Everyone is an Expert at Everything

Frank Bruni on the phone with the New York Times.

Frank Bruni on the phone with the New York Times.

There are so many good takedowns of Frank Bruni’s New York Times piece supporting the Common Core that I did not bother to read it for myself until yesterday. I was glad I did. It gave me a bit of masochistic pleasure, like when you pick at a scab or push on an aching tooth. Bruni the food critic demonstrates the same thick assumptions and caricatured impressions of public schooling shared by many Common Core advocates. One only need to read the myriad comments under the article heaping praise upon him for confirming their own uninformed biases about youth, education and parents to get a glimpse of the armchair education expert parade in action.

Bruni introduces the Common Core thusly:

“The Common Core, a laudable set of guidelines that emphasize analytical thinking over rote memorization, has been adopted in more than 40 states.”

You can see Bruni contrasting the Common Core to some old, stuffy classroom where students practice mere “rote memorization”. Perhaps Bruni in his youth was forced to memorize state capitals or other such drudgery, so he assumes that most schools in most places today do the same thing. The only problem is, rote memorization is not the stuff of schooling today and has not been for some time. Teachers are being trained to “facilitate” discussion in groups and provide “inquiry-based” projects to their students. If he were to take a walk through any public school hallway in New York City, he would see bulletin boards filled with projects that required anything but rote memorization. We are no longer in the 1970s where students stood up at their desks to recite the state capitals or the elements of the periodic table while their spectacled female teacher sternly looks on brandishing a long wooden pointer. Education has not looked like this for some time.

Then there is the assertion that Common Core emphasizes “analytical thinking”. If one considers a mindless exercise in pulling ideas out of text in order to bubble in the correct answer on some exam “analytical thinking”, then Common Core does plenty of that. What it does not do is encourage kids to inquire, wonder, predict, question, investigate or understand the world around them. It does not link learning to life, past to present or education to citizenship. It is a ham-fisted impression of what some ivy-leaguers who never taught children consider “rigor”. But their version of rigor is not what most of them would recommend for their own children. This is a rigor designed for “those” children. “Those” children do not need actual joy in their learning. They need to stop the playtime and get back to basics. That is what Common Core is all about.

Bruni continues:

“Then there’s the outcry, equally reflective of the times, from adults who assert that kids aren’t enjoying school as much; feel a level of stress that they shouldn’t have to; are being judged too narrowly; and doubt their own mettle.

Aren’t aspects of school supposed to be relatively mirthless? Isn’t stress an acceptable byproduct of reaching higher and digging deeper? Aren’t certain fixed judgments inevitable? And isn’t mettle established through hard work?”

The answer, of course, is no. Since when did digging deep into a new topic entail “stress”? I got a degree in history because I love the subject. Never did I consider the papers, research or readings I had to do to learn my subject “stress”. Ever since college, I have been a voracious reader of history, philosophy, literature, economics, science and sundry other topics I never liked in school. Not once did I ever put the book down, wipe my brow and say to myself “wow, this is really stressful”. Learning is a joy. Gaining a deeper understanding of the world is empowering. Education should be about teachers who love learning imparting that joy to their students. How an educator does that is the art, the very essence, of teaching. It is an expression of this joy, and everyone expresses this joy differently. This is what makes teaching and learning an art.

Imagine walking into the classroom of a teacher who knows the activity they are mandated to teach by the Common Core will be “relatively mirthless”. How slow will the time go by? How much drudgery will be involved? The fact that Bruni and many others believe it is ok for learning to be stressful and mirthless speaks to the anti-intellectual mindset that pervades the United States. These are people who never really enjoyed learning. These are people who see education as something separate from the “real world”, as something that one must just “do” for the sake of doing it. What misery it would be if people like this ever became teachers. What misery it is for people like this to be making education policy for teachers and students.

Part of this is because Bruni seems to think the children of today are too “coddled”:

“AT a middle school near Boston not long ago, teachers and administrators noticed that children would frequently return from a classmate’s weekend bar mitzvah with commemorative T-shirts, swag that advertised a party to which many fellow students hadn’t been invited.

