Saturday, September 13, 2014

On "Common Core" Education Standards

Representative Dennis Richardson (source)
I'm going to take a moment to stump for Oregon's Republican gubernatorial candidate, current State Representative Dennis Richardson (R - District 4). It's fantastic to see him running for Governor, but as he's a Republican candidate in a solid-blue state, he'll need all the support he can get.

Rep. Richardson puts out a newsletter that he writes "on issues of significance for all Oregonians." Quite a few of them, like this latest one (which came out August 20th -- yes, this post is a bit behind the times), should be significant to all Americans, even if he only claims to represent Oregon.

This one tears into the new "Common Core" education standards. (I'll be borrowing heavily from the newsletter's sources, but I highly recommend reading the whole thing. If that link doesn't work, it can also be found on the State Capitol website here.)

Now, for full disclosure, from what I can tell Common Core is intended to create standardized benchmarks and methods for the whole nation. To be honest, I think there are quite a number of benefits to this. For example: a more objective measure of student achievement (everyone is taught the same curriculum at the same relative time, so knowledge and mastery should be closely correlated); consistency between districts (a student moving from one district or state to another will experience little disruption when the schools are teaching the same thing); less spending on curriculum, textbooks, and materials (these can be mass-produced for economic scale benefits).

Objective, consistent, less expensive. Sounds great!

The problem is the devil living rent-free in the details of the implementation. It's one thing to come up with a good concept, but it's quite another to put that concept into practice in the real world.

Or, in the words of Jan L. A. van de Snepscheut, "In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is."

 As Rep. Richardson points out (underlined emphasis added):
At Common Core’s outset, when the federal government offered “stimulus” money to the state Governors that accepted Common Core, the standards and tests involved had not even been written. In other words, the Governor and state education leaders unilaterally committed all Oregon’s school districts to adopting a new statewide curriculum before it had even been developed, and Oregon was committed without Legislative consideration or approval.
Moreover, it's being developed behind closed doors by "educators" with little-to-no classroom experience, at least one of which even has an incomplete Master's degree in an unrelated subject to the standards he's helping develop.

Plus, being a brand-spanking-new set of methods and standards, by definition it's entirely untested. We have no idea yet how the kids will absorb the material or how the test scores will turn out.

Cartoon by John Trever, Albuquerque Journal
May 21, 2008 (source)
Nevertheless, the plan is to tie the anchors millstones test outcomes around the necks of to teacher evaluations, with no adjustments allowed for "high-risk" students or kids with documented learning disabilities* (PDF warning). It's expected -- by no less than the State Deputy School Superintendent Rob Saxton (who supports Common Core, BTW) -- that only 35% of students will actually pass the new, untried, untested, standardized tests**. For those who are math-challenged, that means it's expected that 65% of Oregon students will FAIL! Oregon already has a 35% high-school drop-out rate; what sense does it make to aggravate that? And to tie teachers' job security to an untested system approaches criminality!

Last, but certainly not least, it's being revealed that there are some serious corporate financial conflicts of interest, wherein the companies in charge of designing this new curriculum are the same ones who stand to profit from its mandated use***.

Cartoon by Bob Englehart, Hartford Courant
August 27, 2013 (source)
So we have Common Core's aforementioned objectivity, consistency, and lower costs, which are now overshadowed by its non-transparent development by inexperienced (and arguably lacking in knowledge) people, untried and untested methods of instructions and testing, and an abysmally low expectation of standardized testing success, all being linked to teachers' job evaluations. Plus, there's also the strong potential for corruption from closed-door corporate/government inside dealing.

And we're supposed to be A-OK with this?

Quoting Rep. Richardson again (emphasis in original):
Who will flourish in this setting? Gifted students will be bored, students who already dislike school will be even more inclined to skip, and students with obstacles to learning will simply be unable to succeed.
I'm inclined to agree. The whole systems seems designed for the lowest common denominator -- all but ensuring that gifted (and average) students will suffer -- while simultaneously guaranteeing the failure of the lowest common denominator.

It's no wonder so many states are now opposing the implementation of Common Core, and even two teachers' unions -- one national, one state-level -- are calling for a moratorium. This is not a normal, partisan political issue; Common Core opponents represent both sides of the aisle. The question is: Why should we be implementing this at all? The newsletter provides several examples of individual teachers and schools going above and beyond, and building highly successful programs (another reason to read the whole thing; success stories are awesome!). If those local programs are working, we should be using them as a template for other schools and districts. Why should we mandate changing (read: ending) them, in favor of a top-down, untested, unworkable, one-size-fits-all "standard"?

That, for the record, was a rhetorical question.

(Hat tip: Rep. Dennis Richardson's e-mail newsletter.)

(Obligatory message to Electoral Commission types: While I would love to see Mr. Richardson elected Governor of the great State of Oregon and support making that happen, I am writing this article of my own volition and initiative, using my own words [except where noted], and no compensation of any kind has been offered or accepted for it. Go bother someone else.)

* - "Students with disabilities ... must be challenged to excel within the general curriculum and be prepared for success in their post-school lives, including college and/or careers. These common standards provide an historic opportunity to improve access to rigorous academic content standards for students with disabilities." Translation: Push 'em harder, disabilities be damned! Because nobody's tried that before, right? Right!
** - Money quote from that article, from teacher Elizabeth Thiel: "We're not assessing their ability to think, the test is assessing knowledge." A-yup.
*** - Why am I not surprised to see Andrew Cuomo involved? And the anti-gun folks wonder why we stand against so-called "smart guns" being mandated?

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Archer.

    Common Core raises my libertarian (small "L") hackles. A one size fits all, top down, Federally mandated and controlled education system --- what could (not) go wrong? The last 70 years of education in America has been one of increasing centralization, government mandates, politicization, crushing unionization, exponentially growing expense, and plunging results.Look at the festering holes the public schools are in nowadays - this will only make it worse.

    I would point out the Catholic school system: using tried and true methods they turn out much better educated students for much less than half the disclosed cost of public schools. If the Catholic school is failing, market forces correct it damn quick, as parents are free to move their children to better schools. With only limited exceptions, children are sentenced to a certain public school, regardless of its performance. A failing public school system demands more money and help from the various education bureaucracies, that I would say is largely stems from those selfsame bureaucracies.