The problem isn’t the standards and it’s not even the tests. It’s what people want to do with the scores.
For months, friends have been asking me, “What do you think about the Common Core?” (You get that kind of question when you write a political blog.) The first time I responded “Huh?” Then I started googling around, and my ignorance turned into confusion: The Common Core itself is little more than two lists — one for Mathematics and one for Language Arts — describing the knowledge and skills that children should be acquiring in various school grades. Nothing on either list is obviously controversial. No “learn how to perform a wide variety of sexual acts” or “master methods for invoking Satan with or without human sacrifice”.
But if you wander into the wrong discussions, the vitriol is intense and it’s very hard to hold a discussion on track. You see, the CC is not just a set of standards for education; it’s Step #1 of half a dozen contradictory conspiracy theories. That’s because the CC sits in the intersection of at least four different culture wars.
- local control vs. national standards. Parents like the idea that they can walk into the office of somebody — a principal or a local superintendent — who has the power to fix whatever they think is wrong with their kids’ school. But Americans in general hate the United States’ poor showing in international comparisons, so many of us wish we could impose higher standards nationwide.
- public schools vs. privatization. To one side, public schools represent community, the common good, the sense that we’re all in this together, and our shared commitment to any child who wants to learn. To the other, the public school system is the quintessential failed government bureaucracy. The sooner it gets replaced by a system of competing entrepreneurial private schools, the better.
- basic skills vs. progressive education. Is the point of K-12 education to instill a firm grounding in the 3 R’s? Or is it to awaken (or at least not stifle) a child’s creative intelligence so that s/he can cope with a future whose requirements we can’t predict? (I’m old enough to remember a previous version of this battle: New Math. That controversy spawned this classic Tom Lehrer song, which he introduces by saying: “In the new approach, as you know, the important thing is to understand what you’re doing, rather than to get the right answer.” The audience laughs nervously.) This taps into an even deeper religious battle: Should we be teaching our children the eternal truths laid down by God and tradition? Or does culture progress in such a way that what used to be central may now be trivial, and what seems wrong to us may someday become right?
- individualized education vs. standardized testing. Each child and each classroom is a unique bundle of talents and interests. Each day is roiled by waves of happenstance that a wise teacher is creative enough to use rather than fight. (The kids can’t stop watching the bird building a nest on the ledge outside the window, so today’s the day to jump ahead in the syllabus — or invent a new unit on the fly — and talk about birds.) But how can we root out the bad, lazy teachers or identify the dysfunctional, under-performing schools unless we rigorously define what the kids are supposed to learn when, and have objective tests that determine whether they’re learning it?
In addition, there’s a battle-of-the-billionaires going on. The Gates Foundation is pushing the CC, while the Koch brothers are fighting it. Neither of these big-money interests believes in public schools in anything like their current form, so there’s a third front represented by anti-CC pro-teacher liberals like Diane Ravitch.
So whether the venue is liberal or conservative, Common Core discussions have a way of wandering off into bizarre stereotypes and dystopian futures. It’s easy to forget that you’re talking about two lists of knowledge and skills (that don’t mention Satan).
Where I’m coming from. Like everybody, I have my own biases: I went to high school during the era of experimentation in the 1970s, and my public high school (in the small town of Quincy, Illinois, which Time in 1975 described as “an unlikely place for an educational mecca“) was — for the short time I was there — a national leader in new ideas. I went through Quincy High’s Project to Individualize Education (PIE), which today sounds like a hippie fantasy, even in Quincy. I organized my own schedule week-to-week, took tests whenever I felt like I had mastered the material, and had enough free time to write a novel during my senior year. (It’s not very good; if you ask to read it I will claim it’s lost.) I was also the student newspaper’s reporter at Quincy’s annual education conferences, where I (briefly) got to meet legends like John Holt.
I never bought into Holt’s big theories about un-schooling society, but I did retain this much: Everybody is interested in something, and everything is interconnected. So the best kind of education starts with what kids want to know and leads them to what they need to know.
My other prior opinions are influenced by my sister’s experiences. She recently retired from a career teaching elementary school in both public and private systems. She left with a lot of teaching still in her, but the public school system in Chattanooga had squeezed all the joy out the profession.
