Sunday, August 11, 2013

Rob Rendo on Common Core

Common Core or no Common Core, standards for what children should know by a certain age (skills or content) have always been in flux and controverted.

The CCSS is, I think, on an extreme part of that spectrum of flux.

The consensus reality and research that more or less corroborates what, for example, a fifth grader should be able to do in math or ELA, has been largely ignored by policy makers for the last 5 to 7 years.
Now we are faced with an intentional system that ties scores to teacher and student performance in a high stakes fashion, resulting in a demoralization that may as well require fish to climb trees.

Test results were used and should continue to be used to find out what we need to reteach. Results and data drive a large part of instruction. They sill do, but, alas, now with the added layer of sad, angering, and destabilizing punishment that if one underperforms, one is mischaracterized as “not bright”, “not strong”, “poor”, or for dedicated and hardworking teachers, “ineffective”, “developing”, or “unemployable”. All of this would seem very reasonable and perfectly productive if it were done in every school: charter, parochial, private, public, specialized, etc.

But it’s not.

The very school President Obama sends his children to has openly declared that they do not test nearly the same way as public schools are forced to, and they do not measure students and teachers the same way either. Conduct a survey of every private facility in the United States (calling all teaching economists!), from the most competitively priced to the most deluxe and expensive, and see a pattern emerging about the qualitative differences in evaluating students and teachers, never mind the differences in resources.

Even the public school facility I attended between 1969 and 1982, which was fueled mainly by a blue collar population, was a resplendent, resourced, open-green-fields, ample teaching space system, and teachers were closely watched and monitored with feedback. Yet, they were never blamed for low test scores, and they were treated, with appropriate critiques from the administration, with respect and trust. We were a racially integrated school system. We thrived upon art, music, and gym. Students could literally build platform lumber framed houses from the ground up, repair automotive engines, design and landscape gardens, weld, play football, study French impressionism, compete in lacrosse or tennis, learn to cut hair, type, experiment with test tubes, microscopes, bunsen burners, petri dishes, telescopes, and learn AP physics. There was something for everyone. The list was endless. No wonder my parents paid such significant taxes. They’d frown when the tax bill came due; they’d smile when they received our report cards.

We had small reading groups. We had teachers who loved us and always made us feel safe, socialized, stimulated, challenged, and affirmed. My elementary school was my safe haven . . . far more than my own household, I must admit. It was not supposed to have been as imbalanced as that, but that was the situation, and I didn't choose it.  The responsibility for a child's sense of safety and self esteem lies clearly first and foremost in his nuclear family. Schools and classrooms trail right behind that. Yet I am grateful I did not have to come to a school where the teacher’s incentivized focus was mainly on my scores instead of holistically upon me.

I therefore felt safe in school. That's the best word I can come up with: "safe". I fell head over heels in love with learning because of that very safety. I'll never be able to thank enough or repay the vast majority of my teachers. Although, perhaps the best way to honor them is to fight for the dignity and truth of the teaching profession.

Anyway, I was very fortunate to have grown up in the era I did, and I excelled in school: honors classes, fast track programs, advanced course work, AP credits. I ultimately achieved a B.S. in architecture from an impossibly rigorous and strong program, and an M.S. in linguistics from an equally rigorous program. I have never been in doubt of my abilities, knowing full well what I still need to focus on and improve in. I have never been in want of intellectualism or critical thinking. I’ve conducted research. I’ve written articles and have been published. I have turn key trained colleagues. I am a life long learner, but I have reasonable awareness and confidence of my competence in general.

Students don’t face this same type of balance or developmental track any more. They have become numbers, statistics, “production-ists” in need of making a test score quota. I am convinced had I been a student under this current system, I would have fared poorly in school or been labeled with an artificial, man-made learning disability because I read better as I aged. I was behind in literacy in first and second grade. By the time I was in fifth grade, I ended up in a gifted reading group with the assistant principal. It was nirvana!

We were never taught to write any kind of essay until 7th grade, where I became hooked on writing and thrived from the encouragement, discussions, and red pen critiques of my teachers. I did not do ANYTHING with algebra until I was in 8th grade, and once introduced, it was addicting.

We have come a long, long way since 1969 . . . or even 1982.

In fact, we have stepped a long way back into a new epoch of factory style education, where every student is a widget, and and every widget is hyper-inspected along the conveyor belt to see if its frame will hold up once sold to the consumer, who is now the future employer. And if the person hired to do the assembly messes up just a few times, they are fired and replaced. This process happens knowing full well the conveyor belt is moving at 45 MPH, up from 10 MPH several years ago.

Who can really produce that many widgets when the belt is rolling by so quickly? It conjures up the imagery of the classic factory chocolate making scene from “I Love Lucy”.

But it’s anything but cute or funny.

Students are not widgets. Teachers are not robots. The process of teaching and learning is a humanistic endeavor. There are bonds to be forged, even while measuring situations and outcomes with data. The data used to help contribute indispensably to that human bond. Presently, the bonding has been devalued, thrown aside, and the data has become the new humanism.

But with such a high stakes grip, data will only continue to dehumanize education and demoralize children, families, and educators. There is a keen difference between being told “You are not the center of the universe / you will always have a lot to learn” AND “You are a failure because you did not measure up to these untried, unproven, unresearched, Herculean tasks that you and your teachers were not even given time to be exposed to”.

Is this a failure of the highly experienced people using and executing the functions of the system?

Or is it a failure of the inexperienced people designing, promulgating, and enforcing the functions of the system?

You decide.

I have.

Rob Rendo

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