Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Speech is free. Regulating it costs money.

There are a lot of good reasons why our school board should not try to regulate how members of the public express themselves at board meetings; I identified some of them here. But I’m afraid arguments about the inherent value of vigorous debate and free speech are not going to sway enough board members. So this week, I tried to speak the school system’s language by focusing my objections on a different subject: money. Here’s my letter to the board:

I’m writing about the proposed public comment policy. Though I don’t think any policy regulating the speech of members of the public at board meetings is necessary or wise, I want to focus on one specific issue here: the potential for needlessly provoking expensive litigation.

At the last meeting, one board member suggested that people haven’t objected to the policy itself, but to how it might be applied. As a legal matter, though, I don’t think that’s the case. The way the policy is currently worded, it could generate litigation even if the board applies it fairly—and even if the board never applies it at all.

I'm not an expert on Constitutional law, but I do know that there are two ways to challenge a law that arguably infringes on freedom of speech. The first way is called an “as-applied” challenge. Under that type of suit, a plaintiff argues that the government has applied a law in a way that infringes on freedom of speech. The second way is called a “facial” challenge. Under that type of suit, the plaintiff does not have to wait for the government to apply the law unfairly; instead, he or she argues that the mere enactment of the law violates the First Amendment, because the law is so vague or overbroad that it chills protected speech, even if the government never applies it unfairly.

My concern is that the proposed policy is open to a facial challenge. The most problematic clause is the one requiring speakers to show "respect and decorum" and prohibiting “abusive, harassing, bullying, discriminatory, or lewd” remarks. Those words are simply too vague and open to interpretation; they could easily be interpreted to prohibit some protected speech. Since speakers won’t know in advance whether a given remark will run afoul of that clause, they may be deterred from saying things that are protected under the First Amendment: exactly the concern that facial challenges are there to address.

As a result, a would-be litigant won’t have to wait until the board applies the clause in a way that seems unfair. Instead, he or she could sue right away to ask the court to strike down the policy, on the grounds that it risks chilling protected speech.

The district is much worse off if its policy is subject to a facial challenge than if it is merely subject to an “as-applied” challenge. The board can at least control how it applies its policy. But, under the proposed policy, no matter how perfectly fair, even-handed and conservative the board intends to be with the policy, it can face expensive litigation via a facial challenge.

My suggestion (if you adopt a policy at all) is to delete that clause and substitute a clause requiring speakers’ remarks to be germane to school district business. As I understand it, the “limited public forum” doctrine exists precisely to allow the government to restrict certain forums to particular subject matter, so that kind of clause seems much safer from a facial challenge. The board could still trigger a lawsuit if it applied the clause in a way that penalized protected speech, but at least that’s within the board’s control.

That said, if the board wants to minimize the risk of costly litigation, it should not adopt any policy regulating how people express themselves at board meetings. I believe it will be very hard for the board to apply such a policy in a viewpoint-neutral way. For example, I doubt the board will consistently treat speakers who compliment district employees the same way it treats speakers who criticize them, and I doubt it will consistently treat people who applaud others’ remarks the same way it treats people who “boo” them—as it would be constitutionally required to do. Ultimately, trying to regulate how people express themselves at board meetings is just asking for litigation and needless expense.

For example, here is a link to a case involving a similar policy adopted by a school district in Virginia. In that case, the school district enacted a policy designed to “preserve decorum and order” at board meetings. The policy prohibited speakers from “attacks or accusations regarding the honesty, character, integrity or other like personal attributes of any identified individual or group.” The court held that the policy violated the First Amendment, stating:
The Supreme Court has long since warned about the pernicious effects of an artificially controlled public debate and have held that the First Amendment serves to prevent such manipulation. . . . A policy that chills protected speech cannot stand.
Two similar cases are here and here. Those cases are not from the Supreme Court and so are not the final word on the matter. Here is one case, not quite as analogous, in which a court upheld a planning commission’s ejection of a disruptive speaker. But to the extent that there is any uncertainty in the law, that’s exactly what generates arguments and litigation. If the board proceeds with the policy, it will be risking litigation, and that risk has a dollar cost. Given the school district’s many urgent fiscal needs, I do not believe that risk can be justified.

