Tag Archives: Common Core

Why Pain is Necessary: A Response to the Proposed NYS Reading Standards

fc17d1bd7888792a71a10a6be02cf570The late great comedian George Carlin mastered exposing the use of language to control society.

One of his best routines involved the evolution of the term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  He chronicled how early in the century, in the World War I era, this condition was simply known as “Shell Shock.” Later in the century it evolved into “Battle Fatigue”, with Carlin pointing out how the addition of syllables made the condition seem less frightening.  Ultimately, he ends with PTSD, which makes a harrowing condition seem more and more antiseptic and banal.

In a similar way, the proposed New York State Standards, especially in reading, may control events through omitting a phrase.  Ultimately, this omission can have disastrous consequences.

In September, the New York State Education Department (NYSED) released new draft New York State P-12 English Language Arts and Mathematics Learning Standards for public comment.  These new standards were the work of two committees of teachers and parents who spent two years reworking over half of the Common Core Learning Standards to better meet the needs of New York’s students.

Many praised the new standards, and with good reason.  Much of the redundancy of standards, especially among reading informational and literary text, was streamlined to make the standards more flexible and manageable.  In mathematics, the distinctions between certain courses, particularly Algebra I and II, were clarified to give teachers better direction.  In all, this revision kept the spirit of the CCLS largely intact, which was a relief to many, including myself.

To really understand the changes, I decided to look at the ELA and Literacy (in Science/Social Studies) standards side by side, seeing them evolve grade by grade.  The work done in the K-2 grades really hit the mark: It allowed rigor in language foundations while emphasizing hands-on activities and creative play.  Most importantly, it emphasized, as in the past, the ability to read “grade-level text”, maintaining the need for a solid grounding in the basics of reading and writing.

After second grade, however, the phrase “grade-level text” disappears.

From third through twelfth grade, the the entire standard for text complexity is stricken altogether.  In grades 3 through 5, the phrase “grade-level” was replaced with “a variety of” to describe text level comprehension that would meet the standard.  For example, whereas RF.5.4a used to read:

“Read grade-level text with purpose and understanding.”

Under the proposed changes it would now read:

“Read a variety of text levels with purpose and understanding.”

A similar change happens in RF.5.4b, which addresses fluency.  It used to read:

“Read grade-level prose and poetry orally with accuracy, appropriate rate, and expression on successive readings.”

It would now read:

“Read a variety of prose and poetry orally with accuracy, appropriate rate, and expression on successive readings.”

(NOTE: The Literacy in Social Studies/Science Standards did not leave out text complexity for grades 6-12.  I am not sure if that was intentional or an oversight of the committee.)

The committee’s rationale was “so that the teachers have the opportunity to choose texts that meet each students’ needs effectively in order for each child gain success.”  When I looked to find where the old text complexity standard was, usually R.10, it stated that “Text complexity standard to be moved to supporting guidance.”  I headed to the anchor standards to find said supporting guidance, where I found the following:

“The ELA Committee decided that this standard would be more appropriate as guidance for instruction instead of a student achievement expectation. The committee would like to see text complexity guidance included in an introduction.”

In that statement, the committee rendered all the reading standards utterly useless.

First of all, this omission of text complexity assumes that grade-level standards are entirely based on skills that scaffold as the child gets older.  Thus, drawing a conclusion from Slaughterhouse Five is essentially the same as drawing one from The Cat in the Hat.  Identifying a causal relationship in Ramona and Beezus is basically the same as from Hamlet.  Nonsense.  Since older children are expected to read more nuanced and complicated texts, then text complexity has to be scaled just as much as reading skills or strategies. Having only a partial standard in skills and none in text complexity is just as good as not having a standard at all.

Furthermore, the lack of standards in text complexity presents false levels of promotion and achievement for students.  The student who achieves promotional criteria may not necessarily be reading at or even near their grade level.  How fair is this for a child who ultimately reaches high school with a literacy rate so far behind that they can never master the texts needed for college and beyond.

This is particularly true for students with special needs.  Much of the rationale of omitting text complexity must lie in the need to level the playing field for struggling students by allowing student choice in texts to demonstrate standards mastery.  Unfortunately, as admirable as this may sound, it defrauds the student of an authentic assessment of their abilities.  Also, those students with Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs, that feature grade-dependent text and vocabulary in their annual goals would find their programs essentially obsolete, denying students needed support in the lofty pursuit of giving students choice.

