Friday, December 13, 2013

Another Brick in the Wall: Why the Common Core Won't Give No Education

I just submitted this piece for the January issue of The Lincoln Eagle in Kingston, NY.

Another Brick in the Wall: Why the Common Core Won't Give No Education
Mitchell Langbert, Ph.D.

In the early 2000s the Bush administration adopted the No Child Left behind Act (NCLBA), which established state-and-standards-based testing.  The approach failed, and for years educators, especially in inner cities, complained about teaching to the test. 

The National Governors Association's Center for Best Practices (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), two private, not-for-profit organizations, have, with Bill Gates's $147 million and President Obama's multibillion dollar grant support, introduced a solution to NCLBA's failure:  a more standardized and more centralized testing system with higher-level standards. It is called the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

Libertarian conservatives are suspicious of the common core's increased centralization.   Dean Kalahar of the conservative American Thinker blog, for example, claims that the common core will encourage textbook manufacturers to introduce Bill Ayer's ideology about race, class, and gender. 

It was, however, President George Bush who encouraged standardization of curricula and testing through his NCLBA.  As Diane Ravitch wrote in her 2004 book The Language Police, political correctness began decades ago; textbooks have been politically correct and watered down for years.  

There are three common core debates.  The first is educational.  It pits advocates of higher-level standards against advocates of easier and more specific ones.  Mothers in the Hudson Valley have vehemently complained about the difficulty of the new standards. In contrast, neoconservative City Journal columnist Sol Stern and liberal former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein hail the more difficult common core standards.   

The second is the political debate between advocates of decentralization and centralization.   Stern and Klein claim that the common core results from healthy federalism because 46 states have adopted it voluntarily (four have not adopted it), but many are skeptical that $4 billion in federal grant money amounts to a true division of powers.  The Tenth Amendment does not say that powers that the United States can buy are delegated to it by the Constitution.  

The third debate concerns Bill Gates's economic power.  Blogger Mercedes Schneider notes that in addition to $147 million that the Gates Foundation paid to the NGA, CCSSO, and the Student Achievement Partners (SAP) consulting firm that led the drafting of the common core, his foundation has paid more than $10 million to education think tanks.  The common core reflects one of the most expensive exercises of lobbying influence in the nation's history. 

Moreover, textbook firms that produce both the standards-linked textbooks and the tests that the states will administer will benefit financially.  The lead authors, David Coleman and Jason Zimba, are linked to McGraw Hill through their sale of their business, Grow Network.  Their SAP seeks paid consulting work with schools that aim to implement the common core.  That is on top of grant money it has already received from the Gates Foundation.

Despite Bill Gates's fascination with testing, there is little evidence that it works.  In offering rationales for the common core, NGA, CCSSO, and SAP claim that national competitiveness depends on students' test performance.  For instance, Jason Zimba claims that the common core offers a way to improve American students' scores on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests.

Two professors, Christopher Tienken of Seton Hall and Michael Apple of the University of Wisconsin, question testing. In their views it will not improve outcomes.  

Professor Tienken notes that economic well-being and poverty have stronger correlations with student performance than does any other variable.  Moreover, there are biases that invalidate international tests. In America virtually all students take the tests, but in other countries only select students do.  For instance, "Switzerland included only students in 15 of 26 cantons, representing their highest performing regions."  Tienken adds that in spite of these biases, taken alone, American white students ranked 2nd out of 29 countries in reading, 7th out of 30 in math, and 4th out of 30 in science. 

Gates, Zimba, and other centralizers claim that centralization of control will increase objective test scores, resulting in increased national competitiveness. Tienken shows that their claim is false.  There is no link between having centralized educational standards and having a competitive economy.
Professor Michael Apple of the University of Wisconsin has written a book, Democratic Schools, in which he argues for decentralization and local control.  In an interview, Professor Apple pointed out that the common core is a response to the NCLBA.  He says that on paper the common core encourages a more creative curriculum and establishes higher-level testing standards than did the NCLBA.  In practice, it falters for the same reasons the NCLBA did:  The test tail wags the teacher dog. Because poorer children have less preparation, their teachers will continue to spend more time teaching to the test than will teachers of affluent children. Their writing will suffer, and they will suffer on the job market.   

Professor Apple advocates empowering teachers and encouraging their creativity. The opposite is occurring now:  "The job of teaching has gotten worse. The average teacher's work week is 58 hours. The common core could have offered a better curriculum, but the teachers don't have the time to put it into practice.  The result is a focus on accountability and a lack of focus on higher-level skills like writing.  Although the states do not say that the teachers' performance will be appraised by test scores, the administrators don't have time to handle performance appraisal any other way."

If Professor Tienken is right, the arguments for both the NCLBA and the common core are unfounded. The ideals of education and democracy have been sacrificed for a pseudoscientific testing system that happens to tickle Bill Gates's fancy.  The end result is a betrayal of what education should be.  

Conservatives, libertarians, liberals, and social democrats should question the claims of standardizers and centralizers.  The best education requires on-the-spot imagination that cannot be captured with a test.