Diane Ravitch, Louis C.K., and the Common Core State Standards: thanks to Twitter and social media, somehow this all connects. This is what happened.
The comedian Louis C.K. recently criticized the Common Core State Standards, based (in part) on his observations of how the new curriculum was affecting his children at their New York schools. This prompted a response by Newsweek writer Alexander Nazaryan, who thought C.K., was wrong, and who defended the Common Core: "introducing a set of national standards is a first step toward widespread accountability, toward the clearly worthy goal of having a teacher in Alaska teach more or less the same thing as a teacher in Alabama. And for those teachers to have to account for what their charges learned. Or didn’t, as it were." Nazaryan then asked for the response of professor and education historian -- and prolific author -- Diane Ravitch. Ravitch responded, awesomely, at her blog.
In her post titled “My Reply to Alexander Nazaryan of Newsweek,” Ravitch eviscerated the Common Core State Standards and offered a defense of teachers and their passions that should earn a standing ovation:
Unlike you, Alexander, I see no advantage in "having a teacher in Alaska teach more or less the same thing as a teacher in Alabama." What’s the point of that? If the teacher in Alabama is passionate about the work of Flannery O’Connor, let him or her teach it with passion. If the teacher in Alaska is fascinated with the arctic tundra, teach it. I assume you have not read the study by Tom Loveless of Brookings, who pointed out that the Common Core standards were likely to make little or no difference in achievement. After all, states with high standards have wide variations in achievement, as do states with low standards.
I see no value in the arbitrary division between literature and informational text prescribed in the Common Core. I know where the numbers come from. They were instructions to assessment developers of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (I served on its governing board for seven years). The ratios were not intended as instructions to teachers. This is balderdash. English teachers should teach what they know and love. If they love fiction, teach it. If they love nonfiction, teach it. Why should a committee with no classroom teachers on it in 2009 tell reading teachers how to apportion their reading time? I doubt that teachers of math and science will spend any time on fiction anyway.
I couldn't agree more. Flattening regional variations and imposing sameness will drive away excellent teachers. To be sure, schools must balance curriculum standards and a teacher's interests; the classroom cannot become an open mic night. And I believe that curriculum should provide some kind of shared understanding and vocabulary. For example, everybody should know some Shakespeare. Everybody (in our country, at least) should understand the history of the United States.
But when it comes to the weighing of professional autonomy against national or state standards, the tie goes to the teacher. Someone might say, "What if the teachers are bad?" Well, yes, that's a risk. This means the hiring process is crucial. Schools must scrutinize candidates carefully. But a school is far more likely to attract talented, motivated teachers if those teachers know they have freedom and flexibility. Enthusiasm derives from personal involvement, from feeling that one has a personal stake in the material. To borrow from writer and teacher Parker Palmer, teachers teach best when they teach from their own identity, from their own soul. Teachers teach best when their subject is an extension of the self. As Palmer writes, "in every class I teach, my ability to connect with my students, and to connect them with the subject, depends less on the methods I use than on the degree to which I know and trust my selfhood--and am willing to make it available and vulnerable in the service of learning."
This is why, as Ravitch indicates, a teacher from Alaska should be able to teach a different text than a teacher from Alabama. Teachers inspire; exams and standards do not.