An Absence of Questions
Good afternoon Mr. Chairman and members of the committee. My name is Cindy McKee. I live in Savery, WY, where my husband Cody and I operate a cattle ranch. I am a former public school teacher and am the mother of two children, 10 and 9 years of age. Thank you for hearing my testimony today.
I am here to urge your support for HB97. Personally humbled and thoroughly anguished over what I’ve learned over the past 11 months or so about centrally planned education reform sweeping Wyoming and the country, I also am filled at this moment with a deep sense of relief and gratitude toward Almighty God. No matter the final outcome this month, this bill passed introduction, and has achieved for parents and other taxpayers what should have been constructed in 2009 when the catchy-sounding idea of Common Core was first brought back to Wyoming from places afar: A genuine forum to ask the right questions about the wisdom of a path we are considering.
As was the first Constitutional Convention, such a forum is messy, it’s arduous, even ugly at times, but it’s within this framework, right here, that the people are actually represented. I would submit that the entire process of this reform was carefully designed to avoid any real questions, and their absence is what allowed this initiative’s stealth. It was hoped that Americans, being so busy and all, and with their appetite for brief, simplistic, appealing-sounding talking points that employ soaring language and evasive reassurances, would accept these points as fact and repeat them without bothering with inquiry. Now that we are discussing why we may have need for an HB 97, we can finally ask them.
We are told: “These standards are research-based, rigorous, and will ensure college and career readiness”.
Well, let’s dig in. What is “research-based”? Wouldn’t that imply that these standards as a whole have been tested and proven themselves in a school somewhere? That we could actually demonstrate measurable student growth in a verifiable study conducted with a control group? But that research doesn’t exist – though loaded with promises, there is no evidence from anywhere that these standards deliver results. And for this we give up our sovereignty? Or are we actually talking about individual pieces of the standards having some grounding in research? In that case, couldn’t we also properly say that a new pain-relieving drug combining ibuprofen, morphine, and another untested chemical is research-based too?
Next, what exactly is “rigor”? It sounds self-explanatory, rather implies higher content goals and more challenging work as a result, does it not? Like, for example, mastering the times tables in second grade rather than third, or expanding the study of more challenging literature such as Shakespeare or Steinbeck. Is that how you would explain it to a constituent?
Welcome to one of the most misused terms of the century. If anything can be called “rigorous” about these utterly middle-range standards, it is the ceaseless demand for students to demonstrate heavily emphasized “strategies”, as exemplified clearly in the math standards, as they attempt to work their way toward mastering the actual content. Items are now scored not only by the correct numeric answer but by demonstration of being able to navigate the prescribed strategy, even when a standard algorithm is the quickest and most efficient way to get there. The time being wasted and the misery caused in getting students to wrap their heads around playing out all these “strategies” is sad to watch, and probably the primary reason 500 early childhood experts came together to condemn the Common Core as developmentally inappropriate.
Further, a disturbing move toward “informational texts” over classic, traditional literature has been telegraphed and already partly put into place, under the guise that these texts will better prepare students for college and workforce since most materials read there are informational. But where is the evidence that this practice actually leads to higher literacy and better prepares students for the world? The full case for the power in real literature and the abuse of power that can be exercised over a people by limiting exposure to it cannot possibly be made in my limited time, but let me make one point.
Does anyone here consider the Federalist Papers easy reading? I certainly don’t. Law students at prestigious colleges today struggle to read them and many professors don’t bother, but get this: The Federalist Papers were material for newspapers in 1787. They were aimed at the average reader. Today, editors must restrict the reading level of articles to about the 6th grade to keep papers selling. Now, what types of books were the people of this time primarily educated with that allowed them to reach this level of easily understanding complex informational text? That would be the Bible, a book mainly comprised of story and history, but also including some poetry, some law and theological letters, plus a widely used history text by Plutarch called Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, and classical Greek and Roman literature. I think we have reason to question the “informational text” craze, which often lands students in hopelessly boring, actually less challenging reading.