So administrators moved to ban the clothing.

They explained, in a letter to parents, that ‘while the students wearing the labeled clothing are all chatting excitedly,’ the students without it ‘tend to walk by, trying not to take notice.’ What an ordeal.”

Here is the oft-repeated bellyaching of old fogies against the idea of “self esteem”. Old people complaining about this perceived “self-esteem” craze is just the normal complaining all old people do, including even me from time to time, about how the youth of today are spoiled and somehow inferior to the best generation of youth to ever grace the planet, which is always somehow the generation of the person doing the complaining. “Back in my day, we didn’t get trophies for participating in soccer”. “Back in my day, we didn’t have internets and smart phones.” “Back in my day, my parents beat us with the switch and we were better for it.”

If one really spends time with young people, then one begins to see that not all youth have the same experience. Nor do youth have it “easier” than the rough and tumble youth of yesteryear who had to get their information from the library rather than Google. Try telling the youth who come home to an empty house everyday because their mother works 14 of every 24 hours that they have it “easy”. I bet “back in your day” you had a kiss on the cheek and a warm meal on the table waiting for you when you stepped through the door. Try telling the youth who have to walk home through crime-ridden streets everyday that they have it “easy”. I bet “back in your day” you had a car or a bus to shuttle you safely from door to door.

The fact of the matter is the youth of today do not have it any easier than we did growing up. This cult of “self-esteem” has been on the wane for quite some time now. Even when self-esteem was a big thing, youth still had to put up with a world that was in many ways crueler and more unfair than the world in which the old fogies complaining about self-esteem were raised. Try this on for size: childhood poverty has been on the rise for the past 35 years. Children of all colors in all areas have been losing ground, partially due to policies invented by out-of-touch elitists who thought their mommies were being coddled with government “handouts”.

In fact, Bruni’s major justification for the Common Core is that it is high time children stop being coddled. It is quite disturbing that we have reached an age in which thick, stereotypical impressions of what old farts think life is like for children can be used as a basis for major educational change. Bruni even defends Arne Duncan’s remarks about suburban white moms. However, suburban white students, not to mention wealthier white students, have not been losing ground at all. Their test scores and their academic achievement stack up quite well to students in other developed nations. Neither Bruni nor Duncan ever mention this very obvious fact.

One of the main problems is that Bruni, Duncan, David Coleman or Bill Gates have never been educators. One of the main problems is that every Tom, Dick and Harry who went to school believes they are qualified to make education policy. They are supported by other Toms, Dicks and Harries in the general public who also went to school. Bruni specifically is a food critic, yet he gets space in the so-called “paper of record” to wax stupidly about a subject he obviously knows nothing.

Does this mean that because I cook and eat food that I can be a food critic as well? Does this mean that I can be a critic of food critics?  How would Bruni respond if I supported a program to make food criticism more rigorous because these damned food critics get coddled all of the time when they go to restaurants? After all, all of the cooks and wait staff go out of their way to accommodate the high and mighty food critics when they enter a restaurant. Back in my day, the wait staff barely paid attention to me and the cooks left hairs in my soup. How will food ever get better in America if these critics keep getting a skewed version of what food is all about? Our cuisine is falling behind other nations. We must catch up to France!

And, come to think of it, I use computers every day, which makes me an expert in computer policy. Why does my version of Windows start running slow a week after I install it? Those lazy bums at Microsoft refuse to get off their duffs and do their jobs to protect my computer from viruses and adware. Microsoft should be split into smaller companies so designers can give individual attention to each computer. That way, the computers will never get a virus and Microsoft can compete with Apple in the 21st century. And to ensure these lazy designers do their jobs properly, I will fund merit pay schemes to reward the designers who can make the most bug-free operating systems. The ones who cannot can go dance for nickels on the subway for all I care.

See, it is easy to base opinions on thick assumptions and biases. Too bad these are the things on which education “reform” today is based.

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6 responses to “Everyone is an Expert at Everything

  1. Nice. Bruni is a shill. The NYT is helping to characterize the CC critics in the most negative way. And they’re pulling out their best “experts” to do so. Were the Times really a substantive journal, they would engage with some of the substance of the criticisms.

    Again, the PARCC and SB tests do not provide a basis for comparison to other countries. On tests that ARE given internationally, the children of soccer moms do *very* well (although the children of hockey moms named Palin – not so much). The data have always shown that “coddling” children with small class sizes, qualified teachers, and good *research based* curricula pays off.

    By good curricula, I am talking specifically about programs developed by NSF grants in the 20 to 30 years prior to the Common Core. These programs were developed with collaboration between college professors and teachers, they were piloted in schools over several years, refined, and then scaled with lots of teacher training for the districts that chose to adopt them.

    Today, things are very different. Two years ago, at a meeting in DC, I was told that NSF funded curriculum development had been eliminated. The thinking was, “don’t fund projects that will compete with the common core.” But, when these projects were scuttled, so too was their careful model of development. The funds that previously went into research and training have now been diverted to private testing companies. Perhaps this was done in some vain hope that the profit motive would develop better curricula. It clearly has not.

    Most people in private industry freely admit that corporations don’t do research and development well. Research for most industries is largely done at universities, where profit motive does not guide every decision. Sometimes, when important discoveries are made, these discoveries are commercialized. That is the case with pharmaceuticals, internet technology. For a long time, this was the case for curricula, too.

    The Common Core was not developed this way. Nor, does it include any of the valuable lessons learned from the more responsible projects. The Common Core was developed in closed door meetings. Any teacher knows that a curriculum by committee is generally incoherent, and sometimes incomprehensible. That is clearly the case with Common Core.

    It is a disaster. But, to the current administration, all detractors are cranks. That’s their story, and they’re sticking to it. It seems the Times is willing to help sell this story. Oh, and just try posting a comment on the Times’ website which challenges their view. Forget it. Moderators don’t let such comments see the light of day.

  2. I was asked by more than one new 7th grader this year if they get a grade for lunch. Sincerely thought they were graded for eating, how they ate, how long it took, etc. I have another kid who eats paper–I mean, wads of it–chews it, swallows, asks for seconds–because eating paper is his “revenge on books”. One of my girls, who moved here from Africa LAST SUMMER, is so anxious about failing her standardized reading test her mom told me she’s having trouble sleeping and she feels like she is just “going too slow”. I love them all. They all try really hard (even the paper eater). Some are immigrants and some are poor and all of them want to succeed. School means tests–someone who doesn’t know them, doesn’t know us, makes up a test that they have to take and then they will be a pass or a fail. No matter if they are good singers or great at geography or the kid I trust to take my keys and get something out of the classroom, these kids are failures, and so am I, if they don’t pass Mr. Duncan’s test. So if these kids are “coddled”, then what in the hell is Arne Duncan?

  3. I am a 3rd Grade Teacher in Anchorage, Alaska. Our state has not adopted the Common Core Standards, but my own district, the Anchorage School District (the largest by far) has. At most I have been ambivalent about “raising standards” – a somewhat squishy objective. Embracing the Common Core Standards, when many of my students need encouragement to be kinder and less selfish and more curious asks me to be a teacher I’m not. Needless to say, I’m glad I’m approaching the end of my career. After reading your comments, which I find very funny, and thus, quite to the point, I am convinced something needs to change about how we run our schools, but Common Core, it’s not.
    Meanwhile the regressive elements in our state and local governments continue to withhold monies in an effort to push their agendas of punishing unions and promoting vouchers for private edu-ventures.
    Thanks for your blog.

  4. As a student, in Norwalk Connecticut, I have a slight Idea of what an inner city is sort of like, (certainly not a great idea.) We, are the “poor people” of fairfield county, Connecticut, one of the most richest, and whitest, and snobbiest counties in the whole US. The rich people live in Rowayton, and cannot even stand to be considered part of Norwalk since we’re to poor, and deny they are every day.

    I went to a Magnet Elementary School in the poorest part of Norwalk, there was a different kind of learning where we went on field trips every month, and had “all school meetings” where one class from every grade put on a performance of what they had learned, and we constantly had people come and talk to us. The school was undeniably great because each teacher had a personality, and loved teaching there, and consequently made learning much more fun.

    Because I went to a Magnet School, it’s a lottery system to get in, meaning parents who don’t like the schools in their neighborhood enter their child into this lottery system. But also, if you lived in the Government assisted living condo’s next door, or some of the impoverished falling apart buildings built in the 1800’s around it, you were automatically enrolled. This made for an interesting environment, yet one the teachers made so that when you first went to Columbus Magnet School, you had no idea who was who, and it didn’t matter anyway. Everyone was friends, I am in the middle class, my best friend was incredibly rich, and my other really great friend was from the Housing units across the street.

    The downside of being at the school was that sometimes the parents weren’t always nice. There were plenty of violence around the school, and at least 6 to 10 times a year dismissal was delayed or we weren’t allowed to go outside for recess because there was a shooting a street away. Also in my time there, I knew a person who found a knife under a slide, a loaded gun on the top of a swing, drugs in a bush, and I discovered a homeless man passed out from alcohol on the other side of the fence, and got to talk to the police officer. Our Playground was to large for 3 teachers to scout all of it, and there were plenty of places that were off limits, but still there was almost always something fishy to find.

    Needless to say it was surprising when I went to my district Middle School where it was so obviously segregated. The people of my middle school included two neighborhoods actually very far apart, the housing units and old buildings around my middle school are divided up between the 4 middle schools of Norwalk since they have no assigned one, and then the predominately white suburban neighborhood. It was obvious which was which, there was the people from the middle class suburbia, and we sat at all of the tables in the middle, there were white people, asian people, and some black people, most of us involved in sports or music, living in decent homes where parents are always doting, and caring.

    There were 3 tables on each end where the “ghetto kids” sit. On one side there’s a table for the “White Ghetto Kids” then the “Hispanic Ghetto Kids” and finally the “Black Ghetto Kids.” the kids on that side all where snapbacks and pay wear Michael Jordans and walk with a swagger, and then on the other side are all of the people who don’t act like ghetto kids, but are.

    The worst part is it’s so ingrained in everyone’s brains that even though I sat with my friend who came from the housing unit across the street from Columbus for the first week of school, when I talked about going to Sweet Ashley’s for Ice cream, a place that has overpriced but amazing home made Ice cream, they all immediately started hating me, and I realized I had become the obnoxious rich white girl who was invading in their place.

  5. Teacher Advocate Defends School Teachers and offers tips to inspire today’s
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    In this era of policy change and educational reform at the K-12 level, suddenly
    “everybody” has become an expert on our school systems. In my opinion, there is
    a great amount of unjustified criticism that is unfairly being leveled against
    our schools and our teachers. Most of the criticism is unfounded, baseless,
    undeserved and distorted. Many critics of our school systems have never set foot
    in a classroom to see what’s going on —other than their own experience as a
    former student—and their criticism is erroneous and counterproductive. If they
    (critics) would take the time to better understand just how hard the teaching
    profession really is, they would change their criticism to face the reality of
    today’s schools and society at large. I believe that most critics would find it
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    The essence behind the book is that today’s teachers are under a lot of pressure
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  6. I’m so glad I found you! Sink your teeth into this: I am a special education teacher in a self-contained Kindergarten/First grade class at P.S. 261 in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. I followed the Ledermann v. NYC DOE & King case against the last year involving Ledermann’s “Ineffective” rating that was calculated by a computer (she eventually prevailed). I have a similar situation in that the DOE Advance Evaluation System has proof that my students made impressive gains in their reading scores yet refuses to change my overall rating from “Developing” to “Effective” because a computer glitch failed to record their scores. While the DOE has actual proof of my students’ improvement, they have ignored my requests for a “data correction.” I have since contacted Chancellor Farina and the President of the UFT, Michael Mulgrew on October 26, 2015. I’ve yet to receive an acknowledgement from either of them. My next step will be to take legal action against the DOE and file an ArtIcle 78 petition. I believe we have to shed some more light on the problems/failings of the Teacher Evaluation System. Any suggestions on friendly press or politicians that should be informed of this farce would be greatly appreciated.
    Candela!

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