common core cartoon by WWYD?


The Gaslighting Started before 2017


by Nancy Barno Reynolds

In 2010 when the State Standards (CCSS) were rolled out, proponents announced some news that seemed to make sense to anyone who had been in the field of teaching a long time:  a k-12 plan for schooling that was sequential and comprehensive, promising a somewhat stable “guide” for every grade level, regardless of state, and the scaffolding of knowledge within subject areas.  Teachers know how essential it is to build knowledge instead of dump it, so this seemed okay.

The CCSS, standards of literacy (and math) for the assessment and accountability of federal funds, had two mission statements:  Excellence in Education for All Students (woohoo!) and College and Career Readiness (well, okay…but what about the zillion successful startups with teenaged CEOs?). Additionally, basic literacy grew a new limb, now including a branch called language use – a deliciously nuanced consideration that thrilled me beyond the typical reading, writing, speaking, listening cornerstones of skill sets required for the past 50 years. Language Use invites critical and positioning theories to be taught – in other words, students: what we say and how we say it/teach it/insinuate it matters to how we teach, learn, and understand. (No kidding – remember that great teacher you had who read your mind and spoke in a way that made sense to your whole person? Or that poem you read that only you understood because of what happened over your lifetime? Language use interrogates the speaker and the listener, equally.)

It’s hard to admit, but we assumed – we teachers who had little to do with the creation of this behemoth – we would still be expected to teach; that we and our professional expertise could be the glue that made this thing work. This could be exciting. This could be a good thing.

It was amazing at first – the rules and policies that came pouring out of our own states without warning, but I think many of us were not scared. The creators kept promising that they wanted and needed the input of teachers and parents, that they wanted to serve all students, that this plan was for ALL, and that it was a document IN PROGRESS. By October of 2012, it was clear that this document was in progress:  it changed, often on a daily basis, without documentation, without warning, and not for the better.

The places where parents and teachers asked real questions about the feasibility of this plan for children whose first language wasn’t English, for children in poverty, for children reading and computing a year or more behind the mean of their peers, for children with disabilities, started to literally disappear from the national website, along with comments from the interactive partners behind screens who answered ‘I don’t know” “Yes, that is a problem. What are your ideas?”  This made us uneasy, but not yet mad or scared. We veteran teachers had seen the comings and goings of state initiatives married to federal money before.  We felt, I think, that we were still essential to the proper vetting of these scripts because we were the educational clinicians, hired to do a professional job.

For me, the red flag arrived one day when checking the website. The first Mission Statement had disappeared: Excellence in Education for All Students.  Like a boom, the dread landed mid-read: where’d it go? That’s when I started to notice other changes: A dark red banner at the top, a warrior head on the side, aggressive language,  huge, intimidating block print: COMMON CORE STATE STANDARDS.  One mission: College and Career Readiness. What?!! The audacity of the claim has become evident:  an unwavering curriculum plan could never meet the ever-evolving expectations of colleges or businesses.

The word “critical” was all over the CCSS document,  in this case, meaning linear reasoning. One thing that’s troublesome about a linear curriculum path (sequential and comprehensive, a-hem) is that there is only one way to right. And anything going in the opposite direction becomes, by default, wrong. Linear thinking stymies the considerations of language use as well, goals seeming to be at odds with each other.  And, shortly thereafter, we saw most other paths to reasoning blocked through funding: the arts, play and recess, ethics classes, social studies curriculum – all the usual gardens of creative thought. This was led by an almost quiet push from feds who alternately dangled money – or a six-tiered set of sanctions – for schools whose students were clearly “left behind” the exemplar model. Eventually, the word “critical” was scarcely found in the document, and when it appeared, suddenly just meant “important” and was primarily used to alarm parents (as in, “It is critical for your child” to know this or that.) For the still- disbelieving education professionals, the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) was implemented in New York and Washington, tying children’s scores on standardized tests directly to the evaluation and job security of teachers who sweated through days questioning their skill, intellect, training, and passion. The gaslighting had hit all stakeholders: administrators, teachers, parents, and students.

So now, seven years later, the dropout rate for boys has skyrocketed, along with caffeine and Adderall use in the kids who sleeplessly scratch their way to the impossible and imperfect ideal of perfection.  Teachers, whose jobs are inadvertently threatened by scores of children who need them the most,  scramble towards early retirement and young adults decide the hassle of being a teacher is not worth the scrutiny of constantly have to prove they are trained, they did their best, and that they are infallible. Teacher training programs no longer have the freedom to wait for growth, to teach towards ideals of freedom, equity, and social justice, to foster tolerance and critical thinking skills.  In fact, enrollment in teacher prep programs has fallen in such extremes as to result in the closing of programs and the shortage of teachers.

The dilemma for educators comes on the heels of the election of an American president who condemns public education as it is, yet uses gaslighting to convince us that it is okay to put the future of education in the hands of a Secretary of Education who has less experience with public schooling than a child who has completed kindergarten; certainly far less knowledge than the teacher who teaches kindergarten, or the students who bothered to enter a teacher-prep program under these circumstances. Worse than this lack of experience and knowledge of public education is the targeted attack on the little funding and civil protections children have been guaranteed through laws like the Elementary & Secondary Schools Education Act of 1965 or IDEA.  It may feel to many like the educational apocalypse. Are we crazy?  Didn’t we know how to teach kids? Didn’t our passion and training count for anything? Isn’t good teaching even more necessary now than ever? Don’t all kids deserve an excellent education?  Isn’t teaching an actual profession??? To combat the gaslighting which surely is meant to smother us, we must shine the light of truth of what has been, is, and should be. To borrow that which is often attributed to George Orwell, this may become our revolutionary act.


About the author:

Dr. Nancy Barno Reynolds is the Director of Inclusive Adolescence Education at Cazenovia College in Central New York. Her work on the use of critical literacies for transformative and democratic teaching has been presented at both international and national conferences. You can read more about her in About Us.

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