Contemporaneously, the star of the show comedian Louis C. K. took to Twitter to criticize test prep for the Common Core tests in reaction to his child's experiences in the New York schools - the epicenter of opposition to corporate education reform in all of its manifestations.
The pro-CCSS forces reacted. One such defender attempted a take down of Louis C. K. in Newsweek. Pretty standard stuff really. The new standards are harder, should be, America is falling behind, and its OK if its tough on kids. Underlying all of this is the claim by some CCSS supporters that Common Core will raise achievement and close achievement gaps. But of course, as any good teacher can tell you, standards don't do that. Teachers do.
Politicians can do that too when they pay attention to the needs of poor children - but they rarely do. (Achievement gaps were closing under the Great Society programs only to expand under Reaganomics.) It's cheaper and easier to believe that super teachers can overcome the powerful negative effects of poverty than it is to support affordable housing in safe neighborhoods, adult education, healthcare and nutrition . Teachers are easy to blame for failure - and fire.
I support the concept of national (not federal) standards, but little else that surrounds their implementation. It's a good idea gone wild under high-stakes assessment. Statistical measures designed for one purpose are rendered meaningless by misapplication to invalid value-added measures which few school reformers understand. So they simply believe. Lord, save us from blind faith in foolish schemes.
Well, somewhere along the line Nazaryan invited Diane Ravitch to respond to what he must have believed to be a great defense. Ooops. It made me chuckle.
Ravitch knows the deal because she was in the cool kids club when the worst of this nonsense was launched and she knows the true motivations of reform leaders. Test scores equal effective teaching. Identify bad teachers. Fire them. She has since recanted, and cannot be dismissed. When I'm not blaming her for much of the trouble we find ourselves in, I'll admit that she's too knowledgeable to dismiss and remains scholarly in her treatment of the issues. It's what makes her valuable and Nazaryan is no match.
This from Alexander Nazaryan in Newsweek.
Louis C.K. is angry. Again. Anger is one of the best tools in his vast comedic arsenal, anger so palpable it hardly seems like an act: anger about his weight, his lack of hair, his lack of a girlfriend, the travails of parenting (two daughters), the travails of life in New York, the ease with which he slips into an ice-cream-and-porn routine on his living-room floor. The anger comes from some place genuine and deep, and it has made his FX show, Louie, the finest comedy on cable.
This week, though, Louis C.K.’s anger was not in the service of comedy. On Monday morning, he directed his anger at the test preparation one of his daughters was made to undergo at school. “My kids used to love math,” he wrote in a message that was retweeted more than 7,000 times. “Now it makes them cry. Thanks standardized testing and Common Core.” Subsequent missives laid out his complaints about test-preparation math problems (“Who is writing these? And why?”) before concluding that the Common Core curriculum requirements, and the attendant testing, were a “massive stressball [that] hangs over the whole school. The kids’ teachers [are] trying to adapt to these badly written notions.”
The Common Core State Standards Initiative is one of those rare reforms that is loathed by right and left alike: by conservatives for the wielding of a federal diktat (more than 40 states have adopted the Common Core) that will surely spread to gun ownership next; by liberals for seemingly diminishing the teaching profession by emphasizing data. The Common Core is especially loathed by the teachers’ unions, which fear that educators will be judged (and fired) if their students don’t perform adequately on the more difficult standardized tests that are a crucial component of Common Core. There are also conspiracy theorists who deem the whole project a massive payout to test maker Pearson.
In many ways, the Common Core has suffered a fate similar to that of the Affordable Care Act: a necessary idea, poorly executed, dropped like a lowing cow into the den of starving lions that is the modern political scene. Like health care reform, it attempts to address a fundamental national problem, but in doing so, only inflames opposition. And, like Obamacare, it remains poorly explained and buggy and thus frightening to just about anyone who has a stake in education reform. Which is to say, the entire nation.
Dr. Ravitch responds:But what’s dismaying about Louis C.K.’s anti-Common Core rant is that he is neither a shill for the unions nor a far-left conspiracy theorist who thinks that Education Secretary Arne Duncan (and perhaps the president himself!) is in the pocket of Pearson and the Princeton Review. He is, instead, a New York City public school parent who has the ears and eyeballs of millions across the nation, not to mention his 3 million Twitter followers. And he has used that bully pulpit to malign an earnest effort at education reform, one that is far too young to be judged so harshly...
I received a tweet from Alexander Nazaryan, the author of the Newsweek piece rebuking Louis C.K. and defending the Common Core standards, asking me for a substantive critique of his article.
OK, here goes.
He begins by saying that Louis C.K. has a professional habit of being angry, which I suppose is meant to scoff at his anger and say that he should not be taken seriously.
But then we get into Alexander’s views about Common Core.
The Common Core is “loathed” by Left and Right alike, for different reasons. This is true.
