Tag: common core

CEOs to Governors: Raise Production Goals and Quality Standards

A group of CEOs called on the nation’s governors this week to raise U.S. business standards. Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, the CEOs declared that state governments have been misleading consumers about the quality of the goods they’re buying. One retired Fortune-500 CEO declared that:

America’s standing as the most innovative and prosperous nation on earth depends on our ability to boost business’ productivity. As business leaders, we are pledging to stand with governors who commit to high production and product quality standards in scientific and technological fields.

Even today, most readers probably recognize the preceding paragraphs as satirical (I hope!). The idea that it would be helpful to have bureaucrats set production volume and quality standards for high-tech industries is ludicrous on its face. How tragic it is, then, that this event actually took place… with one small twist: the CEOs were calling for more central planning in science and technology education.

Having spent nearly 20 years studying the relative productivity of different types of school systems, it is hard for me to understand how such brilliant business leaders could have arrived at such a profoundly mistaken conclusion. If they care at all about the goals they have set out to achieve, they would be well advised to stop listening to those who are currently advising them, and to look at the evidence on what actually does raise educational productivity. I’ve summarized that evidence in a short piece for the Washington Post, in a journal paper reviewing the past 25 years of worldwide research, and in a book surveying 20 centuries of school systems.

Distilling the findings of that work into a single sentence: it is the freest and most market-like education systems that, throughout history, have done the best and most efficient job of serving both our individual needs and our shared ideals.

Teachers, it turns out, are people. And like other people, they respond to the freedoms and incentives of their workplaces. As a result, the same structures and conditions that optimize the operation of other industries also optimize the operation of school systems. Xerox makes good copiers and Intel makes good chips because they have competitors who will eat their lunch if they don’t; because they have the freedom to explore new and better ways of serving their customers; and because they are rewarded very handsomely for innovations that successfully serve those customers.

Want education standards to rise? Give educators those same freedoms and incentives — and stand back.

Standards Overreach, or According to Plan?

Over on his Education Week blog, Rick Hess senses that the “broad but shallow coalition” of national curriculum standards true-believers and folks who just like the idea of a common academic metric might be fracturing.  The cause: The Albert Shanker Institute’s national curriculum manifesto released last month, as well as lingering concern about impending national tests. Suddenly – and seemingly against the wishes of Common Core leaders – the national standards push is starting to appear much less ”voluntary” and much more micromanaging than advertised. 

I hope that Hess is right that alarm is spreading over the oozingly expanding national-standards blob, but I disagree with how he seems to characterize what’s happening. Hess appears to see these developments, especially the Shanker manifesto, as overreaching by just some of the more zealous nationalizers, much to the consternation of the main Common Core architects and advocates.  But as I have pointed out before, if you reach into the bowels of what would-be nationalizers have written, as well as the logic behind national standards, it is hard to see this as anything but planned.

At the very least, the main advocates haven’t wanted standards adoption to be truly voluntary, by which I mean states are neither rewarded nor punished for adopting or bypassing the standards. The Obama administration intentionally and openly coerced adoption with Race to the Top, for one thing, without eliciting any loud opposition from  Common Core creators. But the administration was really just doing what the Common Core-leading National Governors Association, Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve, Inc., called for back in 2008. As stated on page 7 of their publication Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring Students Receive a World-class Education:

The federal government can play an enabling role as states engage in the critical but challenging work of international benchmarking. First, federal policymakers should offer funds to help underwrite the cost for states to take the five action steps described above [including ”adopting a common core of internationally benchmarked standards in math and language arts.”] At the same time, policymakers should boost federal research and development (R&D) investments to provide state leaders with more and better information about international best practices, and should help states develop streamlined assessment strategies that facilitate cost-effective international comparisons of student performance.

As states reach important milestones on the way toward building internationally competitive education systems, the federal government should offer a range of tiered incentives to make the next stage of the journey easier, including increased flexibility in the use of federal funds and in meeting federal educational requirements and providing more resources to implement world-class educational best practices.

If you have federal “enabling” and ”incentives” you cease to have truly voluntary state adoption – or movement to the “next stage” – of curriculum standards. And that is exactly what the core supporters of Common Core have wanted. 

