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Pineapple That Ate Global History

The fundamental problem with Common Core, the latest educational miracle solution that is being promoted by the National Governors Association and Pearson Educational, is that it is conceptually backwards.
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When I was a teenager, Dr. West's Medicine Show and Junk Band recorded one of my all-time favorite tunes, "The Eggplant That Ate Chicago." The band played a blend of Appalachian jug music and banjo combined with sixties psychedelic hippie. The song's lyrics told the story of an alien invasion of planet Earth by space fruits and vegetables. It warned listeners, "You better watch out for the eggplant that ate Chicago, if he's still hungry, your whole country's doomed."

It seems the eggplant is back again, this time disguised as a pineapple named "Common Core." It is still voraciously hungry, but instead of attacking cities it is attacking global history, content knowledge in the curriculum, and the education of American children, and if it's still hungry, our "whole country's doomed."

The fundamental problem with Common Core, the latest educational miracle solution that is being promoted by the National Governors Association and Pearson Educational, the publishing conglomerate, is that it is conceptually backwards. Instead of motivating students to learn by presenting them with challenging questions and interesting content rooted in their interests and experiences, Common Core is a bore. It removes substance from learning. Skills are decontextualized, which means they taught and practiced divorced from meaning. Common Core offers students no reason to learn.

When I was a pre-teen, I practiced sounding out Hebrew letters, but not understand the meaning of words, in preparation for reciting prayers at my Bar Mitzvah, a coming-of-age ceremony for thirteen-year-old Jewish boys and girls. This was drill and memorization without actual learning. Common Core now promises to turn the entire school curriculum into one giant Bar Mitzvah lesson.

Three big problems with Common Core and the skills first approach to organizing educational curriculum and assessment recently made the news. They underscore why Common Core needs to be abandoned or at a minimum seriously rethought.

1. The Sleeveless Pineapple on Pearson's Eighth Grade Reading Test
2. New York City Education Department Ban on "Bad" Words
3. New York (and Ohio) Abandon Global History

1. The Sleeveless Pineapple on Pearson's Eighth Grade Reading Test

This would be funny -- it has been treated as funny by the media -- if the problem was not so serious. Pearson Education, the publishing conglomerate that is promoting Common Core and stands to make hundreds of millions of dollars selling textbooks and tests, already produces standardized assessment used in a majority of the states. There was outrage in New York State recently when neither the teachers nor the students could figure out the point of a reading passage on the eighth grade English test which is one of the high-stakes tests used to evaluate students, teachers, and schools. Pearson adapted the passage from a popular pre-teen book which itself was a remake of the classic Aesop's fable about a race between a tortoise and the hare (turtle and rabbit). In this case a talking "pineapple" challenges the hare to a race, outrages the rest of the animals when he proves uncompetitive, and gets eaten in revenge. Ironically, in the story Pearson borrowed from, the fruit in question was an eggplant.

John B. King Jr., the New York State education commissioner, announced that "due to the ambiguous nature of the test questions the department decided it will not be counted against students in their scores," however he also defended the test saying that in the context of the full reading passage the questions that accompanied the selection "make more sense." "More sense" of course is an opinion, not a fact, which is a problem with many questions on Pearson-made exams, where students are frequently asked to identify the "best choice." In this case students were asked to decide why the animals ate the pineapple, which the animals never actually explain, which animal was the wisest, which is definitely an opinion since no criteria were offered as the basis for evaluation, and what would have happened if the animals had cheered for the hare instead of the pineapple, which we can't know based on the passage because IT DID NOT HAPPEN.

Since the type of reading passages that appear on standardized tests quickly find themselves in the school curriculum, either because it is mandated by supervisors or because responsible teachers want to prepare their students for the assessments, the real issue is "Why is reading proficiency being measured using this type of passage?" Why not provide students with an article from a newspaper or magazine on a current event that requires them to draw real conclusions about real concerns? Students could, and should be able to read a passage and answer questions about a range of topics including climate change, racial tension, immigration reform, or poverty and unemployment. These topics certainly belong in the eighth grade curriculum. What is Pearson afraid of?

