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In Defense of Educational Change

Leo Casey replies again today to Deborah Meier.

Deb:

There is peril in advocating for educational change. Whether it be "close readings" or charter schools, small class sizes or small schools, good ideas for change do not come with guarantees that they will be implemented with fidelity—or for that matter, with common sense.

We have seen progressive educational changes with extraordinary promise usurped for less than noble ends. A generation ago, who would have thought that the grass roots, democratic idea of small schools run by educators and families could be remade into a top-down, autocratic model for the mass production of new schools? That a charter school movement conceived as a means for innovation and teacher voice in public schools could be commandeered by foes of public education seeking privatization and the evisceration of teachers' unions? That smaller class sizes would be implemented in California in a way that produced a teacher "brain drain" out of districts educating poor students of color, to the benefit of districts serving white students living in economic comfort?

It is not hard to identify the potential for similar distortions in the implementation of the Common Core State Standards. You correctly point out the problems with forcing down standards into developmentally inappropriate ages, such as pushing written literacy at a stage when young children need to be developing their oral literacy. Even more problematic has been the rush to use new, poorly designed standardized exams without first providing teachers with the professional development, the curriculum, the teaching materials, and most importantly, the time to work with each other that is necessary to teach to new, higher standards.

The problem, Deb, is that as much as there is peril in advocating for educational change, the alternative of simply defending the status quo is a surefire recipe for isolation and defeat. The enemies of public education advance their cause by exploiting the failings of existing public schools—most especially, the radical inequalities that have denied a quality education to students of color and students living in poverty. There is a reason why charter schools have been concentrated in the poorest communities in our inner cities, and it is not the noblesse oblige of their Wall Street and Silicon Valley patrons. It is because families in those communities are looking for good schools for their children, not unlike the schools that professional and upper-middle-class families already enjoy. To defend public education, we must have a compelling egalitarian vision of what a public school should be, and not just a portrait of what it is. Progressive educational change is essential to that vision.

Rather than shirking from educational change, we need to be even more forceful in our advocacy and in our defense of it. We need to reclaim and restore the original purpose of charter schools, of small schools, and of smaller class sizes, and, yes, of the common core. We need to be bolder in our demands for change, not timid in our defense of a public education under attack.

Yet for many, a defensive constriction of our educational horizons, a circling of the wagons, seems to be the order of the day. How disappointing to see the usually thoughtful and insightful Stan Karp write in Rethinking Schools that the actual common-core standards are not important. What matters, what is the common core's fatal flaw, Karp contended, is that the standards are being implemented under the aegis of corporate education reform with its "test and punish" accountability. But what educational change is there that will be miraculously free of the struggles that must be waged against the distortions of corporate education reform? Certainly not charter schools, small schools, or any substantive reform I know. Shouldn't the point be to identify corporate education reform as the foe, and to defend the integrity of our educational changes against the distortions it imposes upon them? Shouldn't we take on directly "test and punish" accountability, rather than be diverted into a crusade against the common core, which, even if successful, would leave that accountability intact—as has been the case in every state that dumped the common core?

Imagine a different critical discourse around the common core. When the Council of Chief State School Officers cowered before the Tea Party, abandoning the C3 (College, Career, and Citizenship) standards that included civics and social studies, imagine a critique that defended the original conception of the common core and insisted that it include civics and social studies standards.[1] Imagine a forthright defense of the democratic idea that the fundamental purpose of public education is education into democratic citizenship, and an insistence that any set of standards that did not address this purpose was radically incomplete and deficient. Imagine that the powerful inquiry teaching embedded in the C3 standards was defended and promoted as a vital improvement in civics and social studies teaching. What would be a better alternative to the surreal and paranoid discourse swirling around the common core, Deb, than a powerful vision of education into democratic citizenship, and the insistence that it be at the center of educational standards?

Leo

[1] After having commissioned the C3 standards, the CCSSO responded to Tea Party criticism of the earlier ELA and math standards by announcing that states did not have to adopt the C3 standards (or any civics and social studies standards) to be part of the Common Core State Standards, and did not even publish them. It was left to the professional organization of social studies teachers, the National Council for the Social Studies, to publish the C3 standards.

Leo Casey is the executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, a policy and research think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. For 27 years, he worked in the New York City public high schools, where he taught high school social studies. For six years, he served as the vice president for academic high schools for New York City's teachers' union, the United Federation of Teachers. 

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