Common Core: Teaching to the New Test- Part III

Common Core replaces individual excellence with collectivism. The rigorous debates between two individuals or two teams are replaced by consensus-building in “democratic” discussions in groups. Short in-class Internet research projects of less than two hours replace the in-depth research papers written individually, and over many days. There is barely time to form one’s own thoughts.

By Mary Grabar l June 27, 2013


Common Core’s Promotion of Collectivism and Infantile Tasks

Common Core basically is the “student-centered” learning based on the ideas of progressive education theorist John Dewey, and disproven by the numerous studies analyzed by Jeanne Chall.

As Chall showed in her book, The Academic Achievement Challenge, progressive ideas have not raised academic achievement levels, especially when it comes to the lower and middle classes, where they are used most often. Private schools have consistently produced better results and have relied on a “teacher-centered” model. Now the Obama administration wants to impose standards that produce lower academic achievement on everyone. Call it the great new leveling.

As indication of lower standards, the education bureaucrats are adding a new component to ELA (English/Language Arts) assessments: “Speaking and Listening.”

Teaching “Speaking and Listening” skills is now deemed to be necessary even for eleventh- and twelfth-graders because of supposedly new demands of a 21st century technological age. These speaking and listening skills, however, do not entail public speaking or debate. Rather, they promote the basic behaviors once taught in kindergarten. They infantilize students, while pressuring them to conform to group consensus.

Under Common Core “Speaking and Listening” standards, students are rated under “Comprehension and Collaboration” through three steps. The first is to “initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions . . . with diverse partners on grades 11-12 topics.” Under this criterion are four components: a) preparation for discussion by reading and researching; b) “work with peers to promote civil, democratic discussions and decision-making, set clear goals and deadlines, and establish individual roles; c) propel conversations through posing and responding to questions;” and, d) “respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives.”

The second criterion calls for presenting data in diverse formats and multimedia, evaluating a speaker’s point of view, and then making a clear presentation, with strategic use of digital media. Students are evaluated on how well they adapt “to a variety of contexts and tasks, demonstrating a command of formal English, when indicated or appropriate.”

Note that this is not debate, as traditionally understood, in which debaters prove the superiority of their positions with evidence and delivery. Instead, there is mushy collaboration and uncritical openness to “diverse” perspectives.

Similarly, the writing tasks under Common Core slightly resemble research and writing of yore, but when looked at closely we see that students will be asked to uncritically gather and compile “evidence.” There is no assurance that students will have the needed knowledge to discern among all the information, like Internet sources and random isolated “primary texts,” to be able to make judgments, whether in writing or speaking. Behavioral modification is clearly an intent with the speaking and listening standards, however.

Common Core replaces individual excellence with collectivism. The rigorous debates between two individuals or two teams are replaced by consensus-building in “democratic” discussions in groups. Short in-class Internet research projects of less than two hours replace the in-depth research papers written individually, and over many days. There is barely time to form one’s own thoughts.

The Real Goals of the Test Maker: Closing the “Achievement Gap”

In many ways, Common Core is an attempt to fulfill the Obama administration’s overriding goal of closing the “achievement gap.” President Obama described this goal to parents and students at a townhall in Washington in March 2011, when he said, “’Too often what we have been doing is using [standardized] tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools.’” The March 29, 2011, Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that “Obama said Monday that students should take fewer standardized tests and school performance should be measured in other ways than just exam results.”

Common Core is designed to do that precisely. Short reading assignments in groups ensure that lagging readers keep up. Group projects and projects that presumably test for “creativity” and DOK levels allow for grade redistribution and extra points. (To iterate from Part II, DOK or Norman Webb’s Depth of Knowledge criteria is a favorite measurement tool of progressive educators.)

Linda Darling-Hammond, the Obama education transition team leader, now directing the development of one of the two tests, has been a long-time advocate of closing the achievement gap through such progressive educational strategies.

She discussed it in her November 2009 speech to the Grow Your Own organization in Chicago. The speech was then published in a 2011 collection titled Grow Your Own Teachers. Significantly, this is a title under the Columbia Teachers College “Teaching for Social Justice” series edited by Bill Ayers, the terrorist Weatherman-turned-education-professor, and close Chicago associate of Obama. Echoing her editor’s exaggerated claims and style, Darling-Hammond rejected “the imaginary model classroom where every student is learning in the same way at the same pace at the same time,” for a classroom culture of “revision and redemption.” She insisted, “Students can learn at high levels if they have the opportunity to undertake a challenging task with clear guidance and scaffolding, and if they receive feedback from peers with a rubric so that they can see what the standards are, and then attempt it again. . . .” In Darling-Hammond’s estimation, the opportunities for revision, with the additional help of “scaffolding,” should replace objective testing. Frequent assessment should be aligned to the student’s previous level and should be used only as a guide for future learning–and not to place the student in competition to others. Her vision of academic equity in assessment outcomes aligns with the idea of redistributing funds to poorer school districts, as the Department outlined in the February 27 report, For Each and Every Child—A Strategy for Education Equity and Excellence.

Arne Duncan’s Promises

Darling-Hammond was praised by Education Secretary Arne Duncan in his keynote speech to the American Educational Research Association (AERA) conference this year on April 30. Duncan promised conference goers holding signs protesting against testing that the new Common Core assessments being produced by Darling-Hammond would be to their liking. He mollified them by criticizing the “almost obsessive culture around testing” that hurts the “most vulnerable learners and narrows the curriculum.” He said it was “heartbreaking to hear a child identify himself as ‘below basic’ or ‘I’m a one out of four.’”

Nothing was said about efforts to help such children improve their scores and reach “‘above basic.’” Nor was anything said about high achievers, many of whom have left public schools because of the longtime emphasis on not leaving any child behind.

What was proposed were new assessments, assessments that would test students’ “soft skills” and “non-cognitive skills.” Duncan cited Paul Tough’s “outstanding recent book,” How Children Succeed, as well as “a multitude of studies, and James Heckman’s analysis of the Perry Preschool Project.” Duncan declared that “the development of skills like grit, resilience, and self-regulation early in life are essential to success later in life”—a direct reference to the Education Department’s report, “Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century” that promotes the disturbing ideas of behavioral psychologists interviewed in Tough’s book.

A “sea-change” is underway, Duncan said, thanks to educators’ favorite progressive:

“As Linda Darling-Hammond noted recently, ‘The question for policymakers has shifted down from, “Can we afford assessments of deeper learning” to “Can the United States afford not to have such high-quality assessments?”’”

Duncan’s stated hope in this speech, that a “richer curriculum” would follow these assessments, gives the lie to the idea that Common Core has nothing to do with curriculum.

Darling-Hammond was listed in the program at this AERA conference. Her colleague and collaborator Bill Ayers, who characterized Arne Duncan as “Obama’s ideological soul mate,” was listed on the program as participating in eight different events, including a tribute to Hugo Chavez. They were likely in the audience, nodding in approval to Duncan’s words, and not at all worried that our schools would abandon progressivism for a traditional pedagogy, like E.D. Hirsch’s.

Mary Grabar, Ph.D., has taught college English for over twenty years. She is the founder of the Dissident Prof Education Project, Inc., an education reform initiative that offers information and resources for students, parents, and citizens. The motto, “Resisting the Re-Education of America,” arose in part from her perspective as a very young immigrant from the former Communist Yugoslavia (Slovenia specifically). She writes extensively and is the editor of EXILED. Ms. Grabar is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.