The Common Core and Short Sharp Shocks

During my holiday trip, which ended earlier this week, I spent a lot of time with friends who used to be colleagues in teaching. Most of them still teach; a couple are administrators. They work in every kind of place from “privileged” secondary schools to state-run universities to public elementary schools. Their spiritedness varies from still enthusiastic to beaten down. Amidst all that diversity of background, situation, and motivation, one attitude runs through the entire group: Contempt of and exasperation with the Ed Biz’s bureaucracy- and foundation-driven Reform of the Year “movement” and its disappointments.

This blog is full of postings[1] giving examples, of which the two most egregious are No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and RAce to the Top (RAT). NCLB, which mandated universal proficiency in twelve years, is now acknowledged by most people with IQs in three digits to be a dismal failure from whose provisions states are stumbling over each other to be excused. The problem is that to be excused, states must pledge themselves to RAT, whose grants are given conditionally on adoption of the Common Core and “Value”-“Added” “Metrics.” The same government that mandated perfection in twelve years now “mandates[2]” the more-or-less immediate adoption of a whole new curriculum, with predictable results.

Why is the Reform of the Year “movement” so unproductive or counterproductive? Some ideas from my talks with former colleagues suggest themselves[3]:

1.       Its roots are political and economic as well as pedagogical, and from these roots strange and invidious growths proceed.

2.       At the bottom of its assumptions lies a rooted suspicion of or contempt for teachers. You can’t have a good “system” of education if you despise the people that are at its core. Asked by a reporter to explain Finland’s success in education, one principal said three words: “teachers, teachers, teachers.” How many American reformers and the administrators they impress would say the same?

3.       Concurrently, there is no investigation of administrators as a class to determine how competent, savvy, and humane they are. What hope is there of producing better schools if they are to be presided over by incompetents and second-stringers?

4.       Like many typically and counterproductively exigent education reformers, Ed Biz “leaders” will have their way not because their reforms tap into the collective wisdom of the human race or will produce sensible results in the fullness of time, but because these reformers want them, now, and will have them even at great cost. At one point in the movie Downfall, Hitler, asked to justify an order, says, “It is my will.” Raise your hand if you know administrators and other Educational Personages who justify their choices that way. Keep your hands up if they made you proud and happy to be a teacher.

5.       Speaking of the collective wisdom of the human race: it is amazing how harebrained educationist schemes manage completely to avoid the tonic test question “Is it wise?” when being hatched. Why should anyone expect a sudden accession of good sense and humility from people evidently under-endowed with these qualities? Many of them seem to have taken their education degrees at the Grand Academy of Lagado. How can we expect them to preside over teaching, which Barzun calls “an act of endless discretion”?

6.       And what primarily motivates the teachers required to participate in the typical top-down reform program? Lyrics from a ditty by W. S. Gilbert suggest the answer: “Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock / From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big, black block.” Titipu and the Ed Biz are a long way from the intellectual and organizational world of Edwards Deming.

7.       While I see much of the “research” that undergirds current reform movements as suspect or non-existent, I didn’t arrive at that conclusion through discussions with my former colleagues. Their own rather cynical view of “research” is that it is cherry-picked to justify claims that someone already wants to make and programs someone already wants to start.  They would not be surprised to learn how empty much of it is, and their curiosity sensibly turns away with distaste from spending the time to find out.

8.        No reform takes place in a cultural vacuum or a closed system, but much of the Educational Reform Movement assumes closed systems and vacuum-packed assumptions that would not survive critical examination or open air.

9.       Slowly, slowly catchee monkey, says a proverb. What does the education reformer say? How many educational monkeys has Arne Duncan?

The reason for more than the usual number of links in this posting is my strong sense, after returning from talks with my former colleagues, that the trouble we are now seeing for the Common Core could have been anticipated and turned aside with proper programs properly planned and executed in the fullness of realistic time. It’s all there: both the predictable bad consequences of the bad programs and, like Helen Epstein’s “Invisible Cure,” many of the unseen or unnoted solutions that will actually work.

[2] I am aware that Arne Duncan says the Common Core is not, strictly speaking, mandated, which is true: DOE merely withholds all RAT money from jurisdictions that don’t comply with their program of voluntary adoption. Some brave jurisdictions have refused the mandate and the money, but most, reduced to beggary by cuts in funding typical of no (other) “advanced” country, decide to sup with the devil and hope their spoons are long enough.

[3] These are given in no particular order.

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