Common Core State Standards

Nurturing a Culture of Equality: The Nova Project

Is there room for democratically run, inquiry-based schools in today’s climate of test-and-punish accountability? Is it possible to create spaces where students follow their own interest and pursue inquiries that matter to them? And, if so, what would an inquiry-based high school look like in practice?

Well, I can tell you a few things about The Nova Project, a public high school in Seattle, where I currently teach: at department meetings there isn’t much talk about how to implement the Common Core; and, we don’t spend much time talking about test scores—except when we’re discussing our opt-out numbers (we had 100% last year); what you will see though, are teachers discussing how to best support students, how to partner with community organizations to get services and provide opportunities for students in school and out in the larger Seattle community; you’ll also hear teachers planning courses on the films of Kurosawa and Wes Anderson; or, courses on Dante’s Inferno and graphic novels, as well as Shakespearean tragedies; you’ll also see classes focusing exclusively on Young Adult Literature (YAL); as well as classes on African American Studies; spoken word poetry; writing blogs; novel and short story writing; courses on the history of skateboarding; courses on the history of the neighborhood; courses on math and music; courses on the environment; animation, dance, and music courses; and, classes on philosophy. What’s more, we don’t have grades at Nova; students demonstrate competencies through things like projects, performances, artworks, and critical reflections.

But my point in writing about all of this is not simply to brag about how great Nova is, and it’s certainly not to suggest that we’ve solved all the problems of education, or that we have somehow created a template for schooling, but rather I want to remind folks of what’s possible, even today in the age of accountability and standardization. I want to make clear that it is possible to make positive changes in public schools, to get involved, to opt out, to go on strike, to occupy, to push back, to demonstrate, and to adapt what we do in schools as well as how we do it. Ideas about inquiry-based and project-based education and research about democratic education aren’t new. So, the question is this: Why aren’t more of us organizing our schools around these ideas?  Why aren’t more of our education leaders pushing for real creative and innovative public schools and then giving teachers and students the space to explore what’s worth knowing and doing?

In this post, NCTE writer Bill Bystricky continues his investigation into The Nova Project, a public high school in Seattle that embraces democracy, equality, and freedom.


Putting Humanity Back at the Center: The Nova Project

In this post by writer Bill Bystricky on the NCTE blog Literacy & NCTE, Bill looks at The Nova Project, an alternative public high school in Seattle where I teach. Bill examines what it means when a school takes democracy seriously and involves students in all aspects of school decision making, including hiring, budget, and curriculum development.

The question I ask is this: Why aren’t more public school officials supporting the creation of schools like The Nova Project, particularly when we’ve known for such a long time that research supports inquiry-based education, that put students at the center of their learning?

Read more here: Democracy in a Public High School


Impatient Pragmatist: How Standards and the Standardized Testing Regime Justify Inequality

Close all the schools in Chicago for a year. Put the teachers to work relating to the communities. Get the parents to relate to their kids and their neighbors. Get people talking to each other. Find out what people care about.
–Ed Chambers (former IAF  Director, on improving public education)

Their authority is not self-justifying. They have to give a reason for it, a justification. And if they can’t justify that authority and power and control, which is the usual case, then the authority ought to be dismantled and replaced by something more free and just. —Noam Chomsky

By now it’s well known and documented (see Anthony Cody on the genesis of the CCSS) that teachers and community members did not develop the CCSS. This assertion—one that continues to be circulated by Allan Golston of the Gates Foundation—that the CCSS were developed by a “wide range of experts, educators and other stakeholders” turns out, in fact, to be untrue. And, in large part, this fiction (i.e., that educators and communities played a major role in crafting these standards) may be one of the most important reasons for their current unraveling.

But, what’s really driving this standards-based reform effort? Is it the desire to remake schools in ways that honor and involve our teachers and communities? Is this what the CCSS will do? Will the CCSS allow teachers, students, and parents to make choices about what to teach and why? Will the CCSS let educators and their students redesign their schools so they can tackle the questions they find most important?

Maybe it’s true that some of our schools could benefit from doing things differently. And, let’s agree for the moment that, yes, maybe some of our schools could even use an injection of creativity and innovation. But, what’s been preventing teachers and students from seeking out creative solutions to the problems and challenges they face? Is it a lack of standards? Is it that we don’t have enough standardized testing?

