Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Changing The Current Narratives About Teaching and Learning

Repetition (M.A. Reilly, 2008)

I. A Son Imagines

My son plans to shave off a year of high school and graduate in three so that he can get on with what he wants to do. For him school is not preparation for life.

What are you thinking about doing? I ask.

He tells me he wants to redesign computer chips, shifting from the current reliance on silicon to some other element. He adds quickly, that he plans to do this if these issues remain a problem by the time he's able to engage more fully in this type of work.  

If not that, there will be another problem to solve, he says.

And as I listen to him, I think: Problem solving as a way of defining one's work is different than having a career. 

My son is less concerned about being career-ready as that lexicon may be borrowed from an earlier generation when a career defined one's adult life. My father worked for AT&T his whole life.  He was a Bell man, as was his father.  My son does not see his life as a company man. I think about this difference in self-definition and the tag line that accompanies the Common Core State Standards: college and career-ready. This phrase seems less than honest, disingenuous even when I think about the distance between my son's imagined adult life as one who frames and solves problems of interest and that of one who has a career.  

Do we often ask young people what they plan for, dream about, wonder? We are limited by the discourse of standards and accountability. Infusing some youthful perspectives into our understanding might help to at least make us contemporary and not hold overs from our fathers' generation.

The narratives we tell and are taught to repeat matter. 

II. Standards and Accountability: Twin Narratives 

In 2014, public education in the US is largely valued for how well teachers teach a particular set of prescribed English language arts and mathematics standards and how well students demonstrate learning those standards via sanctioned methods of accountability that are controlled by corporations and reported by corporations. (And we wonder why dystopias are so popular?) 

We can say that our thinking won't be overly influenced by the results from a single measure as that would be a definition of lunacy, but that rhetoric is quickly forgotten when state test results are reported in the news. Just a week ago, the New York Times ran a story about the outcomes of New York teacher evaluation scores versus New York students' performance on a single measure from 2012 under the headline: Critics Question High Ratings on New York State Teacher Evaluations Amid Poor Test Scores. Stripped from the equation was the understanding that these two elements can't and ought not to be compared. But, the education narrative we live with says that it is logical to expect the evaluation scores of teachers to be similar to the performance rate of students as measured by a single test. The logic, if extended, suggests that the sum of learning at school can be encapsulated by the scores on the single English language arts test and math test and that those scores 'should be' equivalent to the performance of teachers via evaluations. If 31% of students are not proficient as measured by a single state test, then 31% of the teachers who teach in the same state should be evaluated as ineffective. Forget that there is no research that will make these two disparate things equivalent. Master narratives rarely deal in such details. They are stories that get repeated and repeated until they become your truth.  Scores on teacher evaluations and students' performances on a state test get connected.

We need to ask who benefits from the repeat of these narratives? 

Now recall our young man at the start of this post.  He is not represented in this conflated world of standards and tests. Rather, he is at best a thing to be acted upon. This is the underbelly to the master narrative that has been used to build momentum during the last three decades so that we can eventually learn that career teachers and their troublesome unions are unnecessary in a democracy. In a market-policy driven country, not a democracy, corporations can replace teachers with digital tools or temporary workers who drop in to schools for two-year stints on their way to other work. The narrative works something like:  Everyone knows that a digital tool or a teacher with no experience are better than an experienced teacher (with pension benefits). 

Is it an wonder that our young man has less faith in American democracy and tells us so. But are we listening?

III. Standards are Designed by Testing Companies and The Narrative is that Standards = Knowledge

It's all about numbers and measures, not people as numbers represent truth, especially when used to audit adults and children or so the narrative goes. Peter Taubman (2010) in Teaching By Numbers tells us:
The transformation that has proceeded under the twin banners of “standards” and “accountability,” has over the last decade profoundly affected all aspects of teaching, schooling, and teacher education in the United States, and now threatens public education itself.
Taubman's right. The threat from standards and accountability is sizable--especially to boys and girls whose voices we have not only stopped listening to, but have insured have no place in what officially gets learned at school.  What do kids know? 

A key issue with national and state standards is that the voices of actual educators, parents, and especially the millions of students are missing and cannot be added as standards are an epic construct (Bakhtin,1981) handed down to states and schools by ubiquitous committees who later are revealed to be made up largely by testing company executives such as the case with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). We have been told and retold that teachers were involved in writing the CCSS.  Not true. The majority of the 24 people who wrote the CCSS worked for testing companies, like ACT, Inc. and the College Board (See Mercedes Schneider's post for particulars. Here's the list of 24).  David Coleman (who now heads the College Board) and Bill Gates like to talk about teachers' involvement in the development of the Common Core, but actual teachers seem to be sorely missing from the 24. It's like a bad Where's Waldo--see if you can find the teacher.

