Tag Archives: Educational Inequality

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.

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Compassion?: Education Reform’s Separate and Unequal Agenda

When Michelle Rhee was asked if she had any compassion for the principal she fired on camera, she responded, “compassion?”, because she really did not know what that word meant.

“The most important civil rights battleground today is education, and, likewise, the most crucial struggle against poverty is the one fought in schools” says Nicholas Kristof in Wednesday’s piece for the New York Times. After reading this sentence, we are prepped to believe the person who wrote it is a defender of social justice. This impression is reinforced with the very next sentence: “Inner-city urban schools today echo the “separate but equal” system of the early 1950s.”

Basic progressive bromides that lead us to believe that the solutions proffered throughout the rest of the article are part of the progressive canon. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Instead, these are the tactics of the modern-day education “reformer”. An education reformer is a person who couches their rhetoric in progressive prose while pushing for retrograde policies. It is the reason why so many self-styled reformers are wealthy Democrats. Chiming in on the education debate allows them to brandish their progressive credentials while making apologies for the socioeconomic system that has blessed them with such great fortune.

Reformers love to cite the Brown case while totally ignoring its details. Thurgood Marshall, the esteemed NAACP lawyer and future Supreme Court justice who argued Oliver and Linda Brown’s case, demonstrated to the Warren court how segregated schools reinforced notions of racial inferiority and violated the 14th Amendment. Black schools had underpaid teachers, dilapidated facilities and outdated materials when compared to their white counterparts. These were issues Marshall knew of on an intimate level. His mother was a kindergarten teacher at a black school who, by law, earned less than white teachers.

To the Warren court, as well as anyone else alive during the 1950s, it was pointing out the obvious to say that the nation’s black schools existed on a different plane than white schools, a plane of inferiority enshrined in law and tradition. The court ruled in 1954 that this state of affairs indeed violated the 14th Amendment. Historians since have pointed to the Brown case as the unofficial beginning of the civil rights movement. A year later, Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama and a fiery young reverend named Martin Luther King, Jr. made his debut on the national stage.

For those of us familiar with urban public schools, we know that segregation is alive and well in all parts of the country. We also know that the solutions put forward by the reformers, represented in this case by Nicholas Kristof, have not only failed to ameliorate this segregation in any way, but have exacerbated it and promise to do so indefinitely.

For example, Kristof enthusiastically worships at the altar of value added. This is the idea that students should be tested several times a year so their scores can be used to hold teachers “accountable”. To make his point, Kristof cites the “Gold Standard Study” that makes the case for value added assessments. This was the study released earlier this year which “proved” that “bad teachers” in early grades could lead students to fail later in life, whether it means getting pregnant or dropping out of school. This “Gold Standard Study” has never been peer reviewed. It was funded by the reformer juggernaut Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Its logical inconsistencies, obvious anti-teacher bias and junk science were ravaged from pillar to post, even while the New York Times was mindlessly repeating its findings. Even by the mushy standards of objectivity in the world of the social sciences, this “Gold Standard Study” has never passed muster.

What would have Thurgood Marshall argued in front of the Warren court? The crux of his case was that one set of standards applied to white schools and a totally different one applied to black schools. Kristof does exactly that. While the children and teachers of minority schools must submit to testing based upon junk science that has never been properly defended, justified or argued, the children and teachers of the Chicago Lab School, Sidwell Friends, Dalton and other schools for the rich do not have to deal with this at all. The motto for Sidwell Friends, the D.C.-area school attended by the Obama girls, is “let the light shine out from all”. The motto for everyone else’s schools is “pass these exams or suffer the consequences”. A rigorous curriculum of critical thinking, creativity and free expression for the wealthy. A narrow curriculum of bubble-in exams and endless factoids for everyone else.

It was not just the junk of value added over which Chicago teachers went out on strike. As Matt Farmer said in this great speech in front of the CTU, the reformers have aimed to get rid of art and music from public schools while reserving those programs for their own children. The new Common Core Standards, to which the schools of the reformers’ children will never be held, aims to squeeze out literary analysis and creative writing in favor of informational texts. In short, wealthy children will be free to develop and indulge the most abstract reaches of their minds. They will continue to be inspired to think creatively and see big pictures. Everyone else’s children will get the drudgery of standardized exams, the minutiae of factoids and the compartmentalized thinking that comes with a narrowed curriculum.

