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Rotten To The (Common) Core part 1

rotten to the common core

We should all know the story by now: After the Soviet Union launched a satellite into orbit before we did, someone discovered that Soviet children were outscoring their U.S. counterparts on standardized tests in math and science. So Chicken Little slowly wound her way to Washington to tell the President the education sky is falling, and Ronald Reagan decided the best way to reassure the frightened fowl was to appoint a federal commission to study the problem and figure out how to fix it.

The commission thoroughly agreed with Chicken Little. “The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people,” cried out the authors of the commission’s A Nation at Risk report. And such a hysterical response struck just the right chord. It generated a groundswell of support for the commission’s solution, which would be to “reform” our education system by making math and science curricula more “rigorous,” and developing a nationwide regimen of standardized testing to hold students more “accountable.”

Thus, the standards movement was born and the precedent was set for future waves of high-level education bombing, with each subsequent President vying to one-up his predecessor’s efforts to push standards to greater heights. President George H.W. Bush set the tone when he decreed in his 1990 State of the Union address that America would beat the Soviet Union’s math and science scores by the year 2000. President Clinton then followed with Goals 2000, which introduced the idea of a single and expanded set of national academic standards and also of using federal funds to coax every state into adopting them. Next came President George Bush’s iconic No Child Left Behind Act. NCLB added a new wrinkle: extending “accountability” beyond the student to teachers and administrators by firing them if too many students flunked the tests, which were now to be administered with far more frequency. Next came President Obama’s Race to the Top policy requiring states to comply with a new, even more “rigorous” set of national standards, now to be known as the Common Core State Standards—and of course along with it an even more “rigorous” series of standardized tests—before they are allowed to compete for federal grant money to help pay for it all. It is this very recent initiative that in a few moments will become the real subject of this post.

But those less cynical than me might already be wondering, what’s wrong with the government trying to improve our education system so that American students become the smartest in the world, and so that we can then out-compete other countries in the global marketplace?

If you stick to the rhetoric accompanying all of the above plans and policies, there’s nothing wrong at all. Thomas Jefferson would be beyond pleased with such Herculean efforts to produce the kind of enlightened citizenry upon which he said a healthy democracy depends. However, as soon as you start digging around beneath the surface, you begin to see glimpses of powerful hidden interests that have precious little to do with Jeffersonian education ideals.

Take NCLB, for example. Or let’s back up just a little to Governor G.W. Bush’s so called “Texas Miracle,” which set the stage for NCLB. The “Miracle”: after Governor Bush instituted  massive statewide standardized testing at every grade level, accompanied by the aforementioned draconian accountability measures, the scores of Texas high schoolers on exit exams began to measurably improve. Suddenly Bush was the “education governor” and the alleged success of the program enabled him to take it to the national level immediately after he was elected the “education president.”

It was only later that we learned of the “Miracle’s” true basis. What actually caused the rising exit exam scores wasn’t an increase in “accountability” after all. Or then again, maybe you could perversely say that it was because what the radically increased reliance on standardized testing did cause was a raging school drop-out rate. This means the real reason the high school scores improved was that the students who would’ve brought the scoring average down were forced out before they ever took the test. News of this scandalous subterfuge has been circulating in the underground media for years, but only recently surfaced in an MSNBC report. According to the report, after the drop-out fudge was factored back out Texas was actually found to be losing ground to the other 49 states.

Something else we weren’t told about Bush’s Texas policy, and subsequently NCLB, was the deep financial connections between him and the publishing companies that are reaping billions of dollars in profits from producing and scoring the tests and supplying the mandated textbooks upon which the tests are based (in Texas alone while Bush was governor, the annual budget for the testing program was fast approaching $500 million). In an August 3, 2006 op-ed in the Florida Times-Union by William L. Bainbridge, the CEO of a national educational auditing firm, we hear, for example, about the generations-long business ties between Bush and the McGraw family, owners of the leading textbook and test publisher, McGraw-Hill.

The bottom line here is exactly that—the bottom line. From the very beginning the driving influences behind NCLB were profiteering and influence peddling, not improving educational quality. As I think will become even clearer when we begin to look more closely at the evolution of the Common Core State Standards, what the launching of NCLB represents is the wedding between government at the highest levels and a burgeoning education industry.

I’m reminded of a similar union that took place between the Defense Department and the arms industry during the Cold War. President Eisenhower was so concerned that he used his farewell address in January, 1961 to alert us to its implications:

“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. … We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”

The marriage between the government and the education industry is rapidly maturing. Today we have an education-industrial complex that I believe is every bit as dangerous as the phenomenon Eisenhower made sure to warn us about before he left office. Nothing shapes the minds of future generations of citizens more than the educational system, and so we are in big trouble if the ways and means by which we educate our children are for sale to global corporations whose only real concern is finding newer and bigger markets for its goods and services.