All right, now, exactly is meant by “career and college readiness”? And why are these lumped together? Are readiness for “career” and readiness for “college” really the same thing? If they are, then what’s a college for? Shouldn’t the college take care of the “career readiness” part? Well, you’re right now, not everyone’s going to college. But aren’t these really very different aims? Wouldn’t readying students for “career” in high school necessarily compromise true readiness for “college”? If so, wouldn’t that require some preplanning so students can focus on either “college” or “career” at some point in high school, or more efficiently, even earlier? Why not just pick out the “career” kids really early and focus their training? Can anyone see where this might be headed as “new evidence emerges” and future changes are deemed necessary to the Core? Who will decide?
And since when is “college and career readiness” the total sum of an education? Isn’t that really only a collateral purpose? Let’s compare this limited aim to outcomes stated in the Massachusetts School Law of 1789, around the same time average readers could easily digest the Federalist Papers and Greek and Roman literature. Teachers and instructors were directed to:
“…. impress on the minds of children and youth, committed to their care and instruction, the principles of piety, justice, and a sacred regard to truth, love to their country, humanity, and universal benevolence, sobriety, industry and frugality, chastity, moderation and temperance, and those other virtues which are the ornament of human society, and the basis upon which the Republican Constitution is structured. And it shall be the duty of such instructors, to endeavor to lead those under their care (as their ages and capacities will admit) into a particular understanding of the tendency of the before mentioned virtues, to preserve and perfect a Republican Constitution, and to secure the blessings of liberty, as well as to promote their future happiness; and the tendency of the opposite vices to slavery and ruin.”
These goals talk of shepherding and mentoring literate, virtuous, participating citizens who will actively guard liberty and eagerly pursue happiness. I can’t begin to think of students only as future workers, to be manipulated and cultivated like bacteria in a petri dish.
But this is a new age, reformers say. Those ideas are “outdated” and we must make students ready for a “21st Century Global Economy”. Wow. The very phrase implies that America being involved in a “global economy” is a something brand new and challenging. As if America had any history that did NOT involve trade and communications in a global economy. Common Core authors assure us that the Standards “lay out a vision of what it means to be a literate person in the 21st century” and the Standards ready students for a “technological society”. Well, now wait a minute. I grew up without a computer, internet, cell phone, digital photography, or an immersion blender, yet I use all of them well today. This is really shocking, but I actually taught school without a Smart board, though I’m not bad at using one now. Did I somehow lose my literacy because technology brought me new tools for communication and work? Isn’t literacy just…literacy? Do we really have to be an educrat to know the answer?
And…if the Common Core is only Standards, not curriculum, then why is it written as a set of goals with prescribed strategies intertwined? When we compare to other high-achieving countries or proven, successful standards, we don’t find that element. Aren’t standards supposed to be just goals, and the strategies come in as school districts select from various curricula and teachers select and employ the many methods they are trained in? Isn’t this just going to limit the variations that could appear in “Common Core Aligned Curriculum Materials?” And with teacher’s jobs and kids futures now so heavily linked to tests, we can safely assume, can’t we, that curriculum will quickly follow what is on these tests? That’s not choice or control.
I simply must challenge another vague but nice-sounding talking point here. Only Friday, the Casper-Star Tribune, in its reporting on HB97 passing introduction, faithfully reminded us that the “Common Core Standards were developed by a group of states”. In other words, they were “State-Led”. Newspapers repeat it. Educators repeat it. Legislators repeat it. Again, sounds good, easy to remember, the meaning is thoughtlessly assumed. But I ask you: What’s your definition of the “state”? Somehow, I managed to use my pre- “technological society” literacy to employ a 21st-century online version of a rather antiquated tool: the dictionary. A “state” is a nation or territory considered as an organized political community under one government. Now…what’s our form of government here? That would be a republic, by the people, for the people. Isn’t that kind of…the legislature? Who was here in 2009 or perhaps a little before? Which piece of legislation did you pass to authorize “leading” us into the CCSS initiative? Never mind, I already know.
Casper Star, like so many, never questioned the assurance they found in well planned, nationally circulated, robotically repeated talking points. But the newspaper’s statement could only be true if we buy the notion that that our Governor and our State Superintendent of Schools, and subsequently an unelected State Board of Education, can possibly be considered “the state”. Sounds like you all might just be out of a job. And if the people of the “states” that supposedly “led” this movement thought it was such a great idea, why does the federal government now have an RFP out for $5 million for a communications strategy to sell the populace on it?
