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Archive for the tag “corporate reform”

A Christmas Story–of Sorts–for 2015

Last week our local newspaper headlined the story of an eight-year-old boy who collapsed in the breakfast line at a local school. When teachers went to his aid, they discovered he was covered with bruises and lacerations. Of course, CPS was called, and the story the boy told was beyond horrific. He reported that his father, angry with his absent mother, had taken out his belt and beat the boy mercilessly with the buckle end of it, sent him to bed without supper, then came back into the bedroom to beat him some more. The next morning, with the returned mother asleep in her bed, the boy awoke, got himself dressed, and went to school. Thankfully, by his collapsing in the cafeteria line, attention was drawn to this dreadful situation, the boy and his siblings were removed from the home, and the father is now in jail, where he clearly belongs.
That won’t be the end of it for this young boy. Even though he and his siblings may be in a safer place for the time being, he will carry the emotional scars of this traumatic event with him for the rest of his life. He will have to deal with the anguish of realizing that those who are supposed to care for him are the ones who hurt him. He must try to process how and why this happened without concluding that it was his fault. This child will need extensive psychotherapy to be able to come out on the other side of this a healthy and confident human being. Sadly, the chances of his having access to this kind of support are small, and the chances of his being returned to the same situation are high. But he will go to school and he will be expected to learn the same things and at the same rate as everyone else in his class, because those are the rules of school these days.

Yes, I sense your skepticism. You’re thinking, that’s terrible all right, but that’s just an isolated case. That’s not what it’s like for most students, certainly not the majority of students.
Yes, it is where I live.
When I moved to this community as a brand new, idealistic teacher educator eight years ago, I knew it was a rural area and I knew it was the lowest in the state economically. What I did not expect was the brutal nature of rural poverty. Early on I sat down with the principal of one of the primary schools. She shared with me how low the students in her building were academically. She took me to her “war room” where she and the teachers kept constant tabs on every student, using color codes on a large board to indicate where each student ranked at any given moment. Green was for students who were on track to succeed, yellow for students who were at risk of not being on track, and red was for students who were definitely not on track. As I surveyed the board, I saw many more yellow and red students than green. Then the principal explained that the reason these students were all so low had to do with their backgrounds. Not only were they poor, they came from homes steeped in alcohol, meth and other drugs, and domestic abuse of all sorts. Many students had an incarcerated parent or parents. Some were being raised by grandparents because the parents were strung out on meth. They had little stability in their lives and rarely was there anyone to read them a bedtime story before they went to sleep, often hungry.
I guess I looked at her, mouth open in disbelief. Finally, I said, “What you’re describing is an inner city school!”
“Yes,” she said. “There’s really very little difference. And that’s why we have to work so hard to help these kids get where they need to be to pass the tests [emphasis added]. And some of them are so far behind they may never catch up.”
I came away with a new understanding of the challenges teachers of poor students are facing in rural areas, which are really the same as teachers in urban areas. Teachers are being asked to make up for four to five years of cognitive, and usually also physical, neglect these children have endured during THE most formative period in their lives, and they must do it in a few hours of school five days a week for nine months out of the year for three to four years. It is simply an impossible task.
When I defended my dissertation, I quoted the research that says that, of all the influences in school, the teacher has the greatest impact on student learning. I still believe that is true, even though one of my committee members kept challenging me on it. Now I think I understand why. What I have come to see is that the impact of the teacher is often dulled by forces outside his or her control. Sometimes the tidal wave of external factors simply overwhelms all that a teacher can bring to the table.
Let’s suppose the boy in the opening scenario hadn’t collapsed in the breakfast line. Let’s suppose that the boy had enough stamina left to get his breakfast eaten and go on to class. Does anybody think he would have been ready to learn that day? Does anybody think he would have been able to focus on his school work? Is it just possible he might have been more focused on what might happen to him when he had to go home that afternoon? I think so, and given my conversation with the principal, I must assume that there are several other students much like him in the class he returns to. Their scars just aren’t as obvious.
But the policy makers, think-tankers, and legislators who create “rigorous standards” and high stakes tests designed to assess them tell us all of that is just an excuse. Students are just lazy and don’t want to do the hard work of learning. If teachers were good teachers, they claim, they would be able to overcome these kinds of distractions and get about the business of making sure this child, these children are ready to take the reading test at the end of third grade. This is insanity! We must stop setting up impossible standards that ALL students are required to meet because, purely and simply, ALL students can’t meet them, at least not on the arbitrary schedule that policy makers demand.
Under the passage of ESSA, the reauthorization of the federal education law, responsibility for standards and testing of those standards is being “returned” to the states. If that is so, the buck will stop with our state legislatures. They will lose the excuse of blaming the federal government for the disasters that their policies cause. However, as Joanne Yatvin points out, since the new bill is based on the same flawed theories of NCLB, convincing the states to move out of that “accountability” mindset will be a monumental challenge. The law still requires annual testing in third through eighth grades. But surely the legislatures can figure out ways to make these tests less damaging! Smart legislators should be able to come up with ways to support teachers in the overwhelming challenges they are facing with students such as I have described above, rather than simply demanding success and punishing failure. Carrots and sticks do not work, and research is full of evidence on that premise.
Yatvin fears “[w]e are not done with judging our students, teachers, and schools mainly by test scores, or believing that comparisons with other countries’ scores on international tests are meaningful.” She sees the only solution to be for “parents, teachers, and informed citizens to strengthen their efforts to support our public schools. We need to put pressure on state legislatures to use their funds and power to make intelligent decisions for our schools. If we are silent, thinking that all is well now that NCLB is dead, the future will be no better than the past.”

