Saturday, January 19, 2013

Common Core Florida: Orwellian Lessons

By Mary Grabar, Posted January 15, 2013

This first appeared here.  I would like to thank Mary for allowing me to publish her work.  RK

Ask any college freshman what he knows about communism and he will likely engage in a word association game.

“The red scare, McCarthyism,” he will blurt out, displaying lessons well-learned from his high school textbooks and teachers.

One way to go beyond the idea of communism as evidence of paranoia, though, is to recall George Orwell’s Animal Farm.  “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” will be the phrase students recall.  Students—who increasingly are disinclined to read novels—seem to have a fond place for this one.  Students seem to get that “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” never works out in reality. 

This novel shows how literature can sometimes demonstrate historical realities better than history books, and certainly better than the history textbooks (or social studies books), which today are scrubbed of point of view, moral stands, style, or any conclusion that would be objectionable to anyone, anywhere, at anytime (except for those of European ancestry and not LGBT).

Because of my two decades of college English classroom teaching and writing about education issues, including the recent effort to federalize education through Common Core, I read the recent article, “Teachers Get Help with Common Core Lessons Through (sic) CPALMS,” at the NPR site with great interest.  It explained that as assessments and textbooks are being written, the state of Florida is using a federal Race to the Top grant from the Department of Education to develop a site of resources for teachers who are scrambling to adhere to the new Common Core standards attached last-minute during the Thanksgiving/Christmas holiday season in 2009 to the contest for part of the $4.35 billion in stimulus funds.

Pinnellas County School Superintendant Mike Grego recently told the Florida State Board of Education that there is “no resistance” to Common Core.  At the same time, Florida’s new state superintendant, Tony Bennett, is going right ahead steamrollering the curriculum in.  Bennett, by the way, lost reelection in Indiana, many believe, because of his support for Common Core.

The lack of “resistance” may very well be due to the behind-the-scenes maneuvering practiced by the Department of Education that bypassed state legislatures and public input, often gaining the support of Republicans with vague promises of “rigor” and uniform “standards.”  Most in the politically informed Tea Party Manatee audience before whom I spoke on the evening of January 8 were not aware of this illegal federal takeover of education.  Among the points I made are those from a recent report I wrote for Accuracy in Media.  National tests (being written by close, like-minded colleagues of terrorist-turned-education-professor Bill Ayers, like Stanford education professor Linda

Darling-Hammond) will eventually nullify the idea of private schools and even home schools.  Some Catholic and other religious schools are already beginning to adopt Common Core standards as they see college entrance exams being written to CC specifications.  The 45 participating states are also required to keep data bases of students from “cradle to career”--to use Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s favorite phrase--and submit them to the federal Department of Education, in effect making a national database.

Some conservative organizations have protested this unconstitutional power grab by the Department of Education.

But the mandate to replace literature in English classes with “informational texts”—with only half the time allotted to literature, and reduced to only 30 percent by the last two years of high school—caught the attention of even the liberal media.  They became alarmed that favorites like To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye are to be replaced by such things as EPA directives.

Spokesmen tried to alleviate fears.  They directed skeptics to the standards: “the Standards require a certain critical content for all students including classic myths and stories from around the world, America’s Founding Documents, foundational American literature, and Shakespeare.”  Plus, they “intentionally do not offer a reading list.”  David Coleman the well-connected new president of the College Board, which writes and administers college entrance exams, has pointed to these caveats, and repeated the claim that the standards call for evidence-based writing instead of writing based on personal experience and feelings. “Informational texts” are cited as necessary for “college and career readiness” (another favorite phrase).  (See the very funny takedown by the Pioneer Institute’s James Stergios of how the advocate of “close reading,” David Coleman, mixed up Federalist 51 and 10.)  These nostrums are offered to mollify citizens and legislators.

Animal Farm would seem to fall into the category of classical literature that the bureaucrats and educrats repeat in attempts to silence critics.  Those who wrote the ninth and tenth-grade lesson plans for CPALMS (Collaborate, Plan, Align, Learn, Motivate, Share) seemed to have this in mind.  First, the novel is put into the broad category of “fables” from Aesop, with a list of those usually taught to young children like “The Tortoise and the Hare.”  Students are to identify elements of a “fable.”

