Tag Archives: Common Core

John Oliver on standardized testing

For anybody who’s not already familiar with how the increased emphasis on standardized testing is hampering education, John Oliver has a pretty terrific synoposis:

Programming Our Students: Standards-based teaching as dehumanizing

Yesterday I saw a presentation by Anne Weerda about measuring how much students learn while they are enrolled in our classes (“student growth” will soon be part of teacher evaluations in my state). This presentation was thorough and systematic in a way that many presentations I’ve seen about standards-based teaching and testing have not been.

As I engaged with this presentation, I started to see the “big picture” values and assumptions of standards-based teaching, a particular philosophy of and approach to school reform that that has been ascendant during the last 20 years or so of school reform. Standards-based teaching can be summarized as:

1. Telling students in great detail what they should be doing.

2. Seeing if they do it.

Of course, there are more-complicated ways of saying this, such as this from an introduction to the national Common Core standards:

the Common Core State Standards establish clear, consistent guidelines for what every student should know and be able to do in math and English language arts from kindergarten through 12th grade.

And there’s this statement:

Standards-based schools develop clear rubrics that describe what partially meeting a standard looks like, what mostly meeting it looks like, and what actually meeting it (the goal, after all) looks like. Any student should be able to meet that goal with enough time, hard work, and coaching.

A there’s this definition, from this document from Illinois State Board of Education:

It is widely understood today that broad goals, while useful, are not sufficient to define student learning. Clear and specific standards communicate to students, teachers and parents exactly what is expected for students to learn. Specific standards make clear the types of tests and measures that accurately gauge student progress. Data from these tests inform educators and the public about student progress and where improvements are needed.

The epiphany that came to me yesterday is that this is only one system (among others) of teaching, and that this approach requires students to do exactly what, and only what, the teachers ask for. For example, if I want my literature students to read a novel and respond by writing an essay about the theme of that novel, the student must write an essay, and write it according to my specifications. Of course, in reality, there are lots of ways that a student might respond to a novel: she might write a different kind of essay, or she might respond with a poem, or a painting, or she might not feel moved to respond at all. Furthermore, when I teach creative writing, I give not detailed instructions but vague requirements. I don’t want students to give me what I expect — I want them to surprise me.

In work that is truly creative, the whole point is to question assumptions and standards and to go beyond them.

Sure, there are times when I do want my students to be able to do well-defined tasks. In my sophomore English class, we’re currently writing research papers, and this is a fairly rote, mechanical process that students will be expected to do in future classes and in some careers. When I assign students to write projects like this, I give them outlines to fill in and model papers to follow. In other words, producing this kind of work is less like open-ended writing and more like fill-in-the-blank work.

It occurred to me yesterday that I could be giving students even more explicit instructions about what I expect them to do, in the form of a rubric. In attempting to measure student growth, it is desirable for grading of student work to be reliable, meaning repeatable. Ideally, when a rubric is used to assess student work, the teacher using the rubric should apply it the same way over time to every student’s work, and even different teachers using the same rubric should apply it in the same way. This means “rubrics must be created and implemented so that the grader(s) have very specific understandings of what each level of the rubric means.

As I thought about what my “very specific” essay-grading rubric would look like, I realized that it would essentially be an algorithm, which could be written as a computer program. If a rubric is to be independent of the particular teacher using it, then it cannot require any subjective judgments, which means that it would be objective and could thus be computerized. Computers are already grading essays, although there is the problem that computers can’t check for lying, so a human mind may still be needed for language interpreting.

So a computer could be used to grade an essay, as long as the essay fits the particular form the computer expects. (Computers process information quickly, but they need information to be input within a narrow range.) And students will be writing essays to these narrow, particular forms, if we explicitly tell them what to do via our standards.

In other words, when we explicitly define the tasks that students are supposed to do, we are, in essence, writing programs that we expect them to follow. Standards are programs we expect students to run.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that we, as a society, have ended up here. I’m reminded of an idea I heard long ago, that people shape our tools, and then our tools shape us. Once we started programming machines to do work for us, maybe we started thinking that we could program our students in a similar way. If we can break down complex tasks into simple, well-defined tasks, anybody and everybody can do them.

