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New York College Prof to Student: Don’t Criticize Common Core

October 22, 2015

In September 2015, I received the following email from a New York student in a graduate-level teacher education program:

Dear Ms. Schneider,

I am an educator at a school in New York City who was shocked to find a letter from a Professor [name] in my mail box this week. As an educator, I am of the opinion that creativity should be a key focus of any curriculum.

I have enrolled in a master’s in ed. program at [name of school] and as an educator have expressed disagreement with Prof. [name] over the Common Core. [This professor] also has worked for Pearson….

As the letter from Prof. [name] directs, I should stop expressing my opinions of the CCLS (Common Core Learning Standards) in class. I feel this ironically stifles my right to freedom of speech and I am gravely concerned that [the professor’s] attitude will negatively affect my academic progress.  …

I am shocked by the letter, which was mailed to me in person….

I spoke with the individual sending the email. We had a frank conversation that included the reality that I do not know firsthand how the student has conducted him-/ herself in class. However, there are issues about this situation that are problematic regardless of the student’s behavior. First of all, the professor chose not to ask the student to make an appointment for a one-on-one meeting, instead choosing to “talk at” the student via what is an intimidating letter given the power differential between professor and student.

In the letter, the professor apparently used a required school email address to communicate with students and request individual conferences with each (not sure why the email had to be a school account, but it was). The student in question did not sign up for the school email address; instead of sending the student a brief note requesting a conference via post, the professor decided to unload on the student in a two-page letter sent to the student’s home.

I will not reproduce the entire letter, nor will I offer the identities of the student, the professor, or the school. But I will offer readers excerpts that reveal the professor’s intent to squelch opposition related to the Common Core and to defend both Common Core and the test-centric reform. Ironically, the professor states that teachers “will no longer be able to stand at the front of the class and treat students as recipients of received knowledge” in a letter in which he/she expects the student reading it to fall in line and swallow its contents without question.

Here we go:

Below are some of the things I would have told or asked you if we had met face-to-face.

Your repeated condemnations of the “ELA Common Core” as the source of most of the current problems in teaching English in middle and high schools are not relevant to the linguistic material we’ve been discussing and they are startlingly inaccurate. I hope that from now on, you will do what I assume you ask your students to do: explore the theories and research underlying the Standards and the key documents pertaining to their use before asserting generalizations that reflect only your opinion and not the facts. The (sp.) are dozens of documents about the Standards and the Core on our Blackboard site, as well as examples of some of the test texts and exercised and the curricula teachers have created to help students master the skills that the tests assess (in particular, the ability to become an active, engaged reader endowed with the agency necessary for a deep and thoughtful engagement with high-quality literary and informational texts that build knowledge, enlarge experience, and improve critical reading and thinking). So-called “teaching to the tests” provides a far superior education than the scattershot, uninformed curricula and pedagogical strategies that far too many English teachers relied on before the institution of rigorous requirements for both student (sp.) and teachers. Teachers will no longer be able to excuse their ineffective lessons by claiming that students are “not well-equipped enough” or “smart enough” to learn. If they want their students to succeed, they will no longer be able to rely on 20th century curricula and teach a-rhetorical context-less lessons and narrow skill (sp.), and they will no longer be able to stand at the front of the class and treat students as recipients of received knowledge.

White the Core articulates the common Standards, it does not mandate a particular curriculum or pedagogical strategies. It is up to the teacher to create meaningful opportunities for students to master all the English language arts in meaningful social contexts through meaningful interactive activities.

No discussion needed. The professor hath spoken.

The professor then closes the letter by taking up for the students who agree with the professor’s pro-Common Core perspective. In the closing, the irony continues as the professor uses this letter to “shut off or shut down” apparently the only student in the class who has experience enough with Common Core outside of what the professor offers; the professor does so under the guise of taking up for “a few” who “feel shut off or shut down” by criticism to a Common Core indoctrination that in the professor’s estimation will likely ensure all students in the class (except the letter recipient) as being “very effective teachers”:

None of your classmates has done any teaching and they are all excited at the possibility of doing this soon. My guess is that they will be very effective teachers because they are already versed in the kinds of activities that they will have to encourage their students to do: collaborate respectfully on projects requiring them to develop new skills and synthesize new information using 21st Century tools in multimodal ways. However, a few of them have told me how discouraged they are by your constant negativity. They feel shut off and shut down when you refer to your teaching experiences to complain that the tests stifle teachers’ and students’ creativity.  I am asking you to please stop doing this so that your classmates can feel comfortable discussing the linguistic material they need to understand in order to figure out its pedagogical implications. I know that you teach “only to pay the bills” (as you wrote on your survey), but they want to learn how to teach to foster their students’ curiosity and creativity, inspire them to learn about and through varied media, provide them with critical lenses for exploring their lives, and encourage them to love literacy and learning.

