Let’s Help NEA’s Dennis Van Roekel Forsake His Common Core “Guessing”
It seems that National Education Association (NEA) President Dennis Van Roekel is willing to ignore the “forest” of the spectrum of top-down, punitive, privatizer-friendly, anti-democratic, community-school-destroying reforms in favor of the “tree” of his narrow focus on issues regarding concerns over specific items in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). In this January 14, 2014, Education Week article, Van Roekel maintains that he has yet to hear anyone offer disagreement over CCSS specifics.
He also “challenges” CCSS opponents to offer “a better alternative” to a set of standards he defends yet refers to as “a guess”:
The standards have been politically attacked in the states—and by some of the union’s own members—but in an interview, the union’s president challenged naysayers to produce a better alternative.
“When I sit on panels and someone chastises us for supporting the common core, I always ask: ‘Are there specific things you believe should not be there?’ I never get an answer,” NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said. “Second, I ask, “What’s missing?’ I don’t get an answer. And the third thing I ask is, ‘What is the alternative? What do you want? Standards all over the ballpark, tests all over the ballpark?’ ”
In point of fact, Van Roekel continued, “the Common Core State Standards are our best guess of what students need to know to be successful, whether they choose college or careers. If someone has a better answer than that, I want to see it.” [Emphasis added.]
Well, Van Roekel, since apparently no one else across our nation has been able to respond to your questions (tongue in cheek), allow me.
A “Specific” That Should Not Be In the Standards
I teach sophomore English, and here’s a standard I believe should not “be there”:
By the end of grade 10, read and comprehend literary nonfiction at the high end of the grades 9-10 text complexity band independently and proficiently.
This standard completely ignores how students develop the prior knowledge necessary in order to critically approach texts. It sounds good on the surface to say that I should be able to hand a “high end” text over to my students and have them “comprehend… independently and proficiently.” However, the reality is that they ask for assistance from me, their teacher, because I am 46 and they are 15, and they learn by interacting with me as I broaden their exposure to the world via my own.
In short, this standard ignores the fact that students learn via active and dynamic relationship with their teachers. The building of a student’s knowledge base involves continuous exchange between teacher and student. It also requires a teacher’s expert opinion to determine when and to what degree a student is able to handle a text on his or her own.
Moreover, the standard advocates that “one size fits all,” that all of my students are automatons who will be on grade level with reading when they arrive in my classroom and that I should be able to move them forward at the same rate, a rate “equaling” one year of reading comprehension. This standard assumes sameness. It assumes that I have no students with reading disabilities; no students who are English Language Learners, and no students whose personal lives and personalities have interfered with their time in school.
The standard also dictates how I am to teach– that “by the end of grade 10,” I am to hand the text over to my students and not interact with them and the text in order to teach.
What I have written above is not “my best guess”; what I have written is based upon two decades of classroom experience, with 13 of those years spent teaching high school English.
“What’s Missing” From the Standards
The entire democratic process is “missing” from the standards. CCSS is as “top-down” as it gets, and with a dash of “facilitated democracy” to offer pseudo-legitimacy: Teachers were brought in late in the process to offer “suggestions” that were even implemented word-for-word. However, no teacher was asked whether CCSS should happen in the first place, and no teacher in a “state” (only a governor and state super needed to sign the CCSS contract with USDOE for RTTT funds) that has adopted CCSS has the freedom to opt out.
Democracy is missing from CCSS, Mr. Van Roekel, and I assure you that I am not the only teacher who has a problem with that.
Alternatives to CCSS
Now, allow me to “offer Van Roekel a better alternative. My school district, St. Tammany Parish (Louisiana), drafted an anti-CCSS resolution in October 2013. Included is the following language:
WHEREAS, our belief is that Common Core State Standards do not justify the disruption to instruction, accountability, professional development and teacher preparation that follows adoption of these standards and PARCC assessments in our system; and we further believe that the Guaranteed Curriculum, state approved, adopted and implemented in the St. Tammany Parish Public School System meets the needs of every child, every day in St. Tammany Parish. [Emphasis added.]
So, there’s an answer as to “a better alternative” than disrupting my school district to implement a set of standards that Van Roekel refers to as “a best guess.”
