Infaming the Public, Part II: Collective Amnesia and the Hypnotic Myth of the Common Core

Hypnosis — “the induction of a state of consciousness in which a person apparently loses the power of voluntary action and is highly responsive to suggestion or direction.”  Kevin Moore, http://mooretoons.com

In Part I, infamy was introduced as a means for limiting and removing the social and political status applicable to the public (the efficacy of public opinion, public will, public space, public interest, public institutions to serve the public good). Civil death is the result of rendering the public infamous. Public schools, I argued, have been rendered infamous through the imposition of mass failure via arbitrary standards and interpretations of test data, and this imposition has been used to justify transformations in the governance of education (elimination of school boards, private associations and companies controlling standards, data; charter schools, etc.). Thus, the rights and responsibilities of the public under the framing political logic of the system are under attack by insurgents. As a result, public schools are a key location for this transformation and political fight.

The Achievements of Public Education

Public education was a major achievement of the people, reflecting the role that individual and collective conscience plays in political life through the formation of public opinion, and the role science and culture, and thus education, play therein. The fight to end segregated schooling and meet the growing demand for education in the United States against systems of schooling that reproduce unequal social relations, has shaped both popular demands and elite plans for education as means for securing interests. In short, all the social, economic and political contradictions have been expressed in and acted upon by the system of public schooling in the United States. This fight over education is deeply rooted in American notions of democracy and equality and constitutes an achievement of that project.

As public education was an outgrowth of the enlightenment project from which certain democratic aspirations arose, it came to be recognized by the majority as a general interest and public good. Eventually systems of public schools were established in every state in the union, including state (public) university systems. Importantly, in the United States, education was increasingly the means given to artisans, the working class, and the emerging professional strata by the social system for asserting their economic, social and political interests.

Thus, it is important to recognize that from within this historical experience, public education was (1) a means for both individuals and collectives to assert their interests, and (2) an affirmation of the achievements of human culture and the social and natural sciences as belonging to the people as a whole. That access to and control over education was a key object of the civil rights movement is an expression of these principles.

Education, since the Cold War, has increasingly been the object of elite action at the state and national level, against the more distant history of “local control”. By the 1950s, education became a key component of social planning at the federal level.

Work to privatize such a system is thus a direct attack on forms of agency derived from culture and science as public goods. Margaret Thatcher represented the emerging insurgent view with her “thesis” that there is no society. She thus attempted to make the public vanish, denying a major achievement of modern society. One means for advancing this attack is the imposition of collective amnesia on the body politic and the professional class of educators who have been part of the historic experience up to this point.[1]

Collective Amnesia and the Hypnotic Myth of the Common Core

The greek word amnesia literally means “without memory”. Hypnosis is defined as “the induction of a state of consciousness in which a person apparently loses the power of voluntary action and is highly responsive to suggestion or direction.” Below I argue that advocates of the Common Core deny history and adopt hypnotic methods of communication.

Taking again the March 2013 New York State Education Department (NYSED) memo noted in Part I, Deputy Commissioner Slentz offers us this example:

New York State, for the first time, will be reporting student grade-level expectations against a trajectory of college- and career-readiness as measured by tests fully reflective of the Common Core…

And elsewhere:

These Standards, for the first time, offer rigorous and researched-based learning benchmarks that help teachers guide students in their grade-by-grade progression toward college and careers readiness.

Aside from the circularity of the claim — of course its the first time results are reported according to the Common Core Standards, as they never existed before — collective memory is assaulted by the suggestion that “standards” did not exist before, and that educators had no idea what should be taught in schools until Bill Gates spent $1.5 billion to help everyone become “career and college ready.”

In fact, the repeated assertion at every point in the so-called standards movement has been that prior to that point, educators never had any standards. Reformers consistently and repeatedly claim that “for the first time” we have “standards.”[2] In responding to Marc Tucker’s imposed amnesia, Yong Zhao offers this quick overview of efforts to decide “what young people should know and be able to do.”

