Seeking Common Ground?

A few years after I joined my university, following 18 years as an English teacher at a rural SC public high school, the faculty ventured into the task of reforming the curriculum and academic calendar. The changes included a revised set of general education requirements, a first year seminar model, and a significant shift in the calendar from three terms and Monday-Friday class sessions to a more traditional fall/spring semester format with an optional May experience and M/W/F or T/Th class sessions.

The university now has experienced several years of the new curriculum and calendar, and is poised to assess how well the changes have been implemented. One concern among faculty and administration rests with the first year seminars. Currently, our students are required to take one first year seminar (FYS) and one first year seminar that is writing intensive (FYW).

Anecdotal and gathered evidence suggests a wide range of how the FYS/W courses are being implemented—some are strong examples of the intended goals of the seminars and how effective they can be, but many miss the goals and appear ineffective. A recent survey also shows that faculty are mixed on the effectiveness of the FYS/W courses for our curriculum and students.

As a writing teacher, I was an early and eager supporter of the move toward first year seminars, especially since that curricular change opened the door for faculty across disciplines to teach FYW classes (I am in the education department, and thus had not been teaching writing for the university since freshman writing had been under the English department). I have taught an FYW each of the academic years of the new curriculum, and have worked as closely as possible with the university to support the effectiveness of writing instruction in those courses.

This current academic year, I have chaired our faculty FYS Oversight Committee, and then was recently asked to take on a small administrative role to guide the assessment and implementation of our first year seminars. One of my first tasks has been to draft and share a common experience document [1] with FYS/W faculty in order to start a conversation about what experiences we believe are essential for FYS/W courses and how to insure all students have these experiences and how to support faculty teaching the courses.

Some of the responses from my colleagues have included strong concerns about attempts to “look over professors’ shoulders” and “dictating” what and how professors teach. When I received those responses, I have been forced to consider a powerful and important tension that now faces me in my roles as an academic at my university and as a public intellectual who spends a great deal of my time engaging in the public sphere about public education policy—a tension that required me to check myself for the very hypocrisy I have claimed about public education reformers.

The question I have asked myself: How can I justify my early and consistent rejecting of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) against my role within my university advocating for common experiences within out FYS/W courses in order to insure all students receive the highest quality education we can offer?

On the surface, the motivation for CCSS in K-12 public schools and common experiences in our FYS/Ws appear to be the same: Identify and implement standard expectations for a commonality of educational experiences by all students.

Setting aside my deep skepticism about the sincerity of those advocating for CCSS, especially at their inception, I can concede only that similarity, and I believe that my experience at the university level with changing and then implementing the curriculum offers the current failed K-12 education reform movement some key lessons about how to reform the reform movement.

Seeking common ground among educational settings must include the following paradigm shifts away from the accountability/corporate model and toward an academic/collegial model:

  • Curriculum change and implementation at the university level are grounded in professor expertise, professor autonomy, and academic freedom. These foundational beliefs provide the central tension necessary for genuine education reform. As Tierney explains, K-12 public school teachers are denied these essentials—and thus current education reform fails:

“In this country, we lurch back and forth between efforts to professionalize and efforts to infantilize public-school teachers, and have been doing so since the beginning of public schools in America. Neither kind of effort accords teachers much respect. Because teachers are chiefly employed by local governments  (unlike doctors or lawyers who are typically employed in private enterprise), there has always been a tendency on the part of some groups of people to try to exert greater central control over teachers, not believing them to be professionals who can be left to do their jobs according to their own judgment. When those skeptics hold sway, the ‘solutions’ they impose favor quantitative/metrics-based ‘accountability,’ top-down management, limitations on teachers’ autonomy, and the substitution of external authority (outside measurers and evaluators) for the expertise of educators themselves.”

  • Thus, curriculum and pedagogical changes as well as on-going evaluation of those changes are prompted and driven by faculty, in collegial (not authoritarian) partnership with administration.
  • Course development and approval are conducted by the faculty. Professors design the courses they teach, propose them to the departments and faculty committees, and then the entire faculty approves those courses.
  • Curriculum change remains “in house,” in that the changes are related to the unique mission of the university and outside political and corporate influences are essentially absent from the process (notably the influence of commercial interests related to textbooks, resources, and testing).
  • Curriculum change and the subsequent evaluation of the implementation are necessarily slow. A great deal of public deliberation (at faculty meetings and committee meetings) went into the initial changes, and that process has continued into the evaluation of the implementation.
  • A constant refrain through the change process has been: Who are our students and how well are we serving them? This is another “in house” element that honors the belief that faculty knows best the students they teach.
  • The pursuit of “common,” “challenging,” “foundational,” and “essential” is not conflated with rote standardization. In other words, faculty are both aware of and honor that a common experience may look different among the faculty teaching the seminars while students still receive high-quality common experiences. For example, our FYWs seek to provide foundational writing instruction for all our students, but the ways in which that can be achieved are varied since each professor must articulate the common experiences for the 12 students in that particular FYW (again “common” is not rote sameness).
  • Absent in the reform and implementation are issues of bureaucratic accountability or concerns about high-stakes testing.

Let me note here, however, that I am not trying to paint the university curriculum change process as some sort of ideal: We now know that despite the deliberateness of the initial process, we likely still moved too quickly, particularly in implementing the first years seminar program, and too often the practical elements of change (for example, having the necessary FYS and FYW courses, all new to the curriculum) overshadowed the issues of insuring faculty were prepared to teach the courses and that courses were being implemented as proposed.

