The CCSS Stampede: Trampling Why, What, How We Teach

Officially yesterday, everyone I know even casually has now shared with me a video of Sir Ken Robinson or some very similar TED video. The sharing always includes, either directly or implicitly, the suggestion that the ideas in these videos have sprung fully formed from Robinson or others as if no one in education has ever uttered them (or even thought about them for more than a second).

Concurrent with those experiences, I have found that expressing a challenge to Common Core State Standards (CCSS) prompts a parallel set of reactions: (a) CCSS advocates quickly claim that any challenge misses the great promise in CCSS, and (b) essentialists respond with the "basic skills" mantra that dates back hundreds of years and made E. D. Hirsch famous.

Two important points come out of these experiences:

(1) Curriculum theory is a rich and vibrant field that has paralleled the history of universal public education in the U.S., but most scholars identify the 1890s as the genesis of serious curricular concerns related to the promise of public schooling.

(2) In an era designated as "evidence-based education reform" (a tenet of No Child Left Behind), the evidence stretching back over a century and then highlighted for the past thirty years has been systematically ignored: Standards- and test-based accountability has not worked, and cannot work since the essential problems facing public schools have nothing to do with a lack of standards, tests, or accountability.

The stampede to implement CCSS is a tragic waste or time and funding that is trampling the needed concern for why, how, and what we teach within a public school system burdened by inequity and too often perpetuating inequity—and most of that public school failure can be linked directly to standards- and test-based accountability specifically and essentialismbroadly.

"We Need to Re-vision Our Approach to Education"

My home state is a representative crucible for the accountability paradigm of education reform. SC started early (1984) by establishing state standards, high-stakes state testing, and school report cards. Over the past three decades, those standards, tests, and accountability mechanisms have been revised multiple times. And the result of this intense and expensive reform strategy?

Dr. Jo Anne Anderson, who served as the executive director of SC's education Oversight Committee (1998-2011), recently expressed in an Op-Ed in The State: "South Carolina’s public education system has changed a good deal over the past 20 years, but it has not changed enough to produce significantly better results."

And since not a single state leader (and very few voices from the public) currently believes thirty years and millions of dollars devoted to accountability have accomplished nearly enough, SC has signed on to CCSS and a new set of tests as well as revamped accountability mechanisms (such as rating teachers and schools). [I invite you to read by brief Twitter allegory of the pigs that die.]

Anderson, however, raises a hand in this commentary and cautions: "We need to re-vision our approach to education."

I find Anderson's sentiment and some of her issues compelling, but in the end, I fear her call doesn't go far enough. Let me offer a few ways to reframe education reform.

Why, What, and How: A Theoretical Consideration

Few people respond to the word "theory" well, and I have found educators even more so than most are disproportionately practical in their interests. Yet, I must offer briefly that one of the main problems with conceding to the inevitability of CCSS is that practical matters such as how to implement CCSS, how to offer staff development to teachers so they can use CCSS, and how best to prepare student for CCSS-based testing immediately negate the big questions of public education: Why public education?, What curriculum matters to all stakeholders in that system?, and How best do we conduct education in the context of that "why"? [And let's not forget, Who gets to make all these decisions?]

I have addressed this more fully before, but consider poet Adrienne Rich's assessment of the choice the U.S. has made about "Why public education?":

“Universal public education has two possible—and contradictory—missions. One is the development of a literate, articulate, and well-informed citizenry so that the democratic process can continue to evolve and the promise of radical equality can be brought closer to realization. The other is the perpetuation of a class system dividing an elite, nominally ‘gifted’ few, tracked from an early age, from a very large underclass essentially to be written off as alienated from language and science, from poetry and politics, from history and hope—toward low-wage temporary jobs. The second is the direction our society has taken. The results are devastating in terms of the betrayal of a generation of youth. The loss to the whole of society is incalculable.” (p. 162)

The accountability paradigm has revealed that this type of reform fails by perpetuating the "other" noted by Rich; accountability doesn't confront and overcome inequity; it perpetuates it.

In short, by choosing an education system that engrains inequity, the U.S. remains trapped in a failed paradigm made policy by CCSS, one highlighted by Freire:

"Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the 'banking' concept of education, in the which the scope of action allowed to the students extends as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits....For apart from inquiry, apart from praxis, individuals cannot be truly human....In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. Projecting an absolute ignorance onto others, a characteristic of the ideology of oppression, negates education and knowledge as process of inquiry."

Now, if we wish to "re-vision our approach," as Anderson suggests, that new reform paradigm must be dedicated to democratic ideals, such as equity and opportunity, and that means thewhat and how of school must change.

Essentialism and state-endorsed standards preempts the possibility of agency (for either teachers or students) concerning the status of the curriculum. If it is "essential," it cannot be questioned; if it is tested, it must be learned.

