The Kids Are Not All Right: Louis C.K. and the Problem with the Common Core in New York City Public Schools

Louis C.K. and the Common Core

Last night, comedian Louis C.K. appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman in order to promote the new season of his critically acclaimed television series, Louie. While there, he also spent a considerable amount of time expounding on a topic that is at the forefront of the mind of every New York City public school parent right now: standardized testing and the Common Core. C.K. did not hold back and unleashed a tirade against a testing system that he feels has ruined his children’s love of school—earlier in the week, he tweeted, “My kids used to love math! Now it makes them cry.” C.K. took to social media again last night, explaining that his problem isn’t with the public school system, or with his daughter’s teachers, or even with the concept of testing, but rather with the poorly worded questions on the tests themselves as well as the reality that students’ test results will heavily influence how individual teachers and schools are assessed. It’s a pressure cooker of a system, and among those feeling the most pressure are kids as young as 8-years-old. 

The implementation of the Common Core, an education initiative which has federal approval (its initial conception was by Janet Napolitano, former head of Homeland Security under Obama and current head of the University of California system) and is now used in 40 states, has been fraught with controversy. Such usually disparate groups as hardcore libertarians and members of the teachers union have found shared ground in their antipathy to what might soon be the national standard of learning. Rationales for opposition range the gamut and come from people that think the tests unfairly penalize teachers of traditionally low-performing students, to those who oppose any kind of nationally recognized curriculum, to those who think that the amount of money that stands to be made by companies like Pearson (who create the tests) is more than a little bit suspect.

However, many of the loudest complaints in New York City have come from the people most affected by the tests in a way that is not related to something like job security or corporate conspiracy theories, namely, the parents of the children taking these exams. In Brooklyn alone, hundreds of parents have protested the Common Core, and have chosen to opt out of having their children tested. At many of the borough’s most successful schools, faculty and administration have joined in the parents’ protests; Brooklyn New School teacher, Katherine Sorel, wrote about how poor the test’s questions are in an article for WNYC, and Elizabeth Phillips, principal of Park Slope’s revered PS 321, recently voiced her discontent with the Common Core in an Op-Ed in the New York Times. The common thread in these complaints is this: not only is six days of testing for children in grades 3-8 is excessive, but also, the questions themselves are difficult and opaque and the grading system lacks transparency.

And yet, advocates of the test, including many education experts, implore that the public have patience, and promise that, while the tests might be imperfect, the Common Core is still in its infancy, and that its stated goals (holding educators to high standards in order to better teach our children) are admirable and seek to close the education gap that exists both internally and globally. Newsweek‘s Alexander Nazaryan responded to Louis C.K.’s tirade, essentially calling it short-sighted, and pointing out that the Common Core’s goals are broader than just making sure kids who have always done well academically will continue to do well, and that what the new standards hope to do is aid the “kids in the South Bronx or the South Side who would benefit from a little more rigor in the classroom and a little more accountability from their teachers.” Nazaryan counsels that it is important to take a long-view of the situation, and cautions against looking at a program that looks to improve education nationally as an attack on your individual child.

All of which makes a certain kind of sense, of course. It would be myopic and solipsistic to examine this issue by gauging how much it affects your own children, and their immediate peers. There is a definite need in this country to hold subpar teachers and administrators accountable for how they fail their students, just as there is a need to make sure that we aren’t failing our children by allowing them to graduate school without being able to fairly participate in what is an incredibly competitive job market. And since it is usually low-income children who attend schools with the worst performance records, it would seem like they are the group who will most benefit from a new kind of accountability. So when privileged parents (like C.K.)  and the teachers and administrators in privileged schools (like BNS and PS 321) complain about these tests, its usually dismissed as elite whining and dismissed as such. Nazaryan even ends his defense of the Common Core by saying “that C.K.’s children will be fine, as will mine and, probably, yours” and that because “the complaints against Common Core and the charter-school movement have come from upper-middle-class parents” their “objections are largely ideological, not pedagogical,” and thus not worthy of being taken seriously.

This is patently absurd, though, when it comes to the situation of New York City public school parents. New York City has a Byzantine system of student promotion, one which not only involves students as young as 10-years-old undergoing an extensive interview process to get into a public middle school, but also which relies heavily on the scores from the student’s fourth grade tests for entrance. In some districts, the most coveted middle schools (and not ones that require testing, just regular middle schools) have acceptance rates as low as 10%. So the Common Core tests that 9- and 10-year-old kids are taking don’t just mean something to the teachers and schools who administer them, but also mean whether or not friends who have lived 2 blocks from each other their whole lives will be able to attend the same 6th grade. Doing well on these tests can mean the difference in high-performing students attending middle schools with good track records, or ones that have consistently failed their student bodies. Of course parents care about whether or not their children do well on these tests. In New York City, taking these tests are the equivalent of the SATs—only we’re asking 9-year-old kids to deal with the attendant pressures instead of high schoolers.

Nevertheless, as a parent of two children in the New York City public school system, I don’t think that the Common Core should be abolished, nor do I think that opting out (which does indeed tend to happen at the schools in which the children are already pretty low-risk) is the answer. There should be more transparency with the tests, and questions should be challenging, but should not be lacking in clarity. These are simple fixes, though, to a problem that won’t actually solve anything for many New York City public school parents. Having witnessed 10-year-olds in tears at the prospect of having to attend a middle school without knowing a single other person, and 9-year-olds break down on test day because they worry what a bad test will mean for “their future,” I can only conclude that it isn’t even what’s on the tests that are the problem, it’s that the results of the tests are so entwined with our children’s academic future that they strangle their academic present. It’s a patently ridiculous system and there is no good reason for it. If the Common Core is indeed a way of judging the work that our schools are doing, then rather than use the grades to penalize or award kids, we should simply use them as a method of evaluating the schools, and allow kids to apply to middle schools based on their overall academic prowess in the form of their annual report cards, rather than test scores. (Middle schools do look at report cards when evaluating fifth-graders, however, much like with the SATs, test scores are notoriously heavily weighted.) This would ease a lot of the pressure that the kids feel about the tests, and in turn might mean a lot fewer eyes to dry for parents like Louis C.K., and it would also allow for an impartial (or as close as possible) way of judging schools and faculty alike. Because as the system works now, something just isn’t adding up.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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