Actually, Louis C.K. was right about Common Core — Ravitch


Louis C.K. (Gus Ruelas/Reuters )

Louis C.K., the multi-talented entertainer, has suddenly found himself in the news for an unlikely reason. It has nothing to do with any of his projects but, rather, his comments on Twitter and the “Late Show With David Letterman” about how standardized testing and the Common Core State Standards are affecting his daughters, who attend public school in New York City. Not at all well, he has made repeatedly clear.

Suddenly, Louis C.K. is being written about in the New Yorker, Newsweek and on plenty of blogs (including this one). It started with a series of tweets (you can see them here), including one that said: “My kids used to love math. Now it makes them cry. Thanks standardized testing and common core!” On “David Letterman” on Thursday night, he said that his daughters, ages 9 and 12,  were undergoing standardized testing during the week and that it was traumatic. Asked by Letterman about the consequences of the testing, Louis C.K. joked:

Well, the way I understand it, if a school’s kids don’t test well, they burn the school down. It’s pretty high-pressure.

Letterman responded that ” a lot of pressure” was being put on kids, and Louis C.K. continued:

…. And the tests are written by people nobody knows who they are. It’s very secretive…. They [teachers and students] prepare for these tests for a long time. A lot of the year is about the test. Teaching to the test they call it.… my kids kind of panicked, which is okay.… My mother was a math teacher and she taught me that the moment where you go ‘I don’t know what that is,’ when you panic, that means you are about to figure it out. That means you let go of what you know and you are about to grab on to a new thing that you didn’t know yet…. I am there for them in those moments. I go, ‘Come on, just look at the problems.’

And then he related one:

Bill has three goldfish. He buys two more. How many dogs live in London?

It was made-up and funny, but he’s making the same point that a lot of educators have made: Many of the questions seem nonsensical.

As it turns out, some Common Core supporters were upset with Louis C.K. for saying what he said. Alexander Nazaryan, a senior writer at Newsweek, took him to task in this piece and then, apparently, asked education historian and activist Diane Ravitch, the leader of the growing anti-corporate school reform movement, to critique what he wrote.  Unfortunately for Nazaryan, she did, on her blog, and what she wrote is worth reading. Here it is:

By Diane Ravitch

I received a tweet from Alexander Nazaryan, the author of the Newsweek piece rebuking Louis C.K. and defending the Common Core standards, asking me for a substantive critique of his article.

OK, here goes.

He begins by saying that Louis C.K. has a professional habit of being angry, which I suppose is meant to scoff at his anger and say that he should not be taken seriously.

But then we get into Alexander’s views about Common Core.

The Common Core is “loathed” by Left and Right alike, for different reasons. This is true.

Then he makes the claim that the teachers’ unions oppose the Common Core, which is untrue. Both the NEA and the AFT accepted millions of dollars from the Gates Foundation to promote Common Core, and both have been steadfast supporters. The leaders began to complain about poor implementation only after they heard large numbers of complaints from their members about lack of resources, lack of professional development, lack of curriculum, etc.

Alexander goes on to say that educators oppose the Common Core because they fear they “will be judged (and fired) if their students don’t perform adequately on the more difficult standardized tests that are a crucial component of Common Core.” Here is where Alexander betrays an ignorance of research and evidence. Surely he should know that the American Statistical Association issued a report a few weeks ago warning that “value-added-measurement” (that is, judging teachers by the scores of their students) is fraught with error, inaccurate, and unstable. The ratings may change if a different test is used, for example. The ASA report said:

 Most VAM studies find that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores, and that the majority of opportunities for quality improvement are found in the system-level conditions. Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality.

Alexander also seems never to have read the joint report by the American Educational Research Association and the National Academy of Education, which spelled out why it is wrong to judge teachers by student test scores because of the many factors affecting test scores that are beyond their control.