The problem with this as a model for education is that we don’t need to make our students into computers. We already have computers that are much faster and reliable at carrying out well-defined tasks than humans are. Many jobs that can be automated are in danger of being automated, which seems to suggest that we should educate our students to do those things that computers can’t do — create new ideas and things, solve new problems, and, just maybe, see ourselves as beings who are more than what we can contribute economically.

What my insight yesterday reminded me was that there are always other philosophical systems that are alternatives to the currently popular system. While I am required by state law and supervisor directive to run my classroom within the dictates of the standards approach, I can reassure myself by remembering that there are always alternatives. Just because one idea is widely shared doesn’t make it permanent, or even correct. I sometimes feel trapped within the idea of standards, that somehow the only philosophy in education is standards. But then I thought of standards-philosophy as not being the whole world, but merely being a house in which I currently reside, and that I can lift up the curtain and see that there’s a whole world of different philosophies outside.

No philosophy is perfect. One of the problems of standards-based teaching is that of student motivation. Why, exactly, would students care about completing my standards-based assignment-programs? Computers don’t need to be motivated; they have no emotions or desires or biological limits to carrying out programs. People, on the other hand, want to know why they are doing what they are doing. (And here’s at least one place where people can’t be replaced with computers: some people find that having a teacher to answer to in person motivates them better than having a teacher available only online.) The Common Core standards hold out as motivation a promise of adequately guiding students to employment, which is, of course, arrogant bullshit.

What the standards overlook is a fundamental difference between humans and computers — that humans are curious, that we enjoy things, that we can be self-motivated to pursue our interests and passions. These things — curiosity, enjoyment, passion — are things that teachers can inspire in our students, but these are not things that can be standardized or predicted. (Perhaps the standards not only treat the students like computers, but also the teachers as interchangeable machines.)

And, of course, what I love doing (and perhaps was inspired by my teachers to do?) is having new insights, experiencing epiphanies, revealing connections, analogies, and metaphors. This creativity is not something that any set of standards can demand or measure, but this is partly why I’m a teacher, and it’s one of the things I’d hope my students get from me: the ability to think for themselves, to seek their own philosophical understandings, and to realize that they are more than merely computers or employees.

P.S.: I don’t mean to criticize the presentation I saw yesterday. Anne Weerda did a fine job of explicating what, given the assumptions and philosophy of standards-based teaching, the implications and consequences for teaching and testing would be. Seeing this presentation made clear to me some of the assumptions and values of this philosophical approach.

Link: Common Core and Mark Twain

My teacher colleague David Perrin has written an article at The Atlantic about what Mark Twain would have thought of the dubious pedagogy and devious process of the ongoing Common Core curricular debacle. My favorite point:

Ten years later, in Following the Equator, Twain compared the instructional methods in American asylums for the “deaf and dumb and blind children” to those used routinely in Indian universities and American public schools. As a friend of Helen Keller and a champion of her education, Twain was familiar with the methods of asylums; he’d convinced his friend H.H. Rogers to finance her schooling at Radcliffe in 1896. In Following the Equator, he chastises public schools for emphasizing rote learning and teaching “things, not the meaning of them.” He applauds the “rational” and student-centered methods of the asylums, where the teacher “exactly measures the child’s capacity” and “tasks keep pace with the child’s progress, they don’t jump miles and leagues ahead of it by irrational caprice and land in vacancy—according to the average public-school plan.” In contrast, Twain quips, “In Brooklyn, as in India, they examine a pupil, and when they find out he doesn’t know anything, they put him into literature, or geometry, or astronomy, or government, or something like that, so that he can properly display the assification of the whole system.”

Links on education: Gates Foundation, tenure lawsuit, Ravitch on Common Core

1. The powerful influence of Gates Foundation on education policy.

2. One school shooting a week: a list.

3. Laptops in classrooms can interfere with learning.

4. In Vergara v. California lawsuit, a ruling that tenure may be discriminatory against students in the worst schools. More here. The judge’s decision may be based on a guesswork statistic. Such a move may not improve education, at least not as much as reducing segregation would.

