Whoo-Hoo! Occupy the Schools
In response to a poverty rate that tops 90% in many urban and rural schools –and 1.6 million homeless children—many in schools with no libraries–education reformers at the White House, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the National Governors Association call for a radical, untried curriculum overhaul and two versions of nonstop national testing to measure whether teachers are producing workers for the Global Economy.
They call this upheaval the Common Core State (sic) Standards (CCSS) and there are two things to remember: The Common Core did not originate with the states and it is speculative and experimental–in a word, cuckoo. I use the (sic) in its title because putting the word “state” in there is a political move, a public relations ploy. Learning from President Bill Clinton’s failure to get the national test he wanted, corporate leaders and their political allies try to keep this school remake as distant from the White House as possible, insisting over and over that it’s a “grassroots initiative” –what the people asked for. Every time they say this, the press repeats it. The Common Core reality is about as far from Mom and apple pie as a zombie invasion.
Writing in Bloomberg Businessweek, Pulitzer Prize winner Daniel Golden was one of the few journalists to acknowledge the closeness of the White House to the Common Core: “Today, the Gates Foundation and Education Secretary Duncan move in apparent lockstep.”
School reform rhetoric about the “failure” of public schools draws on the notoriously deceptive and fear-mongering A Nation at Risk–pushed by entities ranging from the Business Roundtable and the U. S. Chamber of Commerce to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the U. S. Department of Education. This rhetoric is bi-partisan. Both Republicans and Democrats like to bash schools—as a diversionary tactic to avoid accepting responsibility for the Wall Street and banking debacles. School reform solutions are also bi-partisan–exponentially increasing the number of standardized tests children take, tying teacher salaries to those test scores, dismissing whole school staffs, and shutting down neighborhood schools.
This latest corporate reform plan, the Common Core State (sic) Standards (CCSS), eliminates community-based planning, destroys personal response to literature, and, instead of fostering education for individual need and the common good, puts children on a treadmill to becoming scared, obedient workers for the global economy. The constant exhortation to teachers and students is “You’re not good enough for the market economy!” When the ruling class screams about people not measuring up, over time the besieged are trained to blame themselves for the lack of jobs, lack of benefits, lack of a safety net. Blame themselves and not the politicos, hedgefunders, bankers, and cronies whose own greed has put our entire system in peril. According to an Associated Press 2012 analysis, the typical CEO took home $9.6 million.
The Common Core State (sic) Standards are the result of hundreds of millions of dollars disbursed in carefully distributed grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation accompanied by the threat from U. S. Secretary Arne Duncan to withhold federal funds if individual states did not sign on the dotted line. I looked at two months worth of press citations praising the CCSS –August and September, 2012–and then looked up the Gates money given to those who come to praise CCSS. The list ranges from the American Federation of Teachers ($1,000,000) to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction ($823,637), from the neo-liberal Center for American Progress ($2,998,809) to the neo-conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute ($5,711,462). The PTA got money ($2,005,000); so did the National Writing Project ($2,645,593). And so on and so on. He who pays the piper calls the tune, and with money in their pockets, many are eager to sing the Common Core song and eat the funeral meats.
Although these groups all play a cheerleading role, here are the significant players in deforming school curriculum and testing and their Gates haul.
- Achieve, Inc.: $25,787,051
- The Council of Chief State School Officers: $71,302,833
- National Governors Association Center for Best Practices: $30,679,116
Chief architects of the literacy content for the Common Core content are a lawyer and David Coleman, an education entrepreneur. Coleman gained the most notoriety as he barnstormed the country preaching the importance of nonfiction and a bastardized form of New Criticism, a literary theory abandoned long ago by just about everybody except Mr. Coleman. In hispresentation at the New York State Education Building in April 2011, Coleman declared that teachers must tell students: “When you grow up in this world you realize people don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.” Student Achievement Partners, an outfit Coleman co-founded is now churning out Common Core curriculum. They’re bankrolled by $6,533,350 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and $18,000,000 from the General Electric Foundation. Coleman has moved on to head the College Board ($31,178,497 in Gates funds).
