My kids used to love math. Now it makes them cry. Thanks standardized testing and common core!
— Louis C.K. (@louisck) April 28, 2014
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]