I’ll tell you, if Twitter had been around when Ken Mannion was seven I’d have gone on a tweeting rant over his homework like Louis CK’s over his daughter’s that would have continued until Ken was eight.
This is fourteen years ago now, before Common Core and the ubiquity of standardized testing. But we lived in New York State, which has always had something of a common core with relatively high expectations and plenty of testing and Ken attended a Catholic grade school which tend---tended. There aren’t many of them left. Ken’s closed up shop not too long after we left town.---to be a little more demanding than the average public school. This meant there was some “teaching to the test” and that involved worksheets like the ones frustrating Louis CK’s daughter. And when the worksheets began dominating his school days and his homework time, which was in first grade, Ken, who was whip-smart and conscientious and who had loved his two years of Pre-K and kindergarten, started to rebel. In class and at home.
He fidgeted constantly. He made excuses to leave his seat. He failed to answer questions correctly that he knew the correct answers to when asked away from his desk. At school, when forced to sit still and do the work, it wasn’t long before he’d melt down in tears or collapse in a heap on the floor or even run from the classroom. He started spending a lot of time in the principal’s office, sent there by his exasperated teacher who despaired not just of disciplining him but of teaching him at all.
Mrs M and I, typical of proud parents of a kid we saw as bright, creative, good-hearted, considerate, responsible (Even then, he did his chores without complaint.), and desirous of pleasing and eager to do the right thing, blamed his teacher.
The teacher blamed us.
We weren’t teaching our kid self-control.
The next year Ken’s problems continued and now the principal blamed us too. So did his second grade teacher. So did the pastor. Eventually, so did the head of the diocese’s schools, but that’s another story. The point here is that I didn’t blame his teacher or the principal back. (The two priests are, like I said, part of another story.) Now I blamed the work.
I thought it wasn’t hard enough.
Ken was bored out of his mind, I declared.
That state of denial didn’t last long.
Mrs M and I had begun seeing things at home that made us wonder.
Another another story.
But that’s when the visits to the shrinks began.
Two years and I lost count of how many different doctors, counselors, and tests later, we had some answers.
Problems with small motor skill development that made his grip on a pencil awkward and painful and tiring.
A severe math learning disability.
Something one of the doctors called Sensory Integration Disorder which meant, in Ken’s case, he was too observant. He took in everything. He saw everything and he heard everything all at once and he didn’t know what to focus on or what to filter out so his brain overloaded. Try to do one of those worksheets when your brain is taking in all the problems at once and attempting to solve them all at the same time.
I don’t know how to begin to tell you what a relief all this was to know. It’s part of that second another story. But right now, there’s this. It meant that from here on out New York State had to, by law, provide Ken with various kinds of help and services and so his life was saved.
The thing is that those worksheets had been diagnosing his problems, just nobody knew to read them that way.
Everybody---Mrs M and I, Ken’s teachers, the bureaucrats in the school district and up in Albany, the designers of the worksheets and the tests the worksheets were supposed to prepare students to take---took it for granted that the worksheets did what they were supposedly intended to do, re-enforce lessons, help kids practice skills, identify areas where individual students needed to improve, identify areas where the class as a whole needed more preparation, study, and practice. It might be the case, here and there, that along the way certain aptitudes---and inaptitudes---would be revealed. But that was coincidental. It didn’t occur to anybody---at least not to anybody I knew---that revealing, reinforcing, encouraging, and rewarding a specific set of aptitudes was the point because it was a basic assumption that every student possessed that set of aptitudes or could acquire them with practice.
All kids could do the work, master the skills, absorb the lessons if only they tried.
Kids with learning disabilities didn’t figure in the thinking because the concept of learning disabilities was still relatively new and many educators hadn’t gotten their heads around it. Many didn’t even know to try. It’s not coincidental that the first learning disability to get widescale attention and pharmaceutical treatment was the one that caused the most behavior problems, ADHD.
But the worksheets and the testing and the classroom protocols and teaching strategies the assumptions and testing put in place didn’t just accidentally diagnose learning disabilities. It diagnosed types of learning abilities with one being the preferred and therefore more highly rewarded type---the ability to test well in all subjects.
A certain type of student was being identified: Generalists with a technocratic bent who got good grades in all their classes and were headed for college.
Schooldays and schoolwork were designed to produce and reward them.