… to be continued

22 Comments Post a comment
  1. Chris,
    You have your facts right, as usual, and your observations are insightful and generally correct. However, it is imperative for me to add some observations that call into question certain assumptions that might be drawn from your conclusions.
    There were roughly three decades between the Sputnik shake-up and the Coles Commission report (A Nation at Risk”). However, prior to that and all during that time there had been a steady stream of very articulate, thoughtful, and respected visionary people, such as Dewey, Goodman, Friedenberg, and many others who were calling for major reforms in schooling and formal “education”. Decades prior to that, Tolstoy had predicted all of the chronic problems that were faced with phenomenal accuracy and insight. If you want a list, I can make a good start, but don’t believe there can be much doubt by anyone who knows anything about the history from Montessori, to Holt and Kozol.
    The very disturbing trend now is to blame the huge perennial problems on big/federal government interference and on the interlopers from industry who hope to turn education into a profit-making enterprise (or, who already have succeeded in that endeavor) as if this is a totally new phenomenon. Yet, the primary reason they have stepped in to the fray is because there has always been a fray and because of the never-ending cycle of failures, inequalities, exclusions, conflicts, and mediocrity on the whole. Let’s pretend is for children and Fox News viewers. Making teachers and teachers’ unions scapegoats and testing kids on useless trivia are deplorable and disgusting. But, none of us were born yesterday and none of this is actually all that different.
    Giving credit where credit is due is of utmost importance. You know that I credit many great teachers for quite literally saving the lives of vulnerable children. I fully recognize that there have been and still are schools where the culture is much more free, democratic, and uplifting than in the typical school. However, it is the height of irresponsibility to rationalize, to deny, and to minimize the devastating negatives that are terribly real and consequential for far, far too many children, and to try to refocus on the “bad guys” and the opportunists who are going to make things that much worse, in order to avoid facing our duty to protect and serve the other contingent of students who are dropping out and failing in so many ways, whether they be 30%, or 70%, or some other fraction of the total.
    Perfection or Utopia are not the goal for anyone in the real world. The sky is not falling, if that means immediate disaster or rapid and irreversible decline. However, fooling ourselves about the continual symptoms and signs of dysfunction, mis-education, neuroticism (see Dr. Peter Gray’s Psychology Today blog article on increasing narcissism from yesterday), and lowered levels of skill sets affecting both job preparation and difficulties with negotiating daily life demands is foolish and self-defeating.
    I’m the skunk at the picnic again. I’m sorry to be forced into that role. But, just because you have an umbrella under a tree doesn’t mean it isn’t raining or that lightning can’t strike your tree.

    January 17, 2014
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      You know I always generally agree with you, Barry, and love your crankiness because it reminds me so much of mine.

      You’re right that the Common Core is just more of the same. But there’s also a progression here that appears to be taking a scary turn toward the total Big Brotherization of public education, with everything being reduced to performance data that is controlled by corporations making billions by mining and managing that data. So I don’t agree with you that the reason they are getting involved is because the education system is so bad and they want to fix it. I see that as as a clever cover for the real reason, which is that now they can because now they have infiltrated the system over at the highest levels.

      January 19, 2014
      • Barry Elliott #

        I missed your reply the other day. I haven’t been on the infernal machine much recently. It is difficult to attach motives to other people without knowing them personally or knowing a great deal about them and their actions or statements. I agree that there are a lot of people who are exploiting a situation to make money and some of them are more about their particular usage of metrics, statistics, data, and ideology or obsession with technology. But, they are able to get attention and to attract an audience as well as funding and support because they appear to offer solutions to long-standing problems and conflicts in schooling and “education”. This is a new threat and in many ways it is more ominous. That is why it is absolutely essential that we don’t kid ourselves and give them an opportunity to shoot us down by being able to point out weaknesses in logic or with factual evidence that is being denied due to self-delusion or sentimentality. It is more dangerous than ever to try to ignore or minimize the failures of the schools over the last century and more. They can dredge up enough proof of controversy and harsh criticism and empirical evidence that is scandalous to sink a whole fleet of battleships. If you are going to try to defend the record of public education against that kind of scrutiny without working toward a paradigm shift and a revolution in thought and action, you may as well turn off the computer and head for a high mountaintop. I repeat: The law is the primary source of the CHRONIC problems. There is a cycle that repeats itself and this latest assault is just one more in the series of the cycle. Keep the law and say goodbye to what is worth saving.