Ultimately, however, I have a great deal of optimism about the curricular change and ongoing efforts to maintain high quality in our courses at my university, but remain deeply skeptical (even cynical) of and nearly hopeless about the failed mechanisms of current K-12 educational changes.

While I am not yet convinced, as Tierney is, that the accountability/corporate reform movement is on its last legs, I am convinced that the model I have noted above is one way that we can and should reform the reform movement.

[1] See a model of common experiences detailed at Cornell University.

Conservative Leadership Poor Stewardship of Public Funds

In South Carolina and across the U.S., conservative leadership of education reform has failed to fulfill a foundational commitment to traditional values, good stewardship of public funds. [1]

The evidence of that failed stewardship is best exposed in commitments to three education reform policies: Adopting and implementing Common Core State Standards (CCSS), designing and implementing new tests based on CCSS, and proposing and field-testing revised teacher evaluations based on value-added models (VAM).

SC committed a tremendous amount of time and public funding to the accountability movement thirty years ago as one of the first states to implement state standards and high-stakes testing. After three decades of accountability, SC, like every other state in the union, has declared education still lacking and thus once again proposes a new round of education reform primarily focusing on, yet again, accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing.

Several aspects of committing to CCSS, new high-stakes tests, and teacher evaluation reform that are almost absent from the political and public debate are needs and cost/benefit analyses of these policies.

More of the Same Failed Policies?

If thirty years of accountability has failed, why is more of the same the next course of reform? If thirty years of accountability has failed, shouldn’t SC and other states first clearly establish what the problems and goals of education are before committing to any policies aimed at solving those problems or meeting those goals?

Neither of these questions have been adequately addressed, yet conservative political leadership is racing to commit a tremendous amount of public funding and public workers’ time to CCSS, an increase in high-stakes testing never experienced by any school system, and teacher evaluations proposals based on discredited test-based metrics.

Just as private corporations have reaped the rewards of tax dollars in SC during the multiple revisions of our accountability system, moving through at least three versions of tests and a maze of reformed state standards, the only guaranteed outcomes of commitments to CCSS, new tests, and reformed teacher evaluations are profits for textbook companies, test designers, and private consultants—all of whom have already begun cashing in on branding materials with CCSS and the yet-to-be designed high-stakes tests that will eventually be implemented twice a year in every class taught in the state.

SC as a state and as an education system is burdened by one undeniable major problem, inequity of opportunities in society and in schools spurred by poverty.

Numerous studies in recent years have shown that schools across the U.S. tend to reflect and perpetuate inequity; thus, children born into impoverished homes and communities are disproportionately attending schools struggling against and mirroring the consequences of poverty.

Commitments in SC to CCSS, new high-stakes tests, and reforming teacher evaluations based in large part on those new tests are at their core poor stewardship of public funding in a state that has many more pressing issues needing the support of state government.

A further problem with conservative leadership endorsing these education reforms is that much of the motivation for CCSS, new test, and reforming teacher evaluations comes from funding mandates by the federal government.

Misguided education reform is not only a blow to conservative economics but also a snub to traditional trust in local government over federal control.

Recently, as well, a special issue on VAM from Education Policy Analysis Archives (EPAA) includes two analyses that should give policy makers in SC and all states key financial reasons to pause if not halt commitments to education reform based on student test scores—the potential for legal action from a variety of stakeholders in education.

Baker, Oluwole, and Green explain: “Overly prescriptive, rigid teacher evaluation mandates, in our view, are likely to open the floodgates to new litigation over teacher due process rights. This is likely despite the fact that much of the policy impetus behind these new evaluation systems is the reduction of legal hassles involved in terminating ineffective teachers.”

Further, Pullin warns: “For public policymakers, there are strong reasons to suggest that high-stakes implementation of VAM is, at best, premature and, as a result, the potential for successful legal challenge to its use is high. The use of VAM as a policy tool for meaningful education improvement has considerable limitations, whether or not some judges might consider it legally defensible.”

Do schools across SC need education reform? Yes, just as social policy in the state needs to address poverty as a key mechanism for supporting those schools once they are reformed.

But in a state driven by traditional values and conservative political leadership, current commitments to CCSS, new high-stakes tests, and reforming teacher evaluations are neither educationally sound nor conservative.

[1] Expanded version of Op-Ed published in The State (Columbia, SC), March 8, 2013: “Conservatives poor stewards of education funds”

Howard Zinn and the Failure of Standards Movements in Education

The Zinn Education Project notes, “Howard Zinn passed away three years ago, on January 27, 2010. At the time, writer and activist Naomi Klein spoke for many of us: ‘We just lost our favorite teacher.’”*

The life and work of Zinn represents the personification of confronting the world from roles of authority that have historically been positioned as neutral—historian, teacher. But as Zinn came to understand and then to confront and embody, neutral is not an option:

When I became a teacher I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences. . . .Does not the very fact of that concealment teach something terrible—that you can separate the study of literature, history, philosophy, politics, the arts, from your own life, your deepest convictions about right and wrong?. . .In my teaching I never concealed my political views. . . .I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth. . . .From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country—not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian. (You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Howard Zinn, 1994, pp. 7, 173)

As the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) movement, as well as the concurrent new and expanded battery of high-stakes tests, seem inevitable (as some continue to debate), Zinn’s radical stance as a historian and teacher offers a powerful window into why any standards movement is a failed process in education, particularly in universal public education designed to serve democracy and individual freedom.

