Common Core opposition is hardening

George Will’s column condemning Common Core is a very bad sign for the standards’ advocates, writes Andy Smarick in Flypaper. “Principled opposition” to Common Core is “hardening.”

Will sees federal overreach in the Obama administration’s use of Race to the Top and ESEA waivers to push states to adopt national standards.

Second, “centralization and uniformity” have costs, writes Will.

“Even satisfactory national standards must extinguish federalism’s creativity: At any time, it is more likely there will be half a dozen innovative governors than one creative federal education bureaucracy. And the mistakes made by top-down federal reforms are continental mistakes.”

Third, some Common Core defenders aren’t willing to debate the issues, writes Will. “Proponents seem to deem it beneath their dignity to engage opponents’ arguments, preferring to caricature opponents as political primitives and to dismiss them with flippancies.”

Lots of parents and other voters “are skeptical of big promises and big government,” writes Smarick.

They are skeptical of centralized solutions. And they are skeptical of enlightened national leaders who pat them on their heads.

Common Core advocates should keep all of this in mind as they glibly extol the virtues of embracing common standards, of setting a national bar for excellence, of following an exquisitely crafted set of learning goals fashioned by experts. They should keep it all in mind as they respond to criticism with answers amounting to “there’s nothing to worry about, we have this under control,” or—in moments of weakness—something more condescending.

Smarick wants Common Core standards to succeed.

Common Core opponents come from many political directions. New York teachers’ union voted to withdraw support for the new standards.

It wants more time for teachers to review the Common Core lessons the state has been promoting, and it’s demanding more input on whether they are grade-appropriate. Parents and teachers have complained that the standards push the youngest kids too fast, demanding so much work from kindergarteners that there’s little time for the play that’s deemed essential for young children’s development. On the other end of the scale, they have complained that the high-school math trajectory laid out by the Common Core leaves out key math concepts and does not push top students to take calculus.

Teachers also want a chance to “teach to the test,” reports Politico. “The union is also demanding that all questions on the new Common Core exams be released so teachers can review them and use them to shape instruction.”

States are getting cold feet about Common Core testing, reports USA Today.

Common Core catastrophe?

States rushed the adoption of Common Core standards to be eligible for federal grants, Bill Evers, a former assistant secretary of Education, tells the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

. . . I really think it’s better to not have a national set of curriculum content standards. It’s better that various states try out their best idea of how to do these things, so maybe Pennsylvania will borrow some ideas from Massachusetts or Indiana, or try some ideas of its own.

Common Core is a “utopian project to align all the classrooms in the country to be doing roughly the same things,” says Evers. “Anything like that is just an unimaginably difficult, complex thing.”

The standards themselves, the standards are lists of topics that the child is expected to learn in each grade. The standards have some sloppiness problems and they have some, I guess you could call them doctrinal, problems where they are trying to teach a certain kind of progressive education. And that may not work out too well. . . . the previous attempts to do this sort of thing have failed. There was new math in the wake of Sputnik, there was an attempt at national standards by George H.W. Bush, and there were two attempts in the Clinton administration at national standards and testing and curriculum. They both failed.

Will it do more harm than good? “I think it has the potential to be catastrophic,” replies Evers.

Opposition to the new standards is growing, writes George Will. The Common Core is “designed to advance in primary and secondary education the general progressive agenda of centralization and uniformity.”

Fix schools by not fixing schools

Fix Schools by Not Fixing Schools advises Jay P. Greene. Instead of trying to reform traditional public schools, go around them.

We can expand access to other educational options, including charter schools, voucher schools, tax-credit schools. ESAs, digital schooling, home-schooling, and hybrid schools.  We can also expand access to enriching non-school activities, like museums, theaters, historical sites, summer camps, and after-school programs.  Reformers should concentrate their energy on all of these non-traditional-school efforts and stop trying so hard to fix traditional public schools.

Traditional public schools don’t want to be fixed, writes Greene.

