Tag: curriculum

Common Core: “If You Like Your Curriculum, You Can Keep Your Curriculum”

Common Core’s primary backers have been assuring us for years that the standards do not mandate any specific curriculum or prescribe any particular method of teaching. However, now that states have begun to implement Common Core, those same backers are singing a different tune. Professor Jay P. Greene highlighted the shift at the Education Next blog. For example, just six months ago, prominent Common Core supporters Kathleen Porter-Magee and Sol Stern wrote in National Review Online:

Here’s what the Common Core State Standards do: They simply delineate what children should know at each grade level and describe the skills that they must acquire to stay on course toward college or career readiness. They are not a curriculum; it’s up to school districts to choose curricula that comply with the standards.

However, now Porter-Magee and Chester Finn of the Fordham Institute argue that the standards must change “classroom practice”:

In order for standards to have any impact, however, they must change classroom practice. In Common Core states, the shifts that these new expectations demand are based on the best research and information we have about how to boost students’ reading comprehension and analysis and thereby prepare them more successfully for college and careers. Whether those shifts will truly transform classroom practice, however, remains to be seen.

What sort of changes will that entail? Well, for one, Common Core uses “lexiles,” which measure things like sentence length and vocabulary to rate the complexity of a text, to determine which books are suitable for each grade level. As Professor Blaine Greteman points out at The New Republic, the simplistic lexile scores absurdly conclude that “The Hunger Games” is more complex than “Grapes of Wrath” and that Sports Illustrated for Kids is more complex than “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Greteman concludes, “Lexile scoring is the intellectual equivalent of a thermometer: perfect for cooking turkeys, but not for encouraging moral growth.”

As Greene notes, the change in tune concerns not only the impact on curriculum, but also whether Common Core prescribes a given manner of teaching: 

The National Council on Teacher Quality, with support and praise from the Fordham Institute, are grading teacher training programs on whether “The program trains teacher candidates to teach reading as prescribed by the Common Core State Standards.”   Wait.  ”Prescribed?”  I thought Common Core didn’t prescribe pedagogy.  But that was back when I was young and we were dating.

It would be nice if Fordham and others trying to hold down the right flank of the Common Core advocacy campaign could keep their story straight.  The switch once the fight has shifted from adoption to implementation creates the impression that these folks make whatever argument they think will help them prevail in the current debate rather than relying on principle, evidence, and intellectually serious policy discussion.

[Hat tip to Greg Forster of the Jay P. Greene Blog for the title of this post.]

Sen. Rubio to Sec. Duncan: Dear Sir, Obey the Law

Senator Marco Rubio has just written to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, requesting that he not break the law. At issue is the administration’s plan to offer states waivers from the No Child Left Behind act if they agree to adopt national standards or pursue other educational goals of the administration. Rubio states that these conditional waivers violate the U.S. Constitution, the Department of Education Organization Act, and the No Child Left Behind Act. He’s right.

As my Cato colleagues and I have noted many times, the Constitution mentions neither the word “school” nor the word “education,” and so, under the 10th Amendment, reserves power over those concerns to the states and the people.

The Act creating the Department of Education is equally clear:

No provision of a program administered by the Secretary or by any other officer of the Department shall be construed to authorize the Secretary or any such officer to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system… .[Section 3403(b)]

Nor is the NCLB particularly ambiguous:

‘Nothing in this title shall be construed to authorize an officer or employee of the Federal Government to mandate, direct, or control a State, local educational agency, or school’s specific instructional content, academic achievement standards and assessments, curriculum, or program of instruction. [Section 1905]

The Secretary’s conditional waivers from NCLB mandates, in return for dancing as he desires on national standards, seem to violate all of the above. I wonder if any education reporter will have the temerity to ask Arne Duncan on what grounds he believes he is entitled to ignore these laws? Senator Rubio’s letter certainly gives them a golden opportunity to do so.

Paranoia Roundup

Last week, national standards super-advocate Chester Finn called me “paranoid” for arguing that “common” curriculum standards states adopt in pursuit of federal money will somehow end up being federal and, as a result, bad. Well it seems that Jay Greene and I – the two paranoiacs Finn identified by name – are not alone. Here’s a roundup of some recent rantings from other realists Finn would no doubt accuse of wearing tinfoil helmets:

  • The Heritage Foundation’s Jennifer Marshall, cutting through the joke of “voluntary” national-standards adoption and dispelling several of the shallow arguments trotted out by national-standards supporters.
  • The Home School Legal Defense Association, warning that “as homeschoolers know, if the federal government funds something, the federal government is going to control it.”
  • The Pacific Reasearch Institute’s Lance Izumi nailing the voluntarism deception; noting that national standards will have to be paired with national tests (indeed, they’re already in the works); and pointing out that the proposed national standards are likely worse than some state standards.
  • Ben Boychuk of the Heartland Institute going after the big voluntarism lie and explaining how much worse a process national-standards setting is than was even the Texas Social Studies Standoff of 2010.
  • The Pioneer Institutes Jim Stergios exposing the State of Massachusetts’ national-standards trickeration.

