The new Federal education standards known as Common Core, are stirring up a big argument around the nation.
The standards have been in existence for a while and are now becoming an issue because they are just recently being put into effect across the country.
If you are not aware of what this is; Common core refers to a set of standards that are intended to provide clear goals for what students are expected to learn, and include a series of benchmarks in English and Math that all students will have to meet by the next school year.
The standards apply to students from kindergarten through 12th.
This cure-all wonder drug – the Common Core, short for the Common Core State Standards Initiative was cooked up by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. And, this magic potion promises to cure America’s education ills, according to its Mission Statement:
The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.
Before these standards were set, states came up with education benchmarks that were unique to each and every state.
Common Core tries to make sure all students, nationally, are on the same level, and was created by Governors from across the nation as well as education commissioners.
45 states have adopted the Common Core standards.
In 2014, there will be testing to correspond with the Common Core standards, after they take full effect.
Specifically, the Common Core claims to cure the ills that have long plagued America’s education: inequality and inefficiency. “Common standards will help ensure that students are receiving a high quality education consistently, from school to school and state to state. Common standards will provide a greater opportunity to share experiences and best practices within and across states that will improve our ability to best serve the needs of students.”
So how wonderful is this wonder drug? There is no empirical evidence at the moment to make any judgment since no one has taken it yet. But common sense can help.
It is important to remember that although they are referred to as Federal or National education standards, the Federal Government did not create them. They are referred to as this only because the majority of states have chosen to adopt them, and they are aimed at being a national set of standards.
The misnamed “Common Core State Standards” are not state standards. They’re national standards, created by Gates-funded consultants for the National Governors Association (NGA). They were designed, in part, to circumvent federal restrictions on the adoption of a national curriculum, hence the insertion of the word “state” in the brand name. States were coerced into adopting the Common Core by requirements attached to the federal Race to the Top grants and, later, the No Child Left Behind waivers. (This is one reason many conservative groups opposed to any federal role in education policy oppose the Common Core.)
Like so many education reform initiatives that seem to arise out of nowhere, the Common Core State Standards is another of these sweeping phantom movements that have gotten their impetus from a cadre of invisible human beings endowed with inordinate power to impose their ideas on everybody.
For example, the idea of collecting intimate personal data on public school students and teachers seems to have arisen spontaneously in the bowels of the National Center for Education Statistics in Washington. It required a small army of education psychologists to put together the data handbooks, which are periodically expanded to include more personal information.
Nobody knows who exactly authorized the creation of such a dossier on every student and teacher in American public schools, but the program exists and is being paid for by the taxpayer.
Already hailed as the “next big thing” in education reform, the Common Core State Standards are being rushed into classrooms in nearly every district in the country. Although these “world-class” standards raise substantive questions about curriculum choices and instructional practices, such educational concerns are likely to prove less significant than the role the Common Core is playing in the larger landscape of our polarized education reform politics.
The curriculum replaces the classics with government propaganda. According to the American Principles Project, “They de-emphasize the study of classic literature in favor of reading so-called ‘informational texts,’ such as government documents, court opinions, and technical manuals.” Over half the reading materials in grades 6-12 are to consist of informational texts rather than classical literature. Historical texts like the Gettysburg Address are to be presented to students without context or explanation.
The Common Core, however dressed, shares the fundamental spirit with NCLB: standardization of curriculum enforced with high-stakes testing. In fact, the Common Core comes with more force on a larger scale. The side effects will be even more significant.
“If you had a stomach ache, if you were nervous, if you were lethargic, if you needed energy, if you had tuberculosis, if you had asthma, all sorts of things. It was going to cure what you had.” That was historian Dr. Howard Markel talking about cocaine, a wonder drug praised by the medical researchers, doctors, and great minds in the 1880s, including the likes of Thomas Edison, Queen Victoria and Pope Leo XIII. “I take very small doses of it regularly against depression and against indigestion and with the most brilliant of success,” wrote Sigmund Freud.
