A Close Read of Commissioner King’s Communique

New York State Education Commissioner King’s October 24th memo, erroneously reported on in the New York Times as an effort to reduce the amount of high stakes testing imposed on New York’s students and teachers, offers us a chance to discuss key assumptions guiding current education policy.

Following her reading of King’s memo, one principal offered this to me in an email:

The evolution of “teaching is the core of learning” to “teaching is the Core” over the course of the document is shocking. Now districts are going to receive financial incentives disguised as grants to compel them to teach to the test? Come on. Not only is NYS blackmailing districts into APPR compliance through threats related to state funding, now grants are offered for Core compliance. How interesting that King advocates not teaching to the test but monetarily incentives the exact practice.

Interesting indeed. As I read through the memo, I became struck by how the message was constructed. Taking off from the critique offered above, I thought I’d conduct a “Close Read” of sorts of King’s narrative.[1]

This presentation will be in two parts, as nearly every paragraph of King’s memo deserves scrutiny and carries with it significance.

Let’s begin with the following quote, from the first paragraph in this three page memo.

During times of change and transition, it’s important to clarify the values and vision underlying our decisions, policies, and practices. Since we began four years ago to implement the Regents Reform agenda focused on ensuring that all of our students graduate college and career ready, issues and concerns have arisen. It’s not surprising; any endeavor as significant and important as this will always have need of adjustment.

There are two key things to point out here.

First, ensuring all graduates are “college and career ready” is not properly considered a vision. Working so that people reach a certain level of development, however conceived, serves a vision, but is not a vision itself. This confusion reveals the deep philosophical nihilism at the center of the Regents Reform Agenda, and the corporate reform movement from which it is derived. This agenda is the imposition of education devoid of purpose. It reduces the aim of education to “benchmarks” of “college and career”, as if the aim of human growth was merely to exceed a hight of five feet or get to level 3 on state exams. The aim of education cannot be confused with a measure designed to determine if the aim has been achieved. The problem with teaching to the test is, then, not really a problem with testing per se. It is rather a problem with the aim itself. Whether we have fewer or smarter or better tests, as long as the aim of education is reduced to “demonstrating proficiencies”, nihilism will reign. Students will be alienated, and teachers reduced to drones. Education devoid of purpose only makes sense when it is premised on a factory model; preparing things to be consumed by global capital; things do not need philosophy, or vision, and so, merely establishing “benchmarks” (output) is a sufficient rendering of “goals” or “objectives”. All this, in turn, is premised on a value system that is “capital” centered, and not “human” centered. Parents and educators are working for a pro-human vision for education, one premised on the flourishing of human beings and human society.

The second point is the manner in which King ends the first paragraph, such that whatever problems admittedly exist, they are problems of implementation, and not substance. The solutions offered are solutions to serve the Regents Reform Agenda, an agenda that was not developed with the input of educators, or parents, or their communities. State legislatures had little if any role in setting the agenda. The agenda was imposed from on high, by the likes of the big venture philanthropies, fortune 500 companies, federal bribes, and so on. The aim of the memo is to turn growing opposition to the agenda into support for tweaking the agenda so as to make sure it is realized.

King continues:

Of course, testing is an important part of the instructional cycle and necessary to monitor student academic progress and contribute to decisions at the classroom, school, district, and state levels.

What is an “instructional cycle”? Does learning and teaching repeat itself in the manner seasons do? Is it like the life cycle, ending in death? I encourage readers to type “instructional cycle” into their favorite search engine. Mine returned examples that seem far more fixated on “assessment” than “instruction”. And, what ever happened to teaching? It’s no accident that the root of the word instructional is instruct, the first meaning of this verb being: “direct or command someone to do something, esp. as an official order”. The idea almost seems to be that “instruction” exists solely for the purpose of assessment.[2]

This bit from Wikipedia struck me as worth further exploration, given the mandated role of technology in every policy favored by Washington, Albany, the Business Roundtable, and, oh yes, Bill Gates. In case readers are not into clicking right now, the “instruction cycle” is defined as follows: “An instruction cycle (sometimes called fetch-and-execute cycle, fetch-decode-execute cycle, or FDX) is the basic operation cycle of a computer.” Might this be the vision guiding King, Duncan, Broad, Gates, Amplify, Bloomberg, Rhee, … Barber … GAP … the Fishers … The U.S. Chamber of Commerce … Pearson … The NGA/CCSSO … Obama? The problem is, students and teachers are not computers, they are not devoid of will, values and aims. Humans are the creator of the computer, they are not born of its image.

From my search I also noticed how this phrase was a darling of the charter industry, along with their close allies in certain education policy circles, and of course the major education publisher, who shall not be named (but, heck, its OK if I link!). That is to say, this “vision” of education-as-assessment premised on a model of teaching and learning that can be reduced to fetching and executing is deeply engrained in the entire corporate reform agenda at every level. King’s memo asserts that everyone must be on board.

King continues:

However, the amount of testing should be the minimum necessary to inform effective decision-making.

While this sounds positive, it is vapid. Free floating signifiers save its author from any accountability, as passive voice and its relatives “minimum” and “effective” circle, like vultures, the popular hope that rational policy might one day reign. Watch here as the vultures begin to dive toward their prey, rationality:

Test results should be used only as one of multiple measures of progress, and tests should reflect our instructional priorities. That is why New York State’s Common Core assessments emphasize critical thinking, reading challenging texts, opportunities for students to write with evidence drawn from texts, and math questions that require students to demonstrate their mathematical reasoning through real world application. Students are best prepared to succeed academically through rigorous and engaging instruction, not rote test preparation.

Is there slippage in this informational text? Notice how the construction links support for the seemingly reasonable idea of using multiple measures — as if several methods of slaughter are superior to a single, decisive blow — to support for “our instructional priorities” being the Common Core. Readers are to forget that the Core regime is a nation-wide means for inducing the nightmare of test-induced nihilism. Readers are to forget that we don’t need the Core regime or “comparable measures” to help students explain their answers, read challenging texts or otherwise think. This is salesman psychology; “always be closing,” as the wisdom goes. You will buy the Core. Yes, you will. There is no alternative.

To be continued

Notes

  1. I’m not sure whether the document should be classified as fiction or non-fiction; I do have a difficult time considering it informational, as readers will see.
  2. Recently I’ve taken to telling everyone to oppose the seemingly reasonable, right-minded slogan, which calls on everyone to “build a culture of assessment.” What we really need, I argue, is a culture of learning! If we had a culture of learning, assessment would necessarily have in its proper form, in its proper place.

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