So, in order to foster the teaching of “critical lenses” for students to “explore their lives,” the only student with teaching experience is expected to uncritically just put a cork in it as the remaining, naive teachers-in-training are led to believe all is well in Common Core Land without a hint of any push to critically consider its “pedagogical implications.”

Stunning.

After careful consideration, the student decided to drop the class.

put a cork in it

___________________________________________________________

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of the ed reform whistle blower, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education.

She also has a second book, Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?, published on June 12, 2015.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

 

23 Comments
  1. Nancy EH permalink

    How much experience, recent or otherwise, does the professor have teaching in a middle or high school classroom?

    >

    • You never know. I worked as an education professor and taught a class at the middle school everyday during my tenure. I also taught summer school at the high school (multiple classes and grade levels each year). I had the responsibility that any other high school teacher had for their classes. Not many professors, however, do this.

  2. Alan permalink

    To be fair, I work with an experienced colleague who is persistently negative about just about everything, and does shut down positive and meaningful discussion. I’m not a CC fan, but I could understand the professor’s frustration if this were the case here.

    • Seems to me it is the professor’s responsibility to respond to the “negative” commentary in a way that convinces his students that his position, not the negative one is accurate. If his response is only disagreement and to tell the negative student to stop, his veracity should be questioned by the other students.

  3. My experience at UC Berkeley in the 60’s was even more severe than this. A student tried to argue with something that our professor said and the professor tried to have him expelled. Another professor would not even allow us to speak in class at all. So this arrogance doesn’t surprise me at all. Hope that has changed at least at some schools.

    • It’s one thing to be frustrated. It’s another to promote unquestioned indoctrination. The prof leaves no room for disagreement. Furthermore, the letter in the mail invites no discussion, which should have happened one-on-one.

      • I have been a college professor for seven years. This letter sickens me. It is a bit scary that this is being done. Wow.

  4. Dr. Rich Swier permalink

    Great. Posted: http://bit.ly/1GYyHtk

    Rich

  5. Stunning, but by no means new. Joan Dunn wrote about just the same behavior from her Ed. School professors back in the late 1940s, in her excellent book Retreat From Learning: Why Teachers Can’t Teach.

    The Progressive philosophy of education has all of the earmarks of a cult. As Diane Ravitch pointed out in her book on the history of American school reform, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms, Progressive education has been marked by a strong anti-intellectual nature. That’s not surprising. The aims of Dewey and the Progressives were also very utopian, looking to form societies instead of intellects. But the success of this model relied heavily on the development of the social sciences into disciplines having the same reliability as the physical and biological sciences. The former attracts many idealists and true believers (and charlatans who prey on these nice folks); while the latter guarantees that reality will never measure up. When faced with reality, the true believers and charlatans will always double down and crack the whip.

    • Laura H. Chapman permalink

      I find your account of the progressive influence bizarre. Intellects versus society building? There was never any single model of “progressive education.”

      • Read Ravitch’s book. And I’m not sure what you mean by “single model”; I didn’t say there was such a thing. The point is that the overarching idea of Progressive education has been to abandon the traditional idea of liberal education in favor of a sort of “social training” in which the school primarily prepares children for social roles instead of intellectual development.

        Consider the comments of the social historian Christopher Lasch in his book The New Radicalism in America (1889–1963):

        …. Dewey’s educational reforms depended on the premise, stated quite explicitly, that education itself was to be considered a means of reforming society. “Men have long had some intimation of the extent to which education may be consciously used to eliminate obvious social evils through starting the young on paths which shall not produce these ills, and some idea of the extent in which [sic] education may be made an instrument of realizing the better hopes of men. But we are far from realizing the potential efficacy of education as a constructive agency of improving society”.

        Lash at pp. 159–160, quoting Dewey, Democracy and Education p. 79.

        Sounds like a philosophy to me. And Dewey’s reforms are usually identified with Progressive education. Here’s Ravitch’s summary of the legacy of Progressivism:

        . . . anti-intellectualism was an inescapable consequence of important strains of educational progressivism, particuarly the versions of progressivsim that had the most influence on American public education.

        Every purveyor of social reform could find a willing customer in the schools becuase all needs were presumed equal in importance, and there was no longer any general consensus on the central purpose of schooling.

        And there’s lots more from where this came from.

    • Funny. I was in the field before “Progressive Education” came back into vogue during the 1990s and the only space in education where a teacher could question or be creative was in progressive education settings. The field was totally stifling before that time. Teachers had very little voice and basically complied with what ever mandates the union could not clear for them. I disagree about the anti-intellectualism in progressive education. I was there on the ground, and I’ve worked and/or consulted in multiple districts and regions of the country for about a decade. Diane was one of my teachers so I am aware of her position. At that time progressive educators were in fact frequently accused of being too intellectual. Respectfully, I find some strange revisionist history/political spin going on in this post.