2. New York City Education Department Ban on "Bad" Words

Part of the answer to why Pearson avoids real issues lay in efforts by the New York City Department of Education to "ban" the use of certain words on standardized tests and as a result in classroom instruction. According to the DOE, offensive words should be avoided because they might upset children or cause controversy. Surprisingly, they include "dinosaur" because it suggests evolution, "Halloween," because it originally was a pagan holiday, and "birthday" because birthdays are not celebrated by children who are Jehovah's Witnesses. One wonders whether schools are going to be forced to cancel student trips to the American Museum of Natural History. Tests and teachers are also asked to avoid referring to, in alphabetical order, cancer, crime, death, disease, divorce, homelessness, natural disasters, nuclear weapons, poverty, religion, sex, slavery, terrorism, unemployment, violence, and war. Once again, we are looking at an effort to decontextualize learning and separate skills from substance, and in this case, very significant substance. The DOE later said the list of words was a recommendation rather than an actual ban, however, it will "continue to advise companies to be sensitive to student backgrounds."

3. New York (and Ohio) Abandon Global History

In October 2011, the Oho State Department of Education decided not to include global history as a required course for high school graduation. New York State maybe following a similar path.

In a memo issued April 18, 2012, the State Education Department recommended that the Board of Regents who establish educational policy for New York schools, drop the requirement that student's pass a state assessment in global history in order to receive a state endorsed diploma. An outraged New York State Council for the Social Studies responded "New York students are not only citizens of New York State and the United States, they are also citizens of the world. If Global History and Geography is not tested and this test is not a requirement for graduation in New York State, it will not be taught. Global History and Geography will end up the same way that Social Studies in the elementary classroom has since the elimination of the fifth grade assessment -- something taught if the teacher has time, because the focus will be placed on those subjects that will be tested."

It appears the Regents are considering canceling the Global History test because it is more difficult for students than some of the other state exams. According to the Wall Street Journal, "While officials say the change is intended to boost college- and career-oriented education, the practical effect is that it could make graduating easier. Only 69% of students statewide received a passing score on the global history and geography exam in 2011, the lowest of any required exam." A major reason students find this test more difficult is that it requires that they actually know something: it includes content and not just skills.

The Regents took no action on the proposal at their April meeting but will be reconsidering the question in May and plan to reach a decision at their June meeting. There is currently an online petition opposing plans to make the Global History regents optional for graduation. I urge people to sign.

This battle over Common Core and its implications is about education, not ideology. William McDonough, a former teacher education student at Hofstra who is a retired Coast Guard officer and a current social studies teacher emailed me in response to some of my earlier posts:

I've followed with interest your investigations into what is happening to education. As you know I'm a conservative by intellectual choice, but I can't help but agree with you about the disastrous turn education has taken over the last 12 years ... I have watched with amazement as supposedly brilliant people have been dragged around by the corporate profiteers in education -- peddling what to any disinterested observer is standardized mass textbook baloney that requires little critical thinking and formulas to keep the people quiet instead of educating them. This is a cause without bias -- liberal, conservative, or in your case socialist. We need to rescue the system from the profiteers and return it to the citizens. My urgent suggestion is that we start by pushing for larger turnouts of citizens at Board of Education meetings -- and we attempt to hold the governor accountable for appointing a charter school fanatic to the Board of Regents. Citizen involvement is not about scaring parents, but about getting them to demand education for their children that is empowering -- not simply to prepare them to be corporate drones.

Pearson Educational, who led the lobbying campaign for "Common Core" and seeks to redefine curriculum in the United States in an effort to boost their sales and profits should be thrown out of the educational business. Otherwise, we all better watch out for the pineapple that ate global history -- if it's still hungry, the whole country's doomed!

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