“And today begins a new era, a new time in public education in our country. As of this hour, America’s schools will be on a new path of reform, and a new path of results.” That was President George W. Bush talking about the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002. “Our schools will have higher expectations,” he continued, “Our schools will have greater resources to help meet those goals. Parents will have more information about the schools, and more say in how their children are educated. From this day forward, all students will have a better chance to learn, to excel, and to live out their dreams.”
Today, we know that cocaine is indeed potent, in fact, so potent that there is an ongoing expensive battle against it.
And Bush’s NCLB? Every state is trying to get out of it, some even willing to trade it with a worse set of demands from Arne Duncan.
All medicine has side effects. When it cures, it can harm the body as well. Put it in another way, there is no free lunch. Everything comes at a cost.
Education cannot escape this simple common sense law of nature for a number of reasons. First, time is a constant. When one spends it on one thing, it cannot be spent on others. Thus when all time is spent on studying and preparing for exams, it cannot be spent on visiting museums. By the same token, when time is spent on activities not necessarily related to academic subjects, less time is available for studying the school subjects and preparing for exams. Second, certain human qualities may be antithetical to each other.
When one is taught to conform, it will be difficult for him to be creative. When one is punished for making mistakes, it will be hard for her to take risks. When one is told to be wrong or inadequate all the time, it will be difficult for her to maintain confidence. In contrast, when the students are allowed freedom to explore, they may question what they are asked to learn, and may decide not to comply. Finally, resources are a finite as well.
When a school or society devotes all resources to certain things, they don’t have them for others. For example, when all resources are devoted to teaching math and language, schools will have to cut out other programs. When more money is spent on testing students, less will be available for actually helping them grow.
Diane Ravitch has exposed many cases of education wonder drugs or silver bullets in her outstanding must-read book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education and other writings. She writes, “…in education, there are no shortcuts, no utopias, and no silver bullets.”
The Common Core has not been tested. If anything, standards and testing in the U.S. have not amounted much in curing the ills of inequality and inefficiency.
When I first read about the Common Core State Standards, I cheered. I believe that our schools should teach all students (except for those who have severe learning disabilities), the skills, habits and knowledge that they need to be successful in post-secondary education.
That doesn’t mean that every teenager must be prepared to enter Harvard, but it does mean that every young adult, with few exceptions, should at least be prepared to enter their local community college. That is how we give students a real choice.
I confess that I was naïve. I should have known in an age in which standardized tests direct teaching and learning, that the standards themselves would quickly become operationalized by tests. Testing, coupled with the evaluation of teachers by scores, is driving its implementation. The promise of the Common Core is dying and teaching and learning are being distorted. The well that should sustain the Core has been poisoned.
Written mostly by academics and assessment experts—many with ties to testing companies—the Common Core standards have never been fully implemented and tested in real schools anywhere. Of the 135 members on the official Common Core review panels convened by Achieve Inc., the consulting firm that has directed the Common Core project for the NGA, few were classroom teachers or current administrators. Parents were entirely missing. K–12 educators were mostly brought in after the fact to tweak and endorse the standards—and lend legitimacy to the results.
The standards are tied to assessments that are still in development and that must be given on computers many schools don’t have. So far, there is no research or experience to justify the extravagant claims being made for the ability of these standards to ensure that every child will graduate from high school “college and career ready.” By all accounts, the new Common Core tests will be considerably harder than current state assessments, leading to sharp drops in scores and proficiency rates.
We have seen this show before. The entire country just finished a decade-long experiment in standards-based, test-driven school reform called No Child Left Behind.
The tests showed that millions of students were not meeting existing standards. Yet the conclusion drawn by sponsors of the Common Core was that the solution was “more challenging” ones.
This conclusion is simply wrong.
