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Topic: Who's Minding the Schools?
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Who's Minding the Schools?
Posted: Jun 12, 2013 3:42 PM
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From International Herald Review [Sunday Review] - Global Edition of
the New York Times, Saturday, June 8, 2013. See
NOTE: Their are several hundred comments on this article, following
the article at the website.

Who's Minding the Schools?

By Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus

IN April, some 1.2 million New York students took their first Common
Core State Standards tests, which are supposed to assess their
knowledge and thinking on topics such as "The Adventures of Tom
Sawyer" and a single matrix equation in a vector variable.

Students were charged with analyzing both fiction and nonfiction, not
only through multiple-choice answers but also short essays. The
mathematics portion of the test included complex equations and word
problems not always included in students' classroom curriculums.
Indeed, the first wave of exams was so overwhelming for these young
New Yorkers that some parents refused to let their children take the

These students, in grades 3 through 8, are taking part in what may be
the most far-reaching experiment in American educational history. By
the 2014-15 academic year, public schools in 45 states and the
District of Columbia will administer Common Core tests to students of
all ages. (Alaska, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia have so far held out;
Minnesota will use only the Common Core English test.) Many Catholic
schools have also decided to implement the Common Core standards;
most private, nonreligious schools have concluded that the program
isn't for them.

Many of these "assessments," as they are called, will be more
rigorous than any in the past. Whether the Common Core is called a
curriculum or not, there's little doubt that teachers will feel
pressured to gear much of their instruction to this annual regimen.
In the coming years, test results are likely to affect decisions
about grade promotion for students, teachers' job status and school

It is the uniformity of the exams and the skills ostensibly linked to
them that appeal to the Core's supporters, like Education Secretary
Arne Duncan and Bill and Melinda Gates. They believe that tougher
standards, and eventually higher standardized test scores, will make
America more competitive in the global brain race. "If we've
encouraged anything from Washington, it's for states to set a high
bar for what students should know to be able to do to compete in
today's global economy," Mr. Duncan wrote to us in an e-mail.

But will national, ramped-up standards produce more successful
students? Or will they result in unintended consequences for our
educational system?

By definition, America has never had a national education policy;
this has indeed contributed to our country's ambivalence on the
subject. As it stands, the Common Core is currently getting hit
mainly from the right. Tea Party-like groups have been gaining
traction in opposition to the program, arguing that it is another
intrusion into the lives of ordinary Americans by a faceless elite.
While we don't often agree with the Tea Party, we've concluded that
there's more than a grain of truth to their concerns.

The anxiety that drives this criticism comes from the fact that a
radical curriculum - one that has the potential to affect more than
50 million children and their parents - was introduced with hardly
any public discussion. Americans know more about the events in
Benghazi than they do about the Common Core.

WHAT became the Common Core began quite modestly. Several years ago,
many organizations, including the National Governors Association and
the Council of Chief State School Officers, whose members are
top-ranking state education officials, independently noticed that the
content and scoring of high school "exit" tests varied widely between
states. In 2006, for instance, 91 percent of students in Mississippi
passed a mathematics exit exam on the first attempt, while only 65
percent did so in Arizona. At the same time, students' performance on
the National Assessment of Educational Progress often differed from
the state results.

This was not just embarrassing: it looked unprofessional. The
governors and the school chiefs decided to work together to create a
single set of standards and a common grading criteria. Private
funding, led by some $35 million in grants from the Bill & Melinda
Gates Foundation, allowed the coalition to spread its wings. Aligning
tests became an opportunity to specify what every American child
should know.

In 2009, an education consultant named David Coleman was retained to
help develop the program, and he and other experts ended up
specifying, by our count, more than 1,300 skills and standards. Mr.
Coleman, a Rhodes scholar and the son of Bennington College's
departing president, is known as a driven worker as well as for his
distaste for personal memoir as a learning tool. Last year, he was
selected to lead the College Board, which oversees A.P. exams and the

Of course, the 45 states that have decided to implement the Common
Core did so willingly. While federal agencies did not have a role in
the program's creation, the Obama administration signaled to states
in 2009 that they should embrace the standards if they hoped to win a
grant through the federal program known as Race to the Top.

For all its impact, the Common Core is essentially an invisible
empire. It doesn't have a public office, a board of directors or a
salaried staff. Its Web site lists neither a postal address nor a
telephone number.

