Ann Policelli Cronin is an experienced educator and an outspoken advocate for public education. In this commentary piece the former Connecticut Outstanding English Teacher of the Year responds to national columnist David Brooks’ recent op-ed column in the New York Times in which he lauds the Common Core.
Cronin has some choice words for Brooks and his inability or unwillingness to consider the facts before pontificating on the benefits of the Common Core Standards and its associated Common Core Testing scheme.
LISTEN TO THE FOOLS – By Ann Poicelli Cronin
There just may be an ideological circus coming to town, as David Brooks predicts in a recent editorial. With any circus come silly and distracting clowns. With this Common Core circus, however, some who David Brooks dismisses as clowns are like the fools in Shakespeare’s plays: fools pointing to truths – truths not seen on the surface, truths we need to recognize or face great peril, truths that David Brooks didn’t probe.
The first truth is: Employees of testing companies, not the National Governors Association or the Council of State School Officers, wrote the Common Core standards. No educators were involved in creating the standards. It was all about what could be tested, not about what students should learn.
The second truth is: Standards by themselves accomplish nothing. To accomplish the goals of those who fund the Common Core, the standards must be intimately connected to a mandated curriculum and standardized testing with consequences for non-compliance. That compliance must be strictly enforced with punishments for students, such as not being promoted or not graduating and for teachers, the non-renewal of their contracts. What is measured on those tests is narrow and reducible to easily scored assessments that have nothing to do with the complex thinking, collaboration, questioning skills, and innovation that the modern world requires. The trade-off is real learning and thinking for simplistic measurements which diminish what it means to go to school.
The third truth is: The Common Core does “determine what students read and how teachers should teach”. An example of “the how” is a video featuring David Coleman, chief writer of the Common Core English standards. View link here. Coleman has never been a teacher yet explains how to teach. By dismissing alternate philosophical approaches to the teaching of reading, he makes clear that all variations in the “how” must be under the philosophical umbrella of an approach called New Criticism (Coleman calls it text-dependent analysis.), which was prevalent in the 1940’s and 50’s but abandoned because it was intellectually unsound and pedagogically bankrupt. An example of “the what” is the literature that students read with the Common Core: books chosen because their vocabulary and structure are difficult for the age group, excerpts of novels instead of whole books, and emphasis on informational texts. Proof that the Common Core intends to change what students read is that Bill Gates funded the Fordham Institute to track those changes. The how and what of instruction is curriculum. No doubt about it; the Common Core is curriculum – an inadequate one.
The fourth truth is: The federal government did not merely “encourage states to embrace the new standards”, it threatened to impose sanctions in regard to No Child Left Behind on them and denied states the chance for Race to the Top money if they didn’t adopt the Common Core.
The fifth truth is: The Fordham Institute is not an impartial judge of state standards. It uses a highly subjective rubric with loosely-defined terms. Its ratings of state standards do not correlate with student performance or college completion of high school graduates in those states. The Fordham Institute is funded by the Gates Foundation which has spent nearly 2 billion dollars on the Common Core. The Gates Foundation paid the Fordham Institute $1,961,116 to promote the Common Core and $1.5 million for operating expenses. To accept what the Fordham Institute says about the Common Core is like taking the word of a car salesman in the showroom of a dealership about which manufacturer makes the best car on the road.
The sixth truth is: The Common Core does not improve the teaching of English. I have been in hundreds of English classrooms and have never witnessed a teacher doing what David Brooks accused teachers of doing: telling students to simply “read a book and then go off to write a response to it” without citing explicit text evidence. If there were such a teacher, professional development would be the remedy, not prescribing the antiquated and ineffective way of teaching reading that the Common Core mandates.
The seventh truth is: The Common Core tests are not rigorous. They don’t demand complex thinking. Anyone can create a multiple choice “gotcha” test which most students fail. It is important to distinguish between rigor and test-making. A test which most test-takers fail often is not a rigorous one, just a dumb one.
The eighth truth is: Education is more than making “students competitive with their international peers” on standardized tests. First of all, using standardized tests as the competition is tricky business. International tests began in the 1960’s, and the U.S. scored near the bottom or last in all of them, yet, in those 54 years, the U.S. led the world in innovation and has been the dominant economy. Keith Baker, a long-time researcher for the U.S. Department of Education, investigated what happened to the 12 nations that took the First International Math test in 1964 and found no relationship between a nation’s economic productivity and its test scores. In fact, the higher the score, the worse a country’s economic performance.
The tests themselves have shaky reliability. For instance, Shanghai ranked #1 on the 2012 PISA but prohibits at least a quarter of potential test-takers from taking the test since the children of under-educated migrants are excluded. Also, in this country, children in poverty scored low. U.S. children attending schools with less than 10% living in poverty, however, score 1st over all nations in reading and science and 5th in math. If the game is test scores, then U.S. students not living in poverty are winners. So do we have an education problem or a societal problem?
The ninth truth is: Addressing racism and poverty will improve student learning and the achievement of our less advantaged students. There is an opportunity gap based on established inequities in our society. Standardized test scores always correlate with the family income of the test takers. The Common Core’s testing and failure rates will produce an underclass of high school dropouts and underachievers in our poorest communities.
The tenth truth is: We can transform our schools but not with the top-down Common Core approach of testing and punishments. I have been part of creating effective change and agree with Michael Fullan, an expert in school change and systemic reform, that the ingredients that work are: building the capacity of educators (teachers, principals, and superintendents), establishing a collaborative school culture centered on learning, focusing on effective pedagogy, and bringing those three pieces together with an underlying philosophy and plan of action.
David Brooks is a good writer but not an educator. Like the heroes in Shakespeare, he and the nation would profit by listening to the “fools” who are pointing to the lack of substance and ineffectiveness of the Common Core and not confuse the “fools” with the political clowns.
Ann Policelli Cronin is a consultant in English education for school districts and university schools of education. She has taught middle and high school English, was a district-level administrator for English, taught university courses in English education, and was assistant director of the Connecticut Writing Project. She was Connecticut Outstanding English Teacher of the Year and has received national awards for English curricula she designed and implemented.