Lies, damn lies and talk about Common Core

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Kennett event drifted into propaganda, rather than a clear-eyed look at the facts

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times
UTMikeColLogoKENNETT — I came, I saw, and frankly, I left scratching my head.

Setting aside the oddity of complaining about the teaching of global warming on a day that four-plus inches of rain fell on the southern part of the county, closing roads and bridges, it was a complicated night of facts, half-truths and outright lies, as presented by the Coalition for Advancing Freedom, Tuesday night at the Red Clay Room.

Dr. Peg Luksik was clearly at her engaging best. She was charming, funny and warm, in a loving grandmother sort of way. Unfortunately, during her one-hour presentation, her combination of leaping to unfounded conclusions, cherry-picking of facts to support specious arguments, misrepresentations and outright lies left me a little surprised that her pants didn’t spontaneously combust.

Luksik walked the crowd of about 200 through her theories on how Common Core came to be, who is behind it and the dark future of our children should it come to pass. Interestingly, she led the arguments two decades ago against Pennsylvania having any standards or any testing, suggesting it would ruin the state’s education system — and sounding a bit at the time like the local TV newscasts when snow flurries are in the forecast (UltraSuperSnowmaggedon!).

The big villains are Bill and Melinda Gates, Luksik suggests, as the Gates Foundation has spent more than $165 million on pushing Common Core on the states. Microsoft and educational publisher Pearson and textbook publishers are pulling the strings to generate big, fat profits.

As a former tech writer who covered Microsoft for more than a decade, I can say the company has a heck of a time rolling out working software, let alone being behind some slick national conspiracy to force a national curriculum. Pearson? If you live in the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District and use Power School, as I do, you know first-hand they’re not exactly gifted at rolling product out and managing it, either — so again, you have to wonder whether they could mount a serious effort at an educational cabal.

But okay, you have to keep an open mind — consider what big tobacco managed for decades in terms of fixing the debate on the health of smoking and tobacco products — the Gates and these big companies could be behind a massive conspiracy to co-op education.

Luksik rails about the secret process of developing standards, as if the whole thing just emerged out of whole cloth six months ago.

I can’t speak for other journalists, but the impact of Common Core and its development process has appeared in a number of my stories over the last few years, especially as they related to the transition from the PSSAs to the Keystone Exams, and changes to math curriculum, including the adoption of Singapore Math. So, if it were a secret, it’s only because folks weren’t paying attention.

She points to Common Core’s roots in the Stimulus Bill — despite the fact that most economists suggest it turned out to be largely positive, some even suggesting it prevented a full-on depression — as the familiar beaten dead horse, arguing that the federal government used stimulus funds to force states to opt in to Common Core. And anything related to the stimulus is, by definition, evil.

She makes some reasonable arguments about whether it is proper to create a national curriculum — certainly a fair debate, with good arguments pro and con, drifts a bit in arguing what represents rigorous standards, but then finally drifts off into the area of data collection on students, where her arguments exit the freeway of reality, before jackknifing her 18-wheeler of disinformation into fantasyland.

She spent a bit of time riffing on the buzzword “rigorous,” which appears frequently in the standards and materials. She focused on the fact that the standards call for students to be able to read by third grade and pass algebra I before graduating high school, deriding those as hardly being “rigorous.”

But, as she failed to mention, those standards represent a minimum, a basic level of achievement for all children.

Speaking to my own experience, when as a college freshman, I encountered students in my English class who could not read, back in 1982, and not only did one not have to pass algebra, you only has to pass something called “consumer math” to get your degree. In the generation since, standards have increased, and these new standards continue that evolution.

There was another riff about students being switched from reading John Steinbeck and Harriet Beecher Stowe to being forced to read Environmental Protection Agency manuals. An absolute laugh riot, complete cow manure, mind you, but good for laughs.

Common Core does push some instruction toward non-fiction — in part because students are more likely to read fiction on their own.

EPA manuals? Hardly.

How about Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass? Or Winston Churchill’s “Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat: Address to Parliament on May 13th, 1940” or Common Sense by Thomas Paine? Or Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Hardly what she described last night.

Luksik, who seems to know her fiction — at least from the creation end — argues that culture is driven by fiction. Those above texts and many equally worthy certainly changed our country and our world no less than any work of fiction. But even if you buy her argument, the Common Core still specifies pretty much most of the works one thinks of for middle school and high school students, from Twain to yes, Steinbeck.

So, really, the only concern over fiction here are the one’s Luksik is generating.

But wait, there’s more.

Luksik says that states and school districts are being forced to collect all sorts of personal information on students and their families, including the parent political affiliation, religious practices, family income and so on.

In short, it’s not true. Not even close to true.

Data is, and has been, collected for quite a while — long before Common Core was created in 2009. Classes, grades, teacher assignments, test scores and other academic data are and have been collected. Whether or not it can specifically be traced back to individual students remains a topic of debate, one certainly reasonable in this era of data mining.

What the schools don’t collect and have no ability to collect are some of the things Luksik claimed: political affiliation of parents, religious practice and other personal family data.

