Friday, March 04, 2011

Our School Curriculum's Rotten Common Core - pt.1

On a recent email thread someone said,
“So what is the motive and goal of this new education system we are constructing? Answer that first and the specific recommendations will follow."
That’s a question that really needs to be asked and followed through on; it’s one I've been bleating on about for years. I'll try to be brief here in responding to it, but as you might already guess... I probably can't be brief ( nope, turns out I couldn't be brief, but I'll be a bit more understanding to readers and spread this out over a week’s worth of posts. You're welcome).
Gretchen at Missouri Education Watchdog has been doing some outstanding work diving into the hiden corners of the goals, favors and paybacks behind ‘Race To The Top’ and Missouri’s new Common Core Standards, and has been drawing attention to the new dumbed down purpose of ‘Public Education’ as expressed in the "Mission Statement" of our new "Common Core Standards", which states:

"The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy."
She's particularly taking note of how our State’s stated purpose for education has degraged from that of seeking to foster ‘skilled reasoning’, to simply acquiring some ‘knowledge and skills’ thought to be useful for ‘success in college and careers’. I agree this shows that our standards have slid yet another rung down the ladder. But I'd like to go a little further here and question whether the ladder we’re worrying over which rung we’ve slipped to, is even leaning up against a structure worth climbing – or not.

If not, then although reclaiming a higher rung would improve our position on the ladder... if we’re on the wrong ladder to begin with, is a less bad position really the issue we want to focus upon? Perhaps it is needed as an intermediary step, but shouldn't we begin more clearly defining what the actual goal should be in order to put us on a good position, on the right ladder, which is actually leaning up against the right structure?

To help ensure that, there are a few more questions I think we need to be asking ourselves. For instance,

  • Does simply having a concern for “‘knowledge and skills’ thought to be useful for ‘success in college and careers’,” or even “skilled reasoning’, really qualify as Education?
  • Is all useful learning equivalent to Education?
  • Is improved reasoning equivalent to Education?
  • Useful skills to be sure, every one of them, but is that , Education?
  • Has Education always referred to acquiring these sorts of useful skills, and if not, when and why did the meaning change, and has the change been for the better?
  • If not, how did they used to go about getting their 'useful skills', and has that changed for the better?
If the answers to these questions are in the negative, just what in God's name is it that we have fooled ourselves into not only accepting, but paying hundreds of billions of dollars in seeking after it, in lieu of an actual Education? 

These are the questions I'll be looking into over the next several posts, in order to answer this opening question at the top of this post, and even with everything else going on in the world today, I think this is among the most important issues facing us - other's might be more momentarily urgent, but few could be more important and defining for our future, and our present.

Founding out the problem
Gretchen asks, in comparing the previous educational goals of 1939, with today's,

"Is education facilitating the "achieving the purpose of his being" (1939) the same as being able to "compete successfully in the global economy" (2011)?”"
Certainly 'achieving the purpose of his being' would be preferable to simply training kids for the global economy - after all, a person who is trained for 'the' global economy, is a person that's going to be trained for competing in the currently foreseen global economy, and would be unlikely to be able to compete in any other, or even foresee any other. Not even the businesses know today what they'll need tomorrow - anyone remember WordPerfect? Lotus? If you train for a skill today, there's a very real chance it'll be obsolete tomorrow.

Shouldn’t the education our schools spend billions of dollars on, be concerned with something more lasting than currently relevant 'knowledge and skills'? Ask yourself this, what is the image that comes to mind when you think of an educated person, is it of someone who's been given skills suited to handling only one particular situation? Is an educated person someone who can only dance to the tune which someone else calls?

How is an education going to help a student to find and develop the ‘purpose of their being’ if all they've been educated in is simply developing skills at ‘reasoning’ (better check into what they mean by that word)? Sure, they may find themselves a few rungs higher up on the ladder, but... if it's still a ladder which is leaning up against the wrong building, how much better is that actually?