5. Cheating as a form of learning.

6. A thorough criticism of Common Core by Diane Ravitch. Some highlights:

I was not aware of this: that the union of which I am a member took money from Gates Foundation (see #1 above) to promote Common Core:

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.

“Value-Added Measurement” of teachers is not legitimate:

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.

Ravitch summarizes that “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,” and she writes that she advised policymakers to test out the Common Core standards before issuing them nationally.

[I]t 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.

National standards maybe aren’t all that important internationally, at least not as much as poverty lowers U.S. scores:

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.

I really enjoyed where Ravitch advocates teachers bringing their passions to the classroom and students experiencing joy in learning:

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. … A study by Tom Loveless of Brookings … point[s] 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.

[A] 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 [people would] 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.

A paradox of the Common Core’s hubristic creators

The Common Core — the recently devised set of K-12 English and math standards along which the curricula of many schools are being rewritten — has now drawn the ire of comedian Louis C.K., who complains (here and here) about the Common-Core-oriented homework his daughters have brought home.

As a high school teacher who’s skeptical of both the need for national standards and of the particular skills and tasks the Common Core demands of students (see also here, here, here, here, and here), I’m glad to see criticism of the Common Core draw attention.

But one of the most insightful criticisms of the Common Core that I’ve heard came from my high school creative writing student Robert M. in class last week. I’m not sure why Robert and the other seniors were talking about the C.C. as class began, but they were, and Robert made this argument:

The people who made these standards — they were educated without the Common Core curricula. So if these old curricula were so inadequate, doesn’t that suggest that these Common-Core creators were themselves educated inadequately, perhaps so inadequately that they should not be making new standards themselves? And conversely, if the Core creators were educated well-enough to be qualified to make new standards, doesn’t that suggest that the Core standards aren’t necessary?

At the very least, the Common Core standards are untried, are an educational experiment that doesn’t do anything to address the issue that seems most-important to helping more students have educational success. (See also this.)

And of course, not all teaching methods that have been tried over the last few decades (the time during which today’s educational leaders were themselves educated) have been shown to be effective.

But Robert’s argument points out the massive hubris involved in a small group of people trying to remake the schooling of an (almost) entire nation according to the Common Core’s narrow conception of what it means to be educated.

And Robert noticed this paradox in the Common Core even though he himself has not been educated by these standards.

The Common Core as a religion

Time for a metaphor: I’m wondering if the Common Core education standards are the foundational text of a new religion.

(Regarding the relevance of metaphor within the Common Core, here’s “CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.2d: Use precise language, domain-specific vocabulary, and techniques such as metaphor, simile, and analogy to manage the complexity of the topic,” and if any topic needs its complexity managed, it’s the Common Core. And of course, I should mention here that, in using a metaphor, I’m also acknowledging that the things compared are both alike and not-alike.)

After reading this article about how the Common Core allows for “extra support” for learning-disabled children but still requires all students at a grade level to read the same literature passages (no matter what the students’ assessed reading levels are), I started thinking about how the Common Core prescribes that humans do certain things, no so differently from how the Bible prescribes certain activities.

Now, the imperative “you shall not murder” is a lot catchier, not to mention more obviously important, than the command to “CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.8 Delineate and evaluate the reasoning in seminal U.S. texts, including the application of constitutional principles and use of legal reasoning (e.g., in U.S. Supreme Court majority opinions and dissents) and the premises, purposes, and arguments in works of public advocacy (e.g., The Federalist, presidential addresses),” but then the former was written by those inspired by God, and the latter is written by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers.

But just as the Bible says “you shall have no other gods before me” and this helps the faithful get into Heaven, we teachers likewise shall not have any standards other than those of the Common Core — “With students, parents and teachers all on the same page and working together for shared goals” — and by doing so, “we can ensure that students make progress each year and graduate from school prepared to succeed in college and in a modern workforce.” The educational afterlife of college and workforce success thus achieved, there shall be ushered in (in the “forty-five states, the District of Columbia, four territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity [that] have adopted the Common Core State Standards”) a new era of prosperity and global hegemony unlike that ever seen before upon this earth. (Woe be unto those five states that have “yet” to adopt the Common Core as their path to such success.)

