03 Dec 2014
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What Do We Care About When We Care About Education?

For whom are the "Common Core Standards" being developed?

What Do We Care About When We Care About Education?


According to David Coleman, the principal figure behind the Common Core Standards that have become the darling of the great educational reform of the 21st Century, “ As you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a sh!t about what you feel or what you think.”

He’s right about one thing: I really don’t give a sh!t about what David Coleman thinks.

What amazes me is that anybody else does. Corporations are throwing money at him, and all of it is sticking. Publishers with an eye toward edupreneurial profits align their products with his priorities.

And Arne Duncan, upon Coleman’s designation as President of the College Board, has opined that Coleman has a “remarkable track record of success in our field, including founding an innovative company and playing a central role in the states’ wildly successful effort to develop high shared standards for college and career readiness. David has always put his unusual talents in the service of a clear principle: that an excellent education is not just for some students but for all students.”

Much about this adulatory treatment merits attention, but let’s take it one thing at a time. In this brief essay, I would like to address his remarkable belief that nobody cares what anyone thinks or feels, an opinion that now compels educators (who do care about both) to abandon what they know about learners in their contortions to fit the Common Core Standards. Coleman proudly represents the sort of ignorant and downright bizarre policy perspective that now governs scholastic “reform” in the strangest educational era of my lifetime.

The “people” to whom Coleman refers as having little interest in what “you” think sound a whole lot like the leadership class with whom Coleman has had his primary affiliation during his career, one that bypassed the teaching stage on his way to educational leadership, influence, and authority. Coleman doesn’t care what you think; just leave all the thinking to him. It’s been mighty profitable so far, so why change anything? And if you feel anything about the inequities? Tough luck: He just doesn’t care.

A very different perspective is available about thinking and feeling that undermines Coleman’s opinion, although Coleman’s opinion appears to be shared by everyone rushing to implement the Common Core Standards. That point of view, one based not on Coleman’s aristocratic belief in the low value of what you think, is founded on something called “research,” a body of work that is not only not consulted, but openly disdained, by the majority of policymakers contributing to the shape of 21st Century education. Unless, of course, they can stretch research to fit the Procrustean Bed of their policy beliefs.

Researchers such as Antonio Damasio, head of Neurology at the University of Iowa, would surely disagree that students’—and for that matter, teachers’—emotional engagement with school is irrelevant. My own research shows how a student’s positive emotional disposition for schoolwork can lead to the sort of confidence that enables learners to approach new tasks such that they project a favorable outcome, an outlook that can enable them to persist when their initial efforts are unfruitful.

Negative emotional experiences, meanwhile, can frame new experiences in profoundly damaging ways. Consider the child whose earliest experiences in school with writing involve heavy correction and little encouragement. This sort of response to writing is often a consequence of a teacher disregarding how students feel about their efforts.

Work returned from teachers appears to the student to have been savaged with red; whatever potential the child has as a writer goes unrecognized and buried in negativity. That negative emotional experience in turn is likely to frame new experiences with writing. The result is that the student will avoid writing. When absolutely required to write, the student will take no chances that might, with encouragement, lead to breakthroughs, but will undoubtedly, in the face of fear, lead to minimal growth, if any.

But David Coleman doesn’t care what kids think or feel. So why should the teacher care, according to the Common Core Standards that he has somehow convinced the nation is the silver bullet to bring a new era of prosperity to America, or at least, the business community that Coleman so ably represents?

There are fundamental reasons to care about kids’ emotional engagement with school, even if they might escape David Coleman’s drive to provide executives with malleable working parts for the machinery of their enterprises. For instance, some might become teachers. Disaffected teachers might serve Coleman’s Common Core vision well, but serve kids’ developmental needs quite poorly. From a motivational perspective, teachers who don’t give a sh!t about what kids think or feel tend to teach kids who don’t give a sh!t about school.

No matter how many standards the Common Core lists for them, if students avoid engaging with the curriculum because they have a negative emotional connection with school, the educational effort will fail miserably. In Arne Duncan’s conception of schooling, their teacher will then be punished for the students’ lack of achievement, as measured by standardized tests that the students no doubt find further disaffecting.

Tough luck there, kids. Caring about what you care about just doesn’t work in today’s schools or workforce. It’s all business here, and the business of business is the business of America. Unless those ideas and feelings of yours feed the interests of business and profits, keep them to yourself. And when was the last time a worker had a good idea? That’s management’s job. As for feelings, well, I guess you’re just S.O.L. Just be lucky you’ve got a job, or an education, for what it’s worth in today’s corporate educational environment.

Aha, you say, another feel-good liberal advocating for a feel-good education. Clearly, you don’t know me. I love hard thinking and hard work because they make me feel good. I love my achievements because they represent the cognitive labor that I put into them, and the social efforts I put into collaboration. My approach is to care so much about how my students feel that they want to gravitate toward my example.

I hope that other people care about what I think, if not what I feel, because that way I know that my efforts to advance my own thinking have resonated with other people who care about how seriously their own ideas are taken by others. Such people seek to feel better through their own accomplishments, achieved through affectively driven, cognitive work of the sort that David Coleman doesn’t give a sh!t about.

Thinking and feeling are inseparable. Coleman boasts that he cares about neither. Caring teachers care about both and understand why their integration matters to students who perhaps don’t want someone else limiting their life’s opportunities by conveying their disregard for how they experience school and what they might achieve with encouragement and support.

This is the quality of leadership that is taking control of American education. This is our new destiny in Arne Duncan’s America. This is a tragic development that saddens me greatly and makes me glad that my own kids are now out of school. I wish I could say the same for yours.



Peter Smagorinsky is Distinguished Research Professor of English Education and winner of the 2012 American Educational Research Association Sylvia Scribner Award in recognition of scholarship that has significantly influenced and advanced the field’s thinking and research in the area of learning and instruction.