The debate about the Common Core Standards and the Common Core tests is not really about whether our public school curriculum ought to be more uniform and perhaps more challenging from place to place. That would be a debate worth having. But really instead the Common Core is the latest chapter in a long story being circulated by our Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, and others who share his philosophy that teachers and students alike can best be motivated by behaviorist rewards and punishments—competition, pressure and fear.
The driver here is testing—competition for high scores and punishments for low scores—along with the collection of data. (It is essential to remember that data-driven school reform has arrived at just the moment we have the computer-driven capacity to collect and process data, and this school reform philosophy is being promoted in many cases by the same business entrepreneurs who developed the computers.) We are told that if we threaten school districts and schools and teachers where students are struggling, everybody will work harder and our children will do better in a world dominated by global competitiveness. Standards-and-accountability school reform has become so embedded into our national consciousness that it’s hard to remember there might be another way.
If you are looking for an up-to-date review of the issues about the Common Core, read this article by Carol Burris (posted over the weekend on Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post blog). Burris is an award winning elementary school principal who understands child development and respects the teachers in her school as they try to cope with the pressures of our educational culture dominated by punitive testing imposed from above.
But this morning I want to examine the implications of an educational philosophy based on accountability, testing, and fear. Two weeks ago, by a lucky chance, I spent a morning visiting three classes at our local public high school. I describe the work of the teachers whose classes I visited here. All three teachers demonstrated not only exceptional mastery of their academic content, but also deep commitment to the formation of their students, intellectually, linguistically, socially, ethically, and personally. These teachers enjoy working with adolescents, engage their students in thinking critically, and create a culture of mutual respect. My blog post about that high school visit has been read widely here in our community, followed by some comments I’ve heard at the grocery store: “Those teachers are at our high school?” “I had no idea we had classes like that at Heights!” “Were you scared when you were there?”
All three teachers shared with me their worries about all the testing they believe is undermining their work. They want desperately to find a way to oppose the time taken by testing and preparing for testing, but they know that in a system designed around competition and punishment, it is difficult for those trapped inside the system to protest. In our state that keeps cutting funding we have to keep our scores high just to pass our levies. And in a district with 63 percent of students qualifying for free lunch, and significant mobility into the district from poorer districts, we have lots of catch up to accomplish just to keep scores moving upwards. In a system dominated by fear, teachers must work doubly hard to keep their classes flexible, nurturing and enjoyable.
Ten years ago, Parker Palmer, who has written extensively about teaching as a vocation, described the same dilemma the teachers at our local high school shared with me last week. Palmer’s forward to Stories of the Courage to Teach (p. xviii) urges us all to visit a school, watch what teachers do, and listen to what they say:
“If you are not a teacher and are skeptical about their plight or their dedication, I have a suggestion to make: visit a public school near you and shadow a couple of teachers…. Almost certainly you will witness for yourself the challenges teachers face, their lack of resources, and the deep demoralization they feel about serving as scapegoats for our nation’s ills… Caught in an anguishing bind between the good work they do and public misperceptions that surround them, hundreds of thousands of teachers somehow keep the faith and keep going…. Every day in classrooms across the land, good people are working hard, with competency and compassion, at reweaving the tattered fabric of society on which we all depend.”
In the decade since Palmer wrote these words, our society has only intensified our blaming of school teachers. As I read about the debate around the Common Core—and the Race to the Top, School Improvement Grant, and Innovation Grant competitions, I have begun to create a discipline for myself. I force myself to think about how each of these conversations is being shaped by an educational philosophy of behaviorist rewards and punishments and a process of measuring, and competition. Then I try to think about what it would be like if we just trusted and supported the teachers who have chosen to help our society raise our children. I would prefer to reinvest all the money now being spent on developing and administering tests in peer-driven staff development programs where teachers like the ones I observed could share their techniques with their colleagues.