Several other bloggers—all of them lawyers, incidentally—have chimed in on the proposal as well; see posts here, here, and here.

Should the school board regulate public comment at board meetings?

Our school board is considering adopting a policy to regulate how members of the public express themselves at school board meetings. Among other things, the policy would require speakers at the public comments sessions to show “respect and decorum” and would prohibit “abusive, harassing, bullying, discriminatory, or lewd” remarks. At the last school board meeting, I spoke against the policy; this is a rough transcript of what I said.

I think everyone agrees that the board can put limits on how long a person can speak, though as a policy matter I think the board should err on the side of listening more rather than less. I also think that the board can insist that spectators not be disruptive while someone is speaking at public comment – though I think there ought to be some tolerance for audience reaction and applause, etc.

Like others, though, I’m very concerned about any attempt to regulate what people say during public comment. Words like “disrespectful” or “abusive” or “bullying” mean different things to different people. Those terms could easily be applied to controversial or strongly expressed opinions that are protected free speech. If anything, the board should be welcoming dissent and criticism of district policies and practices, because those things help produce better policies in the long run, even if they’re uncomfortable in the short run.

I wanted to make two specific suggestions. First, I think it would be helpful if the board identified specific statements that have been made in the past that would run afoul of this policy. There must be a perception that there’s a real problem being addressed by the policy, but I haven’t heard anyone identify specific comments that ought to have been banned. If we heard actual examples, maybe it would be possible to pinpoint the problem in a way that isn’t as vague and overbroad as the language here. Or it might bring to light that the comments at issue are in fact protected speech of the type that can’t be prohibited, even if it’s offensive. As it is, though, it’s virtually impossible to tell whether a particular comment would violate this policy, which in itself raises free speech concerns.

My second suggestion is to simply have a rule limiting public comment to topics that are germane to school district business. If a comment is germane to school district business, it’s hard to imagine how that comment could be out of bounds. Certainly if someone tries to bring up the superintendent’s private life in a way that has nothing to do with district business, that comment could be fairly ruled out. But criticisms of a board member’s or administrator’s conduct on school issues have to be fair game. In borderline cases the board should still err on the side of permitting comment, but as a policy I don’t think a germaneness rule would be objectionable. The remaining restrictions would just be redundant at that point.

Finally, I’d urge the board to remember that one of the principles supporting rigorous protection of free speech is that the best response to speech that you think is wrong or offensive is not to shut it down but to counter it. If someone resorts to name-calling toward a board member or an administrator, for example, I hope someone else will point out that ad hominem arguments are inherently weak and usually a sign that the speaker has nothing better to offer. Getting bad arguments out in the open and refuting them is a much more effective way of fighting them than forcibly suppressing them is. After all, they’re going to be saying all those things somewhere else and you won’t be there to answer it, so why not get it out and respond to it? I hope that’s one of the principles our kids will learn in school when they study the Constitution.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The not so Iowan core of the Iowa Core

Although our governor is trying to downplay the uniform, national aspect of the Common Core and assert that the Iowa Core is a home-grown approach, it turns out that in 2011 he wrote to the Smarter Balanced Assessments Consortium—the designers of the standardized tests geared to the Common Core—asking to be promoted from an “advisory state” to a “governing state” and saying:
We have also adopted the Common Core standards which are now known as our Iowa Core standards. Our new Governor, State Board Chairperson, and State Director of Education believe this is the right time for Iowa to be involved in building a system of formative, interim, and summative assessments, organized around the Common Core standards.
At that point, the previous governor and his education officials had already signed a memorandum of understanding agreeing to adopt the Smarter Balanced Consortium’s summative assessment by the 2014-15 school year. None of that sounds very home-grown to me.

Now the governor is facing a legislature that wouldn’t be rushed into approving the Smarter Balanced tests and a task force, created by the legislature, that could recommend different choices about assessments instead. I don’t know why our governors have been so sure that the legislature would willingly sit on the sidelines while Iowa jumped on the Common Core bandwagon.

