The Common Core Brake Job And The Need For A National Standards Discussion

President-elect Trump and Secretary of Education nominee Betsy "Amway" DeVos promise to get rid of the national Common Core Math and English/Language Arts standards and return curriculum decisions to states and local school districts. Readers know I am a critic of Common Core, but allowing each state and locality to define its own school curriculum is a recipe for disaster, especially in the era of post-truth, truthiness, and fake news on social media.

In Texas, Tennessee, and Louisiana, critical thinking in science classes means examining creationism as an alternative to evolution. In Oklahoma, students are told that life begins at conception so any termination of pregnancy destroys human life. Twenty-six states require that abstinence be stressed in sex education classes. Mississippi, which is an abstinence-only state, has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in the United States. When the College Board proposed changing the Advanced Placement United States History exam to include some negative aspects of American history the Republican National Committee, local school boards around the country, and legislators in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina rose up to protest.

Professional organizations in virtually every field have content area standards that they promote including the National Council for the Social Studies, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Network of Alliances for Geographic Education, and National Research Council (Science). France, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, and the United Kingdom all have national curriculum. The United States needs a national education curriculum, but Common Core is not it.

The American people had bad experiences with Common Core and high-stakes testing because they were imposed from above by politicians aligned with publishers, testing companies, wealthy corporate "reformers," and hedge fund managers looking to make a buck off of kids and the schools. Common Core gave national standards a bad name and opposition to the high-stakes testing helped fuel resentment against federal intrusion into people's lives.

Before we have another wave of "reforms," bottom-up ground level education assemblies across the country must discuss what school should look like for our children. We should examine things like: "How do children learn to read?" "What does 'college and career ready' mean?" "What is important to know and why?" "What makes a good citizen?" "What are the 21st century jobs students are preparing for?" This could be part of Bernie Sander's "huge" democratic revolution.

In 1971 I was working as a driver/maintenance man at a summer sleep-away camp. I had worked on cars and building projects as a teenager with my older stepbrother so I had some mechanical skills. I also had a lot of arrogance; but no formal training. The rear brakes on one of the camp cars weren't holding, so I decided to take them apart and rebuild them. I was a college graduate, so I went to the library and took out an auto repair manual. Well I got the brakes apart, but as much as I read and re-read the manual, I could not put the brakes back together. It was a Humpty-Dumpty experience. Reading complex text without any actual experience, and without a trained mechanic to teach me what to do, did not work. In the end we towed the brake-less car to an auto shop. It was my last Common Core brake job.

I was reminded of the brake job while watching a team of pretentious careerists in a Common Core training video for teachers posted online by the New York State Education Department in 2012. The video is called "staircase of complexity" and is a defense of why students should be given text that is too difficult for them to read. The participants have long since moved on to higher paid positions.

After helping develop Common Core, Coleman became President and CEO of College Board, the high-stakes testing company, with an initial compensation package of $750,000 a year. New York State Commissioner of Education John King is now (still) the federal Secretary of the Department of Education. Kate Gerson was a Senior Fellow with the Regents Research Fund when she filmed the Common Core infomercial. She is now the managing partner of Unbound Ed, a marketing arm of Common Core with more than $5 million in funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other Common Core boosters.

The 15-minute long video is rich in Common Core edu-jargon as Coleman, King, and Gerson make busy "unpacking Shift 3" as they discuss the "benefits and challenges in shifting to a practice where all students are asked to encounter grade-level complex texts" whether they can read them or not. King explains that the goal of the State Education Department is to "engage" students in much more complex text on every grade level while Coleman sits there nodding in agreement. King then explains that we want college and career ready students to be able to read the manuals for operating complex machinery (see the Common Core brake job above). This requires teachers have a "rigorous conversation" with students. King probably tried assembling an Ikea bookcase using instructions with confusing picture and inexplicable passages translated from Swedish and decided the text complexity of manuals was too difficult, especially if you have no idea how to use a screwdriver. Gerson then apologizes because when she was a teacher, before taking the Common Core Kool-Aid, she spent a lot of time "translating text" so that students could actually read them. She explains that it is "painful now for me to realize" that she made the text "accessible" to students when she really should have required then to "dive into the text, the source." Mea culpa. She blames her former self for contributing to the education gap. Then King joins her and apologizes as well while Coleman continues to nod in agreement. The video is so intolerable I gave up watching after three minutes, but I probably set the record for paying attention.

One thing that comes across clearly from the video, at least for me, is that Common Core is designed for scripted teaching by transient Teach for America recruits who have no idea on how to adjust instruction to meet the needs of particular students. Based on my experience as a teacher, it is a recipe for bad teaching and blaming students for failure.

During the 1974-1975 school year I had my first full-time teaching job as a remedial reading teacher in an East New York, Brooklyn middle school. ENY was a very poor community and the students in my classes were all Black and Latino and at least two years below grade level in reading. As with my experience with the Common Core break job, I had some skill, no real experience, and a lot of arrogance.

I decided students couldn't read because the material they were presented with, packaged reading programs, was neither interesting nor challenging enough. I laboriously retyped and reproduced on antiquated equipment an article written by Black activist W.E.B. DuBois, written in the 1920s, where he discussed the need for young people to take pride in who they are. My students took one look at the long passage with dated sentence structure and too many unknown vocabulary words, balled up my carefully prepared activity sheets, and threw them on the floor. No one student said, "Mr. Singer, we can't read this. We need you to teach us how to read." They just called it "stupid," and refused to participate.

Over the year I learned a lot from young people. Teaching means engaging student interest, not handing out scripted activity sheets with text selected by highly paid consultants using computer algorithms. Teaching means starting from where students are rather than where they hypothetically should be. Yes, teaching means challenging students to read more and more difficult material. But students who have difficulty reading will only read, they can only read it, when they buy in, see themselves as part of the education team, and believe their teacher cares about them, not just their scores on the next Common Core tests.

I posted a twelve-point Anti-Trump Agenda for American Education on Huffington Post hoping to start discussion. I welcome comments on that and every post.

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