But aren’t standards just, well, standards, not curricula?

This is largely semantics. True, you can pinpoint what you want children to learn and when they should learn it without identifying how that goal should be reached. But just by defining the goal you are driving curricula, stating what must be taught.  Indeed, there would be no point to the standards if the intention weren’t in some way to affect curricula – what is actually taught in the schools.

Of course, there is another part to this: the two federally funded national tests currently under development, which Hess is hearing some in Washington would like to see become just one test. But whether we have a federally backed testing monopoly or duopoly ultimately won’t matter: For the tests to have meaning they will have to include concrete content, and assuming performance on those tests will impact how much federal money states and districts get – which appears to be what the Obama administration wants, and is the only thing that makes sense for people who back federal “accountability” – you now have a de facto required, federal curriculum.

I hope Hess is correct and the Common Core coalition is fracturing. I am dubious, though, that any major fissures are being riven by a faction of zealots that has just gone too far. Based on both the evidence and logic, going too far has been the widely held goal for several years.

Help Break My Common Curriculum Fever

Over at Flypaper, Chester Finn suggests that people like me are either crazy or on the verge of it for fearing that the Shanker Institute’s “common content” manifesto might very well be another step toward federal control of American education.  

“Over in the more feverish corners of the blogosphere, and sometimes even in saner locales,” he writes, ”the Shanker Institute’s call for ‘common content’ curriculum to accompany the Common Core standards has triggered a panic attack.”

Now, I wouldn’t say “panic attack.” To panic is to “be overcome by a sudden fear,” but I’ve been watching the move toward federal curriculum control for some time. Back in 2008 many of the groups behind the Common Core called for Washington to “incentivize” adoption of national standards. In 2009, the Obama administration made adopting common standards critical to compete in the so-called Race to the Top. In 2010, the administration put common standards front-and-center in the accountability piece of its No Child Left Behind reauthorization blueprint. Finally, that same year the U.S. Department of Education chose two consortia to develop national assessments to go with national standards. So when I read the Shanker Institute’s proposal, with its recommendation that the federal government spend taxpayer money to help implement ”purely voluntary” curriculum ”guidelines,” I didn’t panic. I saw the same obvious movement toward federal curriculum control I’d been observing for years.

But maybe I am a bit “feverish.” Maybe I do need to chillax a bit. Thankfully, I know just the thing to help me do that:  National-standards fans should pronounce publicly and unequivocally – perhaps issue another manifesto! – that they do not want federal money in any way connected to common standards, and state that they will oppose any effort to “incentivize,” “support,” “cajole,” “threaten,” or do anything else to states or districts to push them to adopt common curricula. Were national-standards champions to do that – you know, just demand that all this be as purely voluntary as they say it is – and I and others like me would no doubt be well on the road to recovery.

Somehow, I don’t expect my forehead to cool off anytime soon.

Hey, National Curriculum Standardizers: Stop Lying to Us!

Today, a group of seventy-five national-standards crusaders released a manifesto calling for “shared curriculum guidelines” to accompany the Common Core State Standards. But don’t worry, the petitioners assure us, “use of the kinds of curriculum guidelines that we advocate in the core academic subjects would be purely voluntary.”

Oh please, please – stop lying to us!

Here’s the only absolutely clear thing that we’ve learned so far from the national standards push: Leading national standardizers do not want adoption of their plans to be truly voluntary.

Sure, they talk about creating mere “guidelines,” and states being free to choose what they’ll use, but they know reality full well: Whatever Washington connects to federal money becomes de facto mandatory, and they most certainly want their guidelines riveted to federal bucks.

Don’t believe me? Look no further than the federal Race to the Top program, which required that states adopt what for much of the time were unpublished national standards in order to meaningfully compete for part of $4.35 billion in federal dough.

“But wait”, standards mavens assert. “We didn’t ask for that and we really regret that the administration federalized our warm-and-fuzzy voluntary effort.”

Sorry, no dice.  Many of these same people had been calling for federal funds to push national standards before there ever was a Race to the Top, or even an official Obama administration. In December 2008, national standards advocates put out Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring Students Receive a World-class Education, which among other things called for Washington to “offer a range of tiered incentives to make the next stage of the journey [toward national standards] easier.”

