Louis C.K. Takes Aim at Common Core

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Louis C.K. comedian

Comedian Louis C.K. (Photo: Wikipedia)

This post first appeared on The Huffington Post.

There is a battle royal being waged across the nation about a set of national academic standards called the Common Core.

On one side, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has warned that the future of the nation depends on these standards. Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for writing them, evaluating them and promoting them. He even handed out millions more to education organizations (including the teachers’ unions) to advocate for them.

On the other side are grassroots groups of parents, teachers and principals who say the standards were written in stealth, imposed by the lure of federal billions and implemented too rapidly. All testing must be done online, so the standards are a bonanza for the testing industry, the hardware industry and the software industry.

Diane Ravitch on Public Schools for Sale?

But the mass media mostly ignored the controversy until a comedian named Louis C.K. tweeted that his daughter used to love math, and now she hates it. Not only does Louis have two daughters in a New York public school, he has 3.3 million followers on Twitter. Suddenly the world woke up, and Louis’ tweets were reported in Salon, Politico, and dozens of daily papers and websites.

No one listened when parents complained: Arne Duncan called them “white suburban moms” who were disappointed to discover that their child wasn’t so bright after all. No one listened when teachers and principals complained that the new federal tests were confusing and had multiple right answers. No one cared when Pearson, the giant test publisher, put a gag order on teachers forbidding them from revealing the contents of the tests. No one cared that teachers couldn’t help their students when they weren’t allowed to discuss what they got wrong on the tests.

But when Louis C.K. started tweeting, the world sat up and listened. And he made sense! No jargon, no excuses, no false promises: just a dad wondering, What’s going on here? This stuff is nuts. It makes no sense.

He tweeted:

My kids used to love math. Now it makes them cry. Thanks standardized testing and common core!

— Louis C.K. (@louisck) April 28, 2014

Just common sense. He tweeted:

Everything important is worth doing carefully. None of this feels careful to me.

— Louis C.K. (@louisck) May 1, 2014

Louis’ big gripe is the high-stakes testing, and he hates the pressure on the teachers and his children. He tweeted:

Teachers are underpaid. They teach for the love of it. Let them find the good in cc without the testing guns to their and our kids heads.

— Louis C.K. (@louisck) May 1, 2014

He saw that the big winners in the Common Core roll-out were test publisher Pearson, which is paid many millions for its tests, and Bill Gates, who leveraged his grants to create the nation’s standards. He took a lot of criticism from others on Twitter for his comments. He tweeted:

I trust a teacher over Pearson or bill hates any day of the week. Don’t all be so defensive and don’t be such bullies.

— Louis C.K. (@louisck) May 1, 2014

Louis posted a photograph of a question that appeared on his daughter’s third-grade test. His best tweet of all:

my favorite responses have been adults proudly announcing that they were able to solve these problems from a 3rd grade test.

— Louis C.K. (@louisck) May 1, 2014

Should we care what a comedian thinks of Common Core? Don’t underestimate what Louis C.K. accomplished. He was able to break through the carefully crafted narrative that had been spun by Arne Duncan, Jeb Bush, Michelle Rhee and other advocates for the new standards. He spoke as a father, not a comedian. What he wrote was not funny. His celebrity gave him a platform. His standing as a parent of public school children gave him credibility.

Louis C.K. has changed the terms of the national debate. From now on, it will be harder for the Common Core salesmen to pretend that the critics are nothing more than extremists. Maybe now we can begin to have a genuine national debate about the Common Core standards and tests instead of an orchestrated campaign to ignore, ridicule and demean any critics. The standards and tests can be improved, but only if their advocates are willing to listen and think critically.

Louis C.K. may have made that possible. Thanks, Louis.

Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is a research professor of education at New York University and a historian of education. She was the assistant secretary of education in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. Ravitch has authored several books on education, including her latest Reign of Error. She blogs about education issues at dianeravitch.net. You can follow her on Twitter @dianeravitch.
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  • http://www.gdanmitchell.com/ G Dan Mitchell

    Gates and his gang have good motives, I think. However, the power behind his name, his connections, and his money allow those with his particular (and questionable) views about what good education looks like and accomplishes to wield far more power in this discussion that is warranted.

  • Anonymous

    How old are his girls? Many girls tend to shy away from math as they get further into school.

    Common core classes are a great idea. Every other country does this sort of thing as it really levels the field. If we did not have them, there would be outcries of how one school over another has a better curriculum, etc. It’s how the common core classes are approached and administered that matters. Take the (private) financial incentive out of it and we are more likely to end up with something that actually works.

  • Jim

    My wife has been teaching elementary school (K-5 science) for 30 years and says the hardest thing to do is to keep the girls interested in science and math as they get older. Not sure why this is but it is something she has always tried to remedy throughout her career. Even the female teachers in the school don’t like teaching science because they aren’t comfortable with teaching it, thus her class has been promoted as a special, even though it is a core subject. I am not certain that the common core argument is the problem.

  • Anonymous

    Common core makes sense, the idea that we ought to have a common understanding is is solid, Don’t let a poor start, some bad implementation or fiscal interests ruin a good thing, after all you can say the same of the expansion of health care.

  • Anonymous

    You think so? It’s worth a try. Somebody’s got to do it.

  • Herm

    It is not so much that Common Core is off to a “rocky start”, as so many people have suggested in this debate, it is because the standards are being used to push high-stakes testing. Perhaps if Common Core weren’t being used in so many places to punish teachers and their unions and deny funding to “problem schools” (where increased funding is generally needed most), there would be no controversy and everyone would indeed be able to listen to arguments like, “having national standards is an unalloyed good”, with a straight face.

  • Bruce Price

    Personally, I think Common Core is an educational Godzilla. I’m grateful to Louis CK for waking up millions of people.

  • Mad Sam

    I personally think it is disingenuous to try to separate Common Core from its implementation. The two cannot be separated. There is a similarity between this argument and arguments applied against gun control. And like gun control, it is best to keep these standards away from those who will use them in ways that many perceive as doing harm to their communities, like districts that implement them within a “high-stakes” testing framework.

  • Anonymous

    My family moved around a lot when I was a kid. Military brat. A few times, we moved in the middle of the school year. The differences between the schools could be enormous. Isn’t teaching comparable content within a certain grade a good thing?

  • Herm

    Since common core is being used as more than just a standard in many, if not most, places – my answer is no.

  • Anonymous

    Gates history speaks for itself:
    – his GUI interface was a poorly implemented ripoff from Xerox and Apple (the fruit at least paid for access to the GUI) – DOS was a ripoff of QDOS;
    – in the 90s he said we’d all be speaking to our computers;
    – he has attacked solar as a “hobby”;
    – he supports Heifer Int’l (the business that sends gifts of animals, like cattle, to places and individuals lacking the infrastructure to support said animals);
    – now Common Core.

    Based on his history I don’t think it’s unreasonable to question his motives unless one considers seeking further money and power as good motives to help children. Color me a skeptical. Peace

  • http://SDsustainableFuture.com SustainbleFuture

    There is a battle going on in this nation between incompetent, often overpaid, educators and a few crusaders trying to save the world, like Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee. If our kids don’t all get the basic literacies necessary to self-educate then we can kiss our democracy goodbye. The guest on this show lied about $500,000,000,000 testing industry. There is no such profit in education. People don’t care about kids, so they will not pay for them. The increase in charters is due to the failure of our public schools. The “Teachers” are running scared.

    There is no reason these online tests can’t be used to collaborate and improve public education, and anyone who rejects this idea of common core is against public education.

  • Anonymous

    My son now comes home from school and says “when i grow up I am going to sue the common core”….Wow! not even sure where he learned the concept of “sue” but he sure is hating 4th grade math!!!

