The controversy over common core national standards in K-12

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is author of 10 books on international and American politics, including the forthcoming “New Warfare:  Rethinking Rules for An Unruly World.”  In addition to teaching courses in international politics, international organization and law, and U.S. foreign policy, he has served as Chairperson of the Political Science Dept. at UM-St. Louis.

By Marty Rochester

The latest international test results by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) show the United States again trailing the likes of Latvia and Poland on measures of student academic achievement. This is despite the U.S. spending more than $500 billion annually on K-12 education, more than any country on Earth. In response, President Barack Obama’s administration has developed a set of “Common Core” national standards for K-12, intended to replace former President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind reform effort. Almost every public school in America will be affected. If history is any guide, this latest round of school reform is likely to prove no more successful than NCLB and its myriad predecessors.  

Arthur Levine, former president of Columbia University Teachers College, once said that we will never have national standards because “the conservatives don’t like national, and the liberals don’t like standards.” However, national standards this time may finally become a reality, at least the “national” half of the equation.

Attracted by federal dollars from the U.S. Department of Education, along with the waiver of NCLB accountability requirements, almost every state has felt compelled to adopt the new language arts and math standards, just as the lure of federal highway funds and the threat of withholding them from uncooperative governors pressured all 50 states to accept a common minimum national drinking age.  

But it is easier to enforce a national drinking age than national education standards. Even if adopted nationally, how likely are they to improve K-12 education? The Obama administration has conceded that the main goal of NCLB, to have every child “proficient” in reading and math by 2014, was   unattainable. Yet, the administration has substituted an even more grandiose goal:  to ensure that every child attains “college and career readiness” by 2020. How realistic is it to expect high school graduates to be ready for the rigors of college or the workplace if they are not even proficient in the three R’s that NCLB targeted? If you cannot add 2 plus 2, what are the chances you can deconstruct George Orwell’s “1984” or do “critical thinking” about anything, whether in the classroom or on the job?

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NCLB required states to develop assessments of basic knowledge and skills in various grades; schools failing to show “annual yearly progress” were to be restructured or closed. However, states gamed the system by lowering the standard for proficiency. Although the new federal standards are an improvement on most state standards, there is nothing to prevent the same outcome this time, because Common Core accountability mechanisms remain fuzzy, with some tests more rigorous than others. There is no evidence that the K-12 establishment is any more committed to the Obama standards than it was behind Bush’s. The same forces that undermined the latter – fad-conscious schools of education, sclerotic state education bureaucracies, protective teacher unions, discipline-averse administrators and other vested interests – still operate, along with too many parents who remain out to lunch.  

A huge challenge is the dilemma of how to give our best teachers the freedom to allow their individual creative juices to flow, and to turn loose their best students as well, while at the same time ensuring strict accountability across public school systems through standardized tests.

At the heart of the problem of school reform, though, is the disconnect between the soaring, pretentious rhetoric of higher expectations and the reality of collapsing standards. The constant call is to make schooling less boring – that is, more entertaining; instead of “no pain, no gain,” the new mantra is “if it ain’t fun, it can’t be done.”  Homework, when assigned, is increasingly done in class. The number of “We Are A Blue Ribbon School” bumper stickers has been multiplying in inverse proportion to scores on reliable metrics such as SAT and NAEP exams. Grade inflation is out of control. Driven by political correctness and rationalized by multiple intelligences theory, almost all children are now considered “AP material,” belonging in honors and Advanced Placement courses in high school even if they can barely read.

Universities themselves are accomplices to the dumbing-down trend, with many institutions admitting anyone with a pulse (I exaggerate slightly) and creating “retention centers” that hold ill-prepared students’ hands in the hope they can learn to survive college and, as importantly, continue to pay tuition bills.

What is striking about the politics surrounding the Common Core project is the strange bedfellows who have formed opposing coalitions.

Supporting the reform are some conservatives/traditionalists such as Sol Stern, Checker Finn and E.D. Hirsch, who believe the standards are an upgrade from recent ones, as well as liberals/progressives such as Linda Darling-Hammonds and Marc Tucker, who have been involved in developing “authentic assessments” tapping “21st century skills,” joined by not only Education Secretary Arne Duncan but Bill Gates and many corporate elites.

Opposing the reform are other conservatives/traditionalists such as George Will, Sandra Stotsky and Tea Party groups, who worry about a top-down, centralized national curriculum aimed at lowest-common-denominator education driven by a social engineering “school to work” agenda, as well as Diane Ravitch and liberals/progressives in the teacher ranks who see this as adding to test mania and constraining their classroom autonomy.   

Such divergence of opinion does not exactly instill confidence in the Common Core standards.  It is often said that education is the key to reducing inequality. If so, we need to fix our poor education systems, which are not impoverished financially so much as intellectually, as we continue to search in vain for magic-bullet school-reform solutions.

Sadly, we remain, in the words of a well-known 1983 report, “a nation at risk.”