Tag: common core

American Mathematical Society: Hurdles to U.S. Tech. Improvement

Allow me to liberally paraphrase a piece from the current issue of the AMS’s publication “Notices.” Thereafter, I’ll contrast my version with the original.

The US presents particular obstacles to achieving technological improvement at a national scale, deriving from its social and economic diversity and also from an entrenched tradition of entrepreneurship and private industry which precludes a federal role in any primary initiatives. Yet to achieve real improvement at scale requires some national coherence.

The laws of physics are the same in Florida and Montana; it makes little sense in a highly mobile population for more than one cell phone technology to exist within our borders. It would be like building a national railway system with different gauge tracks in each state.

Readers will no doubt realize that this argument is undermined by the substantial advances Americans have witnessed in Cell phone technology over the years, despite—perhaps even because of—the existence of alternative suppliers developing different hardware and operating systems. All the while, we are somehow still able to call/text one another without worrying whether our interlocutor is an Apple addict or an aficionado of Android. And scale hasn’t proven to be a problem. Apple and Google have managed to serve very, very large numbers of people indeed.

Misinformed on Common Core? This Won’t Set You Straight

Whenever someone declares opponents of the Common Core “misinformed,” get ready: there’s probably a lot more misinformation coming your way. Case in point, a new offering from Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin attacking Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) over his Common Core stance in a recent Des Moines Register op-ed. Her post is chock-full of misinformation, ironically intended to make Core opponents seem confused.

Start with this, in which Rubin asserts that Walker tried to conflate overall federal education funding with the Common Core:

As virtually all GOP contenders but Jeb Bush do, he then takes a swing at Common Core. “Nationwide, we want high standards but we want them set by parents, educators and school board members at the local level. That is why I oppose Common Core. Money spent at the local and state level is more efficient, more effective and more accountable. That is why I support moving money out of Washington and sending it to states and schools. Students deserve a better education.” This is confusing since Common Core per se does not affect how and where money is coming from.

This isn’t actually confusing when you read Walker’s piece, at least the online version (which I assume is like the print version, and is also likely the version Rubin read.) Why? Because Walker separated his ideas into paragraphs, which Rubin eliminated in the quote above, and the placement of the paragraphs makes clear that Walker’s Common Core thought and his federal funding thought were separate ideas. Directly from Walker’s piece:

Now, more than ever, we need to push big, bold reforms to improve our schools. If we can do it in Wisconsin, there is no reason we can’t push positive education reforms across the country.

Nationwide, we want high standards but we want them set by parents, educators and school board members at the local level. That is why I oppose Common Core.

Money spent at the local and state level is more efficient, more effective and more accountable. That is why I support moving money out of Washington and sending it to states and schools. Students deserve a better education.

And every student in the our [sic] nation’s capital should have access to a great education. Therefore, we should expand the options for families in the District of Columbia to choose the school that is best for their children.

Rubin proceeds to make the funding befuddlement worse by writing, “It is Race to the Top that affords states money if they can show either through Common Core or other standards that they are setting high expectations for students.” First, the Race to the Top that provided the primary impetus for states to adopt the Core de facto only allowed the Core – not “other standards” – saying that only states that were part of a standards-and-assessment consortium including “a majority of the States in the country” (p. 59689) could get maximum points in the funding contest. Only the Core met that criterion, and it was clearly the intent of many Core supporters and the Obama administration to have RTT push the Core specifically. That first Race to the Top, however, was basically a very powerful one-shot deal, not one that continuously “affords states money.” It was subsequent waivers out of No Child Left Behind requirements – which let states either use the Core or have a state university system certify state standards as “college- and career-ready” – that are currently in effect and offer two standards options.

Opt Out Tests If Child’s a “Mere Creature of the State”

The Common Core War, over the last few months, has been fought on a largely new front: whether students can be forced to take state tests – in the vast majority of cases, Core-aligned tests – or whether parents and students can refuse. It is perhaps an even more fundamental question than whether the federal government may constitutionally coerce standardization and testing generally, and with Common Core, specific standards and tests. The testing battle is to a large extent about whether a child, in seeming opposition to the seminal Supreme Court ruling in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, is indeed a “mere creature of the State.”