Kids for whom those skills and lessons were of no interest, no immediate or futrue relevance, and no use because those kids had other interests, other skills (not to mention talents), the need and desire to learn other lessons, and plans for their lives different from the ones the system assumed were every good student’s plans---to go on to be the kind of generic B+/A student who was going to go to college and major in something that would lead to a generic professional career---did not figure in the thinking either. Unless those kids adapted or a brilliant and dedicated teacher noticed them, they were essentially ignored or shunted onto the vocational training track which, for many of them, depending on their school district’s commitment to its BOCES programs, was the same as or worse than being ignored.
Ken and we were lucky. He started school at just the right time. It was touch and go. At one point, instead of providing him services at his school, the school district pushed us to put Ken into its special education school, which was a warehouse for all its most troubled students, including kids with severe emotional and intellectual developmental problems, physical disabilities, and incorrigible behavior problems. That was scary. But we resisted. Even more fortunate for us, Mrs M got a new job and we had to move. We landed here, in a district with better resources, more enlightened teachers and administrators, and a big grant from the state to expand and improve all its special education services.
Ken is in college now and doing very well. His brother Oliver is finishing off his last few weeks of high school and heading off to college himself in the fall. We’re done with the public school system (as parents, not as concerned and involved citizens), just as the district is working to implement the Common Core. So it hasn’t had much of an impact in our lives and it won’t be our direct concern much longer. (Mrs M’s and mine, I mean. Oliver, who plans to be a teacher, doesn’t like what he’s seen of it so far and is bothered about what effect it’s going to have on his career. Maybe I can convince him to write a post about it.) The point is, I haven’t kept as close an eye on the debate as I probably should be and I don’t have a clear idea of what is in the Common Core.
I’m not alone in that. Apparently, few parents, students, or teachers know because the powers that be are not doing a good job of informing anybody, possibly because they’re still figuring it all out themselves, possibly because it’s such a jumble they don’t really understand it themselves, possibly because they just don’t want taxpayers to know.
As I’ve said, I have no principled objection to there being a common core. In fact, I’m more or less generally in favor of having one. The Common Core is seen as intrinsic to the “reform” movement and the “reform” movement is politically compromised, its leaders caught up in issues of power and control, assuming that educational outcomes will take care of themselves. They are a collection of smart and successful over-achievers, most of whom happen to have been exactly the type of technocratically inclined generalists I believe the system has been designed to identify, promote, reward, and serve and it’s no wonder that when they look at the state of things and see schools not turning out sufficient numbers of younger versions of themselves they think the system must be broken. They are also a collection of self-congratulating careerists with a great deal of self-esteem and are naturally of the opinion that any idea smart, successful people like them approve of must be a good idea. And they are arrogant elitists who believe that it’s their job and privilege to run things and the rest of us should accept that and sit down and shut up.
And, by the way, I’m not just talking about Michelle Rhee and her cadre of hedge fund managers or about Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. I think there’s more than a little of this in the President’s own thinking and feeling, as well.
I think there’s a perverse humility in his apparent belief that “If I could do this, so can you”. He doesn’t seem to see---or want to admit---what an exceptional human being he is.
Also, as I’ve said in other posts, I don’t like what I think is the reformers’ basic idea of what education is for---to produce good employees who will help the United States compete in the global economy.
Still, I’m open-minded on the goal of a common core. Standardized testing, though, is another matter.
There’s no denying that teachers are being coerced into teaching to tests and that teaching to the tests is disruptive, destructive, and corrupting not just of the educational process but of individual administrators and teachers who dare risk a drop in scores in even one cycle of testing, who are in fact feel driven to report a rise in scores every time out.
But when all’s said and done, it looks to me that the Common Core and the standardized testing that goes with it grow out of the same idea that motivated the education establishment back in Ken’s elementary school days.
The homework frustrating Louis CK’s daughter is still diagnostic because the assumption is still the same: that all students are capable of learning the same things at the same rate with the same degree of interest towards the same goals: straight A’s leading to admission to an elite college leading to admission to an elite graduate program leading to a high-paying, high-status career as a suit-wearing office worker.
It used to be we told kids that anybody can grow up to be President.
Now we seem to be telling them that everybody can grow up to be President Barack Obama…
…and should want to.
Towards a Louis CK common core of blog posts:
Daniel D’Addario: Louis C.K. blasts the Common Core: “It feels like a dark time” at Salon.
Diane Ravitch: Louis C.K. Takes Aim at Common Core -- And We're All Smarter for It at Moyers & Company.
Ravitch again: My Reply to Alexander Nazaryan of Newsweek at her blog.
Rebecca Mead: Louis C.K. Against the Common Core at the New Yorker.
Jeff Bryant: They’re lying about Louis C.K.: He’s right about Common Core — and not a Tea Partyer at Salon.
And you can always follow Louis C.K. himself on Twitter.