Sunday, December 15, 2013

Common to the Core

This (from NPR this morning) is the problem:
a southern California mom has created a new princess series with modern sensibilities. At the heart of her series, The Guardian Princess Alliance, is what animates any fairy tale: simple storytelling.
Publisher blurb:

Princess Vinnea is the Guardian of Plant Life. All is well in the land of Hortensis until a mysterious stranger appears with gulavores that destroy their crops and gardens. He then feeds the people his unnatural food which makes them ill. Will Princess Vinnea be able to stop him? 
That's not storytelling, simple or otherwise; that's propaganda, however worthy the cause it's enlisted in. You can just taste the smarm, sour and metallic. And it isn't, you know, that the author is necessarily a patronizing and manipulative person. I bet she's conspicuously generous and caring, devoted to the kids, and sincerely panicked about GMO ingredients in their food; I bet we have a lot in common, other than the actual panic. But she's entirely clueless about some things she thinks she understands, or at any rate her boss, interviewed for the NPR story, is:
Series creator Setsu Shigematsu, a professor of media and cultural studies at the University of California Riverside.... says they're also written to align with Common Core, the educational standards adopted by 45 states.
"This shift that's happening across public education, with the Common Core standards, is to go beyond rote memory," she says. "So we're designing our books to be fun and visually appealing, but beyond that we want our books to teach important moral and ethical principles. There are the Common Core language standards, but the environmental theme will also help connect our books with the sciences."
How do you get students beyond rote learning? By coercion; pushing them there. And by checklist: Got your strong female character? Got your important moral and ethical principles? Got your science connection? Got your fun?

Because nothing spells fun like Princess Terra, the Guardian of the Land:

Although there are some weird kids who would prefer Terra the Rock Princess from the planet Tierraklion (I'm guessing somewhere in the Fanfictia Galaxy). She's a strong female character too, with an active-positive disposition toward science and nature, but she's got one thing princesses from the Common Core haven't got (I mean, in addition to a midriff): an internal narrative drive that could make you interested for a minute or two in what happens to her:

My dear, how vulgar, huh? Common to the core, you might say.

Anyway, there's some kind of larger lesson here. The folks creating the Common Core and its ancillary materials are in most cases almost certainly, most of them, not evil people; except for some of the corporate tools at companies like Pearson. When they pronounce themselves as being opposed to something like rote learning, there is every reason to believe they mean it, or mean something like it, as far as their individual capacities allow. But they're just not equipped, intellectually or morally, to carry it out.

Thus for instance Arne Duncan could be entirely sincere when he defends the Common Core:
“We think a lot of the tests you take – fill in the bubble tests – are not that great,” he said. “Our hope is that the new tests will test more of your critical thinking skills. More thinking, more problem-solving, working together and less rote memorization.” The Washington Post
But he clearly doesn't know how to think about it himself, in terms other than this econometrics focus on the quality of the measurement somehow improving the quality of the thing measured—I guess in theory if you could communicate to teachers that you've changed your mind and decided to start evaluating them on important parameters instead of unimportant ones that would be good for their teaching, or at least their morale; but why not, as I was saying the other day, try giving them some of the autonomy you profess to believe in?
We should also dramatically improve professional development and provide more time for collaboration among teachers. We should provide teachers with greater autonomy in the classroom in exchange for greater accountability—and we need to build a shared understanding of what exactly that means.
The answer to that would be, sadly, that he's a CEO, a product in his professional development of the charter school movement himself, and really doesn't know what autonomy is. Sigh.

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