This is servitude in action. The narrative still requires the presence of teachers as the public expects teachers and so teachers are referred from time to time as needed.  Think of them as stock players pulled out when required. 

Henry Giroux (2014) in The Violence of Organized Forgetting: Thinking Beyond America's Disimagination Machine tells us:
Education and pedagogy cannot be reduced to the dictates of an audit culture with its rendering of critical thought nil and void, and its elevation of mindless test taking as the ultimate pedagogical practice and the final arbiter of what constitutes quality teaching and learning. (Henry Giroux, 2014. Location 2089 of 4014).
And yet in 2014 "mindless test taking" is "the ultimate pedagogical practice and the final arbiter" of educational quality.  Recall again the August article in the Times equating effective teachers to a single test measure. During the 30 years I've been an educator the questions: What does it mean to be educated? What are our aims? have been replaced with: How do we know students have learned this set of information that has been deemed important by these test companies?  We've moved from the wisdom of John Dewey to the arrogance of David Coleman and we are none the better. These questions are not interchangeable. The first set focuses on the democratic aims of education. The latter skips democracy and substitutes a determined end that can be cheaply audited by the very people who have established the set and repeated the narrative until many believe these connected narratives of standards and accountability represent an essential truth. 

IV. Deconstructing the Narrative of Standards and Accountability

In a Twitter exchange the other day the idea that if there were no standards then teachers would need to "start from scratch" each year was forwarded.  I responded, Yeah! as this seems to me to be a far better place to start--although it is pure hyperbole to ever say that any one teacher begins the school year with nothing. To me this is akin to that rubbish about students being empty vessels. The notion of starting new is a fabrication--part of the narrative we've been sold: Teachers cannot to be trusted with critical, intellectual-decision making as they are unable or ill-prepared to think deeply, broadly, concisely, etc.  So our corporate fathers have some digital tools that they can sell us that will get the job done (better test scores) or some temporary workers to fill classrooms... In these stories teachers are not capable of thinking and not capable of learning. 

The idea that teachers cannot teach effectively without standards to guide the work reveals critical beliefs about what the work of teaching is, as well as what learning and knowledge are and are not. This is a large part of the narrative we have been fed.  Teachers are too incompetent to actually do that job and we know this based on student performance on single measures of school reading and math. That's the whole field of influence.

Those promoting standards often conflate knowledge with lists of the stated stuff to be taught, teachers as mere vehicles who convey the sanctioned 'knowledge' and can easily be replaced, and students as pet performers who demonstrate what's been recalled via the set of sanctioned corporate-made tests. The narrative suggests that we can safely and aptly substitute the word, knowledge, for standards.  This is a critical and costly mistake.

Listen as Bill Gates explains what the Common Core is. Notice how he conflates CCSS with knowledge. Notice that he also fibs about who authored the CCSS: "A bunch of teachers got together with..."

Did you notice how Gates was adamant in March, 2014 to make clear that the CCSS is not a curriculum.  This is an important talking point that Gates repeats.  We also see this point made in the CCSS Myths vs. Facts:

from here
Local control is a touchy subject here in the States.  And yet, by July 2014 the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has funded via a $300,000 grant to Constitutional Rights Foundation  in order "to provide professional development opportunities for teachers to further hardwire the Common Core curriculum." Note the last three words: Common Core curriculum. Further Laura Slover, CEO of PARCC in monthly newsletter (August 2014) explained:
“High quality assessments go hand-in-hand with high quality instruction based, on high quality standards,” said Laura Slover, the Chief Executive Officer of the PARCC nonprofit. “You cannot have one without the other. The PARCC states see quality assessments as a part of instruction, not a break from instruction.”
Notice in Slover's comment that standards are the substitute for curriculum. That's no small omission. Notice also that teachers and students are not cast as agents doing. They have been deleted. They are missing in her statement completely. Again, this is not a slight omission. 

The release of sample test questions by New York State in August 2014 clearly shows that it is the Common Core that is the actor, the only curriculum to be attended to.   
The released questions are intended to help educators, students, families, and the public understand how the Common Core is different. The annotated questions demonstrate the way the Common Core should drive instruction and how tests have changed to better assess student performance in accordance with the instructional shifts demanded by the Common Core. (from here)
Can you hear the narrative being fed to you in these lines--telling you how to think?  Notice that the value of releasing test items is to better ensure that the public learns how the Common Core is different.  Here, the Common Core is the actor, more so than teachers, children, or parents.  We should be worried that a set of documents written by test executives should drive instruction for millions of children more so than the actual people involved in teaching and learning. The testing brochure is filled with examples of how to 'master' standards as if such routines represented the whole of learning. 