It looks like national-standards paranoia is starting to run kinda deep.

Unfortunately, One Man’s “Paranoia” Is Everyone Else’s “Reality”

Finished with my woman
‘Cause she couldn’t help me with my mind
People think I’m insane
Because I am frowning all the time

- Black Sabbath, “Paranoid”

According to the Fordham Institute’s Chester Finn, I and others like me are “paranoid.” So why, like Ozzy Osbourne, am I “frowning all the time?” Because I look at decades of public schooling reality and, unlike Finn, see the tiny odds that “common” curriculum standards won’t become federal standards, gutted, and our crummy education system made even worse.

Finn’s rebuttal to my NRO piece skewering the push for national standards, unfortunately, takes the same tack he’s used for months: Assert that the standards proposed by the Common Core State Standards Initiative are better than what most states have produced on their own; say that adopting them is “voluntary;” and note that we’ve got to do something to improve the schools.

Let’s go one by one:

First, as Jay Greene has pointed out again and again, the objection to national standards is not that the proposed CCSSI standards are of poor quality (though not everyone, certainly, agrees with Finn’s glowing assessment of them). The objection is that once money is attached to them – once the “accountability” part of “standards and accountability” is activated – they will either be dumbed down or just rendered moot by a gamed-to-death accountability system. 

This kind of objection, by the way, is called “thinking a few steps ahead,” not “paranoia.”

It’s also called “learning from history.” By Fordham’s own, constant admission, most states have cruddy standards, and one major reason for this is that special interests like teachers’ unions – the groups most motivated to control public schooling politics because their members’ livelihoods come from the public schools – get them neutered. 

But if centralized, government control of standards at the state level almost never works, there is simply no good reason to believe that centralizing at the national level will be effective. Indeed, it will likely be worse with the federal government, whose money is driving this, in charge instead of states, and parents unable even to move to one of the handful of states that once had decent standards to get an acceptable education.

Next, let’s hit the the “voluntary” adoption assertion. Could we puh-leaze stop with this one! Yes, as I note in my NRO piece, adoption of the CCSSI standards is technically voluntary, just as states don’t have to follow the No Child Left Behind Act or, as Ben Boychuk points out in a terrific display of paranoia, the 21-year-old legal drinking age. All that states have to do to be free is “voluntarily” give up billions of federal dollars that came from their taxpaying citizens whether those citizens liked it or not! 

So right now, if states don’t want to sign on to national standards, they just have to give up on getting part of the $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund. And very likely in the near future, if President Obama has his way, they’ll just have to accept not getting part of about $14.5 billion in Elementary and Secondary Education Act money.

Some voluntarism….

Finally, there’s the “we’ve got to do something to fix the schools” argument. I certainly agree that the education system needs fixing. My point is that it makes absolutely no sense to look at fifty centralized, government systems, see that they don’t work, and then conclude that things would be better if we had just one centralized, government system. And no, that other nations have national standards proves nothing: Both those nations that beat us and those that we beat have such standards.

The crystal clear lesson for those who are willing to see it is that we need to decentralize control of education, especially by giving parents control over education funding, giving schools autonomy, and letting proven, market-based standards and accountability go to work. 

Oh, right.  All this using evidence and logic is probably just my paranoia kicking in again.

 

Sell Your Soul for What’s Behind Curtain #1?

Would you agree to sell your soul? And not just sell it, but sell it for an undisclosed prize? The states of Maryland and Kentucky would: Both have endorsed as-yet unpublished national curriculum standards for mathematics and language arts, declaring that they will relinquish their ability to set their own standards – to control their own educational souls – in those key subjects.

Alright, maybe they haven’t completely signed away their souls in exchange for what they hope will be supernaturally inspired standards. For one thing, both states could still turn away from the final standards if they end up being utterly horrific. More important, it’s not really the standards that the states are Faustian-bargaining for. As this Washington Post article makes clear, it is the federal money at stake in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top.  So Maryland isn’t about to give up control of it’s educational destiny in exchange for truly extraordinary standards, but a mere $250 million – a big chunk of change to you and me, but just 2% of the nearly $11.1 billion the state spends on K-12 education.

