Monthly Archives: December 2013

A Kind of Sad Story

I was at the check out counter at Trader Joe’s watching the world’s fastest checker outer scan my items and bag my groceries.  She was amazing.

Me:  “How did you get so good at this?”

World’s Fastest Checker Outer (WFCO):  “I’ve been doing it for a long time, four years.  I started as a senior in high school, now I’m a senior in college.”

Me:  “You’re going to graduate.  What’s next?”

WFCO:  “Well, I want to be a teacher.  My degree will be in teaching, but I’ll probably just stay here.  The pay is better.”


WFCO:  “Kind of sad that a grocery bagger is paid more than teacher, isn’t it?”


The good news is, Trader Joe’s gets it.  The bad news is, the rest of society doesn’t.

The Atlantic reports:

“QuikTrip, Trader Joe’s, and Costco operate on a different model, Ton says. ‘They start with the mentality of seeing employees as assets to be maximized,’ she says. As a result, their stores boast better operational efficiency and customer service, and those result in better sales. QuikTrip sales per labor hour are two-thirds higher than the average convenience-store chain, Ton found, and sales per square foot are over 50 percent higher. ..

The approach seems like common sense. Keeping shelves stocked and helping customers find merchandise are key to maximizing sales, and it takes human judgment and people skills to execute those tasks effectively. To see what happens when workers are devalued, look no further than Borders or Circuit City. Both big-box retailers saw sales plummet after staff cutbacks, and both ultimately went bankrupt.”  (Emphasis added)

So these retailers understand that it takes human judgement to stock shelves and help customers, and therefore the people performing these tasks are to be valued for their ability to make such judgement.

In other words, in a context that assumes that judgement and people skills matter, an investment is made in people who are put in position to utilize their skills and make such judgments.

Meanwhile teachers continue to battle pay and pension cuts.

“Kind of sad that a grocery bagger is paid more than teacher, isn’t it?”

Disrupting Innovation

The buzz word everywhere is “innovation.”  You can’t avoid it.  And who wants to?  It means positive change, connotes growth and goodness.  It’s a wonderful word.  Who can possibly be against innovation?


So last week I went to the Michigan Innovative Schools Conference.  (The conference was at least partially hosted by the Michigan Center of Innovation for Education.)

Let’s call it a growth experience.

The main speaker was Michael Horn, the author of Disrupting Class, who spoke on the “need” for “disruptive innovation.”

Please feel free to go more deeply into Horn’s ideas.  They are readily available as applied to the private sector and, because they are now boundary hopping into the public sector, are ideas educators need to become aware of.

Horn, obviously an education expert- he has an MBA from Harvard, spoke for a while on such things as the importance of educational areas of “consumption” vs “non-consumption,” and “input” vs. “output.”  Most importantly, he ended with a plea towards policy that will allow state funding to “follow the student.”  At this point in his talk, deep into my growth experience, I wasn’t surprised.  (Remember Skunkworks?)

What did I learn?

That all too often, the way “innovation” is spoken of in education refers  to nothing new in terms of  learning theory and offers no groundbreaking approach to working with students. Rather, it refers to a disruption of funding mechanisms aided by shifts in technology and by weakened support of public funding.  The intent in using the language of innovation is to address the supposed “necessity” of “thinking differently” in this time of weakened funding.  The argument goes that schools must begin to think differently about how we serve students because we have much less available funding, and technology makes this all the more palatable.  What it fails to consider is that this decreased funding is not a necessity, it is a choice.  And this move towards disruptive innovation is another choice that will exacerbate the disappearance of public spaces, and one that decidedly ignores the impact of poverty.  What these educational innovators all too often are referring to is not improving public schools, but increasing the number of charter schools and further privatizing the public.  It is pattern we are  familiar with.  (See more here.)

Profit motive anyone? 


Let me unpack this a little more.

There is absolutely nothing new in the way students learn.  Any student-centered approach towards education begins with John Dewey and has been around for close to 100 years. So any focus that marks student-centered approaches as innovative is naively, or intentionally,  ahistorical.