        January 21, 2014
    • For quite some time now I have found myself to be a defender of the CCSS and argued with the likes of Diane Ravitch that there is nothing wrong with core specifics necessarily, the standards, as I read them, reflecting the kind of learning I would hope schools to promote. I have never supported a set of standards before and believe that NCLB was one of the most damaging educational “reforms” to ever hit a nation. Interestingly, a good many of those who are vehemently against everything CCSS were enthusiastic supporters of NCLB and, my sense is that the rage against the CCSS that is coming from the right side is comes from a desire to protect those who served the NCLB mandates, a good number of these teachers who were trained or re-trained, “repurposed” to become effective in delivering NCLB poison (see Reading First, for example, one of the most toxic ingredients in the NCLB mix). Yesterday it was George Will screaming about the CCSS, joining a the choir that includes Michelle Malkin and a host of Foxites. What is interesting to me is that whenever I post one of the CCSS standards and ask for critique, I receive nothing back except another reminder concerning who wrote them and who supported them and who is developing the assessments for them. Stick with a specific standard, almost any specific standard and the call to analyze for instructional value is ignored.

      As for the Federal government’s involvement, I have to say that at many times in my life it has been the Feds who righted wrongs, helped to make things more fair and equitable when things were terribly unfair and discriminatory. I happen to see a need for the government in a democracy being engaged in educational policy making and enforcement of policy because a democracy requires a well educated public because it is that public that runs the government, or, at least WOULD run the government if properly educated.

      Democracy without a well educated public is what we have now because of policies that precede the CCSS. Look at the CCSS items and explain to me how learning predicated on such standards would harm and not help the cause of democracy by an educated citizenry. Perhaps the CCSS is a threat to the status quo, that being a public without the good sense or the power to stop ridiculous wars and an economic system that put most of the wealth of the nation in the hands of a few. What decently educated people would govern themselves in such a way as to allow for law that would allow for great productivity to be rewarded lower wages or for loan companies to be able to legally rip people off when they bought homes and then foreclose on their victims?

      Read the CCSS, item by item and if the items reflect meaningful learning, essential learning for citizens of a participatory democracy, then support them and throw out the bums who might attach nasty tests to them. Babies and bath water, the saying goes…

      January 20, 2014
      • Chris Mercogliano #

        Thank you for your thoughtful and well-expressed comments, Stephen. I have read through the Common Core, too, and I totally agree with you on the level you are addressing it. Deeper conceptual knowledge, critical thinking, better problem-solving skills, real preparation for the adult world—what’s not to like?

        But on another level, as is evident in the TEDx talk I gave in Brooklyn not too long ago, I’m pretty much a fundamentalist. Children are born exquisitely equipped and abundantly inclined to deeply understand things, solve problems, master adult skills, etc. They don’t need a preconceived curriculum to make it happen for them. In fact such an artificial construction often constricts the learning process.

        Why? Curriculums are created by people who decide what children ought to know at a certain point in time and then arrange it into a logical, linear framework that teachers then lead groups of children through step by step. And what’s not to like about that? First of all, most learning, especially the deeper kind the Common Core rhetoric refers to, isn’t logical or linear. It self-organizes contextual moment by contextual moment according to each individual child’s intrinsic dynamics. Second of all, the idea that there is an objective body of knowledge “out there” that every child needs to learn in order to be an educated person is an illusion passed down to us by the completely outdated Newtonian scientific paradigm. As leading-edge cognitive theorists like Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela are trying to get us to understand, there is no objective “out there.” Our knowledge of the world emerges spontaneously as we encounter that world through our own concrete experience. And the knowledge is embedded in our experience and not in the “objective” reality we feel like we are knowing.

        Anyhow, before I go any farther down this long, obtuse road, let me address the problem I have with the Common Core on another level. There’s no escaping the fact that curriculums and standards are a package deal because they stem from the same faulty model of learning that I just stopped ranting about. As soon as you create this artificial construct that all children must learn, you have to come up with a way to measure their performance, and also a way to motivate them to work on things that very often have no absolutely no meaning or interest to a particular child at the particular time they are required to learn it. There is now a voluminous body of research on creativity that makes it crystal clear that extrinsic motivators like standards and deadlines are deadly to the creative process.

        Plus there’s still more to the package deal, which, as I tried to demonstrate in the two posts on the Common Core, is the I think inevitable likelihood that the people who create the curriculums and control the standards will then proceed to work the process to their own advantage.

        January 26, 2014
        • Barry Elliott #

          Chris, I am stunned at the depth of understanding you display in these comments! You “get it” as well as anyone could, according to your brilliant and concise explication. Just when I had started to worry that we are not on the same page, you explain better than I ever could what is on that page. Kudos, Bravo, & Cherrio! So, I guess that where we are not in full agreement is the path that should be taken to rectify the chronic problems and to debunk the mythologies around schooling and education. If I’ve understood your position/philosophy correctly, you don’t think it is a wise use of energy to try to dismantle the attendance laws, which leaves you with the hope that somehow, someday, enough other people will “get it” and the state & it’s apparatus will “wither away”, so to speak. Is that a fair appraisal of your feeling?

