Common Core: Assessing the real level of support

Does “the great majority” of Americans really support the Common Core? How do we know? Here’s a piece on the subject from P.L. Thomas, an associate professor of education at Furman University in South Carolina. He edited the 2013 book “Becoming and Being a Teacher,” and wrote the 2012 book, “Ignoring Poverty in the U.S.: The Corporate Takeover of Public Education.” This was published on @the chalk face.

(Correction: Fixing typos)

By P.L. Thomas

If you have a moment, take some time to glance through your middle school (or if you’re old like me, junior high) or high school yearbook.

Pay close attention to the powerful consistency of fashion and the related recognition that you and your peers look ridiculous. You didn’t look ridiculous to yourself or each other at the time because you were all conforming to a naive and powerful norm that represented some discourse between contemporary teen efforts to assert their adulthood as well as simultaneously disconnecting from the adults controlling their lives and the consumer/materialistic culture imposing fashion expectations onto that teen generation.

To put it simply, claiming that a majority supports, believes, or conforms to X, Y, or Z is a shaky claim at best, and a likely flawed one at worst.

Advocacy for Common Core State Standards (CCSS) includes a refrain of “a great majority supports,” whether that be parents, politicians, or union members, but that claim fails on two counts: (1) The power of misconceptions to drive opinion, and (2) the value of seeking informed majority views over uninformed majority views.

Howard Gardner in “The Unschooled Mind” noted that learning is profoundly impacted in three areas: learning built on prior knowledge (the known), learning constructed in the absence of knowing (the unknown), and learning that confronts misconceptions. Gardner’s third point (learning is nearly impossible in the context of misconceptions) is disturbing and powerful:

Students with science training, when questioned about the phases of the moon, the reasons for the seasons, the trajectories of objects through space or the motions of their own bodies fail to evince the understandings that science teaching is supposed to produce. Indeed in dozens of studies of this sort, young adults trained in science continue to exhibit the very same misconceptions and misunderstandings that one encounters in primary school children.

 

The same situation has been encountered in every scholastic domain…. In mathematics, college students fail simple algebra problems when they are expressed in wording that differs slightly from the usual from. In biology, the most basic assumptions of evolutionary theory elude otherwise able students who insist that the process of evolution is guided by a striving towards perfection. College students who have studied economics offer explanations of market forces that are essentially identical to those proffered by students who have never taken an economics course.

Equally severe misunderstandings pervade the humanistic segment of the curriculum from history to art. Students who can discuss in detail the complex causes of the First World War explain equally complex current events in terms of the simplest ‘good guy – bad guy’ scenario. Those who have studied — poetry — show little capacity to distinguish masterworks from amateurish drivel, once the identity of the author is hidden from view.

For example, watch this brief clip of Harvard graduates explaining the seasons:

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As I have examined before, America’s belief culture is nearly unaffected by learning that runs counter to the initial beliefs.

Thus, making claims that a majority holds this view or that view must be grounded in the context of how that majority view compares to the norm within which it exists. For example, during the three decades of the accountability era, the common sense approaches to education have been narratives about failing schools and the need for better standards and better tests, which Karshen discredits. This nearly insures that asking any population about support for the existing norm of how to reform schools will produce a positive response—especially if suport for CCSS is not framed against a clear defining of the problems being solved and alternatives that work outside the norm of standards-driven schooling.

The misconception response, then, results in movements such as the Tea Party/Libertarian/Populist backlash against CCSS, as explained by Anthony Cody. Here, claims that CCSS are yet more “big government” or some “communist plot” are evidence of a template argument, and not credible challenges to the problems with adopting CCSS. Tea Party rants against CCSS are confirmations of a misconception, or normalized idea, imposed onto the CCSS movement. And while this is counterintuitive to even my discussion here, evidence is our friend when we examine Tea Party rants, as Cody exposes:

Some who are influential with Tea Party folks have some misconceptions. For example, some have suggested, with very little supporting evidence, that Bill Ayers was one of the authors of the Common Core. I actually checked with Mr. Ayers, and he told me he has had nothing to do with them, and does not even support them.

A simple and direct response to Libertarian/Populist charges that CCSS are leftist plots is that actual leftists are against CCSS, yet, as I have noted here, those determined along these lines are unmoved and the rant continues—until the next “big government” red herring arrives for the news cycle.

The second problem with arguing “a great majority supports” is how well informed the population is about the issue at hand. The CCSS debate represents how complicated this aspect is for coming to understand what is best for our schools.

The uninformed majority has a long history of being misguided in what they support. For example, when the public is asked for a stance on grade retention, the public tends to support retention (as a rejection of “social promotion” and giving children something they didn’t earn), despite decades of research to the contrary.

In the belief culture of the U.S., the evolution debate remains a maze of misconceptions and misinformation. For example, in my most recent May experience class on educational documentaries, we viewed Flock of Dodos, addressing the longstanding debate about teaching evolution in public schools.

As I read the student reflections, I noticed, as usual, a number of students offering the caveat that they still do not believe in evolution because they don’t believe humans came from monkeys.

And thus our problem: Start with misinformation (humans come from monkeys) and you’re only going to reach a false conclusion.

I explained to my class that their misinformation about evolution is replicated in the education reform debate, as highlighted at this blog. Just as the only people who state “humans came from monkeys” are anti-evolutionists misrepresenting evolution, the only people stating “poor children can’t learn” are education reformers misrepresenting experienced and expert educators.

As Flock of Dodos catalogs, in the evolution debate, the majority view of the average person is an uninformed view, but as the Harvard video above and discussion in Gardner detail, being generally educated doesn’t quite go far enough. Science students are lacking credibility even—just as practicing scientists in general are not as credible about evolution as practicing biologists.

The CCSS debate, then, should not be built on sweeping claims that “a great majority supports”—especially if no credible evidence is included to frame that majority view within the norms, misconceptions, and expertise that inform those stances.

When someone advocating for CCSS offers “a great majority supports,” remember your 8th-grade hair style and ask for a better argument.

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · June 2, 2013