The great educational conversation

The great educational conversation

Passage 1 is excerpted from a speech about the Common Core State Standards given by David Coleman at the senior leadership meeting at the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute of Learning in 2011. Passage 2 is from Sandra Stotsky’s June 2015 Testimony regarding Common Core, delivered at Bridgewater State University. Stotsky was a member of the Common Core validation committee who, along with R. James Milgram, refused to sign off on the Standards. Student Achievement Partners is a company founded by David Coleman that played a significant role in developing Common Core.

Passage 1

Student Achievement Partners, all you need to know about us are a couple of things. One is that we’re composed of that collection of unqualified people who were involved in developing the common standards. And our only qualification was our attention to and command of the evidence behind them. That is, it was our insistence in the standards process that it was not enough to say you wanted to or thought that kids should know these things, that you had to have evidence to support it, frankly because it was our conviction that the only way to get an eraser into the standards room was with evidence behind it, ‘cause otherwise the way standards are written you get all the adults into the room about what kids should know, and the only way to end the meeting is to include everything. That’s how we’ve gotten to the typical state standards we have today. (Mercedes Schneider, Common Core Dilemma, 2015, p. 2440 Kindle ed.) 

Passage 2

Professor Milgram and I did not sign off on the standards because they were not internationally competitive, rigorous, or research-based.  Despite our repeated requests, we did not get the names of high-achieving countries whose standards could be compared with Common Core’s standards. (We received no “cross-walks.”) Nor did the standards writers themselves offer any research evidence or rationale to defend their omission of the high school mathematics standards needed for STEM careers, their emphasis on writing not reading, their experimental approach to teaching Euclidean geometry, their deferral of the completion of Algebra I to grade 9 or 10, or their claim that informational reading instruction in the English class leads to college readiness. They also did not offer evidence that Common Core’s standards meet entrance requirements for most colleges and universities in this country or elsewhere. (https://whatiscommoncore.wordpress.com/2015/06/09/dr-sandra-stotskys-june-2015-testimony-at-bridgewater-state-university-public-hearing/)

1. In comparison to David Coleman’s remarks, Sandra Stotsky’s are more

(A) lucid
(B) reverent
(C) defensive
(D) apathetic
(E) convoluted

2. Sandra Stotsky would most likely respond to David Coleman’s assertion regarding the “evidence” by

(A) praising its thoroughness
(B) concurring about its necessity
(C) suggesting that it was biased
(D) defending its findings
(E) questioning its existence

Unfortunately, this isn’t an empty rhetorical exercise. This “debate,” like all others, takes place in a real-world context from which it unfortunately cannot be separated. Were we to focus exclusively on analyzing how the author of Passage 1 made his argument and ignore the backdrop against which that argument was made, we might miss some very important pieces of information. That type of “close reading,” alas, has its limits.

First, the garbled (i.e. convoluted) nonsense in Passage 1 was uttered by the person responsible for not only writing national ELA standards but for redesigning the SAT. This is one of the most powerful figures in American education. 

Let that sink in for a moment.

Second, Coleman made those statements in 2011, before Common Core was fully rolled out. He was, in essence, asserting that he had evidence for a system that had not yet been put into practice — evidence that, as Stotsky indicated, was never presented to the people responsible for approving it — and that that alleged evidence overrode the fact that he and his committee had no business creating the system in the first place.

Sandra Stotsky, by the way, is an emerita professor of education and former Senior Associate Commissioner of Education of Massachusetts who is recognized for having authored some of the most rigorous ELA standards in the country. (I graduated from high school right around the time Stotsky was appointed, but having gone through the Massachusetts public school system, I can attest that high school English there is no joke – or at least it wasn’t in the late ‘90s.) She is nothing if not qualified. (In case you’re wondering, the answer to the question of what she would think about Coleman’s evidence is (E)). 

Now it’s time for an inference exercise! 

Based on what know about David Coleman, his relationship with Bill Gates, his involvement with Michelle Rhee, and his longstanding ties to the testing industry, we can infer that he actually meant something like this:

Well, if we’d gotten a bunch of people in the room who actually had experience doing things like teaching, they might have kept bringing up irrelevant points, like how stuff might not work in their classrooms, or how some students might not be able to meet some of the standards, or how more than 30% of reading should be fiction or whatever. And then we might have had to be, you know, detailed and include all sorts of specific things that not everyone would agree on, and then we couldn’t get on with the business of shoving what we’d done through as quickly as possible, without any field testing, because if we took more time people might start to notice just how radical what we were doing was, and they might have tried to get in our way.

You know, it was just easier to get together a bunch of people from the testing industry who don’t really know or care what goes on in actual classrooms, and whose companies would make a lot of money from what we were doing, because we knew that if we scratched their backs, they’d scratch ours. 

So basically, I cooked up the phrase “command of evidence” because hey, it’s catchy and makes it sound like we’re in charge, and we knew that if we just kept repeating it, no one would bother check it out, and even if someone did, we’d just keep insisting that we had the evidence and accuse them of not wanting students to be college and career ready and be competitive for the 21st century, blah, blah, blah. By the time anyone bothered to investigate, it’d be too late anyway, and really, who would listen to them? 

I mean, let’s get real, no one gives a shit about what a bunch of schoolteachers think.

If you’ll allow me to play armchair psychologist, I would posit that David Coleman is obsessed with evidence precisely because he has no evidence (or at least no valid evidence). 

Call it overcompensation, mixed with more than a dash of grandiosity.

Furthermore, based on the way the term is used in both Common Core and the new SAT (more about that in another post), it is not entirely clear whether Coleman even understands what evidence is.

The emperor, you see, has no clothes.

I’ve been giving this a lot of thought, though, and I’ve come to the conclusion that Coleman is really not the problem. Rather, Coleman is a symptom of the problem. In a sane, functional country, a parallel school system funded by billionaires would not exist, and someone like Coleman could never have attained his position in the first place. But when you have an entire political party that can spend three hours spouting outright lies without batting a collective eyelash, you start to see how this state of affairs is thoroughly possible.

Sometimes, though, I could swear I’ve slipped into some sort of bizarre alternate universe…