The opt-out numbers are hard to pin down, though there is little question that some districts have seen very large percentages while others – probably the large majority nationwide – have seen few. It is also probably reasonable to conclude that the leader of the opt-out crusade has been New York State, where animosity toward the Core has been high since the state first rushed implementation and state officials, in an effort to calm things, actually inflamed them with a condescending approach to public engagement that launched weeks of recriminations. Last year the state saw an estimated 60,000 students opt out, which leapt to nearly 200,000 this year.

The root question, of course, is should students and parents be able to opt out without fear of punishment? And since punishment would be coming from a government institution – yes, that is what a public school is – that means without fear of punishment by the state. If children are, in part, creatures of the state – and Pierce did not say there is no legitimate state role in education – than punishment is legitimate. If, however, the public schools exist to serve fully free citizens, then punishment cannot be meted out for refusing the test; it is up to parents to freely decide whether or not their children are subjected to the tests.

The Common Core Conundrum

Common Core is either meaningless or antithetical to a free and pluralistic society.

That’s the key conundrum that Professor Jay P. Greene, chair of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, identified yesterday during his testimony before the Arkansas Council on Common Core Review, which is currently considering whether to keep, modify, or scrap the standards:

Because standards are about values, their content is not merely a technical issue that can be determined by scientific methods. There is no technically correct set of standards, just as there is no technically correct political party or religion. Reasonable people have legitimate differences of opinion about what they want their children taught. A fundamental problem with national standards efforts, like Common Core, is that they are attempting to impose a single vision of a proper education on a large and diverse country with differing views.

National standards can try to produce uniformity out of diversity with some combination of two approaches. They can promote standards that are so bland and ambiguous as to be inoffensive to almost everyone. Or they can force their particular vision on those who believe differently. Either way, national standards, like Common Core, are inappropriate and likely to be ineffective. If national standards embrace a vague consensus, then they make no difference since almost everyone already believes them and is already working toward them. If, on the other hand, national standards attempt to impose their particular vision of a proper education on those with differing visions, then national standards are oppressive and likely to face high levels of resistance and non-compliance. So, national standards are doomed to be either unnecessary or illiberal. Either way, they are wrong. [emphasis added]

Supporters of Common Core clearly hope it does bend educators to their will induce “instructional shifts” in our nation’s classrooms, but as Greene points out, for Common Core to be more than “just a bunch of words in a document,” it needs some sort of mechanism to coerce schools and educators into changing their practice to align with the Core. Prominent backers of Common Core have long promoted a “tripod” of standards, tests, and “accountability” measures – i.e. rewards or (more likely) punishments tied to performance on those tests.

Did Common Core Do That? We Don’t Actually Know

Common Core supporters love to accuse opponents of peddling misinformation, and sometimes opponents do. On the flip side, Core supporters are frequently guilty not only of peddling deceptive information of their own, but promising the world without sufficient evidence to justify it. A new report from Harvard’s Paul Peterson – generally a pretty sober analyst – comes a bit too close to making such a leap, strongly suggesting that the Common Core has caused appreciable improvement in the rigor of state standards.

Based on a rough trend of decreasing differences between the percentage of students scoring “proficient” on state tests and on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Peterson and co-author Matthew Ackerman report that state standards are rising. In other words, “proficient” on state tests is looking more like presumably high-flying “proficient” on the “Nation’s Report Card.”

Between 2011 and 2013, “20 states strengthened their standards, while just 8 loosened them,” Peterson and Ackerman report. To what do they attribute this? “A key objective of the CCSS [Common Core] consortium – the raising of proficiency standards – has begun to happen.” In case the text of the report didn’t make the attribution of success to the Core clear, the report’s subhead intoned that, “commitments to the Common Core may be driving the proficiency bar upward.”

At the very least, there should be a huge emphasis on “may,” and the Core probably shouldn’t be mentioned at all.  

Indeed, Peterson and Ackerman’s results could suggest that the Common Core actually dampened rigor. According to the report, of the four states that never adopted the Core, Texas and Virginia raised their standards while Alaska and Nebraska stood pat. That means 50 percent of non-adopters lifted their standards and 50 percent stood their ground. None went backward. Among Core adopters, in contrast, eight states, or 18 percent, lowered their standards; 19, or 42 percent, stood still; and only 18, or 40 percent, raised their bars. (I exclude Minnesota, which adopted the English standards but not the math, and West Virginia, for which data were unavailable. Among adopters I include Indiana and Oklahoma, which eventually dropped out but were Core states as of 2013.)