If those were the goals of education during the era of our Founding Fathers... they would have founded nothing more than stamp tax loopholes and better markets (both legal and illegal) for King George’s Tea; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, would quite literally never have entered into their minds. And for all those whose minds don't seem to have a passion for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness today... it's worth wondering why.

Training, whether in ‘critical thinking’ skills, or new technological skills, or any other sort of business or professional skills, shouldn’t be confused with Education. Not even ‘literacy’ skills; literacy is of course important, but if your ‘literacy skills’ only enable you to read instruction manuals or some other sorts of directions, what you have acquired through your training is not something that aids you in improving yourself as a person and as a citizen, but only something that makes it somewhat easier for someone else to tell you what to do.

The person who finds reading the newspaper, and reading The Federalist Papers equally exciting, and perhaps equally challenging, may possess literacy skills, but they have not been made literate.

The lever of power: Common Core Standards.
In a presentation to congress recently, the Cato group again shared some information of theirs which Gretchen, Reboot Congress, I and others have noted before. These charts are maddening to look at; billions of dollars expended, and still more billions thrown after them, with no benefit... it is infuriating, from a taxpayers perspective alone. It's difficult to escape the suspicion that there might actually be some desired effect that is being achieved by all of these billions of dollars, though not the one it’s being billed as addressing; even the minimal task of fitting students out with those skills supposedly necessary to 'compete with the Chinese', has been a ludicrous failure – and here's our plan for intensifying those very same methods and materials we've been failing with for the last 40+ years!
But the problem isn’t what it seems, we’ve largely forgotten where the problem we are actually dealing with came from or when it even first surfaced. And on this, even the fine folks at Cato have it very wrong. According to them,
"Congress' first attempt to improve the quality of instruction in the nation's schools was the National Defense Education Act of 1958, a direct response to the Soviet launch of the satellite Sputnik."
Really? Congresses first attempt at improving the content and quality of instruction was 1958? Not so Cato. Not even close.

At best that’s an oversight, or less charitably, just plain wrong. It’s typical today to talk of how things have gone to hell in a hand basket in the 20th century, partly of course, because they have; but to blame it on the 20th century is dangerously myopic. Dangerous, because if you think the problem arose later in the 20th century, 1958 for instance, then the obvious response is to go back to the beginning of the 20th century, 1939 maybe, or even 1929, when things were supposedly oh so much rosier, to revive what was being done then, in order to reset the program. But if we do that, we’ll just get a more potent version of the poison we’re swilling today.

Educational Goals - Supremely Bad & Indifferent, but not Good
Before looking for the sources of our current problems, let’s take a closer look into these supposedly better goals for Education. Here's the quote from Gretchen's post which looks at what is taken to be a favorable standard for measuring the 'common core standards' goals against:
“...Let's examine the purpose of education as written in the book "Modern Philosophies of Education" by John S. Brubacher, Associate Professor of History and Philosophy of Education, Yale University in 1939:

Now what is the attribute or function of the human learner which sets him off from all else? Is it not his rational nature, his capacity to reason? If this abbreviated analysis be accepted, then the cultivation of the intellect becomes the supreme good. The hierarchy of value is graded according to the opportunity afforded for the development of man's rational nature. Social studies and chemistry will be more valuable than stenography or shopwork, because they involve more opportunity for reasoning. Not only selecting the best curricula, but conditioning the child and positing the preferred social system in which education is to operate, will be evaluated according to whether they help or hinder the child in achieving the purpose of his being.

The scholar she’s quoting,  John S. Brubacher was a fairly objective observer, he came into the field of Education in the early 20th Century, studied under John Dewey (not a plus in my book, we'll see why later), and wrote several well respected books on the history of education and educational philosophy, He was influential for many decades before finally losing out to more radical approaches in the late 1960’s.

I've read his "Higher Education In Transition" (a very good overview of the history of education in America from several perspectives) and other essays of his as well, he does present the facts, but clearly favors the supposedly 'better ideas' of Dewey, as opposed to their lesser popularized forms (I disagree, but that's for later). I haven't read his "Modern Philosophies of Education”, so I shouldn’t pick on this one paragraph as representing his views, but, there are still several issues in it’s few sentences which are characteristic of educationism as a whole, and is as good a place as any for us to start.