I checked with both Dr. John Sanville, Superintendent of Schools in Unionville-Chadds Ford and Dr. Barry Tomasetti, Superintendent of Schools in Kennett, and neither thought that such data was, or could, be collected.

To be frank, Google and Facebook know more about your kids personal information than your school district or state Department of Education. Whether that is a good thing is another matter, of course.

Luksik also claimed that student behavior would be tracked and follow a student potentially through college, suggesting by her example that a third grader’s inappropriate remark could follow them for decades.

Well, not exactly. The state does require reporting on violent incidents, so if that third grader brought dad’s Uzi to school, that could end up in their permanent record. But if little Johnny got sent to the principal’s office for calling Susie “a poophead?” Not so much.

Based on conversations with Sanville and Tomasetti, school suspensions and arrests appear to follow students and end up in their permanent record — and could impact college applications, much like speeding tickets and felonies follow anyone else these days and potentially impact job applications. Again, a fair topic to debate, but impossible to do so when Luksik twists the facts to meet her agenda.

But Luksik insists that this is a real danger and that parents should withdraw their students from public schools — as there is no way to opt out of the program until students are of college age.

Lastly, she said efforts to repeal Common Core were gaining strength and the legislature was ready to block it. She saluted Chester County State Rep. John Lawrence (R-13), a sponsor of HB 1551, which would block implementation of Common Core. Stephen Barrar (R-160) is the only other Chester County legislator sponsoring the bill.

As former Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board President Timotha Trigg reminded me last night, it’s not just extremists on the right who are looking to stop Common Core, but some on the left, as well.

And while that is true, as a number of liberal groups have denounced Common Core, Luksik claims that state Sen. Andy Dinniman (D-19) supports blocking Common Core, too, and said he could deliver the entire Democratic Senate caucus.

But as with a lot of things Luksik said Tuesday night, a closer look reveals another story.

If you speak to Dinniman, as I did Wednesday, you get a bit of a different picture. He said that the issue he and Senate Democrats have with Common Core has nothing to do with curriculum, data tracking, but rather that the exams are a graduation requirement.

“We have no issue with the tests being used to measure student achievement,” he said. “So, for the top achieving schools, we’re just adding more testing and for struggling schools, we’re adding testing, but no resources for the schools to help their students pass those tests.”

Dinniman is the sponsor of SB 943, which calls for a two-year delay in implementing Common Core and the Keystone exams until a full cost and impact assessment is completed by the state Department of Education. Dinniman noted that he and his Democratic colleagues have no strong objections to the Common Core curriculum, and might be in a position to support it without requiring graduating seniors to have passed three Keystone exams.

He noted additional concerns about the impact on students who do well in class, but struggle on standardized tests, as well as the cost, especially for those districts already in a cash crunch.

“We’ve spent $60 million on the tests, but we don’t have $45 million for Philadelphia to be able to open its schools,” he said. He also noted that in districts struggling to get students to stay in school and graduate, the tests add another barrier and one more reason for at-risk students to drop out.

Still, we’re awfully late in the game on a process that has been in the works for years. Somewhere between the state Department of Education and the state legislature, someone dropped the ball. In his defense, Dinniman argues that it was only in January of 2013 that the state Department of Education decided to agree to the Common Core and the graduation test requirement, so at least on this issue, it has only been months, not years, in the making.

And, he stresses, his bill differs almost entirely with that of Lawrence’s — and many of the issues addressed in that bill have been part of the Common Core discussion for years.

I guess that some of these legislators were so busy not fixing the public pension crisis, not fixing the state’s crumbling roads and bridges and of course, not creating jobs, that the whole issue just fell through the cracks.

But now, just days from the school year that Common Core is to take effect, and after school districts have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to train teachers, adjust curriculum, and buy new textbooks, now, they want to put up a stop sign.

Again, Dinniman, a former West Chester University professor and former school board member, doesn’t feel it’s a waste at all, as the new curriculum will immediately be useful to those districts that have embraced it.

Fabulous. Call me a cynic (and let’s be honest that will be, by far, the nicest thing many of you call me this week), but the legislature was asleep at the switch and only now, when it’s going to cost big money, does somebody notice? Where were the hearings in 2010? It’s not like — despite claims to the contrary — this was some sort of secret.

As I noted last week, there are things about Common Core that need discussion. The teacher evaluation system — where student performance over a rolling three-year period is part of the system — seems both difficult to implement and likely flawed, although some sort of system is needed. Dinniman makes some points on the testing issue, but New York seems to have managed its Regents exams for decades, so there must be a way to make it work in Pennsylvania.

But we’re not having those discussions. Nope.

We get hysteria, misrepresentations, and folks cynically playing politics, rather than focusing on what’s best and having grown-up conversations about what’s best for our kids.

We’re better than this and we need to be better than this, if we don’t want to become a second-rate power in the coming decades.

As one school administrator said to me last night, “Common Core is not perfect. But it is an improvement.”

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