Tag Archives: Common Core

How the Common Core Closes Minds

closing-american-mind-allan-bloom-hardcover-cover-art

History does not repeat itself. Those who forget the mistakes of the past might not be doomed to repeat them.

Each historical era is its own world. It is fertile soil out of which the next historical era will grow. What one means by “era” wholly depends on what one is investigating. History is valuable not because it teaches sobering lessons, but because it explains the world in which we live today. In doing so, it might help point us to the future.

This means that every word that has ever been uttered, every action ever taken and every thought ever written cannot be properly understood without understanding the world out of which they grew. Some people might call this “context”. Certain philosophers might call this “structure”. Whatever one calls it, it is necessary to at least try to understand it in order to appreciate the events of the past.

That is why literalist interpretations of any historical text is the stuff of folly. Biblical literalists worship words written down during the 2nd century Roman Empire, and translated during Elizabethan England, without bothering to understand either of those worlds. Inevitably, they invest in these words meanings that only someone from 21st century America could comprehend. Another way of putting it is that Biblical literalists tend to plunder scripture in order to justify some previously arrived at bias.

It is probably even worse for people who fancy themselves Constitutional literalists. Typically, people who claim to only follow the letter of the Constitution keep some shadowy notion of 18th century America in the back of their minds. It is ironic that, whenever these literalists reveal their impressions of the Founding Fathers, the Fathers seem to hold the same exact biases as the literalists. Constitutional literalists plunder the Constitution and American history to justify positions conjured up in their 21st century American gut.

The historian Jack Rakove warned against literalist interpretations of the founding documents in his book Original Meanings. In his depiction of the Founding Fathers, he demonstrates that many of them said and meant different things at different times. Sometimes this was due to changes in their opinions. Most of the time, it was due to altering their message to gain approbation with whatever audience they were addressing at the moment. In terms of the Constitution, they realized they did not have everything figured out about how a republic such as the one they were making was supposed to work. For example, Article III, which deals with the federal court system, was vaguely short because they did not have a solid idea about how it would function or what its powers were. They left plenty of grey area in the Constitution in the faith that future generations would figure it out.

The Founding Fathers knew they did not have all of the answers. Unfortunately, many of us alive today are not smart enough to know that. They assume the Founders carefully placed in their words some definite and eternal meaning for ensuing generations to discover. The fact that the Founders wanted to leave enough room in the Constitution so their progeny could apply it to the unforeseen circumstances of the future is a sinful idea in literalist circles. To them, every word in the Constitution has a definite meaning by which those of us who live in the present must abide.

If the designers of the Common Core get their way, the next generation will be nothing but literalists. Take these standards from 11th and 12th grade social studies:

1) ” Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.”

2) ” Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.”

3) “Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.”

And it goes on like that. To the Common Core-istas, the text is everything. The audience for whom the text was written, the historical circumstances out of which the text arose, training the reader to recognize their own biases when reading the text, does not play a role whatsoever. As a teacher of history (not social studies), I know this is a myopic and plodding way to analyze any historical text. It is one of the most low-level exercises in which students can be engaged. Sure, we want students to be able to understand the meaning and structure of text. However, this understanding is just a preliminary point on the way to explaining why a particular text made sense within a particular historical moment. After this comes the questioning of the text. Not only do we wish to question the veracity of the text, we wish to question its place in history.

History teachers do these things with texts because we know it helps students recreate the past. We help students recreate the past because we want them to understand the present. We want them to understand the present because we want them to be engaged citizens. Revealingly, the word citizen does not appear once in the Common Core. There is much talk about primary and secondary sources and analyzing structure and providing evidence. There is nothing about civic values or engagement with the wider world. If we were to teach these things to students, they might start understanding their own places within our society. Heck, they might start writing texts of their own.

This seems to be the biggest fear of the Common Core crowd. This endless consumption of text is aimed at killing imagination. David Coleman, the man assumed to be the granddaddy of the CCSS, is notoriously repulsed by children using such squishy things as imagination and emotion. Apparently, there is no room for these things in the 21st century for which we are preparing our children. We want to train our children to be locked into the text. We want to train our children to be consumers of text.

But who will be writing the texts that our kids will read when they grow to be 21st century adults? What will be the veracity of these texts? Whose purposes do these texts serve? Why are these texts being produced at this particular historical moment?