First off, a pet peeve of mine, his use of the term "human learner”; it is so typical of ‘Edu-speak’ that it just raises my hackles right off the bat, and is right up there on my sneer list with 'Human Capital' and 'Human Resources' and others which reduce the Human to being a mere modifier. When someone who is knowledgeable about the field uses the term, I've learned to expect bad things the offing – I could be wrong of course, but I doubt it. We’ll see.

But leaving that aside, he doesn't begin too badly, looking at what
"..sets him off from all else? Is it not his rational nature, his capacity to reason?"
It's hard to argue with that, Aristotle noted it 2,500 years ago, Man is the 'rational animal' and Reason is his defining characteristic, which is just as true today, as it was then. But his next line begins to veer off from the Aristotelian course,
"...then the cultivation of the intellect becomes the supreme good. "
,  Aristotle would have called that a non-sequiter, ‘the conclusion doesn’t follow’, and a good portion of his  Nicomachean Ethics (something the Founders era was quite familiar with, btw) is devoted to exploding just such mistaken 'supreme' goals. It does not follow that the cultivation of the intellect is a supreme good, the intellect is a tool, a means to an end, not an end in itself (Aristotle's candidate for an end towards which a reasoning person should seek, was Happiness), and mistaking the two can end as disastrously as the miser who mistakes money as being the goal of life, rather than as a means to improving it.

How many times have you read news stories about corporate officers with MBA’s from the best colleges, who skillfully lined their own pockets through fleecing their stock holders... Enron, Lehman Brothers, Madoff, etc, these are examples of people who took their skills, and what they produced, to be supreme goals, rather than means. Intellectually skilled and efficient human beings, unconstrained by an understanding of what is good and what is bad, are far closer to psychopaths, than Educated persons, and that’s our goal? No skill or ability can ever be a ‘supreme good’, they are a means to something else, not end goals, and it is quite literally disastrous to confuse the two.

But that is the situation which we've got today, and are what our earlier educational goals led us to - is it what we want for tomorrow? The next line begins to develop a miser-like error into a rolling snowball,
"The hierarchy of value is graded according to the opportunity afforded for the development of man's rational nature."
First off, this is just another way of saying 'train them in skills'. Secondly, it implicitly presumes that developing your rational nature alone is not just something that is worthwhile to do, but something which defines your value and worth as a person.

Is the ability to find the square root of the speed of light, more important, than knowing when and how to be a light unto others, being able to change and improve people’s lives? The focus on the later does not exclude or diminish the value of the former, but the focus on the former does diminish and even exclude the value of the later, which is precisely what the end result of this, as an educational goal, leads to. If you look at how our elitists sniff down their noses at people, such as stay at home mom's (or even Actress Mom's like Natalie Portman), or those engaged in manual labor, this is the very notion which is behind their patronizing attitudes.

It continues in the next line,

"Social studies and chemistry will be more valuable than stenography or shopwork, because they involve more opportunity for reasoning. "
Take note of how this statement refers to the ‘lesser’ occupations, not just less paying, but intrinsically less valuable, less worthwhile, less respectable, than the higher, white collar skills, because they involve a lesser demand on a person’s brainpower. Have you ever wondered why some jobs are considered to be jobs that ‘Americans just aren’t willing to do’, rather than valuing any job that provides a service for honest pay, to be a Good job? Our elites typically degrade less glamorous, and especially entry level jobs, as being beneath the dignity of ‘real people’ because they consider ‘intellectual skills’ to be the supreme value.

An argument could be made that a truly fine Teacher utilizes less brain power than an accountant does – is that really to be the gauge of value between them? Again, we're not talking about appropriate financial compensation here, or even supply and demand, but Value, worth, who stays in the lifeboat and who doesn’t – are you comfortable with that? Are you comfortable with that as a guiding goal of your children’s education?