Parents, grandparents, teachers, VOTERS, it’s time to hold the legislators accountable. We must scream at the top of our lungs until we are heard. Recent statistics tell us that almost one-fourth of American children live in the kind of poverty I have been talking about! These children need nurture and support, not unreasonable pressure and demands that they accomplish what they are not emotionally, developmentally, or cognitively ready to do.
Let’s find a better way! There’s a bruised and broken eight-year-old in my town who needs it desperately. Yatvin’s words are ringing in my ears: “If we are silent…”


Head, Tail, or Middle? Does It Matter Anymore?

If worthless men sometimes are at the head of affairs, it is I believe because worthless men are at the tail end and the middle. – John Adams
So, is this where we are? When a school administrator can look a group of teachers in the eye and tell them their job is to collect data over teaching children, this is indeed where we are. Well, okay, what he actually said was that despite the fact that they were excellent teachers, they weren’t all teaching the same way. Because of that, data about their teaching couldn’t be collected. When a teacher in the audience countered with “My job is to teach children, not collect data,” the administrator’s response was “No!”
This then is the outcome of the intense pressure of “Test and Punish.” In the beginning, some of us really thought it was about the children–helping children who weren’t getting the help they needed get it. And maybe for some involved in developing it, it really was that. But somewhere along the way, the object became testing and data, so this is where we are. The small group of individuals spearheading this thrust are doing it for their own reasons, mostly money. I won’t rehearse here the well-documented litany of the various ways these people profit from testing your children over and over and over and over. I am focusing on how this thirst for data has permeated the administration of even the smallest school districts in our country. The event cited above occurred at a very rural school. Administrators like this one have swallowed hook, line, and sinker, the false mantra that data is the savior of our school systems. Either that, or they mouth it in for fear for their jobs. Teachers who know this is inherently wrong, look at each other as if to say, “Hear we go again–another education pendulum swing.” Unfortunately, this “pendulum” is not like all the others. This one is in the process of changing everything we know public education to be and everything it has been for most of our country’s history.

Sadly, the anticipated reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Act (ESSA) does not change any of this. If anything, it exacerbates it. This 1,061 page document which is being pushed through Congress without time for reasonable debate, leaves the “Test and Punish” System fully in place. It gives lip-service to state control of education, while giving the federal Secretary of Education essential veto power over how the states implement testing and accountability. States are still required to test 95% of their students, and the document leaves the issue of parental right of opt-out cloudy, and according to Mercedes Schneider, ripe for law suits. Some of the sections promote charters, while others smooth the way for future teachers to bypass traditional teacher education. In the end it is about continuing the standardization of children and their teachers and is designed, perhaps intentionally, to deepen the re-segregation of American schools. This is a bill that keeps corporate reform in place, despite a rising tide of evidence that the American people are done with it. How far will we allow it to go? HOW FAR WILL WE ALLOW IT TO GO?

Or was John Adams right?

A Perversion of Terms

A number of aspects of the corporate/bureaucratic reform movement make me angry, but among the most egregious is the deliberate attempt to pervert and twist the meaning of valid educational or other terms into something that is often the opposite of their true essence. I first became aware of this phenomenon when I began teaching pre-service elementary teachers in a state that had bought into DIBELS in wholesale fashion, but I have become aware of many others, and I will address several in this blog post. No doubt you can think of more.

Perversion #1: Fluency

In my course work to become a Master Reading Teacher, I learned about fluency. Fluency is a concept that identifies a good oral reader; a fluent reader reads at an appropriate speed using emphasis and expression that suggest the reader understands what he or she is reading. In fact, comprehension is one aspect of true fluency. Fluency was identified as one of the five critical concepts that readers must master and that teachers must teach to help their students become competent readers by the National Reading Panel. Then, along came DIBELS.