The Common Core is silent on these questions. It is silent because they want our children to remain silent. The Common Core is designed to make silent consumers out of future generations. Only those who come from families with the wealth to avoid a Common Core education will be encouraged to innovate.

Danger: The Common Core Conspiracy

conspiracy-theories

The internet has enabled a whole new generation of kooky conspiracy theories.

As a student of history, I enjoy a good conspiracy. If we take the elastic definition of a conspiracy being a plan hatched between two or more people, then history is filled with them. However, modern-day conspiracy theory is the stuff of fantasy. The Illuminati, 9/11 “Truth” and practically every theory uttered by Alex Jones is part of this fantasy world. Conspiracy theories serve a valuable purpose for the power structure. They take people’s righteous anger against injustice and redirect it towards dead ends. In this way, they serve to deflect real challenges to the system.

Last year, I was reminded of another valuable purpose of conspiracy theories. I made a comment on a friend’s Facebook page about 9/11 being used as an excuse to attack Iraq. This, I assumed, was more or less an established fact. Yet, someone I did not know retorted that I was one of “those” crazy conspiracy nuts. Rather than try to explain myself out of a corner, I dismissed the person’s comment for the drivel it was. However, it was a reminder that conspiracies serve to delegitimize substantive criticisms of the existing order.

Part of the reason why people like Alex Jones are so appealing, and so dangerous, is that there is a certain amount of truth to what they say. There are many facts interlaced within Alex Jones’ phantasmagorical rants. The problem lies in the way he arranges and interprets those facts. If Congress starts debating gun control in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, then it must mean that Newtown was a “false flag” operation designed to give the government an excuse to infringe on 2nd Amendment rights. Furthermore, the sweep of what people like Alex Jones say is more or less true. Our rights are being eroded. Our democracy is getting weaker. The Average Joe is losing ground. The future for many of us does look bleak. People have a visceral sense that something is wrong with our country. Alex Jones and others prey upon that general feeling to paint a simplified version of a much more complex reality, while enriching themselves in the process.

Existing on another conspiracy plane are the Glen Beck types. Instead of an all-powerful Illuminati controlling everything, he believes there is some vast liberal conspiracy to take over the world. In this version, Obama is the leading edge of a Marxist intellectual elitist liberal socialist Muslim radical plot to destroy the United States. There is a pronounced streak of conspiratorial thinking in the entire Tea Party movement.

Unfortunately, the Glen Becks and Tea Partiers of America are making it difficult to oppose the Common Core State Standards. Featured in the Huffington Post’s Education section is the story of Janet Wilson. Janet Wilson is a mother from Upstate New York who helped start a protest where parents will keep their kids home on November 18 to show their disapproval of the Common Core. The Huffington Post makes much of the fact that the woman is a Christian who sees it as her God-given duty to stop the Common Core. The piece goes on to point out some other critics of the CCSS:

Wilson is part of what she sees as a growing movement of parents speaking out against the Common Core Standards. Groups like Americans For Prosperity have sponsored previous anti-Common Core efforts, but Wilson is operating on the grassroots level.

Later in the article is quoted a supporter of the Common Core:

Petrilli, who has come out in favor of the standards, said that in his experience some of the most vocal Common Core opponents do not have their children in public schools. Notably, Wilson said that she is going to home-school her child, who is not yet school-aged.

The inference that the Huffington Post makes in this article is undeniable: critics of the Common Core are fringe right-wing kooks and idiots. Reasonable people on the right and left support it.

Judging from the comments, the article had its desired effect. Here are just some of the reactions of Huff Po’s left-leaning readership to Janet Wilson:

“the US is currently ranked in the mid 20s in education globally the common core curriculum is a necessity at this point …and these ppl are def part of the reason for are terrible educational ranking”

“No wonder why they remain uneducated…”

“Without a doubt, this lady has not once looked at the Standards themselves. She is simply following the hysteria from the talking heads.

Anyone who 1) Is rational and 2) is honest would look at those standards and say they are good and reasonable. They may be tough to teach at some grade levels, but one needs to start somewhere!

Being able to read in context, express ideas, accurately describe the way an idea is communicated — those are very good things.

But the Fundamentalist community hates and fears education. For them, education which teaches children to think, to question, to analyze, and to investigate is dangerous. They want to teach children to memorize, to accept rules blindly because they are the rules, and to never investigate otherwise. To do so is to question authority.

