"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Common Core and Snake Oil

by Susan Ohanian

I don't look at Edutopia very often because  nearly every glance provokes great annoyance. Now, not surprisingly, Brain-based Learning, that catch-all wonder-phrase, seemingly a direct descendant of ads for Charlie Bigelow's snake oil, Kickapoo Indian Sagwa: the Great Indian Medicine (WILL CURE Constipation, Liver Complaint, Dyspepsia, Indigestion, Loss of Appetite, Scrolnia, Rheumatism, Chills and Fever, Or any Disease Arriving from an Impure Blood or Deranged Liver*), gets its own category at Edutopia. (“Student Responses to Common Core Instruction and Assessment.” “11 Tips on Teaching Common Core Critical Vocabulary,” “How to Have a Healthy, Brainy, and Fun Summer,” “Education, the Brain, and Common Core State Standards,” and so on.
What busy, hassled, and probably desperate teacher can resist this lure:  new learning that will give students powerful boost to their growing neural networks of executive functions.  Executive functions! I came to Judy Willis’  Student Responses to Common Core Instruction and Assessment  through ASCD’s daily SmartBrief [sic] which, since receiving their filthy lucre from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, rarely present more than  daily neon light evangelism for the Common Core.

                   July 2013
                   to support implementation of the Common Core State Standards
                   Amount: $244,733

                   February 2011
                   to provide teachers and school leaders with supports to implement
                   the Common Core State Standards at the district, school, and classroom levels

Yes, that’s another story, but just know that money is never far from the evangelism.

At  Edutopia,   Judy Willis, MD, starts out her piece on brain-baased learning with a bang:

 “I am an advocate of the goals embodied in the CCSS -- building strong neural networks of executive functions. These networks of neuron-to-neuron connections have been an essential element of the neurological examination of patients for over 75 years. The functions of these unique neural networks were initially revealed through neurological case histories of patients with prefrontal cortex degeneration, lesions or trauma. They consequently lost their "highest" thinking skills of goal-directed behavior, judgment, emotional self-awareness, deduction, reasoning, abstraction or subsequent skillsets.”

Well, I'm not ready to declares Wowser! But  it sure sounds good: strong neural networks of executive functions. Teachers are supposed to be training all students for higher job functions, right? However, the studies I found using this term have to do with autism, attention deficit disorder, mild traumatic
brain injury. . .  which gives one pause.

Remember the researchers  who brought us  Reading First? Almost all of them had a background in special ed. They provided the fodder for the US Department of Education edicts that all students should be taught using special ed methodology. Think DIBELS.

Writing at Edutopia,  Judy Willis, MD,  says, “The CCSS goals support cognitive actions that are the executive functions for a global economy.” I don't claim to have read loads of articles on  the topic but I can report that some of the findings  surrounding the strong neural networds of executive functions are discussed in terms of anatomical and neuropharmacological dissociations of different aspects of executive function within the prefrontal cortex shown in monkeys. Well! I made mention of how baboons greet each other  and how much DNA  they share with corporate leaders of ed reform on  page 103  in  One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards. Every reviewer who read the book in manuscript form contacted the editor with the recommendation, “Publish it and keep the baboons!” Nobody thought the publisher would have the nerve. They surprised us all. See page 103.

Writing at Edutopia, Judy Willis, MD, declares,  “The CCSS goals support cognitive actions that are the executive functions for a global economy. We cannot let this educational goal be subverted through the challenges posed by the tests themselves or how they are used. One of our goals is understanding how we might best support students during the transition from passive memorization to actively constructing understanding and applying knowledge.” She does not provide even one classroom example of these miraculous CCSS goals. The reader must take on faith her declaration that these are “requisite 21st century skillsets.”  Acknowleding that the new Common Core curriculum and tests cause student stress and even illness, Willis says teachers must help students deal with stress, not fight the Common Core which is a marvel to be embraced. In other words, when the Common Core makes a whole third grade class burst into tears, the teacher must buy more tissue, not refuse to give such a test again.

Dr. Willis is also the author of  Inspiring Middle School Minds: Gifted, Creative, and Challenging, declared a “must read” by the  president of the National Association for Gifted Children, in which ‘executive function’ is discussed 46 times.  Truth to tell, she explains it much better in this book than she does when pushing the Common Core. As it happens, I’ve also written about the challenges of teaching middle schoolers:  Caught in the Middle: Nonstandard Kids and a Killing Curriculum. The term “executive function” does not appear in the book's 195 pages, but  Deborah Meier wrote the foreword and Gerald Bracey gave a rousing back cover blurb. 

Willis  has a  speaker’s page and an  author’s page  at ASCD.  I have a  website of resistance,
 a cranky twitter , and this spot at Schools Matter.

Teachers must choose: accommodation  or resistance, snake oil  or children.

*Wayne Bethard. Lotions, Potions, and Deadly Elixirs: Frontier Medicine in the American West. p  115

1 comment:

  1. What infuriates me is that the Common Core proponents have hijacked the term, "executive functions", in order to subvert what legitimate research actually says about it. The preponderance of legitimate research on the executive functions capacity of student, actually, can and should be used to convincingly argue against the use of the developmentally inappropriate Common Core Learning Standards. Executive functions capacities are highly determined by fixed genetic, neurodevelopmental factors. If Piaget were alive today, his theory of stages of cognitive development would benefit from incorporating the notion of executive functions as the key mechanism to explain what tasks children can be reasonably expected to accomplish, given a particular stage of development.