Two years ago, Dr. Leah Buechley delivered a stunning address at Stanford University’s 2013 FabLearn Conference. In her speech, Dr. Buechley challenged MakerEd.org’s slogan, “Every Child a Maker,” in light of the lack of diversity displayed by a commercial entity often associated with its activities, Maker Media. (Note: The non-profit advocacy group, MakerEd.org and the company, Maker Media, share a founder and similar names, but are indeed separate entities regardless of any confusion in the marketplace.)
Dr. Buechley shared stunning statistics on the lack of diversity represented on the cover of Make Magazine (the flagship of the enterprise), the lack of editorial diversity in Make, and the cost of the most popular kits sold by MakerShed, the retail arm of Maker Media.
I highly recommend that you take some time to watch Dr. Buechley’s Stanford Talk.
These are not the words of a cranky critic. Leah Buechley is one of the mother’s of the maker movement (small m). She urged those with enormous capital, influence, and connections to take their mission of “Every Child a Maker” more seriously. A change in behavior needed to accompany this rhetoric in order to truly make the world a better place. Maker Media and its subsidiaries have gained access to The White House, departments of education, and policy-making discussions. With such access comes great responsibility. Every educator and parent has seen the pain inflicted on public education by corporations and other rich white men who view the public schools as their personal plaything.
Earlier this week, I wrote the article, Criminalizing Show & Tell, to tell the outrageous tale of a 9th grade young man who was arrested, cuffed, detained, and suspended from school for bringing his invention to class. He hoped his creativity would gain him support in a school culture hostile to his complexion, name and religious beliefs. In my article, I addressed the steps that must be taken to correct this abuse of power, deprivation of rights, and violation of sound education principles.
Since then, Ahmed Mohammed has become the cause célèbre of the Internet. Why, he got tweeted by @potus AND got his very own hashtag, #istandwithAhmed. What Ahmed has NOT received is an apology from the school district that brutalized him or the police force that wrongfully arrested him. In fact, the school district continued their victim-blaming in a letter to parents and the Irving, Texas police chief thinks that his force handled everything perfectly as well.
But hey, he got a #hashtag! Case closed, right?
I don’t think so.
This morning I awoke to this tone-deaf email from Makershed announcing their Stand with Ahmed clock kit sale. Worst of all, only 3 of the 12 clocks are actually on-sale.
If tasteless isn’t your style, how about sweet?
My social media stream is full of postings like this one.
Hooray! Ahmed is getting lots of presents. Who doesn’t like presents?
A few pesky questions remain:
- Who will buy all the plane tickets Ahmed and his parents need to meet the folks wishing to pose for photos with him?
- Will his school punish him for missing class?
Oh, that’s right. He doesn’t have class because:
- Ahmed was suspended for not bringing a bomb to school.
- The intolerant culture of his school is forcing him to change high schools.
Neither social justice or the right to a high-quality public school education free of brutality and intolerance can be exchanged for exciting cash and prizes.
Ahmed’s growing gift bag of goodies will do nothing to cleanse the Irving, Texas schools and community of its toxicity, xenophobia, Islamophobia, or racism. The misbehaving adults will not have their behaviors addressed.
Where does a fourteen year-old boy go to get his childhood back?
Veteran teacher educator, journalist, and speaker Gary S. Stager, Ph.D. is the co-author of Invent to Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, called “the bible of the maker movement in schools” by the San Jose Mercury News.
Dr. Gary Stager recently authored Intel’s Guide to Creating and Inventing with Technology in the Classroom. The piece explores the maker movement for educators, policy-makers, and school leaders.
Download a copy here.
Gary was recently interviewed by the National School Boards Association for the June 2015 American School Boards Journal.
The following is an attempt to share some of my objections to Common Core in a coherent fashion. These are my views on a controversial topic. An old friend I hold in high esteem asked me to share my thoughts with him. If you disagree, that’s fine. Frankly, I spent a lot of time I don’t have creating this document and don’t really feel like arguing about the Common Core. The Common Core is dying even if you just discovered it.
This is not a research paper, hence the lack of references. You can Google for yourself. Undoubtedly, this post contains typos as well. I’ll fix them as I find them.