On its surface, the case for the Common Core is compelling. It is
widely known that American students score well below their European
and Asian peers in reading and math, an alarming shortfall in a
competitive era. According to the 2009 Program for International
Student Assessment, the United States ranks 24th out of 34 countries
in "mathematics literacy," trailing Sweden and the Czech Republic,
and 11th in "reading literacy," behind Estonia and Poland. (South
Korea ranks first in both categories.) Under the Common Core,
students in participating states will immediately face more demanding
assignments. Supporters are confident that students will rise to
these challenges and make up for our country's lag in the global
education race. We are not so sure.

Students in Kentucky were the first to undergo the Common Core's
testing regimen; the state adopted the standards in 2010. One year
later, its students' scores fell across the board by roughly a third
in reading and math. Perhaps one cannot blame the students, or the
teachers - who struggle to to teach to the new, behemoth test that,
in some cases, surpasses their curriculums - for the drop in scores.

Here's one high school math standard: Represent addition,
subtraction, multiplication, and conjugation of complex numbers
geometrically on the complex plane; use properties of this
representation for computation. Included on New York state's
suggested reading list for ninth graders are Doris Lessing, Albert
Camus and Rainer Maria Rilke. (In many parts of the country, Kurt
Vonnegut and Harper Lee remain the usual fare.)

More affluent students, as always, will have parental support.
Private tutoring, already a growth industry, will become more
important if passing scores on the Common Core are required for
graduation. Despite worthy aims, the new standards may well deepen
the nation's social divide.

The Common Core is not oblique in its aim: to instill "college and
career readiness" in every American teenager - in theory, a highly
democratic ideal. In the past, students were unabashedly tracked,
which usually placed middle-class students in academic courses and
their working-class peers in vocational programs. New York City had
high schools for cooking, printing and needle trades. (There was even
one in Brooklyn called Manual Training.) Indeed, the aim of these
schools was to prepare a slice of society for blue-collar life. Since
the 1960s, this has been seen as undemocratic. Today, students are
typically required to take algebra, so they will have more options
upon graduation (should they graduate). The irony - and tragedy - is
that students who don't surmount these hurdles now fall even further.

Already, almost one-quarter of young Americans do not finish high
school. In Utah and Oklahoma, roughly 20 percent don't; the
proportion rises to 32 percent in South Carolina and 42 percent in
Nevada. What does the Common Core offer these students?

The answer is simple. "College and career skills are the same," Ken
Wagner, New York State's associate commissioner of education for
curriculum, assessment and educational technology, told us. The
presumption is that the kind of "critical thinking" taught in
classrooms - and tested by the Common Core - improves job
performance, whether it's driving a bus or performing neurosurgery.
But Anthony Carnevale, the director of Georgetown's Center on
Education and the Workforce, calls the Common Core a
"one-size-fits-all pathway governed by abstract academic content."

IN sum, the Common Core takes as its model schools from which most
students go on to selective colleges. Is this really a level playing
field? Or has the game been so prearranged that many, if not most, of
the players will fail?

Debate is now stirring within partisan circles. Glenn Beck sees the
Common Core as "leftist indoctrination." The Republican National
Committee calls it "an inappropriate overreach to standardize and
control the education of our children." Republican governors and
legislators in Indiana, Kansas, Georgia and several other states are
talking about reconsidering their participation. Yet conservative
scholars at the Manhattan and Fordham institutes laud it as promising
"a far more rigorous, content-rich, cohesive K-12 education." Some
corporate C.E.O.'s favor it because they say it will upgrade the work
force. Mr. Duncan is one of the lone liberal voices in support of the
program. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of
Teachers, supports the plan, which she calls "revolutionary." That
said, she has called for a moratorium on judging teachers and schools
by the first round of assessments, which she fears are sometimes
being implemented hastily and without needed support.

For Diane Ravitch, a historian of education and former assistant
education secretary, the program is predicated on "the idea that you
can't trust teachers." If we want our children taught from
standardized scripts, she told us, let's say so and accept the

For our part, we're tired of seeing teachers cast as scapegoats, of
all the carping over unions and tenure. It is time teachers are as
revered in society as doctors or scientists, and allowed to work
professionally without being bound by reams of rules.

Still, there's an upside to the Common Core's arrival. As the public
better appreciates its sweep, there is likely to be much discussion
about schools and what we want them to do. Ideally, this will involve
a reconsideration of the contours of knowledge and the question of
how we can become a better-educated nation.
SIDEBAR ILLUSTRATION / Multimedia Graphic: Jon Han
Andrew Hacker is an emeritus professor of political science at Queens
College, City University of New York. Claudia Dreifus is an adjunct
professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public
Affairs. They are working on a book about mathematics.
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on June 9, 2013, on page
SR1 of the New York edition with the headline: Who's Minding the
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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