Rush and Lack: The Common Core’s Foreseeable Fall

In 2011, 45 states had signed on to the Common Core State Standards; by the fall of 2016, only 20 states were still planning to use the Common Core-aligned assessments. While only a few states have officially revoked the Common Core, the general support has visibly and audibly crumbled.

What went wrong here? Much has already been said about the great expense, the swell of resistance to excessive testing, the longstanding resentment of federal mandates in education, the confusion around implementation, and much more. I will highlight the effects of rush and curricular lack.

I was briefly involved with the development of the CCSS. In 2009 I served on the English Language Arts Work Team; in this role, I proposed titles for the list of suggested books, reviewed drafts of the standards, and provided commentary here and there. I was not part of insider discussion, nor did I commit to supporting the standards in my writing. (In fact I stated outright that I would need to retain the freedom to say whatever I wanted about the standards; this was never contested.) I supported aspects of the standards in principle but was wary of possible corruptions, all of which came true.

First of all, states were rushed and pressured, through President Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative, into adopting the standards. (I admire President Obama but consider this one of his biggest presidential mistakes.) The problem with such rush is that it strips you of the ability to act wisely. In 2010 I wrote an op-ed,”The Problem with ‘Race to the Top’ Is the Race,” for the Washington Post; I stand by those words today. The third paragraph reads,

Indeed, we should be willing to shake things up to improve the schools. All depends on what we shake and how. We may well be shaking up the wrong things, or the right things in the wrong way. There is great danger in the rush of Race to the Top. To compete for funds, states must embrace reforms that haven’t been fully tested, reforms rife with problems, reforms in which they may not even believe. In other words, thoughtfulness and integrity are pushed aside. This is deadly for education.

Second, the whole initiative was conducted backwards. You can’t have standards until you establish what you are going to teach. Standards outline the abstract skills–but those abstractions mean little out of context, especially in English language arts. I do not mean that there should have been a national curriculum; that probably would have been dreadful. Rather, any standards should have been grounded in an understanding of the subject matter that would be taught over the K-12 years.

If you do not ground the standards in subject matter, then your tests, too, will be ungrounded; instead of testing what the students have learned, they will test generic skills. Schools will have to scramble to figure out what might be on the test and how to approach it.

How do you establish subject matter for an entire country? Well, perhaps you don’t–but you can start by publishing a few model curricula as examples. By “curriculum” I do not mean the typical mess of lengthy descriptions, unit plans, lesson plans, and so on, but rather a clear and simple outline of the content and sequence of instruction.

How did this curricular lack come about? I imagine that the Common Core leaders realized that a national curriculum would be politically doomed. So instead of putting forth a curriculum, they simply stated, within the standards, that a curriculum was necessary. Curriculum proponents frequently quoted those words–but unfortunately (as Robert Pondiscio has noted) it isn’t enough to say “you gotta have curriculum, folks.” People have wildly different understandings of–and experience with–the word, concept, and practice.

This equivocation led to a big mess regarding nonfiction. The standards stated that by grade 12, 70 percent of students’ reading in school should be “informational.” The standards clarified that this applied to the students’ reading across the subjects, not in English class–but English teachers were receiving the message, from many directions, that they should include much more “informational text” in their classes.

When the type of text (here “informational”) precedes its very substance, something has gone awry. Why not focus on choosing excellent texts for students–fiction, drama, poetry, literary nonfiction, according to the content of the courses? Why the pressure to include more “informational” text per se? (Not all nonfiction is “informational”; I would not call Mill’s On Liberty “informational text,” for instance, but that does not diminish its value.)

There were certainly political reasons for the emphasis on “informational text.” In 2012, the Council on Foreign Relations issued a report titled “U.S. Education Reform and National Security,” which called for education reform that would serve national security. This conspicuously  included greater emphasis on “informational text.” In Forum, no, 5 (2012), I joined Rosanna Warren, Lee Oser, David Bromwich, John C. Briggs, Robert Alter, Helaine Smith, and others in challenging the assumptions and recommendations of this report.

The standards’ two problems–rush and curricular lack–go together. The standards’ glaring flaws were not worked out prior to their implementation; thus states, districts, and schools had to bear the brunt of the confusion. Here we are, with a lesson learned and unlearned again and again: Like subject matter itself, education policy requires careful thought, open dissent, and dialogue.