One group of children are educated to lead. Another group of children are educated to respond to prompts. This is the reformer agenda. While using the rhetoric of civil rights and the imagery of Brown vs. Board of Education, the reformers push policies that will enshrine segregation and inequality in law.

Perhaps the most revealing part of Kristof’s piece is when he says “some Chicago teachers seem to think that they shouldn’t be accountable until poverty is solved.” He says this while acknowledging “it’s true that the main reason inner-city schools do poorly isn’t teachers’ unions, but poverty. Southern states without strong teachers’ unions have schools at least as lousy as those in union states.” He understates the case by saying non-union schools are at least “as lousy” as unionized ones, since non-unionized states have the lousiest school systems in the nation. South Carolina and Mississippi come to mind.  Yet, it is rare for a reformer to admit that poverty plays any role in a child’s education. After all, there are “no excuses” for filling in the wrong bubbles.

Again, let us take a look at what Kristof is actually saying when he writes that poverty is the biggest deciding factor in schooling. Poverty can mean many things in the concrete, including a child not having a home to stay in, malnourishment or undernourishment, sickness, lack of positive male role models, gangs, violence, dysfunctional family life, the list goes on. There are actual physical and psychological impacts poverty has on students, children that could be as young as five years old.   They can come to class everyday with their stomachs growling or feeling weak. They could have walked through gang territory to get to school or to get home, exposing them to all types of destructive behaviors or psychological trauma along the way. They could have been beaten by their parents the night before, or been in the next room while their parents did drugs. More often than not, it is a case of a parent neglecting them by failing to ask about their day or sitting them in front of the television all night as a way to avoid interaction. This is what poverty means in the concrete, no matter how much reformers like Kristof try to make it an abstract sideshow.

When I was in high school, my best friend was shot and stabbed right in front of me. He spent weeks in the hospital where he almost died. During that time, what did he or I care about school or the upcoming exam? It did not matter in the least. Growing up in my poor neighborhood, I went to the homes of friends where the television was on 24/7 and the parents were barely around. There was no dinner on the table and, oftentimes, there was no table. In this situation, what does testing matter? What did holding our teachers “accountable” matter? It would have had no impact or bearing over our lives.

What the reformers are saying when they want to hold teachers “accountable” is that they wish to hold teachers accountable for all of these circumstances, circumstances over which teachers have absolutely no control. They want to allow society to continue to damage our children, to make them physically and psychologically sick, and then lay the entire blame at the teachers’ doorsteps. They want to continue to push people off welfare rolls, off-shore jobs, cut back on the most basic social services, air mindless garbage through the media and then turn around to the teachers and say “you fix it”. This is what accountability means to Kristof and the reformers. These are the implications of their policies.

Kristof at least mentions poverty, but he still shrugs it off in the end. Every columnist and billionaire reformer does that because, to them, poverty is not real. They can only approach poverty in the abstract, as a curiosity, as a statistic, because they are so far removed from its actual meaning. This does not mean a dictionary meaning but a three-dimensional meaning, one that is felt in the flesh and lived in real time. They are billionaires, pundits and opinion-givers. They sit in their air-conditioned offices and luxurious homes while their bank accounts get larger without them even noticing or doing anything. They want for nothing. It is all too easy for them to say poverty is not an excuse, to brush it off as a non-issue, to treat it as an abstraction because that is exactly what it is to them. That is all it can ever be to them.

In reality, poverty actually means something. So does education. When my friend was in the hospital, I bought him Gza’s Liquid Swords album, which we had been anticipating for a long time. Classmates of ours brought in artwork they made to put up in his hospital room. I started reading poetry and philosophy as a way to get a handle on life and look for solace. These things: music, art, poetry, abstract thought, are the things the reformers want to deny the poor children of the United States today. These are the things that got us as poor children through trying moments and made us aspire to great things. They might be great for wealthy children, but they are necessary for children of the poor. These are the things that help people understand their role and purpose in this world, and the ones that bring us beauty in times of darkness. The fact that the reformers want to totally eliminate this for children of the poor and leave them nothing but facts, tests, bubbles and computers is tantamount to child abuse. It is a civil rights travesty, no matter how hard reformers try to pass themselves off as new-age civil rights crusaders.

