Evidence? They Can’t Handle the Evidence

In the spring of 2005 several months before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, I attended the annual ASCD conference in that city—for my first and only time. Sessions at ASCD were not only sponsored by vendors, but vendors themselves were presenting. That conference was a disturbing lesson in the commodification of education.

Fast-forward to the December 2012/January 2013 issue of Educational Leadership, the flagship journal of ASCD: Common Core: Now What? The entire issue consists of primarily articles scrambling to implement Common Core State Standards (CCSS), all wrapped in a series of advertisements touting the requisite materials educators must have to make that implementation work.

During the stampede to out-implement others in regards to CCSS, I have confronted the failure of unions and particularly professional organizations to reject the move to CCSS and the eventual battery of national high-stakes tests. Notably, I have questioned the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) for falling into line with the implementation argument and not standing up for the profession itself (we ELA teachers already know what to teach, by the way).

So I must take a moment to recognize what I consider a rare and perceptive criticism of CCSS from Randy Bomer and Beth Maloch in an NCTE publication (Language Arts, 89(1), September 2011). Before I highlight some key points from Bomer and Maloch, however, please consider the roots of CCSS.

In 1996, Achieve was formed at the National Education Summit by governors and business leaders as an organization directly committed to raising expectations for students and schools by influencing accountability policy based on standards and high-stakes testing. Soon after Achieve was founded, the seeds of CCSS were planted. Just over a decade later, Achieve published a report, Out of Many, One: Toward Rigorous Common Core Standards from the Ground Up (2008), announcing: “All students should graduate from high school prepared for the demands of postsecondary education, meaningful careers and effective citizenship [emphasis in original]”; the report then claimed:

For the first time in the history of American education, educators and policymakers are setting their sights on reaching this goal. Achieving the goal will require states to address the twin challenges of graduating more students and graduating them ready for college, careers and citizenship. (p. 1)

To understand how CCSS is devoid of evidence or any historical context, two contradictory points must be noted about Out of Many: (1) the goals stated by Achieve are nearly identical to the ones expressed by The Committee of Ten over a century before, yet (2) Achieve makes the claim that their report was “the first time in the history of American education” for this process. CCSS, then, began wrapped in rhetoric that mischaracterized the history of standards in the U.S.

Now, back to Bomer and Maloch, who offer a perceptive characterization of CCSS:

These arguments [for CCSS implementation], whether or not we agree with them, aren’t about evidence; they’re about values. Professionals should be able to name that kind of argument, perhaps in order to answer it, and to counter claims that a particular policy is “evidence based” when it’s not….The point is, the people who wrote, publicized, adopted, and imposed the Common Core Standards have no idea….Ironically, the word “evidence” is used 136 times in the Common Core Standards, and in 133 of those instances, it is something that students are expected to provide. For the writers of the standards, not so much….But teachers should not be overly confident about the knowledge base behind these very important standards, and as part of their response when teaching in Common Core Standards states, they should continue to use evidence from what they know about young children’s learning and composing to fill in the substantial gaps in the vision of the Common Core Standards. (pp. 38, 41, 42)

So what about the evidence?

Stephanie Simon notes:

A federal commission on Tuesday said the U.S. education system had “thoroughly stacked the odds” against impoverished students and warned that an aggressive reform agenda embraced by both Democrats and Republicans had not done enough to improve public schools.

And Robin Hiller adds:

Research has shown that testing doesn’t make students smarter or improve the educational outcomes for those at risk. It just makes test-makers wealthier.

Most importantly, Mathis highlights about the standards-based accountability era:

Yet, there are informative lessons from related research. There is, for example, no evidence that states within the U.S. score higher or lower on the NAEP based on the rigor of their state standards. Similarly, international test data show no pronounced test-score advantage on the basis of the presence or absence of national standards. Further, the wave of high-stakes testing associated with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has resulted in the “dumbing down” and narrowing of the curriculum. (Bandeira de Mello, Blankenship, & McLaughlin, 2009; Kohn, 2010; McCluskey, 2010; Robelen, 2011; Whitehurst, 2009)

In other words, after thirty years of state standards, high-stakes testing, and accountability aimed at students, schools, and teachers, the educational sky is still falling?

