07 March 2011

The Big Lies (Part Two)

Remember, when you hear the words of "educational reform" that they are carefully constructed newspeak. Who can argue with "Teaching for America," with "Leaving No Child Behind," with "Sharing a Common Core of Knowledge"? These are, of course, not policies but advertising slogans designed to convince you that those in power have your best intentions in mind. I'm here, again, to remind you, that maybe they don't. Part One

Teach for America is a "noble" idea

Even if we criticize Teach for America for "committing to doing nothing," surely there cannot be anything wrong with these eager young "volunteers." They are "passionate," "excited," "true believers" in educational possibility, right? And they bring - according to supporters - "teachers to classrooms which would otherwise have no teachers."

Only if you believe that teachers are "missionaries" whose job is to convert students into a second-class version of the missionaries themselves.

Because the purpose of Teach for America, according to its founders and funders, is twofold. First, to bring examples of societal success to the poor - this is why TFA claims to be superior to other uncertified teachers - because its corpsmembers are shining examples of "achievement" (we may want to bring back the "born on third base" thing here, but that's not the point). Second, to get this future "leadership cohort" interested in education so, I suppose, the next group of "powers that be" will not ignore schools.

But dig down a bit... these arguments are based on a couple of underlying assumptions: One, that poor children need to emulate rich people - Ivy League and other elite school graduates - in order to succeed. Two, that those graduates can represent some kind of role model for kids born without any of the resources of those who grow up like Wendy Kopp. And three, that a good way to train future educational leaders is to let them "play" traditional role teachers for two years.

(There's also the assumption that this is the best way to spend $42,000 per new 2-year-career teacher, a figure which includes TFA costs only, not teacher salaries or benefits or school district turnover costs.)

No wonder TFA "graduates" who pretend to be leaders, offer zero ideas as to how to change education for the better. And no wonder TFA teachers - even when they do raise test scores - have no impact at all on long-term student success.

Learning their place in the British Empire
Students in Govanhill, Glasgow, 1916
"As a country, I think we can attract more talented people to teaching by raising awareness of educational inequity and getting the public to understand from individual classrooms, schools, and cities that this is an issue that can be solved. When people think the issue can be solved, it becomes a moral imperative to be part of the solution," Kopp told The Economist.

So, Kopp is against systemic change (which might threaten her status), suggesting that only faith and belief are needed to convert the poor and unwashed into a non-threatening and minimally-contributing underclass. And she is filling our systems with "leaders" who believe deeply in this same British Imperial concept of economic colonialism.1 There is no shifting of resources or systemic changes which might enable minority success on a par with Kopp's social class. There are no tax changes, no funding changes, no teacher salary changes, no alteration in expectations to celebrate non-traditional skills. Just "moral imperative" to do 'just enough' so nothing will change.

The obvious fact is that, as with standardized testing, this "role model" approach is designed to ensure that students from poverty and/or differing backgrounds can never actually catch up. If forced to imitate their missionary mentors, their energy goes there rather than into moving forward along their own path. As Nigerians, Irish, Indians could never be "equal" British citizens within the Empire no matter how much cricket they played or tea they drank "properly," Teach for America celebrates no former students among its ranks of "graduate successes" after twenty years. The only people winning this game are the missionaries and their enriched leadership.

None of this implies evil intent among those who join Teach for America. Just like missionaries going off to run schools for Benjamin Disraeli in the Africa of 1875, most head into "the jungle" with the best of intentions - though surely there is at least anecdotal evidence that TFA ranks are now swelled with "CV Builders" (as the British Colonial Service was filled with "career builders"). But it does mean that the program itself is not a benign use of tax or charitable dollars, and it means that those encouraging the growth of the program don't have equality of opportunity in mind.

A Core Curriculum is essential

I don't know if E.D. Hirsch, Jr. is an evil guy or not. I know he is a bad historian and a really bad judge of what people need to know.

Likewise, I doubt most encouraging "Core Curriculum" efforts in the United States are bad people, but I know that their efforts will make education less effective, and less relevant.

The problem is, like most twistings of language, "Core Curriculum" sounds so positive. "The rigorous Core Knowledge curriculum provides school districts with a common instructional focus, and decreases learning gaps caused by student mobility. By providing a sequenced plan for coherent learning from grade-to-grade, Core Knowledge enhances shared planning among teachers and schools, which helps to ensure quality classroom experiences for all learners. The content-rich curriculum also provides a strong foundation of knowledge for success in high school and beyond."

This sounds so effectively European. One curriculum for all. Wherever students are, its all the same. You could move to a different school every day and still follow a purely sequential educational program, learning exactly what E.D. Hirsch, Jr. thinks is important to know.

Except, good European schools don't operate like that at all. Yes, there are national expectations of knowledge, often tested once, or twice, or three times by national exams, but the heart of successful schools lies in autonomy for learners and teachers regarding how to assemble that knowledge.