Finally, let us return to George Carlin for a moment.

Carlin’s goal in his routine was to show how language was used to mollify the shock, pain and discomfort of everyday life.  “Shell Shock” becomes the less painful “Battle Fatigue” and the even more harmless “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”  The problem, as Carlin hints at, is that making the term less painful does not make the pain go away.  It simply gives the public enough piece of mind that it can be ignored or handled by someone else.

The lack of text complexity also has to do with such pain, and apologies if I begin to sound like a sadist.  Learning, by design, is a change from the status quo, and any change to the human condition is inherently painful.  Some changes, like death or war, are more painful than others.  Some changes affect the mind or the emotions more than the body.  Whatever the form, learning involves a level of pain, however light, that is necessary for student development into functioning adult citizens.

By allowing so much student choice, and placing no standard on text complexity, the committee has in essence alleviated much of the pain of learning.  Yes, learning needs to be guided by the needs of students.  Yes, learning can and should include elements of joy and fun.  However, avoiding needed pain in order to make the experience more effective in the short term will cause that student unbearable agony in the long term:

  • a hamster wheel of low expectations.
  • The constant treadmill of never reaching the standards you should be reaching.
  • A student body so ill-prepared for college and the workforce that any attempt at career or academic advancement is futile.

I humbly ask the Board of Regents, Commissioner Elia, and Governor Cuomo to reconsider removing text complexity.  In pursuing the equitable education of today, do not consign our bright students to the agony of a dim future.

That “shell shock” helps more than you think.

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Bring Back Social Studies – From the Pages of The Atlantic

President Bush signing the bipartisan No Child...

The beginning of the end: President Bush signing NCLB at Hamilton H.S. in Hamilton, Ohio. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even if you’ve said it a thousand times, it doesn’t hurt to say it again.

Mr. D’s much more industrious little sister, Dr. D (yep, she finished that doctorate!) drew my attention to this recent article from The Atlantic.  The article advocates stopping the current trend towards neutering social studies as a distinct discipline in American education.

While the article itself breaks no new ground, it encapsulates the history and status of the issue well so that newbies to the struggle get an eye opener–whilst the veterans get a refresher course in the shitstorm that is No Child Left Behind.

Jen Kalaidis opens with the decline of student time spent studying social studies, to a whopping 7.6 percent.  More importantly, she details the history of this decline–and contrary to popular belief, it didn’t happen in the Cold War.

Kalaidis does mention the 1957 Sputnik launch as a “Pearl Harbor” moment in American education.  From that point on, millions of dollars poured into math and science programs to keep up the space race against the Commies.  Yet to assume education was a zero-sum game at the time would be false: social studies did maintain its status through the Cold War, in fact peaking in 1993-1994 at 3 hours per week on average in US classrooms.

The reasoning is simple: the Cold War was more than just a technological race.  It was a battle of ethics and morals, of hearts and minds.  Social studies was at the center of that struggle, for better or worse.  At its worst, social studies channeled jingoistic American patriotism into half-truths and propaganda.  At its best, social studies provided the historical foundations, civic structure and critical analysis that helped shape a better America–one that could hopefully achieve that moral high ground against the Soviets.

The real decline came with No Child Left Behind–and here is where the article gets mundane.

To old-timers of the education wars, Kalaidis’ retread of the decline of social studies–the sacrifical lamb at the altar of Common Core, ELA, and STEM–is an old argument shouted out in hundreds of teacher lounges, conferences and workshops across the country.  The emphasis on reading, math and science pushed social studies to a secondary discipline–one that was often not subject to standardized testing.  If you couldn’t use a number 2 pencil, it wasn’t worth knowing.

We also all know how important it is to develop critical thinking and analysis skills, something social studies was designed for.  If taught well, social studies makes students take ownership of history, of civics and economics, leading them to their own ideas, conclusions and opportunities.