We’re mincing words when we argue about whether this is a “federal” initiative or not. Anything the federal government enforces, by way of awarding or withholding taxpayer money, answers to the federal government and becomes subject to it. Actually, this is worse than a federal government initiative. Their “investment” enforces a privately developed reform, which was completed in secret where decision makers had to agree in writing to maintain confidentiality – no public documents, hearings, or minutes as would appear in an actual “state”. Does this reflect the way decisions are supposed to be made in a republic? Are we really supposed to trust in a process that does things this way?
On Wednesday, Representative Wilson argued on the floor of the house against this bill by stating that school districts don’t need chaos and instability. Who could not agree? What an utterly foolish decision by leaders to proceed this way, bypassing any kind of genuine process and putting teachers in this awful position. As a former teacher enduring change after change, I deeply and truly empathize. But the ultimate question is…what’s more important here? Moving on to quality standards with proven results, or preserving the comfort of educators by staying a course that is not only inferior, but cedes authority outside our state, making the problems difficult, if not later impossible, to rectify? Are we really proposing sacrificing our own children so we don’t upset the apple cart?
And speaking of teachers and school districts, here’s another set of zingers: At what point in this broken process were teachers ever exposed to an environment of discussing pros and cons of Common Core in an unbiased way? When did teachers ever get to engage the critical thinking skills we all say we want taught to our kids? Ask hard questions, like who is David Coleman and exactly what qualifies him to write ELA standards? Or any of the questions I’ve asked above?
The answer is, they never were. Like state leaders, they were only presented a sales pitch, theirs in the form of “inservice training” and worse, the sales pitch left no room for any kind of consumer decision. Teachers were never, not once, presented with potential pitfalls as well as potential advantages, and then asked, “Well, do you think this whole thing is a good idea?” I even count teachers on the standards review committee when I say this, because by the time the review process had begun in Wyoming for ELA and Math Standards in Wyoming, the Governor and State Superintendent had already committed us to the standards by an MOU, as had the school districts when they hastily signed upon the request of the WDE (in 4 days!) their own MOU to authorize the state to apply for RttT funds. RttT applications required a commitment to “Common Standards” (only one set out there, folks) to have any real chance of winning. What do you suppose all that said to the group of primarily teachers (who are employed by the state) in their “official” capacity of recommending standards for adoption? Weren’t those MOUs pretty much a mandate to the committee and the Board?
The broken process is still in force today. Remember, the Next Generation Science Standards have NOT been adopted in Wyoming, they are being considered. But somehow teachers know they are coming, even though public comment isn’t even on the schedule yet. Get this: the subject of a master’s thesis a teacher I very much respect is working on deals with how Common Core ELA standards can be effectively integrated into NGSS lessons in the elementary classroom. Now, how is it she feels utterly safe that she will not be wasting her time with this topic? Is THAT the way we do things here?
Representative Wilson also wondered “how many teachers were asked about this idea”, and that this bill’s posting date didn’t allow them time to respond to it. Well, after all this time and training, I would counter, how in the world are teachers supposed to respond? Haven’t they already been told, years ago now, before CCSS was even officially adopted, that this was coming, that it was fantabulous and it was time to get rolling on it? And isn’t it now their JOB to implement it? Even if they don’t have concerns that they are afraid to express, many are too invested in it now to want to stop. Who can blame them?
This is why we need HB 97. It gives us a chance at a real process to improve educational standards in Wyoming, one that genuinely involves the public rather than a meaningless public comment period never shown to have any effect at the very end of the process. HB 97 limits data collection to only that which is necessary, puts penalties in place for unauthorized sharing and goes a long way in limiting how it may be shared legally. HB 97 gets Wyoming its control back over education and puts us on a path for real, measurable educational improvement rather than empty promises accompanied by federal “encouragements” that bind our hands. Most of all, HB 97 will give us a chance to put the inquiry, the critical thinking, the questions, and the elements of a republic back into educational decision making, not only for teachers but for the taxpayers and parents of these precious children in school.