Standards as Acquiring Some Authority’s Mandates

Zinn as historian and teacher personified the act of challenging content. For Zinn, our obligation as teachers and students is to ask questions—notably questions about the sources of power—about not only the world around us but also the narratives of the world around, narratives cast about the past, narratives being cast about the present, and narratives envisioning the future.

Who was Christopher Columbus—in his own words, in the narratives built around him by centuries of historians, in the narratives of textbooks, and in narratives of state-mandated curriculum? Why are there so many versions of Columbus, which ones are true (if any), and who benefits from these narratives?

Who was Martin Luther King Jr.—in his own words, in the narratives built around him by decades of historians, in the narratives of textbooks, and in narratives of state-mandated curriculum? Why are there so many versions of King, which ones are true (if any), and who benefits from these narratives?

Narratives, whether they be history or mandated curriculum in the form of CCSS, are manufactured myths, and ultimately, manufactured myths are created by some authority to suit some goal, some goal that benefits the designer of the myth.

And therein lies the ultimately failure of all standards movements.

A standards paradigm masks the locus of power (some authority some where decides what knowledge matters and then creates the accountability structure that makes that knowledge the goal of passive implementation [teachers] and compliant acquisition [students]) and creates a teaching and learning environment that can assume a neutral pose while in fact replacing education with indoctrination.

Authentic education for democracy and individual freedom is a continual asking: What knowledge matters and why? It is a journey, an adventure, a perpetual gathering to confront, to challenge, to debate, and to serve the teacher and learner in their joint re-reading and re-writing of the world.

CCSS, just as the dozens of standards movements before them, discount the need to confront, to ask, to re-imagine because standards are an act of authoritarian mandates. “Who decides” is rendered unnecessary, and the curriculum becomes a faux-neutral set of content that teachers must implement and students must acquire so that the ultimate faux-neutral device can be implemented—high-stakes testing.

Like the “‘remarkable apparatus’” in Franza Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” high-stakes testing ultimately becomes all that matters, “a mechanism of objectification” (Foucault, 1984), the inevitable abdication of authority and autonomy to a mechanism—”what is tested is what is taught” superseding any possibility of asking “why?” or examining who decides and by what authority they made the decisions.

Kafka’s nightmare allegory has been and will be replayed time and again as adopting and implementing CCSS along with the high-stakes tests uncritically, passively, and with a pose of neutrality (“I am simply doing as I have been mandated as well as I can”) feed the machine that consumes all who come near it, just as the Officer who implements the apparatus of punishment eventually acquiesces to it himself:

The Traveller, by contrast, was very upset. Obviously the machine was breaking up. Its quiet operation had been an illusion. He felt as if he had to look after the Officer, now that the latter could no longer look after himself. But while the falling gear wheels were claiming all his attention, he had neglected to look at the rest of the machine. However, when he now bent over the Harrow, once the last gear wheel had left the Inscriber, he had a new, even more unpleasant surprise. The Harrow was not writing but only stabbing, and the Bed was not rolling the body, but lifting it, quivering, up into the needles. The Traveller wanted to reach in to stop the whole thing, if possible. This was not the torture the Officer wished to attain; it was murder, pure and simple.

The American Character, Inscribed: “A Monopoly on the Truth”

While the education establishment, both progressives and conservatives, race to see who can implement CCSS the fastest, concurrent education reform initiatives such as charter schools and Teach for America help reinforce the worst elements of the standards and accountability movement.

Embedded in the charter school commitment is a parallel pursuit of standards: Character education.

In the “no excuses” model (made popular in the Knowledge Is Power Program [KIPP] charter chain), the standard for character and “good behavior,” again, is not something teachers and students explore, discover, and debate, but rules that must be implemented and followed.

For example, consider the “National Heritage Academies (NHA) and its approach to character and citizenship education,” highlighted by Rick Hess at Education Week; Hess, by the way, notes, “I think I’m wholly behind what NHA is doing.” What does a standardized approach to character and civic education look like?:

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America,” chant the students of Ridge Park Elementary School in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “And to the Republic for which it stands . . .”

In the back of the room, a dozen parents stand with their hands over their hearts. Some are US citizens by birth, others by naturalization, and some by aspiration. Their children recite: “One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”

A National Heritage Academies (NHA) charter school, Ridge Park starts every day with the Pledge of Allegiance, the Star-Spangled Banner, and the school creed: “I am a Ridge Park scholar. I strive to achieve academic excellence. I exemplify high moral character. I work diligently to prepare for the future . . .”

Character education is ubiquitous and relentless at NHA schools. Each month is assigned a “moral focus” or virtue, which teachers are supposed to weave into their lessons and students write about from kindergarten through eighth grade. Signs in classrooms and hallways honor examples of virtue….

Students troop out of the gym to start their day. (“Counting on Character: National Heritage Academies and Civic Education,” Joanne Jacobs)

“Chant,” “recite,” “ubiquitous,” “relentless,” “troop”—these are the bedrocks of a standards-driven school environment, but this is indoctrination, not education—whether the standard is character or curriculum.