Do you know why Van Roekel is right in calling CCSS a “guess”?
Those credited with “owning” CCSS— the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO)– refused to pilot their “standards” prior to handing them off to Arne Duncan to include as part of Race to the Top (RTTT). In fact, CCSS was not even completed before governors and state superintendents contracted with USDOE to institute CCSS.
Finally, allow me to point out that the Gates-funded, pro-CCSS Fordham Institute even graded standards from numerous other states as equal to or superior to CCSS:
Based on our observations, the Common Core standards are clearly superior to those currently in use in thirty-nine states in math and thirty-seven states in English. For thirty-three states, the Common Core is superior in both math and reading.
However, three jurisdictions boast ELA standards that are clearly superior to the Common Core: California, the District of Columbia, and Indiana. Another eleven states have ELA standards that are in the same league as the Common Core (or “too close to call”).
Eleven states plus the District of Columbia have math standards in the “too close to call” category, meaning that, overall, they are at least as clear and rigorous as the Common Core standards. [Emphasis added.]
If Van Roekel wants to see standards rated as equal to or better than CCSS, he need only read Fordham’s 2010 report. Not that Fordham has eased it’s pushing CCSS upon states that it has determined does not need them. Fordham remains faithful to Bill Gates’ money, just as Van Roekel is doing.
As is true of the CCSS-pushing American Federation of Teachers (AFT), NEA has taken millions in Gates money expressly to promote CCSS:
Date: July 2013
Purpose: to support a cohort of National Education Association Master Teachers in the development of Common Core-aligned lessons in K-5 mathematics and K-12 English Language Arts
Amount: $3,882,600 [Emphasis added.]
This point of funding brings us back to the January 14, 2014, Education Week article. For almost $4 million from Gates, NEA’s Van Roekel is promoting “free” CCSS lessons based upon a “guess” at reformer-pushed standards:
In point of fact, Van Roekel continued, “the Common Core State Standards are our best guess of what students need to know to be successful, whether they choose college or careers. If someone has a better answer than that, I want to see it.”
And that’s why the union wanted to create a year’s worth of what Van Roekel called “classroom ready” lesson plans aligned to the common core, and available to teachers for free. [Emphasis added.]
“The union wanted to create these lessons”… after it received $3.8 million from Gates in July 2013– the same month that NEA formally endorsed CCSS.
And NEA seems to be singing Bill’s song when it calls CCSS a “guess.” In September 2013, Gates acknowledged that he would not know “for probably a decade” if his “education stuff” has “worked.”
“Guessing” about what one insists upon cramming down the public school throat is okay so long as one is above being directly affected by the detrimental consequences.
A Challenge to My Teaching Colleagues
Van Roekel insists that teachers have offered no problematic specifics regarding CCSS. So, I challenge my teaching colleagues nationwide to do so in the comments section of this post.
By way of getting the standards concerns rolling, allow me to offer this grade 7 math standard and subsequent explanation by veteran teacher and education blogger Gary Rubinstein:
CCSS.Math.Content.7.NS.A.2a Understand that multiplication is extended from fractions to rational numbers by requiring that operations continue to satisfy the properties of operations, particularly the distributive property, leading to products such as (–1)(–1) = 1 and the rules for multiplying signed numbers. Interpret products of rational numbers by describing real-world contexts.
(Note: If you don’t know what they’re talking about, don’t worry. Most people don’t know that math majors in abstract algebra, during junior year of college, learn that rather than justifying that a negative times a negative is a positive, informally any number of ways, you learn that since -1 * 0 = 0, which means -1 * (-1+1) = 0 (since -1+1=0, additive inverse property) and then, by the distributive property (which says a * (b+c) = ab + ac) (-1) * (-1) + (-1)*1 = 0, but since 1 is the multiplicative identity, (-1)*(-1) – 1=0, but then if you add 1 to both sides, you get (-1)*(-1)=1, Q.E.D.)
This standard is too advanced for seventh grade mathematics. I write this not as an English teacher but as a Ph.D. in applied statistics… and as one with common sense.
Van Roekel needs us, American teachers.
What he will choose to do with our words is anyone’s “guess.”