Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Wishful Thinking and Misdirection: Indiana Common Core Advertisements

It has been an interesting Spring in Indiana. Usually, once election season dies down, I struggle to find good cannon fodder for my #digcit class to rip into outside of the school newspaper... Not so this spring.
The Indiana legislature is considering a bill that seeks to "press the pause button" on the Common Core State Standards. Watching the TV on the morning news, one would wonder why they would do this. A flood of commercials from two or three affiliates of national interest groups (and their deep-pocketed book publishing sponsors) have hit the airwaves demonizing anyone who would question the gospel of the common core.
As with most politically motivated ads, there is a ton of bad logic just waiting for a dissection. I am hoping to post a link to my favorite commercial soon, but two claims that are made are worth some preliminary analysis:
Claim #1:
Bad workforce readiness, the need for remedial education prior to college, and the popularity of reality TV are all a result of poor state standards in Indiana.
Ok, to be fair, I made one of those up.

The commercial does imply a causal link between the outgoing Indiana State Standards and the other two bad outcomes. It doesn't present any evidence or resources that this is the case. It doesn’t even show a statistical relationship between standards and outcomes (correlation). While flipping through my handy chart of logical fallacies, there are a lot of things that are close, but this may just be a case of WISHFUL THINKING.

Wishful thinking (which does fall under the category of "Appeal to Emotion"), is where we make decisions based on what is pleasing to imagine, rather than by evidence or reason (thanks, Wikipedia). It is nice to believe that simply adopting a common set of items to memorize, concepts to learn, and skill sets to practice will solve all of our educational problems. Imagine a world where we adopt the standards, implement a little professional development and *POOF* test scores increase (don’t laugh too hard, I have #edtech mailings promising that). The implication in the commercial is that the only reason why we have not had decent international test scores is that we were teaching Polar Coordinates while the rest of the world was using the much more advance Euclidean Geometry!
It's not that simple.

Think of the complexity between these allegedly "bad standards" and a student, ready for college. There are teachers and their lessons (this is the whipping-person of choice for the union-busting #edreform movement). Student motivation and even attention can be impacted by poverty (one of the factors that actually has some correlating research). The international tests could ask questions that are unrelated to what is being taught (or even what is in the standards themselves).
Standards are a starting link in a very long, complicated chain that is modern education. To imply this level of direct causation is insulting to parents, students, legislators and teachers...It also assumes that the standards are actually better.

Claim #2:
The Common Core State Standards are Better than the Current Indiana Standards

In order to believe that the Common Core has magical curative effects on education, the CCSS should be better than the current Indiana standards. Certainly the commercial implies this.

(Note: A more complicated argument would have been that there is a benefit to standards crossing state borders which is over and above the quality of the standards themselves. A ridiculous argument would claim that all of the for-profit companies making a mint from a market expansion coupled with a reduced need for product variety will happily reinvest those profits to hire back veteran teachers or bring back libraries and extra-curriculars -- it is more likely that they would just make some more Youtube videos)

But, and this is important, they are not better.

The Fordham Institute conducted a comparative analysis of English and Mathematics standards between the two. The "old standards" score a 7/7 for content and rigor in both categories. Regarding English, they pointed out that Indiana standards were "clearer, more thorough, and easier to read", a significant detail when creating a document that will be translated into student learning objectives and assessment items. The Institute's blog puts it bluntly:
"There’s no doubt that Indiana, all by itself, had devised some of the best English (and math) standards in the land; indeed, drafters of the Common Core would have done well to plagiarize even more of the Hoosier State’s fine work." - Chester E. Finn, Fordham Institute*
It is easy to visualize that in the creation of across-the-board standards, some states will improve and some (like Indiana, Massachusetts, and California) will stay the same or take a step backwards. The commercial uses its thirty seconds of airtime to hammer at the idea that the Indiana standards were bad and that it was this "badness" that caused the problems we now face. While that is a much simpler stance to take, it is wrong.
  • It is wrong to create commercials that draw false causality and overly simplify complicated matters
  • It is wrong to treat education as a political football while accusing others of doing the same.
  • It is wrong to feed vague logical fallacies to parents and voters without disclosing information that would help understand the issues at stake better.
Ultimately, whether Indiana adopts the Common Core State Standards or sticks with the Indiana State Standards that were significantly revised in the last decade (yes, the current standards have not even made it through a single K-12 cycle), the state will have independently validated "good" standards. 

But it is important for parents, and voters, and legislators to understand that this is a much more complicated issue than that which is being framed in the public discourse. There are a lot of players with deep pockets who are not completely altruistic in their desire to improve the United States education system. 
  • We need to take a moment to understand the issues.
  • We need to reflect on the complex connections at play between corporations, State Education Boards, Schools, and classrooms.
  • We need to press pause, because the Common Core is only one piece of a much larger puzzle.

Up Next: Putting the Brakes on Innovation - What we know about the PARCC Assessment

* A few notes about the Fordham Institute's analysis: First, they do note that there was room for improvement in both the English and especially the Mathematics standards from Indiana. This fact is referred to on the stand.org's "Myths vs. Facts" website. Corresponding improvements that could be made to strengthen the common core are ignored by that same site. (this website also has an OUTRAGEOUS "but you didn't answer the question" dodge in its Myth #2. Classic Straw Man).  
* Second, not to misrepresent their stance, the Fordham Institute is an advocate of the common core and praises Indiana's adoption of it. The Institute does not claim, as the commercials do, that Indiana's standards were the cause of the Hoosier state's educational ills. They assert among other things that there are benefits in comparing performance across state lines and that there is a huge potential cost saving for all of those poor impoverished publishers and test-makers.