An Interview with Alan J. Singer: Educating for Understanding or Application?

Sep 4, 2013 by

CommonCore205x300Michael F. Shaughnessy

1) Professor Singer, you have just posted another criticism of Common Core- regarding the failure of Common Core to “Educate for Democracy”. What were the main points that you tried to make?

Something is missing in Common Core’s single-minded focus on skill acquisition, education for democracy, and this is a serious lapse. Democracy is hard to build as we are witnessing around the world. It requires a sense of shared community, respect for democratic values such as minority rights, concerns for the well-being of others, freedom of expression, and the right to be actively involved in the political process. It requires a sense of being part of an inclusive and diverse body politic, of citizenship. Democracy requires that Americans see themselves as citizens, not just consumers or employees. Common Core, by ignoring the fundamental values that make democracy possible, does education and the United States a tremendous disservice.

2) Some others have criticized Common Core for really not training students to educate for understanding- your thoughts?

The view of education promoted in Common Core is devoid of substance and disconnected from life in a democratic society. Common Core standards are supposed to “provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn” and be “relevant to the real world.” But “real world” expectations are defined as preparing students for “success in college and careers” and “to compete successfully in the global economy.” As best as I can ascertain, in the entire document, there is no real discussion of life in a democratic society and the role of education in promoting democratic processes and democratic values. I keep asking myself what a 21st century job look like. What are we supposed to be preparing students to do? No one wants to answer these questions.

3) Now taking it one step further- what about educating for application and evaluation?

Student scores plummeted dramatically on New York State math and reading tests administered last spring that are supposedly aligned with new national Common Core Standards. Statewide, only 31% of students passed the reading exam or the math exam. The previous school year, on a different series of tests, 55% of the state’s students were considered proficient in reading and 65% in math. In New York City, test scores fell in every school district, but were more pronounced in poorer communities. In nine New York City schools no students at all passed the math exams. as far as I can tell, these were poorly designed tests, a consistent problem with Pearson tests. New York State should demand its money back.

A well-designed test has a range of difficulty and starts with easier questions so students feel comfortable taking the test and do their best. As a result it produces a range of grades and gives teachers a sense of the level where individual students are performing. This test seemed to only have difficult questions so anxious students panicked and did poorly and teachers have no idea what they actually know.

4) When you discussed the failure to educate for democracy, were you referring to social change or civics education?

I mean both. I support the Deweyan idea of active learning. Students learn to be active citizens by being active citizens. They will learn civics by being involved in social change projects.

5) Now what about history—how much do students have to actually learn and remember about the history of this country?

I love history so my first answer is that I want them to share my love for the subject. Unfortunately some of the most important topics have been erased to sanitize the past. Few Americans know that northern industry and banks benefited from slavery and the slave trade, that it was a national institution. People seem to want to wish away injustices from the past as if they have no impact on the present and the future. The other reason to study history is because it requires you to collect and assemble pieces. At its core it promotes literacy and critical thinking.

6) It seems science and technology is being pushed or encouraged instead of writing, reading and spelling- or am I off on this?

I love science also, although I am a bit of a technosaurus. Students can learn the same approach to learning exploring biology and physics that they can gain studying history. Why not study both. The problem with mastering the latest technologies in school is that they are out-dated before you get to use them in the real world.

7) Now, let’s talk John Dewey and philosophy of education. If Dewey were alive today, what would he say about Common Core?

I can’t speak for Dewey, but as a Deweyan, I believe there is very little new in Common Core and the key to learning remained active experience not rote memorization, dissembled skills, and constant assessment.

8) Sadly, very few historians of education and philosophers of education have spoken about Common Core- in your experience and reading—who HAS spoken out and what have they had to say?

Diane Ravitch has been a leader in the campaign questioning Common Core. I strongly recommend teachers associated with Rethinking Schools and the Zinn Education Project. Academic historians should be more upset with Common Core than they are. The federal Teaching American History program has been defunded as attention has shifted to skills and assessment.

9) What have I neglected to ask?

Why are politicians including President Obama and business leaders such strong supporters of Common Core?

I think Deep Throat during the Watergate Scandal suggested an answer. “Follow the Money.”

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