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:
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.
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.”
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.
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).