Then he makes the claim that the teachers’ unions oppose the Common Core, which is untrue. Both the NEA and the AFT accepted millions of dollars from the Gates Foundation to promote Common Core, and both have been steadfast supporters. The leaders began to complain about poor implementation only after they heard large numbers of complaints from their members about lack of resources, lack of professional development, lack of curriculum, etc.
Alexander goes on to say that educators oppose the Common Core because they fear they “will be judged (and fired) if their students don’t perform adequately on the more difficult standardized tests that are a crucial component of Common Core.” Here is where Alexander betrays an ignorance of research and evidence. Surely he should know that the American Statistical Association issued a report a few weeks ago warning that “value-added-measurement” (that is, judging teachers by the scores of their students) is fraught with error, inaccurate, and unstable. The ratings may change if a different test is used, for example. The ASA report said:
Most VAM studies find that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores, and that the majority of opportunities for quality improvement are found in the system-level conditions. Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality.
Alexander also seems never to have read the joint report by the American Educational Research Association and the National Academy of Education, which spelled out why it is wrong to judge teachers by student test scores because of the many factors affecting test scores that are beyond their control.
Alexander says that some critics of Common Core are “conspiracy theorists who deem the whole project a massive payout to test maker Pearson.” That may or may not be true, but Common Core is certainly creating a huge national marketplace for Pearson and McGraw-Hill, as well as vendors of software and hardware (all Common Core testing is done online, which is diverting billions of dollars from school budgets). Perhaps Alexander has heard of the regular conferences for entrepreneurs devoted to the subject of monetizing the education industry and cashing in on the opportunities presented by Common Core. One such conference was held just last week by Global Silicon Valley in Scottsdale. The purpose of national standards was to build a national marketplace for entrepreneurs. Joanne Weiss, who directed Race to the Top and then became Secretary Duncan’s chief of staff, predicted that this would be the outcome of national standards when she wrote on the Harvard Business Review blog:
“The development of common standards and shared assessments radically alters the market for innovation in curriculum development, professional development, and formative assessments. Previously, these markets operated on a state-by-state basis, and often on a district-by-district basis. But the adoption of common standards and shared assessments means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale.”As a historian of education, I can say that this is the first time to my knowledge that the U.S. Department of Education encouraged the development of national standards in order to increase the involvement of the private sector in supplying goods and services to the schools.
I am a supporter of national health insurance, so I don’t accept the analogy between the Affordable Care Act and Common Core. The difference between them, which may be unknown to Alexander, is that the U.S. government, including the U.S. Department of Education, is prohibited by law from taking any action that would direct, control, or supervise curriculum or instruction. Now we know that Arne Duncan regularly says he is doing none of the above, but it would be hard to find a teacher who would agree that neither Common Core nor the federally funded online tests has any effect on curriculum and instruction. Common Core and the related testing has had a dramatic effect on both. And, so, at risk of being called a name by Alexander, I would say (having worked for two years in the U.S. Department of Education) that the federal encouragement of Common Core and the federal funding of the Common Core tests directly conflicts with federal law.
You are right that it is far too soon to judge Common Core’s efficacy. But that is the fault of those who wrote it. In 2009, when I met at the Aspen Institute with the authors of the Common Core, I urged them to field test it so they would find out how it works in real classrooms. They didn’t. In 2010, I was invited to the White House to meet with Melody Barnes, the director of domestic policy; Rahm Emanual, the White House chief of staff; and Ricardo Rodriguez, the President’s education advisor, and they asked me what I thought of Common Core. I urged them to field test it. I suggested that they invite 3-5 states to give it a trial of three-five years. See how it works. See if it narrows the achievement gap or widens the achievement gap. They quickly dismissed the idea. They were in a hurry. They wanted Common Core to be rolled out as quickly as possible, without checking out how it works in real classrooms with real teachers and real children.
Are we judging Common Core too quickly and too harshly? Consider the first Common Core test results last year in New York. The passing mark was set so high (artificially high) that 97% of English learners failed; 95% of children with disabilities failed; more than 80% of black and Hispanic children failed; statewide, 69% of all students failed. Maybe there wasn’t enough time for teachers to learn and teach the secrets of Common Core, but why set the bar so high that children were doomed to fail? Is this supposed to increase equity?
Are our kids left behind by China, South Korea and Germany? Not really. Maybe not at all. It is true that we get mediocre scores on international tests, but we have been getting mediocre scores on international tests since the first such test was offered in 1964. We were never a world leader on the international tests. Most years, our scores were at the median or even in the bottom quartile. Yet in the intervening fifty years, we have far surpassed all those nations–economically, technologically, and on every other dimension– whose students got higher test scores. Basically, the test scores don’t predict anything about the future of the economy. Should we worry that Estonia might surpass us? The fact is that our international scores reflect the very high proportion of kids who live in poverty, whose scores are lowest. We are #1 among the rich nations of the world in child poverty; nearly one-quarter of our children live in poverty. Our kids who live in affluent communities do very well indeed on the international tests. If we reduced the proportion of children living in poverty, our international test scores would go up. But in the end, as I said, the international scores don’t predict anything other than an emphasis on test-taking in the schools or the general socio-economic well-being of the society. We would be far better off investing more money in providing direct services to children–small classes for struggling students, experienced teachers, social workers, counselors, psychologists, and a full curriculum–rather than investing in more test preparation.
