Standardized testing and schools as factories: Louis CK versus Common Core



I don’t get the demonizing of Common Core. It isn’t a curriculum or testing system, though I suppose one would naturally need to test students to see if they “pass” Common Core.

Common Core is just a list of standards on what kids should learn. Johnny must learn X in 3rd grade to go into the 4th grade. This makes sense to me, as before each state had it’s own standards. I know my brother in law had to repeat a grade because the curriculum in Oklahoma didn’t meet the Kansas requirements when he transferred schools. I don’t see how one can argue that having a base platform of skills/knowledge that is universally taught is a bad thing.

People have posted crap like different ways to do math that seem counter intuitive and then blame Common Core. The thing is, those methods pre-date Common Core, and Common Core doesn’t say that method should or shouldn’t be taught. (Of course I’ve seen the irony where people argue CC will dumb down or make learning homogenized with no diversity, then they bitch when there is an alternative, diverse way to solve math problems.)


It’s not Common Core itself that’s a problem, nor standards as a concept. It’s the incessant testing to “prove” that schools and teachers are “performing well” by producing enough students who demonstrate learned absorption of a common knowledge and skills set.

The real problem is that like No Child Left Behind, Common Core is a neoliberal Trojan horse for busting teachers’ unions and privatizing (that is, profiting from) education.


Just like the first two posters, I’m torn. I think common core is important because it means we can know that all kids who make it to a certain level in the USA have had the same education. (Although, I can see people on both sides of the political spectrum seeing how that could be bad for them.) One of the benefits would be reduction in the importance of the money making scheme that is the SATs.

But all this testing is NOT good for education. Or rather, all this high-stakes testing is not good for education. Teachers cheat and change their kids’ scores and kids miss out on the exploratory learning that yields innovative thinking. I don’t know if this is xenophobia or racism masquerading as research, but I have read that this obsession with test-taking that took storm in Asia with confuscianism led to a decline in innovation and an eventual end to China’s lead in technology.


While CC “is just a list of standards” is true in paper, in practice, it is the curriculum makers like Pearson, that are also the CC test makers, and they have a vested interest in biasing tests, such that Pearson-curriculum kids will do better than non-Pearson-curriculum taught kids. Don’t think this is happening? If you actually read the CC standards and compare them to the CC test problems, you will see idiosyncratic helper techniques such as “area model” for multiplication–which are NOT part of the CC standards–show up on CC tests. [EDIT: To clarify, this is not a criticism of these techniques, only the inclusion of them on the tests. See below.]

Pearson is adding material in the curriculum they sell which is not part of the CC standards, and then including that material in the CC tests they create. And in the world of big data and aggregate statistics, Pearson only needs to slow down the non-Pearson curriculum test-takers by a minute or so in order to make their curriculum look superior.


My brother is an administrator who is interested in creative approaches to learning. His style of management fits right in with the charter school movement; however, his career has been spotty to say the least because most of the charter schools are really just ways for businessmen to put tax dollars in their pockets. At least two of the school systems he worked in are now involved in lawsuits over mishandling of funds.

I think all the emphasis on testing, accountability, putting down the role of teachers, of the unions, is about people seeing the profit that can be made in education if they come up with a system they can sell (all those books) that takes the unknown of teaching ability out of the equation and promises to deliver a predictable result.

Too bad humans aren’t optimized for mass production.


Pearson and other businesses are the stakeholders that seem to be making the biggest impact. If you want to understand how Big Data is a part of this, have a look at the CEO of Knewton, which provides the back-end API for Pearson, talking gleefully about how Facebook, Google, and Netflix will only have a mere fraction of the kind of data Knewton will get when the Pearson-flavored curriculum goes fully online.


The issue with it is that it’s not based on known research on kid’s abilities at different ages, so they are consistently being taught skills that are known to be above their cognitive ability at that age.

No one said you had to be in the same grade as other people your age.


I’m all in favor of reducing excessive and useless testing - it’s gotten much worse in the 10 years since I finished high school, but it had already started then.And I’ve come across my fair share of (what seemed to me) dumb ways of solving problems and presenting information. I admit they may help some students whose brains worked differently than mine, but some teachers insist on something that isn’t essential and it (sometimes legitimately) undermines students’ confidence in their abilities.

But some of the complaints in the linked article are bizarre. For example:

If you are over the age of twenty and not yourself a teacher, it is unlikely that you will have an intuitive facility with a “number line,” or know how to write a “number sentence,” or even understand what is meant by the omnipresent directive to “show your work.”

Really? You went through years of geometry and algebra, and don’t get number lines? You didn’t use number lines to count in kindergarten, or to graph lines and parabolas and so on in middle and high school, or to introduce the idea of negative and complex numbers? I admit “number sentence” is an odd turn of phrase for those of us more used to the traditional terms “equation” and “expression” but it is actually a completely natural and intuitive way of describing what an equation is - a compact, grammatical, symbolic representation of a numerical idea in the same way that a natural language sentence is a less compact, grammatical, symbolic representation of a verbal idea. And “show your work” has been the rule for decades. It is often pushed too far (I had middle school teachers that would take points off if I did 2 arithmetic steps in 1 line of an algebra derivation) but how can anyone possibly think this has anything to do with Common Core?


