Tag Archives: curriculum

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).

‘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.

Links: Meteor video, Kermit, and curricula

1. An interesting view of 1963, seeing the events as news rather than as history.

2. Links to Slate’s article, with video, of the Russian meteor.

3. This article contains a cool “Sam and Friends” video between early-Kermit and what sounds like proto-Dr. Teeth.

4. A continuing discussion of “opaque poetry” at The Dish.

5. A Dish link to a Peter Elbow point about how professors think and talk and write, and a continued discussion at the Dish.

6. An AVClub piece about the multicultural roots of country music.

7. An open letter from some Chicago teachers to U.S. Education Secretary Duncan.

8. Making a curriculum less about facts and more about teaching the process of finding new ideas.

9. As I read this post about the unhealthful effects of arbitrary-defined dog-breed standards, I started thinking about an analogy to the ill-effects of arbitrarily defined curricular standards. (Of course, the analogy breaks down — I’m not suggesting that the Common Core may lead to increased hip dysplasia — but that we may end up with students who are analogously powerful in some areas and weak in others, the unintended consequences.)

Links: What if the Common Core makers guessed wrong?

1. Here’s a post from a retired high school teacher making the point that the testing regimen of the last decade has created students who are not able to do college work. I’m not sure I fully accept the claim that students have been damaged by testing, but I agree that some worthwhile things have been sacrificed in the name of testing. I also appreciate the critique of AP courses — these classes, too, teach to the test.

2. On the other hand, The Atlantic posted this piece by college profs. Gerald Graff and Steve Benton, which argues that “the disconnected and muddled curriculum … does more damage to our schools and colleges than bad teachers do.” That is not a claim I would make or hold after my 12 years of teaching high school writing and science. This piece claims that “mixed messages about the do’s and don’ts of academic practices … leaves [students]

profoundly confused about the intellectual work they are expected to do.

These mixed messages include everything from whether it’s all right to use “I” in academic essays to whether summarizing and quoting other authors is standard practice or a sign of insufficient creativity. While some teachers are sticklers for grammar, others tell their students that grammatical correctness is far less important than expressing genuine feelings or having a strong thesis. In some courses, strong opinions are welcomed; in others they are shot down as symptoms of adolescent overconfidence. One class is all about coming up with the right answer, while the rule in the one next door is that there are no right answers, only endless questions. Some teachers design their classes as job-training workshops while others design theirs as antidotes to the dreary world of the bottom line.

Now, this doesn’t seem like a problem so much as a reality. Different people write and teach and do everything in varied ways, and thank goodness for diversity. There are no, or very few, rules about writing that aren’t merely conventions, and thus, are arbitrary. For instance, the Associated Press Style Guide requires one comma in a series of three things (bread, PB and J) and the Chicago Style Guide has two (bread, PB, and J). Who’s right? Neither of them. The question of “who’s right” isn’t even appropriate in this context.

Graff and Benton would like teachers to “still promote and encourage dramatically conflicting beliefs about their subjects,” even while Graff and Benton advocate the Common Core, which is a document that largely ends rather than begins debate among actual classroom teachers. (And as an aside, I’m not sure G&B’s “mantra: ‘Make argument the center of the curriculum'” —  what role does mantra ever play in argument? — really deserves being the guideline of all curricula. For one, argument is only one of the many modes of thinking and being, among others such as creativity, memorization (of poems, say), practice, etc. For another, I don’t have the confidence in the centrality of argument to our culture that I, as a philosophy student, once did. Recent political communications have contained many examples of people using rhetorical tools well outside those of mere argument — and argument is a game with rules that the participants agree to. If one arguer resorts to ad hominem attacks and lies, there is no real argument taking place.)

But I don’t want to just criticize without also asking a question, which is: What is it about a single, narrowly defined, national curriculum that appeals to those who advocate it? I don’t believe there’s any one royal road to becoming a knowledgeable, thoughtful, capable adult, and I don’t frankly see how any Common Core (especially one that’s less a “core” of knowledge and more of a full-fledged program) is necessary, let alone desirable.

So who advocates this? I can guess that politicians and ed-policy types would appreciate having a single set of rules to impose (that’s what it feels like to this classroom teacher) across the country. In a sense, sure, there’s no great reason why students in one state should be learning different things than students in another state. But why should any such document be imposed? Why should there be any such document? Life is complex, the economy is complex, the world of knowledge is complex, so why would we needlessly simplify what students should learn?

G&B write:

“teachers need to agree on the skills that will enable their students to graduate, to go to college, to do well there, and to eventually become articulate citizens and workers. In other words, the playbook needs not only to be a common one, but a good one.”

But how can anyone who lacks the power of seeing the future possibly know what skills will be needed in the future? What if the makers of the Common Core guessed wrong?