One-sized Education Doesn’t Fit
by Donald Devine
Issue 204 – May 23, 2012
Progressive education has strained for a century to make learning scientific, searching for the mysterious formula that will turn American children into mechanical Einsteins, all equally ready for the Nobel Prize in everything. The progressives assume the children are robots, with identical capabilities, all thinking and acting the same. All the experts need to do is program them properly. The latest utopian dream is called Common Core Educational Standards.
If children are all the same, obviously experts can develop a common standard for all. The project to do so has had an interesting history. Common standards were first adopted at a National Education Summit in 1989 hosted by the National Governors Association under the chairmanship of then Governor Bill Clinton. In 1989, businessmen were invited to a follow-up summit led by the progressive Business Roundtable which suggested a more mass production business approach to education and created an organization Achieve to advance its purposes. In 2001, Sen. Teddy Kennedy and President George W. Bush teamed up to pass the No Child Left Behind Act, with the goal “to have all students proficient in math and reading by 2014.”
As that hope was being dashed, something even more faddish was needed to take its place. Lucy’s trick of constantly taking the ball from Charlie Brown always works in education. The immediate idea of a “common core” curriculum came from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which promoted it with large grants to private and semi-public agencies like the NGA and Achieve, staffed mostly by education college graduates. Mr. Gates certainly is an expert in computer technology and that is great when making binary robots. Children are not quite the same. Or even automobiles. When Gates criticized the auto industry several years ago as being behind in technology, the president of GM retorted that at least cars do not crash twice a day for no reason at all.
While touted by the expert staff at the NGA as being state-sponsored, Common Core did not really gain steam until the Obama Administration included it in its Race To The Top legislation to allow states that adopted the standards to escape the burdens of the No Child Left Behind Act and to become eligible for new grants. Not surprising 42 of 51 states succumbed to the extortion and adopted the Common Core Standards for math and reading. In 2010, President Barack Obama proposed that all federal education grants be conditioned on adopting the standards. Well, just how demanding are these requirements, which the State Standards Initiative lobby promotes as the result of “the most advanced thinking on preparing students for success in college and in their careers”?
Professor of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, Dr. Sandra Stotsky, reports that the English language “college readiness standard” is simply “empty” of meaning since the reading levels are not specified nor are the readings even listed. Indeed, the standard for readiness is not for four year college admission at all but for merely qualifying for a two year community college. English teachers are expected to spend at least half their time with technical documents they are not trained to discuss rather than teaching literature, their own subject. Expository readings are not distinguished from structural elements; argument is not distinguished from opinion; nor is advocacy from academic argument. As the Fordham Institute concluded, “the standards do not ultimately provide sufficient clarity and detail to guide teachers and curriculum and assessment developers effectively.”
Ze’ev Wurman, a former senior advisor to the U.S. and California departments of education, finds the following shortcomings in the math standards: they replace Euclidian geometry with a new experimental approach, arbitrarily set Algebra I in 9th grade and exclude Algebra II and Geometry content that is a prerequisite at most major colleges. They fail to include conversions among fractions, decimals and percents, and de-emphasize Algebraic manipulation. In grade school, they do not require proficiency with addition and subtraction until grade 4 or multiplication to grade 5, or division to grade 6, or triangles to after grade 8. In high school, they underemphasize or ignore logarithms, induction, paramedic equations, infinite geometric series, periodic trig functions and many other necessary mathematical tools and concepts.
When the standards are translated to the actual schools that will use them, things get even more complicated. The curriculum director for upscale Montgomery County Maryland schools explained the benefit of the new common core as allowing the student to “move more quickly” through the curriculum, with “fewer but more in depth topics,” getting through math “particularly quickly” since students will “no longer need to memorize multiplication tables.” Is this the advanced thinking the lobbyists promised?
Even the conservatively-oriented American Legislative Exchange Council is having a tough time on the Common Core. While a committee approved a resolution to disassociate the organization from the standards, ALEC tabled that motion at its recent meeting and referred it back for possible further action. Emmett McGroarty, a spokesman for the American Principles Project supporting the resolution responded: “This issue has been before ALEC for almost a year. The resolution was approved by the ALEC Education Task Force overwhelmingly last December, and ALEC has discussed it at three of its national meetings. The well-financed private entities and the federal government are moving forward with their implementation of the Common Core, and Americans have been cut out of the process.”
McGroarty noted that the individual who led the opposition to the resolution and supported the Common Core in the ALEC debate was a member of a board that had received $70 million from the Gates Foundation.
Led by former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese and signed by scores of leading educators, a recent Closing the Door on Innovation statement found the whole common standards project questionable since
there is no constitutional or statutory basis for national standards, national assessments, or national curricula. . . . Even if the development of national curriculum models, frameworks, or guidelines were judged lawful, we do not believe Congress or the public supports having them developed by a self-selected group behind closed doors and with no public accountability.
But the problem is even more fundamental. As the statement argued,
we do not agree that a one-size-fits-all, centrally controlled curriculum for every K-12 subject makes sense for this country or for any other sizable country. Such an approach threatens to close the door on educational innovation, freezing in place an unacceptable status quo and hindering efforts to develop academically rigorous curricula, assessments, and standards that meet the challenges that lie ahead. Because we are deeply committed to improving this country’s schools and increasing all students’ academic achievement, we cannot support this effort to undermine control of public school curriculum and instruction at the local and state level—the historic locus for effective innovation and reform in education—and transfer control to an elephantine, inside-the-Beltway bureaucracy.
One sized fits all just is not in accord with the complexity of the American nation or of its students. What is needed is less rather than more central direction. As educational entrepreneur Robert Luddy has noted such standardization “potentially sucks the life out of other great ideas.” The only reforms of the public system that are working are the charter movement, scholarships that can be transferred to better-performing private schools, and homeschooling, all decentralizing reforms.
The whole progressive reform ideal has been wrongheaded in its view of children as androids manipulated by experts rather than as extraordinarily complex human beings. It views teachers and administrators as robots rather than the creative and loving men and women who have such a tremendous responsibility for these precious young individuals. Government extortion cannot force what can only be accomplished by individualized attention under standards set by leaders who can adapt learning to specific localized problems and opportunities.
The progressive dream to substitute expertise for love just cannot work. When confronted years ago by an educational expert who claimed that he cared more about and knew what was better for his own children than did he, former Senator Phil Gramm replied, “Then tell me what are their names?”
Donald Devine, the editor of ConservativeBattleline On Line, was the director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management from 1981-1985 under Ronald Reagan and is Senior Scholar at The Fund for American Studies.