Don’t judge teachers by their students’ scores. Test scores are a poor measure of a child’s quality and an even worse measure of the quality of teaching. Moreover students’ performance on tests is the result of many factors, many of which are beyond the control the teacher. Thus it is not only unfair to judge a teacher based on test scores, but also ineffective—research has shown that test-based incentive programs do not lead to improvement of student achievement.
There has been no bigger change in ten thousand years of recorded human history than the overwhelming transformation of society and commerce and health and civilization that was enabled (or caused) by industrialization.
We’re so surrounded by it that it seems normal and permanent and preordained, but we need to lay it out in stark relief to see how it has created the world we live in.
In just a few generations, society went from agrarian and distributed to corporatized and centralized.
In order to overhaul the planet, a bunch of things had to work in concert: Infrastructure changes, including paving the earth, laying pipe, building cities, wiring countries for communication, etc. Government changes; which meant permitting corporations to engage with the king, to lobby, and to receive the benefits of infrastructure and policy investments. “Corporations are people, friend.”
Education changes, including universal literacy, an expectation of widespread commerce, and most of all, the practice of instilling the instinct to obey civil (as opposed to government) authority.
None of this could have happened if there had been widespread objections from individuals. It turns out, though, that it was relatively easy to enforce and then teach corporate and educational obedience. It turns out that industrializing the schooling of billions of people was a natural fit, a process that quickly turned into a virtuous cycle: obedient students were turned into obedient teachers, who were then able to create even more obedient students. We’re wired for this stuff.
A hundred and fifty years ago, adults were incensed about child labor. Low-wage kids were taking jobs away from hard-working adults.
Sure, there was some moral outrage about seven-year-olds losing fingers and being abused at work, but the economic rationale was paramount. Factory owners insisted that losing child workers would be catastrophic to their industries and fought hard to keep the kids at work—they said they couldn’t afford to hire adults. It wasn’t until 1918 that nationwide compulsory education was in place.
Part of the rationale used to sell this major transformation to industrialists was the idea that educated kids would actually become more compliant and productive workers. Our current system of teaching kids to sit in straight rows and obey instructions isn’t a coincidence—it was an investment in our economic future. The plan: trade short-term child-labor wages for longer-term productivity by giving kids a head start in doing what they’re told.
Large-scale education was not developed to motivate kids or to create scholars. It was invented to churn out adults who worked well within the system. Scale was more important than quality, just as it was for most industrialists.
Of course, it worked. Several generations of productive, fully employed workers followed.
Nobel prize–winning economist Michael Spence makes this really clear: there are tradable jobs (doing things that could be done somewhere else, like building cars, designing chairs, and answering the phone) and non-tradable jobs (like mowing the lawn or cooking burgers). Is there any question that the first kind of job is worth keeping in our economy?
Alas, Spence reports that from 1990 to 2008, the U.S. economy added only 600,000 tradable jobs.
If you do a job where someone tells you exactly what to do, he will find someone cheaper than you to do it. And yet our schools are churning out kids who are stuck looking for jobs where the boss tells them exactly what to do.
Do you see the disconnect? Every year, we churn out millions of workers who are trained to do 1925-style labor.
The bargain (take kids out of work so we can teach them to become better factory workers as adults) has set us on a race to the bottom.
Over the last three generations, the amount of school we’ve delivered to the public has gone way up—more people are spending more hours being schooled than ever before. And the cost of that schooling is going up even faster, with trillions of dollars being spent on delivering school on a massive scale.
We spend a fortune teaching trigonometry to kids who don’t understand it, won’t use it, and will spend no more of their lives studying math. We invest thousands of hours exposing millions of students to fiction and literature, but end up training most of them to never again read for fun (one study found that 58 percent of all Americans never read for pleasure after they graduate from school).
As soon as we associate reading a book with taking a test, we’ve missed the point.
The industrialized mass nature of school goes back to the very beginning, to the common school and the normal school and the idea of universal schooling. All of which were invented at precisely the same time we were perfecting mass production and interchangeable parts and then mass marketing.
