Monthly Archives: January 2014

Does Being an Individual Matter Anymore?

I’ve come to think of the Common Core (and the standards movement as a whole) in three different layers, with each deepening layer being more difficult to see and to articulate.  These layers are simplistic and certainly not all-inclusive, but they do allow me to at least symbolize different understandings of the CCSS.

Layer one:  The Common Core standards in isolation.


Layer two:  The Common Core standards connected to political and economic considerations.

Deeper again

Layer three:  The Common Core as representative of a particular way of imagining what it means to be human.

Layer one is simply the standards themselves as they function within the classroom.  This is the level that teachers initially deal with and it is the way that the media all too often addresses the Common Core.  I have written multiple times, as have many others (and below), about the dangers inherent in looking at the Common Core in isolation from its broader implications.

At the layer two level, we begin to see that the Common Core has  the potential for doing great damage, particularly in its connections to high-stakes testing, and, given the  history provided by our experience with NCLB, there is much evidence to support this.  Stan Karp, in a recent issue of Rethinking Schools, provides a wonderful outline of the dangers and writes, “…the Common Core threatens to reproduce the narrative of public school failure that just led to a decade of bad policy in the name of reform.”  The whole article is much worth your time.

The harder thing to articulate is what the Common Core says about being human.  That is, it is difficult to peel back the assumptions underneath the whole standards movement and address what these assumptions say about what it means to be human.  The Common Core is presented as an objective set of standards.  However, as I’ve written before, it is impossible to be purely objective.  The standards represent a set of values- and the nature of values is that some things are privileged over others.  It’s important to expose these values, to understand what they say regarding our humanity, to question and problematize the Common Core standards not just in terms of their classroom function and their political role, but in their role in narrating a particular story of being human.

In their letter to the American Bishops criticizing the Common Core, a group of Catholic scholars begin to touch on the assumptions and values underlying CCSS when they write:

“Common Core adopts a bottom-line, pragmatic approach to education. The heart of its philosophy is, as far as we can see, that it is a waste of resources to ‘over-educate’ people. The basic goal of K-12 schools is to provide everyone with a modest skill set; after that, people can specialize in college – if they end up there. Truck-drivers do not need to know Huck Finn. Physicians have no use for the humanities. Only those destined to major in literature need to worry about Ulysses.”

In other words, the Common Core is designed as a tool for career preparation. It assumes that humans are reduced to beings who must produce.  We must be molded to fit into an already existing economy which has needs that are more important than our individual quirks or desires.  The purpose of education is to prepare us for the workforce. Our value as humans is determined by our ability to achieve, get grades, score high on tests, go to a “good” college, make money, attain status. Art, literature, virtually anything that has to do with the excess fluff of imagination is probably pretty, but not an efficient use of time.  Education needs to be standardized in order to produce a standardized, “work ready” outcome. The purpose of life, unstated yes, but nonetheless fairly obvious, is to work in order to attain status.

Ken Jackson is getting at these assumptions underlying the corporatist education reformer’s way of imagining being human when he writes:

“Now we take it for granted, of course, that we are individuals… infinitely complex in our own way and — while we aren’t quite able to articulate that complexity precisely — we prize it deeply nonetheless.

…Education and growth are human, deeply human, processes, processes revealed to us long ago if the ‘education’ experts would take the time to look or even ask.

We are not recorder pipes to be played on. And neither are our children.”

Jackson is arguing that we are not simple, objectified tools to be manipulated by others in order to be filled with content. We need to recognize that teachers and students are fully human, fully individual, with unique desires, abilities and gifts that just can’t be standardized.  An education that imagines them as anything less is dehumanizing.

I just started reading Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea, a beautifully written dystopian novel that serves as a meditation on where all of this might be leading us.  (And for what I mean by “all of this” I defer to Henry Giroux, in writing about the roots of our cultural violence“State and corporate violence merge in the looting of public treasuries, the defunding of public schools, the elimination of social provisions, the creation of policies that expand poverty, homelessness, lack of health care, and those conditions necessary for a semblance of human dignity and agency.”)

Lee writes of the future (and by implication, the present) of individuality:

“But more and more we can see that the question is not whether we are individuals.  We can’t help but be, this has been proved, case by case.  We are not drones or robots and never will be.  The question, then, is whether being an ‘individual’ makes a difference anymore.  That it can matter at all. And if not, whether we in fact care.”  (Emphasis added)

Maybe, just maybe, the question of whether or not being an individual makes a difference anymore is really the most important question about the Common Core and the whole standards movement.  David Coleman, architect of the Common Core, famously said, “As you grow up in this world, you realize people don’t really give a shit about what you feel or what you think.”

In regards to being human, this is the underlying, unstated foundation of what the Common Core teaches our children:  That they just don’t matter.

Do we care?

Standardization and Alienated Individualism, or Learning as Belonging?

I was fortunate enough to come across The School as a Community of Engaged Learners, by Penelope Eckert, Shelley Goldman, and Etienne Wenger of Stanford’s Institute for Research and Learning.  Unfortunately, the IRL closed in 2000, but this document remains as timely as ever.  It does so because it understands learning as a practice that takes place within a social context, and imagines learning as so much more than the simple acquisition of knowledge that can be simply tested.  These authors understand that the damaging premise of testing as the leverage for change has co-opted the school reform movement and left  students and teachers alienated and laboring under a false identity determined by “achievement.”

School is necessarily a place of coming to understand who we are because our identity is developed through connection to others.  It’s crucial to understand that the quality of these connections is the basis for all learning because our identity is the foundation for what we learn. Identity comes as a result of who and what we belong to.  We learn from those in a community that we see ourselves a part of.  (Frank Smith calls these connections of belonging “learners clubs.”)  We have the opportunity to work with this necessary function of identity development so that it becomes a positive force connected to learning as belonging for the benefit of all, or to leave it as an aside so that students are left alone to develop alienated, truncated identities (thus truncating their learning) structured from a competition that is based upon superficial data, making some “winners,” and many more “losers.”

From the document:

“In fact, learning becomes problematic in school to the extent that the school focuses on learning as an endeavor in itself, rather than as a means to building social relations and engaging in meaningful activity.  No amount of change in schools will produce significant results unless the nature of school as a social entity is taken seriously.  No amount of clever delivery of subject matter will capture the imaginations and energies of students who feel that their opportunities for social development lie elsewhere…

Currently, the only legitimate opportunity for developing identities around learning in the classroom is along a linear scale of ‘better’ or ‘worse’ student, based on the standardized performance of standardized tasks.  This guarantees that the major social dynamics motivating learning will be a competition among peers and the eagerness to please one’s elders.  Kids, like their elders, seek participation in communities that afford complex forms of membership and creative identities.  In our traditional schools, the greatest opportunity for creative social activity is in resistance or ‘subversive behavior:  disruption, cheating, tardiness, apathy, violence, drugs, self destruction.” (Emphasis added)

High stakes testing and standardization completely ignore the social function necessary for learning.  “Data,” “accountability,” and “rigor,” all ignore the understanding that our identity is not formed separately from our communities of belonging.  Such language represents automatized, conscripted versions of community, and therefore learning, and as such are completely powerless to “produce significant results.”  The corporatist approach to education reform is faulty at its core precisely because it imagines learning all too simplistically as the individualized, privatized acquisition of bits of knowledge.  It’s an impoverished, alienating view of schooling because it is an impoverished, alienated way of imagining what it means to be human.

Please read the whole document here.