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Who Decides What is Taught in Our Schools?

The fundamental question that has been presented to all of us through the Common Core process is this one: Who decides what is taught in our schools? I first started thinking seriously about national education policy when No Child Left Behind became law, and my school was labeled a failure. Our staff meetings began to be dominated by "data," and experts told us to focus on the students who could improve our ratings, and ignore those who were too far behind to reach proficiency. I was not alone. Teachers and parents across the country became widely dissatisfied and raised their voices. NCLB became a "toxic brand." The rallying cry then was to make sure teachers "had a seat at the table" when important policy decisions were made.

Now we have Common Core, and a whole system of tests and curriculum aligned to it, and very clearly teachers were NOT at the table when the key decisions were made.

The "deciders" in the Common Core process were those who set the process in motion at the Gates Foundation and Department of Education, and the testing companies who were involved in crafting the standards so they would be testable.

So I have been raising objections. Loudly, repeatedly, and with supporting evidence to document the basis for my concerns.  The archive for my blog shows 80 posts in the "Common Core" category,  and this post will add yet another. But some people think I am wasting my breath. Commenter Al Meyers wrote this week

It's time to rename this blog "Living in Dialogue To Kill The Common Core." Isn't it time to live in dialogue about another topic in public education? This is a debate you cannot win.

Instead, how about talking about how teachers can leverage the resources at their disposal to become the most effective teachers they can be? Or better yet, how about making this a discussion about best practices in teaching. Surely in your 24 years of teaching in Oakland schools, you have learned practices worth sharing with the wider community?

I think your talents would be best served by touching on other topics that can help teachers, rather than providing them a forum to simply rant about their own misgivings about matters beyond their control. What they can control is their classrooms and how they can instill the love of learning in each and every child, regardless of socioeconomic background. You may call it Quixotian or Utopian, but I call it pragmatism."

I think this is, in a way, what the teaching profession as a whole has been told. Know your place. Your job is to implement what others have decided. Teachers were allowed to participate in a "review" process of standards that the testing company representatives and non-educators like David Coleman have written, and now we are expected to apply ourselves to making these standards work with our students.

It is not our job to question. It is not our job to challenge. It is our job to get to work and make the best of the imperfect tools we were handed. Meyers calls this pragmatism.

This sort of pragmatism perhaps guided our teacher unions and professional organizations to decide to get on board, and accept the millions of dollars the Gates Foundation has been handing out to those willing to play along. But those who take this approach have conceded something of huge importance. They have ceded to the powerful the prerogative to make decisions that ought to be made in a democratic fashion, and they have relegated themselves and their constituents to the role of bystanders rather than shapers of history.

In acquiescing, we accept as permanent the existing relationships of power. Those taking this stand are not looking at what could happen when people get upset and start organizing. This is why the widespread rebellion against the Common Core has been such a surprise to our leaders and elites. They thought that everything had all been decided when they got the governors and state superintendents to "adopt" the Common Core. Now that things are going sideways, there is a bit of consternation.

The Common Core has come with a powerful propaganda campaign. That is what all these bogus "Common Core Myths & Facts" documents are all about. Every organization that has taken Gates Foundation money to promote or implement the Common Core seems to have one. Big corporations like Exxon are buying ads to defend the project. Astroturf groups like StudentsFirst and charter school operators are even mobilizing teachers and parents to pubic hearings to proclaim their enthusiasm for the tests that 70% of the students in the state failed. 

But the truth is leaking out. There are obvious holes in the wool being pulled over our eyes. Parents are not fooled when all of a sudden they are told their children are "less brilliant," when they learn the tests were intentionally designed to produce these dismal results. Teachers are not fooled when they are told we helped write the standards when the only evidence that can be produced shows only a role in reviewing them after they were written.

We are told the Common Core standards are distinct from the tests, but there is nowhere in the country where their adoption is not accompanied by high stakes tests. And the Department of Education, which makes NCLB waivers contingent on the adoption of "college and career ready standards" such as Common Core, also requires states to include test scores in teacher evaluations.

We are told to give them a chance, but the early indicators are that this is one more huge step down the road towards a comprehensive system of rewards and punishments for test scores, and the results in New York tell us all we need to know about how this will affect our classrooms.

The Gates Foundation, Pearson, the Department of Education, and a host of allied corporate reformers have dominated our classrooms long enough. This need NOT be a permanent state of affairs. It is time for students, teachers and parents to take back our schools.

I am not any sort of elected spokesperson for the teachers of the nation - let alone the students and parents. I write this blog, and do what I can to share my thoughts and experiences, based on my 24 years working in the Oakland schools. I do have some ideas about "best practices," but I don't intend to limit them to the classroom environment. I have some ideas for best practices for our nation.

  1. Standard-setting should be a process that engages and involves the entire school community - teachers, parents and students. A loose national framework would be helpful, and should be developed by leading classroom teachers and child development experts, with active input from parents and students. But there should also be processes at the local level to engage our communities. 
  2. Accountability should be based on authentic student work, not test scores. Tests should be used to provide some basic diagnostic information. But our schools should be accountable to their local community, and make student learning visible to that community. See the Community Based Accountability framework offered by Julian Vasquez-Heilig, and these resources from FairTest.
  3. The Federal government and large philanthropies, which have no constitutional role in creating or promoting national educational standards, or managing things like teacher evaluation, should butt out. These are decisions best left to democratically elected school boards and state or regional bodies.

To be clear, none of this is a defense of the status quo, which has been top-down mandates for the past decade and more. It is a call for broad engagement in the decisions that matter about what is taught and how our schools, teachers and students ought to be held accountable. 

The power shift that I am hoping for has not yet arrived. The Gates Foundation and Department of Education are still driving the Common Core forward, and still pouring millions into advocacy and promotion. They still have many levers of power. But history is full of surprises. Full of moments where people break out of the manipulative systems that have been set up to control them. Anything that was decided by a governor and a superintendent can be reversed -- and we are seeing a number of states moving in that direction. We may be out of practice, but it is like riding a bicycle. We can remember what that was like. For me, that would be the best practice of all. 

What do you think? Should we stop challenging the Common Core and focus on how to best implement it? Or is there another chapter to this story waiting to be written? 

Continue the dialogue with Anthony on Twitter. 

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