Tests were my favorite part of school so I really don’t understand why people are so against them. How else are you going to evaluate if a student has absorbed the information? Do you just not test and assume that Billy knows how to multiply, then pass them on to the next teacher?

Frankly, I’m generally confused why in this day and age, half of learning doesn’t take place in video games or through movies.


We can have an honest discussion about Common Core, but honestly, why the hell do we care what Louis CK thinks about it?

I’ve seen this on all the other blogs as well – OMG, Louis CK just tweeted against the Common Core!!1

I love Louis CK, but he’s a comedian, not an education expert. This is celebrity culture, and nothing else. I think Louis would probably do a skit about people taking him seriously.

And really, “My kids used to love math. Now it makes them cry. Thanks standardized testing and common core!”? Guess what? Your kids used to count bunnies in “math” class, now they are older and have to do different math! How can he possibly know if they would have liked third-grade non-Common Core math?


Do any parent’s have real experience with the “new math” parts of common core. So far the internet has let me down, all the bashing seems (to me) to boil down to a few themes

  1. Posting homework without the lessons or instructions that would provide the necessary context
  2. Posting examples where the lesson focuses on the mechanics of mathematics, such as illustrating how you can do subtraction in your head using addition (which is a great trick IMO)
  3. Posting examples where the focus is more on algebraic thinking than on arithmetic
  4. Posting homework with Anti-Merican sentiments


So I sort of have this impression that is’s a lot of people not reading the instructions, or missing the point that Math is bigger than Arithmetic, or just getting upset that the teaching of Math has changed. But I’d love to get a more nuanced view before I have to deal with this on my own.


I grew up in a system with standardized, moderately high-stakes testing in the higher grades: the NY Regents Exams. I still consider that an example of how to do it right. Set a reasonable baseline for expected knowledge that qualifies for (a) a more highly-ranked diploma, and (b) scholarship opportunities (so it’s worth something to the kids rather than just being another hurdle to jump through), make the test optional but desirable, test once at the END of the term (or of the multi-term program) to allow variation in teaching approaches/sequences.

Aspirational/inspirational, not punative.

Of course it helps if that attitude is also built into the culture. I grew up during the space race. The fact that we are no longer setting ourselves a Grand Challenge does make motivating kids a bit harder.

(BTW, from everything I’ve seen – and I know a fair number of instructors at a fairly wide range of grade levels – when schools get in trouble it’s more often the administrators, rather than the teachers, who should be re-educated/replaced. I admit I’ve seen – and had experience with – teachers who had no business being in the classroom, but they’re too rare to be the dominant problem.)


As far as I can tell the math section seems to have more focus on number sense over rote application of a single method. This is good IMHO, but I can see how it would cause people who learned the latter to freak out.

Frankly, math is scary to a lot of people, and anything different than what they learned is even scarier. If you aren’t afraid of numbers most of the techniques make a lot of sense, at least in certain circumstances. The whole point of number sense is recognizing the pattern and applying the easiest technique to solve it, and extremely valuable skill to have once you graduate to Algebra and beyond (where, shock of shocks, a lot of people who learned the old system suddenly found themselves in way over their heads and learned to hate math).

An example: Subtract 132 from 889. In this case, the traditional method is easiest: 757. Now subtract 975 from 1115. In the traditional method this requires a lot of carries and gets annoyingly cumbersome, but in the “new math” method you would note that 975 is just 25 away from 1000, so you can add 25 to 115 and get 140 with virtually no effort. This latter example has caused so many Facebook freakouts that I’m really starting to wonder if there isn’t some other agenda to all of this pushback. I can understand complaints about over-testing, but that’s been an issue long before Common Core came along, all Common Core did was provide a baseline for all of the tests.

Also, I note that people are freaking out over “WORDS, in MATH problems?!?” It’s reassuring yet sad to see that nothing ever changes.


Yeah, I mean, I see that sort of statement and I can’t help but think to myself “That seems like the opposite of what we want. Of what value is churning out hundreds of thousands of people every year who all know the same exact thing, and none who know some different thing?”

Sure, I think it’s important that everyone get some shared base of knowledge… but the thing about Common Core is that it’s expansive. If it was “half your curriculum should teach these things, then teach other valuable stuff to actually make that knowledge useful”, I’d support it, but the idea that schools are factories that should be churning out identical goods seems absurd.

The other reason lots of people oppose common core is because the arguments common core components make are, frankly, terrifying. The official common core standards website has a “faq” that explains how Common Core is going to turn every aspect of education into a competition! That the people behind common core think this is a convincing argument terrifies me. And that they think the primary purpose of education should be to make it easy to compare our kids to kids around the world in identical ways.