Note: I made minor edits to this piece after posting it. I later changed “dissension” (in the last sentence) to “dissent.”

Elitism Versus Populism in Education

In a recent post (now deleted), I discussed what I saw as an anti-intellectual tendency in education. I gave only two examples and didn’t go into the complexities of the matter. (I later became dissatisfied with the piece.) In particular, I didn’t make a clear distinction between anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism. The two overlap and combine but are not identical.

Anti-elitism involves distrust of privilege and its distortions. In education, the elite are those who come with money or make a great deal of money; who hobnob with Bill Gates and Arne Duncan and take part in various wealthy organizations; who have strong media connections and can get op-eds in the big magazines; and who don’t teach day in, day out. They need some knowledge of education, or they lose credibility, like Cathie Black, who briefly served as NYC schools chancellor. Yet they don’t have to do the daily work of planning and conducting lessons, calling parents, correcting papers, setting up rooms, or rushing around to make photocopies and gather supplies. On the other hand, precisely because they don’t have to perform all these tasks or deal with so many youngsters, they have room to write, do research, think ideas through, and deliberate with others.

It’s reasonable to be suspicious of elites, especially when they talk about the need for better teachers. Their degree of material comfort, compared to that of teachers, staggers and addles the mind. Some of them may work hard—I have no doubt that Wendy Kopp and Geoffrey Canada do—but they do not have to grade 200 homework assignments over a weekend. They don’t have to worry about where the chattering is coming from in a room, how to introduce students to Aristotle, or why a certain student isn’t handing in homework. Nor do they have to worry about being judged by students’ test scores—on tests that have little to do with their subjects. Working in the quiet of your office, or even giving talks around the country, carries nothing of this pressure or exhilaration. It has its own pressures and rewards. I am not diminishing the work of good education leaders—but put them in a classroom for a month, with all of the responsibilities, and many would find themselves overwhelmed.

On the other end of things, we have populism, which opposes elitism tooth and nail. Populism is essentially a belief in the virtue, authority, and wisdom of the people. Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell characterize it as an ideology that “pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity, and voice.” Populists say (this is my paraphrase, not that of Albertazzi and McDonnell), “look at those people making all that money and enjoying all that power. What do they know about our concerns? Why should they be telling us what to do? Why aren’t we the ones setting policy?”

If you don’t sympathize at least a little with a populist outlook, then you are missing something. There’s every reason to be wary of the ultra-powerful, and to yearn for more popular influence over public affairs. But populism has its pitfalls, too. For one thing, it presumes to know who the people are and what they want; it assumes that they more or less agree, when in fact there may be deep divisions among them. Second, it values certain ideas because they (presumably) come from the people, not because they are good. Along these lines, it may dismiss good ideas merely because they appear to come from the elite. Third, it places high value on group thinking and majority rule; those who don’t fit in or who hold independent views are regarded with slight suspicion. (Granted, elite groups and policymaking bodies have plenty of their own groupthink; I highly recommend Irving L. Janis’s book on the subject.)

So, anti-populists, or skeptics of populism, champion independent thought and intellect; they remind us of the “tyranny of the majority.” They point out where popular and populist movements have gone wrong, how they have gotten swept up in an illusion of consensus and truth, when in reality they were deluded and divided. The anti-populists have a point, but they, too, can get carried away. They can distrust anything that looks like a popular movement, even if it’s well founded and badly needed.

How could we bring together the best of elitism and populism, so that we could evaluate ideas on their own merit, allow for individual voices and group efforts, and honor those who devote themselves to education, especially teachers? First, we would have to put an end to the education racket. In many circles, education reform has become lucrative, with consultants making more than a thousand dollars a day. This is obnoxious at best, crippling at worst. Second, when the New York Times and other publications have “panels” on education topics, they should not only include teachers in the discussion, but bring them to the forefront. Third, we should take ideas on their merits, instead of judging them by the speaker’s position and connections. Fourth, we should respect independent thought. No one should be spurned for differing from the group. We are more likely to respect and understand independent thought when we discuss something substantial—so let’s have more discussions of subject matter itself.

These are only preliminary thoughts; I intend to think and write more about this topic.


N0te: I made a few edits to this piece long after posting it.

Equals Sign Creates Jobs and Confusion

In their rush to implement Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a federally approved framework intended to maximize learning outcomes for all students, schools have hired gymnasts, carpenters, and political philosophers to provide multiple representations of the equals sign.

