Writing curriculum publisher explains problems with Common Core

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Common Core is looking more and more like the incandescent light bulb ban, Obamacare, and scores of other experiments in government regulation that drive up costs, drive out small business, and dry up innovation.

Andrew Pudewa's life work is to enable students to learn to write clearly and persuasively. His company, the Institute for Excellence in Writing, publishes curriculum which is popular among homeschoolers but also used by many public and private schools. Four years ago he moved his business and his family to Oklahoma, a better environment than his previous state of California for small business and educational innovation.

Recently he testified to the Oklahoma House Education Committee about the impact of Common Core Standards. He draws a contrast between a decentralized approach to education, in which learning can be customized to the developmental abilities of the child and innovation is possible, and the centralized, one-size-fits-all approach represented by Common Core, dominated by the Federal government, the big states, and the big textbook publishers.

In the Q&A, in response to a question about Oklahoma's third-grade reading sufficiency tests, Pudewa talks about one of his sons, who is profoundly dyslexic and could not read at all until age 11. He was able to understand material at or above grade level that was read to him by parents or audiobooks, but he couldn't decode letters on a page until that point. Pudewa said that for his son, reading was a matter of "brain function, not a teachable, learnable skill." Once he had a breakthrough in reading, he began to tackle sophisticated material on his own and is now, at 16, an eloquent speaker and writer. Pudewa said that it's "extremely dangerous to judge children on their reading skills based on age." Had his son been in school during his elementary years, "he would have been branded a complete idiot." The implication is that in a standardized environment, his son would have been inappropriately pigeonholed; in a customized environment, like homeschooling, his son could continue to grow and learn and be challenged in other areas, working around his visual processing challenges.

Here is a video of his comments and questions from the committee. Below the video is the text of his prepared remarks (emphasis added).

Mr. Chairman and Committee Members,

Thank you for allowing me to speak today. I come as an Oklahoma resident, a homeschooling parent, an educational curriculum publisher and trainer, and somewhat of a leader in the home education community.

I would like to express my concerns about the Common Core State Standards Initiative. My immediate concerns are three-fold: 1) The historical failure of centralized education, 2) the origins of CCSSI, the motives of its creators, and the potential for ideological abuse, and 3) the problematic concept upon which the idea of "standards" currently exists in modern education.

As a long-time homeschooling parent and someone who speaks with hundreds of home educating families across the country every year, I am intimately aware of the potential of entirely decentralized education. Each family serves as its own "school district" often with the father as the "superintendent" or "principal" and the mother as the "homeroom teacher." Although registration and reporting requirements for homeschoolers vary by state (with Oklahoma being one of the least restrictive), even in states that require direct supervision by a government-run school district and mandatory standardized testing requirements, homeschooling families exercise a great deal of freedom as to their curriculum choices and teaching methods. Therefore it is somewhat of an experiment in ultimate decentralization and complete local control. So how do homeschooled children do? In any demographic category (from family income, to parental education, to geography), homeschoolers meet or exceed their peers in tests of basic skills, ACT/SAT, and college acceptance.

Now, while we must admit that public-schooled children who live in two-parent homes with above poverty-level incomes are also likely to score in the upper half of the percentile ranges (thereby indicating the critical importance of parental involvement in education), we cannot find any statistical advantages of centralized curriculum control. In fact, there is absolutely no historical precedent indicating that top-down dictated curriculum has any effect at all on basic skills anywhere. In fact, the last few decades might indicate at least an empirical correlation between increased efforts by U.S. states to create more rigorous standards and the decline of basic mathematics and language skills of U.S. students. Even in my short time of sixteen years working professionally with various public school districts in California, Washington, and Alaska, it is quite evident that the push for standards in these states has had little, no, or possibly a negative effect, at least in the area of my expertise--basic writing skills. In her 1990 book, Why Johnny Can't Write, Myrna Linden cited several studies that indicated writing skills had been declining for twenty years. In 2005, a Carnegie Foundation Report indicated no improvement, and I don't think there are many university teachers or businessmen who will argue that things have improved in the last decade. So while we certainly cannot blame an increase in legislated educational standards for the decline--other demographic factors are likely responsible--, we certainly cannot expect, based on historical precedent, that centralized standards or curriculum can have much effect on the problem of declining abilities.

For these reasons, I cannot see any advantage for the State of Oklahoma (or any state) to continue to require implementation of the Common Core Standards.
Any benefits these "new" standards might have cannot possibly outweigh the
harms: expense to the state and its public schools, an added burden to administrators and their staff, and the further suppression of teacher initiative and ingenuity. I think we can all attest by personal experience (and it is supported by much research) that the quality of the teacher makes the greatest difference in student performance. Centralized curriculum, in its effort to make all classrooms similar, ends up handicapping great teachers, for whom innovation and enthusiasm go hand-in-hand.

Although revoking Common Core Standards will not solve the problem of declining basic skills, it may allow Oklahoma schools freedom to pursue with greater autonomy curricula and methods that do work, and, as is always true in our free-market economy, success will be imitated. Less central control over education will encourage schools to innovate, attract talented teachers, and strive for excellence.

There are many versions of how the Common Core Standards came into being; one only has to start reading reports, watching YouTube videos and reading political blogs to realize the complexity of the story, and I don't purport to have studied the issue enough to know the whole truth, but certain things do appear to be the case. Funding for the Hunt Institute for Educational Leadership came from several sources, chief among them the Gates Foundation. Various educational publishers supported the efforts indirectly, and the U.S. Department of Education set created financial incentives for states that would adopt the new standards. I believe that you have already heard detailed reports on this, perhaps more than you wished.