Understand, I've been called a zealot for business and the free market, I'm not making any sort of pitch that 'caring people' should be paid more or given more respect, or anything of the sort, I'm not questioning the utility and benefits of science and technology or of various business skills, I am simply pointing out that attempting to measure the value of a person by their technical skills, is a major, major mistake. Goals are extremely important things to have, but the wrong ones can lead you to places you never wanted to visit, let alone wind up at, and this one is just such an example.

A tip off to this ‘Intellectual = Better’ line of thought, is the attempt to equate task oriented skills with Reasoning, which is traceable here with,
" rational nature... reason... intellect becomes the supreme good... hierarchy of value graded by opportunity develop rational nature through job skills... the more 'opportunity for reasoning' the better"
, they are not the same, and the claim is simply modernistic logic chopping – Sophistry. Reasoning of course contains task oriented skills and calculative abilities, but they are not the equivalent of Reasoning – if mistaking means for ends is bad, mistaking a player for the team is even worse – and this view manages to do both.

The goals Brubacher is speaking of here are not Education, at least not in the sense that our Founders era would generally have understood the term; but it plays well for those who want to praise the child as the center of the universe, or to lament the child’s lack of a particular set of skills which future workers surely must be trained in; both will result in putting students in service to one task or another which educratic elites and their handlers in business and govt deem to be useful for ... what?... competing with the Russians?, or the Chinese?, or the Mexicans?, or whoever it is that they’d like to reduce us to next.

Should you develop your skills? sure, learn to use them better? of course, but if you mistake them for your 'supreme good', then just as the miser who has mistaken money for life, bad things will follow. This isn’t a simple technicality; this is a critically important point and should be kept in the forefront of your thoughts when thinking about the education which your child is receiving; what it is, what it isn't, and what it is educating Americans for (if you have no kids, just imagine all those present and future citizens you are becoming surrounded with).

With that context in mind, the last sentence, far from being a lost goal we should reclaim, it should be downright chilling:

“Not only selecting the best curricula, but conditioning the child and positing the preferred social system in which education is to operate, will be evaluated according to whether they help or hinder the child in achieving the purpose of his being.”
Not only does this say that your child's skilled brain power determines their value, but establishing a ‘preferred social system in which education will operate’... just what do you suppose a 'preferred social system' is to be? Who establishes it? (I'm betting...not you) How will it be operated? I suppose they suppose it will operate however those doing the establishing prefer it to - despite how those who utilize less brainpower in their daily lives, but supply it with materials... er... children, might prefer it to operate.

Whatever this system is to be which they prefer, they’ll judge it by how well it succeeds in conditioning your child, in the most ‘Pavlov’s dog’, stimulus/response fashion you can imagine, nudging your child into achieving their purposes for his being.

The fact is that Brubacher is simply passing on a less degraded form of the same sort of dis-educational goals that our current "Common Core Standards" schemes are promoting today, and the reason why is that these common core standards are nothing new, Prof Brubacher was working from a set of them himself, merely less explicitly imbecilic than those of today, yet serving the same ends - knowingly or not - the eventual eradication of an Educated populace. Or as Woodrow Wilson put it when advising a meeting of the Federation of High School Teachers:

"We want one class of persons to have a liberal education and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks."
Sweet. But who will decide which group your child should 'of necessity' receive... or forgo? Those with the brainpower and skilled reasoning who understand the Supreme Good of the preferred social system of course, that's who, so just never you mind about these sorts of things, run along, nothing to see here.

In their ‘social system’, your Childs ultimate 'purpose’ is to be fit to perform specific difficult manual tasks – and as far as they’re concerned, whether those manual tasks involve assembling engine blocks or installing computer software, makes no difference whatsoever, the tasks will be performed, money will be made, the economy will grow and govt will prosper - yeah, and another Federal Stimulus will fix our current economic woes – not – but they do believe it, and why not, it’s what they’ve been ‘educated’ to believe.

That is what was, and still is, fully intended to be decided for their 'preferred social system'.

