Monday, October 13, 2014

What the Copyright Discussion Tells Us About the Common Core Debate

Some Common Core critics are looking at the standards' copyright and public license and seeing things that aren't there.

It isn't unusual that the standards are copyrighted. Every example of standards written by a private group in the US -- NCTE, NCEE, NCTM, etc. -- is copyrighted, and pretty much has to be. State standards, like Massachusetts, explicitly were copyrighted in the past. In other cases, states don't clearly and consistently indicate one way or another, which is probably the worst case scenario since the default in the US is all rights reserved. The CCSSI and NGA copyright of the standards is an utter non-issue.

The standards' public license is almost a standard open content or Creative Commons-style license allowing re-distribution in whole or in part with attribution. This is one issue where it nearly is the case that any Common Core advocate should be able to authoritatively and completely dispel any concerns and show that in fact the Common Core is embracing best practices for handling intellectual property for important educational publications.

So it is notable that in 2014, this does not happen on, say Diane Ravitch's blog. It is almost an area where Common Core advocates could embarrass some prominent critics with a relatively straightforward, factual argument.

The problem is this specific passage in the license (emphasis mine):

The NGA Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) hereby grant a limited, non-exclusive, royalty-free license to copy, publish, distribute, and display the Common Core State Standards for purposes that support the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

This stipulation makes the license not an open content license as generally defined and leads to two questions that are practically unanswerable:

  1. What is a clear and legally enforceable definition of "purposes that support the CCSSI" that provides specific guidance as to what is and is not permitted?
  2. Why is that there at all? Whose idea was it? What on earth were they thinking?

OK, that's not two questions, but the point is that nobody can step in and argue the side of the Common Core, because ultimately they are going to get cornered by this petty, sloppy, self-indulgent poison pill that someone slipped in the license, ruining the other positive aspects. And since it is the Common Core, there is literally nobody who is authorized to give an authoritative explanation. So the bleeding continues.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Another Try at Explaining Common Core Copyright


One problem here is conflating the copyright and the license (the "public license"). Basically, every piece of text created in the US is copyrighted. Even if you want to give away your work, it is under your copyright and you allow re-use under a license. That's how Creative Commons works. That's how free and open source software works.

The legal system is NOT set up for simply releasing work into the public domain. See, for example,

"Dedicating works to the public domain is difficult if not impossible for those wanting to contribute their works for public use before applicable copyright or database protection terms expire. Few if any jurisdictions have a process for doing so easily and reliably. Laws vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction as to what rights are automatically granted and how and when they expire or may be voluntarily relinquished. More challenging yet, many legal systems effectively prohibit any attempt by these owners to surrender rights automatically conferred by law, particularly moral rights, even when the author wishing to do so is well informed and resolute about doing so and contributing their work to the public domain."

Establishing copyright and providing a permissive license is the way these things are properly done. The ONLY problem with how the Common Core is *licensed* is the stipulation that reproduction is permissible only "for purposes that support the Common Core State Standards Initiative."

What this means is that under the license I could produce "Tom's Common Core Standards" (since "Common Core Standards" is not a trademark). As long as I provided attribution for the standards I directly copied from the CCSSI Common Core, I could mix in my own standards or modified standards as I saw fit.

If the NGA and/or CCSSO decided that this use did not constitute "purposes that support the Common Core State Standards Initiative," they could charge me with breach of the license for that reason. If that went to court, it could probably go either way, especially if my version emphasized that its purpose was to propose improvements to the Common Core and to strengthen its mission.

Even if my publication of "Tom's Common Core" was found to be not supporting the CCSSI, I would still have a strong fair use argument, assuming I wasn't selling my version. My standards would be primarily non-profit and educational in purpose; standards by nature are usually based in part on existing standards, and NGA and CCSSI have no direct commercial interest in the standards.