Education teaches us that our parents — and even our teachers — can be wrong and often are wrong. As parents and teachers, we should want our children and students to understand what we are teaching them, but also to go beyond, to create knowledge and understanding in better ways. Those who do not want that have missed the point altogether.

The more I look at the Common Core, the more I like it. It is not perfect, but it is an improvement over the chaos that rules state curricula.”

“Rational” folk all support the Common Core. Being against the CCSS means being against “high standards”. It means being anti-intellectual. It means being a wing nut, Christian fundamentalist, homeschooling, evolution-denying troglodyte.

Glen Beck himself has contributed to this impression that people have of CCSS’s opponents. Beck began one of his criticisms of the Common Core by saying “it is how every Marxist utopia begins.” In his mind, Common Core is “indoctrination”. Of course, the implication is that it is indoctrination into a Godless Marxist frame of mind that will brainwash the next generation with sinister values.

At one point I believed that it would be useful for educators to make common cause with Tea Partiers against the Common Core. However, the twisted logic of people like Glen Beck can only serve to hamper our efforts. Like most conspiracy theories, their ideas can only delegitimize our own very real and very substantial fears about the Common Core.

Sometimes all that matters is that two groups who otherwise disagree on most other things can make common cause against a perceived evil. In this case, the reasons why many people on the right oppose the Common Core can be toxic. They run the risk of making any criticism a laughing stock. Educators need to distance themselves from these people immediately. We need to expressly say that we are not with those people over there who believe that the CCSS is some evil Marxist plot.

That is not to say we cannot make common cause with people on the right. I am sure there are plenty of conservatives who oppose CCSS on the grounds that it violates some sacred wall of federalism. While we do not have to agree with their reasoning, at least this line of thinking is not totally guano insane that it will make anyone associated with them look like members of the tin foil hat club.

Not only are these kooky fears about the Common Core dangerous in and of themselves, they are dangerous when contrasted with those who support the Common Core. President Obama, Republican governors and leaders in business and government are all on board. Anyone not familiar with education policy can look around and draw the conclusion that all of the reasonable people are for it. Hearing the likes of Glen Beck would only confirm their suspicions that it is nut jobs who oppose such a common sense thing as “raising standards” for students.

I see a real danger in the Tea Party opposition to Common Core. They are the axle grease on public opinion preventing educators from gaining any real traction with building widespread opposition to CCSS. We need to point out how CCSS is developmentally inappropriate for young children. We need to point out how CCSS exalts a very narrow interpretation of “understanding”. We need to point out how the CCSS is married to standardized testing. These will differentiate us from the Glen Becks of the world.

Most importantly, we need to tell the history of national standards. In the 1990s, the movement for national standards was tied to the movement for equitable school funding. It was a way to improve education in states that suffered from the legacy of Jim Crow, as well as de facto segregation. In short, national standards used to be a movement for social justice. However, we have discarded the prospect of equitable funding to the point that it is not even part of the discourse anymore. All we are left with are a bunch of poorly thought out, developmentally inappropriate “standards” that will do nothing but narrow the curriculum and institutionalize a two-tiered education system: the wealthy get a broad curriculum and the rest get Common Core.

We must hammer this point home every chance we get. More than anything else, it will differentiate us from the Tea Party conspiracies. It will put us back on the right side of the debate. It will win over so-called “liberals” and people associated with the “reasonable center” (the gooey center, in reality).

Sometimes it is not productive to take on strange bedfellows. We might wake up the next morning with regrets.

John King’s Bully Pulpit

John King measures just how close he is to losing his job.

John King measures just how close he is to losing his job.

October is national anti-bullying month. A recent study suggests that schools with anti-bullying programs actually might have more incidents of bullying. While this might have something to do with the fact that such schools over report bullying incidents, the study confirms a general sense that anti-bullying programs do not work.

The sloganeering involved in most school anti-bullying campaigns is similar to the anti-drug campaigns popular in schools during the 1980s. Both efforts tend to gloss over complex societal issues in favor of hokey slogans. We knew that the crack plague of the 1980s was not going to end by teaching the next generation to “just say no”. Similarly, we know that teaching our children to recite words like “tolerance” and “respect” is not going to end this problem of “bullying”.

