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How PD Defeats PR

Pity the poor policy proponents of Common Core based reformy stuff.

In bureaucratic offices and thinky tank conferences, these acolytes craft carefully constructed arguments designed to show teachers, parents, and taxpayers how they should think and feel about the current CCSS-driven, high stakes testified status quo. Pundits and policy wonks and activists and B-grade bloggers read carefully and respond often. But meanwhile, out on that road where the rubber comes down, much of this careful crafting never penetrates. Instead, teachers in the field simply gauge by what they directly experience. CCSS can spend weeks building a beautiful machine, but PD can dismantle it in just a few hours.

At the beginning of the week, I sat through two and a half hours of Professional Development presented by fully trained and designated representatives of Pennsylvania's Department of Education. And it was an excellent example of how all the PR in the world means nothing when stacked up against what teachers actually hear in PD sessions. Here are some of the carefully constructed myths that our presenters blew to smithereens.

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No Test Prep

We have heard repeatedly that the Common Core based tests are extra super duper because the defy test prep. They are such pure and holy instruments of educational measurement that test prep is both unnecessary and fruitless. You cannot teach to these tests, buddy!

Our PD was about Webb's Depth of Knowledge, and right off the bat our state-issued trainer gave this explanation for why we should be using Webb's DOK in our classrooms:

It's not fair to students if the first time they see a DOK 2 or 3 question is on a state test.

In other words, we were learning DOK because it is good (and necessary) test prep. Add passing references to drilling students with short reading excerpts followed by multiple choice testing, and any teacher in the room would laugh at the notion that there is now no test prep. Since those teachers are also all too aware that their professional standing is in part determined by test results, they are also aware that test prep is important.

De-lovely, De-lightful, De-coupling

"You don't really hate the Core," CCSS boosters tell us. "It's those damn tests. We could get rid of the terrible testing and everything would be okay."

Our presenters showed us a simple graphic--

Okay, their graphic wasn't that simple; my graphics department is seriously underfunded. But you get the idea-- up there on the big screen, a clear graphic representation of how standards are tied directly into assessment and curriculum. Reformsters can keep claiming that the Core exists on its own happy planet completely separate from the Test and any sort of national curriculum. PD repeatedly reaffirms that they are no more separable than the three heads of Cerebus.

Common Core Loves Children

After we saw the nifty Teacher Channel video of a happy teacher and a happy class, one of my colleagues observed that while it might look nice with ten kids in a class, real life classes were much larger. How did the presenters propose to scale these techniques up to a larger group?

The answer was to spend the first part of the year teaching students to follow a routine and meet your expectations. Once you have the students completely conditioned to follow routine obediently, you can rip right through these techniques.

I've heard this undertone in virtually every reformy PD I've attended-- once we train students to be obedient and compliant, we can teach them properly.

This is, of course, the opposite of child centered learning, and it also puts to lie the whole "put the concerns of children before the concerns of adults" baloney. If a teacher needs students to change so that she can do her job, that teacher does not understand her job.

The Transformative Miracle of Common Core

After more teacher testimonials on video, followed by more burbling by our presenters, a couple of my more mild-mannered colleagues leaned together and started talking quietly. "So before Common Core nobody ever did thinking in a classroom??!!" was just part of what they had to say. These are not fire-breathing education activists; the mainest thing they know about the Core is that talking about it raises my blood pressure.

I know that reformsters think these breathless testimonials of How Common Core Transformed My Teaching send a message of "See how helpful this was to me, a teacher?" But I have to tell them-- even to teachers with moderate experience and only middling interest in policy issues, what these testimonials say is, "Prior to Common Core, I was an incompetent dope."

Rigor Is a Thing

We're not making things more difficult. Just more rigorous. Raising more brain sweat. Increasing rigor by either ramping up the content or the task or both.

Golly bob howdy, but this rigor thing always reads great on paper. But when a live human has to try to explain it to other live humans, the air fills with the scent of bovine fecal matter and flop sweat.

Our ladies tried to give examples of the upward rigor rampage of some content, but every time, the whole purpose of the lesson changed along the way. One of my colleagues observed, "But you just completely changed the task." Ultimately the best the state's ladies could do was, "Excellent question. We'll think about that and come back to it." Rigor always seems like a great idea until you have to explain it in concrete, practical terms. Then it becomes hugely squishy and fuzzy.

When you ask a used car salesman a staightforward question about the tires or the body work and you can't get a straight answer, you know something smells off. Rigor is the stinky used car of reformy PD.

Reform Is Great for Students

All the above reformy myths end up being directly contradicted in PD sessions. This last one suffers refutation by omission. 

In two and a half hours, we heard not word one about how the techniques being peddled would help our students. Nothing about how it would help them grow into happier, healthier citizens. Nothing about how it would improve the quality of their lives. Nothing about how it would help each child deal with his personal constellation of challenges and gifts. Somehow, for all its unsupportable college and career ready rhetoric (which is never backed up with anything specific or clear, because we have no idea whether all this malarkey will make students CACR or not), reformy PD rarely attempts a clear picture of how all of this will be good for the students. And no, helping them do well on the Big Test does not count.

CCSS-based reformy stuff is the buddy who says, "Yeah, I'll go in there and have your back every step of the way" and the first time you're in a tight spot with a real, live human student, and you turn back for help, reformy buddy shrugs and says, "Yeah, I got nothing."

Reformsters can carefully craft all the PR they wish. When teachers sit down in PD sessions, they see a different, starker truth. This is why Common Core's teacher support poll numbers are in free fall. We've seen the Core's true face, and it is one ugly sumbitch.

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