The answer, despite Gates’ assurances that the CCSS will lead to lots of creativity and innovation, is that this isn’t about raising standards and making schools better. More standards and more standardized testing will do very little, in fact, to solve our most pressing problems. The CCSS will simply tie teaching and teacher evaluations even more closely to standardized tests. If you doubt this, let’s not forget that it was David Coleman, president of the College Board that makes the SAT, who is credited as the architect of the CCSS.

So, it turns out that the movement to standardize education has very little to do with real education and everything to do with profits and privatization—these folks want to turn public schools into businesses. In a recent speech about the CCSS Gates said, “If you have 50 different plug types, appliances wouldn’t be available and would be very expensive. But once an electric outlet becomes standardized, many companies can design appliances and competition ensues, creating variety and better prices for consumers.”

Gates’ view of education couldn’t be any clearer: education is something to be standardized; it’s something you plug in; it’s a big competition that pits students and teachers against each other; and, it involves consumers and product development. So, the real aim of such approaches—state-mandated tests based on nationally mandated standards that in turn reflect narrow views of “cultural literacy” championed decades ago by folks like E.D. Hirsch (and then discredited)—are to standardize instructional materials so they can be scaled up and sold nationally.

But, what’s the problem with standards, you ask? The answer is that there’s nothing at all wrong with having high standards when they’re used as a guide to instruction for new teachers and coupled with the support of strong mentor teachers. But, new teachers need time with their mentors; they need time to think, and time to plan, and time to ask questions, and time to rest, and time to pursue avocations, and time to learn new things. In other words, standards are most powerful when they are flexible and coupled with the much needed supports that encourage teachers and students to experiment, innovate, and take risks.

Education based on market mandates does the exact opposite. It narrows the curriculum and deskills teachers. It turns entire populations of people into objects (human capital) for scientific examination, development, classification, and extraction. Education as Taylorism shifts us away from free and open inquiry toward the production of docile human capital and a system that emphasizes scientific efficiency above all else. This is a vision of education with little regard for or consideration of the relationship between individuals, their experiences, their local knowledges, or their socioeconomic contexts.

In this system, the low-income students who can be cultivated into valuable resources (human capital) are extracted from their neighborhoods and encouraged to sell their labor power in order to create wealth for people elsewhere, often leaving those who cannot or do not want to participate in such a system to live in underdeveloped urban ghettos. And, of course, those who don’t “escape” their neighborhoods are blamed for being too lazy or incompetent to do so. The justification for this system, one that rewards the few and disregards the many, is characterized by a meritocratic fiction—a fiction because it ignores contextual concerns of race and class—and revolves around a state-mandated examination that is used to legitimize and reproduce winners and losers.

The examination has, in many ways, become the single most important factor determining (and limiting) what happens in schools (particularly, urban schools) today. Not only does it inform and produce the need for future testing, but it also informs teacher training and licensing, provides or denies access to further education, and influences instruction and curriculum development.

There’s also a movement underway to link teacher evaluations to student performance on these exams, raising the stakes even higher for both teachers and students. Borrowing another term from our friends in the business community, teachers in New York state are to be measured for their “value-added” to the school (defined almost exclusively by student test scores); these value-added ratings can comprise up to 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation in some states and are made public in an attempt to shame teachers into raising student test scores. This scheme to link teacher ratings and salaries to student test scores has been euphemistically termed “merit-based” pay.  (Ironically, this was something Gates tried to use at Microsoft and then subsequently jettisoned after finding out that it didn’t work and his own employees hated it.)
The seduction of these common sense reforms is undeniable, since the logic of these reforms appeal to deeply held beliefs about rewarding those who work hard (good teachers) and punishing those who do not (bad teachers). Pauline Lipman, who seeks to unmask the contradictions in the rhetoric of the so-called reforms, notes:

In a system of blatant inequalities, the agenda of standards, tests, and accountability is framed in the language of equality and justice. All students and schools are evaluated by ‘the same test’ and ‘held to the same standards.’ (“Making the Global City” 390)

This is a dishonest narrative that emphasizes equity and access, while neglecting the larger questions of racial segregation and economic and social inequality; it does so by shifting the focus of education reform to questions of curriculum content, standards, and accountability—all understood in terms of individual responsibility and accountability.