Finally, one of my friends from grad school has taken a public position in favor of the CC: Sol Friedberg is known to the world as the chair of the Boston College math department, but he’s known to me as the guy I drove from Chicago to San Diego with in a $200 car. (During that trip he convinced me that I ought to pay more attention to the woman I’ve now been married to for nearly 30 years.) His op-ed on CC appeared recently in the LA Times.
So bearing all that in mind, let’s think this through from the beginning. My first four conclusions are positive.
1. There’s a legitimate national interest in education. Public schools began in a low-mobility era when every small town educated its own future citizens and even its own leaders and professionals. The local factory knew that its workers were coming from the public schools, and the old people all had grandchildren there.
Today it’s different. My sister and I took our good educations and left town, while my parents’ doctor came from India and their grandchildren grew up in Tennessee. Today, the local public school is a special interest that mainly matters to parents and teachers. So left to the local political process, all but the richest communities will underfund their schools. Local curriculum decisions will revolve around religion and political ideology rather than the interests of children, because more voters have religious and ideological passions than have a connection to the local kids.
But not even the United States can import all the smart people it needs, and we can’t have government-of-the-people if the people are ignorant. So those kids being taught anti-science nonsense in Louisiana or stuck in dead-end schools in inner-city Baltimore are going to choose your presidents and maybe even do your brain surgery. So it’s your business.
2. On a large enough timescale, national standards make sense. Whatever state they’re from, high school graduates compete for places in the same colleges, or for jobs in an increasingly globalized market. It makes sense for “high school graduate” to mean one thing, rather than fifty or fifty-thousand different things. I don’t think we want every local school board debating what kids need to know about trigonometry.
Given the mobility of our society, year-by-year standards make sense too. Schools shouldn’t be McDonalds franchises, but when you have to take that new job in New Mexico, your fifth-grader should continue to be a fifth-grader.
The stuff that drove my sister nuts was the finer-scale scheduling: being told not just where her students should be at the end of the year, but what she had to cover week-by-week and even day-by-day.
3. No set of standards is perfect, but these are fine. Ignore whatever commentary you’ve heard; just go look at them. Sure, good students, good teachers, and good schools will aim higher, and the top colleges will expect more. But if all kids came out of high school with this much math and language skill, that would be tremendous.
4. It makes sense to test how well students are reaching these goals. The CC standards themselves are just a list of knowledge and skills, but two state consortia are building tests around them: Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.
I don’t have any problems with national tests. My problem starts with how the results get used.
5. The standards-adoption process has been undemocratic. The Obama administration all but made Common Core a requirement to qualify for Race to the Top money, which the states desperately needed at the bottom of the Great Recession. And Race to the Top wasn’t debated and passed on its own merits, it was folded into the stimulus.
So on paper it looks like states are choosing to adopt these standards and the tests that go with them. But there has never been an appropriate public discussion, either in Congress or in the state legislatures.
6. High-stakes testing is a bad idea. You can use a traditional metaphor (watched pots) or a scientific one (Heisenberg effect), but the idea is simple: Sometimes watching things too intently screws them up.
In the school-reform movement pushed by the Gates Foundation, tests rule the world. Tests close schools, hold students back, and fire teachers and principals. Even the jobs of mayors and governors ride on test scores. This is where things start to go wrong: The whole system is filled with test-score anxiety, and more time gets spent on how to take tests than on the Civil War. Everyone — students, teachers, principals, all the way up to superintendents and governors — has incentive to cheat, or at least not to catch cheaters. If you can find a way to shuffle low-scoring students out the door, so much the better.
And if your job or your school is in danger, why would you waste time teaching anything that’s not on the test? That’s when principals start micro-managing the classroom and asking teachers: “What test questions did you cover today?”
This process got dramatized in one of the subplots of Season 4 of The Wire: A former cop starts teaching math in a Baltimore school. The story starts down the familiar To Sir With Love super-teacher path, but just as Prez starts getting through to his kids, he’s reprimanded and forced to go back to robotically training them to take the state test.
7. We’re using test scores to scapegoat public schools and their teachers for social problems we’d rather not deal with. My church is in an upscale Boston suburb that has a lot of educated parents, so those are the public-high-school kids I run into. I’m always impressed with how much they know and how well they can think. If they were typical American students in a typical American high school, we wouldn’t be talking about school reform at all.