  • Anonymous

    Are you kidding me? I know many, many teachers who do not reject the Common Core but do not like the high stakes testing and punishment that comes with the package. Yes, rigorous standards are good, so are flexibility and common sense in how to role them out… to say that anyone who is against them is against public ed is just ridiculous….

  • theassailedteacher

    You can’t separate the Common Core from its antecedents or the way it has been implemented. People want to look at the CCSS in a vacuum and judge it on its merits. It is curious how most people who do this usually come away with the opinion that it really does foster “higher standards”, something that is arguable.

    But the push for national standards goes back to the early 90s at least. Back then, those who pushed for national standards also pushed to reform the way public schools were funded. They knew national standards meant nothing if poorer schools did not have the resources to meet them. Therefore, they wanted to de-link the property tax from school funding and redistribute funds to poorer schools. Needless to say, this plan didn’t make it far in Congress.

    In the 2000s, an assortment of hedge funders, corporate types, vulture philanthropists and their lickspittles in government saw dollars signs and votes in education “reform”. They clad themselves in the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement by saying public schools were “failing”, mostly because of teachers. These “reformers” rediscovered the cause of national standards while conveniently forgetting the funding reforms that went along with them.

    Obama’s Race to the Top initiative crystallized most of the major ideas to come out of this reform movement. They avoided accusations of “big government” by dangling federal funds in front of cash-strapped states and offering it to them if they implemented all of RTTT’s reforms.

    Among these reforms were evaluating teachers on test scores and adoption of “higher” standards approved by the federal government. This meant, in essence, Common Core. States who adopted RTTT (which is most of them) needed to give kids new exams in order to “evaluate” teachers. They needed to ensure that teachers were actually teaching the higher standards.

    This is why you cannot separate CCSS from the exams that go with it, or the textbooks and other resources designed to prepare kids for these exams. They all come in the same package.

    Parents, educators and kids have been pointing out how developmentally inappropriate, how myopic, how hopelessly inept these CCSS materials are for years. People who think CCSS means “high standards” either have not read them all the way through or don’t understand them. CCSS downplays literature. It favors non-fiction and downplays the context in which non-fiction works were written in favor of examining a text’s “structure”. Anyone who has taught teenagers knows this represents the lowest, most dumbed-down way to examine texts.

    Ironically, this is how CCSS proponents want us to look at CCSS.

    Nobody can argue with “high standards”. That term is a great trope to trot out for propaganda purposes but it is not reality. If you want to achieve high standards, you have to help kids do so. You have to supply resources and encouragement to schools to do so. You have to listen to parents, teachers and kids to know what kind of standards to use.

    You cannot wave a magic wand and think that writing up a bunch of half-baked standards will magically help kids succeed. You cannot test to the top. You cannot threaten teachers to the top.

    People like Arne Duncan love to compare the US to other nations and say we are falling behind. No other developed nation has the rate of childhood poverty we do. No other developed nation has vestiges of Jim Crow segregation in their schools. No other nation has the type of corporate influence on their education system like us and no other country hands out as many billions of ed dollars to private corporations as we do.

    Think about this next time you say our schools are already sufficiently funded, or that teachers are the ones draining the system. Look at where all the new education money is going. It is going to the same place that most new wealth in the economy as a whole has bee going: right to the top.

  • Anonymous

    When I argued against No Child Left Behind for the same reasons, I was called an un-American Leftist who did not believe in accountability (the so-called “obvious” result of high stakes testing) — who wanted our children spoiled and to feel “special” (instead of accepting the hard free-market truth that some people are just better than others).

    Just as a single payer health care system was morphed into the ACA because of politics, Common Core is the result of compromises made to be as palatable as possible in a highly toxic political environment. Five years ago, to suggest we forego testing was proof of your commie card.