This is why the teachers of Chicago were striking. Anyone who has never lived in urban poverty, or who lacks basic human compassion or empathy, can never understand the destruction education reform means for our school system. These qualities, compassion and empathy, are what the reformers lack. Through their horrid educational programs, they want to turn our children into microcosms of themselves.

Pyongyang in New York City

Most Glorious Leader Kim Il Sung brings the people of the DPRK much success from beyond the grave.

I think comparisons to Nazi Germany are overused. Comparisons to North Korea, however, are still fair game.

Pyongyang is North Korea’s capital. It is a city located towards the center of a country mired in famine, propaganda and gulags. Foreigners who visit North Korea are given a “guided tour” by state-employed handlers who take you around to see the most glittering parts of the city: the giant statue of Kim Il Sung, the underground rail system, the beautiful traffic ladies and the cooperative farms on the outskirts that are greener than all the other farms in the land.

Those who live in Pyongyang are the elite living a relatively privileged life due to the largesse of the “Dear Leader”, or whatever Kim Jong Un is called. Although these elites still have limited food and frequent power outages, it beats the hell out of starving in the countryside or eating rats in a forced labor camp.

Pyongyang is the showcase city. This is what happens when a dictator with absolute control runs a small, isolated nation.

And here we have Michael Bloomberg, the Kim Jong Un of New York City’s Department of Education. He abolished the democratically-elected Board of Education to replace it with his Politburo, er, I mean Panel for Educational Policy whose members only answer to him.  He has ravaged the countryside, er, I mean schools under his control through indiscriminate “restructurings” and “turnarounds”, leaving husks of institutions in their wake.

As the Daily News points out today, there is also Bloomberg’s version of Pyongyang:

New schools founded in the last three years get more money per student than schools the city began shutting down this year, a Daily News analysis finds.

Under a reform — ironically called Fair Student Funding — the city distributes the bulk of school funding based on the enrollment and demographics of each school.

The reform introduced in 2007 hasn’t been fully funded because of budget cuts in recent years, but all 30 new schools opening this year get their full share of the money to which they’re entitled while the struggling schools remain badly underfunded.

“These are the mayor’s showcase schools. He wants to show they’re doing well,” said Gregg Lundahl, a social studies teacher and teachers union chapter leader at a closing school — Manhattan’s Washington Irving High School. “It’s very unfair.”

“Showcase schools”, that says it all.

This is “Fair Student Funding”. It reminds me of the “Great Leap Forward” in China where millions died of famine.

That is exactly what it is too: famine. In order to fatten up the schools with loyal administrators and younger (see: cheaper) teachers, the schools in the countryside with more veteran staffs get nothing. They starve for resources, having to nurse a piece of chalk for days or limit the copies they make to save paper. Those who speak against his regime, or just plain make too much money, are disappeared, charged with phony crimes, hounded by his education police and put through a kangaroo show trial.

Of course, like all dictators, Bloomberg takes no credit for these disparities in funding. This despite the fact that he claimed he would have “all the accountability” for what went on in schools once he seized control of them.

See how Bloomberg holds himself accountable:

“Efforts to raise all schools to 100% of the Fair Student Funding formula continue to be implemented gradually, and have been hampered by the five successive years of budget cuts during the recession,” said Education Department spokesman Connie Pankratz.

Adding to the budgetary slight, the turnaround schools were supposed to receive an additional $31 million in federal school improvement grants. City officials said in August they would provide the schools $18 million to help offset the loss of the grant.

That is right, it is not his fault. It is the state and federal government not putting up the cash. That is Pharaoh Bloomberg’s way of being “accountable”.

When millions of people died of starvation in North Korea during the 1990s, Dear Leader Kim Jong Il never took responsibility either. It was not his bungled agricultural plan or that he failed to account for the fact that the Soviet Union was dead and would no longer be able to artificially prop up his odious regime. No way. He told his people it was because of an “embargo” by the United States and Japan. For some reason, one day, the U.S. and Japan said “you know what, we should cause the horrible death of millions of innocent people today. Let us create an embargo.”

It is an “embargo” from the state and federal governments that Bloomberg blames. If you buy that excuse, there is an isolated dictatorship in east Asia waiting for you to move there.

When the historians finally get to work on the Bloomberg regime, they will see that his policies have meant desolation for the students, teachers and parents of New York City.