This critique shares little with the attacks from the Tea Party or those dismissed by the Federal Education Secretary or Bill Gates as whiney parents.
I have seven major objections to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)
- The CCSS are a solution in search of a problem.
- The CCSS were implemented in a remarkably undemocratic fashion at great public expense to the benefit of ideologues and corporations.
- The standards are preposterous and developmentally inappropriate.
- The inevitable failure of the Common Core cannot be blamed on poor implementation when poor implementation is baked into the design.
- Standardized curriculum lowers standards, diminishes teacher agency, and lowers the quality of educational experiences.
- The CCSS will result in an accelerated erosion of public confidence in public education.
- The requirement that CCSS testing be conducted electronically adds unnecessary complexity, expense, and derails any chance of computers being used in a creative fashion to amplify student potential.
The CCSS are a solution in search of a problem
The professed rationale for the Common Core is based on several patently ridiculous assumptions. These include:
- There is a sudden epidemic of bad teaching in American schools.
- There has never been a way for parents to know how their children are doing in school.
- Curriculum varies widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction across the United States.
I am no apologist for the current state of public (or private) education in America. There is a shortage of imagination, love, and commitment to knowing every child in order to amplify her potential. However, there is abundant scholarship by Linda Darling-Hammond, Diane Ravitch, Gerald Bracey, Deborah Meier, and others demonstrating that more American kids are staying in school longer than at any time in history. If we control for poverty, America competes quite favorably against any other nation in the world, if you care about such comparisons.
Parents have ample ways of knowing how their children are doing; from speaking with them, meeting with teachers, looking at their work, and the excessive number of standardized tests already administered to American school children. Some places in America spend as long as several months per school year on testing, not including practice tests or the test-prep curriculum.
At best, the Common Core State Standards ensure that if a kid moves from Maine to Mobile, they won’t miss the monkey lesson. Such uniformity of instruction based on arbitrary curricular topics is impossible to enforce and on the wrong side of history. As my colleague and mentor Seymour Papert said, “At best school teaches a billionth of a percent of the knowledge in the world and yet we quibble endlessly about which billionth of a percent is important enough to teach.” Schools should prepare kids to solve problems their teachers never anticipated with the confidence and competence necessary to overcome any obstacle, even if only to discover that there is more to learn.
The CCSS were implemented in a remarkably undemocratic fashion at great public expense to the benefit of ideologues and corporations
Other once great nations have embraced nutty ideas like national curricula, but such policies were voted upon by legislators willing to raise their hand and be held accountable for their vote. The CCSS is a de-facto national curriculum created by corporate forces and anonymous unaccountable bureaucrats. State education departments and local districts surviving savage cuts in state education funding can hardly afford to reject the Common Core when its implementation brings with it billions of dollars in Federal funding from the Obama administration. Americans would never tolerate a national curriculum. That’s why the Common Core was required as a backdoor vehicle for enforcing instructional uniformity.
CCSS advocates assert that the standards were written by Governors and teachers. This claim is laughable.
The two major forces behind the Common Core, aside from the Federal Department of Education, are Bill Gates and multinational testing/publishing conglomerate, Pearson. The Gates Foundation has spent up to $2.3 billion on astroturf groups lobbying on behalf of The Common Core. (more info here)
While Gates is driven by ideology or a misguided sense of philanthropy, Pearson stands to profit handsomely. They are the largest education publisher in the USA. They also lead in producing and scoring standardized tests. The controversial PARCC test that recently made headlines when they spied on kids’ social media accounts and got government goons to enforce their testing regime. Add test-prep curriculum, worksheets, professional development, and their recent forays into teacher and administrator credentialing, and you quickly see how Pearson controls the entire education ecosystem – profiting at every step of the process they created. Not much imagination is required to see Pearson running publicly funded charter schools created in the rubble created by the Common Core. Heads they win. Tails kids and teachers lose. (Read the Politico Pearson exposé, “No Profit Left Behind”)
The Common Core State Standards only apply to public schools. Neither Bill Gates or President Obama would tolerate sending their children to schools slavishly adhering to this curricular diet intended for other people’s children. Surely the Gates and Obama children will be career and college ready in their lovely schools with art, music, blocks, field trips, well-stocked libraries, and teachers trusted to design curriculum.