Over a hundred and fifty years ago, the British philosopher Herbert Spencer thought it was so important to decide what children should learn that he wrote the essay What Knowledge is of Most Worth and came up with the answer “science”; his criteria being the utilitarian value of knowledge. He did not think Latin, Greek, and the classics were of much value for a person to live in a society being transformed by industrialization and history, to Spencer was “mere tissue of names and dates and dead unmeaning events…it has not the remotest bearings on any of our actions.”

In 1892, the National Education Association (NEA) thought it was so important that it appointed the Committee of Ten, chaired by Harvard president Charles Elliot, to figure out what schools should teach.

In early 1900s, The NEA had another commission to rethink the curriculum and came up with The Cardinal Principals of Secondary Education.

Activities intended to determine what all students should know and be able to do never actually stopped. In recent years, the 1994 Goals 2000 Act under President Clinton provided funds to develop standards that “identify what all students should know and be able to do to live and work in the 21st century.” Under NCLB, states were mandated to develop both content and academic achievement standards in reading/language arts, mathematics, and science.

There has never been a lack of attempts to figure out what all young people should know and be able to do, consequently there is no shortage of standards around.

[…]

The Common Core initiative seems to suggest that either there are no standards in America or the existing standards are not good enough. But what evidence is there to show the Common Core is better than previous ones, including those from all 50 states? Granted that things change and what students learn should reflect the changes, but how frequently should that happen? The state standards developed under NCLB are merely a decade old. If we have to make massive changes every five or 10 years, does not mean it is nearly impossible to come up with content that is valid long enough for the nation’s over 100,000 schools to implement before it becomes outdated? If so, would it be much more likely that individual schools and teachers have a better chance to make the adjustment faster than large bureaucracies?

When taking New York State as a reference point, Slentz’s assertion may possibly be even more outlandish. The obvious fact here is the historically recognized superiority of New York’s Regents Exam system, dating back to 1878. [3] These subject matter exams were well respected as means for judging students knowledge in a given subject, and supported a “college prep” curriculum for more than a century. Thus, more than 100 years of nationally recognized Regents exams, vanished! That this system of education helped prepare graduates of New York State high schools for both “career” (local diploma) and “college” (Regents diploma), vanished.  That New York State had the highest college-going rate of any state in the union in 1994 (at 67 percent), and the third highest college-going rate in 2008 (74 percent), vanished. That New York State had the second highest percentage of high school students taking the SAT in 2008? Vanished.[4]

What are we to make of the archive of Regents exams in Albany? What are we to make of the role of veteran teachers who once developed these Regents Exams and their associated syllabi? Should the exams be burned, so that no one becomes confused by exposure to different standards, now that we, thankfully, have common ones?

Slentz again assaults collective memory when he claims:

Local educational agencies have clear decision-making authority over the adoption of curriculum materials and instructional practices. NYSED has used its federal Race to the Top (RTTT) funds to support these local efforts.

The historical record is clear on this, and the state, with the “incentives” of ED’s RttT, has actively subverted the authority of Local Education Agencies counter to the hypnotic counter claim in the memo. LEAs were coerced into signing Memorandum of Understanding supporting the Core and test-based teacher evaluations in order for New York State to win RttT funds. New York’s RttT funds did not “support” this as a district “initiative”. New York’s RttT application, to be successful, required districts fall in line.[5]

This discourse seeks to deny the movement to sequester school boards, as planned by the architects of market driven education policies, including charter schools.[6] To affirm the authority of local educational agencies in words while simultaneously acting to remove the last vestiges of that authority through imposition of the non-state, privately controlled CCSSI and a test-based teacher evaluation system (so-called Annual Professional Performance Review) which necessarily transfers the right of school boards to make personnel decisions to state imposed performance metrics controlled by private, for-profit companies (named only as “vendors” in the memo), is a bold attack on the public’s right to govern its schools and the memory of education professionals throughout New York State. I certainly don’t want folks who make such claims developing my child’s history curriculum!

In place of all these facts and many, many others worthy of consideration, Slentz concludes the second paragraph of his memo thusly: “Reform cannot be delayed.” Why the urgency to fly unbuilt planes in the air, we are not told. But we have our experience of the last thirty plus years of “standards-based reform” and it tells us that what is being put forward is not new; it has been tried, and we have found it wanting as a means to improve public schooling.