Since our newly minted teachers would be asked to administer this assessment in most schools they might be hired in, our teacher education department felt it was important to give them some experience in how this collection of assessments is administered, and in the process, make them aware of its shortcomings. Although I had heard about DIBELS, I had no experience with it, so I learned along with my students.

I learned that DIBELS assessments are composed of one-minute “probes” of minute skills related to reading (but in most cases, not actual reading), all of which were labeled as some kind of “fluency”–First Sound Fluency, Phoneme Segmentation Fluency, Nonsense Word Fluency, etc. None of these tests have the remotest connection to real fluency; yet by naming them with the word “fluency,” the idea is fostered that they must have something to do with the kind of fluency confirmed by the National Reading Panel. I have no idea what bureaucrat at the USDOE decided that DIBELS was exactly what was needed by schools who received Reading First Grants, but a huge percentage of the recipients of the RF grants adopted DIBELS as their screening tool. Of course there is much more to that story, but that’s for another post. What I do want to point out here is that the only aspect of fluency that DIBELS even tenuously incorporates is the idea of reading at a proper pace. However, because the tests are timed for one-minute, and smart children know they are being timed, they quickly catch on that what is important is speed, not accuracy, not expression, not even true understanding. Fluency has become “How fast can you say it?” and children become brilliant word callers with little or no comprehension. So, this perversion of a valid educational term has had and is having a negative impact on many students.

Perversion #2: Choice

Choice sounds like such a good thing, a really democratic thing. Making our own choices about how to live out our lives is at the heart of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. How can choice be bad? It’s bad when it isn’t really choice at all.

What Choice has come to mean in the current political dialogue is choice in name only. The idea is this: since public schools are failing (a contention thoroughly discredited by many experts), students who attend a school that they believe is not serving their needs may either receive money in the form of a voucher to pay tuition at a private school (which has its own problems in terms of the separation of church and state), OR they may attend a publicly supported charter school. These charter schools claim that they do a better job of reaching these underserved students, but the research casts serious doubt on these claims. In addition many of the charter schools are organized as non-profits, but then hire for-profit corporations to actually run the schools. Thus public money is moving to private coffers.

Moreover, these charter schools often limit the number and kind of students they will accept (that is they refuse to admit students on an IEP or English Language Learners), or they take the money for these students, then find reasons to drop them or expel them for behavior or lack of progress or whatever excuse they can find. These students are then “dumped” back into the public schools, which now have even less money to meet their needs. The students who perform well on tests are the ones who get to remain in the charters. The level of accountability for charter schools is rarely as high as for public schools. One of the results of this kind of choice then is even less opportunity for the most at-risk students and ultimately a wider achievement gap than ever. Not much real choice going on here. I’m not at all sure these are the facts that people think of when they adopt a pro-Choice stance. Thus Choice is a good candidate for the perversion label.

Perversion #3: Accountability

Accountability is the name given to the idea that a person is held “to account” for his or her performance regarding something that is a requirement. So an “accounting” means that an explanation must be given as to whether the performance is acceptable and why or why not. We hold people accountable who have agreed to meet the performance requirements, not those who have NOT agreed to meet them. With the case of children who are students in the classroom, because we have compulsory attendance laws, they have no choice in being in school; therefore, when we hold them “accountable” for their school work, we have to ask how much accountability we can justifiably expect. Beyond that concern, what should be our response to a student who is not “accountable”–punishment or support? Of course, we train our children to do as they are told and for good reason. But we also want to train them to think for themselves, evaluate situations with logic, and make their own decisions, a scenario that is somewhat at odds with training them to follow our rules and extremely difficult to assess with standardized tests, which have become the only measure of “accountability”.

With the development of the theories that ultimately led to the passage of No Child Left Behind, we saw the push for accountability initially focused on students. The implication of the legislation is that children are inherently lazy and will not achieve the levels of learning required without pressuring them to pass tests. Tests are not inherently bad, but the tests that NCLB gave us were high-stakes tests; if the students were not accountable (i.e., didn’t pass the tests at the required level), bad things could happen. Even that might be tolerable IF the tests actually accurately assessed the students’ learning; they do not. One test alone can never be a valid litmus test of the depth and/or breadth of a student’s body of knowledge or thinking on a topic.
NCLB required that all third graders in the nation be proficient in reading and math at grade level by 2014. It quickly became apparent even to the most optimistic that this goal was impossible, so the accountability piece was moved to rest on schools for not pushing the teachers hard enough to raise student test scores and then to the teachers themselves, lazy sloggers who lap at the public trough, and finally to the teachers colleges that did a shoddy job of preparing the teachers to raise student test scores. (It strikes me that when the buck has been passed that far, the only place left to pass it to is the education policy creators–oh, no, of course not! They can’t be held accountable for anything!)