The standards are preposterous and developmentally inappropriate
The Common Core State Standards are focused on college and career readiness all the way down to kindergarten!
Please explain Cavalieri’s Principle. I have yet to meet an adult who knows what this is, but it appears in the Common Core High School Geometry Standards.
Give an informal argument using Cavalieri’s principle for the formulas for the volume of a sphere and other solid figures.
Thankfully, the CCSS only currently exist for Math and English Language Arts. This means that other subjects in the arts, sciences, and social sciences will not be standardized. However, it also means they are less likely to be taught in CCSS-obsessed schools.
The inevitable failure of the Common Core cannot be blamed on poor implementation when poor implementation is baked into the design
Promoters of the Common Core shrug off criticisms by blaming teachers for poorly implementing the standards. This line of attack is worse than cynical victim blaming. Allow me to explain why.
Let’s stipulate that the Common Core State Standards are a terrific idea. Our nation needs clear enforceable uniform education standards at each grade level.
If that were the case, the CCSS would be rolled-out over twelve years, not all at once. If a curricular topic typically taught in the 9th grade is moved to 7th grade by the Common Core, then many children will not have been taught those concepts, but will still be tested on them. When they inevitably fail to perform well, their teachers will be blamed and in states like New York where teacher pay and job security is tied to test scores, their teachers will be punished for doing what they have been told to do.
Scotland is rolling out a new national curriculum, but they are doing so over twelve years.
Why do you think that the Common Core was in such a hurry to implement a new K-12 curriculum at once?
Standardized curriculum lowers standards, diminishes teacher agency, and lowers the quality of educational experiences
Curriculum should be determined as close to the child as possible in collaboration with colleagues and reflecting the community. It is the height of arrogance to prepare instruction for children you have never met.
Uniform standards standardize (lower) expectations in the name of uniformity. The quality of education suffers when teachers have their curricular discretion challenged and replaced with a list of topics to “cover” at best, or a scripted curriculum (common in urban settings), at worst. The sheer number of Common Core standards makes depth, mastery, passion, curiosity, or other habits of mind less likely to achieve. When does a student get great at something when their education experience is strapped to an ever-accelerating treadmill?
When teachers are not required to make curricular decisions and design curriculum based on the curiosity, thinking, understanding, passion, or experience of their students, the resulting loss in teacher agency makes educators less thoughtful and reflective in their practice, not more. The art of teaching has been sacrificed at the expense of reducing pedagogical practice to animal control and content delivery.
My standards for what children should be able to know and do extend far beyond that which is taught or tested by the CCSS.
The CCSS will result in an accelerated erosion of public confidence in public education
The singular genius of George W. Bush and his No Child Left Behind legislation (kicked-up a notch by Obama’s Race-to-the-Top) was the recognition that many parents hate school, but love their kids’ teachers. If your goal is to privatize education, you need to concoct a way to convince parents to withdraw support for their kid’s teacher. A great way to achieve that objective is by misusing standardized tests and then announcing that your kid’s teacher is failing your kid. This public shaming creates a manufactured crisis used to justify radical interventions before calmer heads can prevail.
These standardized tests are misunderstood by the public and policy-makers while being used in ways that are psychometrically invalid. For example, it is no accident that many parents confuse these tests with college admissions requirements. Using tests designed to rank students mean that half of all test-takers be below the norm and were never intended to measure teacher efficacy.
The test scores come back up to six months after they are administered, long after a child advances to the next grade. Teachers receive scores for last year’s students, with no information on the questions answered incorrectly. These facts make it impossible to use the testing as a way of improving instruction, the stated aim of the farcical process.
I am not willing to give up on public schools because that’s where the children are. Public education is the bedrock of our democracy.
The negative trajectory of technology use required by the CCSS
You will find no greater advocate for the use of computational technology in education than me. However, the requirement that the CCSS assessment exams driving the entire Common Core effort be conducted electronically has a deeply disturbing effect on educational computing.
