Friday, March 28, 2014

Parents be damned

In case you missed it, the Los Angeles Times, one of the country’s top five newspapers by circulation, weighed in earlier this month on Common Core, the latest reform program for the country’s public schools.  Here’s a sum up of the paper’s arguments:

  • ·      California K – 12 public schools are so bad there are more reasons to enact Common Core than do away with it.  This view is similar to that of Harvard University Education Policy Professor Paul Peterson, who I interviewed last summer when covering Common Core’s implementation in Massachusetts.  He described Common Core as a step up for California schools but said if he were a Bay State parent with kids in Massachusetts’ public schools, he’d be very disappointed in the program.
  • ·      Common Core’s standards were adopted voluntarily, an Orwellian argument.  More than 20 years ago, when Massachusetts reformed its public schools – making them the best in the nation – the effort that it was going to take, along with the money that would be used, was put to a vote in both houses of the state legislature.  It was a highly contentious debate but, as it played out in newspapers and on radio and television stations, it gave parents time to digest the arguments, pro and con, and, at the very least, understand what their children would be facing.  With Common Core, in comparison, we have a vote taken by a subset of state officials, not representatives of the public body at large.  So it’s all in how the word “voluntarily” is defined.  As Common Core advocates see it, it means limited to what most voters would likely consider an obscure set of state officials.  It also shows what Common Core’s supporters think of parents and teachers and anyone responsible for bringing up and teaching the country’s youth (Not a lot!)  Why are Common Core supporters so opposed to democracy and putting their program up for a vote?  Why no discussion?  One should fear the manner in which Common Core is being implemented and what this means for democracy, that little idea we fought a Revolution over more than 200 years ago.  (Hint:  The Continental soldiers weren’t looking for more government in their lives.)
  • ·      High school math standards are coming down – and that’s a good thing, says the Times.  Really?  Apparently this doesn’t strike the editors as odd.  They likely weren’t great math students anyway (which is why they’re in journalism).  They quoted the Mathematical Association of America as saying they’re okay with lowering the country’s math standards.  What this means – if the editors had bothered to think this through – is that the math standards expected for earlier generations, even mine, were far more demanding.  Thus, by lowering Johnny’s math requirements, we’re giving him a confidence boost.  This proves the theory that every kid’s a champion, no matter the performance.  As my neighbor (a mother of two boys) likes to say, “Every kid earns a cupcake.”
  • ·      The editors are under the impression that those against Common Core are only Tea Party Republicans.  Let me clear that up:  I’m not a Tea Party Republican.  In fact, I’m not a Republican.  The only party I ever joined (more than 30 years ago) was the Democrats.  I’ve lived long enough to see that was a mistake.  I’m not registered with any party and haven’t been so for more than 25 years.  What I am – first and foremost – is a concerned parent bringing up, with his wife, two boys, in the 5th and 4th grades, respectively.  I wondered, as I read the editorials in the Times, whether there’s a parent among the editors.  It appears doubtful. 
  • ·      Both editorials in the Times raise questions about the current state of American journalism.  The news business, which is all too ready to search for a scandal in private enterprise or among politicians, refuses to consider the possibility of one in education.  If someone comes along, saying they’ve got a great new way to teach kids, newspaper editors see a saint and readily accept their arguments.  David Coleman, in the vanguard on behalf of Common Core, heads up The College Board, the owner of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, taken by high school students interested in attending college.  The College Board’s test competes with the ACT, which is gaining considerable traction against the SAT.  Common Core gives every appearance of being nothing more than an attempt to start prepping kids for the SAT as early as the 1st grade and is also a means to push against the ACT’s success.  Why this hasn’t been investigated and discussed – as a possible conflict of interest by The College Board or as its attempt to dominate and takeover public education – in mainstream newspapers is a mystery.
  • ·      The standardized testing industry in the United States – if limited to just The College Board, the ACT and the Educational Testing Service – is worth about $2 billion.  Based on my review of their tax documents, that’s about $750 million for The College Board, a little more than $300 million for the ACT and just over $1 billion the Educational Testing Service.  And, of course, that’s before taking into account each state’s standardized tests that someone must be paid to create, write and grade.  Reporters and editors should examine whether Common Core and, essentially, its subsidiary testing group, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, is really about propping up the standardized testing industry or, at the very least, The College Board.  Here’s another example of where it appears to be.