And what sort of history curriculum does a character-driven model embrace? The work of E. D. Hirsch:

The patriotic spirit of Hirsch’s US history and civics curriculum fit NHA’s philosophy. ‘The ideals that created the United States were glorious,’ writes Hirsch in The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools. ‘Patriotic glorifications are very much to be encouraged in the early grades, so long as they retain a firm connection with truth.’ While US history and civics are not wrapped in the flag, says Nick Paradiso, vice president of government relations and partner services for the charter management company, “the basic idea is that America is a great country that learns from its mistakes. We need to embrace our country’s history.”

No, let’s not confront the histories of the U.S., not here at NHA, because that may lead to the sorts of questions Zinn would ask: Who decides and why, and then who benefits from these narratives of character and history? [Hint: "National Heritage Academies, a for-profit charter management company, runs 74 schools in Michigan and eight other states, making it the second largest charter network in the country."]

Further into Jacobs’ description of NHA “America-centric” core curriculum, Martin Luther King Jr. is highlighted as an example for students of character. King as martyr for Hirsch’s glorious U.S.A.? Consider “Martin Luther King Was a Radical, Not a Saint” by Peter Dreier:

In fact, King was a radical. He believed that America needed a ‘radical redistribution of economic and political power.’ He challenged America’s class system and its racial caste system.  He was a strong ally of the nation’s labor union movement.  He was assassinated in April 1968 in Memphis, where he had gone to support a sanitation workers’ strike.  He opposed U.S. militarism and imperialism, especially the country’s misadventure in Vietnam.

Do you suppose this is the King NHA students study and are encouraged to emulate?

And it is here I will end with the ultimate caution about being neutral in regards to CCSS, charter schools, character education, and a whole host of education reform mandates and commitments that seem inevitable: The powerful control the narratives and those narratives control the rest of us—all for the profit of the powerful.

“I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth.” Howard Zinn, 1922-2010, R.(adical) I.(n) P.(eace)

*Updated in honor of the 50th Anniversary March on Washington and Howard Zinn’s birth date, August 24. Please visit and read:

howardzinn.org

Zinn Education Project

Remembering Howard Zinn by Meditating on Teacher Unions and Tenure?

“A Realistic, Pragmatic Approach” to Rejecting CCSS

“Should Teachers Resist the Common Core?” asks a blog post at Education Week, continuing the debate about CCSS among Larry Ferlazzo, Stephen Krashen, David Cohen, and me.

This posting highlights a point made by David that I want to return to (again) because I agree strongly with David’s focus: “And as for the critics I’ve cited, to my knowledge, none of them is currently a K-12 teacher. That fact does not invalidate their criticisms, but I think it colors their perceptions regarding a realistic, pragmatic approach, here and now, for those of us trying to serve our current students and schools most productively.”

I have argued repeatedly that the central flaw with the current education reform movement and its major elements—CCSS, new high-stakes testing, Teach for America (TFA), value-added methods (VAM) of teacher evaluation, and charter school advocacy, such as Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ)—is that these reforms-as-solutions are not based on any clearly identified problems and that the leading advocates themselves have no (or very little) experience and expertise in education.

Let me repeat: I have almost thirty years of combined public high school teaching (18 years), college teaching, teacher education, and scholarship in education that all have occurred during the thirty-year cycle of accountability-driven education reform.

I have ample experience with state standards, state and national (SAT) high-stakes testing, teacher certification, and education accreditation. A central thread of my scholarship over those years has included the negative impact of accountability, standards, and testing on literacy instruction (notably writing) and high-poverty students and schools.

Also let me repeat my answer to the blog title above: Yes, teachers should resist CCSS.

I have already argued for our resistance as part of our teacher agency so I want here to address the obligation teachers have to resist CCSS grounded firmly in our classroom experiences.

I began teaching in the fall of 1984, the exact academic year South Carolina first introduced accountability based on state standards and high-stakes testing. Over the next thirty years, SC has revised those standards three or more times, as well as reformulating our testing at least three times—from BSAP to PACT to PASS (with part of that testing reform driven by a desire to move beyond “basic” [the "B" of BSAP] and to the glory of “challenge” [the "C" of PACT]). In education, it seems, it is all about the branding.

SC and virtually every state in the nation has had decades and multiple versions of standards and high-stakes tests implemented. What is the result? Today no one is satisfied with the outcomes, and the dominant solution is to try the exact same strategy, except at the federal level.

And here is where I wish to assert David’s point as support for my argument: Teachers across the U.S. know from their lived experiences as educators that the bureaucracy of implementing and revising standards and tests over the past thirty years has wasted a tremendous amount of time and funding as well as inhibited our ability to teach and ruined learning opportunities for students—especially in high-needs schools.

Three decades of the accountability era with its standards and high-stakes testing have not improved teaching, have not increased learning, have not closed the achievement/opportunity gap, have not solved the drop-out problem, and have not succeeded in a single claim of made by political advocates of any aspect of this movement.

Why? Because the accountability model built on standards and high-stakes testing is the wrong solution and a complete failure of acknowledging the problem. Educational problems in the U.S. are not a lack of accountability, a lack of standards, or a lack of testing. In fact, increasing all three has increased the real problems because they are distractions from facing the tremendous inequity of opportunity facing children in the U.S. both in their lives and then in their schools.