And the solution is new standards and more tests?

According to Secretary Duncan speaking to Achieve in 2010, yes. In that talk, Duncan mentioned “assessment(s)” over 80 times, “test(s)” and “standard(s) over 20 times each, but failed to mention “poverty” even a single time (just as “poverty” is never identified in Out of Many [2008]). What are the problems and solutions for education, according to Duncan?

First, Duncan notes that current highs-takes tests are inadequate, but adds that these tests fail because they are built on weak standards:

We want teachers to teach to standards—if the standards are rigorous, globally competitive, and consistent across states. Unfortunately, in the last decade, numerous states dummied down their academic standards and assessments. In effect, they lied to parents and students. They told students they were proficient and on track to college success, when they were not even close.

When faced with the evidence of test-based accountability failing, as Duncan does here, the solution appears to be to double-down on that which has failed.

Instead, let’s consider what the evidence tells us: The problem is a lack of equity of opportunity for “other people’s children.”

Because standards are always reduced to what is tested is what is taught and because standardized testing labels, sorts, and ranks children and then facilitates funneling those children either into challenging and rich courses such as Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) with the most experienced and highly certified teachers, the affluent and disproportionately white children, or into test-prep hell with inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers (increasingly Teach for America recruits), the impoverished and disproportionately minority children.

Ultimately the quality of the curriculum and the standards are irrelevant if we maintain a stratified education system that mirrors our stratified communities.

The evidence shows that education reform must be about equity and opportunity. Everything else is mere distraction.

But the most damning evidence of all is who actually benefits from all the CCSS mania:

Ultimately, we call for a reframing of the CCSS from redeemer to rainmaker. Rainmakers are defined by their ability to generate business by using political associations. The need to implement and assess the established CCSS situates those who created the standards as rainmakers for educational publishing companies and educational consulting non-profits they are affiliated with.…Therefore we raise the following questions, (1) Is education destined to be guided by the testing of national standards created by a small group who profits from the test they are paid to create? (2) What does that mean for historical notions of public education for all with local decision making rights? and (3) Are the CCSS the national beginnings of the corporatization of education? (Pennington, Obenchain, Papola, & Kmitta, 2012)

And if you are looking for the evidence, flip through the December 2012/January 2013 Educational Leadership issue I mentioned above.

Cha-Ching.

Comments

  1. In March 2012, in the Riverside Chapel in NYC, the Director of Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Program Lucy Calkins made the nave rattled with rhetorical questions that echo the points in this article. She called attention to two of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) authors who have emerged very publicly as spokespersons, David Coleman (Student Achievement Partners) and Susan Pimentel (Education First), and reminded the attendees that neither has been a classroom teacher. “What is alarming is that they feel empowered to continue to write the Common Core,” she declared. There are a growing number of CCSS support websites that illustrate her frustration, for example, Coleman’s well-documented lesson plans on the study of informational texts such as The Gettysburg Address with his explanations on videos are found at engageny.org. Ironically, while most historians praise Lincoln for the brevity of this address and the precision of its language, Coleman’s lesson design would have students spend six to eight sessions in a close reading of the speech. Calkins complained that extended close readings like Coleman’s are “text dependent activities” and that there are “no questions that transfer to another piece” as well as the unreasonable commitment of time to one common text.

    Her frustration, and ours, also stems from the New York State’s Department of Education’s adoption of many of Coleman’s additions to the original CCSS in providing models for curriculum development. She sounded a loud chord of caution against Coleman and others who write “around the standards” in presenting their curriculum models. She rhetorically challenged Coleman, “Where is the evidence do you have, David Coleman, that your method works? Where is the evidence that the close reading you describe is improving literacy?”