      • Progressive education returned long before the 1990s, if you read the major histories in the field. The stories from those involved in education before 1960, which the progressive model was revived, and since then, all paint a very consistent picture that is entirely consistent with the letter that this the subject of this post. If you feel I’ve been “revisionist”, please provide some actual arguments and evidence and not just assertions.

        Part of the anti-intellectualism claim comes from the unwillingness of those in the field to consider the evidence that this approach has not, and does not, work. Instead, as the letter here shows, and Joan Dunn’s own memoirs support, anyone who questions the progressive model is either attacked or ignored. This is nothing new.

      • Laura H. Chapman permalink

        You said: “If you feel I’ve been “revisionist”, please provide some actual arguments and evidence and not just assertions.” Then you elaborated:
        “Part of the anti-intellectualism claim comes from the unwillingness of those in the field to consider the evidence that this approach has not, and does not, work. Instead, as the letter here shows, and Joan Dunn’s own memoirs support, anyone who questions the progressive model is either attacked or ignored. This is nothing new.”

        Dewey was a philosopher of education. I do not know what you mean by the claim that “this approach has not, and does not, work.”

        There were varieties of Progressivist practice that developed prior to WWII. There are vestiges of ideas and practices from that time still in circulation. Most of these are in sharp contrast to the strictly academic focus and standardized education formulated in the CCSS and test-driven ethos in schools, now reduced to the narrow focus on college and career readiness, much posturing about “rigor” along with imagery of our economic competitiveness threatened by test scores.

        I suggest as evidence the landmark eight-year study from that era here— https://archive.org/details/storyoftheeighty009637mbp

        As for Joan Dunn’s memoir, vintage 1956, consider the review of the her book, not flattering, not evidence, just anecdotes and stereotypes. https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/retreat-from-learning-by-joan-dunn/

        This post was about an email that suggests the professor has a conflict of interest in promoting the CC…in addition to being indifferent to the importance of inviting critical thinking—which need not be couched as a personal attack either by the student or the professor.

      • Laura,

        Yes, Dewey was a philosopher. So what? He was a driver in both Progressive classroom pedagogy (from his work, along with his wife, as the founder of the University of Chicago’s Laboratory School in the 1890s). His writings and speeches over several decades laid the foundations support for the Progressive movement in education.

        And my point is that his ideas about the purpose of public education as a means for social formation have been a failure. In other words, the program hasn’t worked to produce the results that Dewey and his supporters have claimed. Instead we’ve wasted a tremendous amount of effort and money on programs that do not produce well educated young adults generally. Instead of focusing on intellectual development, the schools offered packaged textbooks and other programs that, as Dunn correctly notes along with other critics such as Anthony Bestor, replace content with pedagogical technique. The result, as Mortimer Adler noted as early as 1940 in How to Read a Book is that after about the sixth grade the children start to languish intellectually: They can function at a basic level, but have difficulties in doing college-level work.

        The ideas of Progressive education go back long before WWII, to the 1890s (even earlier in some ways), and were well established in the nations public schools by the 1920s. The failure of Dewey’s key assumptions, as Ravitch explains, led to all sorts of splinter movements, such as the Life-Adjustments movement, the testing movement, etc. all of which claimed to fulfil Dewey’s and and the Progressives’ utopian visions. We see these programs coming around year after year in one guise or another. Doing the same thing over and over without success is a sure sign of a closed mind.

        In fact CCSS and testing are very much in the Progressive vein: “Expert” control and canned curriculum that are focused on testing all have roots in the Progressive paoply that includes testing and IQ measurement. A traditional liberal arts education would not ever dream of using such “tools”.

        How can this be? Because the Progressive movement never articulated a clear definition of what an educated person looked like. Progressive education ultimately was about producing social adaptation. There are lots of ways to approach that, but none provide a focus on intellectual development the way the classical liberal education did. Since there were lots of possibilities, but no clearly defined goal, everything outside of liberal academic education, became Progressive. Thus, CCSS and testing can trace their roots all the way back to the Progressives of the 1920s and 1930s. The bottom line, as Ravitch notes at pages 343–353 of Left Back is the emphasis on social conditioning at the expense of academics, which can be traced to the early Progressive movement in 1918.

        You mentioned the “Eight Year Study”. It’s not clear to me what you see in that. Given that the study was not—and could not—be about Progressive education in any defined sense, I can’t understand your point. But I will note that the review of the Study, The Eight Year Study Revisited notes, at pages 142 and 143, reforms that look a lot more like classical liberal education than Progressive education.

