A Guest Post by Alyson Williams
Some steps are more significant than others. When Neil Armstrong took his first step onto the moon, everyone knew it was the beginning of a new era. It was the “space age” and it seems everything from the appliances we used in our homes to the way we thought about foreign policy changed.
While far less inspiring, I compare the step my state took to comply with Common Core, to a trip to the moon. Education reform is hardly new, but in adopting “national” standards, or standards controlled by an outside consortium in a process that circumvented all the traditional policy-setting paths of “we the people,” we have entered uncharted territory. That one step, over a long-maintained boundary in education, makes it more significant.
"No nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in this race for space..." John F. Kennedy said when introducing his ambitions for space exploration to the country.
I’ve heard a similar argument – appealing to our competitive nature, and our fear of falling behind other nations – used in favor of sticking with Common Core. Our children’s future and our nation’s prosperity and security depend on it I’m told. Okay, I’m a Whitney Houston fan. I too believe the children are our future. But opposition to Common Core is not opposition to progress, nor is it ignorance of the challenges my children face in the future.
I see a greater threat to my children’s future in NOT insisting we adhere to established systems of checks and balances in the crafting of policy. Upholding our Constitution and resisting government overreach is what will keep us from falling behind other nations because this, and primarily this, is what sets our nation apart in the first place.
Bill Gates, whose foundation funded every aspect of Common Core standards, spoke to the National Conference of State Legislators saying, "If your state doesn’t join the common standards, your kids will be left behind; and if too many states opt out—the country will be left behind. Remember—this is not a debate that China, Korea, and Japan are having. Either our schools will get better—or our economic position will get worse."
Hmmmm. Do the people in China, Korea and Japan get the chance to debate issues like this? Exactly.
Come to think of it, did the people of Utah get the chance to debate the pros and cons of accepting a national curriculum? No. What Chinese attribute are we trying to emulate here – high math test scores, or top-down policy making? Do we really believe that we can’t have the former, without the latter?
This point was discussed this week in a public “debate” of sorts between two of the country’s high-profile voices on education policy, Marc Tucker and Yong Zhao. (http://zhaolearning.com/2013/01/17/more-questions-about-the-common-core-response-to-marc-tucker/)
Tucker: Without broad agreement on a well designed and internationally benchmarked system of standards, we have no hope of producing a nation of students who have the kind of skills, knowledge and creative capacities the nation so desperately needs…
Zhao: This I will have to respectfully disagree with. The U.S. has had a decentralized education system forever (until Bush and Obama) and it has become one of the most prosperous, innovative, and democratic nations on earth. The lack of a common prescription of content imposed on all children by the government has not been a vice, but a virtue. As Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz wrote in their book The Race between Education and Technology: “We must shed our collective amnesia. America was once the world’s education leader. The rest of the world imported its institutions and its egalitarian ideals spread widely. That alone is a great achievement and one calls for an encore.”
The third man to walk on the moon, Charles Conrad Jr. also said something that resonates with my feelings on the Common Core. He said, “Whoopee! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but it's a long one for me!"
Presented as simple cause and effect steps between policy and anticipated outcomes, some of the assumptions of how we’ll benefit from these standards defy gravity of reason and leave me mentally drifting in midair, wondering how they got from point A to point B.
Just one example of this is in Utah’s Race to the Top Grant application. On page thirty-two I read, “Expanding our mathematics initiative, while implementing the new core, will help us increase our capacity to deliver high-quality mathematics instruction, which will increase our high school graduation rate and increase college enrollment.”
So, if we just get the teachers to be more “high-quality” because they’re using the new standards, more kids will graduate and enroll in college? That seems like a bit of an oversimplification. I’d love to see the study that supports that conclusion. What? No references for this claim?
I’m not an expert on writing grants, or standards for that matter, so maybe the rules are different. All I know is if I’d submitted a paper to my high school English teacher as lacking in rhetorical support or references as this I’d have flunked the assignment.
Technically, I guess we did flunk. Utah was not awarded that grant, but it wasn’t for that reason. This statement from the document sent to Utah explaining why our grant was rejected is especially telling:
“Utah, however, has presented evidence through its statements that the State is not taking the lead at developing fiscal, policy, and public support for LEAs; its leaving that to LEAs to do themselves.”
In other words, Utah didn’t get the grant because there is still too much local control afforded to each local school district. I can’t help but feel that this exposes the true landing point of these reforms – a shifting of control away from LEAs and away from the state.
Now, before someone reiterates the claim that this is a “state-led” initiative I have to ask this question, “To which branch of government does the National Governor’s Association belong?”
The NGA is a trade organization, not a constitutional representative of the states. The writing of the standards started and ended there. The NGA and Council of Chief State School Officers (another trade organization) hold the Common Core State Standards copyright.
The only participation of the actual states was whether or not they would adopt the standards – with federal dollars hanging in the balance. Even the decision to comply with the standards eluded traditional legislative process or input by teachers or parents who actually live in Utah. For the average parent wanting to stay involved with her children’s education, the process of advocacy now may as well involve a trip to outer space.
The leaps of logic don’t end with the grant application. The standards themselves are lacking in substantive references.
In a 2011 article entitled “Common Core State Standards: An Example of Data-less Decision Making” Christopher H. Tienken, Editor of the AASA Journal of Scholarship and Practice, wrote:
“When I reviewed that ‘large and growing body of knowledge’ offered by the NGA, I found that it was not large, and in fact built mostly on one report, Benchmarking for Success, created by the NGA and the CCSSO, the same groups that created these standards; Hardly independent research.
The Benchmarking report has over 135 end notes, some of which are repetitive references. Only four of the cited pieces of evidence could be considered empirical studies related directly to the topic of national standards and student achievement.
The remaining citations were newspaper stories, armchair magazine articles, op-ed pieces, book chapters, notes from telephone interviews, and several tangential studies.”
Common Core centralizes curriculum in a way that Americans have resisted on Constitutional grounds for our entire existence as a nation, in exchange for what appears to be the most expansive, most expensive education experiment in this country ever – and our children will be the lab rats.
Will we be surprised then, if the outcomes are not what we were promised?
I worry that if we are beguiled into accepting these standards, along with the over-testing, intrusive tracking, and loss of local advocacy – not because they’ve proven effective but because they have been advertised to us as the only path to our children achieving the 21st century equivalent of man’s first steps on the moon – we will live to regret it.
Even if the outcome is neutral, I have to consider that the legacy of Common Core also includes a burden of debt, and further erosion of freedoms with increased government control.
Principles of limited government (federal AND state) and self-determination are just as important in education policy as they are in crafting policies for healthcare, or protecting a free market. Abraham Lincoln said it this way, “The philosophy of education today, will be the philosophy of government tomorrow.”
We gain inspiration from past events like the Apollo moon landing, and we gain wisdom in the things history has taught us about the consequences of not resisting increasing government intrusion into the lives of individuals.
Maybe Common Core and all the other programs of centralization and equalization being pushed on us lately are like to going to the moon – not because we are aiming high, but for another reason
For a nation that has enjoyed freedoms and prosperity unlike any other on the earth, the stark contrast between that way of life compared to the outcomes of more common principles of government might seem like going from the Garden of Eden to what Buzz Aldrin described, while standing on the surface of the moon as “magnificent desolation.”