To rethink and re-vision education reform, then, the authority of the state, the authority of the schools, the authority of the curriculum, and the authority of the teacher must all be placed on the table; the school must be a place of authoritative behavior, not authoritarian:

"Problem-posing education does not and cannot serve the interests of the oppressor. No oppressive order could permit the oppressed to begin to question: Why? While only a revolutionary society can carry out this education in systemic terms, the revolutionary leaders need not take full power before they can employ the method. In the revolutionary process, the leaders cannot utilize the banking methods as an interim measure, justified on grounds of expediency, with the intention of later behaving in a genuinely revolutionary fashion. They must be revolutionary—that is to say, dialogical—from the outset." (Freire, 1993)

Thus, to work frantically to implement CCSS is not an act of reform, but an act of entrenching the status quo of failed reform paradigms and the social and educational inequity they serve.

Why, What, and How: In Practice

At the genesis of the accountability era in SC, I entered the classroom in the fall of 1984. From the day I chose to major in education and every moment since then, I have been driven by a few clear beliefs: Public schooling mostly fails children, autonomy, and democracy; and we must change how we treat children, how we view learning and teaching, and why we support public schools if the promise of universal public education can ever be achieved. That means, from Day One of my teaching, I have been an education reformer.

To this day, that my classes are unlike almost all other classes causes me great stress with colleagues, administration, and my students.

So when I am slurred as a "defender of the status quo" or mischaracterized as "having no standards for teachers or students," I am recognizably angered. My tone usually is not held in check.

Here I want to offer a snapshot of an alternative, but I do not suggest this is anything new, or mine alone. See the work of Howard Gardner or the brilliant and confrontational works by Lisa Delpit (Other People's Children and "Multiplication Is for White People") for just a few windows into recent challenges to the accountability era.

Let me start by triggering your own experiences with schooling. Consider that in the not so distant past, African American voices were absent from the required curriculum. Mandated and essential, then, was only the white voice mattered.

Now, let me ask, How many of those reading this are aware of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech? I suspect startlingly close to 100%.

How many of those reading this are aware King called for in 1967 the end to poverty by a government-mandated guaranteed income for all people? I suspect few.

The lessons? All fixed curriculums (standards) are political. At one point, the African American voice was silenced, but that has been supplanted by allowing only the state-approved and somewhat cartoonish version of King to linger in our classrooms.

So now let's jump back to my English classrooms throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

My first quarter always began with a chapter from Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States, usually the chapter on Christopher Columbus. Students were invited to compare Zinn's history with the history of their U.S. history textbooks.

This activity was not to honor Zinn over traditional history, but to highlight that who owns the language, who owns the version of history, who owns the narrative, owns the power. I wanted my English students to come to appreciate the power inherent in their own voices, their own minds.

Thus, my first quarter was an examination of argumentative writing. We moved through Thomas Jefferson (his writing and the many biographies of Jefferson), Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, Gandhi, King, and Malcolm X.

Along this journey of texts, however, I sought out texts by these writers and thinkers that were not typically in our textbooks, and I purposefully spent weeks on works by King no student tended to read and paired King with Malcolm X, certainly texts most students were likely never to see as legitimate counters to King.

In other words, my students were asked which arguments were most compelling and why—not to rubber stamp King and discredit Malcolm X.

If I had these students today, this would be expanded to include James Baldwin, whose voice is almost nearly erased from the curriculum, and thus history, and the radical music of Nina Simone.

At the end of these units and the quarter, we took no tests, however. [1] I made no effort to confirm that they memorized anything about any of these people or their works [2]—although many of these works mean a great deal to me.

No, instead, students were asked to form their own argumentative essays, one that revealed who they were by what they embraced and why. The students produced multiple drafts, and I pushed on content, and style—often saying, "Look at King's 'Letter from Birmingham Jail.' How did he make his points matter to the reader?"

Like Lisa Delpit, then, I am arguing for a different kind of high standards for teachers and students, a high standard that is for all children, found in all classrooms, conducted daily by all teachers.

That standard is that teaching and learning are rich and engaging, but also as diverse and unpredictable, and beyond measure and quantification, as being human. Or I should say, fully free and thus fully human.

I'll concede one thing on core knowledge, then—the core knowledge each human deserves to discover about her-/himself, and the core knowledge that we must recognize concerning no humans can be educated and free with the boot always on their throats.

Education is not to be done to students, not to be done for students, but to be done withstudents. Words matter.

[1] Let me remind you that SC had an intense accountability system in place throughout my entire tenure as a high school English teacher. I never looked at the standards, and my students and I never talked about the standards or the state test. I wrote no state standards on the board, identified no state standards in my lesson plans.

[2] One essay, however, was an analysis of a major argumentative essay. Students were encouraged to choose one they found and believed compelling, but aspects of academic expectations (being able to accurately frame another person's claims) were achieved through that essay, not tests.

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