Friday, May 4, 2018

Tampio: Common Core vs. Democracy

So I have another reading recommendation for you. This time it's from Nicholas Tampio, an associate professor of political science at Fordham University and friend of this blog. Common Core: National education Standards and the Threat to Democracy approaches the Common Core territory from a slightly different angle-- does such a system belong in a democratic(ish) country? The title telegraphs Tampio's conclusion, but it's still worth your time to read this book.

Another addition to your read-me stack
Tampio is impressively fair and measured, and his book lays out multiple sides of the issue clearly (well, except for some of the really crazy ones); this book is not merely an argument for one side of the Common Core debate, but a well-sourced explication of many sides. In doing so, Tampio shows an intellectual honesty and even-handedness that I appreciate-- it's not generally useful to assume that people on The Other Side of an issue disagree with you because they are evil and/or stupid. If you've been trying to understand where some Core fans are coming from, Tampio's book covers that nicely.

Tampio considers the arguments for and against any nationals stanrdas at all, and then spends a chapter each considering specific standards (ELA, math, science, history and, yes, even sexuality standards) looking in each case at the specific problems with each set of standards.

Tampio's explanation of the standards is quite good. By connecting ELA standards to David Coleman's anti-classic essay "Cultivating Wonder," showing how Coleman's idea of "thinking" is really a specialized kind of quoting and regurgitation. He breaks down how Coleman-style "close reading" is really about selecting and presenting the "correct" quotes from an excerpt-- not a critical thinking exercise at all. Quoting Dewey:

"Democracy cannot flourish where the chief influences in selecting subject matter of instruction are utilitarian ends narrowly conceived for the masses, and for the higher education of the few, the traditions of a specialized cultivated class. The notion that the 'essentials' of elementary education are the three R's mechanically treated, is based upon ignorance of the essential needed for realization of democratic ideals." We have seen that Common Core curricula and testing require studnets to repeat verbatim passages from a text. Quoting accurately is not thinking; thinking is a more complicated and fluid process that requires experimenting to solve the problem.

Tampio's chapter on math standards shows how Core math is heavily dependent on Core-style reading, and that the requirement to explain does not, in this narrow testing environment, prove that students understand anything:

Beales and Garelick argue that writing explanations sometimes turns routine problems into "unnecessary and tedious" assignments. They observe that many students first solve the problems in their heads and then write a narrative using "verbalism" they have been taught. It is not that the students now understand how their mathematical minds work; it is that they can sufficiently repeat the words that the teacher has told them they need to do if they want a good grade.

Step by step, Tampio leads us through the various standards (some more controversial than others)to a conclusion. National standards fans may argue that we can certainly agree on a minimum set of national standards that all students need to be ready for college and career. Except that, of course, we can't. "Reasonable people disagree over how to teach literacy, numeracy, science, history and sexual health." 

What Tampio provides here is the capstone to the argument that many of us make, only when education guys like moi argue against national standards, we end up conclude with sputterings about, "Well, that's just not how education is supposed to work. That's not what it's supposed to be." Which I believe with all my heart and soul, but also recognize as a fuzzy conclusion to the argument. But Tampio brings us back the threat to democracy(ish) that such standards represent.

In our country, we are witnessing powerful people granting themselves the right to decide how nearly all American children are educated. And many parents, teachers, and educators, including those in historically disadvantaged communities, are saying no to top-down, standards-based reform. People want a say in what and how the local schools teach children.

The book is brief, pithy, to-the-point and well-focused, making it a great gift for your civilian friend who wants a quick, accessible explanation of what all the fuss is about. Since it's a fuss, you may disagree with some of it (I'm solidly in the anti-national standards camp, but I know reasonable people who aren't). For those of us who are already familiar with the fuss, it's a good exercise in organizing and explaining what exactly is wrong with the national standards movement and why it's not just a bad way to run an education system, but a bad way to run a democratic(ish) society. 


  1. "'s not generally useful to assume that people on The Other Side of an issue disagree with you because they are evil and/or stupid"

    I dunno. I agree it's not useful to assume people are stupid, but evil? Sometimes, yes. Having spent half of the Obama administration thinking that Obama just had to be misguided and misunderstanding educational issues, I finally woke up to the fact that he wasn't misguided at all. He was willful. Similarly, DeVos isn't simply misguided, nor does she just have a different but equally valid view of the situation.

    I guess we could quibble over the word "evil", but I can't think of a better one to describe anyone who wants to disrupt and dismantle public education and sell off the pieces to their wealthy friends for kickbacks.

    1. While I don't think it's useful to assume that people are evil or stupid, if they provide plenty of evidence that they are in fact evil or stupid, we shouldn't ignore it.

    2. Okay, I can agree with that.

    3. I tried to place myself in the shoes of someone who knows little about the Common Core. In such a case, I would want somebody to present both sides of the argument fairly and allow me to make up my own mind.

  2. The Argument Against Standards-Based Education

     Standards confine, constrain, and limit curricula

     Standards de-emphasize teacher judgement, expertise,
    and creativity

     Standards, once written, become immutable (for years)

     Standards inevitably become compromised and therefore
    tend to be bland and boring, leading to generally
    crappy teaching

     Standards overlook the interesting and surprising
    and topical

    Standards linked to testing are academic handcuffs

    Standards are not curriculum, however de-facto
    curriculum used to the table of contents in textbooks;
    under NCLB/CCSS/RTTT, the test became the de-facto

    Standards-based education is a proven failure. Almost
    20 years with nothing to show but the most detached
    generation of young learners I have ever seen. I blame
    the test way more than the standards for this.

  3. What a reading list for the summer you are compiling for me, Peter Greene! (Thank you.)