David Brooks couldn't be more wrong: What the New York Times still doesn't get about education "reform"

In another phoned-in column, Times writer suggests anyone who quarrels with him on Common Core is a wacky extremist

Published April 21, 2014 12:30PM (EDT)

David Brooks                                 (AP/Nam Y. Huh)
David Brooks (AP/Nam Y. Huh)

Originally published on the Academe Blog

Backseat driving in the clown car: That’s what pundits are about, today.

In the New York Times, David Brooks tries to turn that around, making out that it is those who disagree with him who have the red noses and squeeze horns. He mounts a defense of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) based on the idea that those he shills for are the wise and considerate and caring – and that everyone else is either raw material or the lunatic fringe (both left and right).

Education, to Brooks, “is to get students competitive with their international peers.” What the students need in their personal lives, or want, these don’t matter. What communities need, in terms of citizens and contributing members, doesn’t matter. And anyone who disagrees with Brooks and those he advocates for is a nut. A clown.

As he does with his own person, Brooks does a good job of dressing CCSS in gowns of gravitas, covering the pretense and parody at its heart, hiding the large, floppy shoes and bulging, striped pants.

If it weren’t the result of clowning, CCSS would have been developed in an entirely different way. As it is supposed to prepare students to be “college ready” and as potential employees, creation should have been in the hands of college professors and representatives from business – as well as public-school teachers and administrators, providing both understanding of needs and goals and of the practical aspects of education. Parents should be consulted, as well. As it is, CCSS was the creation of politicians and their lackeys, as even Brooks describes it:

The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers set out to draft clearer, consistent and more rigorous standards.

Politicians and their top appointees: That’s who created CCSS. These aren’t people who understand either the needs of education, its goals or the ways students learn as they grow. And … ha, ha, ha … “consistent and rigorous standards”? That’s like calling a clown’s yardstick adequate measurement. Only a clown can tout “standards” developed by people with no knowledge of the subject matter as “consistent and rigorous,” at least not with a straight face. The rest of us should simply laugh – and would, if this weren’t so deadly serious.

Furthermore, as Brooks says, his serious education reformers rely on partisan think tanks for validation, as clowns would (clowns upon clowns, of course) instead of on professional organizations (the AAUP comes to mind) where real understanding of needs and possibilities lie:

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which has been evaluating state standards for more than 15 years, concluded that the Common Core standards are “clearly superior” to the old standards.

Clearly superior? On what scale? Brooks doesn’t say. To address that, he would have to stop clowning around.

Brooks, with a straight face, touts the superiority of CCSS English Language Arts:

The English standards encourage reading comprehension. Whereas the old standards frequently encouraged students to read a book and then go off and write a response to it, the new standards encourage them to go back to the text and pick out specific passages for study and as evidence.

As an English professor, I believe this is as useless in preparing students for my classroom as the “old standards.” It reflects an out-of-date attitude toward literature, one reflecting the New Critics of 50 years ago and not the way we approach the study of literature today. A text, for one thing, isn’t “evidence.” And “reading comprehension” requires much more than text-centric writing. What Brooks imagines as the needs of a contemporary English classroom is as far removed from the reality of college today as a clown’s unicycle is from the Tour de France.

The tragedy of all of this is that Brooks actually believes what he is writing. He has no idea that it is he who is the real clown. And not even a significant one. He’s simply another red nose crammed into the backseat.

This is too bad. Education should not be a circus.

By Aaron Barlow

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Common Core David Brooks Diane Ravitch Editor's Picks Media Criticism New York Times