AFT’s American Educator: Voice of the Rank and File or Tool of the Reformers?

By Bianca Tanis

Originally posted on @thechalkface,

Teachers are dosed with Common Core propaganda daily. A few times a year, this comes in the form of the American Federation of Teachers’ quarterly journal, American Educator. It is not surprising that the summer 2014 issue (which focuses primarily on early childhood) is chock full of “career and college ready” and Common Core rah-rah rhetoric. The first article, “The Magic of Words, Teaching Vocabulary in the Early Childhood Classroom,” highlights the gap in the vocabulary of preschool age children along socio-economic lines. The authors lament the disturbing notion that this statistic is mistakenly treated as an inevitable consequence of poverty, thus labeling children failures before they even get to school. They argue that this doesn’t have to be the case. “The quantity, quality and responsiveness of teacher and parent talk can effectively mediate socioeconomic status,” they tell us. This is a bold claim and begs the question, why address poverty directly when teachers can remediate its effects in their classrooms? The article provides a lengthy list of citations, including one for this claim. It should be noted that in fact, the study cited does not directly support the claim of the authors. Rather, it describes a recent study on the effects of parents reading informational texts to their children in their homes. The study suggests that “supportive parent–child interactions can have a powerful influence on children’s development” and that “Educational professionals should support greater reading of information books in their parent involvement programs.” You can read about that here. The article goes on to tell us that children from low socio-economic backgrounds with vocabulary gaps are likely to struggle to meet the new text complexity levels set forth by the Common Core. Rather than addressing the underlying issue of poverty, or that fact that the CC’s increased difficulty in text complexity was not based in sound evidence, the article tells us that essentially, teachers must mediate the effects of poverty through the use of targeted vocabulary and content instruction while simultaneously teaching to learning standards that set poor children up for failure. There is some fuzzy logic at play here. Most educators would agree that vocabulary instruction is valuable at all ages and few would argue that educators can have a positive on effect on struggling students. But most would also question the wisdom of a journal published by a national teacher’s union promulgating the dangerous notion that teachers can be held responsible for rectifying the effects of poverty in a climate where political leadership consistently underfunds our schools, ignores a growing socio-economic gap and calls for greater teacher accountability while assuming none themselves. This article dovetails a little too perfectly into a subsequent article entitled, “Taken for Granted, Why Curriculum Content is Like Oxygen.” Written by high level Core Knowledge employees, Carolyn Gosse and Lisa Hansel, the article touts the invaluable nature of good curriculum, equating a student’s need for curriculum to their need for oxygen. In fact, they tell us that good curriculum is so invaluable that it has a greater effect on student learning than excellent teaching. You can read the study that this statement comes from here. It’s actually quite interesting because while American Educator is filled with articles telling teachers how to teach to the Common Core standards effectively, this Brookings Institute study used for this citation tells us that “the National Governors Association (NGA) and Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) have put their reputations on the line by sponsoring the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Research based on current and past state standards indicates that this initiative is unlikely to have much of an effect on student achievement in and of itself.” I guess that the authors didn’t think that was important to share. As I read the article, I was struck by the fact that it was beginning to seem more and more like an advertisement for the curriculum Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA), a content-based reading and phonics curriculum founded by E.D. Hirsch Jr. We are told that in this curriculum, students are immersed in sophisticated content and vocabulary from a very early age. The authors then refer to the words of psychologist Daniel T. Willingham who states that “no content is inherently developmentally inappropriate.” It turns out, the authors boldly tell us, that Piaget was wrong. Earlier this year, parents and teachers expressed outrage at some of the content being taught to kindergarten and first graders. That content came from none other than Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA), the curriculum purchased for 5.1 million dollars by NYS and posted on Engage NY. As I continued to read the article, in addition to sounding like an infomercial for CKLA, it began to sound like a desperate attempt to convince us that it is in fact great to teach young children content that is beyond their understanding and that in fact their brains are like ours, just smaller and if you teach it, they will learn it. They may not understand it, but that’s ok because someday they will. Alarm bells should begin to go off when one realizes that the same psychologist whose words were used to bolster the credibility of the CKLA premise is the author of the very next article. Either it’s a very small world or there is a shortage of psychologists writing on education issues. A little research revealed that Daniel T. Willingham, frequent contributor to American Educator, is in fact, on the board of Core Knowledge. Small world, indeed. Here we have a nine-page article that appears to be devoted to selling educators on the CKLA curriculum, supported by quotes from Core Knowledge Board member, Daniel T. Willingham. Willingham is in fact the same person who Lisa Hansel, co-author of the article, thanked on the Core Knowledge blog in May of 2013 for these words, “We might wonder if patience would not come easier to a student who had had the experience of sustaining attention in the face of boredom, and then later finding that patience was rewarded….” You can read that here. To summarize, American educator tells us that teachers can mediate the vocabulary gap seen in students from lower socio-economic backgrounds by employing targeted vocabulary instruction while simultaneously teaching to standards that set the same children up for failure. So essentially, teachers can do what policy makers and billionaires have not been able to do – eliminate the effects of poverty on a child’s education. American educator then devotes 9 pages to extoling the virtues of Core Knowledge Language Arts curriculum. To prove just how much sense this all makes and to pooh-pooh the notion that 6 year olds should not be expected to retain content about ziggurats and Mesopotamia, the authors cite Daniel T. Willingham, who also sits on the board of Core Knowledge and believes that in fact, no content is inherently developmentally inappropriate, or for that matter, too boring for children. I began to ask myself, how often does American Educator actually endorse or write so favorably (or at such length) about a particular curriculum? In fact, not often. But when it does, as was the case in the Winter 2010-2011, Fall 2012, and Summer 2014 issues, it is about Core Knowledge. I have to wonder about the relationship between Core Knowledge, American Educator and the AFT, especially in light of the fact that the former editor of American Educator now sits on the board of Core Knowledge and another, Lisa Hansel (co-author of this article) is also a past editor of American Educator and is now the communications director of Core knowledge. This kind of cronyism is exactly the opposite of what public education is crying out for. If the AFT and by association, the journal American Educator, is representative of the teaching profession, shouldn’t the articles contained within be devoted to advocating for our students living in poverty rather than placing the onus of “fixing” the relationship between poverty and achievement on the shoulders of teachers? Does it elevate the profession to act as Common Core cheerleaders rather than engaging in critical thinking and discourse about merit of the standards themselves or how best to fight the growing achievement gap through political action and activism? And what happens to the credibility of a professional journal that devotes nine pages to selling their rank and file on a particular curriculum and educational philosophy? Over the past year, we have learned that education reform, the Common Core, big business and politics all share an incestuous relationship. At times, the narrative seems more conspiracy theory than fact and indeed, the more one peels back the layers, the more bizarre and tangled the web becomes. Rather than becoming part of that web, American Education and the AFT must create a safe space for dissent and resistance to policies and practices that hurt learning, promote inequality, and diminish the teaching profession. Bianca Tanis is a NYS Educator & Parent who is a steering committee member of New York State Allies for Public Education.