Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A Perfect Mesh of Common Core Curriculum and New Technology in the Classroom

A Greek temple of knowledge!
Somehow Socrates, Plato and Aristotle managed without Common Core.

We visit a typical American classroom in the not too distant future:

April 1, 2025:  Two highly paid consultants, one from Wireless Generation, a leading company in the sale of education software, the other from Pearson, a major player in the testing industry, are seated in the back of John Galt’s seventh grade American history class. Neither consultant has ever taught. Yet they are here to assess how new technology, guaranteed to boost standardized test scores and company profits, is functioning. Did we just say, “Boost test scores and company profits?”

We meant: “To enhance true learning.”

Several surveillance cameras, all set to follow Galt’s every move, are running in the room. This is part of the push to improve schools by holding teachers totally accountable. Because, let’s face it. The only person who matters in the room is the teacher.

That’s what school reformers like to say.

In this class every child has a computer—purchased from Amplify, a division of Wireless Generation. (Corporate motto: No Dollar Left Behind.) Galt and his students are hooked to a series of electrodes. Today, the class is trying to hold a discussion about the battle for women’s rights in the 1800s.

“Mr. Galt,” a student named Dagney inquires, “I’ve been wondering. Who were the leaders in the fight for equality?”

“One would be Susan B. Anthony,” Galt responds gingerly. He consults his computer to be sure Anthony is specifically mentioned in the Common Core Curriculum. She is. “Susan B. Anthony may be on the standardized test,” Galt says. “The other leader, who will not be on the test, would be Eliz…”

Before he can finish his sentence the electrodes attached to his scalp deliver a powerful shock. The smell of singed hair fills the room.

(He was going to say: Elizabeth Cady Stanton.)

Every student receives a flashing red warning on their screen:  DANGER! MATERIAL NOT INCLUDED ON STANDARDIZED TEST! DANGER!

A voice similar to HAL, the deranged computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, delivers the message verbally, as well.

Joaquin, seated in the desk closest to the door waits for Galt to recover. He raises a hand to add to the discussion. “I can’t understand why women weren’t granted equal rights when the U. S. Constitution was first written. My grandmother told...”

The poor boy should have known better!

A loud buzzing noise, followed by Joaquin’s spastic jerking, and another computer warning, teaches Joaquin and all his curious classmates an important lesson. If it can’t be tested…it isn’t education.

Carolyn wants to know:  “What year did women finally win the right to vote?”

ZAPPPPPP. Another shock for a foolish student. Again, computers flash the warning:  DANGER! MATERIAL NOT INCLUDED ON STANDARDIZED TEST! DANGER!

Galt wants to answer. He wants to say “1920,” and note that his mother was in kindergarten by the time men got around to deciding that women were capable of voting. He wants to say to the girls in the room, “Just think. In all the long centuries of human history the dumbest man walking the face of the earth had more rights than any woman.” Galt used to use this line—before Common Core—and remembers how it always riled up the ladies and got them interested. But now he knows if it’s not on the test, it doesn’t matter. Considering that Ohio enacted laws in 2013 to tie teacher pay to test scores, maybe it’s for the best. Still, he’s a professional. He wants his kids to learn.

“It wasn’t just women who couldn’t vote,” he says. “Poor white men.…”

That’s as far as he gets. Another shock is administered and Galt jumps where he stands like a fish on an electrified line.

He’s a stubborn man where learning is involved. He tries again, disguising his reply: “No vote. Pale skin. Poor…” ZAPPPPPP. The computer gets wise to what he’s up to and delivers a jolt.

The consultant from Pearson makes a note: “May need to increase voltage.”

Perhaps in his confusion, Galt forgets where he is—in a modern U. S. classroom—with all the reforms of recent years welded firmly into place. He forgets he’s expected to follow what is virtually a script. He is going to tell students that in the summer of 1964, Congress debated a massive civil rights bill designed to guarantee equal treatment to people of all races, religions, and ethnic backgrounds. He is going to explain that Representative Howard W. Smith from Virginia stepped forward to block the legislation. Smith feared a world in which blacks might win equal rights. (Galt is also thinking he may bring up the Loring v. Virginia case, which overturned state laws against interracial marriage three years later.) So Smith devised a clever ruse to derail the bill. He suggested on the floor of the House that the word “sex” be added to the bill.