My facetious tone toward the Common Core is intended, but I mean no disrespect to adherents to the Bible. But the metaphor I’m proposing here is that the Common Core is a statement of values as surely as is any religious belief system. And like any statement of values, there’s a utopian vision at the end. If only the values are followed, success shall be “ensure[d].”

And of course, these value systems call for measures that exceed realistic expectations (as in the case of learning-disabled students mentioned above, but also for most students — the standards for high-school students ask them to do things that I don’t recall being asked to do until well into college). Any set of standards that did not promise universal salvation would not be something that a mob could get enthusiastically behind. Saying “it would be nice if everyone could ‘use a variety of techniques to sequence events so that they build on one another to create a coherent whole and build toward a particular tone and outcome (e.g., a sense of mystery, suspense, growth, or resolution)‘” does not rhetorically inspire the confidence that “the Common Core State Standards are the first step in providing our young people with a high-quality education” [emphasis mine] does .

The Common Core is a set of values of what’s best for students to learn, and of course, there’s nothing logically necessary about values. All values choices are arbitrary. Certainly some values are more efficient or effective than others, but values are values. What is used to justify the Common Core’s set of values? Apparently, the same justification used for mob rule and banning books  —  popularity and community standards: “Teachers, parents and community leaders have all weighed in to help create the Common Core State Standards.” (It’s easy to skip over the introduction to the standards, but that’s where these projects justify themselves, and this justification is pretty slippery, no? Who were these generically identified teachers, parents, and community leaders? How much “weight” was granted to these affected parties’ concerns, anyway? We don’t know; what we do know is that the credited “authors” are themselves identified only as “National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers,” a title intimidatingly long enough to stymie any but the most dedicated researchers. Is this committee of “officers” all that different, in process and ambition, from this decision-making process? Any such process of deciding what has value is a nebulous process — but once these values are specified in the specific, esoteric terms in which the Common Core standards are written, any uncertainty has been washed away, and these standards seem to be the only things that have value.)

It’s not just that I disagree with the values; any values I would substitute for the Common Core’s would be equally arbitrary. The problem is when these arbitrary Common Core standards are asserted as being non-arbitrary, as being applicable to all students, as being valid standards against which to judge students, teachers, and schools. I’m concerned that the Common Core standards are simply unrealistic, and that these unattainable standards will then be used to declare teachers to be failing, as judged by these forthcoming debacles of tests, and then “failing” educators will be forced to make more arbitrary changes.

I can accept that the Common Core does exist as a statement of values, a set of beliefs, just as I can acknowledge that there are many different religious beliefs in the world. But I don’t personally believe in most of these religions, and I don’t believe in the Common Core as a salvation (or even as a good idea, really).

Links: Teacher movies, teaching philosophy, etc.

1. This post about teacher movies makes a valuable point about education and how we talk about it in general terms but this makes little rhetorical sense, since education (maybe more than almost any broad aspect of our lives) is irreducibly a matter of what particular individuals learn, how individuals come to understand the world of ideas and facts but only through the framework of their own perspectives:

It would be a huge step forward if we could conceive of the people in our education system—students, teachers, families, administrators—as human rather than cartoonish media representations or, perhaps worse, mere data points. Policies not only have human consequences but they are also implemented by humans—invariably flawed, often self-seeking, sometimes incompetent humans.   It’s humans all the way down.  The language we use should reflect this and not carelessly cede ground to abstractions like “African-American males” or “the lowest-third percentile” or even “teachers unions.”  This is an acknowledgment that idealized categories, run amok, can in fact short-circuit the hard work of ensuring each individual student, in their individual family context, neighborhood, and cultural background, receives a high-quality education.

And the fact that while education is a system, learning is a particular, even private, matter, is the reason that any new educational system that attempts to treat students as indistinguishable, like Common Core (in which “common” is used to mean that every student learns the same things, in the same ways), is doomed to irrelevance.