Alexander says that some critics of Common Core are “conspiracy theorists who deem the whole project a massive payout to test maker Pearson.” That may or may not be true, but Common Core is certainly creating a huge national marketplace for Pearson and McGraw-Hill, as well as vendors of software and hardware (all Common Core testing is done online, which is diverting billions of dollars from school budgets). Perhaps Alexander has heard of the regular conferences for entrepreneurs devoted to the subject of monetizing the education industry and cashing in on the opportunities presented by Common Core. One such conference was held just last week by Global Silicon Valley in Scottsdale. The purpose of national standards was to build a national marketplace for entrepreneurs. Joanne Weiss, who directed Race to the Top and then became Secretary Arne Duncan’s chief of staff, predicted that this would be the outcome of national standards when she wrote on the Harvard Business Review blog:

“The development of common standards and shared assessments radically alters the market for innovation in curriculum development, professional development, and formative assessments. Previously, these markets operated on a state-by-state basis, and often on a district-by-district basis. But the adoption of common standards and shared assessments means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale.”

As a historian of education, I can say that this is the first time to my knowledge that the U.S. Department of Education encouraged the development of national standards in order to increase the involvement of the private sector in supplying goods and services to the schools.

I am a supporter of national health insurance, so I don’t accept the analogy between the Affordable Care Act and Common Core. The difference between them, which may be unknown to Alexander, is that the U.S. government, including the U.S. Department of Education, is prohibited by law from taking any action that would direct, control, or supervise curriculum or instruction. Now we know that Arne Duncan regularly says he is doing none of the above, but it would be hard to find a teacher who would agree that neither Common Core nor the federally funded online tests has any effect on curriculum and instruction. Common Core and the related testing has had a dramatic effect on both. And, so, at risk of being called a name by Alexander, I would say (having worked for two years in the U.S. Department of Education) that the federal encouragement of Common Core and the federal funding of the Common Core tests directly conflicts with federal law.

You are right that it is far too soon to judge Common Core’s efficacy. But that is the fault of those who wrote it. In 2009, when I met at the Aspen Institute with the authors of the Common Core, I urged them to field test it so they would find out how it works in real classrooms. They didn’t. In 2010, I was invited to the White House to meet with Melody Barnes, the director of domestic policy; Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff; and Ricardo Rodriguez, the President’s education advisor, and they asked me what I thought of Common Core. I urged them to field test it. I suggested that they invite 3-5 states to give it a trial of three to five years. See how it works. See if it narrows the achievement gap or widens the achievement gap. They quickly dismissed the idea. They were in a hurry. They wanted Common Core to be rolled out as quickly as possible, without checking out how it works in real classrooms with real teachers and real children.

Are we judging Common Core too quickly and too harshly? Consider the first Common Core test results last year in New York. The passing mark was set so high (artificially high) that 97 percent of English learners failed; 95 percent of children with disabilities failed; more than 80 percent of black and Hispanic children failed; statewide, 69 percent of all students failed. Maybe there wasn’t enough time for teachers to learn and teach the secrets of Common Core, but why set the bar so high that children were doomed to fail? Is this supposed to increase equity?

Are our kids left behind by China, South Korea and Germany? Not really. Maybe not at all. It is true that we get mediocre scores on international tests, but we have been getting mediocre scores on international tests since the first such test was offered in 1964. We were never a world leader on the international tests. Most years, our scores were at the median or even in the bottom quartile. Yet in the intervening fifty years, we have far surpassed all those nations–economically, technologically, and on every other dimension– whose students got higher test scores. Basically, the test scores don’t predict anything about the future of the economy. Should we worry that Estonia might surpass us?

The fact is that our international scores reflect the very high proportion of kids who live in poverty, whose scores are lowest. We are #1 among the rich nations of the world in child poverty; nearly one-quarter of our children live in poverty. Our kids who live in affluent communities do very well indeed on the international tests. If we reduced the proportion of children living in poverty, our international test scores would go up. But in the end, as I said, the international scores don’t predict anything other than an emphasis on test-taking in the schools or the general socio-economic well-being of the society. We would be far better off investing more money in providing direct services to children–small classes for struggling students, experienced teachers, social workers, counselors, psychologists, and a full curriculum–rather than investing in more test preparation.