    Because of CCSS, there will be enormous amounts of money spent on developing curriculum, resource materials, and testing. Authors of the CCSS, educational consultants, publishers, testing services are all looking to develop materials in order to help school systems meet the CCSS. CCSS has spawned a new industry. Calkins detailed the anticipated expense of implementing the CCSS as $15.8 billion with $7 billion of the expense committed to technology so that students can complete testing online. When the “number one reason preventing student achievement is poverty”, in a time of shrinking budgets, Calkins described her discomfort with implementing such costly programs and the inevitable auxiliary expenses that will be spent school district by school district in trying to meet the CCSS.
    Full post http://wp.me/p1FPEO-tt

  2. concerned educator says:

    Several months ago I cancelled my membership to ASCD based on the blind commercialism I was seeing in their materials. They have also begun to divest staff members who don’t focus on CC and STEM. Whole Child now tossed on the corporate altar. Educators need to be wary of where they go to get information, and they should definitely sever ties with organizations that would do in the profession for a buck.

  3. Thanks for the most useful reminder that there is some history here. In fact, I have characterized today’s self-styled “reformers” as reactionaries precisely because they’re still pushing the same line we’ve been hearing for three decades. Standards + endless testing are Status Quo, not some new-fangled idea that’s never been tried. We’re now being encouraged to double down (again) on an approach that has had 30+ years to produce the desired outcome. Allowing these folks to claim the mantle of “reform” is doing violence to the language…

  4. Dr. Thomas,
    Your information is extremely well placed. I saw the last ten years of my experience as a teacher just move right along with every word. I was at so many meetings starting in the 80’s and, as they gathered force, even more meetings in the 90’s. The fact that this bogus regime of testing was profit based and grounded on total lack of legitimacy was so obvious, especially to those of us who taught English and writing at the time, I find it so perplexing still that this fraud was not unveiled for what it was many years ago at a national conference level. Worse, that so many continue to accept the unfounded result, CCSS, as worthy. Thanks for a great insight and a walk down my personal memory lane. It was hellish what it was doing to our kids even twenty years ago.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Invisibility and hibernation represent well the education profession because educators are more and more rendered invisible and as a result have hibernated, literally in their rooms (shut the door and teach) and figuratively in their muted voices (teachers are to be objective, neutral, apolitical).While the main elements of the current education reform movement—expanding charter schools, implementing and testing Common Core (CC), Teach for America (TFA), value-added methods (VAM) of teacher evaluation, merit pay—have created a significant amount of political and public debate (debates that by their very nature lend credibility to all of these reform policies), absent from that debate has been an essential message about the field of education: All of these education reform policies suggest that no field of education even exists. […]

  2. […] Invisibility and hibernation represent well the education profession because educators are more and more rendered invisible and as a result have hibernated, literally in their rooms (shut the door and teach) and figuratively in their muted voices (teachers are to be objective, neutral, apolitical).While the main elements of the current education reform movement—expanding charter schools, implementing and testing Common Core (CC), Teach for America (TFA), value-added methods (VAM) of teacher evaluation, merit pay—have created a significant amount of political and public debate (debates that by their very nature lend credibility to all of these reform policies), absent from that debate has been an essential message about the field of education: All of these education reform policies suggest that no field of education even exists. […]

  3. […] Invisibility and hibernation represent well the education profession because educators are more and more rendered invisible and as a result have hibernated, literally in their rooms (shut the door and teach) and figuratively in their muted voices (teachers are to be objective, neutral, apolitical).While the main elements of the current education reform movement—expanding charter schools, implementing and testing Common Core (CC), Teach for America (TFA), value-added methods (VAM) of teacher evaluation, merit pay—have created a significant amount of political and public debate (debates that by their very nature lend credibility to all of these reform policies), absent from that debate has been an essential message about the field of education: All of these education reform policies suggest that no field of education even exists. […]

  4. [...] While the main elements of the current education reform movement—expanding charter schools, implementing and testing Common Core State Standards (CCSS), Teach for America (TFA), value-added methods (VAM) of teacher evaluation, merit pay—have created a significant amount of political and public debate (debates that by their very nature lend credibility to all of these reform policies), absent from that debate has been an essential message about the field of education: All of these education reform policies suggest that no field of education even exists. [...]

  5. [...] What is the evidence for the Common Core standards? Paul Thomas explores that issue here. [...]

  6. [...] Evidence? They Can’t Handle the Evidence P. L. Thomas, Associate Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English before moving to teacher education. http://atthechalkface.com/2013/02/21/evidence-they-cant-handle-the-evidence/ [...]

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