My Article in the Washington Post on January 23, 2014
Below is the text of my article entitled, A Challenge: Teach Eighth Grade Common Core Before Endorsing It, published in the Washington Post on January 23, 2014.
On January 21, 2014, Valerie Strauss’ Washington Post education blog, The Answer Sheet, ran a supposed “reaction to” education historian Diane Ravitch’s January 11, 2014, speech at the Modern Language Association (MLA) annual meeting in Chicago. This “reaction” was written by former MLA president and career English professor, Gerald Graff.
Graff’s words beg response, which I will offer in this writing.
Allow me to ask readers to indulge my perspective, for I am a seasoned, traditional public school teacher, and I have just spent the last seven hours teaching my approximately 125, mostly-15-year-old students of varied socioeconomic status, homelife stability, intellectual curiosity, life experience, and aptitude how to write.
Thus, I have fresh in my mind both my public school world and my goal to teach students to write.
Now, to Graff’s “reaction.”
First, if one considers Strauss’ introduction of Graff’s article, one expects Graff’s writing to connect to Ravitch’s MLA speech. However, nothing about Graff’s writing is clearly and directly connected to Ravitch’s speech. In fact, Graff could have written this “reaction” without ever having heard or read Ravitch’s speech.
If responding to Ravitch’s speech had been a writing assignment in my class, Graff’s response would have earned an “F” for its complete lack of connection to the topic.
Second, in his “reaction” that really isn’t one, Graff quotes a few lines from Ravitch’s book, Reign of Error. However, he does not explore the book, fully half of which (thirteen chapters) address issues that do impact the world of public education and, by extension, public school teachers. Instead, Graff does what my students do when they want to seem knowledgeable on a topic but aren’t invested enough to truly explore it: He takes his few lines from the opening of the book– in this case, page four– and attempts to make them the launching pad for a shallow CCSS sales pitch.
Once again, if one of my students did this superficial quoting (and subsequent sales-pitch launching) as part of a writing assignment, that student would have lost both credibility and assignment points.
In his selection of a quote, Graff focuses upon Ravitch’s writing, “Public education is not broken.”
I agree. Public education is not “broken.”
Public education is sagging under the increasingly stressful load of society’s expectation that schools (and teachers) be The Solution for almost all that could possibly negatively affect the children in their academic care. Public schools are responsible for transporting children to and from the school building; for feeding them two subsidized meals per day; for providing “wrap around” services such as mental health counseling; for meeting needs of specific subgroups, including special education students, homeless students, and students who are wards of the state; for providing extracurricular activities; for providing free tutoring; for providing free uniforms to those in need, and for tracking progress and modifying instruction for children experiencing an endless variety of extenuating circumstances (parental illness or death; prolonged student illness; behavior modification issues).
And teachers still manage to teach, and students still manage to learn.
Miracle of miracles.
I realize that Graff has zero firsthand experience as a public school teacher. He has spent his entire fifty-year career in higher education, which leads me to my third point: Graff’s utter lack of experience with the public school classroom betrays itself in his faulty logic that poverty cannot be the central problem with public education since his “many white, middle-class, and relatively-privileged” students cannot “command” the “basic skills of reading, writing, and critical thinking” to their “potential.”
I ask Graff to consider all of the sagging weight I have detailed above. This weight not only enters a school building; it enters individual classrooms. It enters my classroom. Thus, even though my school district only has 46% of its students on free and reduced lunch (a common measure of poverty entering the schools), approximately half of my students live in circumstances in which finances are a troubling reality. Poorer students are more likely to be ill; they are more likely to be absent; they are more likely to live in unstable circumstances; they are less likely to come to school with their basic needs met (including hygiene); they are less likely to be readers; they are less likely to have exposure to the world that contributes to a prior knowledge base necessary for critical thought.
Poorer students are more likely to require more from me, their teacher–
–which leaves me less available to teach those “white, middle-class, relatively privileged” students who are also in the same room.
I can be spread only so thin.
And Graff is right about that top ten- to fifteen-percent who will succeed no matter what. They fare well whether my attention and energy are on them or not. However, it is the remainder– those who are not in crisis but who require my attention in order to learn– who lose out from the distractions brought about by resource-sucking tentacles emanating from the student poverty present in my classroom.
So, you see, poverty is the single most important issue to combat in order to free me up for the “white, middle-class, relatively-affluent” students under my tutelage.
Poverty in the American classroom is a systems issue, and since middle-class students are part of that system, they suffer from the effects of unaddressed student poverty, as well.
That noted, there is another incredible systems issue that I am surprised Graff ignores: the effects of the corporate reform agenda upon Chicago. In his “reaction,” Graff implies that the “lack of success” of charters might “stop privatization.”
And yet, Graff teaches at a university in Chicago, a city that has been under pro-privatizing, mayoral control since 1995– and that has yielded charter-friendly, pro-privatizing US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan– and that has closed an unprecedented 50 public schools just this year supposedly for budget issues– and that is turning right around and opening several new charter schools.