Bullying is not going away. This is because the currency of our school systems, the currency of this thing known as “education reform”, is naked bullying. Look at the parent in Maryland who was roughed up by a police officer for questioning the Common Core State Standards. Look at New York State Education Commissioner John King’s recent performance in front of concerned parents in Poughkeepsie where he first tried to talk over their concerns, then canceled the rest of his speaking tour when he discovered that New York parents do not want to be lectured to like children. For good measure, he accused these parents of being beholden to “special interests”.

John King’s comments actually represent the first stage of bullying. What makes it easy for children to bully another child is the sense that the victim is somehow flawed. The child can be labeled a “wimp” or “whore” or “gay” or “weird” or any number of labels. Once that label catches on with peers, it becomes permissible to then torment and torture the victim. This is how seemingly good people could be led to commit acts of unspeakable cruelty. Their “goodness” is reserved only for the acceptable members of society. Anyone who is out of those bounds is fair game. Dictators have used this strategy to persecute groups they did not like. Democracies use this tactic as well, often with greater success.

King’s labeling of concerned parents as a “special interest” is a favored tactic of education reformers. The reformers burst onto the scene with many labels. They labeled the schools as “failing”. They labeled the children as “stupid” or “violent”. They labeled teachers as “incompetent” and “lazy”. Thanks to a massive PR campaign funded by billions of education reform dollars, these labels stuck. This gave the reformers the public traction they needed to go ahead with their agenda. This agenda involved closing schools, disenfranchising parents, firing teachers and other acts of institutional violence that could be properly labeled as “bullying”.

The Common Core is just the latest incarnation of this bullying. The only difference is that now, after a decade of failed education reforms, it is tougher for the reformers to sell their tropes of “failing” schools and “underprepared” children to parents. They cannot make the labels stick, which means, hopefully, it will become harder to foist their will upon our public schools.

People should not be surprised by the actions of Commissioner King. As the founder of the Uncommon Schools charter network, King instituted the type of draconian discipline policies for which many charters have become notorious. As Pedro Noguera wrote about his visit to UC:

“I’ve visited this school, and I noticed that children are not allowed to talk in the hall, and they get punished for the most minor infraction. And when I talked with John King afterwards, I said, “I’ve never seen a school that serves affluent children where they’re not allowed to talk in the hall.” And he said, “Well, that might be true, but this is the model that works for us, we’ve found that this is the model that our kids need.”

So I asked him, “Are you preparing these kids to be leaders or followers? Because leaders get to talk in the hall. They get to talk over lunch, they get to go to the bathroom, and people can trust them. They don’t need surveillance and police officers in the bathroom.” And he looked at me like I was talking Latin, because his mindset is that these children couldn’t do that.

Unfortunately what is often driving these high-performing schools is the idea that the kids need to be broken. That the kids’ culture needs to be taken away from them and replaced with something else, because they come in with deficits. They come in as damaged goods. And these schools believe that their job is to mold the kids into something else.”

There probably is not any bullying at Uncommon Schools because the administration has a monopoly on the practice. King obviously already wrote the children in his school off as brutes. This made it easy for him to institute an uncommonly brutish discipline code that would have gotten him run out of the wealthier school districts in America. He made it a mission of his chain to bully children into behaving in the proper way. In the end, all bullying is ultimately aimed at getting the victim to conform to some preconceived norm.

This was King’s exact attitude towards the parents in Poughkeepsie. In his mind, the children of these parents were “unprepared” to meet the “challenges of the 21st century” and so need the Common Core to make America competitive. When the parents rebelled, he gave them a label reformers have traditionally reserved for teachers and their unions: “special interests”. This means that anyone who disagrees with John King or the Common Core are merely myopic naysayers who only care about themselves. It is a convenient way for him to justify to himself the imperious manner in which he handled the parents in the audience. It is a convenient way for him to justify all of the reforms he has helped force upon New York State up until now.

It should be recalled that King was the one who designed New York City’s disastrous teacher evaluation system. In that system, King called for teachers to be judged by the test scores of students who are not theirs in subjects they do not teach. We can see in this John King’s disdain for teachers. He has already labeled us as selfish “special interests” in need of the same draconian treatment as the students in Uncommon Schools. His evaluation system is institutionalized bullying.