According to UDL, “An equals sign (=) might help some learners understand that the two sides of the equation need to be balanced, but might cause confusion to a student who does not understand what it means. … An important instructional strategy is to ensure that alternative representations are provided not only for accessibility, but for clarity and comprehensibility across all learners.”

“I thought the equals sign was pretty clear,” said John Knap, a high school mathematics teacher. “Not sure why we have to represent it in other ways. Yesterday two gymnasts came to my class to perform double flips, and the kids were supposed to grasp that the two routines were ‘equal.’ They weren’t equal. One was a little faster than the other. And of course the kids wanted to see more routines. We couldn’t get to the lesson.”

Kelly McEwen, a carpenter hired to provide alternative representations of the equals sign at elementary schools in San Diego, expressed misgivings over the project. “The pay’s great,” she said, “but I’m not sure I’m doing the right thing. I’m supposed to show them the spirit level and pretend it’s just like the equals sign. It isn’t just like the equals sign. I end up doing a lot of qualifying and explaining, and the teachers and kids get anxious. Plus, they’re waiting for me to take out the saw, which I never bring, for safety reasons.”

Political philosophers seem especially disgruntled with the project. “I was invited to come to Inspiration Academy to talk about political equality,” reported Andrew Ravny, author of numerous books on William Hazlitt and Thomas Jefferson. “I accepted gladly. When I arrived, I was told to draw stick figures and put a smiley face between them to show that they were equal. I did this and went on to say that two equals three in such a scheme, because both numbers have the same inherent dignity and rights. I don’t think I’ll be invited back.” He chuckled grimly. “Which is just as well, since I need to focus on my next book.”

We had the pleasure of interviewing the inventor of the equals sign, Robert Recorde, whom we heard stirring in his grave. We asked him why he had chosen to represent mathematical equality with two parallel lines. He replied that he did it “to auoide the tediouse repetition of these woordes : is equalle to.”

But why the two parallel lines? we asked.

“Bicause noe 2 thynges can be moare equalle,” was his reply.

We thought that Recorde would be pleased to learn that his equals sign was now inspiring multiple representations. As we told him about the reforms, we watched and listened closely for his reaction. But he replied in cryptic verse and then faded from our midst:

One thyng is nothyng, the prouerbe is,
Whiche in some cases doeth not misse.
Yet here by woorking with one thyng,
Soche knowledge doeth from one roote spryng,
That one thyng maie with right good skille,
Compare with all thyng: And you will
The practice learne, you shall sone see,
What thynges by one thyng knowen maie bee.*

“It’s a nice poem, but I’m not sure how it applies to classroom practice,” said Mercy Trout, director of instructional services in Boise, Idaho, who had accompanied us for the interview. “Is he saying kids should study math as math? Or is he saying all things are connected? What are the policy implications for school improvement?”

“Where are you, Recorde, and where’s the whetstone of witte when we need it?” cried another.

“I think he’s saying that if people do study math in a focused way, then they will see….” a third member of our party ventured. But it had grown dark and windy, and conversation turned to our flight back home and whether it would depart on time.

*The verse appears in Recorde’s preface to his Whetstone of Witte (1557).

Never Forget How to Let Go of a Bad Hypothesis

In blog-land, I know I am an insignificant creature among insignificant creatures. Up goes another blog. Three people read it. There I go posting a comment on someone else’s blog. I put an hour into it, and then look aghast at my day. If blogs get forgotten, blog comments get doubly and triply forgotten.

Not always, though. In late January 2009, when Eduwonkette “hung up her cape,” a comment appeared on her blog. Though anonymous, it clearly came from a wise and knowledgeable person. It is about the importance of admitting that you’re wrong, when you are wrong. (“Eduwonkette” was the pseudonym or “mask” of the magnificent education blogger Jennifer Jennings, now assistant professor in the Sociology Department at NYU.)

I think I was moved to something like tears at the time. Maybe not tears, maybe just a gulp and a lot of thinking. I have thought back on that comment many, many times. I have no idea who wrote it. The person used the pseudonym “Right2BWrong” (just for the occasion, I presume).

I am reprinting it here, with full attribution: it first appeared as a comment on Eduwonkette’s Education Week blog on January 27, 2009, the day after the last day of the blog. I will comment on one aspect of it in a separate post.