You forget Louis CK’s prime qualification: he is a parent and that trumps comedian. This is hardly anything about celebrity culture as he is only adding a voice to an ongoing controversy.

The point about his rant that many will overlook is that his daughters simple math homework is alienating him and millions of other parents. If math savvy parents are outraged and alienated by bad and obtuse material, how do we expect them to be “involved” in their students learning? Isn’t parental engagement supposed to be one of the major elements of a child’s success in school? Do you believe such a curriculum is helping or hurting that engagement, say, with the non-math savvy single parent of three, during the evening homework hours?

This parental alienation isn’t unique to Common Core, but it is becoming more evident as the CC-flavored curriculum creators attempt to invent “new” methods and mechanics to justify selling “new” curriculum, which is a major scam. Consider how in the age of the Internet with all things computerized and the burgeoning free online curriculum market, that Pearson and others are selling curriculum with the same business model they used in 1975 (e.g, ten year “lock-in” contracts) only to have 90% of the digital versions be scanned in versions of their old paper products.

It’s performance measures that mainly seem to be to blame for these issues, but it’s understanding to want them. A group of underprivileged students have a high drop out rate and seem to be falling behind academically. How do you asses the problem? You try to give a quantifiable measure of dropout rate and academic performance. You want to stay quantitative and not qualitative in your data set so it isn’t skewed. So you invent a set of standardized repeatable measures to do this. The standardized testing system. You want to use these scores in hopes to identify gaps in where teachers are not providing adequate instruction. There are no demons in this system yet. It’s in the application.

You source the performance analysis to a third party to stay objective. That third party wishes to protect their measures, both for financial and quality reasons. You don’t want teachers who strictly perform to maximize the measure. You’re still trying to improve education. The analysis will have flaws or gaps versus reality. It’s a generalization. So flaws start to creep in. But they’re expected and could be adjusted for by improving your measures. And then you give it to people.

You use the generalized measures to rate actual performance of individuals because it’s what you have. Oops. Was it possibly a decent measure in many cases to help a teacher adapt better to their student’s needs? It’s likely. Is it good as the primary measure of how a teacher is doing? Absolutely not. But it’s objective data based on quantifiable results and it’s what you put so much time and effort into getting. At this point you’re most likely biased towards those results and there’s little hope of applying them objectively.

And that’s if you don’t have vested interest in any of the other portions being successful. Did you make the test? Or worse, are you selling the test or analysis?

Students who need an education, people protecting their livelihood as academics making tests and businesses selling them, teachers trying protect methods they believe are best for their students as well as their livelihoods, parents who experience the students frustration, and politicians who want to get involved (euphemism.) Any approach to try and improve education is going to throw one or more of these groups into a spin. And they will in many cases react fiercely to protect their interests.


Of course, it’s undoubtedly true that educators are incredibly at making the natural fun and awesomeness of math into soul-crushing, heartrending misery. But your average teacher was doing that to students long before Common Core came out, and the only real criticism of Common Core here is that it’s not a problem CC is trying to fix.

I mean, I guess it might, possible, hurt the few teachers that are good at teaching math and making it not-terrible, but I haven’t seen any evidence of that anywhere…

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All of the standardized testing to measure school performance was a misapplication of an industrial technique. Deming in WWII then Japan in the 50s then the US again in the 80’s taught a system of continuous improvement. Find ways to do things better (not just products) by giving people the tools they need to make improvements. Harness pride of workmanship.

One of the tools is measuring your results. How can you tell what the problems are or if you made any improvements if you don’t measure? It what industry does when it test widgets, it’s what teachers have been doing for decades when you get a pop quiz.

Extending measurements to compare teachers and schools makes sense … if you are using it to figure our what works and doesn’t work. Famous Deming quote: “You get what you measure.” Well, that also applies to how you use the measurement. Use it wrong, and you get something like his red/black bead experiment: Basically, you create a weird system of rewards and punishments that doesn’t work and demoralizes everyone.

Alternately, you can measure how kids are doing over time, look for patterns, try to figure out the cause of the patterns, and make improvements that offer a better education. To date, almost no one is doing that. Teachers and schools get rewarded and punished based on instantaneous snapshots of test results.

So everyone freaks and figures they just need more testing and higher stakes. Double down. Administrators implement flavor of the week programs hoping something will magically work. Teachers teach to the test knowing that bad results are punished, but mediocre results get rewarded as much as outstanding results. And we go no where.

Unfortunately, the correct way to do things requires lots of data. Years of data. Hard mathematical analysis. Deep thinking. Training teachers, administrators, and students based on what you learn. Give people power to make things better, rather than micromanage. Oh, and make hard decisions like firing teachers or ending programs or telling parent that little Timmy is not going to be a neurosurgeon but would be a great electrician or making classes harder if that’s what needs to be done. Stuff no one wants to do.