I delineate at least three differences between Deweyian, historical conceptions of student-centered  vs. “innovation” as it is branded in education today:

1. Dewey proposed an education for the purpose of the development of citizens (not consumers or status seekers) that is thus entrenched in, and strengthens, community.  “Innovation,” an individualized/privatized conception as it used, allows for children to be used as a source of profit and thus destroys community.  Note that “innovation” is void of an intended purpose for education beyond the language of “necessity,” a tell-tale sign market fundamentalism. Also note that “any time, any place, any way, any pace” necessarily imagines learning as simple content acquisition, and abstracts concrete relationships in favor of virtual reality.  It is the worst of what I’ve written of previously in regards to learnification.

2.  Dewey’s understanding of learning was not only student centered, but constructivist.  Current brands of innovation limit their understanding of learning to content acquisition, which can be easily measured and compared for in the never-ending competition called “quality control.”  (This what Horn was referring to when he spoke of “output.”  Others call this form of measurement and comparison “high stakes testing.” )  It is a highly constricted way of imagining learning, and one that doesn’t serve children well.  So, though the current innovation brand emphasizes “choice” and student centered approaches, it does so via a menu limited to content rather than offering an authentic vehicle for student transformation.

3.  Technology is certainly different.  Technology does allow students to make real world connections in ways that were previously impossible.  It has the potential as a wonderful resource that strengthens the power of Dewey’s approach.  It also has the ability, if used incorrectly, to be a means of undermining community and strengthening the power of those who seek to profit from the untangling of the sanctity of the common good as represented in public spaces.  Note that the positive use of technology is not necessarily disruptive, but is an extension of what has existed for a long, long time.  It is important that we remember our history.

The person who introduced to Michael Horn at the conference was David Seitz.  Seitz has a long history in educational policy and helped write NCLB.  He has many Republican connections in the state of Michigan.  He also sits on the Board of Directors of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.  His current employment is as  market strategist for Apple.  (I’m not sure why Seitz was chosen to introduce Horn- transparency is clearly over-hyped.)

Why would Apple want a person influential in educational policy and many political connections as an employee?  Why would Seitz invite Horn, (I’m assuming Seitz had something to do with the invitation) who would then use his talk as an attempt to influence policy from a conference located just outside Michigan’s’ capital?

Profit motive anyone?

Maybe I’m paranoid.

But be aware.  Be very aware.

The Myth of Neutrality and the Common Core

The other day I got myself involved in a little Twitter dust-up over the Common Core.  The gist of it was that the other twitteree was arguing for the standards, while I was arguing that, even if you believe the standards are fine, to ignore the political implications of high-stakes testing is naive.  We now have a clear pattern brought to us through the history of high-stakes testing that shows us that Common Core is one more step in the decimation of the common good.  (See more on my stance here.)

Anyway, as it became abundantly clear that each of us was wasting our time and simply using this argument to reinforce our own positions, I quit.  And then I was sent this final tweet that said,

“…sadly there is no one neutral enough to clearly explain the facts.”

I wonder, to what degree does this myth of neutrality feed in to our problem?

If you don’t know who Grace Lee Boggs is, I recommend you find out.  And if you’re not aware of the work of the Boggs Center in Detroit, check them out.

Grace sent out an email today that quoted E.H. Carr from his 1961 essay, “What is History?”   The quote:

“It used to be said that facts speak for themselves.  This is of course, untrue.  The facts speak only when historians call on them:  it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context.”

It’s pretty to think that facts somehow float above the grounding of the context they work within.  They don’t.  We need to understand that regardless of the way they are presented, facts are always grounded in a story, which communicates a view-point, which is attached to a set of values.  This understanding necessitates certain questions:  Whose story is this?  Who benefits from this story?  Who loses in the story?  And, as Howard Zinn and James Loewen (among others) have pointed out so well, history is told by the winners.

