Thursday, May 8, 2014

Louis C.K. Hurt My Feelings

Louis C.K. hates the Common Core standards.
I first saw it here, on the HuffPo, from David Letterman. Later, a friend/colleague (I don't name her only because she is in the business, too, and I don't want to get her in trouble) sent me a message to make sure I saw it--thanks for keeping me in the loop.

Toward the interest of full disclosure, I have to say I’ve always had a little crush on Louis C.K.
Why, you may ask?
You may ask this because you’re thinking of the fictional-but-based-on-real-Louis and the elevator fantasy scene or fictional-but-based-on-real-Louis passed out and surrounded by empty pizza boxes and ice cream containers or fictional-but-based-on-real-Louis being rejected by a woman because she witnessed him shrinking from confrontation with a high school bully.
Why do I have a crush on Louis C.K.?
Oh, let me count the ways: for the pure and sheer humanity and vulnerability that he just goes ahead and expresses, seemingly without any filter, and most of all, for the breathtaking courage it must take for him to expose his humanity and vulnerability to the world. He’s willing to be naked, figuratively and literally, when most of us are frantically swaddling ourselves with ego padding, trying to keep our humanity and vulnerability zipped up, buckled tight, under wraps, armored up. We post only flattering glamorous pictures online, nothing that makes us look dumpy or frumpy or dorky, even though surely all of us spend more time being dumpy, frumpy, or dorky than we do being smooth and suave and glamorous and elegant and unruffled. 
Unless we’re, you know, Kimye.
(That picture on my blog? Taken three years ago. I've aged. I hate having pictures taken of myself and probably won't update it until I'm seventy.)
Besides, I hail from the working class, as does Louis C.K.,and so I applaud and cheer preach it, brother! whenever he criticizes entitlement or laziness or ingratitude.

All right, so we have this comedian who is a father--a good father, if by “good,” we mean someone who engages in thought about parenting and participates in his kids’ lives, which is all fantastic, and those of us who didn’t have fathers like that think he is really amazing for being that kind of father, and probably those of us who did have fathers like that feel a bit of fondness for him because this is familiar territory--who pays attention to his daughters and their inner lives and who worries when his daughters suffer, and so when his daughters, upon encountering mandatory statewide standardized testing, feel anxious, Louis C.K. has something to say about itSomething really not flattering to the people who write the tests. Something really not flattering to me.

In the spirit of respectful discourse and intellectual debate, I’d like to address these points:

1. Who writes these tests?
I do. Not the bad ones--unless instructed by a client to write badly, and sometimes that do happen, much to my chagrin--and only English language arts. Someone else is to blame for math, science, and social studies. Not my areas.
You could talk to my friend Scott about math or my colleague Jim about science, I guess, but they don't write bad tests, either.
There are lots of bad tests, yes. It's a systemic problem. More on that.

2. Why do I do this horrible, horrible thing?
To earn a living and support my two children.

3. What are my qualifications?
I have a bachelor’s degree in literature from the University of California at Santa Barbara, a master’s degree in English with an emphasis on writing from Sonoma State University, almost two years community college teaching experience, twenty years experience in educational publishing, and five years elementary classroom volunteer experience, as well as other miscellaneous tutoring experience from college and grad school. Also I was a TA in grad school, for the creative writing class, oh God, was that awful, all those stories about cats and sexual abuse and suicide mixed with the occasional fantasy of being a wealthy celebrity writer driving a red Corvette, clearly no student in that class had ever read a word written by any writer other than their favorite writers: themselves. In addition, I’ve put in many, many hours of study--in education, in reading and language acquisition and of literature and literary criticism, and especially in assessment, and even more especially in the writing of test questions.

4. What’s with the Common Core?
It’s a good idea to have national standards. Other countries do, and that’s how they make sure that all the kids in the country are learning the same things at the same pacing. It’s a good idea to consider career- and college readiness, and how to make that happen, particularly when kids in the United States are undereducated to a degree that must make us the laughingstock of industrialized nations. Finland and South Korea especially must snigger at our national ignorance and celebration thereof--is there any country in the world that makes a point of being so dang proud of being stupid? I ask you.

5. Why do people hate the Common Core so very much?
People fear change. People hate what they fear. No one understands what the Common Core standards are, or what the shift means, or that it's really a good thing that kids in Alabama learn the same things as kids in Connecticut. There’s too much hype and not enough real education about the standards and their purpose. Teachers are scared because tests are being used for wrongful purposes (never a good idea to link teacher pay to test scores), and scared teachers are scaring the kids.