Mr. Bush, the Lines Are Already Clear

In a Washington Post op-ed laying out his thoughts on the federal role in education, Gov. Jeb Bush wrote, “We are long overdue in setting the lines of authority so clearly.” Alas, the lines he offered would furnish just the sort of “clarity” that has led to nearly limitless federal control over schooling without any meaningful evidence of lasting improvement.

The true heart of what Bush wrote was not his declaration about setting lines, but the three justifications he offered for federal intervention. Washington, he wrote:

should work to create transparency so that parents can see how their local schools measure up; it should support policies that have a proven record; and it should make sure states can’t ignore students who need extra help.

All of this is what has gotten us to the de facto state of federal control we are currently in:

  • “Transparency” has come to mean federally driven tests and curriculum standards – the Common Core – because under No Child Left Behind states had been defining “proficiency” for themselves, and it wasn’t sufficiently “transparent” for some people whether “proficient” kids in Mississippi were as educated as those in Massachusetts. Of course, you can’t have much more complete federal control than Washington deciding what students are taught.
  • Supporting policies with “a proven record” opens the door for any policies politicians declare “proven.” See, for instance, the rhetoric vs. the reality of pre-K education programs.
  • Making sure states “can’t ignore students who need extra help” has also been used to justify national standards and tests. Indeed, it underlies everything Washington does. Sayeth federal politicians, “Some groups aren’t doing so well, and since we spend money to end that we’d better dictate terms. So let’s connect all that money to school nutrition guidelines, teacher evaluations, English and math content, school opening times…”

Quite simply, in setting his lines, Gov. Bush set no lines. Thankfully for him, lines of federal authority have already been drawn. Indeed, they were set centuries ago: the Constitution gives the federal government no authority to impose transparency, offer help, or anything other than prohibit discrimination by state and local governments and govern federal lands.

As I’ve noted before, obeying the Constitution would save folks like Gov. Bush a lot of reinventing work. More importantly, it would save everyone else expensive, ineffectual trouble.

Common Core Will Fix the Nonexistent Gender Gap!

Walk around a random college campus, and the odds are good the first student you’ll run into will be female. 57 percent of college students are women, versus 43 percent men, a 14 point gap. Look at Advanced Placement exams – those College Board tests that enable high-scoring takers to get college credit – and you’ll find that 56 percent of students taking the exams are girls, creating a 13 percent gap favoring women. But fear not! University of Miami president Donna Shalala assures us that the Common Core national curriculum standards will help address the “gender-based inequities” crushing female students.

Um, what?

As the data make obvious, there is no college-readiness gap unfavorable to women. Yet Shalala proclaims that, “These uniform, more rigorous K-12 education standards have the potential to reduce gender-based inequities by ensuring that every young woman receives the educational foundation she needs to be successful in college and career.”

Okay, maybe Shalala doesn’t really mean to suggest – as the quote does – that the Core will fix overall gaps. Maybe she only means differences in subjects like computer science and engineering that, as she writes, do lean male. But as Core proponents will point out if you assert the standards are too broad, the Core only furnishes math and English guidelines, not engineering or computer science. More important, of the two areas the Core tackles, AP-taking suggests women dominate one and hold their own in the other. 62 percent of students taking the AP English exams in 2014 were female, while 48 percent of Calculus AB takers were girls. At the very least, these figures belie any accusations of systematic efforts to exclude women from college-prep courses, even if girls tend to choose different courses than boys.

Sadly, superficial argumentation for the Core is widespread, if rarely quite so egregious as this. More common is proclaiming that “higher standards” will, simply by virtue of being higher, drive greater achievement and make the country economically triumphant.  This despite what the research actually says about national standards.

Ironically, Core supporters love to take opponents to task for being misinformed, and they are sometimes right: Core opponents do too often ascribe curricula they don’t like, or malevolent motives, to the Core and its creators. But supporters have been just as untethered to reality despite, often, having been involved with the Core for years, unlike lots of parents forced to scramble for information after the standards suddenly showed up at their doors demanding their children.  In the case of Shalala, at the very least she signed the Shanker Institute’s “manifesto” applauding the Core – and calling for an explicit national curriculum – in 2011.

Defense of the Common Core has too often come in the form of platitudes and ungrounded assertions. This latest effort hasn’t improved upon that.

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