At precisely the moment when justice and equality has been translated to mean access  (i.e., access to curriculum, high quality teachers, job and internship opportunities, etc.) we have successfully sidestepped questions about race, class, and exploitation. In other words, access is always understood as something that is determined by merit, and, therefore, allows us to imagine that all opportunities are always accessible to those who have worked hard enough to deserve them (or so the myth goes).

The logic here is circular and mendacious, since we all know that poverty and inequality do have real, material effects on the lives of students, their families, and their communities. Being rich and privileged and living in well-resourced community ensures that you can leverage your access into more and better opportunities, whereas being a poor person of color means that the barriers and lack of supports needed to leverage future opportunities (e.g., the kind that will help you land a spot at an Ivy League school or a job on Wall Street) are much greater. Simply telling kids to work harder and be more responsible won’t solve this problem either.

When we suggest that the only thing that poor students need is access to a rigorous curriculum and a good teacher (presuming we can provide both) then the future success or failure of that individual can only be understood in these same individualistic terms—terms that effectively deny any connection between success and socioeconomic status. As I noted in an earlier post, most of us agree that it would be ridiculous to say that wealth and privilege are poor predictors of individual outcomes (i.e., we know they are excellent predictors of success), yet many people continue to insist that poverty and inequality don’t matter. For these individuals (most of whom have never been a poor person of color), it’s simply about hard work and personal responsibility (i.e., raising standards).

Standardization in this new education system comes to mean fairness and equity, though, interestingly, these terms are never used in relation to economic investment, the health of communities, environmental justice, school funding, law enforcement and legal representation, surveillance, or extracurricular or economic opportunities. In the latter realms fairness, equity, and standardization are, apparently, irrelevant. The neighborhood or community from which a student comes is completely beside the point, since what matters here is access to curriculum, a good teacher, and the individual’s self-discipline and work ethic. We are made to understand through the logic of neoliberalism that where you are from has nothing to do with where you might go. A great idea in theory, but it’s one that doesn’t work so well in practice.

To put this yet another way, the current reform logic suggests that if you are poor and not doing well in school the reasons for this have to do with personal failures on your part—failures, it’s worth noting, that have nothing to do with the problems of poverty, inequality or state interventions on behalf of private enterprise and capital accumulation (e.g., bank bailouts, corporate tax breaks). This is to say that if we believe that education alone is the only viable solution to poverty and we provide you with an education, then we can really only blame you for your poverty and lack of success (we gave you access to an education, after all). This is, for all intents and purposes, just another version of blaming poor people for being poor.

The standardized test—the individual examination at the center of our current reforms—pays no attention to the socio-economic conditions of the local school community, but rather reduces the individual to a set of numbers in a case file; these sets of data are used as the basis of a narrative about the individual, the school, and the community, one that has severe consequences and is constructed without any direct input from (or understanding of) those whom such narratives purport to describe.

The standardized test has become a way not only to classify students, but also a tool to rate teachers, to judge administrators, to classify entire school districts and neighborhoods, and to silence the voices of those who might dissent. As Foucault puts it, “we are entering the age of the infinite examination and of compulsory objectification” (Foucault 200), where all things are to be weighed and measured against an unproblematized norm.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o (writing about the post-colonial situation in Kenya) notes that colonized communities must fight to “liberate their economy, politics, and culture from the Euro-American-based stranglehold to usher in a new era of true communal self-regulation and self-determination” (4). Many of our own urban neighborhoods have become internal colonies, controlled by and dependent on outside forces, and are involved “in an ever-continuing struggle to seize back their creative initiative in history through a real control of all the means of communal self-definition in time and space” (4).

Our schools in urban areas are locked in a similar political fight for their right to define themselves in their own words and by their own standards. Doing so, of course, means doing more than attempting to live up to market-driven mandates that demand all students perform at or above state norms on standardized examinations. And this fight involves more than doing well in school; it also involves the right to control and determine how best to use our shared resources to build healthy and sustainable communities for all.


Clueless in Secondary Education: How Standards Obscure the Lives of Students

If the key to fixing our lowest performing schools and helping our most underachieving students were simply a matter of raising academic standards, then these are problems that we would have solved long ago. The truth is, though, that creating healthy and sustainable schools and communities are reciprocal projects—ones that go largely unacknowledged by an appeal to higher standards.