Unfortunately, the transparent protestations of Education Secretary Arne Duncan and other national-standards supporters notwithstanding, what is making states endorse such standards is no powerful argument that the standards will improve education, but an obvious pursuit of federal ducats. But is that how we should want education run? States taking standards just to get DC dollars? Unfortunately, being bought by Washington – with no meaningful achievement improvements to show for it – is what states have been doing for decades, though never have they given up their ability to set their own standards.

With that in mind, readers are reminded that on the day that the final, proposed national standards are due to be released, we will be having a debate at Cato that will get past all the bribery and sound bites, and for once tackle the reality of national standards. What logic concludes, political realism makes clear, and the research reveals about national standards will be front and center, and national standards will finally be given the no-holds-barred vetting that states and their citizens deserve.

Now International Curriculum Standards?

Mark Schneider, a former National Center for Education Statistics commissioner and current American Enterprise Institute scholar, has put together a very insightful – and disturbing – four-part blog series on the oft-cited Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and its creator, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Basically, Schneider writes, the much-hyped PISA figures very prominently in the “international benchmarking” of coming national curriculum standards – which the Obama Administration is coercing states to adopt – despite the paucity of meaningful evidence that doing well on PISA actually translates into desirable educational outcomes.

Now, Schneider throws out some debatable stuff himself. For instance, he emphasizes early-grade progress on the federal, National Asessessment of Educational Progress while ignoring utterly flat results for 17-year-olds. He also reiterates several things that I have already pointed out in “Behind the Curtain: Assessing the Case for National Curiculum Standards.” Still, his points overall are generally very fresh, and very important.  It is also heartening to see growing critiques, even if somewhat oblique, of the national standards that many on the left and right are hoping to impose on us in the coming months.

Slippery Standards Slope

The draft national curricular standards released yesterday, as I wrote earlier, will in all likelihood do little or no educational good if adopted. They’ll either be ignored or, if hard to meet, dumbed-down.

That said, the really troubling question is not whether the standards will do any good, but whether they will do much harm.

The answer: Oh, they’ll do harm. They’ll move us one step closer to complete centralization of education, which portends many potentially bad things, from total special-interest domination to even more wasteful spending.

Perhaps the most concerning possibility is that complete centralization – meaning, federalization – will lead to nationwide conflict over what the schools should teach, much as we are seeing in Texas right now and witnessed in the 1990s, the last time Washington tried to push “voluntary” national standards. Back then national standards in several subjects were proposed, and a national firestorm was set off over what they did, and did not, contain.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative folks clearly learned from the nineties experience, assiduously avoiding even the appearance of mandating the reading of specific literary works and focusing instead on skills. (The draft standards include a lot of reading exemplars but don’t require knowledge of any specific literary pieces). As a result, the response so far seems much less heated than occurred in the nineties, though critiques of the proposed standards certainly do exist. Once control over language arts skills and mathematics is fully centralized, however, can we really expect specific content standards in literature and other subjects to be left entirely to states and districts?

It seems unlikely: Once Washington connects receipt of federal funding to performance on national standards for some subjects, it is very likely to expand into others. After all, aren’t science, history, and other topics as important as reading and math?

“Promoting” science is a huge favorite of federal politicians, so it’s certainly hard to imagine science – and the freighted questions about human origins and climate change that go with it – not becoming a target for nationalization. Similarly, since many public schooling advocates argue that we must have government schools to create good citizens, it’s hard to envision the controversy-laden subjects of history and civics not entering the sites of federal politicians.  And when they do, we can either expect the sparks to fly, or the standards that are set to be so milquetoast as to be meaningless.

Wait. Am I being overly alarmist about this, trying to start a trumped-up slippery-slope scare to undermine the current national standards push?

Nope. National standards supporters are already talking about targeting science and history. For instance, in the forward to International Lessons about National Standards, a recent report from the national-standards-loving Thomas B. Fordham Institute, it is written about the CCSSI:

Our authors would prefer for science to be included in this first round, and we’d like to get to history sooner rather than later.

And Fordham is not alone. Indeed, the CCSSI folks have already been talking about creating national science and social studies standards!

When should all kids learn evolution, if at all? How much Hispanic history should students know? How many Founding Fathers should high school grads be able to identify? What caused the Civil War? Is global warming a major threat? Are we a Christian nation? How these and numerous other bitterly contested questions will officially be answered will suddenly have to be duked out by every American, and the winners will get to dictate to the entire nation.

So the language arts and math standards revealed yesterday are, almost certainly, just the camel’s nose under the tent.  Unfortunately, that means the whole destructive beast isn’t far behind.