        I read the review of Dunn’s book, but I found it very much supports my point about the anti-intellectual character of Progressive education. The reviewer won’t engage Dunn directly; he just make ad hominem attacks on her and uses straw man arguments. I can’t find a single point at which he actually engages her arguments or observations. Instead, I’ve shown this book to current experienced teachers who agree that her observations are very much true in their experience today.

        But more to the point, I quoted Dunn for her comment on the nature of teacher education, which is very clearly relevant to the letter and comments here. The review says nothing about that, nor does your citation of the review address the issue.

        Given the financial ties between many pro-CC groups, such as the Gates Foundation, and many schools, I think your comment about a conflict of interest is very sensible. But again, the interference of the wealthy élites with the public schools has been a hallmark of Progressive education. The invasion of the business management mentality is one glaring example, and well discussed by Raymon Callahan in his book Education and the Cult of Efficiency.

  6. I did a “close reading” of the excerpts from the letter and I saw both sides of this story.

    • The prof is the one with the power in the relationship, and the prof created a hostile environment for this student by sending this letter.

    • I agree, however, it is a discussion that I would have had directly with the student, rather than sending an email. Too much can be misinterpreted in an email. Also, I would want to hear that student’s views and what could make the class more rewarding for her. She is the only one with teaching experience, so perhaps her assignments could be on the same topic with the same desired outcomes, but constructed a bit more rigorously or with tasks that allowed the teacher to pull more from her work experience as well. This would allow for two layers of sharing out in class, thus allowing novice students to be introduced to topics and teaching situations that they have yet to experience, but would already have insight on from a more experienced professional. It would also help the classroom-based teacher to deepen her learning. Peace.

  7. Ruth Powers Silverberg permalink

    As a professor at a New York College, I would like to present an alternative explanation concerning the events of this incident. Keep in mind that I am a strong and highly engaged activist opposing all components of current ed reform efforts, including standardized testing and the Common Core.
    First, regarding the mode of communication: Students at most colleges are issued a college email address, rather than required to provide personal email, so they can communicate regarding calendars, schedules, tuition, etc. Many professors use these addresses as they are readily available. I am guessing that the professor involved is a part time adjunct, which means he/she is grossly underpaid and probably also has another job—so does not hold regular office hours. I am full time, so this does not apply to me, but I have witnessed my part time colleagues struggle to find ways to communicate with students outside of class.
    Second, all of the students in the writer’s class are entitled to the course they signed up for, which in this case, seems to be designed to prepare them to be “effective” (for lack of a better term, I hate this one) teachers of English, beginning with passing necessary (horrendous) certification assessments and successfully getting a job. Our primary obligation to our students is to help them reach their goals, in this case, a teaching job. Of course there should be space for critical discussion of practices prospective teachers will be required to enact in the field, but we don’t know if the writer’s critique was limiting the time space for others to participate in the class.
    I have had students who pushed back vociferously against my efforts to expose the racist roots of many policies and practices in schools. A few have responded to every reading, discussion, or lecture by giving long speeches about how I don’t understand “those” people, the problem is “their” culture, etc. As a full time professor who teaches the same students multiple courses, I have the luxury of having a long sit down with these students. I then feel justified in not calling on them every time they try to speak, and allowing space for the others. These situations are not analogous, but they are parallel, because both are about the teacher’s dilemma in providing space for student opinions, whether a professor shares them or not.
    College professors are teachers too. We face the same dilemmas experienced in K-12; we have courses to teach containing content we believe to be important, mandates, low pay, limited time, large classes; our students have nightmare assessments. We want (most of us) to meet the learning needs of every student. Please don’t demonize us. We are teachers too.
    Your point, that students should be able to express their views in the college classroom, is spot on. But I think it’s possible that this story is not as simple as that.

    • Thank you for your comment. The story is not so simple. The professor is not adjunct, and one of the issues the student faced concerned the possibility of having to have this professor for other courses given the hostile environment he/she created by being the one in power yet unwilling to even acknowledge the student’s perspective on Common Core and delivering her inflexible opinion on the matter via a formal letter.

      If the problem were that the student was talking too much in class, that information should have been the focus of the letter– better yet, it should have been the focus of a conversation between professor and student. If the professor has time to meet individually with each student, he/she could have at least solicited via post such a meeting with the student in question.

      The professor was willing to draft an extensive response defending Common Core, and given the Common Core influence over English, surely the professor’s view that Common Core is Marvelous comes through his/her teaching. Nothing about his/her letter indicates that he/she is facing any dilemma other than how to completely shut down this “negative’ student.

  8. When I read this it sounds like a scene from the movie “God’s not Dead” where the professor believe there is not God so everyone should believe the same.

    It is a sad commentary on the mindset of our country.

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