The people who make their living off of those schools have reasons for wanting schools to be as they are and have enormous political resources to fend off efforts to fundamentally change things.  Trying to impose reforms like merit pay, centralized systems of teacher evaluation, new standards, new curriculum, new pedagogy, etc… on unwilling schools is largely a futile exercise.  They have the political resources to block, dilute, or co-opt these efforts in most instances.

“Second, attempting to impose reforms on traditional public schools requires a significant increase in centralized political control,” Greene writes.  When traditionalists subvert “most reforms through poor implementation,” the centralization remains.

 Centralized reforms that can be adopted and implemented have to be watered-down enough to gain broad support for passage and implementation, rendering them mostly impotent.

. . . even if by some miracle an effective and appropriate centralized reform with bite is adopted and properly implemented, there is no natural political constituency to preserve the integrity of that reform over time.

Traditional public schools don’t resist the creation of alternatives “with the same ferocity that they oppose reforms that directly effect their daily working life,” Greene writes. Creating alternatives doesn’t require centralization or pleasing everyone. Successful alternatives build their own constituency.

 

Centralization is to decentralization as Scylla is to…

In education, at least in this country, it’s treacherous to go too far toward centralization or decentralization.

Let’s consider curriculum. In the United States, a centralized national curriculum would cause far too much political turmoil. Or, rather, if such a thing could be pulled off, it would turn out bland and incoherent, after all the additions and compromises had been made. Well aware of this, policymakers have pushed for the “voluntary” nationalization of standards (not the same as curriculum) instead. Since standards usually focus on skills, they carry less threat than curriculum, at least on the surface. Hence the Common Core State Standards.

Now, it makes no sense to have common standards without common implementation. If people around the country interpret them in their own way, you might as well not have common standards at all. Thus, the standards and accompanying directives veer into curriculum and pedagogy. It’s inevitable, but that’s where the trouble begins. For instance, the standards specify the ratio of literary to informational text for each grade level. A guide for publishers (written by the main authors of the CCSS for English Language Arts) encourages close reading and discourage “pre-reading” activities; in the most recent version, the authors changed the wording to make it less prescriptive (in response to fierce criticism). The assessments based on the Common Core will likely carry even more implicit pedagogical directives and cause still more uproar.

Standards come with unofficial directives as well. District leaders pass on messages to administrators, who pass them on to teachers. Some of these get crass by the time they reach the classroom (e.g., “Only one novel per year“). Some are vague and voluminous; teachers hear that they will be expected to do all sorts of things they haven’t been doing, but it isn’t clear what. All sorts of “stuff” comes along with the standards, a great deal of it insubstantial.

In other words, nationalized standards are difficult to pull off in moderation and with discernment. They start to resemble the Scylla of education: that twelve-footed, six-necked monster that peers over the cliff and fishes for dolphins and bigger creatures.

In response, many argue that curriculum and standards should be left to local communities. This sounds like a great idea, if you live in a community that shares your view of education. Woe (or Charybdis) to you if you don’t.

Why be wary of local control? Oh, because the community’s likes, needs, and preferences might clash with yours. What’s more, they can be limiting. Some communities will try to guard their children from anything that conflicts with their religion. Others will seek curricula with immediate real-life application. Still others will want curricula that focus on their cultural heritage. Still others will focus on job skills and whatever seems to be in vogue. Others still will want anything that gives the children a competitive edge.  Others will insist on the beautiful and classical.

If education is supposed to take you into a larger perspective and larger world, then curricular decentralization, taken too far, works against this goal. Disparities will grow, and they won’t be only economic. Schools will be ingrown entities, confined to what the local communities value and know.

Now, most advocates of common standards and advocates of local curricula avoid the extremes I have described above. They keep some sort of counterbalance in mind. In education discussion, though, people tend to defend the principle they think needs defending, even if it isn’t the sum total of the truth for them. So their views may sound more extreme than they actually are.