Teachers are instructed:

“When going over the material (please see the attached Elements of a Fable notes), the teacher will make sure to emphasize certain attributes of a fable and tell students exactly what should be written down in notes. Specifically, the teacher will want to mention the five main elements of a fable, including animal characters with human characteristics, a setting and situation, a problem or dilemma, usually caused by a character trait of weakness, a resolution, and a clear moral or lesson at the end of the story, either implied or directly stated.”

In typical Common Core fashion, students are to search out these “elements,” and then in quite mechanical fashion fill in a chart that is provided as a hand-out in the lesson plan:

“-Then, the teacher will provide guided practice for students to fill out the “Elements of a Fable” chart completely while the teacher reads fables. Before beginning the chart, the teacher should go over each column and the process of filling out the chart completely using details from the fables. Complete sentences are not necessary due to space limitations but remind students to fill out the title for each fable and all parts of the chart for full credit. The teacher should read “The Tortoise and the Hare” first, since it is one of the most well-known fables.”

The allegorical indictment of communism by Orwell is compared to a fable for preschoolers.  Did anyone consider that this might be insulting to teenagers?  The teacher’s version of the chart has the blanks filled in, with the element of the “problem” described as “Power can make the animals corrupt; they struggle to take care of the farm and with leadership.”  The “resolution” is “The farm ends up being worse with the animals in control because of too much power and corruptness by the pigs.”  The “moral/lesson” is “Power Corrupts, and Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely.”  (The source for this quotation, the conservative historian Lord Acton, is not mentioned, however.)

George Orwell - Real name,
Eric Arthur Blair
All this is very general.  And when one compares it to other sample lessons in Common Core and its standards, one sees that it is deliberately so.  While one small mention is made in a sheet on the “elements of a fable” that Animal Farm is “satirized Stalinist Communism, in particular, and totalitarianism, in general” it is clear that the novel is to be taught in historic vacuum.  The pointed criticisms of communism are generalized to an indictment of a vague sense of too much “power.”  Most certainly, the teacher is not to express any kind of value judgment.  In fact, these high school students are to conduct the most simple mechanical exercise, if we read these instructions correctly.

This exercise recalls one that gave consternation to teachers when they were instructed to read Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address without emotion and without providing any historical context.  Common Core reduces all “texts” to one level: the Gettysburg Address to the EPA’s Recommended Levels of Insulation.  This leveling is demonstrated in another lesson plan at CPALMS that involves the historical young adult novel Kidnapped in Key West:

“Other than giving the brief definitions offered to words students would likely not be able to define from context (underlined in the text), avoid giving any background context or instructional guidance at the outset of the lesson while students are reading the text chorally. This close reading approach exposes students a second time and forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge and levels the playing field for all students as they seek to comprehend the text.”

Levelling the playing field is a primary objective of the Obama Department of Education, and Common Core presents a means to do so by encouraging such “close” or “deep” reading.  Reading the “text” “chorally,” which Merriam-Webster defines as “sung,” implies reading aloud in unison.  It ensures that all students, including struggling readers, are brought along with the group.  Such objectives are in line with Darling-Hammond’s educational agenda.  The former Obama education transition team director is in charge of using $176 in Race-to-the-Top funds to develop tests for one of two consortia and is implementing her “five-dimensional grading rubric” of personal responsibility, social responsibility, communication skills, application of knowledge, and critical and creative thinking.  This assessment philosophy had the dubious distinction of placing her Stanford New Schools on California’s list of the lowest-achieving five percent.

The sample test questions released by her consortia give no indication that acquisition of knowledge is important.  Rather an application of found knowledge, un-rooted in history or literary heritage, is valued.  As I noted in my other reports, social responsibility is the aim of the new curriculum materials being developed.  They follow Arne Duncan’s stated purpose for schools: to be part of the “battle for social justice.”  

We get an indication of one of the real goals of Common Core when teachers are told that this assumption of no prior knowledge “levels the playing field.”  Some students might be more privileged in their historical knowledge from reading or might come from homes where history is discussed.  Students who might be taught at home are discouraged from bringing up that knowledge in class.  In order to have a “level playing field,” all students must operate from an assumption of complete ignorance as they grapple with at least two readings of the “text.”

The lessons developed by Florida educators for teachers of Animal Farm do not give them any historical background information on the Russian Revolution or Orwell, or direct them to resource materials.  Oddly, teachers are all but ordered not to mention the historical background of a literary work, while at the same time they are burdened with the task of teaching non-literary works, like scientific papers, government directives—and primary historical documents.  Thus, Common Core expands what education colleges have been doing now for decades, and that is to put the teacher in the role of the “guide on the side.”  A teacher is no longer a purveyor of knowledge—the “sage on the stage”—but a director of students’ exploration.