Karen W. recently pointed out that the Iowa Core’s “21st Century Skills” standards on “civic literacy” pay scant attention to constitutional rights. The standards do (somewhat opaquely) touch on federalism, though, declaring that students must “understand the differences among the complex levels of local, state and national government and their inherent, expressed, and implied powers,” “understand the design and features of the Constitution prevent the abuse of power by aggregating power at the national, state, and local levels and using a system of checks and balances,” and “understand issues concerning the relationship between state and local governments and the national government.” I can’t say that these are the people I would put in charge of making sure my kids learn those topics. But maybe my age is showing: constitutional rights and federalism are so Twentieth Century.

Well, I’m out of hours. If I had more stamina, I’d want to look more closely at people’s objections to the standards themselves. Even if you like the idea of nationwide uniform standards, you might not like these. Some have argued, for example, that the standards for grades K-2 are developmentally inappropriate; others have argued that the high school math standards are hopelessly inadequate to prepare kids for college. Here’s a good article expressing other objections (largely from a liberal point of view) to the Common Core. But I’ll leave the further Googling to you.

Thus endeth the micro-blogathon. Not sure I’ll be signing up for another one of these any time soon.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Defer to your betters

One reason many liberals (and others) are skeptical of the Common Core is that they have concluded that the federal government has been captured by the wealthy—especially on the issue of education—and that the imposition of the Common Core on local school districts is effectively the rich deciding that they know what’s best for everyone else.

One way that cities and towns differ from states and the nation is that a good number of them are populated largely by relatively poor people and by minorities. Supporters of the Common Core are determined to take policy-making power away from local governments. Maybe that’s a coincidence, but the effect is the same regardless.

Call me crazy, but I tend to be skeptical about proposals to disempower people for their own good.

Opportunity cost

The Common Core mandates, in elaborate detail, exactly what we want kids to learn and when. It gives no attention whatsoever to the question of how kids learn. Worse, it assumes that how kids learn is entirely unrelated to the question of what we make them learn—that the decision to march kids through a prescribed regimen of skills and topics on a prescribed schedule, no matter what any given kid might be ready for or interested in, will have no effect on how well those kids will learn, or on their long-term attitude toward learning.

None of that strikes me as very wise. If policy-makers should be thinking hard about anything today, it’s about how kids learn, about how to cultivate intrinsic motivation and intellectual curiosity, and about how create a school experience that kids see as engaging rather than as an alienating chore. They should also be thinking hard about what values schools are teaching and modeling by how they treat the kids in their care. Instead, their idea of how to improve education is by making a long list of goals and ordering schools everywhere to meet them (or to go through the motions of meeting them).

Speaking of opportunity cost: Check out Karen W.’s posts (e.g., here, here, and here) on how much more we’ll be spending on standardized testing if we adopt the tests that are designed to along with the Common Core—the so-called Smarter Balanced Assessments. Long story short: we could be going from our current assessments, which cost about $3.50 per student, to a cost per student of $20 or more. Is that what we should be pouring our scarce education dollars into? Also check out how much more time the students will spend taking tests. For full coverage of the Smarter Balanced Assessment, there’s no substitute for Karen’s blog.

Buyer beware

One thing that’s frustrating about so much of the discussion of the Common Core is that so many of the participants are either outright self-interested or constrained by their situations from expressing their honest thoughts about the matter. The administrators in our district, for example, have been putting on sessions for the parent-teacher organizations extolling the virtues of the Iowa Core. Our schools have to follow them; therefore they must be good! In a few years, if the prevailing education fad is the exact opposite of what they’re now doing, they’ll be there to tell us how great that policy is, too. What’s the point of trying to debate the merits of a policy with people in that situation? (Upton Sinclair was on the mark.)

My co-panelists on the KCRG discussion of the Common Core were a Cedar Rapids schoolteacher and her employer, the Cedar Rapids superintendent. They both spoke in favor of the Core. But would a teacher who was critical of the Core have felt as free to appear on the show and contradict her boss?

The effect is to generate an enormous noise machine in favor of whatever fad currently has the institutional momentum. How does this phenomenon serve the goal of providing kids with a good education?

