“There wasn’t a lot of choice, but there was some”

In the June 2013 newsletter for the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE), Board of Directors Chair Fayneese Miller makes this case about Common Core States Standards (CCSS):

What should be our message? What do we stand for?

For starters, we need to stand resolved in supporting the implementation of the Common Core and its concomitant assessments. Unless we can demonstrate that what is about to occur in most states by 2014 will harm students, we need to stand back from criticizing and look for ways to show that we can be a real partner in improving student learning and outcomes….

We can be a powerful voice on education if we align our messages and speak with one voice. The time to do this is not tomorrow, but now.

This message of “speak[ing] with one voice” in support of CCSS comes on the heels of Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, calling for a moratorium on high-stakes testing of CCSS while the new standards are implemented.

Learning First Alliance has also added their endorsement of the testing moratorium proposal.

However, Alice Johnson Cain, vice president for policy at Teach Plus, has rejected the moratorium, endorsing both CCSS and high-stakes testing through a commentary at Education Week:

But a moratorium would be a mistake.

The common core is not just another reform; it is truly a revolutionary development. But it is also a package deal in which next-generation assessments will inform and improve instruction in ways that make far more sense to teachers than the current “bubble tests” that are often disconnected from what they teach and what their students need.

What these arguments all have in common is that CCSS are now inevitable; that we debate only how to implement CCSS, how and when to test CCSS, and to what degree CCSS are “revolutionary” all seal the fate of educators and students. As Miller seems to be suggesting, challenging implementation of CCSS is now off the table.

“There wasn’t a lot of choice, but there was some”

For over a decade of my nearly two decades as a public high school English teacher in the rural and deeply conservative South, one of the most powerful and enduring units in my Advanced Placement Literature and Composition course centered around Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

The discussion surrounding Chapter 16, when the main character Offred (June) contemplates The Ceremony, proved each year to be one of the best days for me as a teacher and my students. In the dystopian future imagined by Atwood, the U.S. stands fractured and the Caucasian race finds itself disappearing.

The Republic of Gilead, basing its structure and laws on the Christian bible, seeks to repopulate the white race by identifying potentially fertile young women, Handmaids, and assigning them to Commanders, who have wives but also carry out the duty of impregnating Handmaids, a process labeled The Ceremony. In Chapter 16, Offred (June) describes the act by exploring what term best captures her circumstance:

I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose. (p. 94)

A central motif running through Atwood’s speculative narrative is the existence and consequences of reduced circumstances. The Handmaids are but one example of many throughout the novel representing the stratification of women as a mechanism for controlling women. Just as the history of slavery in the U.S. revealed how slave owners pitted slave against slave—those allowed in the “house” and those relegated to the “field”—the reduced circumstances of women in the novel exposes the use of carefully managed choices to maintain control, to maintain the status quo of hierarchies of power.

Just as Offred (June) has had her circumstances reduced to the point that she relinquishes her humanity to “some” choice, educators now find ourselves in a state of perpetual reform under the weight of crisis:

The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms: to reform schools, to reform industries, hospitals, the armed forces, prisons….In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation. (Deleuze, 1992)

The message is clear for teachers: Be quiet and just reform. And that message endures within both the moratorium stance and “next-generation assessments” advocacy.

The reduced circumstances of teaching and learning are currently imprisoned in a state of fatalism—CCSS are inevitable so everyone must shut up, lie back, and make the best of it. As Freire warns:

There is a lot of fatalism around us. An immobilizing ideology of fatalism, with its flighty postmodern pragmatism, which insists that we can do nothing to change the march of socio-historical and culture reality because that is how the world is anyway. The most dominant contemporary version of such fatalism is neoliberalism. With it, we are led to believe that mass unemployment on a global scale is an end-of-the-century inevitability. 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. (pp. 26-27)

The fatalism of reform in the guise of CCSS and “next-generation assessments” creates silent compliance, and ultimately the sort of guilt by association captured in World War Z:

Brilliance….Conventional executions might have reinforced discipline, might have restored order from the top down, but by making us all accomplices, they held us together not just by fear, but by guilt as well. We could have said no, could have refused and been shot ourselves, but we didn’t. We went right along with it….We relinquished our freedom that day, and we were more than happy to see it go. From that moment on we lived in true freedom, the freedom to point to someone else and say “They told me to do it! It’s their fault, not mine.” The freedom, God help us, to say “I was only following orders.” (p. 81-83)

“Only one road is open” in the fatalism of advocacy for CCSS, whether there is a moratorium on testing or not, but that road is yet more dystopian fiction, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

It is, then, necessary for educators to build and then follow another road, one that confronts a fact of recent accountability history: what is tested is what is taught. The promises of CCSS and “next-generation assessments” ignore that inevitability.

The new road includes a message that we do not need “new” standards, we do not need “new” tests, but we do need to end the high-stakes accountability culture/paradigm.

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6 thoughts on ““There wasn’t a lot of choice, but there was some”

  1. Pingback: What Road to Take?: The CCSS Debate – @ THE CHALK FACE knows SCHOOLS MATTER

  2. Pingback: “There wasn’t a lot of choice, but there was some” | the becoming radical ← NPE News Briefs

  3. Pingback: Is Common Core Inevitable? Why? | Diane Ravitch's blog

  4. Pingback: Teaching in Dystopia: The Common Corpse – @ THE CHALK FACE knows SCHOOLS MATTER

  5. Pingback: “Word Magic,” Education, and Market Forces | the becoming radical

  6. Pingback: "Word Magic," Education, and Market Forces

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