2. Isaac Asimov’s 1964 predictions for the year 2014.

3. New Year’s traditions as religious/magical.

4. A compelling text by Ta-Nehisi Coates: “The Myth of Western Civilization.”

5. Dan Savage’s review of Sarah Palin’s Christmas book. (Via The Dish).

6. Jason Silva and awe.

7. The Scottish tradition of Hogmanay.

8. Miguel de Unamuno on consciousness.

9. An article suggesting reading on tablets is different from reading on paper, vis-a-vis getting engaged in narrative.

10. The New York Times editorializes about Finnish education. Interesting link here to Finland’s curriculum, including philosophy education:

5.13 PHILOSOPHY
Philosophical thinking deals with reality as a whole, its diverse perception and human activity in it. The special nature of philosophy lies in its way of structuring problems conceptually, rationally and through discussion. Upper secondary school studies in philosophy will support students’ individual development and promote the general learning and thinking skills that they will need in a changing and complex society. The theoretical themes studied in philosophy are necessary to form an understanding of cultural heritage and contemporary culture.
The practical significance of philosophy is based on the fact that students will learn to structure questions about values, norms and meanings in conceptual terms. Studies in philosophy will help them to perceive the significance that different types of skills and knowledge hold for individuals and society. To counterbalance the specialised skills and knowledge, studies in philosophy will also teach students to grasp broader conceptual systems and relationships. It will help them to see the ways in which the conceptions of reality, values and norms held in different branches of science and schools of thought may form consistent systems or contradict each other. Philosophy will develop judgement.
Philosophy instruction will promote development of creative and independent thinking. Philosophy will provide students with plenty of scope to form their own personal views. As they delve deeper into basic philosophical questions — to which there are no simple solutions — they will learn to formulate and justify their own views and, at the same time, to respect other reasoned views. Group deliberations on complicated questions will develop students’ ability
to trust their own individual opportunities to resolve even the most difficult problems. Studies in philosophy will support students’ growth into active, responsible and tolerant citizens.

‘Word World’ and the problem of plurals

“It’s time to build a word. Let’s build it. Let’s build it now.”

So incant the various animals-made-of-letters-that-spell-out-the-English-word-that-names-the-animal in the PBS animated show “Word World,” and upon that incantation, familiar-looking 3-D sans serif letters morph into the new shape of the thing the letters spell. In the clip below, the letters P,I, and E form a pie.

So, OK, I can accept the operating principle of this fictional world, even if it has some metaphysical problems (see “Notes” below). What concerns and interests me philosophically is the problem of plurals.

When there is one pie, it can be accurately labeled pie. However, Pig needs multiple pies. Ant advises, “when you add the letter ‘S’ to the end of a word, it makes more than one,” which is sorta backwards as to how we use the language, but OK, I’ll play along. So Pig adds an “S”:

word world pies1And the transmogrification happens and results in this monstrosity,word world pies2which can never be. This is a lie. There is clearly one pie here, not multiple pies.

Here’s the thing: any plural is an abstraction. It is a grouping together of things that of the same category. Declaring a plural is drawing an invisible tether around several things and labeling that grouping.

For example, on a bookshelf, there are many elements of the set named “books.” But each physical book may have different title and text and size, etc. And even if there are two copies of the same title, these are unique, particular entities: one book may have underlining or tears that the other doesn’t. So we can call all these objects together “books” only by ignoring their particularities.

And this is what we do when we label 20 students in a classroom “a class.” There is no class, I tell my students. There are 20 individual people, each with their own minds and concepts, and I can teach them all as a class by, more or less, ignoring their individual differences and teaching to what I imagine as some abstract “average student” — or teaching to particular students in class and hoping that if they understand, others do, too.  Of course, we teachers are often told to “differentiate instruction” to every particular student, a lovely idea but a practical impossibility in a classroom setting.

(Of course, there’s a further issue with identifying and labeling any given entity by comparing the given particular thing against one’s abstract concepts, and so there may not be any particular necessary term for anything: For instance, what is a chair? How define it? At the edges of the definition, we will likely be judging, essentially arbitrarily, what is and what isn’t a chair.)

And perhaps this is the biggest misconception we teachers see in the entire endeavor of having a common curriculum and standardized testing. We work with individual students as best we can, and we see the frustration of asking every student to be able to do the same exact skills as every other student. We know that not all students have the same interests, abilities, motivations, etc. It may be admirable to suggest that every student can achieve great things, but surely not every high school senior needs to write narratives with “multiple plot lines, to develop experiences.”