My state education department in Vermont urged every teacher to watch a video produced by the Council of Great City Schools ($8,496,854 from Gates) in which Coleman offers advice to the student who reads several grade levels below the complex text assigned to his class: “You’re going to practice it again and again and again and again. . . so there’s a chance you can finally do that level of work.” It sounds like a very bizarre application of Gladwell’s 10,000-Hour Rule. Coleman decries offering students with learning problems alternate resources, insisting that repetition will clear up difficulties with the mandatory complex text. And teachers are told kids must start early with complexity. The New York Post ran a piece–Playtime’s Over, Kindergartners: Standards stressing kids out–explaining that the New York City Department of Education wants 4- and 5-year-olds to forgo building blocks and crayons and get busy writing “informative/explanatory reports.” This includes writing a topic sentence. Teachers report such complexity makes kids cry, but the corporate imperative doesn’t stop for tears. In rebuttal, Kurt Schwengel, a 15-year Santa Monica kindergarten teacher, insists, “They’re going to have to pry the crayons out of my cold, dead hands.”
A February 2013 New York Times story reads like satire–third graders doing one-arm pushups while performing mathematics tasks with Legos while the teacher recites an important vocabulary word for them to learn (and switch arms when they hear it). I wrote the reporter that I predict a big lawsuit when an 8-year-old engaged in a one-arm pushup while doing Legos gets distracted by vocabulary study, falls, and breaks off his front teeth. I wonder why the people pushing this integrated curriculum leave out The Arts. They could have those third graders singing “Dixie” as they do their one-arm pushups, et al. A teacher friend suggested they could put math facts and vocabulary drill on the toilet paper, and I’d be willing to bet some schools are already doing that. Teachers are feeling the pressure of getting in all the skills, and a lot of readers praised this “integration of mind and body” as a way for kids to learn all they have to learn in our brave new Common Core world. Bad things happen to scared people–and the children in their care.
When I received a note from a desperate Oregon mom telling me the only school available to her family wanted to make her son repeat kindergarten because he didn’t measure up on the federally-required DIBELS phonics test, I asked, “Is there any way you can homeschool?” When I tried to tell this story as an invited speaker at the Chicago AFT Progressive Caucus, I was hooted off the podium as soon as I mentioned the homeschool recommendation. I’ve spent my life working for public school for the common good–and I’m not about to stop–but if I wouldn’t allow a school to destroy a six-year-old I loved, then I can’t allow it to happen to anybody else’s child either. In Finland, lauded for its lead on international tests, they don’t even start teaching reading skills until the kids are 7, and then, children in grade school have a play break every 45 minutes, and don’t take any standardized tests until they’re ready to graduate from high school. I just bought a T-Shirt: Occupy Kindergarten!
I scream about the topic sentence requirement in kindergarten and assigning As I Lay Dying, with its 15 narrators, in 11th grade; I mock the notion of such “informational text” as “Invasive Plant Inventory” and Euclid’s Elements (listed in Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts, Appendix B) supplanting To Kill a Mockingbird and “Macbeth” as vehicles for conveying to students the world knowledge Common Core thugs insist is necessary to compete as workers in the Global Economy. And I’d scream just as loudly if every required text was a book I loved. All this arguing about the percentage of fiction allowed and what that fiction should be is a deliberate distraction thrown up by the power brokers. They do it with school reform; they do it with social issues. They want us to wage battle with each other–over the content of national standards–so we’ll have no breath left over to ask Who decides? Who’s in charge of public schools? And for whose benefit do they operate?
Make no mistake about it: current school reform is destroying the lives of children. Here in Vermont, my so-called progressive governor, Peter Shumlin, eager to show his chops to the National Governors Association, cheerfully laps up their Kool-Aid. He’s pushing algebra and geometry as requirements for a high school diploma. Longtime public school superintendent and now managing director of the National Education Policy Center, William Mathis calls the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) crisis the new urban legend. In reality, for some Vermont kids, lumberjack skills are much more important than algebra and before we proclaim algebra more important than music and the arts, we must again ask, Important for whom? Mathis points out that there are more STEM-qualified workers than jobs available and of the nation’s nine million people with STEM degrees, only about three million work in STEM fields.