Yet, despite this, raising standards is precisely what Gerald Graff, a professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago, suggest we need to do. In his response to Diane Ravitch’s address to the MLA about the many, many reasons why the Common Core State Standards are a bad idea, Graff says he supports the CCSS and thinks it’s high time we let the neoliberal reformers have their day (as if these reformers aren’t the ones responsible for the continued narrowing of curriculum in schools, the de-skilling of teachers, and the all-consuming emphasis on standardized test scores that’s overwhelmed many of our public schools).

Charles Payne, in his book, So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistent Failure of Urban Schools, warns us that “most discussion of education policy and practice is dangerously disconnected from the daily realities of urban schools…most discussion fails to appreciate the intertwined and overdetermined nature of the causes of failure” (5). I urge Graff to read this book. And, I also invite him to spend some time in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS).

When reading Graff’s response to Ravitch, you might think that he’s spent half his career working in middle and high schools. Here’s a guy who seems to know quite a bit about what teachers should be doing, right? It turns out that like so many of the so-called education reformers, he’s never actually been a middle or high school teacher. Those of us who have taught or are still teaching in some of our most challenging schools are left to wonder just how well Professor Graff would fare teaching students in a public neighborhood middle or high school in Chicago.

According to Graff, the trick is to make sure we tell students that the college readiness standards are important. So I invite Graff (and other reformers like him) to take a shot at putting his plans into action by working as a teacher in the CPS for a few years. But, you know, he’s probably not going to do it. And, it’s precisely because of his lack of grounded experience in actual schools that one does not at all wonder how Graff can so easily dismiss questions about race and class. When it comes to these types of questions, he simply states: “I don’t buy it.” (Go ahead and picture the most dismissive wrist flick you can imagine while uttering this—i.e., I don’t buy it—statement.)

The truth is, though, Graff and reformers like him, will never take up the challenge to get in a classroom and do the hard work of teaching. Why? Because it’s so much easier to sit on the sidelines as an armchair reformer and tell others how to teach. I’m not saying that Graff isn’t a good teacher (his students at UIC may actually like him), but how much does he really know about teaching in our public schools? Let’s face it, it’s much easier to claim that the problems we see our schools are not about poverty (with no evidence to support such claims, of course), than it is to actually get your hands dirty working with kids from low socio-economic backgrounds—kids who may present unexpected challenges to the bright ideas that Graff and others like him cook up in their safe, well-heated offices 20 floors above the cold streets of Chicago.

Graff reduces education reform to a set of standards, but he’s not alone in doing so. He’s in good (loathsome?) company. In fact, he can now join the ranks of a long list of so-called education reformers, including our own Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, for whom the idea of actually teaching in our most difficult schools seems absurd. (His claim to his current post rests on the fact that his mother was a teacher.) This brings to mind a quip that made the rounds during the last CPS teacher strike: Those who can, teach. Those who can’t, pass laws (or write essays) about teaching.

Of course, such a stance begs the question: How might Graff or Gates or Duncan feel if a group of folks, say a handful of successful people from outside their institution were to hijack their department or business or institution and tell them how they aught to run things? To take this a step further, why not apply the same logic that Graff deploys in his response to Ravitch to his own English department at UIC? According to Graff, in his own courses at UIC he sees evidence that the American education system has done little for  “the great majority of students who are essentially confused about how to do academic work, about how to analyze a text and summarize its argument, or about how to make an argument of one’s own.” If this is true, then why doesn’t Graff simply compel his colleagues to raise their standards? Why doesn’t he just raise his own standards, for that matter?

The answer, of course, to anyone who takes a second to think about it, is that the assumption that the majority of teachers and professors are somehow purposely holding their students to the lowest possible standards is ridiculous. Yet, this is precisely the assumption on which the standards-based reform argument relies: bad teachers and low standards are preventing kids from succeeding.  In other words, these reformers seems to be saying that we can trace all student failures to a lack of standards (or poor standards) on the part of professors (and teachers) that have kept these students from excelling in academic contexts.

One of the problems with this view (i.e., we need to fix the bad teachers by raising standards) is that all of us (even, presumably, Graff himself) have had a bad teacher or a bad professor at some point in the past. Our experience with these poor performers is, perhaps, what makes this narrative so powerful. We all tell stories about sitting through a lecture given by a drunk or incoherent professor or making phone calls in a class when the teacher fell asleep at her desk. The image of the incompetent educator is pervasive in popular culture, too.

But for most of us, an experience with a bad teacher or professor didn’t ruin our lives. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not defending professors or teachers who do their jobs poorly. But that’s why we have tenure review and teacher evaluations. How many of Graff’s own colleagues would believe for a minute that the way to solve the problem of poor student performance is by raising standards and holding professors accountable for how students perform at the university? This is sort of like asking the gym teacher to teach snowboarding all year and then punishing him when he doesn’t produce 30 replicas of Shaun White.

Ultimately, Graff and others like him (e.g, Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, Joel Klein, David Coleman) rely on the logic that bad teachers are the problem and good teachers are the solution, since its the bad teachers who would be teaching to low standards and bringing all our students down. Yet, the evidence doesn’t support this claim. My own experience as a high school teacher on the South Side of Chicago suggests a quite different story. The vast majority of teachers I worked with were honest, hard working, and caring educators. But, please don’t take my word for it.

Take, instead, the example of the school district in New Haven, Connecticut. The teacher evaluation program implemented in New Haven, described by the New York Times as “an urban district with a high poverty rate” that “has faced enormous challenges in improving the quality of instruction.” Again, the assumption here is that teachers (euphemistically referenced here as the “quality of instruction”) are what need to be fixed. What happened next is instructive.

The author of the article decided to focus on what can happen when the two sides (i.e., the teachers’ union and politicians) come together to work out a rigorous teacher evaluation system. But, in doing so, the article misses something important. Out of the 1,846 teachers in the district 75 were targeted for remediation. For those of you attempting to do the math, that’s 4% of district teachers. In other words, 96% of teachers were doing a good or excellent job. Of the 4% identified with the new evaluation system, 34 were eligible for and elected to take early retirement. That means that only 2% of district teachers who chose to remain on the job needed additional supports to improve their teaching.

Yet, the myth of the bad teacher persists.

It’s true that no one will argue for lowering academic standards, and I’m certainly not trying to make that case. But, this just means that the argument for raising them is kind of beside the point. It’s something that almost goes without saying. It’s like saying that we want good teachers for all students. It’s something that’s so deeply engrained is all of us that it feels like common sense. Saying that we want to raise standards also appeals to our most deeply held beliefs about merit, competition, hard work, and success. And, it’s why we keep coming back to this argument.

Yet, focusing on standards alone is a losing proposition; it diverts our attention and resources away from exploring ways to create healthy and sustainable communities, and, instead, encourages us to see success in narrow, individualistic terms. This approach also lets us off the hook and allows us, as Graff does, to ignore the role that poverty and inequality play in our society. This is a version of saying that wealth and privilege don’t really matter to an individual’s success. Putting the problem this way, of course, just shows how silly this view really is. We all know wealth and privilege matter. So, why do we insist that poverty and inequality don’t?

The real question in the education reform debate should not be about how to make the contest for jobs and more education harder—doing so just ensures that more people will fail; we should be asking questions about how to improve the conditions for all those who wish to participate and contribute to society in meaningful ways.

Schools should be about more than just competing for slots at the right colleges in order for the select few to get high paying jobs in urban centers. This current approach—developing and extracting human capital—simply drains much needed resources from high need communities and does nothing to address our social problems. Success for students becomes an escape narrative, where leaving one’s community is seen as the ideal outcome.

In December of 2012, NYT reporter David DeParle wrote a story about three girls from a low-income community in Galveston, Texas. These girls were remarkable not only for their drive and ambition, but also for their ability to do college-level work. In fact, these are the types of low-income students that Graff and like-minded reformers imagine they will help create when they say that all we need to do is raise standards in schools.

But, these girls faced another set of challenges—ones not directly connected to academics—that Graff seems unwilling to acknowledge. According to DeParle, “the need to earn money brought one set of strains, campus alienation brought others, and ties to boyfriends not in school added complications. With little guidance from family or school officials, college became a leap that they braved without a safety net.” In a nutshell, the girls had the skills, but not the supports to survive the transition to higher education. Class played a big role in all of this. The article goes on to describe how our education system does more to preserve, rather than break down class divisions.

So, it would seem that the evidence is all around us—over simplified, one size-fits-all solutions like raising standards don’t work. Good schools emerge from healthy and sustainable communities (it’s not just about recruiting, supporting, and retaining great teachers–though this is important). Raising standards won’t solve our social or our academic problems. Poverty and inequality are the best predictors of academic success (as are wealth and privilege).

Whether we want to do something about these things or not is another question.