Finally, the license is clear that current, not-in-breach licensees (users, readers) cannot have the terms of the license retrospectively changed. NGA and CCSSI could sell the copyright, they or someone else could issue the standards under a different, additional license, but they can't take away the license that has already been granted to reproduce the work, in whole or in part.

The Common Core process is controlled by the rules in Race to the Top and other federal guidelines, and by the tests. Those are sufficient for their needs.

Monday, October 06, 2014

This Prediction Holds Up Pretty Well Five Years Later

Me, September 2009:

The student is not asked to evaluate an interpretation or understanding, but merely an "assertion," which may simply be factual. For example, the assertion about the text could be "Copernicus argued that the Earth was the center of the universe." And this could be disproved by quoting "Nicolaus Copernicus was the first astronomer to formulate a comprehensive heliocentric cosmology, which displaced the Earth from the center of the universe."

This seemed like an obviously problematic example five years ago, a warning of where things might go with the Common Core. What is the point in just asking students to underline evidence for assertion X? I'd never heard of such a thing. Now it is pervasive in the tests and packaged curricula. People have probably forgotten that we haven't asked those questions forever.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Common Core Dad

I've been resisting the "Look at this Common Core assignment my daughter brought home" posts for a variety of reasons, including I'm sure I wouldn't have loved the pre-Common Core homework either. But... look at this Common Core assignment my daughter brought home.

Actually, it is the 2nd grade weekly quiz, which is kind of a big deal. My daughter got a 90, so everyone is happy, but still, I have to see what she missed.

Of the 20 questions, she missed one more or less appropriately difficult verb tense question -- although I don't understand why the verb tense section is labeled "phonics." Big data doesn't work folks if you can't even broadly categorize questions correctly.

The reading question she missed is:

Paragraph 6 tells mainly about:

  • park benches in Spain
  • towers in Australia.
  • street corners in New York.

Let's be clear here: this is a counting task, not a reading task, because if you have the right paragraph -- and these are short paragraphs -- you could easily just match the country names to get the answer. There are eight un-numbered paragraphs in a one page text, double spaced, with large font. The only hard part is counting a bunch of short paragraphs -- catching the indentation.

As it turns out, there's no standard specifically for identifying the print features for paragraphs. The "distinguishing features of a sentence" is covered under print concepts in first grade, but paragraphs do not merit the same treatment for some reason (and the category of "Print Concepts" ends in 1st grade), so it is unlikely this question is supposed to measure understanding of paragraph formatting.

She did get this one right, which probably slightly more worrisome than if she'd gotten it wrong:

One of the questions that art can make you ask is,

  • "Do I like art?"
  • "Was that there yesterday?"
  • "How do I make art?"

Of course, the right answer is "Was that there yesterday?" which you'd know if you read the text. Really the problem is just that the question does not refer specifically to the text. I guess what is creepy about this one is that I understand that part of schooling is giving banal answers to banal questions. But conditioning kids -- and I mean "conditioning" -- to bubble in "citations" as banal answers to serious, open-ended philosophical questions like "What kind of questions can art make you ask?" is... disturbing.

This is a Pearson quiz. If you're going to argue that Pearson doesn't understand the Common Core, then you're arguing that the whole premise of standards based reform doesn't work. If large, wealthy vendors that have been involved in every step in the process can't turn the standards into good curricula and tasks, then why would we expect anyone else to?

If at some point in the past, I was looking at a 20 question quiz written by a young teacher, and I didn't like some of them, I wouldn't be surprised. But I don't think they would be bad in the particular ways these questions are bad. They're rather specifically Common Core and Pearson bad; e.g., it is important to give 7 year olds practice in finding specific paragraphs, because that's what they're going to be doing more or less daily for the next decade. It is obvious.

The Common Core is Doomed by its Own Shoddiness

It is pretty much impossible to discuss the relative quality of the Common Core standards, because there is no good framework for doing so, and they are so messily constructed. Basically everyone seems to assume that all standards are awful, so whatever, and better one awful thing than 50.