Alexander, I frankly do not understand your faith in national standards. There is no evidence that national standards produces higher achievement, nor that they reduce achievement gaps. They certainly do not overcome the burdens of homelessness, hunger, lack of medical care, or overcrowded classrooms. You express contempt for public school educators, so it is hard to understand why you think that they will magically be transformed into great teachers by national standards. This may come as a surprise, but most nations in the world–without regard to their standing on international tests–have national standards. When I visited Finland, which has an excellent school system, I read its national standards, but I also saw well-prepared teachers who shaped the curriculum in their classrooms and schools and who had a wide degree of professional autonomy about how they taught. I did not see or hear anyone express the hostility that you feel towards classroom teachers; teaching is a highly selective and highly respected profession, unlike here, where every legislator and pundit is considered an expert because they went to school.
I actually wrote a book about national standards, but I saw them as aspirational, not as a common script for teachers across the nation. I saw them first of all as voluntary, not mandatory. I saw them as standards for states and districts, requiring them to provide the resources for students to aim for standards. I never thought that standards meant that everyone would meet them (a la NCLB and RTTT). Example: for male runners, a four-minute mile is the standard. But very few male runners have ever reached that standard. It inspires all runners, but some will never come close. Education is not a race. It is about full human development of every human being. Education is not about winning or losing. It is about having the chance to develop one’s talents and abilities to the fullest.
Unlike you, Alexander, I see no advantage in “having a teacher in Alaska teach more or less the same thing as a teacher in Alabama.” What’s the point of that? If the teacher in Alabama is passionate about the work of Flannery O’Connor, let him or her teach it with passion. If the teacher in Alaska is fascinated with the arctic tundra, teach it. I assume you have not read the study by Tom Loveless of Brookings, who pointed out that the Common Core standards were likely to make little or no difference in achievement. After all, states with high standards have wide variations in achievement, as do states with low standards.
I see no value in the arbitrary division between literature and informational text prescribed in the Common Core. I know where the numbers come from. They were instructions to assessment developers of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (I served on its governing board for seven years). The ratios were not intended as instructions to teachers. This is balderdash. English teachers should teach what they know and love. If they love fiction, teach it. If they love nonfiction, teach it. Why should a committee with no classroom teachers on it in 2009 tell reading teachers how to apportion their reading time? I doubt that teachers of math and science will spend any time on fiction anyway.
Your belief in using test scores to hold teachers accountable has no research to support it, nor is there any real-world evidence. Many districts have tried this for four or five years and there is no evidence–none–that it produces better teachers or better education. The ratings, as noted above, are arbitrary, and say more about classroom composition than about teacher quality. Nor is there any evidence that education gets better if teachers everywhere are using a common script. Doing well in school depends on family support, student motivation, community support, adequate resources, class sizes appropriate to the needs of the children, experienced teachers, wise leadership, and students who arrive in school healthy and well-fed.
Frankly, I don’t understand why you oppose “joy” in the classroom. Why should school be so “hard” that it makes children cry? It is true that some assignments are hard; some books are hard to read; some math problems are hard to solve. We learn from doing things that are not necessarily joyful, but that engage us in work that stimulates us to think harder, try harder, persist. When we are done with hard work, yes, it is a joyful feeling. Maybe it is because I am a grandmother, but I want my grandchildren to approach their school work with earnestness and to sense the joy of accomplishment, the joy of learning. I want my grandchildren to love learning. I want them to read books even when they are not assigned. I want them to go to the Internet to find things out because they are curious.
And, yes, Alexander, I agree that kids like yours and Louis’s and my grandchildren will be fine. We will read to them, we will talk with them and introduce them to vocabulary, we will take them on trips to the museum and the library, we will listen to them as they read the stories they wrote for school. Other kids are not so lucky. But why should they be punished by being deprived of joy? Why should they be subject to endless testing and test prep? Will that free them from poverty and homelessness? Will that vault them into the middle-class?
Alexander, you assume that national standards, holding teachers accountable for test scores, more high-stakes testing, more rigor, and privately-managed charter schools will cure poverty. There is no evidence for what you believe. The Common Core has some good ideas in it; I doubt that it will do harm, although I believe that subjecting little children to 6-8 hours of testing to see if they can read and do math is harmful, physically and mentally, to them. Long ago, educators were able to find out in tests lasting 50 minutes how well a student could read or do math. Why is it now an ordeal that lasts as long as some professional examinations? For heaven’s sake, we are talking about little children, not candidates for college or a profession!