilson identifies four “frames of reference” each with distinct assumptions (epistemological basis) about the assessment process from which the “assessor” views the interactions of the teaching and learning process: the Judge (think college professor who “knows” the students capabilities and grades them accordingly), the General Frame-think standardized testing that claims to have a “scientific” basis, the Specific Frame-think of learning by objective like computer based learning, getting a correct answer before moving on to the next screen, and the Responsive Frame-think of an apprenticeship in a trade or a medical residency program where the learner interacts with the “teacher” with constant feedback. Each category has its own sources of error and more error in the process is caused when the assessor confuses and conflates the categories.

    4. Wilson elucidates the notion of “error”: “Error is predicated on a notion of perfection; to allocate error is to imply what is without error; to know error it is necessary to determine what is true. And what is true is determined by what we define as true, theoretically by the assumptions of our epistemology, practically by the events and non-events, the discourses and silences, the world of surfaces and their interactions and interpretations; in short, the practices that permeate the field. . . Error is the uncertainty dimension of the statement; error is the band within which chaos reigns, in which anything can happen. Error comprises all of those eventful circumstances which make the assessment statement less than perfectly precise, the measure less than perfectly accurate, the rank order less than perfectly stable, the standard and its measurement less than absolute, and the communication of its truth less than impeccable.”

    In other word all the logical errors involved in the process render any conclusions invalid.

    5. The test makers/psychometricians, through all sorts of mathematical machinations attempt to “prove” that these tests (based on standards) are valid-errorless or supposedly at least with minimal error [they aren’t]. Wilson turns the concept of validity on its head and focuses on just how invalid the machinations and the test and results are. He is an advocate for the test taker not the test maker. In doing so he identifies thirteen sources of “error”, any one of which renders the test making/giving/disseminating of results invalid. And a basic logical premise is that once something is shown to be invalid it is just that, invalid, and no amount of “fudging” by the psychometricians/test makers can alleviate that invalidity.

    6. Having shown the invalidity, and therefore the unreliability, of the whole process Wilson concludes, rightly so, that any result/information gleaned from the process is “vain and illusory”. In other words start with an invalidity, end with an invalidity (except by sheer chance every once in a while, like a blind and anosmic squirrel who finds the occasional acorn, a result may be “true”) or to put in more mundane terms crap in-crap out.

    7. And so what does this all mean? I’ll let Wilson have the second to last word: “So what does a test measure in our world? It measures what the person with the power to pay for the test says it measures. And the person who sets the test will name the test what the person who pays for the test wants the test to be named.”

    In other words it attempts to measure “’something’ and we can specify some of the ‘errors’ in that ‘something’ but still don’t know [precisely] what the ‘something’ is.” The whole process harms many students as the social rewards for some are not available to others who “don’t make the grade (sic)” Should American public education have the function of sorting and separating students so that some may receive greater benefits than others, especially considering that the sorting and separating devices, educational standards and standardized testing, are so flawed not only in concept but in execution?

    My answer is NO!!!!!

    One final note with Wilson channeling Foucault and his concept of subjectivization:

    “So the mark [grade/test score] becomes part of the story about yourself and with sufficient repetitions becomes true: true because those who know, those in authority, say it is true; true because the society in which you live legitimates this authority; true because your cultural habitus makes it difficult for you to perceive, conceive and integrate those aspects of your experience that contradict the story; true because in acting out your story, which now includes the mark and its meaning, the social truth that created it is confirmed; true because if your mark is high you are consistently rewarded, so that your voice becomes a voice of authority in the power-knowledge discourses that reproduce the structure that helped to produce you; true because if your mark is low your voice becomes muted and confirms your lower position in the social hierarchy; true finally because that success or failure confirms that mark that implicitly predicted the now self evident consequences. And so the circle is complete.”

    In other words students “internalize” what those “marks” (grades/test scores) mean, and since the vast majority of the students have not developed the mental skills to counteract what the “authorities” say, they accept as “natural and normal” that “story/description” of them. Although paradoxical in a sense, the “I’m an “A” student” is almost as harmful as “I’m an ‘F’ student” in hindering students becoming independent, critical and free thinkers. And having independent, critical and free thinkers is a threat to the current socio-economic structure of society.

    By Duane E. Swacker

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  4. Great post. One thing about David Coleman, though: I don’t really think New Criticism is his thing, or that he has a pet literary theory (or cares what literary theory students or teachers espouse). I think the CCSS promoters champion decontextualized reading because it allows them to assert that standardized tests, in which students must read and analyze snippets of works out of context, can adequately measure students’ mastery of the standards. Calling this testing procedure “close reading,” as if it’s what the New Critics did (it isn’t), gives it a veneer of academic respectability that it doesn’t actually deserve.

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  5. I am a classroom teacher with 32 years teaching in Missouri Public Schools all in High School Special Education working with some of our lowest cognitive ability students that take the MAP-A . Missouri Assessment Program Alternate version. I have never been a fan of the original MAP-A. This year with Missouri has decided to use the Dynamic Learning Lab assessment. With little training (one hour and fifteen minutes the Friday before the exam was to start on Monday), even less communication with the folks at DLM and a host of other problems still circulating particularly technology issues, we began administration of the test on Monday. Within minutes of beginning the assessments, our students were presented with math involving slope and intercept, algebra and other content so far above my students level it is ridiculous. From what I can tell the DLM has not data to base itself on and we are being used to “test the system.” On the DLY site it says “research will be released as it is available” and the parent info section is blank as well.

    What a circus. Has anyone else dealt with the D.L.M. that can provide more info on their experience? It is maddening to watch my kids struggle with this and I can see nothing valuable in the experience for them and have no belief that it will provide me with information that can help my instruction.

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