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Stop This Train: The Common Core and the Uncommon Student

19 Nov

“Bureaucracies force us to practice nonsense. And if you rehearse nonsense, you may one day find yourself the victim of it.” 

 — Laurence Gonzales,  Everyday Survival: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things


Good Morning.

As you can see,  on the agenda today is the Common Core Standards. 

I posted a question a few weeks back on the MORE Discussion list-serve…. the Google Group that many of you are familiar with. Words to the effect of  “Does MORE  have a position on the CCSS?  If not, why not?”

So… in a classic case of “no good deed goes unpunished” ( or maybe in this case, “no snotty-assed question goes unnoticed”)…  I’ve been asked to share my own thoughts about the CCSS in some detail.

Well, by way of explanation,  what prompted my question in the first place was the fact that when (MORE activist) Michele Showman and I were petitioning  against the teacher eval system at schools in the NW Bronx… specifically at the JFK campus …. that particular  question about MORE and the  CC seemed to repeatedly  suggest itself.

We’d be talking to people about the teacher eval system… and why it was so bad that we needed a moratorium.  And why MORE’s moratorium was  different and distinctly better than the flakey moratorium that the union leadership had frantically  cobbled together (To keep up with us? Who knows.) at about this same time. ( late September, early October.)

Naturally, people ( esp. *teachers*)  asked about the  eval system, the moratoriums, the organization MORE, how MORE’s moratorium was better than Mulgrew’s, etc. and the dialogue  often  flowed into longer discussions that incorporated the OTHER two proverbial “elephants in the living room”: Danielson and the Common Core.

The point is this:  it’s hard to talk about just ADVANCE …the bureaucracy’s nifty little handle for its moronic new teacher eval system….and  just how bad it really is, without talking about EVERYTHING.  “Everything” includes the CC. Now,  as an organization, we have a position  on ADVANCE and I think we have a position on Danielson ( If we don’t maybe we ought to.) but we don’t seem to have an explicit position on CCSS.

Maybe we should think about that today.

I  personally don’t have a huge history with CC. I retired from District 75 two years ago. In my last year, we were part of a pilot program to introduce the Danielson Framework ( for teacher observations), and CC was sort of smuggled in at the same time, essentially unnoticed in the avalanche of new, largely unnecessary paperwork and assorted confusion that inevitably attends the adoption of the Danielson method. In case you are unaware,  District 75’s mission is to educate kids with “significant disabilities”. That’s how DOE itself describes it. I taught high school-aged kids, 15-21.

“Significant disabilities” means, in the vast majority of cases, kids with IEPs whose impairments are so severe that they need  self-contained special ed classrooms. And often a lot of other services, like speech therapy, occupational therapy, etc.

The severity of the handicapping conditions in question varies, even within D75; but many, many D75 kids have 1. little or no language or literacy , 2. little or no numeracy, and 3. one or more of a myriad of overlaying and complicating (from an instructional POV) conditions. One example: severe autism. ( Avonte Oquendo, the young man who walked out of his school 6 weeks ago and has not been seen since, walked out of a District 75 school. ) In short, D75 kids come with a wide range  of what are — to be brutally frank,— severe, permanent,  life-long handicapping conditions. 

Traditionally, working with  these kids  involved … first of all… recognizing them as not only individuals but as *exceptional* individuals. Their *IEPS* guided the  pedagogy; NOT any generic curriculum.

So, let’s consider that term, “IEP”: Individualized Education Plan . The key word is *INDIVIDUALIZED*.  The IEP, written by the child’s educators and parents  TOGETHER, stressed goals that were appropriate for that particular INDIVIDUAL. So there was math, for instance… but it was *functional* math: telling time, counting money, basic banking and budgeting. The complexity of each goal carefully calibrated to the specific needs of each particular student.  The developmental level of each INDIVIDUAL child was considered. Not the grade level that would ordinarily be assumed by their chronological age. Our guiding planning  principle: if the student could  master these basic skills, he or she could achieve….  at the very  least…. a *degree* of independence in adult life. Public education would have therefore served a useful purpose for that particular child.

For reading  goals, we  again zeroed-in on the  functional and the practical: signs, labels, directions. Alphabetical order, for instance. ( If one knows alphabetical order one can  file;  can be useful in an office;  can use a directory; and so on.) Schedules. ( “If you know how to read a schedule you can take a bus to get to  a job,” I sometimes explained to my more capable students.)

The art — and the challenge— for the teacher and planner was  in *prioritizing*. And in being realistic. What can this student *really* learn; what can I *really*  TEACH him/her, that is going to significantly enhance his/her quality of life —  considering the limited amount of instructional time we would have together in the classroom before he/she aged-out at  age 21 — COMBINED WITH the obstacles posed by the severity of the handicapping condition?

So. You would think that the Common Core …. based as it is on the assumption that all children can and must be made college or career ready by the end of high school…. would make a detour around District 75.  Surely our D75 administrative high command would see to that. You would *think* so.

You would be wrong. ( You give them *way* too much credit.) All of the aforementioned was thrown out. A completely useless, commercial, online, generic curriculum —costing tens of thousands of dollars and boasting that its content was “aligned” to the Common Core Standards— was imposed. D75 teachers were not only responsible for implementing the IEP but for  incorporating the Common Core standards at the same time. It was the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen in 27 years in the NYC system. We spent hour after excruciating hour at workshops and in-services and “cohort meetings” discussing Common Core-aligned topics such as “equations and inequalities”, “polynomials”, “rewriting rational expressions” and ” reasoning with equations and inequalities.” Why were we doing this?

Because our kids were high school-age. And the CC insists that that’s what all HS-aged kids should be learning. 

In the meantime, our kids, though teenagers,  typically couldn’t do two-digit addition correctly and often couldn’t count to 10. We should have been  finding ways  to bridge the gap between handicapping condition, otoh, and functional independence  on the other; but we wasted  all that planning time talking about… and trying to COMPLY with…. bureaucratic  Common Core nonsense.

So… that’s what  Common Core means to me. Complete and utter academic irrelevance. Chaos. Instructional incoherence. Now perhaps, you may be thinking, CC is more applicable to general ed populations. Maybe to the students that most of YOU teach. Frankly, I doubt it.

Contemplate for a minute the  lack of mentality, the  sheer *mindlessness* behind the requirement  that teachers of profoundly impaired special ed students teach or … or  *pretend*  to teach… “polynomials” and “rewriting rational expressions”  to 17 year-old kids who can’t count to ten. While the Common Core may initially seem  a  better fit to the gen ed  classroom, keep in mind that the same know-nothing, authoritarian arrogance that drove CC thru my classroom is now driving  it thru yours. 

The CC rationale rests on a  rickety step-ladder of false assumptions, starting with the assumption that people have more in “common” than they actually do. Our kids are individuals… all of them: special ed, general ed; *all* of them…. before they are interchangeable widgets, OSIS #s,  clones or drones.

So…. maybe we can spend some time today talking about the CC and what it means for both students and teachers. MORE doesn’t HAVE to take an official position on every educational issue that comes down the pike. But CC has become so central to school life in NYC and so integral to the stealthy and  self-serving undertakings of corporate “reformers” that maybe it’s time we looked it squarely in the eye.

Presented at the  November general membership meeting of MORE ( The Movement of Rank-and-File Educators) a caucus of NYC’s United Federation of Teachers.