Could it be that those “white, middle-class, relatively-affluent” students who cannot seem to write are the product of detrimental school reforms that are not simply packing up and leaving town due to their demonstrated ineffectiveness? Graff suggests that the “failures of public education” have opened the doors” to privatizers. Moreover, Graff advocates that “it’s reasonable to give them a chance to show what they can do.”
I think Graff might be “seeing what they can do” in the unsatisfactory writing abilities of his students. Corporate reform has a school-churning foothold in Chicago. It isn’t going anywhere unless forcefully ejected, and Ravitch is doing more in speaking against the reformer agenda bring such ejection to pass than Graff is doing by promoting the disconnected mindset to give privatization “a chance.”
How long does “a chance” last?
More than twenty years?
Finally, Graff also wants to not only give the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) “a chance”: He proclaims CCSS to be a solution because of its “focus” on “college readiness.” Indeed, Graff is impressed by the fact that the English Language Arts (ELA) standards he showcases in his “reaction” push eighth graders to become “college ready.”
Graff’s promotion of CCSS reads like a sales ad: High on enthusiasm; shallow on fact.
CCSS was not rated as superior to all other states’ standards even by the CCSS-worshiping Fordham Institute.
In addition, it is naive for Graff to believe that any set of standards will automatically translate into improved learning outcomes. Nevertheless, that is the erroneous path Graff appears to follow in his “mystery” statement:
What is easy to overlook is that standards like these aren’t just another set of hurdles for students to jump over. They actually serve an important teaching function by defining and clarifying mysteries about college level work that colleges themselves leave students to figure out on their own. [Emphasis added.]
The true “mystery” here is that Graff believes holding eighth graders accountable to write in line with college expectations is enough to bring it to pass.
Teachers have just been following the wrong standards, is all. Never mind that CCSS is unpiloted, an never mind that Graff has no firsthand experience in teaching eighth graders. It simply must work because it sounds good on paper to a university professor.
Graff does not consider whether it is developmentally appropriate to push eighth graders to become “college ready,” nor does he consider that the overarching CCSS goal is to force kindergarten through grade twelve to be “college ready.”
And just what does “college ready” mean in corporate reform euphemistic lingo?
“College ready” = score high on the CCSS-aligned standardized test.
That’s right. All of those seemingly amazing writing standards are to be “tested”– and “graded”– via computerized assessment.
Therefore, the writing standards must lend themselves to formula writing that can be tracked via computer algorithm.
Where are the “intellectual merits” in teaching students to write in order to satisfy computer-graded writing requirements?
I wonder what caliber of writers Graff will have in his college English courses after a few years of CCSS-assessment-dependent instruction.
Furthermore, just as poverty in public schools is a systems issue, and just as the reformer choke hold on Chicago is a systems issue, so is the reformer agenda– CCSS included– a systems issue.
CCSS and CCSS assessment are designed to co-occur. Moreover, the results of the CCSS assessments are designed to destabilize public schools by “failing” the schools, firing the “ineffective” teachers, and handing over the “failing” schools to charter, voucher, and online education business operations. And massive amounts of student data are being collected to “inform” the entire corporate reform process, not the least of which involves the development and sale of CCSS curriculum.
What a coup this corporate reform spectrum is for those in the business of education!
CCSS was conceived as part of a corporate reform system. As much is clear from the April 2009 Broad Foundation Smart Options report– and the June 2009 National Governors Symposium (NGA) report– and from the USDOE Race to the Top (RTTT) funding application.
On a practical note, the focus on CCSS and its looming assessments is actually decreasing the amount of classroom time I will be able to devote to teaching students writing. I “have been told” that I must take my students into the computer lab five times this quarter in order to train them in the use of the computer for upcoming testing. Furthermore, today I learned that my students are to be part of an assessment field test– which translates into– you guessed it– less time that I can devote to teaching writing.
Let’s hear it for the “improvements” brought about by the “privatizer rush” through the “doors” that the “failure” of public education “has opened.”
Looks like Graff will just have to become satisfied with students who can point and click.
And I have more news for Graff and for higher education in general:
The corporate reform system is after you, as well. You are set to be “common cored.” You are set to be common-core assessed.
Online universities are lining up to replace those expensive professors with fifty years of experience for much cheaper, online education options run by those not required to have nearly as much education (training?) (and no burdensome pensions or health benefits).
Graff, I suggest you stop writing premature “reactions” to Ravitch and join her in the fight against the privatizers who are already eyeballing your salary and envisioning it in their wallets.
And stop freely commenting on the merits of CCSS to a public school system foreign to your professional experience. If you want the right to comment, volunteer to teach those eighth-grade CCSS and be evaluated by their attendant assessments for a year or two. Then you might have earned your right to speak on the merits of CCSS– if you can still stomach the idea.
Mercedes Schneider holds degrees in secondary education (English and German), guidance and counseling, and applied statistics and research methods. She is in her nineteenth full-time year of teaching (fourteen in public school, and five, at the university level). Schneider blogs about education reform issues at deutsch29.wordpress.com.