One aspect of this decline that Kalaidis did mention–and should be mentioned more–is the “civic achievement gap.”  The lack of civic education has created an underclass not only ignorant of their own government, but wholly unable or unwilling to vote, to participate in local politics or pursue careers in public service.   As much as we rag on the government, we need one–a competent one–and that involves competent people working in all levels.  To ignore the civic gap in low-income Americans is tantamount to disenfranchising them.

Lastly, Kalaidis does mention steps to move social studies back to the forefront.  Obama has decried the lack of civic education in NCLB.  So has Arne Duncan in a half-hearted article in the NCSS journal in 2011 (I ripped him a new one about it).  Yet most of this is lip service, or that dreaded word integration (as in subject integration, not race).

The reality is that there is no concrete move to make social studies important again in American schools.  And I hate to admit it–but the conspiracist in me thinks the decline of social studies is deliberate.

When the lunatics run the asylum, they make sure no one figures out they’re really lunatics.  Without proper social studies education, there’s no way to tell the difference.

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A Letter to Andrew Cuomo: Mr. D for New York’s new P-12 Assistant Education Secretary

English: New York State Capitol viewed from th...

English: New York State Capitol viewed from the south, located on the north end of the Empire State Plaza in Albany, New York (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dear Governor Cuomo:

I hear that you’re losing one of your top advisors to…law school?

May I ask, do you recruit from the kiddie pool?  May I suggest your next interview be during adult swim?

When I heard of Katie Campos’ departure as Cuomo’s P-12 Assistant Education Secretary, I wasn’t surprised.  I mean, how much can a 20-something who has NO experience in the classroom, NOR in administering a school building know about New York’s arcane system?

Let me repeat that—she was never in a classroom.

She was never even a principal.

She was never a TFA drone, a Teaching Fellow, a Broad Fellow or any of the other alternative programs that the reform crowd love to tout as “experience.”

Michelle Rhee, Richard Barth, Geoffrey Canada…I have my issues with these people, but at least they had some real knowledge of the trenches of education.

Campos spent her three years between college graduation and her Albany post as nothing more than a political apparatchik, from Democrats for Education Reform to the New York State Charter Schools Association.  That’s akin to letting the late Ted Kennedy be principal of a girls’ high school—probably inept, and possibly disastrous.

And she was your “most experienced” team member?  I hear the lamentations of a thousand pairs of soiled undergarments.

So for Campos’ replacement, I humbly urge you, our esteemed governor, to select someone with experience, commitment, passion and above all a vested interest in education.

Someone like me.

Now, besides being ravishingly handsome, I do bring some important skills to the table.  So before I start sending my resume up to Albany, a few bullet points to strengthen my case:

  1. Classroom experience – I’m up on Ms. Campos by nine years in that department.  In my near-decade in the classroom, I’ve seen special education kids, English Language Learners, kids in trouble with the law, kids experimenting with drugs and sex, foster kids, homeless kids, kids on the run from abusive parents…you name it.  I’ve managed to reach a lot of them (NOT all…I wouldn’t pretend like that) and in the process, gotten to know what works and what doesn’t work for kids, parents, and teachers.
  2. Bipartisanship – Why not appoint a Republican to your team, Governor?  Especially an elephant like me with a long memory and (most importantly) an open mind to new ideas. I may have an “R” next to my name, but I’m not some Tea Party nincompoop, nor am I a Wall Street goon. After four years as an undergrad in DC, crossing the aisle is really no big thing; it’s more of a matter of getting the right mix of ideas that can help solve the problem.
  3. Honest feedback about current reforms – Testing, Common Core, teacher evaluations, class size: the big four in terms of gripes and controversies (if I’m missing something, let me know).  How about getting feedback from someone who has worked with and worked to implement your reforms at its base level?  The reform poobahs will gladly generate the spreadsheets and charts to keep you happy—but are they being upfront with you?  At least I can give an answer based on those who actually utilize these programs, rather than the bean counters who collect whatever data is given to them.
  4. A balanced approach to the Common Core – speaking of the Common Core, unlike many of the opposition, I really have no beef with these standards per se.  In fact, in several instances they serve as a necessary clarifier for benchmarks that were extremely vague and open to interpretation.  The Common Core is not the problem; implementation is.  The inconsistent nature of Common Core adoption—followed by ramrod exams that were clearly shown to be flawed—indicates a more nuanced approach to the problem.  It’ll be slower, but much more effective in the long run.
  5. A “people person” who gets along with teachers, students, administrators, unions and kids – The “carrot-and-stick” approach only goes so far in New York state among certain places: the “stick” might work in those districts where the opportunities are slim and teachers take what they can get.  Yet there are also places (NYC, Rochester, etc.) that just laugh at the stick and whip out a bigger one.  Whatever programs that need to implemented, the initial phases will be painful.  Don’t make it more painful by using ed reform blowhards who patronize teachers and keep harping that it’s all “for the children.”  We all know it’s for the kids—at least it’s supposed to be.  Send someone who can reach the best in all sides, who can bring people together instead of drive them apart.
  6. A good-looking guy – did I forget to mention I’m ravishingly handsome?  I was on TV, for Pete’s sake.