(There are those who have said that the standards movement should have been implemented as individual goals set for each particular student rather than universal dictates for all, but there was never enough time to make the former happen, and the latter is way too convenient to those who wish to make all the students standardized so the entire function of education can be quantified. This urge to quantify, and teach only what can be quantified, is a problem, as Stanley Fish recently pointed out.)

By the way, after Pig makes the singularity of the “pies” pie, the instability of the situation leads to a modest explosion into individual pies

word world pies3and we viewers are left to group each individual pie into “pies” — which is what we abstract thinkers do to our physical reality all the time.

Notes on metaphysical ambiguities of “Word World”:

There would seem to be three categories of physical reality in “Word World.” One, there are characters and objects made of letters that approximate the shape of the entity named. The character Pig has ears and a snouted face sticking out of a puffily drawn “P,” and the “I” and “G” follow as the thorax and hindquarters, respectively.  But these letters spell “PIG” only if Pig is viewed from its left side — from the right, it’s one letter short of playing for Notre Dame.

Two, there are three-dimensional letters, such as “S” in the video clip and image above, which can transform into something that absorbs the qualities of the word it spells. (And in some other episodes, the objects will break apart, returning the letters to initial sans-serif form, and the object’s physical properties (like the ability of Duck’s “BAT” to confer momentum on a ball) are gone. Thus, somehow the complete spelling of a word makes the letters more than just letters, more than the sum of their parts, like adding the magician’s hat to Frosty turns him alive. In this way, correct spelling is a way of conjuring, or perhaps even giving life. One wonders what would happen to the physical incarnation of things spelled incorrectly — would terrible things be given existence — as when Bart Simpson created the creature who said his every moment of existence is torture (here)?

Third, not all objects are made from letters. In the video above, the window frame isn’t made out of “window frame,” nor is glass “glass,” nor is the table “table.” This suggests some kind of horrifying arbitrariness to the whole physical realm. Are only important things spelled out, so that if I awoke in that realm and found out that I was not spelled out, I would know that I was not a Main Character, not one of the Chosen Ones?  Such a world would make the picking of leaders laughably easy, but then such a world would imply the existence of an involved, caretaking Creator, no? And so the characters in “Word World” turn out to not have free will — as we who are aware of the show AS a show know that they do not? Thus, it’s perhaps not possible to watch “Word World” as a show, but only as a meta-show?

So perhaps an animated, metaphysically ornate show about spelling reveals something foundational about the nature of representation?

UPDATE: See also this post.

Link: Common Core origins

This New York Times piece discusses where the Common Core came from, and how it may or may not help education:

WHAT became the Common Core began quite modestly. Several years ago, many organizations, including the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, whose members are top-ranking state education officials, independently noticed that the content and scoring of high school “exit” tests varied widely between states. In 2006, for instance, 91 percent of students in Mississippi passed a mathematics exit exam on the first attempt, while only 65 percent did so in Arizona. At the same time, students’ performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress often differed from the state results.

This was not just embarrassing: it looked unprofessional. The governors and the school chiefs decided to work together to create a single set of standards and a common grading criteria. Private funding, led by some $35 million in grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, allowed the coalition to spread its wings. Aligning tests became an opportunity to specify what every American child should know.

In 2009, an education consultant named David Coleman was retained to help develop the program, and he and other experts ended up specifying, by our count, more than 1,300 skills and standards. Mr. Coleman, a Rhodes scholar and the son of Bennington College’s departing president, is known as a driven worker as well as for his distaste for personal memoir as a learning tool. Last year, he was selected to lead the College Board, which oversees A.P. exams and the SATs.

 

Link: Teaching reading is crap-detecting

This New York Times article, saying it’s harder to raise students’ test scores in reading than it is in math, indirectly raises some cultural/epistemological questions about the differences between math and reading.

The article opens with this anecdote from someone who has apparently taught both:

David Javsicas, a popular seventh-grade reading teacher known for urging students to act out dialogue in the books they read in class, sometimes feels wistful for the days when he taught math.

A quiz, he recalls, could quickly determine which concepts students had not yet learned. Then, “you teach the kids how to do it, and within a week or two you can usually fix it,” he said.