The real problem is that this myth of neutrality occurred not only in history, but as we are creating history now.  And because this myth obscures the values underlying it since it wrongly assumes no values (neutrality),  it continues to serve those who benefit from the way things currently are, those in power and of privilege.

The story of the Common Core as a set of neutral standards that serve all students is simply a myth.  The Common Core exists within a context of values. It is part of a narrative that benefits some, and hurts others.  However, because the myth of neutrality hides the narrative,  it requires some extra work  on our part to dig into the story  behind it.

As citizens, public intellectuals and educators with a stake in this story, our job is to do the homework and unpack the story of the Common Core, to problematize it with our questions, and to determine the beneficiaries of this particular narrative, and to determine those who are hurt by it.  We simply can not accept the myth of neutrality because the pattern of history shows the common good is being destroyed by the values it obscures.

Fortunately, lots of others have laid the groundwork for unveiling the stories underlying the Common Core.

Here are some beginning resources for your homework:

Diane Ravitch’s statement of her stance on the Common Core:  Why I Oppose the Common Core

Susan Ohanian’s page of Common Core resources:

Mercedes Schneider on the money behind the Common Core:  A Brief Audit of Bill Gates’ Common Core Spending

One of Anthony Cody’s recent essays on Common Core:  Is the Common Core Becoming a Fiasco?

Carol Burris on her change of position on the Common Core:  I Was Naive on the Common Core

Jeff Bryant connecting our testing obsession with the money behind it:  Sorry Michelle Rhee, But Our Obsession With Testing Is All About Money

And Paul Thomas’s call to action:  A Call for Non-Cooperation

What is Driving Instruction of the Common Core? (Hint: It Ain’t Teachers, and Money is Involved)

I was greatly struck by a recent article from the Detroit News, Report Urges Michigan to Replace MEAP with Smarter Balance Test.

The beginning of the article states that, “The report provides summaries on the cost of each test, scoring and reporting methods, test security transparency and overall design.”  So factors included in determining the assessment were economic (the cost of the test to the state, not necessarily the profit margin of the supplier, but profit motive is always a concern when the market steps out of its bounds), how the results are communicated (reporting methods to the public, which will then undoubtedly be used to unfairly disparage public education ), security of the test itself (“security” is always connected to “accountability” and bureaucratic control- note recent NSA flaps [just saying]) and, finally, overall design of the test.

Without going into too much detail here, educators who are actually concerned with student learning might be most concerned with the “overall design of the test.”  Those educators might be relieved to know that the test design was at least a factor that was in consideration.

The article then goes on to say that, “Lawmakers asked in October for a study looking at all assessment tools in the marketplace.” (Emphasis added)


We know that assessment is important since we believe that assessment drives instruction.

 So now we know that the marketplace is driving instruction.  (What would Bill Gates say about this?)

At issue here is that the standards were developed, and then the testing tool was layered on top of these standards afterward as if the form of assessment has no effect on the implementation of the standards.  As if the standards and the assessment used are not entirely related.  As if the testing measure is a value free, neutral, non-intrusive, non-concern that the obviously value free guidance of the market is more than happy to support us with in accordance with its ethos of serving and generosity.   In fact, the high-stakes tests used to measure the common core standards and the instruction of common core standards themselves are inextricably linked.

And who is determining the form of this testing?  Not the people involved in instruction.  Not even the people who developed the standards.

Some company in “the market.”

Sometimes I wonder if I’m too sensitive, or even paranoid.

And then I consider the evidence.

And I read articles like this in Rethinking Schools an editorial connecting the zeitgeist of market fundamentalism to the continued dismantling of public education:

“The costs of the tests, which have multiple pieces throughout the year, plus the computer platforms needed to administer and score the test, will be enormous and will come at the expense of more important things.  The plunging scores will be used as an excuse to close more public schools and open more privatized charters and voucher schools, especially in poor communities of color…Common Core has become part of the corporate reform project now stalking our schools. Unless we dismantle and defeat this larger effort, Common Core implementation will become another stage in the demise of public education.”

Anyone else uncomfortable?