Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Thinking about Critical Thinking, Common Core and Vergara

Recent headlines have me thinking about critical thinking.

House Speaker John Boehner Wants to Sue the President
Sarah Palin Says, “Impeach the President.”
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan Praises the Vergara Decision

Reading some of these pronouncements makes me think that the Common Core’s call for instruction in critical thinking has come not a moment too soon. It is probably too late for Boehner, Palin and Duncan, but maybe the future political leaders sitting in Common Cored classrooms today can be saved. Or maybe not.

Here is what the Common Core says about critical thinking:

·         Students are engaged and open-minded—but discerning—readers and listeners. They work diligently to understand precisely what an author or speaker is saying, but they also question an author’s or speaker’s assumptions and premises and assess the veracity of claims and the soundness of reasoning.

·         Students cite specific evidence when offering an oral or written interpretation of a text. They use relevant evidence when supporting their own points in writing and speaking, making their reasoning clear to the reader or listener, and they constructively evaluate others’ use of evidence.

Is it just me, or does this sound not very revolutionary to you, too? I started teaching in 1969. From day one I was asking my students to challenge the veracity of what they were reading, to cite information from the text to support their arguments, and to write and speak clearly about their opinions. I don’t buy the premise that schooling before the Common Core was all about rote learning and yet that is what I hear over and over from Common Core defenders.

I do know this; rote learning was discredited in my undergraduate education (1965-69) and was consistently discredited as a practice through my years as a teacher of social studies, through my graduate work, as a reading specialist and as an instructional supervisor. When I was supervising instruction, I observed hundreds of lessons. Very few of these lessons focused on rote learning for its own sake. When they did, teachers were informed about it and provided guidance on moving the lesson to a higher level of thinking for the children.

As I think critically about the Common Core and its “chief architects”, the Gates Foundation and Student Achievement Partners (David Coleman, Jason Zimba, Susan Pimentel,, I have to wonder how good they are as critical thinkers, too. I wonder what level of critical thinking led them to believe that a group of people who had never taught could get together with a group of representatives of testing companies and write standards that would be embraced by the teaching community. Not to nit-pick, but if I were writing standards for teachers to implement, my own critical analysis would have led me to believe that I should integrate actual classroom teachers in the process from the beginning.

Secondly, what critical thinking process allowed these “architects” to believe that the standards would absolutely work to improve education without any field testing? If David Coleman, as he avows, values evidence so much, why would he and his colleagues rush the Common Core into schools with absolutely no evidence that they will work? What, by the way, is the evidence that top-down standards have ever worked to improve teaching and learning?

And finally there is the coup de grace of failed critical thinking. How are we to measure student critical thinking ability? Why, of course, on a standardized test. Nothing says commitment to the high minded concept of teaching children to be open-minded, engaged readers and listeners capable of clear reasoning than asking them to fill in the bubbles on a multiple choice answer sheet. I wonder if the “architects” critical thinking may have been clouded by having so many representatives of test companies at the table.

But let us not be too harsh on David Coleman and his group of clueless standardnistas; they don’t have many great role models. Secretary Duncan’s immediate and full-throated support of the Vergara decision striking down teacher job protections defies all common sense, let alone critical thinking. Let me see if I can get into Arne’s head on this one. Might this have been his thought process? 

“Let me see, I am the national spokesperson for educational policy. School children are my most critical constituency. The most important in school factor influencing children’s learning is the classroom teacher. What I need to do is come out lauding an arbitrary decision made on a purely ideological basis by a biased judge that undermines teachers' ability to do their jobs. Yes, that is the right route to take! That will lead to improved learning for those children. Nothing makes a person a better custodian of children’s learning than fear of losing their jobs.”

So here is a discussion starter question for those of you who teach Civics or Problems of Democracy or Critical Reading: Boehner, Palin, Coleman, Duncan: Just what the hell were they thinking?