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Common Core State Standards: A lesson in shrewd marketing

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Common Core State Standards: A lesson in shrewd marketing



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University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky is a frequent contributor to the Get Schooled blog. This is a long and provocative piece on Common Core State Standards, which Smagorinsky argues is a manufactured solution to a manufactured crisis.

 By Peter Smagorinsky

In “The Languages of Edison’s Light,” rhetorician Charles Bazerman studies how iconic American inventor Thomas Edison represented himself to the public as a uniquely talented technician in the post-Civil War world. He did so in spite of skepticism from the scientific community and a lengthy and problematic process in developing a viable prototype for his major achievement, the electric light bulb. To understand Edison’s place in the late 19th century world, think of Steve Jobs and the ways in which he rode the currents of technology, commerce, self-promotion, and rhetoric to project himself into the pantheon of America’s historical entrepreneurial technological wizards.

 Edison aggressively constructed his popular image as a brilliant architect of electrically-driven, world-altering devices, from the phonograph to the electric light bulb. He was fame-and-fortune-seeker of the highest order and master at manipulating the Fourth Estate into popularizing his work and his reputation.

 In analyzing the circumstances that helped Edison to construct a glowing image of himself and his technological genius that was enthusiastically circulated in the press, Bazerman argues that Edison was adept at both creating the belief in a need and in turn supplying it for the ensuing demand:

 When the world of opportunities is changing, both suppliers and consumers only have visions and predictions, chimeras and hopes, to go by. Those who wish to develop and sell new products must locate the seeds of desire in the consumer and then nurture that desire. Purveyors of new technologies must make hopes seem realizable, project anticipated but unproved benefits, promise plausible but uncertain long-term costs, and elevate their future systems above current real options to entice risk-taking customers to buy into the dream so as to make the dream real. . . . Technological change reminds us that market value is more than the result of rational economic calculation and market forces: value is driven by perceived desire and perceived benefit. . . . [W]hen tastes or values are changing, desire is being created and channeled in new directions, and producers may have some persuasive role in the social construction of demand. Demand is no longer an essential given of a rational quantitative calculus. (p. 142)

 Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. This phrase was coined by Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr in 1849, two years after Edison’s birth. It holds up well a century-and-a-half later, not just for Steve Jobs and his ability to persuade the public that they need telephones that can play full-length 3-D movies on 4-inch 2-D screens, but for the edupreneurs who have identified public education as a world of opportunity for new products, whether a need for them exists or not.

 Who knew that we needed the Common Core State Standards before David Coleman sold policymakers on the idea that changing the curriculum, rather than taking on the more real and relevant challenge of addressing poverty, is the panacea for our times? Like any good salesman, Coleman pitched the idea that schools are failing and that his new vision — unproven but plausible in the rhetorical world he spun around it — provided the value toward which we as a nation must aspire.

 The existing product, against which he positioned the Common Core, public education as provided by teachers, had served as the nation’s punching bag for many decades. Convincing the people and the policymakers that schools don’t work — in spite of strong evidence to the contrary from such researchers as Berliner and Biddle — was a simple crisis to manufacture. The rhetorically fabricated need for a curricular reform thus evaded any rational analysis, replaced by desire for something new and different.

 When the value on education shifted from what is intellectually defensible to what is available through marketing acumen, teachers did not stand a chance. Teachers have no interest in marketing, and no training in selling themselves and their ideas. Pitted against people with piles of money who envision yet greater piles in return for what they can sell in the educational market, teachers are left to rely on the rational argument that they have a better understanding of what kids and schools need than people who have never taught but who see schools as places where goods, from textbooks to assessment products, can be sold.

 And this too: Teachers are pretty busy teaching overloaded classrooms all day, helping kids with their assignments before and after school, and grading their work in evenings and on weekends. That leaves them little time for competing with the mercantile interests that fill the education market with their goods and fill the air with claims that they, and only they, can save us from the teachers.

 How quaint of teachers to think that experience with teaching and knowledge of kids and their academic disciplines qualifies them to identify what students and schools need. In contrast, the 21st century edupreneur has a marketing budget and a division of people trained to create desire in the populace for things they don’t want or need. The resources available for viewing school as a niche market badly outpace the good intentions of teachers whose education has not been in sales but in human development, teaching and learning theory and practice, a historical understanding of the process of schooling, and other areas that inform effective classroom practice.

 Because their knowledge is based on understanding school realities and not on manufacturing images of what school would look like in a fanciful future, all they have to go on is the reality that educating the whole of the diverse student population, including those so hungry and emotionally malnourished that they can barely attend class or pay attention once they’re there, is mighty hard work, no matter how the curriculum is furnished and how much money that textbook companies make off assessing students on its finer points.

 That’s not the stuff of toothpaste ads where the ordinary guy gets the gorgeous girl by using mint-flavored gel with a whitening agent and tartar control, all in the span of 30 seconds. Or the promise of an enlightened citizenry through an endless series of standardized tests designed to chase out all the bad teachers. In the reality-based world, these tests are more effective at chasing out the good ones than punishing the bad, because they make the conditions of teaching so oppressive that they are intolerable to even the most dedicated of those who once decided that teaching to make the world a better place was the best possible way to spend their lives.