  • ·      Who among us was career-ready, as the proponents of Common Core like to say, when we graduated from high school?  Other than the kids who held babysitting jobs, worked as a cashier at the local drug store or another retail outlet, maybe stocked shelves, or the ones who cut lawns – none of whom planned to turn those jobs into careers – I didn’t know anyone who was “career ready” once they finished high school unless, possibly, they attended Rye Tech in Stamford, Connecticut.  Those kids learned how to be plumbers, electricians and carpenters, perhaps other jobs, and, likely, were ready for their careers.  But, of course, Rye Tech students were likely facing an apprenticeship for a few years once they graduated, which would actually make them “career ready.”
  • The world is flat, says New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.  That means any job can be done anywhere around the globe so long as that country's political and economic system allows it.  In other words, an accountant in Singapore can complete the tax forms for U.S. citizens.  A South Korean scientist can do what one does in California.  When executives think about opening an office in a distant city or a foreign land, they certainly consider the kind of employee they're likely to hire in that location.  So if Common Core really is bringing down standards -- and by every appearance it seems to be -- then there's every reason to believe that U.S. children will become far less competitive than their peers overseas.  So how is that career readiness argument holding up?  Again, this is a question that needs investigation.  
  • ·      In spite of what some might believe, this isn’t the first time someone’s come along saying they’ve got a curriculum to prepare kids for either college or career.  As the late, great historians Richard Hoftstadter and Charles Beard (hat tip to the fellow DePauw alum) write in their books – Anti-intellectualism in American Life (Knopf, 1963) by Hofstadter and The Rise of American Civilization (Macmillan 1930) by Beard and his wife, Mary – there are plenty of examples of anti-intellectualism in American history.  Common Core is just the latest one.  This new fangled system, if we’re to accept it at face value, isn’t about pushing kids up; it’s about lowering standards.  Common Core’s proponents say it’s about reducing lessons in math and reducing the amount of literature studied in K – 12.  It’s no wonder one of Common Core’s biggest supporters includes a Harvard dropout, Microsoft founder Bill Gates.  His “lack of education hasn’t hurt (him) none,” as Paul Simon sings, and, as the billionaire sees it, it won’t hurt anyone else’s son or daughter either.
  • ·      The single largest issue facing public schools is that it’s a stressed system.  It is required to teach every child, no matter their issues, because it’s supported by tax dollars.  This means schools need to be just as engaged in teaching – for lack of a better term – typical children as well as ones with special needs.
  • ·      When it comes to reforming education, it is surprising what’s off the table for consideration, like lengthening the school day for an hour, maybe more.  Instead, today’s teachers are doing the same thing their predecessors did – cramming as much stuff as they can into a six-hour day, and that’s before we eliminate time spent on music, art, physical education, health, recess and lunch, which means we could be down to about three hours, on average, of real teaching any given day.  If the country’s public schools are failing, especially compared to their peers overseas, then it’s time to undertake the debate about lengthening the school day, even the school year.  Why are we wedded to 180 days?  Well, there’s a union issue to deal with when it comes to many public school teachers and, apparently, no one wants to tackle that challenge.  It’s easier throw out one curriculum so another can be put in its place.
  • ·      Finally, there’s an issue of what kind of student is showing up at college these days.  For that insight, I turned to Emory University English Professor Mark Bauerlein.  When he joined Emory 20 years ago, they had 350 students majoring in English.  Today, that number’s down to about 150 majors.  I sought out Dr. Bauerlein’s expertise when writing about Common Core for baystateparent last summer and, unfortunately, couldn’t use his quotations due to space limitations.  Here are his views on today’s students and Common Core:  

    • .. the issues I’ve observed.  It’s part of a trend, a 15-year trend.  There are far fewer bookish students than there were.  I mean the ones who do reading on their own.  They’re not interested in grades and career, but they have interesting minds.  They’re 19-year-old freshmen.  They’re reading Nietzsche, looking at Freud.  Dostoyevsky hits them hard.  That kind of student is disappearing. It’s partly the digital age, the decline of books and the spread of cable that’s bringing this around.  It’s not a book-based world anymore.  Common Core doesn’t stop the process.  It doesn’t do anything to maintain books.  Unfortunately, it gives license to bringing newspaper clippings and blogs into the classroom.  It doesn’t compel it.  But it doesn’t stop it.


The College Board’s 2011 Tax Forms:

The Educational Testing Service’s 2011 Tax Forms:

ACT Inc’s 2011 Tax Forms:

Interview with Dr. Bauerlein was conducted in July 2013.

Interview with Dr. Peterson was conducted in July 2013.


Catherine Johnson said...

I love the Bauerlein quote! (I'm going to re-post on kitchen table math & link to this.)


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