          January 26, 2014
          • Chris Mercogliano #

            No Barry, I didn’t say I don’t think “it is a wise use of energy to try to dismantle the attendance laws.” In fact, as I think I may have already said, I agree with you that compulsory attendance laws are at the heart of the problem. I just don’t think it’s going to happen because education may well be the best defended of all our social institutions, so why spend a lot of time talking about it?

            I also don’t think the education system is ever going to “wither away.” There’s nothing to suggest that even being a remote possibility.

            January 28, 2014
          • Bay Elliott #

            I didn’t mean to put words in your mouth. But, I’m not sure I can find a distinction between what you just said and what I thought you were saying. I will argue that it is schooling, not education that is the best defended of all our social institutions, which is a distinction that must be made. Your question; why should we waste time talking about it is a bit defeatist, but I certainly get the point. I’ve been beating my head against that wall for many years. My answer would be; if we aren’t going to properly define the problem and if we sincerely believe THE problem is compulsory attendance, then what does it make us if we will settle for less than what is right? I’m sure many people can justify not doing what is right because that is so hard or even seemingly impossible, but I can’t see you as one of those people. I was brought up to fight for what is right to the bitter end, regardless of how difficult it is or whether or not I could see success in my sights.
            While I do take a cynical position on some things, I am an optimist at heart. No social institution is totally impervious or permanent. We have an Internet now with social media and various other tools that can be used to reach quite literally millions of people. The victims of this mythology are the kids who are most apt to respond and take the message far and wide. Once they become aware of what is being done to them in the name of education, the movement to deal with the real issue will be unstoppable. But, regardless of the hope or despair of any of us, we are obliged to call a spade a spade and to use our ability and resources to oppose laws that are harmful, instead of fooling around with more band-aids and superficial fixes that fix nothing for the vast majority of kids. It’s a matter of conscience and I know that yours will be there nudging you to speak truth to power.

            January 28, 2014
  2. Sharon Caldwell #

    Any standardized curriculum is bad – even if I got to write one myself I would oppose it being made compulsory – because that is where the problem lies. It is in the violence of compulsion, not the standards or the content.

    January 20, 2014
    • I do not see the CCSS as being a curriculum. It provides a set of outcomes that any decent curriculum, I think, would work to help students to achieve. Where does one find this CCSS curriculum? And some things in a curriculum should be “compelled.” Any teacher, for instance, who does not help students to grow as thinking human beings should not be teaching. I think that a lot of those who argue against the compulsory are not thinking about how many aspects of good and decent curriculum they themselves would mandate, use to judge good instruction and argue against that which is not.

      January 20, 2014
    • I would like to know what those who teach my children are about, not necessarily exactly what it is that they will be teaching, but that they will be teaching in ways that help my kid grow as a consumer of knowledge, as a thoughtful maker of meaning. I do not want my child being forced to be exposed to someone else’s ideas about what is true, but I do want my child to get ever better at determining for him or herself what constitutes truth. If a teacher just does whatever he or she wants to do without being able to explain how what is being done promotes growth that allows for ever better abilities to make ever better sense of the world, then that teacher cannot be my child’s teacher, nor should he or she be anyone else’s. This requirement can be taken to be a standard and teachers should always be able to explain what it is they are teaching and how what they are teaching leads to learning that liberates the mind while offering up good food for the mind. Because not all teachers are so inclined and some outright incapable while others have agenda that make “learning” toxic, I do want something that serves to guide, something against which quality and the effectiveness of teaching can be determined. And I do believe that these guidelines should apply to all teachers so that teachers can, if necessary, protect themselves from those who would better appreciate a particular kind of indoctrination, a certain sense of the world that they would prefer, a sense of the world that can, has, does in too many instances lead to terrible misunderstandings and horrific interference with healthy growth. Schools should always be about learning how to engage in inquiry and how to make good sense for one’s self of what one discovers. At the same time, because a sizable amount of information resides in the minds of others, students need to grow in their communication abilities, to acquire information and inform others of their thoughts so that the societal decision making process proceeds as good opinions are articulately shared for contemplation. The CCSS, as far as I can tell, the standards themselves, provide a better sense of what must be required if intellectual freedom is to serve as the basis for society, freedom that is preserved when its exercise leads to decisions that make it possible for people to live together knowing that to be free to think for oneself is the first and for most principle of the humane society. There are critically important things that all citizens of such a society must know and be able to do, not for the sake of control necessarily, but for the sake of making freedom to the maximum possible for all. Any teacher, anyone who acts to teach in ways that interfere with growth to such ends is something other than a good teacher and something other than a fully developed citizen of a democratic society.

