How the Common Core Distorted and Dumbed Down Instruction in English

For many decades now, as in any occupied country, the Deformer/Disrupter occupiers of U.S. education–the invasion force that went forward, financed by Gates and Walton dollars, to take over our federal and state governments, has dominated discourse about education in the United States. In Vichy France, the motto of the Revolution–liberté, égalité, fraternité–was replaced by the motto of the fascist collaborationist Pétain regime: travail, famille, patrie. These were high-sounding words–work, family, and country–but they masked a terrible reality as the Jews and Socialists started disappearing. Conservatives embraced the official collaborationist view as a corrective to the licentiousness of an era of jazz and night clubs, short skirts and sexual libertinism. There was a resistance, yes, but it operated in the shadows. Moderates found it easy to ignore the disappearances and the surveillance state and to embrace the discourse of the occupiers–to become de facto collaborators–because the alternative was dangerous.

After years of the occupation of our schools, the language of the Deformers/Disrupters has become the official language of the federal government, the state departments of education, of administrators of our schools, and of our textbooks, print and online. It’s as though there were an unwritten but rigidly, severely enforced rule that one was never to mention the puerile, backward Gates/Coleman bullet list of abstract “skills” without prefacing the term standards with the adjective higher. Everyone throughout the educational system is forced to speak in terms of “data-based decision making” and “accountability,” even if they know quite well that the tests that provide this supposed “data” are sloppy and invalid–a scam. Teachers are given no choice but to post their data walls and hold their data chats. All coherence in ELA textbooks is gone, their texts and study apparatus having been replaced by random exercises, modeled on the state tests, on applying random items from the Gates/Coleman list to random snippets of text. The goals set by the occupiers–school letter grades, the average test scores needed to get an “exemplary” rating as a teacher or administrator, the test scores for avoiding third-grade retention or necessary for high-school graduation–are very like the constant barrage of production figures for pork bellies and pig iron constantly broadcast by fascist regimes. And everywhere are the reports on the glorious successes of regime–the graduation rates, the improved scores, cheered and written about in news stories even as everyone knows them to be lies.

Jeb Bush’s Chiefs for Change, which I call The Chiefs for Ka-ching, are The Party running the Vichy Occupation.

But enough with the abstraction. Let’s dig a little deeper. Let’s look at U.S. literature texts before and after Gates and Coleman. Before, there was no top-down curriculum commissariat, but habits of the tribe and tradition and teacher concerns about quality ensured that from one basal program to another, the contents were pretty much (about 90 percent) the same. Poe’s “The Raven” and “The Cask of Amontillado.” Check. Wordsworth’s “I Wondered Lovely as a Cloud.” Check. Hughes’s “A Negro Speaks of Rivers.” Check. The Allegory of the Cave from Plato’s Republic. Check. Substantive literary works. Classics from the canon. And almost all schools used these basal lit texts.

Every selection in these literature textbooks was followed by a series of questions, beginning with factual questions, moving to analysis questions, and ending with evaluation questions, that took students through a step-by-step close reading of the substantive, classic selection. These were followed by extension activities–language activities about grammar or usage or vocabulary in the selection. Writing in response to or in imitation of the selection. Walk into any school in America, and kids were using these texts. In high-school, almost all schools were using a basal world literature text in Grade 10, an American literature survey text in Grade 11, and a British literature survey text in Grade 12. In the non-survey years, the texts were usually organized coherently by genre–poetry, the short story, drama, the nonfiction essay–or, by theme. But always, one had the substantive, classic selections and the close reading questions–facts, analysis, synthesis, following Bloom’s taxonomy.

Enter Gates. Gates wanted a single bullet list, nationally, to key depersonalized education software to. He saw the current system for educating Prole children as terribly wasteful of money spent on facilities and teachers, who could be replaced by computers. And by doing that, he and others in the computer industry could make a LOT of money (scratch a Gates project and you find a business plan for one or more global megacorporations behind it). So, when he was approached by Coleman and another guy from Achieve, he was all over the idea of national “standards.” Any bullet list would do, and any guy, even Coleman, despite his lack of relevant expertise. Monopolists love standardization.