The fact is, there has been no serious summation of New York’s system over time, or a comparison of it in either its past and present form with the Common Core Initiative. It is simply asserted that the standards are higher, that the tests are better. Period. While drinking whisky while on the podium, in that all-too familiar Ivy League never-really-taught-in-a-school arrogance, Core architect David Coleman told New York educators “not to worry” when they raised serious doubts about various plans.[7]  The CCSSI was adopted so quickly there was no time to think through the CCSSI as a proposal, let alone organize public deliberation about what is reported as a historic change (and it is, but not in the manner talked about by the insurgents).

But erasing the past through the hypnotic repetition of “for the first time” makes such an assessment off limits and the past experience of mass imposed failure via “standards” invisible. Such a formulation is designed to steer people away from comparing the CCSSI to past practice, since, if it is the “first time” there is no past reference point available for comparison.[8]  This renders individuals and the public vulnerable, locked in a purgatory of a permanent present where only the assertions of those in positions of power stand to guide practice.

In fact, if readers study the justifications offered by advocates of the CCSSI, they will, I believe, be disappointed. What they will find are assertions that the CCSSI is needed to compete in the global economy. But readers will find no effort to prove this thesis or justify it as a starting points (i.e., why “winning the global competition” should be the aim of education). Instead, people will find assertions about what “college and career” mean, again, with no analysis of past practice.[9]

Folks will find inept and dangerous “arguments” such as those offered by Robert Rothman (Something in Common, 2011). He begins trumpeting the CCSSI by presenting a three paragraph summary of efforts to establish national standards for school bus safety, efforts that resulted in the “yellow school bus”. He then offers: “Like the school transportation standards, [the CCSSI] were designed to address the problem that state standards varied widely, and in some cases, harmed children.” In some ways, this imposed likeness gets us close to the real issue for the insurgents.

Note that insurgents strategically confuse variation in teacher, district and state curriculum expectations with assertions that this means educators don’t have worked ideas about how to assess student learning. Difference is asserted as a signifier of incompetence and lack of knowledge. Comparing variation in state curriculum to variations in school bus safety standards, and on that basis, establishing as fact that difference in curriculum between states is inherently “unsafe” and problematic, represents an interesting form of mental dysfunction. This shows how far “reformers” will reach to try and justify their actions. More importantly, it reveals their hatred for human difference and love of education as “product specifications” or what some have dubbed the New Taylorism.[10] Are all forms of cultural differences “unsafe” to these “reformers”, curriculum being a form of culture? Should all variation in language, religion, custom, dress, food be eliminated? And like the corporate gangsters that inspire them, it also reveals their love of centralized power. Rothman ties the outcome of centralized transportation standards to the centralization of schools systems across the country, and presents it as a universal good, as invariably a mark of progress.

Thus, assessment of the vast experience of public education is blocked by present day advocates of assessment and data. No acknowledgement of the complex relationship between education and the economy is allowed. Submission to centralized executive power and the elimination of difference is valorized.

The Significance of Forgetting Past Assessment Practices

It is important to highlight an important change taking place with assessment, beginning with the “competency testing movement” of the 1970s and coming to its full potential with the Core. Tests that are designed to assess student knowledge in a given subject area are not supposed to “fully reflect” the Core “standards”, as Slentz says the new state assessments do in his memo. Such tests are supposed to, according to standard psychometric practice, be composed of a representative sample of questions that reflect the actual curriculum. Such examinations are not to be built on the basis of a list of skills and dispositions CEOs and venture philanthropists demand students acquire. They are approximations of how students would perform if tested on the entire curriculum; thus was the once common manner for estimating students grasp of different bodies of knowledge. The Regents Exams once operated on the basis of this logic.

This is a historic shift in education practice that has gone unnoticed by many. To me it signals the death of curriculum and the reduction of education to “product specifications” — that is, lists of what students are supposed to know and be able to do and when. Thus, despite claims to the contrary, the CCSSI has fully institutionalized teaching to the test (the “standards”). The CCSS documents are replacing curriculum as historically understood.[11] In the end, this type of assessment is not about learning, its only about control.