In the end though, the Common Core will slowly sink into irrelevance because it is just so shoddily put together. I've spent enough time on that topic over the years, I'm not going to try to re-prove it to you now. But as support slips, it is unlikely the official debate will allow the possibility that they simply were poorly designed and written at every level of detail. On the ground, this reality has to be creeping up on people. Reporters and columnists aren't going to see it.

Previously on This American Life

Alice Mercer points a school reform angle on last weekend's This American Life, which reminds me that I've had the September 12 episode, A Not-So-Simple Majority, sitting in a tab waiting for a post for three weeks.

It is the story of the takeover of the East Ramapo, NY school board by a conservative religious faction with a strong dislike for taxation and sending their kids to the secular public schools.

Apparently since the faction is made up of Jews, and this is near New York City, this is news. In most of the country (geographically), the faction is evangelical Christian Republicans, and it is a dog bites man story. Unless I missed it while going about my business and listening to the radio, this rather significant connection to flyover America and the platform of one of our two political parties was not made.

What is most striking emotionally though, is the way the scenes at school board meetings in East Ramapo reflect the scenes in urban districts across the country -- board members without children in the schools mutely sitting through angry public comment from predominantly minority parents, before gutting programs and closing schools to be handed off to political allies. If school reformers wanted to get a peek at how others see them, they might listen to this piece. Their playbook is more similar to the religious orthodox than they might like to admit.

Finally, in the end, special ed is a central issue. It is always a central issue in American public education, like property values, but often lies just over the horizon of the debate.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

A Slightly Better Brand of English Horseshit

English Education secretary Nicky Morgan:

“And when I hear of teachers working late into the night marking books, planning lessons, preparing for inspections that may or may not come, I do two things: I marvel at their dedication. But I also think, there must be a better way.

“I don’t want my child to be taught by someone too tired, too stressed and too anxious to do the job well.”

She said her first priority was to reduce the overall burden on teachers and second to ensure that teachers spend more time in the classroom teaching.

As I've said before, her first priority -- reducing teacher workloads -- should be the top one for improving US schools, as all other reforms founder when there is no capacity to implement them. So it is good on some level to hear the Conservatives in England saying something which public education advocates over here rarely say out loud.

On the other hand, it is hard to see how that goes along with more time in the classroom, so I wouldn't trust the bastards long enough to get to the end of the sentence.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

You're Not the First Person to Notice the Environment

Erica Schoenberger:

Here’s what I’m trying to help the kids understand. We’ve been making messes for a very long while and we have known pretty much all along that we were doing so. The histories of our mess-making really matter. Getting at the details lets you see how a trajectory was constructed piece by piece, opening up some possibilities and forclosing others. Further: We may have very good intentions as individuals, but the options we have available to choose among are structured by larger, impersonal forces. Huge collective investments have supported and promoted all those unfortunate individual decisions and have made it hard for people to make good choices. To me, this suggests that huge collective investments in support of good decisions are needed. If a capitalist system must grow to survive, let’s grow toward, not away from, the world we want.

One interesting aspect of Jennifer's research on the history of coal mining on the River Devon, is that when you look at the documentary evidence, environmental concerns are raised from the very beginning of planning, starting with correspondence between John Erskine and his engineers around the turn of the 18th century.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

PTU Leadership Fails to Turn Out the Vote

I've never fully understood the mind of the Providence Teachers Union, and I especially don't know anything about the state of the leadership and politics post-Steve Smith. I will simply point out that in the 1,900 member union, the vote a new proposed contract was 182 yes, 611 no.

That's for an in-person vote held in Providence Monday evening, so low turnout isn't that surprising, but less than 10% voting yes is pretty weak. One would suspect that new teachers in particular didn't show up, and probably a lot of people who might have held their noses and voted yes if pressed just didn't feel like hanging around until the meeting or driving back into town.

I suspect that a not very different contract will eventually be passed with better marketing and perhaps a few veiled threats, or maybe just waiting for Taveras to leave.