When teachers get fired because students they never taught fail standardized exams, that is bullying. When students as young as 5 years old have to prepare, then sit, for standardized exams with no other purpose than to rate teachers, that is bullying. When the schools of these children close because they are labeled as “failing” due to these exams, that is bullying. When every public school is forced to abide by ridiculous standards that will serve to suck the joy out of learning, that is bullying. When the charter schools who are the shining stars of the reformer movement are exempt from all of these changes, that is bullying. The reformers have labeled a certain group of people, namely public school teachers, their children and now their parents, as failures in need of corrective action.

If incidents of bullying have increased over the past decade, there can be little wonder why. The way students behave within a school building reflect the environment created for them there by adults. If the school building is located downstream from where education reformers dump their effluvia, as most public school buildings today are, then it can be little wonder why bullying takes place there. If children see people like King and Michelle Rhee deride their teachers as “ineffective” and “special interests”; if they know the state wants to close them down because they are “failing”; if they now see their parents shrugged off and insulted by the State Education Commissioner, then it is the adults from whom the children are taking their cues.

The bullying problem in schools will never end until the way schools are run is fundamentally changed. Instead of autocratic mayors having unquestioned control of urban school districts, we need the type of local and democratic control of school systems for which America used to be known. Instead of putative standards enforced with putative tests, we need the type of school system that has a rich and open curriculum.

Many parent groups, understandably, are calling for John King to lose his job. While I sympathize with that sentiment, we all know that the disappearance of John King will only pave the way for another SEC with the same exact agenda. The only difference would be that Governor Cuomo will choose someone who is a more shrewd political operator. I say: keep John King as SEC. There can be no better poster child for the high-handed and bullyish tactics of the education reform movement. Nobody could do more damage to education reform in New York State than John King himself.

Hop into Bed Against the Common Core

Starnge-Bedfellows

 

The buyer’s remorse is starting to set in on the Common Core. Potentially strange bedfellows of unionized teachers and states’ rights Republicans are taking strong stands against it. I say potentially because they have not quite hopped into bed yet. As with many a courtship, the two sides are on different wavelengths even though they both ultimately want the same thing. In this case, we all wish to shake off the yoke of the Common Core before it can be fastened upon us.

Take the case of Robert Small, the Maryland parent who dared to speak out at a “public” meeting held by state education officials on the CCSS. Those in the audience who had questions were asked to write them down. By most accounts, the educrats on stage cherry picked which questions they would answer. This did not sit well with Small, a Maryland native who graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park.

Small broke with the format of the meeting by standing up to state his belief that the Common Core is designed to prepare children for community college, rather than the ivied halls of Harvard as its proponents have stated. He then said he moved his family to Howard County, Maryland because the schools there have a stellar reputation. With the advent of Common Core, he fears the quality of instruction in Howard County will deteriorate. It was at this point that a security guard, an off-duty Baltimore police officer, came over to him and said “let’s go”. When Small continued his oration, the guard manhandled him, pushed him out of the meeting and arrested him.

Of course, Robert Small’s critique of the Common Core is in step with what many other parents and educators have been saying. The stress placed on non-fiction texts at the expense of literature discounts the role of imagination. Its mile deep and inch wide nature risks narrowing content for the sake of building skills. Most importantly, students will be assessed on these skills with fill-in-the-bubble exams, ensuring in the end that the only real skill at which students will become proficient is gaming a test.

The publishing and education data companies have been busy designing textbooks, materials and exams that are Common Core “aligned”. They have been pulling in billions of dollars in government contracts for their troubles. The wealthiest corporate interests in the nation have been pushing for the Common Core for some time. It has been the 1% who has been the engine of this Common Core “movement”, making it not so much a movement as much as a scheme concocted by a cabal. (Does this make me sound too much like a “conspiracy theorist“?)

Yet, Robert Small has become a minor hero in the circle where one would expect this giant step towards education privatization to be celebrated: the far right.

“Small, 46, has been discussed on Glenn Beck’s radio show. Sean Hannity has reached out to him….

On his Monday morning radio program, Beck said Small’s arrest was ‘a warning sign to the American people. I believe my job is to tell you the signposts. My job is to tell you how far down this road are you and how much farther do you have to go. Not much.’