Surely, he imagined, no sane person could vote for a bill which granted equal rights to blacks and women! 

Galt is going to tell this story because he thinks it reveals the ludicrous nature of prejudice in all its forms. He tries to get it out by talking fast—telling the story at preternatural speed—and the cameras and electrodes and the computer are baffled for precious seconds. He gets in “summer of 1964” and “Howard W. Smith” but when he mentions the word “sex” the system catches up and gives him a mighty shock.

When the smoke round his head clears Galt sees a brave seventh grader in the front row put up a hand. The boy wants to ask a question about gay marriage and discrimination. But he decides it’s not worth the risk and lowers his hand.

Galt tells the class he needs to sit. You know: recover his wits. He consults his materials, prepared over the course of forty-five years in the classroom, and tries to figure out what he’s allowed to cover. He has a lengthy reading prepared on the fight for women’s rights—but realizes that on a standardized test there won’t be more than a single question on this topic. Should he include extra material? If his classes learn—but what they learn isn’t tested—does that count as learning?

If someone asks a question in the forest and the tree falls on his head and no one hears the answer does it matter?

Isn’t that how the riddle goes?

Maybe there’s still some way to slip this reading past the Common Core censors. He knows, over the years, that students have always found it interesting.

It reads in part:

The ideal woman [in the 1800s] was a wife and mother. And wives must be content within this sphere. One expert on women—a man, by chance—argued that bed-making was “good exercise.” He continued:  “There is more to be learned about pouring out tea and coffee than most young ladies are willing to believe.”

“A woman is a nobody,” one newspaper commented. “A wife is everything.”  

The handout Galt has always used continues in that vein for ten pages. One writer compares men to elm trees and women to ivy vines. They need a man to lean on for support. The husband controls all property, including his wife’s paycheck (if any). Judges uphold the right of husbands to beat their wives for nagging.

A Massachusetts judge does order a husband not use a stick any bigger around than his thumb!

At this point—in an era before standardized everything, standardized tests, standardized texts, standardized humanity—Galt would have illustrated the point by picking up his pointer and whipping it through the air. The “whooshing” noise would make it clear how much damage a rod of similar thickness might do.

Now, Galt knows better. Too much depth. Depth has nothing to do with Common Core Curriculum. Depth of knowledge can’t be tested.

He remembers how he used to tell classes about the writer in 1850, who compared men to elm trees and women to ivy vines, in need of a man to lean on for support. Without a man the woman was doomed to fall in the dust.

The girls who played sports always laughed at that story…but again, it’s not going to be on any Pearson test.

No sense telling it now.

Then Galt thinks about all the damage fools who claim to be fixing education do and it makes him angry to the core. (Irony intended.) Like all good teachers, he has dedicated himself to imparting all the knowledge as can. He is determined to broaden today’s discussion. He will tell his classes how it was for women in this country even in the 1960s and 70s. He will explain how his old high school tried to start a girl’s track team in 1967, and how everyone thought the idea was absurd. Only two girls showed up for tryouts. Galt will emphasize how much attitudes—what we think we can do and what we think we cannot do—shape lives. He believes this is a lesson he can impart to students. He feels it in his bones.

He feels the lesson matters.

They will discuss the idea that women were once considered too delicate to run long distances. He will throw out the example of Paula Radcliffe, who set the record for women in 2003, running the London Marathon in 2 hours and 15 minutes, a pace of 5:09 per mile. He will circle back again to the idea that women are weak like ivy vines.

He thinks he can plant a seed, hint to all the girls that they should take on any challenge…and Galt will make it clear the same attitude equally applies to boys.

“When I was in high school,” he begins.


“They said girls were too weak.…”


“Paula Radcliffe.…”



By now Galt is prone on the floor. He looks bad. He raises his head slightly and gasps. “Women…not…ivy vines.…”


The consultants shoot each other knowing looks. The Pearson rep makes a note to include one question on the standardized test about Susan B. Anthony. After all, you want the tests to align with the Common Core Curriculum.

Oh hell, who cares! Pearson is making hundreds of millions of dollars annually designing more and more standardized tests.

The consultant from Amplify is happy, too. Galt is out cold. Now the kids have no choice but to rely on their computers for some warm student-machine interaction.

It’s U. S. education for the future.

Somehow this image seems more fitting when we talk about
school reform today.