The common school (now called a public school) was a brand new concept, created shortly after the Civil War. “Common” because it was for everyone: for the kids of the farmer, the kids of the potter, and the kids of the local shopkeeper. Horace Mann is generally regarded as the father of the institution, but he didn’t have to fight nearly as hard as you would imagine—because industrialists were on his side.
The normal school (now called a teacher’s college) was developed to indoctrinate teachers into the system of the common school, ensuring that there would be a coherent approach to the processing of students. If this sounds parallel to the notion of factories producing items in bulk, of interchangeable parts, of the notion of measurement and quality, it’s not an accident.
The SAT, the single most important filtering device used to measure the effect of school on each individual, is a (almost without change) lower- order-thinking test.
The reason is simple. Not because it works.
No, we do it because it’s the easy and efficient way to keep the mass production of students moving forward.
School’s industrial, scaled-up, measurable structure means that fear must be used to keep the masses in line. There’s no other way to get hundreds or thousands of kids to comply, to process that many bodies, en masse, without simultaneous coordination.
And the flip side of this fear and conformity must be that passion will be destroyed.
There’s no room for someone who wants to go faster, or someone who wants to do something else, or someone who cares about a particular issue. Move on. Write it in your notes; there will be a test later. A multiple-choice test.
Do we need more fear? Less passion?
The notion that an organization could teach anything at all is a relatively new one.
Traditionally, society assumed that artists, singers, artisans, writers, scientists, and alchemists would find their calling, then find a mentor, and then learn their craft. It was absurd to think that you’d take people off the street and teach them to do science or to sing, and persist at that teaching long enough for them to get excited about it.
Now that we’ve built an industrial solution to teaching in bulk, we’ve seduced ourselves into believing that the only thing that can be taught is the way to get high SAT scores.
We shouldn’t be buying this.
We can teach people to make commitments, to overcome fear, to deal transparently, to initiate, and to plan a course.
We can teach people to desire lifelong learning, to express themselves, and to innovate.
And just as important, it’s vital we acknowledge that we can unteach bravery and creativity and initiative. And we have been doing just that.
School has become an industrialized system, working on a huge scale that has significant byproducts, including the destruction of many of the attitudes and emotions we’d like to build our culture around.
In order to efficiently jam as much testable data into a generation of kids, we push to make those children compliant, competitive zombies.
Human beings have, like all animals, a great ability to hide from the things they fear.
The universal truth is beyond question—the only people who excel are those who have decided to do so. Great doctors or speakers or skiers or writers or musicians are great because somewhere along the way, they made the choice.
Why have we completely denied the importance of this choice?
It’s clear that the economy has changed. What we want and expect from our best citizens has changed. Not only in what we do when we go to our jobs, but also in the doors that have been opened for people who want to make an impact on our culture.
At the very same time, the Internet has forever transformed the acquisition of knowledge. Often overlooked in the rush to waste time at Facebook and YouTube is the fact that the Internet is the most efficient and powerful information delivery system ever developed.
The change in the economy and the delivery of information online combine to amplify the speed of change. These rapid cycles are overwhelming the ability of the industrialized system of education to keep up.
As a result, the education-industrial system, the one that worked very well in creating a century’s worth of factory workers, lawyers, nurses, and soldiers, is now obsolete.
I don’t think it’s practical to say, “We want what we’ve been getting, but cheaper and better.” That’s not going to happen, and I’m not sure we want it to, anyway.
We need school to produce something different, and the only way for that to happen is for us to ask new questions and make new demands on every element of the educational system we’ve built. Whenever teachers, administrators, or board members respond with an answer that refers to a world before the rules changed, they must stop and start their answer again.
No, we do not need you to create compliance.
No, we do not need you to cause memorization.
And no, we do not need you to teach students to embrace the status quo.
Anything a school does to advance those three agenda items is not just a waste of money, but actually works against what we do need. The real shortage we face is dreams, and the wherewithal and the will to make them come true.
No tweaks. A revolution.