State Del. Patrick L. McDonough characterized as “outrageous” the failure of education officials to give Small a chance to speak. The Baltimore County Republican plans to introduce legislation that would put a moratorium on the implementation of the Common Core standards in the county’s schools. Del. Ron George, a Republican candidate for governor, said Monday he wants address the common core standards in the next General Assembly session.”

On what grounds do these conservatives oppose the Common Core?

” Many conservatives oppose the implementation of the new Common Core standards on the grounds that it is a federal government intrusion into local school control. Beck and others have talked about the new standards for months.”

So when the Glenn Becks of the world see Robert Small being hauled away by a police officer, they see good old fashioned state repression. In fact, they see the Common Core itself as an effort by egghead, limousine liberal, latté-sipping elitists to indoctrinate our children in what they might call “secular humanism”. The fact that the CCSS is a key part of the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top program only confirms their worst fears that Washington is out to prevent local school districts from teaching such time-honored ideas like creationism.

No matter how distasteful the likes of Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity might be, they are not totally off in their criticisms of the Common Core. The fact of the matter is that limousine liberals are huge supporters of the Common Core. Coleman, Obama and Arne Duncan resemble this remark. The overweening power of the state was on display when Robert Small was dragged out of the meeting. The Common Core, along with the rest of Race to the Top, does represent an unprecedented federal overreach of power over what we teach our children. These are legitimate criticisms which, unfortunately, might be somewhat delegitimized as soon as they exit the mouths of hucksters like Beck and Hannity.

There is one fatal flaw in the conservative attack on the Common Core: it does not go far enough. The overweening power of the state, whether in the form of federal education policy or in the form of an overzealous Baltimore police officer, is merely a proxy for the power of the corporate class. It is this that separates the conservative and progressive critics of Common Core. Somewhere within this continuum we must also reckon with the pedagogical issues with CCSS, especially the narrowing of horizons that come with excessive testing. The progressive, conservative and educational forces opposed to the Common Core cannot jump into bed together until they can square this circle.

Ironically, it is a conservative who points the way to the rhetoric that just might be able to unite the bedfellow forces against the Common Core:

” Harford County Executive David R. Craig, a Republican candidate for governor, said Monday that he does not support the Common Core because he believes what is taught should be left up to classroom teachers. The former teacher and administrator said he believes the new standards are no better than what was required by the state under No Child Left Behind and that he is opposed to the amount of testing that would be required.”

Looks like the right does not have a problem with teachers exercising professional autonomy when it acts as a shield against state power. Let us pick up on this concession by the right so we can use it to hold our noses and make common cause with them against the Common Core.

What IS the Common Core?

What is the Common Core? It certainly is not just this.

What is the Common Core? It certainly is not just this.

Here is an admission I am loath to make: I do not know what the Common Core State Standards are.

I have read them. Not only have I read the parts relevant to the grade and subject I teach, I have been slogging my way through the entire thing as well. I have read the blogs and the papers and the speeches. Not only have I been interested in how the CCSS might impact my classroom, I have been interested in how it was conceived and adopted. All of these elements, combined with its purported aims, constitutes what the Common Core is.

There are people, very intelligent people, who speak about the CCSS strictly in a vacuum. They look at its content and judge its merits based strictly on what is in black and white. Our old friend Leo Casey did something along these lines recently in his latest post on the Shanker Blog. Overall, Leo is in favor of the CCSS because he believes it has the potential to help equalize the quality of schooling across districts. His major bone of contention is with the way it has been implemented so far which, in his opinion, has been too much and too fast. Along the way, he labels some of the most vocal opponents of the CCSS as cranks and conspiracy loons. He quotes people who he dubs “fringe” characters on both the right and the left as a way to contrast them with the reasonable center who accept the merits of the CCSS, a center which he assuredly occupies.

For example, Mercedes Schneider is a conspiracy theorist because she has written articles that trace the money fueling the CCSS movement. Leo does not necessarily refute what she, or any of the “cranks” he quotes, actually say. Instead, he infers that these people are caught up on irrelevancies that merely distract us from the task at hand, and the task at hand is figuring out how we can use the Common Core to erase over 200 years of educational inequality in the United States. As a student of rhetoric, I do appreciate and respect what Leo Casey set out to do in his piece. It is a rhetorical sleight of hand that would make the likes of Roger Ailes over at Fox News proud indeed.

