Standardized testing and schools as factories: Louis CK versus Common Core

Louis CK is the latest high-profile voice to join the chorus against the US educational Common Core and the educational system's emphasis on standardized testing. A great New Yorker piece explores the movement against standardized testing and one-size-fits-all pedagogy.

I think it falls short of the mark, though. The rise of standardized testing, standardized curriculum, and "accountability" are part of the wider phenomenon of framing every question in business terms. In the modern world, the state is a kind of souped up business. That's why we're all "taxpayers" instead of "citizens." "Taxpayer" reframes policy outcomes as a kind of customer-loyalty perk. If your taxes are the locus of your relationship with the state, then people who don't pay taxes -- people too young, old, disabled, or unlucky to be working -- are not entitled to policy outcomes that reflect their needs.

"Taxpayers" are the shareholders in government. The government is the board of directors. School administrators are the management. Teachers are the assembly-line workers. Kids are the product. "Accountability" means that the product has to be quantified and reported on every quarter. The only readily quantifiable elements of education are attendance and test-scores, so the entire educational system is reorganized around maximizing these elements, even though they are only tangentially related to real educational outcomes and are trivial to game.

The vilification of teachers and teachers' unions go hand-in-hand with this idea. At the heart of teachers' unions' demands is the insistence that teaching is a craft that requires nonstandard, difficult-to-quantify approaches that are incompatible with factory-style "accountability." The emphasis on the outliers of teachers' unions -- the rare instances in which bad teachers are protected by their trade unions -- instead of the activity that constitutes the vast majority of union advocacy -- demanding an educational approach that is grounded in trust, respect, and individual tutelage -- the "taxpayer" types can make out teachers as lazy slobs who don't want to jog on the same brutal treadmill as the rest of us.

Some observers, among them Arne Duncan, the Education Secretary, have been quick to dismiss parental critiques of education policy as whining. Duncan may have apologized for sneering about “white suburban moms” who find that after exposure to the Common Core “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were,” but that he expressed the thought in the first place is telling. It’s easy to make fun of privileged parents who can see no fault in their charmed offspring; one can even imagine Louis C.K. doing it.

But the issue identified by Louis C.K., and by other less well-known but equally furious parents, is not that the material children are expected to learn is too hard. It isn’t unreasonable to expect kids to have learned to multiply and divide numbers up to a hundred by the time they leave third grade—and in all likelihood, Louis C.K.’s child will have done so by June, if she hasn’t already, and be the better for it. The greater problem lies with the ways in which the achievement of those standards is measured. An emphasis on a certain kind of testing has become a blight upon the city’s classrooms. “The teachers are great,” C.K. tweeted. “But it’s changed in recent years. It’s all about these tests. It feels like a dark time.”

Louis C.K. Against the Common Core [Rebecca Mead/New Yorker]

(via Kottke)

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  1. I don't get the demonizing of Common Core. It isn't a curriculum or testing system, though I suppose one would naturally need to test students to see if they "pass" Common Core.

    Common Core is just a list of standards on what kids should learn. Johnny must learn X in 3rd grade to go into the 4th grade. This makes sense to me, as before each state had it's own standards. I know my brother in law had to repeat a grade because the curriculum in Oklahoma didn't meet the Kansas requirements when he transferred schools. I don't see how one can argue that having a base platform of skills/knowledge that is universally taught is a bad thing.

    People have posted crap like different ways to do math that seem counter intuitive and then blame Common Core. The thing is, those methods pre-date Common Core, and Common Core doesn't say that method should or shouldn't be taught. (Of course I've seen the irony where people argue CC will dumb down or make learning homogenized with no diversity, then they bitch when there is an alternative, diverse way to solve math problems.)

  2. It's not Common Core itself that's a problem, nor standards as a concept. It's the incessant testing to "prove" that schools and teachers are "performing well" by producing enough students who demonstrate learned absorption of a common knowledge and skills set.

    The real problem is that like No Child Left Behind, Common Core is a neoliberal Trojan horse for busting teachers' unions and privatizing (that is, profiting from) education.

  3. While CC "is just a list of standards" is true in paper, in practice, it is the curriculum makers like Pearson, that are also the CC test makers, and they have a vested interest in biasing tests, such that Pearson-curriculum kids will do better than non-Pearson-curriculum taught kids. Don't think this is happening? If you actually read the CC standards and compare them to the CC test problems, you will see idiosyncratic helper techniques such as "area model" for multiplication--which are NOT part of the CC standards--show up on CC tests. [EDIT: To clarify, this is not a criticism of these techniques, only the inclusion of them on the tests. See below.]

    Pearson is adding material in the curriculum they sell which is not part of the CC standards, and then including that material in the CC tests they create. And in the world of big data and aggregate statistics, Pearson only needs to slow down the non-Pearson curriculum test-takers by a minute or so in order to make their curriculum look superior.

  4. I'm all in favor of reducing excessive and useless testing - it's gotten much worse in the 10 years since I finished high school, but it had already started then.And I've come across my fair share of (what seemed to me) dumb ways of solving problems and presenting information. I admit they may help some students whose brains worked differently than mine, but some teachers insist on something that isn't essential and it (sometimes legitimately) undermines students' confidence in their abilities.

    But some of the complaints in the linked article are bizarre. For example:

    If you are over the age of twenty and not yourself a teacher, it is unlikely that you will have an intuitive facility with a “number line,” or know how to write a “number sentence,” or even understand what is meant by the omnipresent directive to “show your work.”

    Really? You went through years of geometry and algebra, and don't get number lines? You didn't use number lines to count in kindergarten, or to graph lines and parabolas and so on in middle and high school, or to introduce the idea of negative and complex numbers? I admit "number sentence" is an odd turn of phrase for those of us more used to the traditional terms "equation" and "expression" but it is actually a completely natural and intuitive way of describing what an equation is - a compact, grammatical, symbolic representation of a numerical idea in the same way that a natural language sentence is a less compact, grammatical, symbolic representation of a verbal idea. And "show your work" has been the rule for decades. It is often pushed too far (I had middle school teachers that would take points off if I did 2 arithmetic steps in 1 line of an algebra derivation) but how can anyone possibly think this has anything to do with Common Core?

  5. We can have an honest discussion about Common Core, but honestly, why the hell do we care what Louis CK thinks about it?

    I've seen this on all the other blogs as well -- OMG, Louis CK just tweeted against the Common Core!!1

    I love Louis CK, but he's a comedian, not an education expert. This is celebrity culture, and nothing else. I think Louis would probably do a skit about people taking him seriously.

    And really, "My kids used to love math. Now it makes them cry. Thanks standardized testing and common core!"? Guess what? Your kids used to count bunnies in "math" class, now they are older and have to do different math! How can he possibly know if they would have liked third-grade non-Common Core math?

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