The Same Old New – There Be Dragons
So if you think our educational system arose later in the 20th century, 1958 for instance, and you think that the obvious best response is to just roll things back to a better time, 1938, or 1928 even, what makes you think that what was in place then, wasn't the very thing which led us to where we are now?

Was the early 20th Century really a better time and on a different path, than we are on today?

If you think so, then if the 20th century is the source of all of our problems, which most people say it is (hall-ooo Glenn Beck… you listening?), and Woodrow Wilson was one of the most disastrous Presidents ever (well, that’s true), and the 16th, 17th & 18th Amendments did more to unravel our Constitution than any other legislative actions - which they did - then... when given all of that, where did the population come from who voted for Woodrow Wilson, and who voted for those amendments, starting in at around 1913... did they spring up ready made from dragons teeth sown at the threshold of the 20th century?

Call me crazy, but I’m thinking... No, they didn’t.

If you still disagree, what about the masses of older people who were of age well before 1900... were they muzzled or snuffed out to keep them quiet in the face of these new proregressive warriors springing up out of the soil?

Call me crazy, but I’m still thinking... No, they weren’t.

Woodrow Wilson was elected, and Teddy Roosevelt before him, because a full generation and more of Americans were raised up with the idea that the ideas which proregressives were proposing – and which were in direct opposition to everything the Founding Father’s era believed and fought for – were wrong, old, outdated, unsuited to their new fangled ‘technological times’ which their oh so modern ‘progress’ oriented selves were experiencing.

Excuse me a moment:

(Psst! Prog’s! Those same ideas which Woodrow Wilson was pushing back then, are the very same ideas you’re pushing on us now and for the same reasons... but... those once ‘new ideas’ are now just as old to us today, as the Founder’s ideas were to those living in Wilson’s age of ‘technological marvels’, you know, those things which made the progressives oh-so modern and oh-so much more wise and above those of the primitive Founders era; you know, gizmo's like the telegraph, gramaphone, vacuum tube radio appliances, horseless carriages, bi-planes, etc - 'marvels' which are, if anything, even more antiquated to our eyes today, than the plow and pony express were to their eyes way back when – why should we still consider your antiquated ideas (by your standards) as somehow ‘modern’? Hmmm? Sorry for the digression... but I really would like an answer to that someday!)
The point is, the people of the progressive era did not come from the progressive era, the progressive era came from them, and they were developed, somehow, from common ideas 'somehow' distributed nationwide, through a set of common core ideas that were inculcated into them over the span of several decades. The Progressive Era was spawned by generations of proregressives – not the other way around.

The ideas which those people moved us away from, were those where Education was seen as being a process which passed on the history and ideas of their culture and method of reasoning which best enabled a person to become a moral person, fit for liberty because they were able to govern themselves - that idea was left behind in favor of 'necessarily' training kids with the skills needed to earn a good living.

Whatever rosy images we might hold of the early 20th century, our grand kids might be looking back on our times as a similar 'golden age', and I for one don't want the wreckage of this era to be seen by anybody, let alone my grand children, as being anything golden... there's quite enough fools gold in currency today as it is.

Looking Back Ahead
 Here’s a final two cheery and popular thoughts from the early 20th Century to tease you into the coming posts, first from the premier historian of Education prior to Brubacher, Ellwood P. Cubberly, one of his optimistic observations was that:

“Each year the child is coming to belong more to the State and less and less to the parent.”
He wasn't moaning about that, mind you, but praising it. That was from 1909. Charming, yes? Who was Ellwood P. Cubberly? Oh... just someone else most of us don't think about anymore, but of those who do still think about him, they note that:
"Throughout his career, Cubberley remained deeply involved in shaping national policy on issues from teacher certification to textbooks. He retired in 1933."
And those policies stuck. And finally from another popular proregressive fellow of the times, Lester Ward, also mostly forgotten today, he helped make it possible for Cubberly to get away with saying what he did. Ward, faced as he was with people who still knew what a real Education once meant, carefully went about redefining the word ‘Education’ in his book “Dynamic sociology”, though he didn't hide how he intended to use his newly redefined word:
"…if the word can be made to embrace the notion of imparting a knowledge of the materials and forces of nature to all the members of society, there can be no objection to the employment of this word education as the embodiment of all that is progressive.
Education thus defined is the available means of setting progressive wheels of society in motion; it is, as it were, the lever to which the power must be applied.”
The lever to which the power must be applied. Can you say ‘Nudge’?