Here it goes:

Like everyone here, I am sorry you will not be blogging, but agree that you are making a wise choice. Finishing your dissertation is the key to your future and NYU is not a bad place to make money while you do it.

Since no one else has dared to offer any advice, I will. As you know, anonymity gives people a chance to say what they really mean without the fear of reprisal. So, let me offer this anonymous advice. Whatever else you do with the rest of your life, do not become any of the people your critics once imagined you to be.

As you recall, before your unmasking, many of the people behind the studies and press releases and policy “think” tanks you reviewed tried to guess who you were. What did they guess? Some thought you were a policy wonk whose only interest in data was to score political points. They speculated as to who might be funding you; some wondered about EdWeek’s motivation. Others thought you were a disgruntled DOE employee out to settle a personal vendetta against certain people. Some thought that, given your actual skills with data, you were a tenured academic, an ivory tower radical set to bring down the system without any concern for what might be built to replace it.

These are people who commonly battle it out in educational research “debates.” Is it any wonder your critics assumed you were one of them? But the critics were wrong.

Do you recall what bothered them most? They couldn’t figure out whose side you were on. After all, everyone on both sides of these issues has a vested interest in keeping this battle alive. If schools are not broken, who would be paid to fix them, who would be paid to report that the fix did or did not fix it, and who could build a coalition to fight the fixers or organize those who really believe in fixing? The game is called “cops and robbers.” There is no game called “robbers” because that is not much of a game. But you didn’t want to play the policy game. All you cared about was data.

And you had a secret weapon, the ultimate superhero advantage: Your future and your past were not dependent on the outcome. Consider the work of some people twice your age who have spent a professional lifetime dedicated to a hypothesis that does not seem to supported by the data, most of which has been gathered too late in their careers for them to turn back. Consider the people whose reputations are built on their being the “data guru,” but who you have exposed as being perhaps one standard error below proficient in that role. Even some people your own age are already invested. Consider the work of some people your own age whose dissertations started with a policy conclusion and ended with a lot of data massaging, the numbers caressed until they could provide their funders with a happy ending.

You weren’t invested. You could follow the data. If your hypothesis was supported, you could report that. If your hypothesis was not supported, you could report that. In the blogosphere, you can even publish null results, something not as widely accepted in the academic world.

But soon you will become a bit more like your critics. As you grow in your academic career, you will find that certain results, certain publications, lead to opportunities. A sincere, scientific paper might result in a paid speaking engagement. A line of research on some policy might lead to an offer to head a new research department. In the academy, work that supports the current wisdom will help to secure your tenure. Success supporting a hypothesis may bring offers to edit a journal, write a book, or, who knows, become Dean. Success in the academic world may even lead to offers of much more money from a think tank or policy group, especially for someone who can communicate to a large audience. Oh, the places you could go — with all that money!

Soon, you will enter the world in which your critics live. You have visited many times, but soon you, too, will be a resident. No more green card. Full voting rights. Fully invested in the game.

So, how do you avoid becoming any of the people your critics thought you were? Here is the secret. Never forget how to let go of a bad hypothesis. The world of educational research is full of people who must, absolutely must, be right. Their reputations, their careers, their salaries, their retirement, and their personal relationships — their entire lives are dependent on being right about a hypothesis. Never allow yourself to fall into a position in which you become a slave to a hypothesis.

Years from now, remember that your critics tried to attack you here by proving, just once, that you were wrong about something. Any little analytical error would suffice, even if it was because they had provided you with the wrong data. They thought that by showing you were wrong, they could destroy you. In their world, being right is all that matters, regardless of the data.

The policy wonk, dependent on funders; the disgruntled employee, obsessed with petty squabbles; and the ivory tower radical fighting the system all have one thing in common. None of them can afford to admit when they are wrong. If you think about your heroes, even those who have been in this game for 20 or 30 years, you might realize that they all are people who are still willing to admit when they are wrong. Some of them are blogging, just around the corner…

Remember: Being right is a good defense, but being able to admit that you are wrong is the best defense. It is the secret superhuman strength that all real researchers possess. You have it now. It is yours to lose.

Like others here, I, too, look forward to hearing about your work and hope you will continue to contribute to educational research in the years to come. I hope that you are always right about everything. But the only sure proof that you have not become who your critics wanted you to be will be in the times when you report that you were wrong. I doubt you’ll need to say it often, but you will find a great strength in saying it when you do.

Good Luck,

Anonymous Still 

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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