Teachers must reject CCSS, and we must do so in a collective voice of our experiences in the exact environments of accountability that we know have done more harm than good to the children we serve every day.

Nothing is more real or practical than that.

Teacher Agency in a Time of High-Stakes Accountability

I entered the classroom as a high school English teacher in 1984, the exact fall that South Carolina implemented the first incarnation of high-stakes accountability built on standards and standardized testing. I taught in that rural, moderately impoverished community—my home town—for the next eighteen years, during which the state revised and changed standards as well as tests multiple times.

I taught, chaired the English department, and coached for many of those eighteen years while also being a college adjunct and completing my doctorate, and my wife still teaches K-2 PE as well as coaches, as she has since 1995

In 2002, I became a teacher educator, and thus directly involved with classroom teachers in my graduate courses and teacher candidates certifying and then entering the field.

From those experiences I can attest to a few clear realities of being a teacher during a time of high-stakes accountability:

• Teachers have rarely had much power for the past century, and that agency has significantly deteriorated as the accountability era has accelerated.

• The goals and claims about the potential for standards (including Common Core State Standards [CCSS]) and high-stakes testing are irrelevant once they are implemented since how schools, districts, and states tend to implement standards and testing is far more prescriptive, corrosive, and dehumanizing than advocates for standards and testing are apt to acknowledge. “What is tested is what is taught” will be the consequences of CCSS once tests are administered as high-stakes mechanisms in the schools. Teachers and students will lose in that, again.

• Teachers have historically been told not to be political and are conditioned to be implementers of policy, not designers of policy. That de-professionalizing and marginalizing of teacher agency has increased proportionately with the rise of high-stakes accountability and the deterioration of worker’s rights for teachers (especially in right-to-wrok states where unionization has been and is absent).

• Teachers tend to be incredibly practical, and predisposed to functioning in survivor mode since the conditions of teaching often ask more of any teacher than can be humanly accomplished. I lived that and I have a great deal of respect and empathy for that fact.

With all that said, let me return to the current CCSS debate among Larry Ferlazzo, Stephen Krashen, and now David Cohen.

First, I want to clarify that I have a great deal of respect for Larry, Stephen, and David as exemplary educators, scholars, and advocates. Since I cannot say I have the same respect for many of the leading personalities in the education reform debate, I want to be clear that when I agree or disagree with this particular group of educators, the debate is about the topic, and there is not implied any challenge to the people or their credibility intended. None.

Yet, I remain in disagreement with Larry and now David—both of whom have offered solid and thoughtful arguments about their skepticism regarding CCSS but also their belief in compromise that includes setting aside trying to stop CCSS and the coming tests being implemented.

Two points from David’s post are important to address, I think.

The end of David’s post repeats the fatalism that I have addressed:

“And I might agree with Thomas (and Friere) in the abstract, but here’s the problem: such a transformation of public education could not happen in a vacuum, could not happen solely by the willpower of teachers even if we all agreed with each other, and could not happen quickly – maybe not even in one generation.”

Many practitioners balk at theory and philosophy, and to discount Freire and my concern as “abstract” is part of the problem of classroom practitioners being predisposed to the practical and trapped in survivor mode.

To me, David’s comment highlights the worst aspect of adopting, implementing, and testing CCSS—education is in a constant state of adopting and implementing new standards and new tests, a process that keeps teachers busy, busy, busy. In fact, too busy to be professionals.

On this point, I believe David is hitting a key problem, but my response is not to agree. In fact, I think David’s point proves why we must simply all say “No,” as the teachers at Garfield High have about MAP testing.

Is it easy to say “No” as a teacher? No. Is it risky to say “No” as a teacher? Yes, very.

But taking principled stands is necessary for our profession. A collective and principled stand by teachers could in fact bring about the change David has grown fatalistic about.

A second point, which is related to the first, is that David and Larry are advocating compromise, a stance that always appears reasonable and tends also to seem practical.

Here, I must state again that a compromise between wrong and right can equal only wrong.

In the CCSS debate, the problem with compromise is that the frame within which teachers are being asked to compromise has been set for them, not by them.

In 2013, standards and tests have had ample time (and consumed more than enough funding) to show that they are effective reform strategies. They have never worked, and they never will.

The CCSS movement is a tremendous waste of time and money. Implementing and testing CCSS will further erode teacher agency and student achievement.

No compromise will stem those realities, but teachers claiming their own agency as professionals, collectively, can stop these consequences if we all agree to stop saying “can’t.”

Fatalism and Teacher Professionalism

Blogging at Education Week, Larry Ferlazzo posted a series of blogs addressing ways to prepare students for Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in English/Language Arts. In a response post, Ferlazzo and Stephen Krashen—an outspoken scholar, along with Susan Ohanian, who steadfastly rejects implementing CCSS and the inevitable tests to follow—shared a series of exchanges.

Krashen, in part, argues that implementing flawed practice simply because CCSS requires them is inexcusable:

No. There is no evidence supporting this view. There is massive evidence for the superiority of comprehensible input/reading as by far the best way (really the only way) to develop academic vocabulary and academic writing. Just because the common core demands these competencies, doesn’t mean we should use ineffective and painful methods to try to teach them.

Ferlazzo takes a different view, one committed to implementing CCSS as well as possible since their adoption is a done deal, he believes:

I can think of no realistic political scenario that would stop Common Core from being implemented for at least ninety percent of millions of teachers and students in the United States. I have also not heard anyone else share one, though I am all ears….