The kinds of materials being developed—like adaptations of socialist propaganda like Nickel and Dimed and biographies of teen idol Justin Bieber—require such a value-free setting.  Reading becomes a kind of search and peck exercise for “information,” even in one of the few “classical” literary works still allowed, Animal Farm, a book that screams out for guidance on communism.

The assignment that students are to be given furthermore is a bizarre exercise.  They are to write a fable: “After reading Animal Farm and Aesop’s Fables, it is now your turn to become a fabulous ‘fabulist’!  You are to write an original fable and incorporate the elements of a fable discussed in class.”

This of course is precisely the kind of assignment that rewards “creativity”—of the simplest kind.  Yet, students are asked to do what Aesop and George Orwell did!  Of course, they can’t, so points are freely awarded to those who are not frustrated by the inanity of such assignments.  Serious students are likely to be turned off.  (A “wheel” is provided for students who cannot come up with a “moral” on their own, with such offerings as “you can’t please everyone” and “good looks aren’t everything.”)  This kind of assignment also “levels the playing field.”  Many of Darling-Hammond’s sample test questions also lend themselves to similar discretion in grading, allowing rewards for “creativity.”

So an article calling David Coleman an “education hero” in American Thinker sounds like a satire.  Author Bernie Reeves claims that Coleman’s program will undo the damage done to the educational system by radicals.  He simply repeats the vague nostrums about “deep readings” (favorite terms for educators like Ayers and others at Columbia Teachers College when they try to substitute radicalism for real knowledge and standards).  Reeves sounds like Coleman’s press agent as he writes,

“This change stems from the opinion that the "easy reading" and the highly subjective diet of poetry and fiction on the curriculum menu has prevented students from learning to digest complex non-fiction, including studies, reports, and primary documents. Coleman does not mince his words: "People (employers) don't give a damn about what you feel and what you think. What they instead care about is, can you make an argument with evidence, is there something verifiable behind what you are saying or what you think or feel that you can demonstrate to me?"

This favourable quoting of Coleman recalls the statement by Elizabeth Celania-Fegan,  Douglas County (Colorado) Superintendant, at a forum sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute and attended by Coleman and other educrats.  She approvingly noted that Common Core refers to employers, like Nike, for direction on kindergarten curriculum.  Yes, those writing kindergarten curricula scan the job descriptions at Nike’s website to determine what five-year-olds will be learning.

The amazing thing is that those proposing such utilitarian education objectives seem unaware of how close they are to Charles Dickens’ satire, Hard Times.
Reeves is as oblivious as the superintendant. 

He continues, without any irony,

“English teachers are up in arms, and the interested public has grounds to fear the new non-fiction requirements will force-feed even more left-wing gibberish into the course work. Until, that is, they see the selections: Alexis de Tocquevilles's Democracy in America, a segment from the Federal Reserve's FedViews newsletter, and a General Services Administration Executive Order on transportation management and the environment. This is hardly the Communist Manifesto, but rich and deep readings that challenge young minds.”

Again, that word, “deep.”  Really?  A Federal Reserve newsletter?  Deep was the most repeated word in Pathways to the Common Core, a popular source for teachers produced by authors associated with Columbia Teachers College and published by Heinemann, part of the international textbook giant Pearson that is developing testing.  It is also a favorite word of Bill Ayers in his scores of education books that simply push repetitive calls for radicalization under the cover of “deep” learning.

Reeves’s essay, perhaps, gives us an example of how business-minded people have been snookered by these new “standards,” which are not standards at all, but educate-ease for producing subjects of the State divested of knowledge about their heritage and satisfied with doing quick, meaningless tasks at a computer.

The reference to Democracy in America--as we can see by analyzing it in context with the overall standards and how such “texts” are to be taught—is meant to appease critics.  Most likely it will be taught like the Gettysburg Address—stripped of its poetry, emotional import, and historical significance.  It’s the same as what’s being done with one of the few literary texts still allowed, like Animal Farm.  What the Obama administration is doing through the Department of Education is nothing less than Orwellian.

For more information, see:

Terrorist Professor Bill Ayers and Obama's Federal School Curriculum, report for Accuracy in Media
Common Core: Phasing Wester Culture Out of Education, article on testing developed by Linda Darling-Hammon in Front Page Magazine
The Gradgrinds of Common Core, essay in Roll Call

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