These days one needs a scorecard to keep track of the politics of education: The Common Core, the two national tests now being piloted, bubble test fatigue, the opt-out movement, opposition to top-down technocrats, and the ‘commodification’ of education–all are factors in a serious brouhaha.
The New York Times recently acknowledged that the right wing is making political hay out of the Common Core State Standards. Earlier in the same week, conservative columnist David Brooks attacked the attackers, likening them to the occupants of a clown car. Like the Times’ reporter, Mr. Brooks wrote as if all the opposition were coming from the right fringe.
The left, feeling left out, wants it known that it too belongs on the list of the disgruntled. From that side, Diane Ravitch and others are doing their best to be heard. A central complaint: teachers were not part of the development of the new standards, which, they maintain, treat education and children as commodities. More about that later.
The glib analysis, which is is actually kind of clever, goes something like this: the right hates the CCSS because they are ‘common,’ and thus denigrate individualism and limit choice, while the left detests them because they are ‘core.’ (Or maybe it’s the other way around.)
When left and right find common ground, something big is happening. In fact, we may have a perfect storm brewing, where forces upset about a variety of controversial issues create enough noise, rancor and controversy to reshape public education. These groups may not be against the same things—and they definitely are not for the same things, but the weight of their outrage may be enough to topple the Common Core State Standards and the accompanying national testing.
At least two other issues are at play: bubble test fatigue and concern over top-down ‘technocratic’ control of what most Americans think of as a local enterprise, public education.
And lurking in the wings are profiteers hoping to grab a bigger share of the trillion dollars we spend on education, and ideologues determined to break apart the public system (and teacher unions), whatever the cost.
It’s the essence of drama that we can push a boulder down the hill but are powerless to control what happens next. That’s what seems to be going on here, and at some point we are going to find out what and who will be crushed. As often happens when adults do battle in education, some children’s futures will be ‘collateral damage.’
From my vantage point, the Common Core State Standards and the two largely computer-based national testing programs are on a collision course that the planners should have anticipated and could have avoided. Here’s what I mean: The CCSS call for developing ‘soft’ skills like working cooperatively and speaking persuasively. However, those cannot be assessed by a computer-based test, or by any sort of bubble test, but machine-based testing is what the powers-that-be have invested in. They did this because they want data that can be used to hold teachers accountable. The bottom line is pretty clear: the decision-makers do not trust teachers.
You do the math: Scores are going to be used to evaluate (and possibly fire) teachers, and the soft skills mentioned above are not going to be tested. Will teachers focus their instruction on ‘speaking persuasively,’ ‘working cooperatively,’ and the like? Some will, because they genuinely care, but most will probably act in their own self interest (as they should). Bottom line: those essential skills will be cast aside, and kids lose, because possessing those skills would make them more employable.
The digital divide between poor kids and well-off kids guarantees that computer-based testing is not going to go well. Even schools with an ample supply of computers do not have enough of the machines to allow the testing to occur in a single week; instead, we are hearing reports that the testing will take as long as a month or even five weeks. That’s time taken away from teaching and learning.
Jay Greene of the University of Arkansas, who sits firmly on the right in most education debates, is very upset about the role of ‘technocrats’ in education. His blog is worth your time.
The opt-out movement may become a force to be reckoned with, if and when it organizes effectively. What has to happen, it seems to me, is that the movement must also be FOR something. I suggest a straight trade: two weeks of project-based learning for every day of testing AND test-prep! In other words, don’t just stay home; fight for positive changes.
Come to think of it, why would any school board agree to add more days of testing, instead of insisting on a subtraction for every addition? American kids are already the most tested in the world. (Sick joke: We could drop a test or two and still beat our chests and shout, “We’re Number One!”)
The critics scored a major victory when Inbloom, the data collecting effort strongly backed by the Gates Foundation, threw in the towel. Emboldened by this triumph, the critics are energized. The center is fighting back, of course, with advice and encouragement. Because I am an education reporter, I’m now receiving press releases letting me know that supporters of the Common Core are available for interviews. I take this as evidence that those folks are worried.
Perhaps the chickens are coming home to roost. As Rick Hess and Michael McShane of the American Enterprise Institute reported recently, media coverage of the run-up to and development of the Common Core State Standards was close to non-existent, and even now most Americans know nothing or very little about the standards. Into that near-vacuum the opponents have ridden, taking the supporters by surprise.
Higher and more challenging standards are a good idea, in my view, but whether the Common Core State Standards are good enough probably doesn’t matter now. This is now a political fight, and the quality of the standards will not be the determining factor. Expect the opponents to seize on every stumble going forward. For example, the Common Core tests are now being piloted in schools around the nation. There will be glitches, because every new thing has glitches, but don’t be surprised if the opponents make each misstep sound like the end of the world.
If we end up starting the higher standards process all over again, let’s agree that teachers must be well-represented at the table. Education is, at the end of the day, about relationships. It’s not a commodity to be acquired, and children are not objects to be weighed and measured. Teachers have to be trusted, because the enterprise cannot succeed without them, no matter what technocrats may believe or wish.
Last night at Stanford Anna Deveare Smith, the multi-talented artist, reminded an audience (mostly education types) that learning is about “I-thou” connections, and not “I-it.” Unfortunately, the testing industry and many decision-makers approach students as objects, as commodities to be weighed and measured. That’s the problem that must be addressed, in my judgment.
- 1. And speaking of glitches, I visited two testing classrooms this morning. One teacher told me that, if students hadn’t logged on in a precise sequence, the volume control stayed at ‘zero,’ meaning no sound at all for the questions that required listening. Another teacher told me that the tool bar for creating math answers did not allow students to provide a fractional answer, such as 8 ⅓, and so, she said, she ended up helping almost every student give their answers as improper fractions (25/3, in the example above). Two classrooms, two glitches.↵