Yet, it is not just Leo Casey who attempts to put a velvet rope around the content of the Common Core. I have been in meetings with teachers, administrators and even savvy parents who get into hair-splitting discussions over the letter of this or that particular standard. However, the way my mind works will not allow me to separate what is in the CCSS from how it was conceived, ratified and implemented. To me, all of these things are what Common Core is.

The Rosetta Stone for deciphering the Common Core is its mission statement:

“The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.”

Like many things that pass themselves off as “school reform” in this day and age, the assumptions that lie underneath this statement are downright reactionary. The goal of public schooling is to prepare students for “success in college and careers” so that we can “compete successfully in the global economy.” In this view, our schools are not so much civic institutions as they are places in which to develop the nation’s human capital. They are places that cater to the needs of the marketplace rather than promote the free association of citizens in a democracy.

After reading the mission statement, one can either turn the page forward to learn about the standards that are necessary to keep America economically competitive or turn backward to learn about the interests that have concocted and promulgated such a mission for our schools. For those who are interested in the former, you can immerse yourself in the Common Core State Standards by clicking on the link to its website. For those interested in the latter, you can read the accounts of people far more erudite than me.

Leo Casey does mention the abortive movement in the 1990s to implement national standards for our schools. American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker had been a major proponent of national standards as a way to equalize the quality of education for all students while also introducing a new form of accountability for school districts that had long neglected their most underserved children. In this he was joined by several progressives who wanted so-called Opportunity-to-Learn Standards whose goal was to de-link property taxes from school districts. Instead, school districts would be funded equally across the nation. Proponents of OTL believe that raising standards must be accompanied by providing more resources to poorer school districts. In the end, the national standards movement of the 1990s was defeated in Washington mostly by Republicans who saw it as a violation of federalist principles.

While many Republicans still oppose the Common Core on the same grounds today as they did in the 1990s (Leo Casey labels all of these Republicans “Tea Partiers”), enough leaders of both parties support it so that it has become a reality in 45 states and the District of Colombia. So what changed between the 1990s and today?

The first thing that changed was our president. While the Clinton Administration was toying with a program that would merely foist national standards on the states, the Obama Administration came up with a scheme that helped many states’ rights advocates overcome their compunctions about violations of federalism. That scheme is Race to the Top and it has worked by tying federal funding of public schools to participation in, among other things, the Common Core.

The second thing that changed was that the Common Core is a completely different animal than Opportunity-to-Learn Standards. Common Core aims to raise standards without even hinting at equalizing resources across school districts nationwide. It does not leave itself open to shrill denunciations of “socialism” from the right like OTL did. Politically, it plays well with a certain segment of the population that not only abhors so-called “socialism” but also believes that “those” children who go to public schools have been coddled for far too long. Instead, all “they” need is a swift kick in the pants so they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. No excuses.

Third, the litany of textbooks, exams and other classroom “resources” aimed at getting schools ready for the CCSS has been a boon to the McGraw-Hills and Pearsons of the world. It is another case of public dollars flowing into corporate pockets. This sits well with politicians on both sides of the aisle, since many of those bucks will eventually come back to them in the form of campaign contributions. It is a win-win if you are a politician or a publisher, lose-lose if you are anyone else.

Finally, faux progressives of the 21st century like Barack Obama and even Leo Casey himself can freely support the CCSS whilst brandishing their progressive credentials. Leo Casey makes much of the idea that the Common Core will help bring some form of equality to public schooling.

It is a curious equation. By mandating that all teachers in all schools teach to the same “standards”, teachers will somehow magically do so, accomplishing equality of education for all. It does not matter that the standards are generally nebulous. It does not matter that school budgets are shrinking. It does not matter that childhood poverty is out of control. It does not matter that our children’s brains are pickled in pop culture, Facebook and text messages for most of the day. A few black and white standards will do the trick. The Common Core is the “no excuses” mantra writ large. It is an expression of the vapid “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” trope that has been used to avoid serious solutions to inequality for the past four decades.

Yes, I am loath to admit that I do not know what the Common Core is. However, I know what it is not. It is not a recipe to bring equality to schooling in America. It is not a way to make participation in our democracy easier. Leo Casey accuses the critics of Common Core of ignoring its content in favor of tinkering around its edges. Yet, it is Leo Casey and the rest of the Common Core’s supporters who are tinkering around the edges. A focus on the content of the Common Core State Standards turns our gaze away from the material issues of poverty and inequality that have been proven, time and again, to be the biggest determinants of “success” in school and the job market. Any type of school “reform” that ignores these material issues is not really school reform at all.

