Over the next several weeks I plan to devote some space here to unraveling the tangled web of Common Core, the educational standards for math and English adopted by 43 states, the District of Columbia, four territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA). The attempt to blanket the country in national standards as a way to improve educational achievement has become one of the great political and philosophical debates of our time and it deserves a serious and substantive discussion apart from the hyperbole and the talking points on both sides of the issue.
Should there be common standards so student achievement can be compared across state lines? If so, who should decide what the standards are and how should achievement be measured? Should the federal government have a say in the process? How about the states? If not, what should be done instead? How should taxpayer-funded schools be held accountable and how will parents know if their local schools can provide a quality education for their children? How can parents be assured that the teachers are skilled at teaching and imparting knowledge to children?
About the only thing that nearly everyone agrees on is that U.S. standards and student achievement have been heading in the wrong direction for decades. Beneath the surface of these debates we are faced with more important philosophical questions. What is the purpose of education in the first place? What does it mean to be an educated person? Does the meaning change as technology (and society) evolves or is there a static definition for what we consider to be an educated American? Is it based on some set of measurable, testable skills and something education reformers like to call “college and career readiness” or should career preparation be secondary to more intangible qualities like morality, love of country, and preparation for self-government?
Even if Americans could agree on what a good education should include and which standards to use, there is a separate discussion related to Common Core about accountability. Should teachers be held accountable when students fail to learn or progress and should tests be the way we determine a student’s success or failure? Should the federal government, which contributes 7-8% to most state education budgets, hold states accountable for how those dollars are spent through testing or should they just let the states determine how to spend the money, free from federal oversight?
These are all important questions that deserve more than soundbite answers and random examples of incomprehensible classroom lessons. Moreover, it is important to examine the history of American education — and education reform — so that we can move forward instead of repeating the same mistakes and failing another generation of children.
Just for the sake of comparison, let us consider the nation’s first comprehensive education law. The Massachusetts School Law of 1789 (passed just two years after the U.S. Constitution was ratified) gives us some insight into what the Founders thought the purpose of education was and explained why education was important to the success of the state and the nation. The law noted the duty the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had (as expressed in the state constitution, penned by John Adams in 1780) to provide for the education of youth because “a general dissemination of knowledge and virtue is necessary to the prosperity of every State, and the very existence of a Commonwealth.” The law declared that school masters of good morals should be appointed to teach children “to read and write, and to instruct them in the English language, as well as in arithmetic, orthography, and decent behavior.”
Teachers were admonished to “take diligent care” to instruct students in,
the principles of piety, justice, and a sacred regard to truth, love to their county, humanity, and universal benevolence, sobriety, industry and frugality, chastity, moderation and temperance, and those other virtues which are the ornament of human society, and the basis upon which the Republican [Massachusetts] Constitution is structured.
You’d be hard-pressed to find students in any public school in America today being instructed with “diligent care” in even one of the listed virtues, many of which are considered outdated by progressive education reformers, the relics a bygone (and oppressive) society.
Compare the Founders’ view of education to the less lofty goals of the Common Core State Standards, which seek to “ensure that students make progress each year and graduate from high school prepared to succeed in college, career, and life” and to “lay out a vision of what it means to be a literate person who is prepared for success in the 21st century.”
Success in “life” isn’t really defined in the Common Core standards, but seems to be related to “the expectations of colleges, workforce training programs, and employers” and the ability to “compete with their peers in the United States and abroad.”
Over the last 225 years, education — at least the purpose of education — has evolved into something our Founding Fathers would likely not recognize. “College and career readiness” and preparation for a “21st century global economy” (hallmarks of the Common Core philosophy of education) have replaced the virtues that the authors of the Massachusetts School Law of 1789 believed were essential for the fledgling Commonwealth’s very existence — virtues they said were necessary “to secure the blessings of liberty, as well as to promote their future happiness; and the tendency of the opposite vices to slavery and ruin.”
Whether this philosophical change to an emphasis on college and career readiness will be an improvement in education has been the subject of much debate. Many supporters say that virtually anything would be better than the current scheme under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), where states were required to test students and hold schools accountable for student achievement. Because it left the determination of cut (passing) scores on achievement tests up to the states, critics of NCLB say it led to a “race to the bottom” and a lowering of standards as states set scores intentionally low to avoid the perception of failing grades and the resulting NCLB penalties.
Common Core opponents counter that the new standards will make things worse. They say a one-size-fits-all program of educational standards will crush innovation and creativity in the classroom and will drive all schools to teach to tests which are heavily influenced by a dubiously motivated federal government and corporate interests. They also point to an increased reliance on informational texts and a reduction in the amount of literature in the standards and say there is a strong progressive political bent to the standards.
Through it all, Common Core has become a monstrous, unwieldy political football. Lawmakers are encouraged by lobbyists and supporters of the new standards to ride out the storm and see the project through, assured that the untested education reforms will work and improve student achievement. At the same time they face the ire of teachers (and their unions) who despise testing-related accountability and forced compliance with standards their local districts do not control. Along with these competing interests, elected officials face a daily barrage of criticism from parents, some of whom have legitimate and substantive concerns and others who have made the standards a scapegoat for everything they don’t like about their child’s school.
Amid the shouting and debate and political tussling, the majority of the nation’s public school children learn in an atmosphere of uncertainty as schools continue in the direction of Common Core implementation, which has been anything but smooth. While politicians and parents debate whether or not the standards should be repealed (and even if they’re outright harmful to students), teachers are also left in limbo, not knowing if they’ll be held accountable for the (nearly) national standards and wondering if they’ll need to retool their classrooms (yet again) if Common Core is repealed in their state.
Untangling the complicated Common Core web — politically and philosophically — will take leadership and political courage, qualities that are often severely lacking in our modern political discourse. The shouting must give way to reasoned debate and genuine legislative solutions, lest Americans settle for the status quo and miss this unique opportunity to do the hard work of real education reform and lest we fail yet another generation of children.
Editor’s Note: See some of Paula’s previous blog posts and articles about Common Core and stay tuned as she explores the subject further. Have any questions you’d like to see Paula address in the series? Please leave your comments below or reach out on Twitter: @PBolyard