How to drive good people from the teaching profession

Supporters of the Common Core are always reassuring us that it preserves “flexibility” and does not impose any particular curriculum, but it’s plainly designed to decrease teacher autonomy. Yes, many of the standards are so broad and general that you could arguably satisfy them in any number of ways (which at some point, after all, undermines the rationale for them). But open up, say, the literacy standards and read through them for a while.

If you’re a school district, you could let teachers develop their own ways of satisfying these sometimes very abstract but always very extensive standards, and allow them to demonstrate that their lesson plans meet the goals. That would be quite a bit of work to impose on teachers and those who supervise them, who are busy enough as it is. Or you can find someone else who has already done all the work for you—a national textbook publisher—and who has provided you with expert-certified assurances that their product meets the Common Core standards. Even then the teacher will probably have to demonstrate that he or she is teaching the text in a way that satisfies the standards. If you think “checking all the boxes in the Core standards” exactly equals “teaching literacy well,” then you won’t be bothered by funneling teachers’ time and effort into this system. If you don’t, then you’d worry about diverting energy from the latter to the former.

In other words, the Core is a recipe for making teachers into functionaries. That process had already begun before the Core came along, and the Core will only accelerate it. The sheer volume of standards will push districts and teachers toward adopting someone else’s ideas of how to satisfy them, rather than allowing teachers to use their own experience and judgment in deciding how to teach. Just let the national curriculum voluntarily-chosen Core-compliant textbook make all the decisions. All you have to do is read the script. What a great class! What a fulfilling job!

Add to that all the efforts to decrease teachers’ job security and measure their performance by the test scores of the kids who happen to be in their classes. It’s a miracle that anyone with any other options chooses to go into K-12 teaching today. Personally, I’d run screaming in the other direction, and I’m not alone. (Read this teacher’s take, as just one recent example.) There will always be some talented and capable people who are drawn to teaching, but how will the Core’s vision of education do anything but decrease that pool of people?

Is uniformity worth it? Is it even real?

Yikes, it’s seven o’clock and there are whole categories of objection to the Common Core that I haven’t even touched on yet. But first, what about the argument that we need a uniform set of standards to make it easier for kids to adjust when they move from one school to another? This concern is especially important, the argument goes, for addressing the “achievement gap” between poor kids (whose families may be less likely to remain in one school district for long stretches) and kids who aren’t poor.

This argument is clearly the best one Common Core supporters have to offer, and really the only one that gives a substantive reason for sacrificing state and local preferences for the sake of signing on to a uniform federally-driven project. How powerful is the argument, though? And does it outweigh the cons of centralization?

First of all, it’s important to notice (despite the assertions of Core supporters) that this argument is completely inconsistent with local or even state control of education. The way to ensure that kids can move freely between school districts without a hitch is to have to have a national curriculum. If this is really the concern underlying the Common Core, why do its supporters hasten to assure us that they find the idea of a national curriculum abhorrent? (Answer: PR.)

But I don’t doubt that kids who move from one place to another are burdened and disadvantaged by the disruption to their schooling. This would have to be a particular problem in a subject like math, where the ability to master some concepts depends on prior mastery of other concepts. (Even then, a much less detailed list of coverage goals would achieve about as much.) As for some of the other subjects, well, I’m less convinced. Has any teacher ever complained that the new kid can’t handle this year’s social studies class because he didn’t learn to “understand the rights and responsibilities of each citizen and demonstrate the value of lifelong civic action” in the previous year? Has any sixth grader ever struggled because she missed the fifth grade class on how to “understand the changing nature of society”?

But again, either the standards are specific and meaningful, in which case they are tantamount to a top-down national curriculum, or they are broad generalities that are likely to be applied in ways that vary greatly from one district to another. Suppose you teach fourth grade in a Common Core state, and you determine that your lesson plan teaches the kids to “Explain events, procedures, ideas, or concepts in a historical, scientific, or technical text, including what happened and why, based on specific information in the text.” How confident are you that your fourth-graders are coming away with the same abilities and skills as those of your colleague in a different Common Core state?