Unfortunately there’s been too little honest conversation and too little democracy in the development of the Common Core. We see consultants and corporate entrepreneurs where there should be parents and teachers, and more high-stakes testing where there should be none. Until that changes, it will be hard to distinguish the “next big thing” from the last one.
Whatever positive role standards might play in truly collaborative conversations about what our schools should teach and children should learn has been repeatedly undermined by bad process, suspect political agendas, and commercial interests.
Transparency in the traditional school might destroy it. If we told the truth about the irrelevance of various courses, about the relative quality of some teachers,
about the power of choice and free speech—could the school as we know it survive?
What happens when the connection revolution collides with the school?
Unlike just about every other institution and product line in our economy, transparency is missing from education. Students are lied to and so are parents. At some point, teenagers realize that most of school is a game, but the system never acknowledges it. In search of power, control and independence, administrators hide information from teachers, and vice versa.
Because school was invented to control students and give power to the state, it’s not surprising that the relationships are fraught with mistrust.
The very texture of the traditional school matches the organization and culture of the industrial economy. The bottom of the pyramid stores the students, with teachers (middle managers) following instructions from their bosses.
Changing school doesn’t involve sharpening the pencil we’ve already got. School reform cannot succeed if it focuses on getting schools to do a better job of what we previously asked them to do. We don’t need more of what schools produce when they’re working as designed. The challenge, then, is to change the very output of the school before we start spending even more time and money improving the performance of the school.
The simple way to make something different is to go about it in a whole new way. In other words, doing what we’re doing now and hoping we’ll get some- thing else as an outcome is nuts.
What’s the point of testing someone’s ability to cram for a test if we’re never going to have to cram for anything ever again? If I can find the answer in three seconds online, the skill of memorizing a fact for twelve hours (and then forget- ting it) is not only useless, it’s insane.
In a crowded market, it’s no surprise that people will choose someone who appears to offer more in return for our time and money. So admissions officers look for the talented, as do the people who do the hiring for corporations. Spotting the elite, the charismatic, and the obviously gifted might be a smart short-term strategy, but it punishes the rest of us, and society as a whole.
The opportunity for widespread education and skills improvement is far bigger than it has ever been before. When we can deliver lectures and lessons digitally, at scale, for virtually free, the only thing holding us back is the status quo (and our belief in the permanence of status).
School serves a real function when it activates a passion for lifelong learning, not when it establishes permanent boundaries for an elite class.
If the new goal of school is to create something different from what we have now, and if new technologies and new connections are changing the way school can deliver its lessons, it’s time for a change.
Here are a dozen ways school can be rethought:
• Homework during the day, lectures at night
• Open book, open note, all the time
• Access to any course, anywhere in the world
• Precise, focused instruction instead of mass, generalized instruction The end of multiple-choice exams
• Experience instead of test scores as a measure of achievement The end of compliance as an outcome
• Cooperation instead of isolation
• Amplification of outlying students, teachers, and ideas Transformation of the role of the teacher
• Lifelong learning, earlier work
• Death of the nearly famous college
In an open-book/open-note environment, the ability to synthesize complex ideas and to invent new concepts is far more useful than drill and practice. It might be harder (at first) to write tests, and it might be harder to grade them, but the goal of school isn’t to make the educational-industrial complex easy to run; it’s to create a better generation of workers and citizens.
The best tactic available to every taxpayer and parent and concerned teacher is to relentlessly ask questions, not settling for the status quo.
“Is this class/lecture/program/task/test/policy designed to help our students do the old thing a little more efficiently, or are we opening a new door to enable our students to do something that’s new and different?”
Parents were raised to have a dream for their kids—we want our kids to be happy, adjusted, and successful. We want them to live meaningful lives, to contribute and to find stability as they avoid pain.
School is at its best when it gives students the expectation that they will not only dream big, but dream dreams that they can work on every day until they accomplish them—not because they were chosen by a black-box process, but because they worked hard enough to reach them.
What do you think?
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