Nevertheless, the result of adopting this stance is that accountability comes to mean a method for sorting good test takers from poor test takers and punishing the poor test takers and those who are responsible for their poor showing. Any reasonable person would have to agree that this is a perversion of real accountability.

Perversion #4: Rigor

Closely related to accountability, at least in the minds of some, is the idea of rigor. Rigor is defined in most dictionaries as making something extremely and unreasonably difficult. As NCLB morphed into Race to the Top and Common Core, we began to hear that standards needed to be rigorous, and the accompanying tests that assessed the students who were learning under those standards should be rigorous. Perhaps they meant “challenging,” but that is not the word they used. Again the implication is that students (and teachers and administrators) are simply not expecting enough of themselves; they are taking the easy way out; they are lazy. But is rigor really what we want for our students, our children? Do we want them pushed to and beyond their highest stress levels? In the past, rigor was a term used in very negative contexts, and it was not even an educational term–but it is now! The perversion-of-terms menace has struck again!

Perversion #5: Close Reading

Speaking of Common Core, the requirements of the English Language Arts portion of these standards have led to yet another perversion of a good educational concept. For decades reading experts have recommended a series of word attack strategies to help students identify unknown words. One of those strategies is the use of context clues, that is, using other words in the sentence or paragraph to deduce the meaning of an unknown word. This is a very basic form of close reading. Re-reading is another recommended procedure. Both of these concepts are inherent in close reading. The idea is to thoroughly read a passage to glean as much information from it as possible. The twist comes when Common Core advocates maintain that students should not use any other information outside of the specific words in the passage to build comprehension. This is in direct contradiction to years of research that show that it is important for a reader to activate and use prior or background knowledge that they may have about the topic in the passage to build a complete understanding of it. Limiting an interpretation to only the words in the passage can and will lead to misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Score one more for the reformers’ perversion machine.

Perversion #6: Personalized Learning

To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what personalized learning is supposed to mean. With my background in education, I interpret it to mean the following: a teacher very carefully presents material to be learned to a student at an appropriate rate using knowledge of his/her ability, level of prior knowledge, interest, and preferred engagement mode, and providing supports as needed (we call this scaffolding) to enable the student to eventually construct an understanding or complete a task on his/her own. This is the essence of differentiated instruction and is as old as the one-room schoolhouse. It is difficult to do in our current factory-model of schooling, but many good teachers accomplish it. I believe this is the model that the minds of most classically trained educators jump to when the term “personalized learning” is used.

Sadly that is not what the corporate reformers mean when they use the term. In their minds, personalized learning cannot happen without a computer of some sort, be it the traditional desk top model, a lap-top, or a tablet. It involves something called adaptive programing, in which the computer has algorithms built into its programing that evaluate the answers a child gives on certain questions, then make a determination (instantaneously) as to the next item to present. Some of these programs actually can use physical feedback from the child’s hand on the mouse, perhaps even eye movement tracked by the computer, to determine stress levels, and adjust the material presented accordingly. Sounds great, right? Not! No computer can understand a child at the level that his human teacher can. The computer has no way of assessing whether an incorrect answer was given because it is too hard for the student or because he was distracted by something going on in the classroom or something that happened at home the night before or whether he didn’t get breakfast this morning. Corporate reformers envision large classes of children working primarily on some type of computer without much interaction with teachers or peers, taught “personally” at their specific level by the computer. What is missing here is an understanding of how children really learn. Children learn through manipulation of physical objects (sorry, the mouse or a touch screen doesn’t count as manipulative) and interaction with knowledgable others, either adults or peers. They learn by being in their world, not passive observers of it.

Personalized learning as touted by the corporate reformers is really pretty scary. Imagine how much data the computer needs about a child to be able to respond in a logical way to him. Imagine where that data is stored and where it is going. Who creates the programs that teach the child? If you guessed Pearson, you are correct. Adaptive learning and “personalized learning” is the focus of their new business plan.

I have reviewed only six of the terms that have been perverted to support the corporate reform agenda. Perhaps you would like to comment and add some of your own. Feel free!