      January 26, 2014
  3. DM #

    I have to echo the comments left Robert above. I had trouble making it past your first paragraph where you conflated the 1950s with the 1980s. Its very helpful to attempt, as you do, to trace the history of fear-mongering in education and the corporate and political agendas it serves, but don’t assume that your readers know nothing about it.

    I’m admittedly an outsider looking in on this debate – a Canadian, who at least for the time being is able to send his children to a publicly funded alternative school (alternative in the mildly progressive sense). There are many reasons why I am interested in this debate however, concern over incursions of the education business into our public education up here being one of them.

    Despite the basic sympathy I have for what you are saying, two things concern me. The first is your depiction of government solely as some scary sinister “other,” rather than a democratic institution that you, as a voting citizen are a part of. But maybe that’s just life in the US. The other is that, in parts of your country, the teaching of science is constantly attacked. I would think that some notion of standards might help ensure that the teaching is, if not rigorous, at least somewhat reality-based. Is there any role for standards – in the form of agreed upon basic curriculum sans testing? Or is this just not possible in the current accountability-driven corporate-run world we live in?

    January 20, 2014
    • I am not sure if some of the comments are in response to mine, but I cannot find in your post much with which to disagree. I am only anti-government in the sense that I think a lack of citizen involvement, in my mind a result, in part of inadequate schooling or improperly democratic schooling, has led to the co-opting of government by a relative few. Education is the key for restoring government by a people willing and able to govern themselves. As I said earlier, the government, over the course of my lifetime, has intervened on many occasion to make better what was bad. And your point about the teaching of science in some places in the US is a fine example of why the call for local control hurts the cause of preparing citizens for effective citizenship. It interests me greatly that many who attack the CCSS do so by arguing that freedom is being usurped. In democracies, people agree to give up degrees of freedom to get more from freedom that is good because they have to tolerate less interference by that which is bad, traffic accidents prevented by rules that mandate that one stay on his or her side of the road, for example. As for the corporations, I think that the power of the people in proper concentration could do what is necessary to curtail the movement toward global corporatocracy. It will take educators taking a stand, demanding that they be properly paid for teaching what every citizen should know and be able to do to participate effectively.

      January 21, 2014
      • Robert B. (Barry) Elliott #

        In response to Mr. Lafer:
        Where do I begin? Hopefully, Part II of Chris’s piece has provided some clarification for you. It is very revealing and well written with solid documentation. I have to go a little deeper however, and I can’t guarantee that my thoughts will coincide exactly with what Chris believes to be true.
        You speak about curriculum in a way that worries me. Your comments indicate a perception of the educational process that is based on false premises and conceptions of a static transfer of information that are anachronistic in the extreme. Knowledge is not transmitted from teacher to student in a linear fashion and built up as some accumulation of memory and data points in the brain in a way similar to filling up an empty space. Planning a curriculum to be followed in detail or just as a template or formula, regardless of which the astute experts deciding content or direction may be, or despite their immense knowledge and qualifications, is the exact opposite of paving the way to an education.
        Teachers are of inestimable importance. While I believe that some of the most sanguine moments in becoming educated are spent in the absence of a formal teacher; children often discover the most significant things inadvertently or through their own activities and initiatives; education requires a great deal of serene thought, quiet contemplation, and intense physical activity, and school is one of the worst possible environments for learning, I would be the last to say that children should be left to their own devices or that they don’t learn many valuable things from teachers. As Chris wrote recently, (or it may have been in copied material) the relationship between the teacher and student is of utmost importance.
        It is also true that the “loose cannon” who teaches without adequate oversight and capability can do great harm to children. Standards, values, and competence are important and should be assured by the best means possible. You trust the federal government because of their (generally) superior resources and capacities for looking at the big picture. Most educators are inclined to mistrust large bureaucracies and distant, intrusive government and believe that local control is closer to where they work and more attuned to what they and students need. Who is right? Could it be neither of them?
        The correct answer is, neither of them! The students in the classroom are the most reliable persons (they ARE persons) for gauging performance and ability. When their parents are listening to them and not led to believe that they aren’t capable of judging teachers, they will know quite soon if a bad teacher has made it past the screeners and personnel experts. Parents should make the crucial decisions regarding teaching and personnel and relying on the official processes for evaluating teachers and making them accountable is a ludicrous gamble.
        What I just said was that neither the State nor the federal government have any business as authorities over the education of children. They can supply all the money and resources they want and they should do all they can to assist and conduct research and recommend policies or practices. But, the administration of schools should be left up to people who are as close to the parents and children as possible with decisions delegated via democratic process. This will never be possible as long as compulsory attendance laws are on the books, of course.
        Back to curriculum. The teacher who has intimate knowledge of his or her students may plan ahead and call that curriculum. Nobody else is able to prescribe, proscribe, predict, anticipate, or magically determine the course that the students will take individually or collectively. You are apparently working under the gross misconception that there are basics that form the foundation for knowledge in a specific area that can somehow be ascertained in advance for groups of children. Wrong. Each child has some basic comprehension of various concepts, ideas, natural processes or sequences, and a picture of the universe as he or she resides within it, but those are totally idiosyncratic and much more different than alike as a rule. In any case, programming children according to a preset series or steps of skills or information is pure folly. It is also un-American in the extreme. That can only be called indoctrination. The core is not valueless or inert or agnostic. Your view of it and mine will be at some significant variance and I don’t want you deciding for my great-granddaughters. Sorry. No offense intended. That’s just how it is. (If you’d like to read my very lengthy and obtuse article on this subject, send me your e-mail address.)
        You are on the right track when you talk about democracy. However, democracy is undermined by laws that deprive parents and children of autonomy with threats of separation and incarceration. Children need to live democracy during their formative years in order to practice it when they are old enough to actually vote and participate. Compulsory attendance is not justified by any positive results and it is proven inimical by decades of failure, controversy, chaos, attempted reform, and legions of mis-educated students. The common core is just the latest manifestation of these insane cycles. There, I’ve said it again.
        You are also correct in saying that education is key. The problem is that education and school are two very different things. Education only happens in school when the script is not followed or when teachers break rules or make extraordinary sacrifices or when children figure things out in spite of the trivial pursuits and political nonsense.