Given that political reality on the ground, I think the political capital of teachers, students and their families is better spent on other issues that also affect the working and learning conditions in our schools and the living conditions in our communities — teacher evaluation procedures, adequate funding for schools, class size, parent engagement — just to name a few. In my political judgment, teachers and their allies are much more likely to be able to influence those issues.

While I think it’s useful to debate which instructional strategies might be most engaging and effective for our students and also enable teachers to say they are implementing Common Core, I just [think] it’s less useful to fight a battle that has already been lost.

Given the tremendous political, professional, and commercial momentum behind CCSS, Ferlazzo appears to have a solid point. But this exchange raises an important question about fatalism and teacher professionalism that is much larger than just debating CCSS

Fatalism and Teacher Professionalism

The debate between Ferlazzo and Krashen mirrors a similar debate within the National Council of Teachers of English, one in which Krashen, Ohanian, and I have had little success as we have argued for teacher professionalism and autonomy instead of implementing CCSS and preparing students for the tests with commercial materials focusing on those standards and the new tests.

Concurrent with the debate at EdWeek, as well, has been faculty at Garfield High School refusing to implement MAP testing. Jesse Hagopian, a teacher at Garfield, explains:

America faces incredible challenges: endless war, climate change and worldwide economic implosion. Our kids will need both traditional academic abilities and innovative critical-thinking skills to solve these real problems. If we inundate our students with standardized testing year-round, these larger lessons are lost.

Garfield’s teachers are preparing students for the real-life tests they will face, and reject the computer multiple-choice rituals that fail to measure grade-level content — not to mention character, commitment, courage or talent.

Since this act of professional conscience by Garfield teachers, a group of educators has issued a statement of support, rejecting the misuse and abuse associated with high-stakes standardized tests.

If implementing CCSS is inevitable as Ferlazzo claims and if school, district, state, or federal mandates will continue to support those standards and the related high-stakes tests, teaching is reduced to an act of fatalism, and in effect, teachers are de-professionalized and students are similarly reduced to passive recipients of state-mandated knowledge, what Paulo Freire (1998) labeled as “the bureaucratizing of the mind” (p. 102).

Fatalism about inevitable education reform or current policy and practices benefits neither students nor teachers—and ultimately devalues education in a free society.

For students, Freire challenges the prescriptive nature of standards and high-stakes testing stemming from a neoliberal ideology:

If I am a pure product of genetic, cultural, or class determination, I have no responsibility for my own action in the world and, therefore, it is not possible for me to speak of ethics….It means that we know ourselves to be conditioned but not determined. It means recognizing that History is time filled with possibility and not inexorably determined—that the future is problematic and not already decided, fatalistically….The most dominant contemporary version of such fatalism is neoliberalism….From the standpoint of such an ideology, only one road is open as far as educative practice is concerned: adapt the student to what is inevitable, to what cannot be changed. In this view, what is essential is technical training, so that the student can adapt and, therefore, survive. This book…is a decisive NO to an ideology that humiliates and denies our humanity. (pp. 26-27)

If teachers, then, see CCSS implementation or fulfilling ploicies to implement MAP testing as requirements of their role as compliant workers, they have succumbed to “conformity in the face of situations considered to be irreversible because of destiny,” Freire explains (1998, p.102). Then, “To that degree, there is no room for choice. There is only room for well-behaved submission to fate. Today. Tomorrow. Always,” Freire believes, adding, “I have always rejected fatalism. I prefer rebelliousness because it affirms my status as a person who has never given in to the manipulations and strategies designed to reduce the human person to nothing” (pp. 102-103).

And here is where I must side with Krashen.

To see CCSS or MAP testing as inevitable, to see our roles as educators being reduced to technicians working to implement CCSS or MAP testing as well as possible, to allow students to be reduced to “a pure product of genetic, cultural, or class determination” is to render both teachers and students fatalistic—both as tools of others’ determinations and as products of those who create the inevitable system.

The financial, cultural, and human costs of fatalism are simply too high.

Assembled Pieces Reveal Disturbing Reform Picture

Every time I write about Michelle Rhee, as I noted in a recent post, I feel like I should reenact the shower and wire-brush scene in Silkwood to purge myself of participating in the ceaseless media attention disproportionately afforded Rhee while the voices, daily efforts, and expertise of K-12 practitioners are not just ignored, but marginalized and even demonized.

So it is with a shared reservation (see Jose Vilson’s excellent post) that I once again wade into the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) debate—not to rehash my unequivocal opposition to the CCSS movement, but to offer a brief look at the picture revealed once all the pieces of the corporate/ “no excuses” reform movement puzzle are assembled. First, then, let me identify the primary pieces of that puzzle:

CCSS

National high-stakes tests built on CCSS

Reformed teacher evaluation driven by VAM-based teacher ranking

Teach for America

Charter schools

These various pieces are an effective strategy with a common thread because separately each reform element creates a focal point of debate; for an educator or researcher to challenge any one of these policies is a seemingly endless task since the reform agenda is being set by those with political and financial power. Refuting the need for new standards, much less the flaws with implementing those new standards, immediately positions educators as reactionary and allows the self-appointed reformers to characterize those challenges as being for the status quo and against reform and accountability.