With a CV like that, there isn’t a statehouse in America that wouldn’t want me on their team, right?

If you are interested, Governor Cuomo, my LinkedIn profile is right here, and I can be reached through this blog or at my email ldorazio1@gmail.com.  I look forward to hearing from you.

Give my best to Sandra Lee (that was from Future Mrs. D).

Sincerely,

Mr. D

PS: If per chance you request an interview, please make sure it’s a nice day as Future Mrs. D enjoys the drive to Albany.

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Part II of Mr. D at the Education Innovation Summit 2013

“His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. And when He was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to the custom of the feast. When they had finished the days, as they returned, the Boy Jesus lingered behind in Jerusalem…Now so it was that after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers.” ~ Luke 2:41-47

The presentations at the Education Innovation Summit left me with little hope about the future.  Our panel discussion that followed, however, did provide a glimmer of opportunity.

At the very least, it created a buzz similar to the boy Jesus at the temple (again, forgive the Biblical references…I’m on a roll).

The panel discussion that followed the presentations would be in the Palo Verde Room, a space slightly smaller than my classroom with lower ceilings and worse light.  Even worse, the chairs were arranged in the typical convention manner: rows of tightly-packed catering seats facing a speaker of nominal importance.

To make it a true discussion, the seats were arranged in concentric circles, with  my colleagues and I occupying most of the center and the conventioneers taking up space in the periphery.  Even as the minutes started to tick toward our start time, I–and most of us, for that matter–weren’t even sure if we could fill the room.

To everyone’s surprise, the room filled rather quickly.  Seat after seat was occupied, leaving many of the attendees to huddle around the perimeter wall.  Within minutes of the presentation’s beginning, the crowd was so large outside the room that a microphone was needed to broadcast what we were saying.

Believe me, we said a mouthful.

The panel was moderated by Michael Horn, founder of the Innosight Institute and an author on digital learning.  It featured the LearnZillion teachers answering questions about education technology, the new start-ups we saw, and the road ahead for education.  Horn is best known for his book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation will Change the way the World Learns, so his role seemed very apropos to manage a group of educators not happy with things as they are.

I’m not going to critique the comments from my colleagues; it would be unfair, and their thoughts were as varied and as valuable as the people themselves.  One (my friend who loved Bloomboard) who’s very tech-savvy and extremely enthusiastic, hit on the need for a more harmonious development of ed-tech products, using tech buzzwords like “convergence” and whatnot.  Another brought home the need for a more active role for teachers in the product development process—a tenet LearnZillion stakes its reputation on.  Others stressed the need for more content instruction (science and social studies), less reliance on numerical data, standardized testing, and the need to reach all learners.

I was one of a handful of teachers that spoke multiple times—and among the most biting and vicious, at least in my opinion.  Here’s some highlights of what I said:

The “Kid-Friendly” problem – This was really pointed both at ed-tech developers and some of my colleagues who raved about certain programs that provide “kid-friendly” graphics and animation to assist in learning.  Now, most readers of this blog know my thoughts on terms like “kid-friendly” (hint: it has to do with waste products).  It’s a buzzword that too often is used to dumb content down.  Furthermore, it misreads the student population: my kids have grown past most “kid-friendly” content and want real, rigorous, often controversial material to read and analyze.  Developers should not be afraid to let children explore the world in a real, meaningful, grown-up way—they’re more ready than you think.