        January 22, 2014
        • I do not disagree with what you say, really but I do think you may be missing a critically important point in that education, even the most student centered and democratic does, by its very nature, necessitate some kind of transfer of understanding between human beings. A curriculum, to me, is but a plan that is based on some notion of the purpose of education, that notion of purpose guiding those involved to consider what to do on any particular day in the educational setting. I do think that the best teachers do what is right because they know what is right and, in my mind, while there may be many right ways, there are wrong ways too and I think that in the ideal world the wrongs would be righted via the democratic conversation that takes place amongst those in the educational community, this including parents and students and others whose lives are affected by what others know and how they use what they know to make decisions that affect self and others. I am not adverse to thinking about the idea of deschooling society, however, though advocates for such like Illiach do make me wonder about how without schools of some kind people learn of the beauty of the social contract, come to think of it in terms of responsibilities to others and attain the proper amounts of empathy that are critical to growth of the individual and the humane society.

          I do not think that the CCSS, from wherever it might come, is as ridged as some would make it to be and I do think standards in English such as the one that calls upon students to be able to understand the foundational documents of the American democracy are in any way problematic, even though there is something of a mandate implied. That standard says that a graduate of a high school should be able to read such documents, for instance, transcripts of a Supreme Court case, and understand the majority and minority arguments and then decide for oneself which is the most sensible. All of the other standards for English for the upper grade levels, for me, feed this one, a standard that is about reading the world properly.

          There, I said it, properly. What an assumption, right, that I know what proper is. But I do not, thought I have some sense of what proper might mean and I have some tools, terribly inadequate I sense, to help me in my quest to understand what is proper. I do not impose that sense of proper on others, but a lot of my conversation, such as this one, is dedicated to negotiating a sense of proper, or common good, or good of the whole, with my fellow citizens. Those negotiations, to be viable, necessitate such things as language skills and knowledge, these dependent on ability to read “well,” and think “well” and use all this to do well at making decisions that guide my actions, particularly those that affect people other than myself.

          I do like the idea of freedom and I like a high degree of freedom in schools and society, but I do understand how democracy is a means for maximizing freedom by limiting some freedoms for all so that the most freedom possible can be enjoyed by all.

          I think it is a waste of time to be worrying about the imposition of standards so that we can get on with the real business of determining whether or not there is anything in them that can help us get at some better notion of proper education. Should students be able to read? Absolutely. But should reading lead to the kind of illiterate literacy that Wayne O’Neil spoke about in 1970? Hell no. And what I just did was produce a statement of the proper. There are ways to teach reading, see Reading First, that are destructive to the sensible and proper goal of one being able to make good sense FOR ONE’S SELF of the utterances he or she encounters. And there are ways of teaching that help this project along and other that SOME TEACHERS HAVE BOUGHT INTO that undermine growth in the direction of such a goal and produce attitudes that kill off incentive to grow in critical reading ability. YES, teachers must be given freedom but they must possess understandings of propriety, of legitimate goals, so as not to do harm and, like it or not, some who teach do harm rather than good.

          If schools worked the way they should, nothing compulsory would drive them to attend. School would be the place to be because students would sense the growth that was occurring and the abilities to which that learning was leading. School would be about negotiating meanings between beings and all involved would enjoy what they were doing because they would be engaged in the work of humanization, of coming to understand the powers afforded human beings by virtue of their being human, capable of doing that for which the human intellect allows.