    And despite the claims of this article, CC has not been “ignored” by the public. In fact, Ted Cruz and other Republicans have made it a centerpiece of their campaigns (even though once again there is collective amnesia of their own recent policies -NCLB-steeped in Republican/Libertarian ideology – as soon as Obama touches it and tries to work with those on the other side of the isle.

    People also act like Pearson and other text book publishers are only now driving education policy. This has been the case for decades!!! But again, in a free market world, those who are “winning” get to make the rules — (because THEY BUILT IT, remember?) /sarc

    How about instead of grabbing our pitchforks and torching the first thing in sight, we actually talk about education and how children learn and develop?




  • Yeahright

    I don’t think arguing that your kids are getting a better education and you don’t like that makes much sense.

  • Anonymous

    Let. The. Teachers. Teach!!!!!!! Get the corporations and ideology out of it! Louis and Diane have some very valid points.

  • Vally Sharpe

    As a person who spent a lot of years doing “testing” and understanding what any test “means” and more importantly, perhaps, what it DOESN’T mean, I continue to be disappointed in the failure, even of Diane Ravitch, of separating the standards themselves from the disasters of implementation and the apparent and total misunderstanding of what every prediction scientist knows — namely that no test is 100% failsafe because every test is based on a set of correlations. It isn’t the standards — it isn’t even the tests — it’s the ignorance of those in charge, especially in our federal and state governments, of how test “scores” should and should not be used because of the many variables that affect test-taking behavior that are beyond our control.

    But that’s still not the test’s fault, and it certainly isn’t the standards themselves. To repeal the use of the Common Core standards, which were devised by a combination of businesspeople, governors and educators to define what students need to know how to do or conceptually understand in order to succeed in the workplace when they get there, makes as much sense as saying we’ll just take the gas gauge out of a car and wait until we run out to know how much gas was in the car at any moment in time. Adjust the gauge. Standards are nothing more than goals, and without them, there is no way to measure progress in any systematic way.

    The fault lies, again, in the arrogance of people who have never stood in a classroom with the responsibility or the ability to create an environment conducive to the learning of children and youth, who know nothing about brain development, and believe their own propaganda, yet would bristle at the thought that someone who’d never performed their jobs would presume to measure their productivity.

    Leave the freaking standards alone. Give teachers reasonable but aggressive timeframes to adjust lesson plans based on their schedules, the sizes of their classrooms and the unique talents and challenges of their students, and then shut up.

  • Anonymous

    Theproblem is that common core is attached to federal funds. Race to the top was tied to federal funds, NCLB, tied to Fed. funds….. School districts need the cash so they have to play ball with whatever program the federal government is selling. We have had three different systems in the last 7 years. It takes lots of money and time away from other important things, like teaching!!- to line up the curriculum to the new system. I know there will be another new one right around the corner which will be more expensive and allow the public money to be diverted to private corporations.

  • Roy Smith

    sounds like more push toward privatized education, great for the rich kids, not for the poor kids, dedicated to the proposition that all people are created unequal.

  • justateacher

    “Gates and his gang have good motives, I think.” Ha, ha, ha; best education-related laugh in ages –

  • justateacher

    Not my experience.

  • scorpio 6

    Those stats you claim are suspect to me in that you claim that you watched 17 kids do exceptionally better over the course of 3 years in the Common Core…
    That is a fascinating statement to make that sounds like a lie.
    New York City concluded a two year trial run of the CC in 2013 with abysmal test scores and overall grades for ALL STUDENTS going way down.
    This failure prompted new Mayor DeBlaseo to push off the program from being implemented for at least two more years.
    NY was not alone. Other states have shown that in a Common Core setting, poor students fail, Average students become poor students and great students became average due to the convoluted and untested nature of the curriculum.
    If there is anything to be learned from here, it’s that Corporate Billionaires should NOT be involved in designing education platforms.
    It’s a failure and there are multiple sources from all over the country that are talking about why.
    Here’s one: