Gee willikers, Mister! I never thought of that!

It's a common theme among those who are not fans of Common Core to use sarcasm and derision when talking about teachers who attribute a change in their practice to those same standards. (I weighed the pros and cons of linking to particular writers who practice this habit and decided no. It's about patterns, not personalities.) The refrain is usually:

Educator: As a result of Common Core, I started doing this.
Response: Scoff. You needed Common Core to do *that*? Why weren't you doing it before?

A recent article in the NYTimes about changes in the English classroom has received the same response. Only this time, the subject of the refrain is the reporter. Several teacher-bloggers took to their pages to share their disdain at the reporter's lack of understanding around English classrooms pre-CCSS and their opinion on her seemingly uninformed understanding of the travesty that the CCSS are.

It's a provocative writing device as it attempts to establish the author of the response as a voice of authority. A sort of a: *I* knew about this before so my opinion on the matter is more righter than yours. The drawback is the attempt to shame the educator or reporter who spoke about the change in practice. And shame is the really the best adjective as many of these posts imply that the only right thing that teacher can do is hide her head, apologize for not knowing about *that* and rescind all support for the CCSS.

When I read posts with that tone, I'm reminded of Ignaz Semmelweis. Well, not him personally, I had to Google his name, but of his work. Prior to Mr. Semmelweis, midwives and doctors would rotate between deliveries without washing their hands. Mothers were dying at high rates and it was seen as just one of the consequences of giving birth. So these medical professionals were doing the best they could with the information they had and along comes Ignaz and they discovered they needed to change something in their practice. They weren't bad before, they weren't uninformed. In fact, they likely thought they were doing everything in their power to keep the mothers alive.

There are two connections I see to the education profession. 

First, why the disdain? Why the condemnation of teachers who come forward to share how they've reflected and evolved? Going after individuals who share stories of how their practice has changed is a bit like claiming you've been washing your hands all along. It's possible some doctors were. It's possible some had Clean Room Level 4 birthing suites. At the same time, when the profession realized a change was needed, the doctors who didn't know about hand washing weren't bad doctors the day before the "wash your hands because ew..." staff meeting and then good doctors once they started washing their hands. One would think we'd want to elevate the voices of teachers who share their thinking, not shame them back into silence. More to point, it's possible some doctors never lost a mother or a child. To their thinking, they didn't need to wash their hands as their practices were just fine, thank you very much. To those teacher bloggers, good for you but why not dial up the pride in reflective practitioners and dial back the disdain?

The second, more important, issue is race and social justice in education. Mad props to #educolor for their work on the matter and for offering a place for educators to listen and learn. The conversations about race and social justice aren't always smooth. They're not easy and people are going to get it wrong. 80%-ish of educators are white women, many of whom were good students praised for being well-behaved and doing the "right" thing in school and speaking up takes an incredible amount of courage. To reveal a past mistake in pubic? Not easy for anyone - especially teachers that are in predominately white schools where students are most often introduced to Black Americans in the month of February or via the Social Studies curriculum and slavery. When teachers are getting scoffed and derided for sharing their thinking around pedagogy, what's the benefit to sharing their thinking about the really hard and important stuff?

Teachers are increasingly asking. "Here's where I'm struggling. Where am I stuck?" or sharing, "Here's what I'm trying now. It was hard to get here but I'm glad now that I'm here." It baffles me that anyone would respond in any way other than, "Thanks for sharing. That must have been hard. Can you tell me more about that?"This isn't about protecting delicate white lady feelings or otherwise suggesting teachers can't handle critiques. (I'll refrain from commenting on the patterns when some bloggers are offered critiques via Twitter.) It's about saying, "Dude. Don't be such a jackass." Or fine. Be a jackass but take a moment and consider what happens when that teacher Googles her name.




On Negotiating Nuance

The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. Mark Twain

I have awesome cats. Two of whom like to hang out in my office when I’m working from home and provide company while I work AKA walk across my keyboard when I’m not honoring them sufficiently. More than once, they’ve been my audience as I’ve scrolled Twitter and mumbled a strongly worded opinion about something I’ve read. And I swear, the cats rolled their eyes at me and I hear my mother’s voice telling me, "there are starving children in China!" when I refused to eat fish sticks as a kid. The message is sort of the same – this thing that is so important to you, Jenn, isn’t that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things and I totally get it. I rationalize my obsession with nuance and semantics around assessment design as my commitment to the science of the craft of teaching. My nuance nudges, in no particular order.

1.       Assessment literacy requires that we consider the system and recognize that different assessments serve different purposes. Diane Ravitch recently said that the state tests were invalid because they served no “diagnostic purpose.” My nuance nudge: Well neither do the final exams that many students take in High School. So while the state tests provide limited diagnostic data for a particular child, they provide useful information for the system. Case in point? Next year, 2015-2016, will be the first year that the students taking the CCLS tests will have only known curriculum aligned to CCLS. The state assessments are the [likely] most objective way of documenting, or one might even say, diagnosing the consistency of alignment to the standards across the state.

2.       “Exam” is not the same as “test”. Don’t believe me? Check the cover pages.



3. Why does it have to be about “sides”? That is, it’s possible to do all of the following - at the same time.
  • support authentic, curriculum-embedded assessment and portfolio design,
  • struggle with the intent and purposes of the opt out movement,
  • be in favor of annual testing as a large-scale measure of the system,
  • think the Common Core Learning Standards are better than what we had before and not really care about where they came from,
  • be okay with providing students with direct instruction on how to take a test (AKA test prep done right), and
  • be against VAM as it currently being used in teacher evaluation.

So I guess this is less a statement on struggling to find a place for nuance and more a "here's where I am right now." I think Steve! the cat agrees or at least is pretending to. At the very least, he makes me feel less guilty about not carrying the laundry upstairs on a Sunday morning (Kevin is our tabby, Steve! is behind him. Baby, our oldest, hangs out elsewhere.)


You say Tomato, I say Tomahto ... it's [almost] 2015, why are we still talking about this?

We all like to think we're open-minded; that we arrived at a reasonable, logical and right conclusion after careful consideration of the facts, perspectives, and various opinions. Sometimes we get the benefit of cardiac assessment ("it just feels right") or a gut response to an issue. We weigh the evidence, reach a conclusion, and can rest comfortably in our superiority over those who haven't reached the clearly obvious conclusions we have. Ok... so that last bit may or may not be true, depending on your approach to critical thinking and awareness of cognitive biases.

Here's an interesting experiment. Below are two Kindergarten standards. One is from the Common Core Learning Standards (NYS's version of the CCSS) and one is from the so-called "Lost Standards" (the version NYS was working on when Common Core came along).

Standards A
Standards B
Ask and answer questions in order to:
• seek help,
• get information,
• or clarify something that is not understood.
• Ask and answer questions about classroom activities
• Request help when needed
• Know when and how to ask permission

My bias is that standards are the least important part of ensuring a quality public education for all students. I'd co-sign this post by Kathleen Porter-Magee on standards and curriculum if it were a petition. So when I make the claim: The text on both sides of the table are basically saying the same thing, it's informed by my bias and hunch that difference between any two set of standards isn't really all that big. In my opinion, the biggest change from the old NYS ELA standards and the CCLS (besides the six shifts) was the introduction of coding, shared language between grade levels, and the explicit inclusion of culture and choice in the language of the standards.

Someone with a different bias, perhaps that the Common Core are "developmentally inappropriate" will likely see the text in the two columns as different. The would likely make the counterclaim: one is more "appropriate" than the other. 

All of that said, here's my question: Does it matter? It's 2015. How will the problems created by the Common Core be fixed by dropping them and going back to standards that NYS walked away from in 2009?

This isn't about being right or being wrong about Common Core or which is better. This post is about humbleness and hubris. I've been writing this for a while now. While walking through airports, driving home from programs, falling asleep at night, in-between designing programs, and reading assessment research and I'm still struggling to find the right words. Usually, not always, I found myself mentally composing this post after scrolling through Twitter and watching the absolute confidence that a large number of educators speak about a particular issue. Mostly white male educators. Mostly about Common Core. I thought perhaps it was a function of 140 but the language of their blogs is often the same. Just for fun, I've "pushed back" (which I've been told is "trollish" and a "bad habit") and in most instances, I get a response that one might classify as doubling-down. I've reflected on why I feel compelled to comment and poke. It's partially because I'm fascinated by how we engage via Social Media. It's partially because I advocate for process assessments (asking students about HOW they think) and logical discourse. It's partially because I'm annoyed. I'm annoyed by hubris. I'm annoyed by the number of white male educators who write and post their thoughts on issues, rather than boosting the voices of women and men of color who have been writing about the given issue for months, even years. Maybe I'm a little jealous of the sheer hubris that some exhibit as they write and post about an issue, wrapped in a toasty blanket of confidence that they are absolutely, incontrovertibly right.

Mostly though, mostly it's because I'm angry. I'm angry that at the end of 2014, following months in which Black Americans had to say - aloud - "my life matters", people are still having conversations that feel like they should have been resolved in 2010. I'm angry at the data below.


I'm angry that we're not talking about cultural and racial literacy among the primarily white, female teaching profession. I'm angry that someone claimed (with a seemingly straight face) that replacing one set of standards that are basically the same as another set of standards will reduce misbehavior among Black preschoolers and therefore, reduce the suspension rate. I'm angry that a number larger than 1 of middle-aged, white men wrote long-form essays on the impact of Common Core - without citing or even referring to the lived experiences of classroom teachers or current college students. I'm angry that many of those who are anti-test (seriously folks, take Jose Vilson's advice and advocate for the "Whole Child") aren't offering alternatives to annual testing other than "Opt Out." It's 2015, not 2009. How about we move on from the standards and onto pedagogy, quality curriculum, equity, and cultural literacy?

How powerful would it be if instead of continuing the same conversations in 2015 that have been going on since 2009, we start or join new ones? The ones about race and culture and whose voices we trust and the role of public education and the tension between the learner and schooling? How about instead of tweeting "this is the truth", we ask "what makes you think that's the truth?" What if we asked more than told? Questioned more than pontificated? Reflected more than bumper sticker-ed? But eh... whadda I know? I'm just a troll.

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