Some Belated Thanksgiving Thoughts

One of my special “thank-yous” this year has to be for my husband’s recovery from a heart attack and triple by-pass surgery in August. The heart attack was totally unexpected because he seemed very healthy except for some back problems and a few other minor complaints. Besides that, since he had a pacemaker put in several years ago, he has been under the care of a cardiologist who did regular exams including stress tests. He always passed with flying colors, and the doctor commented that he hoped he would be in as good a shape when he got to my husband’s age (72, in case you’re wondering). So it was quite a shock when the doctor came out of the heart cath lab on that August day to tell us that my husband was literally a ticking time bomb and needed immediate surgery.

I will be eternally grateful (1) that he survived the heart attack, (2) that we were in a place where the surgery could be done immediately, and (3) that his recovery has been truly remarkable in several ways. He was able to leave the hospital within six days after the surgery. He has quickly regained his strength, so much so that he did not have to miss his bear hunt this fall. He is doing any and everything he wants to do. The doctors told us to expect that in time, but I think the speed of his come-back is unusual, probably because he was basically in good shape–except for his heart–before the attack.

But I have noticed something else. Many of the things that were bothering him before the surgery no longer do. For example, he had complained for several years about acid reflux and doctors had prescribed various medications for it. Yet even with the medications, he still had frequent attacks. Since the surgery, no more acid reflux. I think this suggests that the “acid reflux” was really referred chest pain, but no doctor ever suggested that.

Another example was severe leg cramps. He woke up almost every night for years before the attack with cramps so bad he would have to get out of bed and stand and stretch the muscle to get relief. Various doctors suggested remedies–drink more water, take zinc tablets, etc. Nothing worked. The most recent doctor put him on valium, which seemed to provide some relief. And since the heart surgery? No leg cramps.

This got me thinking that quite probably many of the minor complaints he was experiencing may have actually been tied to the undetected heart problems. Yet no doctor put all the pieces together to zero in on the real issue. This certainly makes the argument for digitized and accessible health records seem more reasonable to me, although I also see the downside of that.

However, because it’s never very far from my mind, I began thinking how this idea of looking at the whole patient applies in education. Many educational folks have long called for teaching the whole child, but what is happening today at the behest of test-focused educrats and corporatistas is anything but teaching the whole child. These single-minded policymakers seem to feel that the prescription for what ails education is their test-and-punish accountability policies. If we just administer the prescription with more “rigor,” college and career ready students will automatically graduate from our schools at a 100% rate. Here’s a clue, policymakers–you’re not treating the whole child. As long as you ignore 75 to 80% of the factors that impact how well children can do in school, as long as you want to claim that students with special needs just need to be encouraged to work harder, as long as you blame teachers for the problems you yourself have created, you will at some point be confronted with “a heart attack.”

Perhaps it has already begun. This gives me hope–the dumping of Common Core in several states, the rise of parent activist groups all across the country connected by social media, the opt-out movement among both parents and teachers that is spreading like wildfire. Now even higher ed is beginning to wake up, jerked to attention by the new draft regulations to insert the DOE as the determiner of whether teacher education programs are effective, yet again based on students’ test scores. The next step is for all of these groups to recognize that they have a common enemy and actively and deliberately collaborate to be the educrats’ heart attack. They are the plaque in the arteries of corporate reform. They have already given them “chest pain;” they just need to keep up the pressure.

David and Goliath: An Oklahoma Story

  • An Analysis of the Defeat of Common Core in Oklahoma through Gladwell’s Lens
  • David and Goliath by Gebhard Fugel This past week I was invited to Oklahoma City to participate in a photo event marking the historic signing of HB3399, the bill that ended Common Core in Oklahoma. I’m not at all sure I belonged with the group in the photo, but I was pleased to represent my region of Oklahoma by participating. The effort for HB3399 was totally an ongoing grassroots marathon that for some began four to five years ago. I only became aware and took an active part over the last year, but this involvement has given me unique insight as to how the surprising upset was accomplished.

    In the beginning, overturning Common Core seemed like an impossible goal. By the time anyone really knew what was happening, the governor, the state superintendent of education, and the legislature had worked together to not just put Common Core “in place,” but to put it into law. By June of 2010, it had become the law of the land and virtually no teachers or parents had even heard of it. As some of us began to question it, as we dug into its history and background, we learned that Common Core was much bigger than Oklahoma; it was a national initiative to ensure that all American children learned exactly the same thing at the same time and were tested on their knowledge based on those standards with exactly the same tests, and the data from those test results would be accessible on a national level to third party vendors. We figured out that the impetus behind it all boiled down to a few individuals or groups with a lot of money who either thought they knew better than educators and parents how to run education, or who saw huge profits to be made in providing curriculum materials, computerized tests, and professional development for the “new, national” standards. It has become a fight of the “one-percenters,” the super-rich “philanthropists” with a business perspective and sometimes (oftentimes?) questionable motives, against disconnected, politically unsophisticated, and normally compliant parents and teachers.