As far as what the Common Core is: it is much more than the sum of its parts. Aside from being a list of standards for different grades and subjects, it is also a political program that helps Democrats pass themselves off as progressives and Republicans as friends of market-based school reform. It enshrines in law the idea that schools are nothing more than factories for human capital whose widgets exist to serve the imperatives of corporations. It is an exercise in self-serving lip service for the likes of David Coleman and Bill Gates who believe that standards can be raised without the messy work of raising material conditions.

I might not know what the Common Core is, but I do know that it is impossible to understand it without examining its antecedents.

What’s Been Going On (?)

gaye 

This is as good a time as any to make a comeback. There are too many things happening in the world of education, both here in New York City and around the nation, to remain on the sidelines much longer. Doubtless there will be time enough in the coming months and years to discuss all of these developments. For now, it might be worth it for me to get somewhat personal to let you know why I have been away for so long and what has been happening on my end. I did not say goodbye the last time, so maybe now I can give a proper hello, again.

You might recall that I moved out of Manhattan into Astoria in Queens over the past year. This was due to the passing of my mother and the fact that the real estate managers did not allow me to inherit her apartment. They were none too polite about it either. While I figured that I had grounds to fight them on this issue, I did not have the stomach to do so. Instead, I cut and run in hopes of making a fresh start of things. I love the neighborhood here in Astoria for its diversity, affordability and proximity to Manhattan (and, therefore, to work). Getting this place in this neighborhood for this price helped me bounce back after my mother’s passing, although I do not think anyone fully recovers from losing a beloved parent.

In the tribute I wrote to my mother last year, you might recall that I mentioned an older brother I had never met named Tommy. He was my mother’s first born and he was taken away from her at an early age. She would spend the rest of her life talking about him and missing him. Well, this past spring I received a message on Facebook from one of those accounts with a fake name, no picture and no personal information, the type that is usually used as a secondary account. This person said that they knew I had an older brother named Tommy and knew how to get in contact with him. I wasted no time in asking this person for Tommy’s contact info. I called Tommy on a Sunday and we spoke for a few hours. A month later he came up here from Florida for a weekend visit. This past summer I went down to the Tampa area to see Tommy, my sister-in-law, my niece and my nephew. We spent a week and a half trying to make up for a lifetime.

If only I had received that Facebook message two years earlier, perhaps meeting her son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren would have given our mother more reason to hold on just a little longer. Every day I was down there I imagined our mother was there with us, happy to be with her two sons and big family in the warm Florida sun. While I have shed many tears over what could have been, I am happy that fate saw fit to provide me with a family when I thought I had none left. The fact that I have somewhere to go during the holidays and a niece and a nephew to spoil has given me a newfound happiness. If Florida was not such a red state with awful teacher salaries and no job security, I would have moved down there months ago.

All of this is to say that I did not realize how unhappy I truly was until I spoke to my brother for the first time. This was around the time I disappeared from blogging. I realized I was using this website as a way to throw myself into something so as to forget my depression. While that is not necessarily a bad thing in most cases, it is not the ideal situation for a blog that purports to touch on vital public issues which need a rational and dispassionate (as much as possible anyway) treatment. Also, my own obsession with the written word was keeping me up until 2 am on most nights, which left me a four hour of window for sleep. It was getting tougher to get up in the morning, to get into work on time and to be on top of my game when I was there. Fueled by black coffee and cigarettes, I became overly testy and wound as tightly as a modern baseball. Something needed to give and this blog, which I love because of the people who come here to read and comment, was collateral damage.

On the bright side, stepping away from this site followed by an agreeable summer vacation helped me gain my footing again. I feel self-possessed enough to jump back into the fray, which means maintaining this blog and returning to union activism.

Anyway, I hope everyone is having a good start to the school year. For those of us in New York City, this entails reckoning with the new evaluation system. For educators around the country, it means another year dealing with the forces of education deform who show no signs of abating. Common Core is on the horizon for New York and other states as well. All of this combined with the prospect of a new mayor here in New York City makes this an interesting, if not a happy, time to be associated with public education.