          In a sense, then, I do want to tell teachers what to do. I do want a curriculum that is a proper curriculum. The specifics of that curriculum? The result of negotiation that occurs in schools based upon dialectical principles, teachers to students to parents to administrators to public and back and forth and looping gloriously to produce the kinds of ideas that shape schools into the form that makes them hot beds of productivity, imagination, critical thought, invention, agencies of profound change where each individual contribute to the betterment of self while contributing to the betterment of the whole.

          Tell me please, how a teacher, using the standards as a starting point, is harmed or how his or her students are harmed by using the standards as guidelines for meaningful outcomes for education.

          January 22, 2014
          • Barry Elliott #

            Dear Mr. Lafer,
            I’m not a big proponent of “deschooling” because I believe schools can serve useful purposes and I think that it is unrealistic to hope that we will ever again have a society where young people are not trained outside the home and away from workplaces. I want to debunk mythology and to de-link schooling and education. Schools are for fish and education is a private matter that could be fostered in schools to a reasonable extent, if there were no authoritarian hierarchy and bureaucracy.
            It doesn’t seem likely that we will agree on much because I have a radically different view of what education is and of how knowledge is gained and what sort of environment is most conducive to learning and personal growth. Knowledge is not something that is concrete or transmissible in the way that most people assume. Knowledge is embodied and it exists ONLY within the living and breathing human being. Everything that is mistaken for knowledge, such as information, data, facts, language, bits and bytes, verbal concepts, etc., is external and subject to challenge and must be incorporated into the awareness, perception, experience, and knowledge that a given individual already possesses, complete with biases, misconceptions, errors, and subjective analyses. It’s a dangerous world out there. Children must be trusted to figure it all out without all that helpful prodding and assistance.
            A curriculum that is prescriptive or that provides direction, guidance, or parameters in advance, by isolating out certain information, facts, concepts, or frames first of all reflects certain beliefs and views, and secondly, is static and overbroad and excludes far more than it includes. It is least common denominator thinking. It is arbitrary and unimaginative, regardless of the fantastic imaginations of those who invent or concoct it. Child-centered or learner-centered means that the kid has thoughts and questions of his or her own that are part of a coherent picture and pattern that must be sought out and respected by anyone who wishes to teach the child and the answers cannot be canned or so final and authoritative that they are beyond challenge and further questioning. The process flows for the child only if the teacher has an intimate knowledge of the child and only if the “curriculum” is organic, spontaneous, creative, relevant, and flexible.
            Standards are fine for schools. Schools can and should transmit culture, social customs and mores, technical information, community values, and things that promote cooperation, health and hygiene, justice and fairness, civic responsibility, and the like. The parents should know what kind of training is provided and have a say in methods and processes and the right to withdraw their child at any time if they disagree with philosophy or practical matters. But, the standards for education are not to be set by any person or group regardless of their ostensible expertise or wisdom and attempts to measure or evaluate them demonstrate that education is not the objective. If education happens in school, that is wonderful. However, the focus should be on encouragement and opportunity and making clear to students that if they desire education, they should not rely too much on others, and for the most part, it is a solitary and rigorous pursuit that borrows from others to manufacture a new knowledge that has limited applicability to others and may not be marketable or even acceptable to their peers.
            You said it yourself quite well. Quoting you: “If schools worked the way they should, nothing compulsory would drive them to attend. School would be the place to be because students would sense the growth that was occurring and the abilities to which that learning was leading. School would be about negotiating meanings between beings and all involved would enjoy what they were doing because they would be engaged in the work of humanization, of coming to understand the powers afforded human beings by virtue of their being human, capable of doing that for which the human intellect allows.
            Attendance laws are the primary reason the dialectical conversations do not take place. Curriculum is the second reason they don’t take place. There is no negotiating when laws dictate that some authority will administer what they arbitrarily decide what is to be and what is not to be.