6. What is Louis C.K. really upset about?
Like any caring parent, he’s upset that his daughters are upset.
He doesn’t know enough about the Common Core to be upset about them.
That’s not his fault; it’s the fault of the top-secret test publishing industry that keeps all information under lock and key, supposedly to preserve confidentiality, but, really? Wouldn’t it be smarter to explain what’s happening and why? No. Because then they would have to explain everything else, like the billions of dollars spent on testing and how little of it changes anything really, and also how little of it trickles down to the people who are doing the actual work which means that the majority of content developers (not me, I'm the exception, this is my career) are inexperienced hobbyists or inexperienced part-time teachers or hustlers who think they're getting away with something by getting paid to do something they don't know anything about and how much of the big money in testing gets bottlenecked up at the executive and shareholder level.

7. What should Louis C.K. really be upset about?
Capitalism. The one percent. The war on poor people instead of a war on poverty. The state of education in the United States. Dogs that need rescue at animal shelters.
What’s so unfortunate here is that Louis C.K. is someone who’s got a public forum--people (including me) listen to him, laugh at his jokes, care about his opinions. He has an opportunity to make people think (at least a little) and that would be a really great thing if--and I don’t at all intend this as a snarky sarcastic dig--he knew what he was talking about. I'm sure there are a gazillion things he knows plenty about, but the Common Core standards are not on that list. Really, do you think he has even read them? I mean no offense, but I would be surprised by an affirmative.
There are so many things that are terribly wrong in education in general and in educational assessment in particular, but from my perspective--as someone who does know what she’s talking about here--the Common Core is a paper dragon. Let’s talk instead about the corporatization of education.
How about that fewer than half a dozen test publishing companies rule assessment, and the king is Pearson? (Which company is now involved in a controversy over the award of the PARCC assessments as the result of a lawsuit filed by AIR.)
How about that the people who are actually doing the work are paid woefully inadequately (Hello? My yearly income today is the same as it was twelve years ago when I started my business, but guess what, inflation--can you see why this is a problem?) while the companies continue to earn profits that are obscene in comparison?

Let’s take me, partly because I am monumentally self-absorbed, but also because my experience is what I know. I do know many other people in this line of work, but very few have the depth and breadth of experience that I have in educational assessment: I’ve worked in hand-scoring, program management, content development from the ground up (item writer to editor to supervisor to manager to director and back to item writer and editor). I’ve worked directly with state department of education officials. For seven years, I had an annual contract with Miami-Dade County Public Schools, one of the largest districts in the country, a district that has more students than some states.

For the last twelve years, I have concentrated mainly (with some side jobs involving higher level consulting of test design and product research) on the hands-on work of content development: writing and editing material (reading passages and questions) for tests. That is unheard of. In this industry, as soon as anyone shows a spark of initiative, and especially if that initiative is accompanied by a pebble of intelligence, that person gets promoted. Anyone else with twenty years' experience has been in management for at least ten of those years, and management is not the same as actually doing the work, as any line cook at KFC could tell you.

I mean no arrogance when I say that I’m the perfect person to write tests, considering the combination of education, experience, and dedication--because I care about what I do, quality matters to me, the kids matter to me--when I write reading passages and test questions, I’m thinking about the experience of the kids who are going to take the test just as much as I’m thinking about my paycheck. Maybe more.
Not that I don’t think about my paycheck. I do. I have to. I’m a single mother with two kids.
Thinking about those kids who take these tests breaks my heart. Not so much kids like my daughters and Louis C.K.’s daughters--these girls are all going to be fine. They have parents who love them, ready access to books, music, art, libraries, documentaries on penguins and whales and volcanoes and subscriptions to the National Geographic and visits to the Smithsonian. Their parents talk to them all the time (maybe too much, in my case; Louis C.K. is probably a lot more interesting and a lot less pedantic when he talks to his daughters) and are willing to listen and answer questions and explain all about why everything in the world is the way it is. We the parents will support our daughters, consider their happiness, find ways to challenge them, look for opportunities to help them navigate the complexities of relationships, communication, education, and, eventually, careers.
And Louis C.K.’s kids? They’re especially going to be fine. They’re rich. They’ll have their pick of colleges, go wherever they want, do whatever they want from now until they die and leave their truckloads of dollar bills (remember investment income is taxed at about half the rate of labor income, so their money is constantly making money, they'll have more money than they could ever spend) to their kids and their kids' kids.
That is awesome for them, and while I envy their good fortune (which I acknowledge comes from the hard work and talent of their father), I don’t begrudge it them. If they get a little upset about a test, I understand and I sympathize and it's nice that their dad sympathizes, too, but really, there are a lot worse things in the world to happen when you’re a kid, and a lot worse things do happen to many of the kids in the world. Maybe some of that righteous indignation could go to someone else’s kids, kids who really don’t ever get a chance. Not that I mean to be all sassy to Louis C.K.

Note: A little crush. Not a stalker crush. Have I ever written to or tried to contact him in any way? No. Geez. Of course not. Would I ever? No. Oh, God, no. What do you take me for? Have I watched his show and stand-up routines? Yes. Do I laugh at his jokes? Most. Some of the humor is a bit past my endurance, but I celebrate his right to express himself.

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