Instead of using computers to create, program, edit, compose, publish, or collaborate, the Common Core electronic assessment requirement is causing schools, districts, and states to invest exorbitant sums on large numbers of often under-powered “devices” for test-taking and test-prep purposes. Existing computers will be tied up in these assessment activities as well. The security requirements of the CCSS exams are causing schools to lock-down computers in ways deleterious to learning and student empowerment. The fact that lots of “devices” need to be purchased for testing too often results in a diminution in computational power available to children in school. Constructive activities such as nusic composition, filmmaking, computer programming, physical computing, robotics, etc.. are rendered more difficult or impossible when technology purchases are shaped by testing requirements.
There are technical complexities and numerous pain points associated with this online testing as well. Many schools lack adequate network infrastructure to support hundreds or thousands of children being online at once. The testing software is buggy and prone to failure, especially since testing occurs nationwide at approximately the same time (and for longer than a Bar Exam). The testing software itself is awful and plagued by horrendous user-interface issues. Kids are being penalized for not being able to navigate buggy and confusing software, even if they understand the concept being tested. Poor(er) children with less access to computing activities are even more disadvantaged by the awful test navigation. In other words, much of what is being measured by the online Common Core tests will be a student’s ability to work the testing software, not valuable educational content. If you don’t believe me, try one of the online test samples for the PARCC assessment.
One last thing
It is particularly ironic how much of the public criticism of the Common Core is related to media accounts and water cooler conversations of the “crazy math” being taught to kids. There are actually very few new or more complex concepts in the Common Core than previous math curricula. In fact, the Common Core hardly challenges any of the assumptions of the existing mathematics curriculum. The Common Core English Language Arts standards are far more radical. Yet, our innumerate culture is up in arms about the “new new math” being imposed by the Common Core.
What is different about the Common Core approach to mathematics, particularly arithmetic, is the arrogant imposition of specific algorithms. In other words, parents are freaking out because their kids are being required to solve problems in a specific fashion that is different from how they solve similar problems.
This is more serious than a matter of teaching old dogs new tricks. The problem is teaching tricks at all. There are countless studies by Constance Kamii and others demonstrating that any time you teach a child the algorithm, you commit violence against their mathematical understanding. Mathematics is a way of making sense of the world and Piaget teaches us that it is not the job of the teacher to correct the child from the outside, but rather to create the conditions in which they correct themselves from the inside. Mathematical problem solving does not occur in one way no matter how forcefully you impose your will on children. If you require a strategy competing with their own intuitions, you add confusion that results in less confidence and understanding.
Aside from teaching one algorithm (trick), another way to harm a child’s mathematical thinking development is to teach many algorithms for solving the same problem. Publishers make this mistake frequently. In an attempt to acknowledge the plurality of ways in which various children solve problems, those strategies are identified and then taught to every child. Doing so adds unnecessary noise, undermines personal confidence, and ultimately tests memorization of tricks (algorithms) at the expense of understanding.
This scenario goes something like this. Kids estimate in lots of different ways. Let’s teach them nine or ten different ways to estimate, and test them along the way. By the end of the process, many kids will be so confused that they will no longer be able to perform the estimation skill they had prior to the direct instruction in estimation. Solving a problem in your head is disqualified.
These articles do a pretty good job of supporting my arguments above:
- Popular ‘Maker Movement’ Incompatible With Common Core, Authors Contend
© 2015 Gary S. Stager
All Rights Reserved
In November, I had a the great honor of working with my colleagues at the Omar Dengo Foundation, Costa Rica’s NGO responsible for computers in schools. For the past quarter century, the Fundacion Omar Dengo has led the world in the constructionist use of computers in education – and they do it at a national level!
While there, I delivered the organization’s annual lecture in the Jean Piaget Auditorium. The first two speakers in this annual series were Seymour Papert and Nicholas Negroponte.
The first video is over an hour in length and is followed but the audience Q & A. The second portion of the event gave me the opportunity to tie a bow on the longer address and to explore topics I forgot to speak about.
I hope these videos inspire some thought and discussion.
Gary Stager “This is Our Moment “ – Conferencia Anual 2014 Fundación Omar Dengo (Costa Rica)
San José, Costa Rica. November 2014
Gary Stager – Questions and Answers Section – Annual Lecture 2014 (Costa Rica)
San José, Costa Rica. November 2014
Did you hear the news? President Obama wrote his first line of code yesterday to bring attention to Computer Science Week and Code.org’s Marie Antoinette-style Hour of Code. (a “global movement” bankrolled by billionaires and major corporations) I suppose fracking is a global movement too, but I digress.