            January 23, 2014
          • There is a guy named Kenneth Howe who wrote an article, the title of which has the phrase “liberal democracy.” In that article, using Amy Gutman’s astute discourse on education and democracy, argues that there will never be agreement on what schools should teach or how instruction should be conducted. The purpose of schools, he argues, is to offer students that which is necessary for their making informed decisions, choices based in something more than gut reaction or mandates that come from certain institutions or individuals who wish to define life for the student rather than allow the student to make choices for him or herself. “Effective decision making” is the goal for schools that Howe puts forth in the article. I think he has it right or at least as right as anything else I can think of that would be education sponsoring individual thought. Gutman offers a very astute and, therefore, very complex notion of the relationship of schools in a democracy to democratic principles and, unlike many who write of good education, she gets into questions of parental rights and those rights in relation to the rights of individual’s to discover their individuality, to grow their own perspectives, to become themselves. The dance around the question of what parents want for their kids and what schools need to offer students in a democratic society is an interesting one that occupies considerable amounts of the thinking that goes into educational policy. Parents do have a say and should have a say but that say, to be reasonable in the context of a democracy, must be informed, the choices they make for their children of a kind that does not prevent the individual child from growing into his or her self, growing always as an individual thinker capable of original thought. Schools and teachers need to be able to explain the value of education that does not always conform to parental wishes because parental wishes sometimes, often, stand in the way of freedom, interfere with growth of independence in thought. Of course there are other’s, individuals and institutions, who and that exert force upon individuals to become something or other that they wish others to be. The goal of good schools should be to help students develop the abilities necessary for reading the world, understanding well the forces that wish to bend one’s mind, for making choices based upon such reading that are good choices. The “good” in good choices, of course, determined by the individual who has the abilities necessary to make such a determination on his or her own. I think that growing this ability is a proper role for schools in a democracy because those educated by the schools participate in the decision making processes of the society. Schools should exist to aid students in the kind of growth that leads to effective decision making and a society that is democratic must support such goals because it is aware of the role individuals play in making law and policy determinations that affect others. Schools also play the role of introducing students to others, to individuals who are both the source of new perspectives and decision makers themselves whose decisions can and will affect the lives of other individuals who are citizens of the democratic society. Education of any kind, be it in schools our outside of formal educational institutions, does influence thought, brings to the learner information that can be make knowledge and knowledge that can guide thought and action. In the context of a community, engagement with the community as a member with power to influence, the proper growth of the individual is toward awareness and engagement, informed participation in the societal decision making process in a society that is humane enough to celebrate individuality because individual contributions to deliberations is understood to help all grow to become what they are capable of becoming.

            Schools will always be somewhat propagandistic. So to each and every group and individual a person encounters in life. Education works when, as Neil Postman once said, it helps students develop bullshit detectors. Adults often do not prize such a goal because they know those detectors might be, should be turned upon them. Thus, decisions regarding schools are too often guided by the desire to keep things hidden rather than brought to light and evaluated. Those who really care about human growth and development in the most humane ways must not act out of fear for being found out. The schools they support must be places where individuals become ever more able to figure out the very people who build the schools and make demands upon them that shape curriculum and methods. If encouraged to do so in school, to understand not only what is being taught but the motives that drive the curriculum, then schools can serve democracy simply by promoting awareness.

            January 27, 2014
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      Thanks for chiming in, DM. Your point about my country still being a democracy is well taken. The problem as I see it is when things are actually being controlled by people who are beyond any form of democratic accountability. For instance when we vote for school board members or attend public hearings about issues like the Common Core there is the illusion that we have some measure of say in educational policy. But now we can clearly see how policy is being created by an interlocking directorate solely interested in creating new markets for their corporations’ products and services.

      As for your question about standards, please see my response to Stephen above.

      January 26, 2014
  4. Joseph Stalin #

    Oh, yes, yes, comrades. You are all brilliant and wonderful. You are geniuses. Just ask each other, and that fact will be confirmed. It is all George Bush’s fault. From 1917 until the present day. Conservatives are all stupid and evil. Yes, Elliot if we could just get all those damn kids out of the schools, we would have no more school problems. Chris, you are so brilliant. You get all your knowledge from MSNBC, where that other Chris educates us that Obama is above God. Comrades, you are absolutely correct. We are superior beings. And our glorious system is superior to America’s decadence. Long live the Revolution!

    February 21, 2014
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      Congrats, Joe, on being the blog’s first heckler. What took you so long?

      February 22, 2014
  5. Wait just a cotton-pickin’ minute. I thought I had the honor of being your first heckler. Whatever happened to fairness? Ok, I suppose this guy Joe did make a complete ass of himself and I haven’t quite met that standard, hopefully. I’ll try harder. There is always one jerk whose ideas are too bizarre to be stated without abusive language and attacks on people, instead of using logic and reasoning. The piece I’m working on now could rattle some chains, but I hope it won’t be seen as a personal attack on anyone. Btw, did I say that we should get kids out of school? My hypothesis, as I recall it would result in more kids attending and staying in school, without certain traumas, humiliations, or repression. I did say school can’t educate and shouldn’t pretend to do the impossible. However, hospitable school environments allow children to blossom and explore and encourage them to become educated through their own initiative, with a little help from competent adults.

    February 24, 2014
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      Sorry, Barry, a heckler you are not. The aim of heckling is disruption and content-less put downs. Yes your passion and frustration about education sometimes carries you a little too far, but the amount of thought and feeling with which you express yourself shows how much you care about the well-being of children.

      February 25, 2014

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