Ultimately what makes sense is a  combination of centralized and decentralized curriculum. Getting the combination right is tricky, but it’s worth figuring out. For instance, we could have a few common texts per grade (nationwide), and leave it to districts and schools to shape the rest of their curricula. We could have institutes where teachers and principals immersed themselves in literature and other subjects, thus building a culture together. There are many more possibilities.

We need a common curricular basis of some kind, but it must not stifle initiative, limit variety, or drag down what is good. Finding the right mixture of the common and particular may be one of education’s most difficult challenges. Are we willing to undertake it? Is there a good place to begin?

Sometimes it seems that we are clinging to the fig tree, our legs dangling down, as Odysseus did in order to escape both Scylla and Charybdis. Not being Odysseus, we can’t count on such agility or fortune. Fortunately our Scylla and Charybdis aren’t quite as ferocious as the old ones. Things are bad, and plenty bad, but they aren’t quite that bad.

‘Best practices’ says who?

Marc Tucker’s Surpassing Shanghai, which looks at “best practices” of schools in Shanghai, Japan, Finland Singapore and Canada, exemplifies the worst practices, writes Jay Greene in Education Next.

Tucker and his National Center on Education and the Economy colleagues describe characteristics of high-achieving countries’ schools, but there’s no proof they’ve picked the key factors, Greene writes.

Worse, Tucker’s recommendations ignore the “best practices” identified by his colleagues. He co-wrote the chapter on Japan and concludes that centralized control of education is a key to success. But every other case study highlights the importance of decentralization, writes Greene.

In Shanghai the local school system “received permission to create its own higher education entrance examination. This heralded a trend of exam decentralization, which was key to localized curricula.”

The chapter on Finland describes the importance of the decision “to devolve increasing levels of authority and responsibility for education from the Ministry of Education to municipalities and schools…. [T]here were no central initiatives that the government was trying to push through the system.”

Singapore is similarly described: “Moving away from the centralized top-down system of control, schools were organized into geographic clusters and given more autonomy…. It was felt that no single accountability model could fit all schools. Each school therefore set its own goals and annually assesses its progress toward meeting them…”

And the chapter on Canada teaches us that “the most striking feature of the Canadian system is its decentralization.”

Tucker also writes that high-achieving countries don’t use the market mechanisms favored by U.S. education reformers, such as charter schools and vouchers, notes Greene. However, the Shanghai chapter describes what it calls “the Chinese version of school choice.”

Canada also offers an “extensive system of school choice,” Greene writes.

Oregon governor will control schools

Oregon’s governor will control the schools under a new law passed by a Democrat-controlled Senate and a split House, writes RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation. By 2014, Gov. John Kitzhaber will appoint the state school superintendent and a new board of education to set policy for the elementary, secondary and postsecondary system.

 

Can reformers control their reforms?

Can reformers control their own reforms? In a review of Paul Peterson’s Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning, Dan Willingham sees reasons for concern about the reforms du jour.

Peterson writes about Horace Mann, John Dewey, Martin Luther King Jr., Al Shanker, William Bennett, James Coleman and  Julie Young of Florida Virtual School. “Centralization became the almost inevitable byproduct of school reform, simply because reformers sought maximum power to carry their desires into effect,” Peterson writes.

Peterson’s core argument–that reformers seek greater centralization of control, then lose control of the intended reform–seems especially pertinent to thinking about the impact of the Common Core standards.

Jay P. Greene has emphasized this point. He argues that however much one might like the standards now, “the good guys” will inevitably lose control of them. From Peterson’s read of history, it would seem that Greene is dead on.

. . . Long before the Common Core standards became the latest Big Idea, I would chuckle when I heard policy observers avow (with a straight face) “Oh, I’m for national standards. [pause] As long as they are good.”

Peterson’s book won’t have the impact it deserves because of his “conservative” reputation, Willingham predicts.