But think about kids who grow up poor. Their mothers are less likely to have appropriate pre-natal care and nutrition, and more likely to suffer from either drug problems or exposure to toxic chemicals. So right off the bat, poor kids have more learning disabilities. As toddlers, on average they continue to have worse nutrition and less medical care. They are more likely to enter school with undiagnosed sight or hearing problems, not to mention those learning disabilities, which are also probably undiagnosed. They are likely to be raised by less articulate parents in homes with fewer books, so they reach public school knowing far fewer words. Then we crowd them together with other students with similar disadvantages, in schools that aren’t as well equipped as schools professional-class kids go to. If poor kids overcome all that and make average progress during the school year, in the summer they again live with fewer books, fewer piano lessons, and fewer trips to the museum, so they are behind again by fall.
It’s obvious how to fix all that, but nobody wants to pay for it. Nobody wants to pay for pre-natal care or check-ups for toddlers or childhood nutrition or pre-school enrichment programs. Nobody wants to give schools in poor neighborhoods significantly more funding than schools in rich neighborhoods get, even though they need it. Nobody wants to merge their rich school district with the poor school district on the other side of the boundary line. Nobody wants to pay for summer programs or year-round schools. And so on.
It’s much easier to blame the schools in poor neighborhoods and claim that lazy teachers are using poverty as an excuse.
But when you compare our schools to a world-class system, like say Finland’s, the schools themselves are only part of the story. Finland is a socialist country, so it puts enormous resources into making sure kids don’t grow up poor.
8. Super-teachers won’t save us. Somebody’s study says that great teachers can move a class 1.5 grade-years, while bad teachers might only get half a grade-year of progress. From there comes the notion that three great teachers in a row could completely wipe out the gaps between black and white or rich and poor.
My Lutheran elementary school gave us achievement tests every year, and the principal showed me my score chart just before I graduated from 8th grade. In sixth grade, my scores jumped two-and-a-half grade levels. And yes, I had a good teacher that year. But it’s also true that my scores the previous year had been flat, so the jump had just restored the normal trajectory of my education. I sincerely doubt that two more years of great teachers would have raised my test scores by five grade levels.
So can a great teacher get a 1.5-year jump out a class? Maybe, sometimes. Would three in a row get a 4.5-year jump? I doubt it.
9. We won’t get super-teachers by firing the teachers we have. Baseball statistics geeks should understand this. One of the most advanced baseball stats is Wins Above Replacement (WAR). An earlier generation of statistics measured players against the average major-leaguer, but then somebody noticed that teams can’t just whistle up an average major-league shortstop whenever they need one. Some teams go entire decades without managing to fill some key position with an average player. So stats geeks started measuring against the replacement level: the kind of shortstop you can call up from the minor leagues or sign after some other team releases him. They’re not nearly as good as average, but you can always find them.
The same idea works here. If you fire a below-average teacher, you can’t automatically assume that the replacement will be an average teacher. The replacement level might be considerably lower than the average.
The underlying assumption behind the fire-teachers strategy is that teachers are unmotivated, and so need to be made to fear for their jobs. What other profession do we treat this way? Some doctors are certainly better than others, and there are probably patients who die because their doctor wasn’t as good as the best. So should we fire all but the best doctors? Would that motivation push the replacement doctors to be excellent? I kind of doubt it.
Conclusion. So here’s what I think about the Common Core: We could do a lot worse. We should have year-by-year national standards, and we should have tests that measure how well we’re achieving them. That’s not the battle to fight.
The right battle is over what to do with the scores. The Gates program, which influenced both No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, is fundamentally misguided. What-test-question-did-you-cover-today education is not good education. (No school trying to attract the children of the rich would work that way.) Get-the-scores-up-or-else is no way to motivate teachers either to work harder or to improve their craft.
You’ve got your conspiracy theory and I’ve got mine. (I think profit-making corporations want public schools labeled as failures so they can get their hands on the billions we spend on education. But that’s a topic for another article.) Common Core is Step #1 in both of them. But I don’t think things get sinister until Step #2.