And what did Coleman do? Well, he and his pals reviewed the mediocre, skills-based, lowest-common-denominator existing state standards and cobbled together a list based on those. And his list, like the execrable state “standards” that proceeded it, was almost content-free–it was a list of vague, abstract “skills.” In his ignorance of the fact that there was a de facto, default canon in U.S. literature textbooks of substantive works from British, American, and World literature, he called for “reading of substantive works” for a change. In his ignorance of the fact that EVERY basal literature program was organized around close reading questions, he called for “close reading.” In his ignorance of the fact that every high-school in the U.S. was using a basal lit text in Grade 11 that contained a survey of American literature, including foundational documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers, and in ignorance of the fact that almost all schools were doing a Brit Lit survey in Grade 12, he called for reading of “foundational documents” in American literature in Grades 11 and 12 (one of the very, very few actual bits of content-related material in his “standards”).

And what was the actual result of this? Well, before Gates and Coleman, editors and writers of U.S. literature texts would sit down and coherently plan a unit to teach, say, the elements of fiction. It would contain substantive short stories from the canon and treat, in turn, such elements as the central conflict, plot structure, character types and methods of characterization, setting, mood, and theme. After the Coleman/Gates bullet list and the high stakes attached to tests based on this (school, administrator, teacher, and student evaluations, punishments, and rewards), the bullet lists and the tests became all important. Educational publishers started making TEACHING THE BULLET LIST the goal of education. (They didn’t do this when there were differing, competing state “standards.”) The publishers started beginning every project with a spreadsheet containing the bullet list on the left and the place where the item from the list was “covered” to the right. The “standards” and the test question types became the default, de facto curriculum. COHERENCE AND CONTENT IN US LITERATURE TEXTBOOKS WAS GONE. They became a random series of random exercises on random snippets of text meant to teach incredibly vague “skills,” some in print, some in online replacements for textbooks. Vague, content-free kill drill.

And now, a whole generation of teachers has entered the profession and grown up under a Vichy regime that treats this madness, this devolved, trivialized curriculum, as ideal.

And after decades of this, after the utter failure of Deform to improve test scores or close achievement gaps, the Deformers want to double down. Stay the course, but add a national Curriculum Commissariat and Thought Police to serve as curriculum gatekeeper. And, ofc, put some idiot like Coleman in charge of it–someone who gets his or her marching orders from Gates or the Waltons. Kill any possibility of innovation by researchers, scholars, and classroom practitioners, whose ideas for modifications of the curricula won’t matter because THEY ARE NOT ON THE LIST. Hew to the list! Do as your betters tell you to do! Yours is to obey. Your superiors will take care of the command and control (and coercion).

Enough. It’s time to start challenging the Deformer/Disrupter NewSpeak at every turn. No, this is not “actionable data” because it comes from invalid, sloppy tests that don’t measure what they purport to measure. No, writing that applies the “standard” to the text doesn’t reflect normal interaction with texts, in which we are interested primarily in the experience of the work and what its authors and characters had to say. No, these “standards” are trivial and vague and backward, not “higher.” No, these test questions are tortured and awkward and invalid and do not reflect normal interactions with texts. If anything, they are superb examples of misreading that misses the point of why people write and why others read. No, teachers are autonomous professionals not to be scripted. No, teaching is a human interaction between people, and computers can’t do it.

Enough. Send the Deformers packing. Vive la révolution!

Copyright 2020. Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved. This post may be freely shared as long as it is unchanged and this copyright notice is retained.

For more of my writing about Education “Reform,” go here:

I’ve written a lot about Ed Reform over the years, and especially about its effects on U.S. pedagogy and curricula. If you don’t want to wade through all that, good places to start are here:

and here:

and here:

and here:

and here:

About Bob Shepherd

interests: curriculum design, educational technology, learning, linguistics, hermeneutics, rhetoric, philosophy (Continental philosophy, Existentialism, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics), classical and jazz guitar, poetry, the short story, archaeology and cultural anthropology, history of religion, prehistory, veganism, sustainability, Anglo-Saxon literature and language, systems for emergent quality control, heuristics for innovation
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