Now add to all of this that the actual juried research (evidence?) to support the Common Core advocated ELA shifts in learning seems to be absent. For example whose research did Coleman and Susan Pimentel rely in order to determine the precise percentages of narrative and informational texts to be read/taught from K- 12?  (See Peter Greene's post here.) 

Our young man has clearly left the house and perhaps some of us as well.

V.  A Mother Imagines

As I write this my son is at play on his computer alongside a friend who has come to spend the night.  They have big dreams that are fed and nourished by the affinity groups they align themselves to on and off line. These boys have been friends since 1st grade and are each now in high school, edging towards completion and their academic interest in school can at best be summarized as an obligation to be met and then dismissed. This is not to say that they don't enjoy school or enjoy the social time with peers and teachers, for they do.  

But their dreams have less and less place at school and it is increasingly challenging for their teachers to nourish and help them to refine/revise/reimagine their dreams especially at schools where state test performance rates need to increase. The important learning has been pre-determined without them and in many cases without their teachers. Let us recall those 24 people who have set the course of what matters at school via the standards. (Imagine the arrogance it takes to think you know what is necessary for millions of people to know across time.)

These acts of omission are cuts into democracy and its public institutions. And these are not academic concerns alone.  My child and yours are sorely misrepresented in the current narratives about teaching and learning. They are not situated as active determiners of their learning, but rather as things that get acted upon based on how well they perform on sanctioned tests. Their merit is defined by this performance and it drives their advancement or derailment.  (See Loy Gross in a guest post on The Chalk Face recounts this narrow focus of what counts at school well in A Tale of Two Students.)

Our children's imaginations have been forgotten in lieu of things that can be cheaply tested. So what might we do?  Giroux (2014) urges us to 
confront the urgent need to invent modes of pedagogy that release the imagination, connect learning to social change, and create social relations in which people assume responsibility for each other. Such a pedagogy is not about methods or prepping students to learn how to take tests. Nor is such an education about imposing harsh disciplinary behaviors in the service of the surveillance state. On the contrary, it is about a moral and political practice capable of energizing students and others to become more knowledgeable, while creating the conditions for generating a new vision of the future in which people can recognize themselves— a vision that resonates with the desires, dreams, and hopes of all those who are willing to fight for and participate in a community-driven democracy. (Kindle Locations 2390-2396). 
We need to notice the language we use and repeat about education and democracy and ask who benefits from this rhetoric?  We need to replace the teachers can't teach and we know better than you rhetoric with a more inclusive one that addresses clearly the aims for education we have in this republic. Let's lean on one another and stop dealing in absolutes and let's remember to ensure the voices of youth are prominent in these discussions. 

James Gee and Elizabeth Hayes (2011) explain that:
Other people’s language is inside my head whether I know it or not. Looked at this way, language is a communal resource from which we all beg, borrow, and steal. People talk like others and still each of us has our own unique style (Bakhtin 1981, 1986). ( p. 7).
We need to recant the narratives that situate excellence as schools that produce good test takers and teachers as being dispensable. They are not. They never have been. For a democracy to flourish, much more is needed.  We can (re)inform the education narratives by rewriting them. It begins by deconstructing what we are being told and then offering our own voice, our own insights.  It requires us to listen to our children, to listen and appreciate voices that differ from our own.  We can court the silent and in doing so we can generate a discourse of inclusion. 

Recall James Baldwin (1971) who boldly told us in An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis : 
"Since we live in an age in which silence is not only criminal but suicidal, I have been making as much noise as I can..."
I'll stop here, waiting to hear your voice.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, M.M. (1981). The Dialogic Imagination. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Gee, James Paul & Hayes, Elisabeth R. (2011). Language and Learning in the Digital Age, (p. 7). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition. 

Giroux, Henry A. (2014). The Violence of Organized Forgetting: Thinking Beyond America's Disimagination Machine (City Lights Open Media) (Kindle Locations 2107-2109). City Lights Publishers. Kindle Edition. 

Maas Taubman, Peter (2010). Teaching By Numbers: Deconstructing the Discourse of Standards and Accountability in Education (Studies in Curriculum Theory Series) (Kindle Locations 490-492). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition. 

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