Recently, my twitter world has been on fire in response to comedian Louis C.K.’s anti-Common Core rant.
It started with this tweet:
My kids used to love math. Now it makes them cry. Thanks standardized testing and common core!
— Louis C.K. (@louisck) April 28, 2014
A lot has been said already — check out Audrey Watters’ storify on the subject for one example.
I agree that, as a parent, C.K. is a stakeholder in public education and therefore should have a voice. But I would like to attempt to push back a bit to put the Common Core Standards in a little bit of context in the hopes that C.K. and other middle class parents can sharpen their advocacy.
As I have said previously, we need to distinguish among the standards, their implementation, and the accountability system they have been stuck into. Otherwise, we will repeat our American tendency to simply throw out babies with the bathwater.
In the spirit of nuance, I have two responses to Louis C.K.’s tweet and those who endorse it:
(1) The Common Core is not the same as No Child Left Behind. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have been implemented hastily and without any modification of the NCLB accountability system in many places. This has resulted in middle-class public schools feeling the heat that has been around for some time in schools in lower-income communities, as teachers worry about evaluations that are based on assessments and standards that are unfamiliar, and perhaps in their hurried, underfinanced implementation, unreasonable.
The kind of overkill test prep has been going on for a long time in schools who don’t rate well under the NCLB regime. These schools are put on probationary status, as they have to demonstrate making “adequate yearly progress” (AYP). Researchers (including myself) have reported that test prep has taken over other more humanistic educational goals like so much kudzu. I predicted that if rapid implementation led to this form of schooling for the middle class, there would be a larger outcry.
(2) The goal of standards is to provide more equal learning opportunities.
Do you remember Williams vs. California? Students from high poverty communities sued the state because state agencies failed to provide public school students with equal access to instructional materials, safe and decent school facilities, and qualified teachers.
This is a serious problem. I had the opportunity to visit schools across the country in the mid-1990s. To deform Gertrude Stein, algebra wasn’t algebra wasn’t algebra. The content of courses could too easily be predicted by the community’s SES. Even the best students in high poverty schools were not given the same level of content as mediocre students in wealthy schools.
Standards are not a perfect solution, but they are a tool to set a bar that is public and transparent for teachers, students, and communities. They say, “This is what algebra needs to include. Students, you have a right to learn this. Educators, you need to work out how to get students there.”
Of course, this last part of the mandate is where we find the rub. Educators are expected to know how to successfully work with the standards NOW — often with minimal support and training, and certainly with very little time.
As I have listened to some of the push back on the actual content of the CCSS, the most troubling to me is along the lines of “our kids can’t do that.”
Let me just say right out: I am quite certain that almost all of them can. How many Bob Moseses and Megan Bangs do we need showing us the unrecognized competence in kids of color or kids in poverty? Something needs to be done to bring high quality content to all students. Standards should not be the only tool, but they could be one of several that would include full funding of education and improving teachers’ working conditions to attract and retain our best people.
I know firsthand that figuring out new ways of teaching to engage that different kinds of mathematical competence are hard and take huge investments on the part of schools.
The question remains: what are we going to let prevail? The status quo in which the kids whose parents have the ears of the world can have a quality education while others remain on the margins? Education is a key to a democratic society. The standards may not be perfect but they can be one tool of rectifying our history of unequal education.