    As the battle was playing to what we thought was its end, I happened to be reading Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (2013). I was intrigued by the correlation I noted between theories in this text and what was happening in Oklahoma. Perhaps it will be useful to review those correlations.

    Not Playing by the Rules

    At the beginning of the book, Gladwell introduces his premise using the familiar Biblical tale of David and Goliath, but he cautions that David’s victory over the giant warrior was not as straight forward as we usually think of it. It’s important to know, for example, that there were certain conventions of warfare that everyone was expected to follow; one of those conventions involved avoiding devastating and costly battles by agreeing to one-on-one contests. Each side pitted its best hand-to-hand fighter against that of the other side, winner take all. In the David and Goliath story, that’s just what the Philistines were trying to set up, but no Israelite was big enough to stand a chance against Goliath. When David rose to the challenge, everyone, including King Saul, expected him to fight a close, hand-to-hand encounter. David, however, knowing that was effectively suicidal, refused to follow the conventions. He elected to use his highly honed skills as a slinger against Goliath. Slingers comprised one of the three components of every ancient army, along with foot soldiers in heavy armor and archers who stayed behind the lines and did not need armor. Thus, when David approached him with no armor and no visible weapons, Goliath was perplexed, and only too late did he realize that David wasn’t following the “rules.”

    I see a clear correlation here to the story of the defeat of Common Core in Oklahoma. To begin with, the movement essentially started with a very small group of parents, some of them also teachers, who realized early on the standards themselves were not well written. Although there were some good parts to them, on the whole, they were not developmentally appropriate, especially at the lower grade levels, and they made assumptions about children and learning, even at higher grade levels, that were inaccurate. These individuals were led to do a great deal of research through which they began to see that the standards were only a part of a much bigger “initiative” promoted by the federal Department of Education to be “national” standards and funded by philanthropists with a decidedly “corporate reform” bent, and that the ultimate goal of these tightly connected “reformers” was data collection on both kids and their parents and the ultimate destruction of public education. They were determined to stop it, but what could such a small group do against such a huge and well-funded business-government coalition?

    They became “David” pacing back and forth at the top of the ridge surveying the valley below where the huge giant stood commanding the field of battle. For approximately three years, they researched, wrote, and talked to anyone who would listen–and there weren’t many who would. They were often ignored or dismissed. As they traveled from one corner of the state to the other at their own expense, giving presentations with PowerPoints displaying screenshots with documentation for their claims, a few people began to listen, especially parents whose children were now dealing with some of the disturbing curriculum being introduced as “Common Core-aligned.”

    Realizing that, since Common Core had been voted into law, repeal would have to come through the legislature, they began lobbying legislators to submit repeal bills. Although bills were submitted at each session, they never reached the floor, probably because of the influence of the minions of those who had pushed Common Core from outside the state in the first place, and because few legislators saw these new standards as significantly different from any other set of standards, for heaven’s sake! In 2011 and 2013, however, two representatives were given permission to hold a couple of interim studies on Common Core. At each of those studies, educators and parents testified, some angrily, some tearfully, as to numerous problems with Common Core and about the problems with testing that were already being experienced and would intensify as Common Core was fully implemented. I testified at one of these studies; unfortunately, only a handful of legislators actually showed up to hear our testimony.

    Traditional political wisdom would say that the cause was hopeless; there were too many people with too much money and power arrayed against us to achieve our goal. But those with the power didn’t count on the Mama Bears. By late fall 2013 into winter 2014, parent legislative action committees began to spring up all over Oklahoma. These groups were concerned and they were angry. Not only did they feel that Common Core was not appropriate for their children, they felt they were totally left out of the educational and political process. This was the point where “David” stopped following the conventions of how things get done in politics. The various parent groups set up Facebook pages and posted the research that they were doing that revealed the corrupt underbelly of the Common Core Initiative. These posts were shared and re-shared and re-re-shared. There were blogs and Twitter conversations to develop strategies and to keep one another informed. Connections were made with similar groups across the country; we learned we were not alone.

    It was determined that the only way to get the attention of the legislature was to bombard individual legislators with emails, letters, and phone calls, and the Mama Bears did it by the thousands, using social media to coordinate their efforts. In fact I read that, after the bill was passed and the governor was contemplating whether or not to sign it, she received over 20,000 emails and calls requesting her to sign. On at least two occasions, the call went out for parents and teachers to report to the Capitol en masse for a systematic lobbying effort, and hundreds showed up. That is the kind of grassroots demonstration that “Goliath” never expected. And Oklahoma is not the only place this kind of political activism among parents and teachers is being exercised. This is happening in many states across the country, and one by one, the dominos are falling.