Helping students to puzzle through different narrative perspectives or subtext or character motivation, though, can be much more challenging. “It could take months to see if what I’m teaching is effective,” he said.

I have taught high school science and English, and I’m not sure I’d say it’s easier to teach science, because of what it means to “teach science.” The expectation (as I was informed after I pursued a different goal) is for students to learn and apply the set of science ideas (theory of evolution, atomic theory, Newton’s Laws, etc.) that are provided in the textbooks. The discipline of science observes and tries to explain the physical world, but most science classes don’t allow this. Students take notes, do equations, take tests. Real research is not done by most students (though some high school science competitions, such as this one, show that students are capable of doing impressive work).

Science classes, then, just teach a set of ideas — let’s call it a story, Science Stories — and so do math classes. Math classes could be theoretical explorations of these abstract ideas, but many high school math classes simply teach procedures (algorithms) for doing things: to find the area of a rectangle, multiply the base times the height. Sure, that’s useful information, but hardly intellectually all that challenging. Math, as taught to high school students, is a tidy system of right and wrong methods for arriving at an answer. What mathematicians do is far more abstract and creative, of course, but we don’t generally let students see that.

In English, however, we’re actually asking students to do the same things (though obviously adapted to younger minds) that English professors do — read and analyze texts and write about them. What I love about teaching writing is that students are truly CREATING texts. Students in our science and math classes are not making anything — they are just taking in the ideas that others have made.

Of course, creating something is more intellectually demanding than just memorizing and applying an idea (even Bloom’s Taxonomy, that education cliche, says so). So we writing and literature teachers give our students guidelines and models to help them “scaffold” (in the teachers’ vernacular) their way to completed projects.

But of course, there are very few right or wrong essays or literature interpretations — there are worse ones and better ones, and judging which is which is highly subjective. The student essays I like best are those that go beyond what is merely stated in a text to make connections that are not obvious. In other words, I like essays that are interesting, that say things I hadn’t read or thought of before.

Lately I’ve been suspecting that maybe the best way to teach this kind of creative thinking and individual judgment is to model it for my students. As a teacher, I have my own biases and peculiarities, and so I’m not an ideal (Platonic?) model — but maybe learning to be analytical and/or creative is really more of an apprenticeship anyway, rather than something that has set standards for students to adhere to.

And here’s where teaching the study of literature gets interesting and/or controversial. The recent Common Core State Standards for teaching literature include statements such as the following:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.2 Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.

The very use of the the word “objective” in relation to a text is nearly an absurd statement to someone familiar with the critical theories used to interpret literature that arose in the last few decades. Taking undergrad literature classes in the mid-1990s, I gained just a limited understanding of some of these approaches, but judging by the enthusiasms of the younger professors and by the resistance of the older ones, I understood these ideas to be important.

But the Common Core standards seem written in ignorance of these developments in interpretation, as if the standards writers were just gonna elide the last 50+ years of criticism. And though the standards are careful to call their lists of texts for use in classes “illustrative” rather than “recommended,” this listing shows 14 texts, only two of which were published in the last 50 years.

So the act of reading and interpreting texts is something that, in addition to necessitating word-processing skills, also “requires background knowledge of cultural, historical and social references” (as the Times article states), and from these basic skills and resources, we ask students to make coherent, logical statements of analysis. That’s asking a lot of anybody. But then, all too often, standardized reading tests ask students to select an interpretation from multiple choices, which requires students to also analyze the test to see which of the many possible interpretations of a text is the one that the test will honor as the “right” answer. The student has to match minds both with the text-writer and with the test-writer. In the Times article,

But when [the teacher] asked [students] to select which of two descriptions fit Terabithia, the magic kingdom created by the two main characters, the class stumbled to draw inferences from the text.

Uh, yeah. Why only two descriptions? We ask students to make this complex, creative, personal interpretation, and then ask them to compare theirs to an adult’s?

This might all be despair-inducing, except for the fact that when we teach interpretation skills to students, we also empower them to see the tests and the standards as the bullsh*t they so often are. This reminds me of the Hemingway quote featuring his one standard of education:

“Every man should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside him.”

(One, too, might employ such a crap-detector while reading Hemingway.)