For example, teachers in my home state of South Carolina who have spoken against VAM-style teacher evaluation reform have been publicly labeled by the state superintendent of education, Mick Zais, as trying to avoid being held accountable for their work.

The picture these reform pieces show is not a patchwork of evidence-based and innovative strategies for improving public education, but a carefully unified process of infusing even more deeply the power of high-stakes standardized testing into the fabric of public schools. Look beneath any of the elements listed above and find the allure of new and better tests, as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (2010) celebrated himself:

Today is a great day! I have looked forward to this day for a long time–and so have America’s teachers, parents, students, and school leaders. Today is the day that marks the beginning of the development of a new and much-improved generation of assessments for America’s schoolchildren. Today marks the start of Assessments 2.0. And today marks one more milestone, testifying to the transformational change now taking hold in our nation’s schools under the courageous leadership and vision of state and district officials.

Duncan’s entusiasm doesn’t stop there:

This new generation of mathematics and English language arts assessments will cover all students in grades three through eight and be used at least once in high school in every state that chooses to use them. In addition, the PARCC consortium will develop optional performance tasks to inform teachers about the development of literacy and mathematics knowledge and skills in kindergarten through second grade.

I am convinced that this new generation of state assessments will be an absolute game-changer in public education. For the first time, millions of schoolchildren, parents, and teachers will know if students are on-track for colleges and careers–and if they are ready to enter college without the need for remedial instruction. Yet that fundamental shift–re-orienting K-12 education to extend beyond high school graduation to college and career-readiness–will not be the only first here.

For the first time, many teachers will have the state assessments they have longed for– tests of critical thinking skills and complex student learning that are not just fill-in-the-bubble tests of basic skills but support good teaching in the classroom.

And what provides the basis upon which Duncan makes these claims?:

Yet existing assessments are only part of the problem. An assessment system and curriculum can only be as good as the academic standards to which the assessments and curriculum are pegged. We want teachers to teach to standards–if the standards are rigorous, globally competitive, and consistent across states. Unfortunately, in the last decade, numerous states dummied down their academic standards and assessments. In effect, they lied to parents and students. They told students they were proficient and on track to college success, when they were not even close.

The Common Core standards developed by the states, coupled with the new generation of assessments, will help put an end to the insidious practice of establishing 50 different goalposts for educational success. In the years ahead, a child in Mississippi will be measured against the same standard of success as a child in Massachusetts.

Even if we account for the sort of soaring rhetoric associated with political discourse, Duncan clearly envisions policy that must include a staggering and unprecedented commitment to testing that rises to the level of parody. But for all stakeholders in public education, the results of all the policies linked to standardized testing must include a brave new world of testing that boggles the mind in terms of the amount of time and funding required to design, field test, implement, and manage pre- and post-tests aligned with CCSS for every single course and teacher year after year after year.

As Yong Zhao has detailed carefully in an exchange with Marc Tucker, commitments to education reform policy linked to CCSS and the high-stakes tests built on these new standards are not anything new, are not justified by any clearly identified problems or needs, and are not consistent with the larger democratic goals of universal public education:

[L]et me restate my main point: it is impossible, unnecessary, and harmful for a small group of individuals to predetermine and impose upon all students the same set of knowledge and skills and expect all students progress at the same pace (if the students don’t, it is the teachers’ and schools’ fault). I am not against standards per se for good standards can serve as a useful guide. What I am against is Common and Core, that is, the same standards for all students and a few subjects (currently math and English language arts) as the core of all children’s education diet. I might even love the Common Core if they were not common or core.

Classroom teachers, educational researchers, and educational historians have offered and continue to offer a clear and valid voice that Duncan’s claims and the resulting policies are deeply flawed, but as Brian Jones asks, “If all of this testing is so bad for teaching and learning, why is it spreading?” According to Jones, the answer detailed in the full picture is clear:

As the tests spread and the consequences associated with them rise, absurdities abound….

The shift toward using student data to evaluate teachers is part of a larger trend of restructuring public education to align it with the rest of the economy. As one of the last heavily unionized groups of workers in the country, teachers stand in the way of privatization. And to the extent that they are self-governed, self-motivated and enjoy professional autonomy, teachers are a ‘bad’ example for other workers.

Even though it may not make for great teaching or genuine learning, high-stakes standardized testing is spreading because it is the perfect tool for controlling and disciplining teachers–and for training the next generation to internalize the priorities of the system.

The attempt to quantify and track every aspect of an employee’s ‘performance’ is not new.

Standardized testing—the inevitable consequence of commitments to CCSS, reformed teacher evaluation, and each piece of the corporate reform puzzle—combines the veneer of objectivity with the power of perpetual control over schools, teachers, and students, what Foucault characterized as “…entering the age of infinite examination and of compulsory objectification” (p. 200):

The exercise of discipline presupposes a mechanism that coerces by means of observation; an apparatus in which the techniques that make it possible to see induce effects of power in which, conversely, the means of coercion make those on whom they are applied clearly visible….

[T]he art of punishing, in the regime of disciplinary power, is aimed neither at expiation, nor precisely at repression….It differentiates individuals from one another, in terms of the following overall rule: that the rule be made to function as a minimal threshold, as an average to be respected, or as an optimum toward which one must move. It measures in quantitative terms and hierarchizes in terms of value the abilities, the level, the ‘nature’ of individuals….The perpetual penalty that traverses all points and supervises every instant in the disciplinary institution compares, differentiates, hierachizes, homogenizes, excludes. In short, it normalizes….