As a private citizen, my tendency in investigating this is to "follow the dollars." Who might benefit from nationwide adoption of the CCSSI? Since the standards are technology-heavy, perhaps the tech industries would benefit. Because of a need for completely revamped curricula (from textbooks to consumables to multi-media supplements) the publishers would definitely benefit. And I think we all see how the federal government tends to grow anywhere and everywhere it can, even in areas of questionable jurisdiction. While I cannot buy into everything said by Glenn Beck and other very vocal objectors to the Common Core, I do see the potential for increased control over education--not just in the areas of math and language skills, but in actual content as well. Already you have heard from experts concerned with the degradation of the literature in the Common Core language guidelines. I believe you have also heard from others about the possible expansion of Common Core to include social studies and science standards, thus moving into areas of potential ideology and even propaganda.

I formerly resided in California, and have been both amused and saddened by how the state educational standards there have resulted in publishers providing textbooks that distort history (by redefining a "missionary" as "someone who comes from a far away place and tries to change the lifestyle of a group of people") and disrupt traditional values (by removing all references to "mother, father, mom, or dad" from all approved textbooks). Of course the California legislature has passed other almost unbelievable anti-common sense laws, but I won't go into that...

Additionally, because of the virtual monopoly of textbook publishers (Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Houghton-Mifflin), schools required to conform to the Common Core standards will have little choice when it comes to curricula, and the publishers' largest customers (California, New York, Florida, and Texas) do have a great input on textbook content. In fact, CCSSI is a huge windfall for education publishers, since most districts in most states are being forced to replace their existing texts with CCSSI conforming texts, and any differentiations by state standards have been superseded by the Common Core standards. Consequently, the big publishers can now sell the same or very similar books to all the states, further increasing profitability.

This, of course, makes it even harder for small publishers such as myself to keep a toehold in the public education market. Again, centralization and standardization eclipses initiative and creativity; we are not only up against the marketing and PR juggernaut of the big players, we now have to jump through ridiculous hoops to show that what we do--and have always done--not only builds basic writing skills better than most anything out there, but somehow "meets or exceeds" the Common Core standards. Oddly, there are some people in the homeschool world who are so politically opposed to the CCSSI that they will boycott any homeschool publisher who claims to be Common Core aligned. This puts me in an odd double-bind position. But I don't mean to complain to you about my publishing and marketing challenges--that's the vicissitudes of business. I mention it only so you can see how the CCSI adoption limits curriculum options for teachers and schools, and erodes the benefits of a free market in educational materials.

Lastly, I would like to make an appeal to common sense (as opposed to common core), and point out a fundamental problem with all "standards", and that is the meaning of the word itself. The Common Core, along with all state standards, dictates what should or must be taught at every grade level in math and language. Although some people are very good at dissecting and analyzing the language of the standards, I ask just one simple question. How can standards be standards if there are no consequences for failing to meet those standards? A teacher can teach, but she can't force a student to learn. What happens if a fifth grade student does not acquire the skills taught, for example, in standard Gr. 5, L.1.a.: "Explain the function of conjunctions, prepositions, and interjections, in general and their function in particular sentences." As we all know, nothing will happen. There are no consequences. That student will go on to sixth grade, seventh grade, and into high school whether he or she has any idea what a conjunction or preposition is or what it does. Therefore this is not a standard that means anything; it's a suggestion as to what would be nice to know. And if students move up in grade level without mastering the so-called standards of the previous grade, then teaching to the standards becomes increasingly difficult if not impossible for teachers.

Therefore, we have a whole system based on an oxymoron: standards that are not standards. Standards that do not have to be met. Standards that will not change anything. If any other industry in this country held the illusion that not meeting standards had no consequences, it would lose credibility. If quality standards for cars were not enforced, and cars that failed to meet those standards were "graduated" into the marketplace anyway, consumers would be outraged and car manufacturers would either have to change or they would cease to exist. If soldiers were sent into battle whether or not they passed boot camp and could handle a weapon, the citizenry would scream objections. Yet somehow, in education, everywhere in this country, we pass many students to the next grade, the next school, even to college, even though they lack basic skills and general knowledge. Standards initiatives have done nothing to change this--the past three decades have proven it. Perhaps real education reform is possible; I truly believe so. However, we cannot expect more government-approved verbiage about what students should learn to reverse the trend. Much more fundamental changes are needed.

While I personally have some radical ideas as to what could be done to challenge the status quo of decreasing basic skills of American students, such is not our purpose today. For the moment, I very much appreciate your time spent listening to my concerns about the Common Core Standards Initiative, and I hope my perspective as an Oklahoma resident, curriculum publisher, and homeschool parent has been at least a little bit helpful. Even more, I thank you for your daily service to our state and its people; I cannot imagine that enduring meeting after meeting such this is at all easy. God bless you!

Most sincerely,
Andrew Pudewa.

Andrew Pudewa is a father of seven, a small business owner, a homeschooling advocate, and an Oklahoma resident for four years. He is a graduate of the Talent Education Institute in Matsumoto, Japan, and holds a certificate in Child Brain Development from the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential. In his capacity as founder and director of the Institute for Excellence in Writing, he has trained students, parents, teachers, and administrators in 32 states and four countries. His live and video courses have empowered thousands of teachers and parents with methods and techniques to help children develop excellent writing skills. He and his heroic wife, Robin, currently homeschool their two youngest children in the beautiful green country of Locust Grove, OK.

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2 Comments

Julie Walker said:

Thank you for posting this. I will be sharing this in our IEW e-newsletter.

Julie Walker
Marketing Director
Institute for Excellence in Writing
IEW.com 800.856.5815

Dara Ekanger said:

Excellent. Wouldn't expect anything else from Mr. Pudewa. I hope they listened!

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on November 19, 2013 12:48 PM.

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