    Giants Are Not Always What They Seem

    The second correlation with Gladwell’s rendition of the David and Goliath story has to do with the idea that Goliath’s greatest strength was actually his greatest weakness. According to Gladwell, researchers now believe that Goliath suffered from a malady known as acromegaly. This condition is brought about by a tumor that grows on the pituitary gland, which as you may recall, is the tiny gland in your head that controls growth. Acromegaly causes growth in height to continue well past the time it ceases in normal individuals, resulting in extreme height, sometimes eight feet or more. This certainly could explain Goliath’s reputation as a giant. However, most people with acromegaly also have very poor vision, including double vision, and the evidence in the Biblical text suggests this was true for Goliath. Thus, Goliath was unable to determine that David was not planning to follow the rules of hand-to-hand combat until he was well within range of his slingshot. As Gladwell says, “The powerful and the strong are not always what they seem” (p. 15). I think this is certainly true of the groups and individuals who developed and successfully (to a degree) promoted Common Core. For whatever reason, they believe that they and only they know exactly how to “fix” American education. This deep-seated hubris leads them to believe that the rest of the nation should be grateful for what they are doing and not question it. They believed they could pave the way for acceptance by the people by paying for it with their largess. They did not expect any significant opposition and did not plan for it. Thus, by the time it had developed, they had no response other than to continue to spout the unsupported and undocumented talking points they provided initially. In my opinion, the strength of their self-confidence in themselves and their money was their undoing, at least in Oklahoma.

    Gladwell points out that “underdog strategies are hard” (p. 32). When you are the underdog, the temptation is to use the expected familiar tactics. To develop new ones and to put your trust in them takes guts and determination and plain old consistent hard work. That certainly describes the work of the Mama Bears in Oklahoma in the years leading up to HB3399.

    The Theory of Desirable Difficulty

    Gladwell also discusses the theory of desirable difficulty. This theory proposes that, although discouraging difficulties in life, such as being born dyslexic or losing a parent at an early age, may result in some people accomplishing less than their potential, for others the very difficulties they experience have the effect of being the catalyst they require to succeed. One aspect of this is based on the Five Factor Personality Assessment; this measurement looks at where individuals fall on a continuum of five factors: neuroticism, extraversion, openness, conscientiousness, and agreeableness. One psychologist believes that innovators, people who think and act outside the box, tend to have a great deal of openness and conscientiousness; however, they surprisingly tend to be somewhat disagreeable, in the sense of being “willing to take social risks–to do things that others might disapprove of” (p. 117). In other words, the difficulties they have faced and survived may actually lead them to take the risks necessary to challenge the status quo.

    In relation to this theory, Gladwell also talks about the fear of fear being a major factor in not overcoming in desperate situations. When a person has been through “hell,” so to speak, and survived, he or she tends to lose the sense of fear. He or she is ready and willing to be “disagreeable,” if that’s what it takes to accomplish an important task.

    How does this theory explain the Oklahoma fight against Common Core? I can only speculate, since I do not have knowledge of the stories of thousands of teachers and parents who took an active role in this campaign; however, I have heard the stories of parents watching their children struggle with developmentally inappropriate school tasks and tests, and I have heard from teachers who are demoralized by the pinball machine of constant reforms and incessant testing and test prep, who are cheated of the opportunity to use their professional knowledge and decision making art and skill. I strongly suspect that many of these folks have moved beyond their fear of the consequences of speaking out and taking a public role in an attempt to regain their voices in the education of the children of this state. It may have been, like the snake in the beaker of water that doesn’t realize the temperature is being raised to the killing point, these folks might have consented uncomplaining, had the “reform” of Common Core been introduced in a way that gave them the appearance of having a voice in its adoption. As it was, the top-down, “we know best” attitude of the promoters and the immediate and devastating impact it had on children and teachers resulted in a level of “discouraging difficulty” like nothing they had yet experienced. At some point that “difficulty” reached a tipping point; there was no fear left; action was required no matter the risk. I do know that many of the anti-Common Core “operatives” became decidedly “disagreeable” in the view of a number of legislators and state officers; they simply would not go away.