Affirming the Role of Collective Memory in Assessing Social Practice

Memory is required for drawing conclusions based on experience, forming public opinion, charting progress and making plans. Collective memory informs public demands. To attack collective memory, and the achievements of educators in particular, is a political act to disarm educators and the public. Without memory, one cannot question the claims of an agency that has increasingly botched assessment. Absent memory, it is impossible to analyze current trends against past practice, to evaluate the merits and justifications of present proposals.

Without memory one cannot assess the awareness that comes from direct experience. It is, I fear, the present aim of the assessment apparatus being built for the Core to fully bring about a form of educational life that negates the role of direct experience in human development and thus stands as a block to social progress.

(To Be Continued)

Notes

  1. Note that while the system of public education that is now being dismantled by the insurgents was itself a means of imposing inequality and injustice in the form of racial and class segregation, a system that imposed patterns of differential educational achievement tied to these and other social positions, we need not conclude, as the insurgents do, that the establishment of public education was a complete failure worthy only of destruction.
  2. In James B. Hunt’s Forward to Robert Rothman’s justification of the CCSSI (Something in Common, 2011), we are told that teachers do not have “accurate expectations” of what “students should know and be able to do”, erasing decades of state efforts to establish such standards. Should the state be deciding matters of conscience, as “expect” refers to “strong belief that something will happen”? If so, are all previous state standards equally unhelpful to teachers? Does the public accept the imbedded assumption that teachers have no role in establishing their own expectations? I encourage readers to seek out expressions of the “for the first time” thesis in news reports, press releases and speeches of Core advocates.
  3. See NYSED’s own presentation of their history, where they assert as much
  4. See this site for data on trends in various states.
  5. The MoU can be found here.
  6. Remember, Education Commission King is a corporate charter insurgent steeped in the belief that the problem with public education in the U.S. is that it is public and governed by elected representatives of the people.
  7. This story was corroborated by several educators in my area who attended these sessions; note that these same attendees were shown clips from Rambo and Clint Eastwood movies as examples of the kind of leadership required to implement the Core. The “professional development opportunity” was organized by NYSED.
  8. Certainly more honest formulations could have been easily adopted, e.g., “The Common Core Standards have been found to be superior to the existing set of state standards, in the following ways, using X methods of analysis”.
  9. See this ahistorical and seemingly balanced discussion.
  10. See Wayne Au, Teaching under the New Taylorism: High-Stakes Testing and the Standardization of the 21st Century Curriculum, Journal of Curriculum Studies, 43(1), 25-45: 2011.
  11. See this first-hand report from a New York State English teacher: http://shermandorn.com/wordpress/?p=5815#comment-2257

2 Comments Infaming the Public, Part II: Collective Amnesia and the Hypnotic Myth of the Common Core

  1. Dino April 8, 2013 at 9:40 pm

    Teach to the specs
    Recall that other bit of trickery, paraphrased as “teach the child, not the science.” So Indeed, when teachers used to teach a subject, then a test is supposed to ask you representative sample of the knowledge that one has obtained. One couldn’t teach to the test, because one taught the subject, and the test was just a studied reflection of the subject, which would ask different bits and pieces, and perhaps giving emphasis to foundational concepts. Now you teach to the specs, which are the rigid (rigorous) “standards”– it’s really non sensical. A subject is infinite, ever developing. Standards are some kind of holy tablets. Being “ready” should mean that you have grounding in subjects–bodies of knowledge, which you can then build on or apply. How can you master “standards”? No, a product with the programmed specifications doesn’t contemplate and reason–I think the current model can only, like never before, engage in so called “creative thinking”–and yes that will be on the test, because we said so, and we’ll tell you which multiple guess test item has it.

    My daughter brought home the Time magazine for kids that is distributed in schools. The cover story is called The Future of Testing–“you will soon be taking tests on computers and tablets”. Screen time at home is when the kids are vegged out–there is no laughter, no arguing, no noise. There’s a coupla nice specs for ya,

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

sixteen − one =