So, when Common Core advocates insist that Second Grade students "will" "Compare and contrast two or more versions of the same story [pdf] (e.g., Cinderella stories) by different authors or from different cultures," and "will" "By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories and poetry, in the grades 2–3 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range," they are buying into the very same destructive forces which leave students behind today via filtering. Students will operate as E.D. Hirsch's grandchildren might or they will, and their teachers will, be labelled as failures.

Why is a second grader "comparing and contrasting"? Because the Common Core is designed to preserve education as a self-contained hazing ritual for wealth and power maintenance. From the start we are preparing students to write the worthless five paragraph essay, so that those who comply best succeed best.

Similarly, I have my doubts that "Common Core" history standards will include a deep critical analysis of the sovereign governments overthrown by U.S. government actions, from Hawaii to Australia. Or that "Common Core" mathematics ("Tell and write time in hours and half-hours using analog and digital clocks." [pdf]) will explore non-Western concepts of numeracy.

OK. Let me put it this way. I believe that there are things we should all know. But making that list? Well, how do we do that? A Portuguese friend of mine insists that "no student should leave high school without knowing which nations their nation has colonized." I agree. E.D. Hirsch, Jr. does not. I believe there's value in every American student seeing a "canon" of films - from Birth of a Nation to Mississippi Burning, from Missing to 400 Blows, from The Caine Mutiny to A Few Good Men, but my guess is that E.D. Hirsch, Jr. disagrees.

Shouldn't every American student analyze the US overthrow of the Chilean government?

I'm assuming that others have "core ideas" on their lists that I don't think belong. It is the nature of the pluralist society which I think Hirsch hates.

But there is something else. These common core standards have timelines attached. In other words, they are just one more set of "grade level expectations" - and grade level expectations are the vile remnant of the Prussian system of filtering students so that all those not "raised in the right families" and those "not average" will fail.

That second grader who won't "compare and contrast"? They are a failure. Again, Hirsch's grandchildren win, the rest of our kids lose.

The fact is that there are decent ways of seeking out "common understandings." I'm a fan of the Irish Leaving Cert exams in many ways (go here, look at the 2010 Leaving Cert > English > Higher - a pdf download). (based on reading an interview with Seamus Heney - "'Early-in-life experience has been central to me.” Imagine yourself fifty years from now. You have achieved great success and public recognition in your chosen career. Write the text of an interview (questions and answers) about the experiences and influences in your youth that contributed to your later success.")

Finland has similarly effective evaluations of student achievement without implementing a play-by-play instruction manual in colonialism.

Final words... we can have common expectations, but the Common Core is more of the deadly same.

"Core" subjects are more important than other subjects

Those 'Pilgrim Fathers' of America had a very limited, obviously Calvinist, idea of what constituted "important learning." You had to read so you could read the prayer books. You had to count in order to build the mercantile (neo-capitalist) economy. You had to write in order to put down contracts. History - as it was told - was a way of enforcing views of religion and reality.

But music, art, the debate of history, the mathematics and celestial mechanics of the Jesuits, the core of learning in the Catholic world, were left out. They were unimportant - or worse - tools of the devil.

And this became the model of American education. Yes, higher maths crept in during the 20th Century as manufacturing and war required. Yes, science was introduced after Sputnik in 1958, though it remains remarkably controversial still. But we remain with our concept of "core subjects" and "extras."

And that destroys education.

It is, of course, within those "extras" that the human spirit lies. Why learn to read if you cannot read about the things which matter most to you? Why learn to write if you can not write a song? Why learn to count if you do not appreciate the value of what you are counting?

The reason we must abandon "core subjects" and embrace Passion-Based Learning is that today we give students absolutely no reason to learn anything. We have turned school into a series of chores with no purpose. Eight-year-olds hate books and reading because they've spent three years drilling in decoding - literacy is pointless effort, not a path to passions. Sixteen-year-olds hate mathematics because they've spent eleven years drilling with numbers, x-s and y-s - maths are totally irrelevant, not a link to a magical world of real and virtual construction.

Human knowledge is a real, vast, diverse thing, with many paths. Do not accept "conventional wisdom" and force all of your kids down a single, horribly boring, highway.

- Ira Socol

next: Unions and Pay

1 - "The vast majority of our 17,000 alumni are still under the age of 30, but we already have nearly 450 school leaders, several area and district superintendents (including Michelle Rhee in DC), and a number of entrepreneurs who have started some of the most significant reform organisations in the field. The KIPP charter school network was started by two alumni, The New Teacher Project was launched out of Teach For America and its president is an alum, and here's one a lot of people don't know—the IDEA schools network, founded by alumni in South Texas to serve migrant students"


Shelly Blake-Plock said...

Hey Ira,

Two things (one not quite with ya, one quite with ya):

1) I think you are painting the sorts of students who actually attend "elite" schools with a bit too broad a brush. Likewise the folks who go through TFA. You and/or I may disagree with the ways and means and purposes of TFA, but in my experiencing working with a bunch of TFA folks in Baltimore, there are myriad reasons why they decide to join the program and myriad realities they all represent. The statistics tend to blanket that all out, just like standardized tests tend to blanket out the realities of what our kids really "know".