Alexander, I frankly do not understand your faith in national standards. There is no evidence that national standards produces higher achievement, nor that they reduce achievement gaps. They certainly do not overcome the burdens of homelessness, hunger, lack of medical care, or overcrowded classrooms. You express contempt for public school educators, so it is hard to understand why you think that they will magically be transformed into great teachers by national standards. This may come as a surprise, but most nations in the world–without regard to their standing on international tests–have national standards. When I visited Finland, which has an excellent school system, I read its national standards, but I also saw well-prepared teachers who shaped the curriculum in their classrooms and schools and who had a wide degree of professional autonomy about how they taught. I did not see or hear anyone express the hostility that you feel towards classroom teachers; teaching is a highly selective and highly respected profession, unlike here, where every legislator and pundit is considered an expert because they went to school.

I actually wrote a book about national standards, but I saw them as aspirational, not as a common script for teachers across the nation. I saw them first of all as voluntary, not mandatory. I saw them as standards for states and districts, requiring them to provide the resources for students to aim for standards. I never thought that standards meant that everyone would meet them (a la No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top). Example: for male runners, a four-minute mile is the standard. But very few male runners have ever reached that standard. It inspires all runners, but some will never come close. Education is not a race. It is about full human development of every human being. Education is not about winning or losing. It is about having the chance to develop one’s talents and abilities to the fullest.

Unlike you, Alexander, I see no advantage in “having a teacher in Alaska teach more or less the same thing as a teacher in Alabama.” What’s the point of that? If the teacher in Alabama is passionate about the work of Flannery O’Connor, let him or her teach it with passion. If the teacher in Alaska is fascinated with the arctic tundra, teach it. I assume you have not read the study by Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution, who pointed out that the Common Core standards were likely to make little or no difference in achievement. After all, states with high standards have wide variations in achievement, as do states with low standards.

I see no value in the arbitrary division between literature and informational text prescribed in the Common Core. I know where the numbers come from. They were instructions to assessment developers of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (I served on its governing board for seven years). The ratios were not intended as instructions to teachers. This is balderdash. English teachers should teach what they know and love. If they love fiction, teach it. If they love nonfiction, teach it. Why should a committee with no classroom teachers on it in 2009 tell reading teachers how to apportion their reading time? I doubt that teachers of math and science will spend any time on fiction anyway.

Your belief in using test scores to hold teachers accountable has no research to support it, nor is there any real-world evidence. Many districts have tried this for four or five years and there is no evidence–none–that it produces better teachers or better education. The ratings, as noted above, are arbitrary, and say more about classroom composition than about teacher quality. Nor is there any evidence that education gets better if teachers everywhere are using a common script. Doing well in school depends on family support, student motivation, community support, adequate resources, class sizes appropriate to the needs of the children, experienced teachers, wise leadership, and students who arrive in school healthy and well-fed.

Frankly, I don’t understand why you oppose “joy” in the classroom. Why should school be so “hard” that it makes children cry? It is true that some assignments are hard; some books are hard to read; some math problems are hard to solve. We learn from doing things that are not necessarily joyful, but that engage us in work that stimulates us to think harder, try harder, persist. When we are done with hard work, yes, it is a joyful feeling. Maybe it is because I am a grandmother, but I want my grandchildren to approach their school work with earnestness and to sense the joy of accomplishment, the joy of learning. I want my grandchildren to love learning. I want them to read books even when they are not assigned. I want them to go to the Internet to find things out because they are curious.

And, yes, Alexander, I agree that kids like yours and Louis’s and my grandchildren will be fine. We will read to them, we will talk with them and introduce them to vocabulary, we will take them on trips to the museum and the library, we will listen to them as they read the stories they wrote for school. Other kids are not so lucky. But why should they be punished by being deprived of joy? Why should they be subject to endless testing and test prep? Will that free them from poverty and homelessness? Will that vault them into the middle-class?

Alexander, you assume that national standards, holding teachers accountable for test scores, more high-stakes testing, more rigor, and privately-managed charter schools will cure poverty. There is no evidence for what you believe. The Common Core has some good ideas in it; I doubt that it will do harm, although I believe that subjecting little children to 6-8 hours of testing to see if they can read and do math is harmful, physically and mentally, to them. Long ago, educators were able to find out in tests lasting 50 minutes how well a student could read or do math. Why is it now an ordeal that lasts as long as some professional examinations? For heaven’s sake, we are talking about little children, not candidates for college or a profession!

(Correction: Fixing spelling of Emanuel)

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | May 3