I can get past the President of the United States pretending that he’s some dumb guy capable of performing a trivial task on a computer. Huh huh, look at me. Duh, “You gotta slow down, ’cause I’m an old man…”
I’m OK with tech corporations successfully engineering a publicity stunt with cute kids and the President even if their real objectives are easing restrictions on H1-B visas enabling tech companies to hire programmers from other countries (likely cheaper than hiring Americans). All of that is just business, lobbying, and public relations. I salute the propagandists who made it all happen! Lobbying and selling stuff is the American way. (cue: start humming The Battle Hymn of the Republic)
None of the stagecraft I just described is evil.
What I will not abide is using Newark, NJ middle school students as human shields as part of a larger agenda to destroy the public schools in their already exploited and disadvantaged community. (I’ve yet to determine if they are charter school students)
History does not begin with Code.org and the Silicon Valley smartypants who fund it. EVERY Newark public elementary and middle school taught Logo programming for more than a decade to every student. I know. I used to teach the incredibly passionate, dedicated, and competent Newark teachers. Announcing that the seven largest cities in the USA will now commit to offer a middle or high school computer science class does nothing to explain why computer science, art, music and other rich subjects have become extinct in urban school districts. In fact, it is the very heavy-handed Gates-funded and Zuckerberg-approved education policies that the Obama Administration has inflicted on districts, such as Newark, that has made an hour of looking up from anything but a multiple-choice worksheet for an hour cause for a White House celebration.
Code.org, the organization behind Hour of Code is heavily financed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. In 2010, Zuckerberg gave a $100 million dollar “donation” to the Newark Public Schools as long as they would bust teacher unions, focus on endless test prep, and replace public schools with charters. The legality of the “donation” is still in question. What is not in dispute, is the fact that Zuckerberg got almost nothing for his investment/purchase/donation.
President Obama rarely, if ever visits a public school. He likes charters. Gates likes charters. Zuckerberg likes charter schools. They all hate teacher unions. I documented the President’s antipathy towards organized teachers back in 2008 in the Huffington Post’s First We Kill the Teacher Unions. In that article, written before President Obama’s election, I detailed how the wunderkind Newark Mayor, now Senator, needed help in busting teacher unions and privatizing the public schools in his community. Bill Gates’ hostility towards organized labor of any kind is well documented in the countless labor violations Microsoft was adjudicated guilty of during his leadership of the company.
President Obama also likes “workforce” development gimmicks in education. One of his favorite “public/private” (corporate) projects is P-Tech High School in Brooklyn, NY (another city decimated by education policies enacted by unqualified ideologues). The “miracle” of that school’s success has even been called into question.
In my March 2014 article, Newark, NJ: Larger Class Sizes and Unqualified Teachers – Perfect Together, I discuss the chaos being caused by the “One Newark” being advanced by the state-appointed, locally unaccountable, and Teach-for-America trained superintendent of the Newark Public Schools, Cami Anderson. “One Newark” seeks to fire up to 1,000 teachers and privatize more public schools as charters. Two decades after suspending democracy in Newark, disbanding the local school board, and taking control over the local district, the State of New Jersey is never to be blamed for the real or perceived failure of the Newark schools. Teacher blaming, name-calling, and community antagonism has become a substitute for education policy. The local unpopularity of One Newark inspired a high school teacher and former teachers union President to be elected Mayor of Newark and the superintendent no longer feels safe attending public meetings in her own school district. The Mayor of Newark has detailed what he believes to be the legal violations behind One Newark in a four-page letter to President Obama.
Let’s review. President Obama, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg are all fans of charter schools. None of them, or their friend Cory Booker, care much for the sorts of pesky teacher unions fighting for jobs and democracy in Newark. Zuckerberg is a major force behind Code.org and spent $100,000,000 in Newark. Each of these men is a proponent of the get-fought, back-to-basics, test constantly model of “reform.” Is it a coincidence that Newark students were chosen to be props during the President’s celebration of Hour of Code?