The examination combines the techniques of an observing hierarchy and those of normalizing judgment. It is a normalizing gaze, a surveillance that makes possible to qualify, to classify, and to punish….

In discipline, it is the subjects who have to be seen. Their visibility assures the hold of the power that is exercised over them. It is the fact of their being constantly seen…that maintains the disciplined individual in his subjection. And the examination is the technique by which power…holds them in a mechanism of objectification. (pp. 177, 170, 197, 199)

Now, in the context of whether or not the U.S. is committed to universal public education as a central element of a commitment to democracy and individual liberty, and then whether or not education reform is seeking that foundational goal, time has come to set aside the puzzle-piece-by-puzzle-piece dismantling of the corporate reform agenda and confront directly the central flaw with the picture itself, as Jones acknowledges:

The solution to this dilemma is not to develop better tests, but to tear down the whole enterprise of high-stakes standardized assessment and replace it with authentic assessments that are organic to the process of real teaching and learning.

In sum, the attempt to quantify learning and teaching in a standardized manner is extremely expensive; takes up weeks and, in some places, months of time in school; narrows the curriculum; undermines the intrinsic joy of learning; and leads to a culture of corruption and cheating. As a measure of student learning, standardized tests are an extremely limited instrument. As a measure of teacher effectiveness, they are even more flawed.

Measuring, labeling, ranking, and then sorting students, teachers, and schools is an anti-democratic process, a dehumanizing process, and a mechanism for control. At the center of this process being antithetical to both our democracy and our faith in education is the fundamental flaw of high-stakes standardized testing.

Do many of the puzzle pieces of the corporate reform puzzle misuse standardized tests and the data drawn from those tests? Yes.

But we must not fall prey to the simplistic claim that the problem is how tests are used and not the tests themselves.

The ugly full picture of corporate reform shows that the problem is testing. Period.

“Expect Nothing, Get Nothing”: Common v. Standard

In Chapter 7 (a “hard-boiled wonderland” section) of Haruki Murakami‘s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, the narrator details:

I wound up my purchases and pulled into my convenient neighborhood fast-food restaurant. I ordered shrimp salad, onion rings, and a beer. The shrimp was straight out of the freezer, the onion rings soggy. Looking around the place, though, I failed to spot a single customer banging on a tray or complaining to a waitress. So I shut up and finished my food. Expect nothing, get nothing. (p. 72)

As an English teacher, my mind immediately thought of Meursault in Albert Camus’s existential classic The Stranger:

Soon after this I had a letter from [Marie]. And it was then that the things I’ve never liked to talk about began. Not that they were particularly terrible; I’ve no wish to exaggerate and I suffered less than others. Still, there was one thing in those early days that was really irksome: my habit of thinking like a free man. For instance, I would suddenly be seized with a desire to go down to the beach for a swim. And merely to have imagined the sound of ripples at my feet, the smooth feel of the water on my body as I struck out, and the wonderful sensation of relief it gave brought home still more cruelly the narrowness of my cell.

Still, that phase lasted a few months only. Afterward, I had prisoner’s thoughts. I waited for the daily walk in the courtyard or a visit from my lawyer. As for the rest of the time, I managed quite well, really. I’ve often thought that had I been compelled to live in the trunk of a dead tree, with nothing to do but gaze up at the patch of sky just overhead, I’d have got used to it by degrees. I’d have learned to watch for the passing of birds or drifting clouds, as I had come to watch for my lawyer’s odd neckties, or, in another world, to wait patiently till Sunday for a spell of love-making with Marie. Well, here, anyhow, I wasn’t penned in a hollow tree trunk. There were others in the world worse off than I. I remembered it had been one of Mother’s pet ideas—she was always voicing it—that in the long run one gets used to anything.

The corporate education reform machine (think the machine of justice within which Meursault finds himself and comes to get used to, just as he would living in the trunk of a dead tree) demands a standard curriculum and then a series of standardized tests to hold students, teachers, and schools accountable for the passive transmission and acquisition of state (and corporate) endorsed content.

CCSS and the tests to follow, then, are simply the dead tree we are being told to live in, and like the narrator in the Murakami novel, to shut up and do as we are told:

Expect nothing, get nothing.

Content in this corporate ideology is a fixed (dead) set of knowledge to be ingested, uncritically, passively, compliantly.

In a free society, one dedicated to democracy and individual freedom, such a process serves the needs of the corporate world, seeking as it does the compliant worker.

Education as a central aspect of the Commons and a mechanism for democracy must offer content as something to be confronted and challenged, not something to acquire.

A class may have a text in common, but the reading, studying, and discussions must be about wrestling with the text and the wide array of interpretations of that text.

Trying to raise the test scores of students in order to evaluate teachers (all driven by the new CCSS) is an act of living in a dead tree, asking for nothing, and getting nothing.

And this may be why the CCSS advocates (Coleman, et al.) are so eager to shift the classroom texts to non-fiction instead of fiction.

Imagine their horror, among the ruling elite, at the thought of teachers making decisions and students confronting Murakami or Camus to realize that the shrimp is straight out of the freezer, the onion rings are soggy, and it is past time to bang their trays on the table and complain to the waitress.