I hope to see you back soon.


Anonymous said...

There was a time in American history when the education of students was a pursuit of excellence. When it became a social system, there had to be standards, conformity and statistical outcomes to justify budgets and the perpetuation of the system for the good of those who make their living from it. Students aren’t human beings, but human capital to be pressed into service for socio-economic benefit.

Recently I read a test that was given to eighth grade students, pre 1900. Many of the questions would still be relevant today, had we the mental capacity to answer them. We do not – not in the eighth grade or post college. Some questions involved reasoning that could be judged only by the teacher who administered the test. It seemed that a teacher, in a local school with the authority to do so, was able to achieve for her/his students a level of thinking not available through the education system today. The future of many of these highly educated eighth graders of pre 1900 likely involved careers in farming, manual labor or motherhood. Education certainly was not to prepare them for careers but to help them reach their individual potential, which is a valuable social benefit lost on the existing system.

I see no advantages to the existing education system except as a babysitting service. The best thing that could happen would be to abolish it entirely and return the matter of educating children to parents and the local free market. It is working exceptionally well in some northern European countries.

stayhomom said...

How to cure public education ills? Many argue that amputation is the answer although I cannot see that as a real potentiality whether it is the best cure or not. Others argue that it is curable with the administration of various medicines given solely or in combination (such as additional regulation on a national level or charters or vouchers) to be applied to the whole body/population, not just the parts that are sick. My question is, aren't the caregivers who are closest to the sick person the best able to prescribe the proper course of treatment? Also, how many of the sick one's loved ones were consulted before treatment options were so seemingly limited? Just a bit annoyed at the summertime adoption of Common Core Standards without public awareness, debate or consent.

Ironically, one of the justifications for removing control of education from local authority is to provide information to parents on how schools are performing.

Also, I worry about the simultaneous imposition of national standards/assessments/curriculum and push for replicating charters. Does the use of public money for private companies make me feel better than the use of public money for public institutions with electable government officials? No. I must be missing something.

Joan of Argghh! said...

Hiya, Van! Have I got a treat for you!

Full of truthy goodness.

Van said...

Anonymous said " The best thing that could happen would be to abolish it entirely and return the matter of educating children to parents and the local free market."

It would definitely be an improvement. However, unless they change not only what it taught, but why it's taught, we would only be better edjumicated versions of who we are today.

An improvement... but still a ways to go to get as far ahead as we once were.

Van said...

Stayhomom said " Does the use of public money for private companies make me feel better than the use of public money for public institutions with electable government officials? No. I must be missing something."

Nope, I don't think you're missing anything at all.

"How to cure public education ills?"

I've got a few ideas... will get to them in the next couple posts, but I've certainly got no silver bullets in my ammo belt.

Van said...

Hey Joan!
Thanks, looks interesting, I'll give it a read this weekend... always love it when the Dennett & Dawkins types get what from someone they just assume would be on their side.

Anonymous said...

Amen from a fellow textbook hater esp. for language arts. Caveat, launching into an anecdotal diatribe: When my son was in 4th grade the teacher announced she would be using the textbook for practically the entire language arts.I checked out the textbook's contents from my local library (the works I was unfamiliar with anyway) to compare the reading level to my son's. I'm sure the teacher here was very concerned with individual reading abilities. But the larger issue was the tearing of literature apart with the textbook excerpts. I told her I saw novels as a whole piece of art not something to be chopped into pieces and fed to a child with strictures on how may pages to read before answering canned questions. My son was transferred to a wiser, older teacher. Thank you, God. The textbook offered one chapter from the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. :-( I'm not posting anymore as stayhomom as I notice the mistake although the textbook teacher probably thinks I am a h_.