In his second inaugural address Governor Shumlin put Vermont’s economic future on the backs of teachers and children, saying that “to ensure our success, we must embrace change in the way we both view and deliver education. The rapid change that is required of us is not optional; it will define our success or deliver our failure.” No options. Note how the governor defines education as a delivery system. His emphasis on “rapid change” is both disingenuous and dangerous. Teaching is much more like watching what Whitman called the “trickling sap of maple,” which matures and intensifies slowly, than about delivering rigor to kindergartners—or high schoolers. As Wendell Berry points out, “Good teaching is an investment in the minds of the young, as obscure in result, as remote from immediate proof as planting a chestnut seedling.” One of my third grade students, a deaf child in public school for the first time, recently found me on FaceBook to tell me what Amelia Bedelia meant to her thirty years ago. I think of this as teacher wait time.
Lots of school watchers believe the sole purpose of the Common Core State (sic) Standards is to drive the national test which has been on the corporate agenda for more than two decades. Although the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation paid for the CCSS, the new, super-duper assessments traveling with those standards are funded by you and me. The U. S. Department of Education gave $335 million to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC)and the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium to develop computer-based tests for grades 3-12. They both plan a lot of testing, and costs of hardware and software requirements, of rewiring school buildings and buying computers that meet the specifications are on the backs of local taxpayers. The Florida state department of education recently announced an infusion of nearly half a billion dollars to develop the necessary technology infrastructure capable of delivering the tests. New York City estimates the same amount.
Although hubris seems to drive Bill Gates’ education reform ideology, it is no surprise that his foundation would find the Common Core’s huge reliance on technology attractive. Technology and the desire to put schools under the oversight and domination of a national test also motivated education reformers in September 1989, when President George H.W. Bush convened a meeting in Charlottesville, Va., for the first-ever National Education Summit. Teachers were also absent from that meeting, Instead, IBM CEO Lou Gerstner joined hands with Arkansas governor Bill Clinton to lead the effort. Gerstner and his Business Roundtable cronies got to name the problem and define the solution, which was a relabeled Business Roundtable plan calling for school choice, competition, and a massive infusion of technology. It was signed into federal law as America 2000. When it morphed into Goals 2000, President Clinton was foiled in his attempt to add a national test. Then came No Child Left Behind under President Bush the Younger and Race to the Top and the Common Core under President Obama. With each residency change at the White House, the name of ed reform has changed and the content has become more destructive to the needs of public schools and the children in them.
There is resistance. A national movement of parents opting their children out of standardized testing started when Professor Tim Slekar and his wife went with their son Luke to a school conference to learn why Luke’s grades were slipping. The teacher showed them a sample paper, with a test-prep writing prompt: Write about the two most exciting times you have had with your family. Luke’s response, started, “Whoo-hoo! Let me tell you about my great family vacation trip to the Adirondacks.”
The teacher stopped Luke and asked him to explain to his parents why this opening was unacceptable. “Whoo-hoo! isn’t a sentence,” he acknowledged, adding that the first sentence to a writing prompt must begin by restating the prompt. The teacher said that according to standards, Luke’s response would have been scored a zero, and her obligation was to prepare children to pass the state test. Feeling that education shouldn’t be about preparing students to write answers in a format low-paid temp workers can score, the Slekars decided to opt Luke out of future standardized testing. “We would not allow our son to provide data to a system that was designed to prove that he, the teacher, the system, and the community were failing.” Tim found people of like mind– Peggy Robertson, Morna McDermmott, Ceresta Smith, Shaun Johnson and Laurie Murphy–and together they founded United Opt Out, a national movement to opt students out of standardized testing. Its endorsers include John Kuhn, an outspoken Texas school superintendent, who says, “Parents and students have the power to say when enough is enough.”
Teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle recently demonstrated that teachers also have this power. Despite intense administrative pressure, the whole faculty refused to administer a standardized test there. When a retired Florida kindergarten teacher heard about Garfield High, she called a Seattle pizza shop and ordered five large pizzas with two toppings to be sent to the school. Other expressions of support have poured in from across the country. School watchers are now hopeful that a revolution may be at hand.
Whoo-hoo! Occupy the schools!
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