The “Teaching Experience” problem – In an effort to achieve much-needed credibility from both investors and the education community, many of the ed-tech companies tout their collective experience in education.  Their PowerPoint slides show various numbers of years experience on the team “20+ years K-12 experience,” “Over a decade of experience.”  What that actually means is a mystery, and I made it abundantly clear to them: “We’re not fooled…when your pitch says ’20 years experience’, that could mean one teacher with 20 years experience or 10 TFA nitwits with 2 years in who all jumped into the corporate sector.  Not all experience is the same.”

The Content Knowledge problem – Here I’m harping the Core Knowledge line, but it’s a good one nonetheless: the achievement gap goes hand in hand with the knowledge gap.  Without content knowledge, students cannot translate their newfound language and math skills into results.  The new Common Core based tests are heavy in content, so for those of you who pushed aside science and social studies all these years in order to put in more ELA and math time: who’s sorry now?

Even if the content is difficult (and it usually is, in my class anyway), the key to reaching all students is not changing the content, but the approach to the content.  Break up large documents into smaller texts.  Differentiate activities on a text based on ability and readiness.  Don’t dumb down history and science: make history and science accessible to all your students.

The Teacher Involvement problem – I didn’t introduce this topic, but I did add to my colleague’s discussion of teacher involvement.  Too many products in the education universe have little if no input from teachers in their design and implementation.  It still amazes me that an education technology conference like that one never involved teachers at all until now.  Shouldn’t an end user play a meaningful role in product development, as they are the ones that need to use it for their students?

This is the reason I pinned my star on LearnZillion.  If Eric and Alix (the co-founders) simply cranked out video lessons and sold them to school districts to be shoved down teachers’ throats, I wouldn’t have given them a minute of my time.  Yet they didn’t, to their infinite credit. Their model is, admittingly, more complex, more labor intensive and I would guess more costly.  Yet hiring real veteran teachers as product developers makes sense in ed-tech: end users as developers virtually guarantee a product that is professional, high-quality, necessary and useful.  If other companies really care about their products’ effects on education, then their development requires at least a partial bottom-up approach.  Teachers have to be part of the development process, period.

One audience member asked what they can do to help define the Common Core.  I answered that she was asking the wrong question.  The real question is “How can we turn your ideas about the Common Core into tangible products for the classroom?”

The Teacher Evaluation/Data Collection problem—I really hope Bloomboard boy was in the audience to hear this…I saved my most venomous comments for this part.  Someone had mentioned a trend in the corporate pitches towards different products for data collection.  It was as a follow-up that I shared my thoughts on the Bloomboard presentation with the audience and thus my central point: if these collection and evaluation systems are meant to provide meaningful feedback to teachers, then the systems must be more than a dump of numbers.  A number in a category on a spreadsheet like a box score does not define my practice.  Observational, qualitative feedback does.  Data-based systems simply give administrators a number to (a) give to higher administrators, and (b) fire “bad” teachers.  Any ambulance-chaser of a lawyer can fight these evaluations easily.

On this not, one particular colleague of mine said the quote of the conference, and I want to honor him personally.  Cory Howard is a math teacher from Indiana who seems, at first, like a typical shit-kicking hick.  He fools a lot of folks with that drawl.

He’s far from a typical country boy: getting to know Cory, he’s among the most honest, down-to-Earth, and among the most prescient thinkers I’ve ever met.  When asked about evaluations and the use of data, he brought the house down with the following (and I’m paraphrasing):

“You can measure a pig all you want…but it won’t make it grow any faster.”

Apparently, our panel was the hit of the conference that day.  Twitter feeds were ablaze as the crowd outside our room grew and grew.  Horn mentioned to me that it was the easiest moderating job of all, simply passing a mike to each of us who had loads to say.  The room didn’t empty right away as audience members lingered to speak with us.

This was a good sign…or a bad sign.

Now that I’m in my classroom, reflecting on the weekend, I take stock in that the discussions and feedback we gave could be a huge step in changing the way education technology is created.  If the moneyfolks and the entrepreneurs really took our advice seriously, it could create a shift in process and focus that could finally combat the glut of inferior education products that serve little purpose to classrooms and students.