Addendum: While I have specific pedagogical issues with Hour-of-Code, this post is a plea to pause before we celebrate a singular hour of good in a school district savaged by the very same patrons.
I will share my issues with the implementation of Hour of Code in a future post.
I’m against rubrics. Anyone considering their use should read Alfie Kohn’s article, Trouble with Rubrics.
That said, people I respect have used the special Handy Dandy Patented Stager Super Dooper Rubric over the years. The following is the language contained in my graduate school syllabi for a decade or so.
I have strong reservations about both grades and rubrics. I believe that both practices have a prophylactic effect on learning. Doing the best job you can do and sharing your knowledge with others are the paramount goals for this course. I expect excellence.
Therefore, I am trying a new experiment this term. You should evaluate each course artifact you create according to the following “rubric.” The progression denotes a range from the least personal growth to the most.
- I did not participate
- I phoned-it in
- I impressed by colleagues
- I impressed my friends and neighbors
- I impressed my children
- I impressed Gary
- I impressed myself
Balance is the Fabreze of education policy. It is a chemical spray designed to mask the stench of a two year-old tuna sandwich found in the minvan with the artificial bouquet of an April rain dancing on a lily pad.
- Balanced literacy got us systemic phonics.
- Balanced math begot Singapore Math worksheets.
- Balanced standards produced The Common Core.
- Balanced policy debates produced No Child Left Behind and Race-to-the-Top
- A balanced approach to educational technology made computer science extinct in schools and has now taught two generations of children to find the space bar in a computer lab-based keyboarding class.
I could go on.
Balance is elusive. It is fake and lazy and cowardly and sad. Balance is embraced by those who don’t know or can’t/won’t articulate what they truly believe. Balance fills the void left by the absence of alternative models and excellence. It is anonymous.
Educators are told that passion should be tempered. Every pedagogical idea is just fine as long as it is “for the children.” We should just do our jobs and not complain about outrageous attacks on our dignity, paycheck, curriculum, working conditions, or the living conditions of the students we serve.
Balance fills the school day with mandates and directives and lots of interruptions that while offering an illusion of options make it impossible for a learner to focus on anything long enough to become good at it.
Balance teaches children that teachers are helpless pawns in a system they don’t control or cannot understand.
Balance is the absentee parent of incrementalism. As educators take “baby steps” towards what they know is right or righteous they lead a long and meandering hike after which the followers cannot remember the original destination.
“This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” (Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963)
Educators are to remain neutral and seek consensus at all-costs. Balance programs us to find the silver lining in tornados. There MUST be SOMETHING good in what Bill Gates or Sal Khan or any number of a million corporations with ED or MENTUM or ACHIEVE or VATION in their names happen to be peddling.
The laws of the political universe, and education is inherently political, greet each embrace of “balance” as ten steps in a more conservative direction. There is no balance – just weakness.
I urge you to read one of my favorite passages ever written about “balance” in education. It is from a lesser-known classic, On Being a Teacher,” by the great American educator, Jonathan Kozol. Please take a few minutes to read, “Extreme Ideas.”
A couple weeks ago, I received an email from a New York Times reporter asking to interview me about Mayor Bill DiBlasio’s promise to end the ban on student cellphones in New York City public schools.. I replied immediately via email and called the reporter to tell her I was unavailable for a few hours, but that I provided my views on the subject via email from my iPhone. She agreed to call me later that day.
Alas, that call never occurred and my views didn’t make the article.
So, instead of wasting 144 words, I’ll share them below.
While there may be educational benefits of phone access, there are three primary reasons why the ban needs to be lifted.
1) it is unproductive to be arbitrarily mean to children. Schools would be well-served by lowering the antagonism level between children and adults.
2) Parents have legitimate safety fears and a right to contact their child. A child should be able to call for help or report their whereabouts to and from school.
3) It is unconscionable that poor children in NYC are being shaken down by vans parked outside schools charging kids to store their phones while in school – in many cases more than the cost of lunch.
When I enter a theatre or board a plane, I am asked politely to silence my phone. School should be no different, unless there is an educationally sound reason to use the phone.
Dr. Gary Stager is coauthor of the book, “Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom.” He is also a global expert on educational technology and veteran teacher educator.