Selling Us The Right String But the Wrong Yo-Yo

Back in 1962, when I was first inhaling huge gulps of pop music, there was a song by Dr. Feelgood and the Interns that would occasionally surface on Atlanta top-40 stations. It contains these lines:

You’ve got the right string, baby
But the wrong yo-yo

Somebody knocking on your door
Well, I passed this morning
By the hardware store
A brand new string for my yo-yo

Walked down to the doctor
To get my string put on
He made a mistake
Put the string on wrong.

None of it made any sense, but I loved it.

Today, whenever someone manipulates a truth to create a falsehood, I think about that song, and about the nonsense that can come from perfectly respectable words (if we can stretch things a bit and consider “yo-yo” respectable) and phrases mashed together.

One recent example comes from New York State Education Commissioner John King, who said:

“Ultimately, I think this work for college- and career-readiness, citizenship-readiness, the work of raising student achievement, helping students be prepared when they get to college, so they don’t end up in remedial courses—that work is ultimately a patriotic endeavor,” King said. “It pales in comparison to the sacrifices that others have made, but hopefully it is our way, our small way, each of us, to make a difference.

“There have been a lot of politics over the last four years around this work, and I have no doubt that those politics will continue,” he said. “But what we must each bring to this work is tremendous certainty about the goal: the goal of college-readiness, career-readiness, citizenship-readiness, the goal of better outcomes for our kids, the goal that brought us to this work. That is our way to try to contribute to the future of our state and our country.”

He was trying to connect the Common Core State Standards being foisted on American schools to the Civil Rights movement and to the Tuskegee Airmen of the Second World War.

Perhaps his ‘right string’ really is is a desire for “college- and career-readiness, citizenship readiness” but his Common Core yo-yo has nothing to do with any of that–nor is his the string of Civil Rights. Furthermore, his yo-yo is nothing more than a bunch of “standards” concocted by a small group of non-teachers, people who are not themselves employers and who clearly are not believers in the democratic process. His string of words may make it seem they knew what they were doing in creating the Common Core, but common sense tells us otherwise.

How can anyone imagine that it is possible to create “college readiness” without consulting college teachers, the people who are going to be judging student work as soon as they get to campus? How can anyone imagine that a group of think-tank mavens know what “career-readiness” is for the vast majority of people entering the job market? How can anyone who feels that a small group working privately can determine the needs of the vast American population really claim to be helping make better citizens of a democracy?

And then there is King’s attempt to equate patriotism with preparing students for college. Huh? How does that string attach to that yo-yo? This is perfect nonsense. It would be nonsense even if Common Core could somehow ensure that remediation would no longer be necessary in college. It can’t, though. Even if the creators of Common Core really did know what college professors expect, a test-evaluated program like Common Core could never do what is needed… for it prepares for testing, not thinking. Another disconnect, another right string, baby, and the wrong yo-yo.

King may be certain about his goal, but he doesn’t consider that the ways he defines it has no fit to the reality of what graduating high-school students face. It is a string that will more likely tie their hands than it will help them master “walk the dog” or “around the world”–let alone the more complex tricks of the yo-yo world.

Let me end with this: The movement against Common Core is growing, as King acknowledges, but it has yet to include the loud outrage from higher education that it should. We, who have to teach these students when they reach college, should be making ourselves heard. I am trying, as are a few others. But we are not enough.

After all, rather than creating college-ready potential citizens, what we are facing through Common Core is the selling out (who is profiting from the “reform” movement? Pearson… and who else? Corporations, not people) of America:


2 thoughts on “Selling Us The Right String But the Wrong Yo-Yo

  1. Is this the same Richard Farina who was friends with Thomas Pynchon and wrote, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me? That kind of disorientation would be appropriate in a mix of politics and education. Enjoyed the piece.

    • Yup. Same guy. Gravity’s Rainbow is, I believe, dedicated to him. He died in a motorcycle accident soon after his novel was published. His wife Mimi was Joan Baez’s sister and his talent as a songwriter rivaled Bob Dylan’s (who is the subject of his song “Morgan the Pirate”).

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