On the other hand, they could be simply paying us lip service and continuing with business as usual once we left.  After all, despite all the posturing and proclamations of doing it “for the children,” it’s doubtful that a class of struggling students in the South Bronx is getting a profit share in the IPO.  No student in Harlem, Detroit, south side of Chicago, southeast DC or south-central Los Angeles is securing seed money for expansion of these folks.

This is, after all, about making a buck.

My only worry is that the chase for the almighty dollar overshadows the need to educate our children.

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When the Pagans are Fed to Lions – can Core Knowledge survive as a NYCDOE mandate?

Statue de Constantin Ier, Musée du Capitole, Rome

Constantine: He swapped out one lion meat for another.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Usually, when the conquered becomes the conqueror, the outcome is far from bloodless.

When Christianity became legal through the Edict of Milan 313 under the Roman emperor Constantine, it provided for the religious freedom of pagan faiths as well, the same faiths that worked to persecute Christians for centuries.

Yet over time, as Constantine chose to eliminate his rivals, what was a potentially newly tolerant society simply replaced one orthodoxy for another, as Christianity became THE state religion of the later empire.  Now it was the pagan’s turn to feel the whip and the fire…and no one learned anything.

In education, this cycle of persecution is alive and well—and a good group’s work could be casualty of it all.

Although it took time for me to warm to it, the Core Knowledge Foundation has really become a system I’ve embraced more and more.  Founded by former University of Virginia professor E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Core Knowledge is a philosophy that strives to improve education not just through how children learn, but on what they learn.  According to their guiding principles:

“For the sake of academic excellence, greater equity, and higher literacy, elementary and middle schools need to teach a coherent, cumulative, and content-specific core curriculum.

The persistent gap in reading achievement in U.S. schools can never be reduced until the knowledge gap is reduced. And the knowledge gap will not be reduced unless broad, rich content knowledge is integrated into the many hours devoted to language arts instruction.”

A long time ago, I did a column on Core Knowledge, critiquing its insistence on certain baskets of knowledge as artificially constricting and inherently subjective—that content needed to drive skills to find further content, and especially critical thinking.    It’s flaws notwithstanding, CK has strengths in advancing content knowledge along with language and math skills.  It is rigid, to be sure, but allows room for growth due to its ability to be woven into literacy blocks and natural progressions into subject areas that the class can pursue independent of the program.

Core Knowledge seems useful—which is why I was dismayed when I learned that New York City will be pushing for Core Knowledge to be the curriculum of grades K-2.

Maybe this was CK’s goal all along: to make their system mandatory district by district until it becomes the new dogma.  I really hope not.  History reminds us that when innovation becomes codified in law, it often loses its original intent for other, more sinister goals.

Ask Lucy Calkins, for example.

Her workshop model, designed at Teachers College, was, like Core Knowledge, considered controversial.  It stressed too much free writing.  It didn’t teach grammar effectively.  It didn’t for children to grow in their  writing, much of it stuck on writing about how children “feel.”

Then came the Bloomberg administration, and like Constantine of old, the persecuted was allowed into the palace.  With little checks from on high, Calkins and her minions had almost free rein in training teachers, designing workshops, creating massive new models of planning and learning that became (and in many cases, still is) the only accepted model of instruction in this city.

What happened?  The original model morphed into concepts, models, plans, curriculum maps—most strayed well enough from the original idea of Calkins that it became something of a joke.  Add to this the new pressure of standardized tests, and the dream of creating child prodigal writers turned into factories of learning rote models of answering essays, writing about poems and fairy tales, anything to drive up scores.

It was not designed to make kids more knowledgeable, to be sure.  But even Calkins has to admit the veneer of official sanction twisted her original goal to the ends of people less than enamored with student success.

This is my ultimate fear for Core Knowledge.

It’s a great system, and used correctly, it can be a lifesaver for kids who struggle with basic skills.  Yet the mandate can very easily pervert Dr. Hirsch’s original intention—and it’s already happening.

The alignment of Common Core-based assessments with the CK program already seems like the handwriting on the wall.  As the first results are released and the stats show less promise than expected, how will Core Knowledge address the problem?  Is it designed to address the problem?

Or worse, will CK be yoked to the Common Core as a beast of burden?

Core Knowledge is too valuable to be left to the education reformers to be slaughtered.

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