2) I've never understood why game theory and risk analysis, innovation and entrepreneurship, free improvisation and non-idiomatic problem solving, conflict negotiation, and community service aren't at the heart of the "Core Curriculum". I'm getting kinda bored of the usual "English", "Math", "Science" rigmarole. Oh, wait a second...

Education is the product of Education. Whatever that is.


Carl Anderson said...

I suppose, if we absolutely MUST have a common core curriculum (if we are forced to speak the newspeak language of school reform) then why not take Neil Postman's suggestion at the end of Technopoly and push for Semantics, Histories, and the Arts as the common core subjects?

-Loving this series Ira!

Chad Ratliff said...

Ira- Thought-provoking as always--I learn something new each time I stop by here. Looking forward to the rest of the series.

Shelly- Well put. Whole comment.


Lisa Cooley said...

Ira, my school district is seriously planning a move to a "standards-based system" and I have embraced the change as it moves from the "seat-time" model to one more open to different ways of teaching and learning...opening doors to more PBL and out-of-school activities, etc. However, my Super. is very big on the Common Core. I'd like more background on the problems with Common Core. I'm not sure I followed your reasoning, although I have never really understood what "compare and contrast" meant when I was a kid, still not sure now!

Also, I'm going to search your back posts for anything on the Marzano/RISC model, but any resources you know of would be appreciated too!

Thanks much,
Lisa Coolye

narrator said...


"Common Core" proponents like
Robert Pondiscio insist that those of us against their program are "for illiteracy" - http://blog.coreknowledge.org/2011/03/08/ed-reformers-for-illiteracy/ - but they cannot come up with any defense of their ideas except they believe what they claim.

That is, "Common Core" is a "faith-based" system. It turns education into a religion designed to perpetuate a canon of stories and beliefs. Their canon is no different than the canonical texts which form the New Testament. Gospels were not chosen for inclusion based on historic accuracy or to include diversity of opinion, but rather to promote a certain belief system. This is true for everything Mr. Pondiscio and Dr. Hirsch are selling as well. Their goal is to establish their own stories as the cultural law of the land, and thus to preserve their position, and the inherited position of their children, within our society.

As I suggest above, the issue with "Common Core" is not that it doesn't "sound nice" to superficial thinkers, but that we (a) have no way agreeing on this common core reasonably, and (b) that even if we could, giving all people in society the same education is not a path to progress, but to stagnation.

When people with diverse backgrounds, different knowledge bases, and diverse intellectual traditions meet and join together... that is where creation and problem solving happens. It is why the great cities of progress are the diverse ones - New York, London, Paris - rather than the monocultures Pondiscio and Hirsch would want you to live in.

So, for me, the trick is diverse paths traveled as diverse learners need to travel, leading to secondary schools and universities which are places of debate, doubt, engagement, and creativity.

- Ira Socol

narrator said...


I tried to separate out individual intent from corporate intent in my thoughts on Teach for America, and I will agree that you are right, there are all sorts of intentions. I will say though that in my experience with TFAers (mostly in Chicago), the adoption of the "Missionary Position" is "even greater" among TFA corpsmembers than among the traditionally educated teacher. But that problem - the belief in conversion - is hardly possessed only by the TFA cohort.

- Ira Socol

Lisa Cooley said...

Ohmigod. I just read "Ed Reformers for Illiteracy" and I think my internal processor has frozen. Reboot! Reboot!

I think this is where my system froze:

"Vander Ark is obviously a smart guy. But his vision for education is all about delivery systems. Like many would-be reformers, he tacitly endorses a false and content-neutral, skills-driven notion that how children learn is more important than what they learn."

I don't understand how we can educate a generation that will have to deal with rising oceans and the disappearance of the coral reefs in 25 years, when we teach under that philosophy.

Sorry, I have to power down now.


CJ said...

Great conversation.
What resonates most is how the idea of Common Core gets conflated with the reality of implementation. If anyone ever looked at the list of should-knows's from E.D Hirsch's "What a 5th grader should know" and so on, it is mind-boggling - leaving no room for any extra breath from a student, or a teacher.

While it is hard to disagree that our students should learn a common standard of content and skills- who doesn't want our students to have an understanding of who our founding fathers were, the conflicts, who was involved in WWI, where Pakistan is located on a map, some back-story on China and Japan, etc. (which we can't even agree upon, plus taking into consideration the changing nature of those "facts"). We cannot agree even remotely on the best practices for math education - everyday vs. singapore anyone? Or, reading - whole or phonics? Give 'em skills - collaboration!, but fight tooth and nail vs. your fellow classmate for a grade. We talk about content and rigor, and yet we know our students can't even put major events in any coherent chronological order. Extreme ideology at play. Who will be making these decisions?

We did a humor piece which still has teeth to this chat - it is satire, which may be due here, from our resident critic, Dr. D. Rigour, in "Commie Core Standards":