Why It Is Illogical To Reject #CCSS Based On Bad Class Assignments

I have been following the #stopcommoncore hashtag on Twitter to keep abreast of the debate that is growing across the country about whether states should continue to implement the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). One argument against the implementation of the CCSS that has been advanced on a number of occasions is the idea that a particular lesson aligned to the CCSS is evidence that the CCSS are bad. This argument is an example “affirming the consequent”, which is a logical fallacy.

The argument, which I will call the “Bad Assignment” argument, made the rounds perhaps most recently in response to a story reported, among other places, in the Daily Caller and EAG News. In this story, a sixth-grade, Washington DC history teacher assigned students a project where they were asked to revise the Bill of Rights. Many people found this assignment, which you can find here, objectionable. Assuming their premise is true–that the assignment is bad–the “Bad Assignment” reasoning goes as follows. The assignment was in a Washington DC classroom. Washington DC has adopted the CCSS. If a state (or, in this case, a district) adopts the CCSS, then the assignments and curriculum are mandated to be aligned to the CCSS. This assignment is bad. Therefore, the CCSS is bad. Put more succinctly in modus ponens form:

If the CCSS are bad, then the curriculum aligned to the CCSS is bad.
The curriculum aligned to the CCSS is bad.
Therefore, the CCSS are bad.

In an “affirming the consequent” fallacy, we assume that some consequence of some idea is proof that the idea is true. It is represented formally here:

If P, then Q.
Q.
Therefore, P.

A clearer example of how this reasoning is flawed is stated below:

If it rains, the sidewalk will be wet.
The sidewalk is wet.
Therefore, it rained.

The argument is flawed because there are other ways that the sidewalk could have gotten wet. There could have been a water balloon fight in which water balloons exploded on the sidewalk. Or I could have sprayed the sidewalk down with a hose in order to illustrate a logical fallacy. Either way, even if the first two premises are true, the reasoning does not follow.

The reason that the “Bad Assignment” argument does not work is that there other ways in which the assignment could have become bad. For example, it could have been poorly aligned, and therefore not REALLY representative of a CCSS-aligned curriculum. If it IS aligned (and I think it probably fulfills these history literacy standards), then it is possible that the assignment is bad in other ways–by asking students to use important skills in inappropriate ways. For example, most people would agree it is important for students to be able to compose logical arguments, as the CCSS contend. However, it may be inappropriate to have students learn that skill by constructing logical arguments about whether it is better to use heroin or cocaine. This assignment regarding the Bill of Rights may be just an inappropriate way to fulfill the standards–the standards themselves needn’t be the reason why the assignment is bad.

Some may contend that the argument in modus ponens form should be written like this:

If the curriculum aligned to the CCSS is bad, then the CCSS are bad.
The curriculum aligned to the CCSS is bad.
Therefore, the CCSS are bad.

This is not a valid argument either because its initial implication is vulnerable. It does not necessarily follow that a single instance (a curriculum aligned to the CCSS) can imply something about a more general class (the CCSS). The only way this could be true is if every assignment in every curriculum aligned to the CCSS was bad. If the “Bad Assignment” argument took this form, it would be basing its conclusion on a few examples, which is a hasty generalization.

The “Bad Assignment” argument is a bad argument. There are many valid criticisms of the CCSS, but the “Bad Assignment” is not one of them. I hope the debate, which is sure to continue, can do so as a civil discourse involving valid logical reasoning. If that happens, the debate can be a productive exercise in democratic education policy development.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: Thanks to Thomas J. Dall Jr. Esq. for his consultation on the formal logic in this post.

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6 comments

  1. I don’t think #stopcommoncore people are differentiating between CCSS and the curricula, assignments, lesson plans, and assessments designed to align with CCSS. This makes sense from a parent’s or teacher’s perspective: all of this new stuff is being implemented all at once in the name of the Common Core. It’s going to be a hard sell to convince these people to differentiate between (what they see as) bad assignments and (what you see as) good standards.

    1. I’ll concede your point on parents because this distinction is part of the knowledge produced within education, and since parents are not part of that professional discourse community, they are not required to know some of the more specialized knowledge. But teachers should know the difference between standards and curricula. So I think if they advocate this argument, they should know better.

      I hope some parents who post on #stopcommoncore might take the time to read, learn about the distinction (if they don’t know it already) and consider avoiding using this argument. Since some form of (simplified) positivism is the dominant philosophy within public education policy debates (e.g. National Reading Panel, evidence-based accountability), I opted to point out a logical flaw as a rhetorical choice. Plus… well, I just wanted to see if I could figure out why that argument was rubbing me the wrong way. Turns out, it was a fallacy. Who knew.

  2. Your entire line of reasoning is fallacious. When someone points out that their Common Core aligned curricula is garbage, they aren’t saying that is the REASON for rejecting Common Core. It is just an observation that supports the many actual reasons for rejecting them.
    The Common Core state standards should be rejected because:
    1) They’re badly designed and badly written. Numerous members of their own validation committee (hand picked by Common Core’s vendors) refused to sign off on the standards because they were such a mess.
    2) There was no reason for their existence. The fallacy that our schools are failing is not borne out by the facts at hand.
    3) They channel billions of dollars out of the classroom and into the pockets of the textbook and curriculum corporations who are manufacturing the bad homework assignments.

    Of course, if the standards are so poorly written that curriculum writers can’t make anything sensible from them……that is just the icing on the cake. That isn’t the REASON to reject the standards, and nobody is saying it is.

  3. Before I respond, I’m a little unclear about your argument. Could you clarify the difference between a “reason” and “an observation that supports… a reason”? They seem a little similar to me.

    1. Michael,

      I apologize for not responding sooner. I didn’t check back after posting that. You are entirely correct. A wet sidewalk is not PROOF that it rained. But it is evidence that points in that direction. A wet sidewalk right next to a lawn sprinkler is NOT the same level of evidence as a completely wet parking lot. A wet SPOT on a sidewalk is not the same level evidence as wetness as far as the eye can see, combined with a rainbow and a receding thundercloud. (Is it?) Scientists weigh the evidence IN CONNECTION with the context. When I use the phrase “an observation that supports a reason” I am speaking as a scientist, of weighing evidence in context.

      Some garbage homework has always existed. That is not new. There have always been some homework assignments that were nonsensical. So the fact that there is STILL nonsense homework under CCSS is not, de facto, proof that Common Core is bad. But the fact that there is more of it now, and that it is worse than it used to be, supports the assertions of many education experts that Common Core is deeply and irreparably flawed.

      The current expert consensus is that Common Core is poorly designed and sloppily constructed (according to those experts hired to evaluate it, anyway). That makes even attempting to design good homework assignments to support it much more difficult. If the standards were good, then good curricula would follow them. Since the standards are of low quality, the curricula being sold as “CCSS aligned” are also generally of low quality.
      The successful curricula that many of the best teachers have used in the past (including the GOOD homework assignments) are, all of a sudden, “not aligned” with Common Core, so they need to be replaced with new ones.
      I see no reason to persist with Common Core. I would prefer an educational approach developed by actual educators, rather than one developed by management consultants and standardized testing companies.

      I may be wrong, and I would truly appreciate any attempt to educate me further on the subject. As a researcher and a scientist, I’m always looking for a way to disprove my own hypothesis.

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