    The Theories of the Limits of Power and the Inverted U Curve

    Another theory that Gladwell deals with in relation to battling giants is the theory of the limits of power. He explains the perspective developed by Nathan Leites and Charles Wolf of the RAND Corporation that became popular after World War II for dealing with insurrections. According to Leites and Wolf, people operate rationally on a cost/benefit basis; that is, if the cost is too great, behavior of an individual will change. They believed then that “influencing popular behavior requires neither sympathy or mysticism, but rather a better understanding of what costs and benefits the individual or the group is concerned with, and how they are calculated” (p. 202). In other words, if the rebels’ behavior doesn’t change, the cost to them is not severe enough. According to Gladwell, the IRA Insurrection in Northern Ireland and Viet Nam were both fought on exactly this premise. It didn’t work in both cases, or in many others. This theory has as its basis the idea that “the power of the state was without limits” (p. 217).

    Gladwell maintains that Leites and Wolf had it all wrong. Whereas Leites and Wolf said authority doesn’t need to worry about how those in their power felt and thought, Gladwell says it is absolutely imperative that authority figures care about the feelings of their “subjects” and communicate that to them.

    Gladwell also talks about something called the inverted U curve. The theory of this statistical curve is that making a change of any sort often follows a kind of upside down “U” trajectory. Initially there appears to be a quick and beneficial benefit or “rise” due to the change. At some point, however, the benefit from the “rise” flattens out; applying more of the change doesn’t get the same dramatic effect. Eventually, the benefit actually begins to fall; no matter how much more of the change you apply, the benefit becomes less and less. Gladwell applies this idea to the exercise of power, and comes to the conclusion that there are definite limits to power. He goes on to explain that when those in power do not take the feelings of the people into account, their power loses legitimacy in the eyes of the people. They no longer see any need to be loyal to that power. “The excessive use of force creates legitimacy problems, and force without legitimacy leads to defiance, not submission” (p.273).

    Let’s see how this theory applies to the repeal of Common Core in Oklahoma. Research has shown rather conclusively that there was a concerted effort on the part of several corporate reform entities aided and abetted by personnel in the U.S. Department of Education to bypass the democratic process to install the Common Core State Standards in every state before the public was aware of it, at which point, they believed it would be too late for the states to back out. As the realization of that slowly dawned on parents and teachers in Oklahoma, they began to feel that they had had no voice in what was happening to their schools and to their children. And as they realized the result of corporate reform, including Common Core, would lead to more and more standardized testing, and the data from their students would be shared inappropriately–all excessive uses of force–those pushing for Common Core began to lose legitimacy in their eyes. A strong opt-out movement sprang up in Oklahoma; many parents, including some 800 in the suburban community of Jenks, requested that their students not participate in field testing for the new tests. There was a marked rise in parents who began to homeschool their children in an attempt to avoid the impact of Common Core and other reforms. The development of the parent legislative action committees was in itself an act of defiance.

    To make matters worse, the state superintendent of education essentially turned a deaf ear to all requests by parents and schools to mute the impact of the reforms, including Common Core. Probably the straw that broke the camel’s back was her rigid insistence on the Reading Sufficiency Act (a major part of the corporate reform agenda) which required all third-graders unable to pass the third-grade Language Arts test (of which less than half was a true reading test) at the prescribed level, would be retained. The superintendent’s lack of compassion and understanding absolutely contributed to the decline in the sense of legitimacy of the state education agency. Not only were parents complaining loudly on social media and in other venues, many teachers and administrators across the state took to writing blogs, some anonymously, some not, and writing news releases to draw attention to their plight.

    I feel confident that this loss of legitimacy facilitated the “insurrection” against Common Core in Oklahoma. As I write this, the story is not done. After the governor signed the bill overwhelmingly passed by the legislature, a small group of teachers and parents and members of the governor-appointed school board filed suit in the Oklahoma Supreme Court to have portions of the bill declared unconstitutional. This appears to be a political game organized to deflect the heat from the governor and still keep Common Core. I don’t think the Mama Bears and the teachers are going to be fooled this time. They have lost all faith in the legitimacy of those currently in power in Oklahoma. If the Supreme Court tows the power line and declares the bill unconstitutional, I have no doubt there will be political repercussions in the months to come.

    I don’t propose that the theories that Gladwell spells out in David and Goliath explain everything about how Common Core was/is being defeated in Oklahoma, but I do believe much of what happened and is happening can be interpreted in light of these theories, and I believe we can benefit from understanding how these theories apply. Those who have fought this battle, however, should also consider them a warning. The inverted U curve can exert its power in unexpected ways; the strategies utilized against the pro-Common Core factors can simply lose their effect if they are overused. The inverted U suggests there is a limit to their effectiveness. It remains to be watchful and vigilant, something we haven’t been particularly good at in the past. I hope we are not destined to repeat this history. With knowledge and determination, we don’t have to be.

    Work Cited

    Gladwell, M. (2013). David and Goliath: Underdogs, misfits and the art of battling giants. New York: Little, Brown, and Company.

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