In this latest assault on honesty, the national standards crowd has done it again. You have to read their entire statement, but at the bottom you’ll find words that make it clear that “the undersigned” have no intention of having adoption of their guidelines be truly voluntary. They want Washington forcing states to eat the new curricula if states want back some of the money that came involuntarily from their citizens. The last of their ”recommendations” calls for:

7. Increasing federal investments in implementation support, in comparative international studies related to curriculum and instruction, and in evaluations aimed at finding the most effective curriculum sequences, curriculum materials, curricular designs, and instructional strategies.

You want this to be truly voluntary? Then you’d better keep federal money, especially for such things as “implementation support,” out of it. But by all indications national standardizers don’t want this to be truly voluntary. They just want us thinking they do.

The RTTT Made Me Do It!

Adopting national curriculum standards – the so-called “Common Core” – is voluntary for states. That is what we’ve long been told, and that is what the text of a new report looking at implementation of the standards repeats. But within that report is powerful evidence of how involuntary and federally led Common Core adoption has truly been.

According to the report, which furnishes results of a November 2010 survey of state education officials, the vast majority of states that had adopted the Common Core as of November had done so at least in part because of “the possible effect” of doing so “on success of our Race to the Top application.” Race to the Top, you might recall, was a $4.35 billion federal contest for education funding, and to maximize their chances of winning states had to adopt national standards.

The report tries to downplay this revelatory finding by emphasizing that a slightly larger number of states – 36 versus 30 – cited “the rigor” of the Common Core in their adoption decisions. But what state education official is going to say that adoption was only about money and not also at least some educational considerations? On the flip side, that officials in any, much less thirty, states were willing to concede the importance of ugly federal-dollar chasing says a ton. In particular, it says what reasonable observers have been stating all along: National standards have largely been bought by Washington, not “voluntarily” adopted by states.

National Standards to Help Crush Annoying Dissenters

One of the most regrettable outcomes of government schooling is constant, wrenching conflict as diverse people are forced to fight over the uniform school system they all have to support. Sadly – and in complete opposition to the foundational American value of individual liberty – one of the few ways these conflicts can be resolved is by crushing groups with insufficient political power, keeping them from getting the education they want for their children.

Unfortunately, making it easier to do exactly that seems to have motivated at least some people in Kansas to support their state’s adoption of federally backed “Common Core” standards. Under the guise of removing politics from public schooling – meaning, crippling the ability of those who disagree with them to fight back  – some supporters are lauding the standards especially if they are extended to science. Then, the state wouldn’t have to deal with the highly divisive question of how to teach human origins. The assumption, it seems, is that by adopting national standards evolution skeptics in Kansas would be overruled not just by evolution supporters in Kansas, but, de facto, supporters nationwide:

The movement toward national standards — the Kansas State Board of Education joined the program earlier this month — comes with plenty of advantages, said Rick Doll, superintendent of the Lawrence school district.

Among them is snuffing the likelihood of political flare-ups, such as the off-and-on debate over whether Kansas should de-emphasize the teaching of evolution in public schools.

“What we teach in school should not be dependent on the political leanings of a governing body,” Doll said. “With this, there’s less chance of that happening.”

Whether you are the most zealous creationist or the ardent Darwinist, this thinking should frighten you.

For one thing, having national standards will only push the fighting to the national level, threatening to tear apart the entire country with conflicts that could have been contained within state or district boundaries. Moreover, the fighting is likely to be even more intense, because with national standards there’s nowhere to go but out of the country if you lose. And that raises what should be the most alarming point for national-standards advocates: What happens if and when you are not in power? Then everyone will get stuck with not only what you dislike, but what, if you are right, might even be educationally or socially dangerous. But you’ll only have yourself to blame. After all, you’ll have built the nuke suddenly pointing at you.

The National Standards Debate Continues

Over at PublicSquare.net – a nifty debate site – you can catch another installment of the ongoing McCluskey-Petrilli national curriculum tussle. As always, I think the argument against imposing national standards – and, soon, tests – rules the day, but listen to the exchange and decide for yourself. Once you’ve done that, make sure to leave a note explaining why you think national standards offer no hope for improving American education.