Moreover, when a kid shows up at a new school (and maybe it’s his third or fourth new school) and is not at “grade level” in his classes, how often is that because his previous schools weren’t teaching the same skills? Isn’t it quite possible that the student was struggling in his previous school, too? How much will adopting the Core really address the causes of why disadvantaged kids struggle in school?

When I think of all the ways poor kids are disadvantaged in their lives, educationally and otherwise, I don’t come away thinking, “What those kids need is uniform standards.” What I actually think is: What those kids need is some money. While Iowa is spending time and money on developing and pushing the Core, which will require even more spending on standardized tests and on the fancy technology that the new tests require, it has fallen into the bottom half of states in per-pupil spending. Why not give those kids who move from school to school more actual services, more individualized attention, more small class sizes, to help them get to where they need to be? But no, apparently the way to help those kids is by imposing uniform standards and expensive standardized testing schemes on their school districts.

So sure, considered in isolation, it would be great if students could move seamlessly between one school and another, anywhere in America. But Common Core supporters are offering a chimerical vision of that ideal to get us to trade away our ability to have any meaningful say over what goes on in our kids’ schools and what kind of approach to education we want our schools to follow. The Common Core supporters want you to think that the Core is just an objectively correct, expert-driven approach that no one could possibly quibble about. Just like No Child Left Behind was. Who could possibly choose anything other than top-down, standardized-test-driven education for their kids?

How about this federal education policy?

Again, there are many good reasons to think that the federal government is poorly suited to the task of determining K-12 education policy. But do you know what the federal government is actually very well-suited for, what it’s particularly competent to do? Stimulating the economy, lowering unemployment, alleviating poverty, and mitigating the increasingly unequal distribution of wealth. The federal government is perfect for that job! But on those issues, it sits on its hands, while telling us that “the only way to end poverty is through education.” Give me a break.

See Matt Bruenig here and Freddie deBoer here. Also me here.

Thought experiment

Imagine the students who attend Iowa schools after the adoption of the Common Core. Imagine them when they are ten or twelve years out of school. Take a look at the standards. How many of those students, at age thirty, will have all the skills described in the standards? How many will be fluent in all of the math concepts listed in the standards? How much different will those numbers be than they are for the thirty-year-olds who attended Iowa schools before the Core standards? What evidence is there to think that the difference will be significant?

Of course, there is no right or wrong answer to this thought experiment. Maybe the Common Core will transform society as we know it. Or maybe not. My own feeling is that people attribute near-magical powers to K-12 education, when experience shows that the choice of one curriculum over another doesn’t make nearly as much difference in actual adult knowledge and abilities as we’d like to think it does.

This isn’t an argument against the Core per se—just an argument that it’s not so obviously and urgently important that it has to be imposed on everyone everywhere.

A thousand things badly

One important objection to the Common Core standards is that they are inseparable from the larger project of high-stakes test-driven education. If they are not enforced by using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers’ adherence to them, then they’re largely toothless. But as soon as jobs and promotions and salaries become contingent on raising test scores, then the clear incentive is to focus on what gets tested to the exclusion of what doesn’t, which is very hard to defend. So then there’s pressure to put even more subjects into the standards and onto the tests. The Iowa Core covers several subjects in addition to those in the Common Core, but the absence of standards for art, for example, has led people to propose that they adopt standards (and a test??) for that, too. (And of course there are some qualities that won’t ever be assessed by a test score, like whether your kids’ school has a humane atmosphere and models humane values, and whether it provides enough time for physical activity, recess, and down time, and whether it provides an even minimally decent time period for lunch.)

The result, in Iowa, is that we have four hundred pages of “core” standards, and may end up with even more. Nobody wants to think about the fact that there are only so many hours in the school day (knock on wood), and that sometimes you have to choose between doing some things well and doing a thousand things badly. It’s a check-list approach to education that is driven more by the desire to say that the school “covers” certain material than by any concern for what the students actually learn.

The people enacting these standards—the national group that drew them up, the President and Congresspeople who pressured the states to adopt them, the Governor and his education department who proposed them, and the state legislators who approved them—have no idea whether they can be meaningfully satisfied within the confines of our school day and school year, or what their actual consequences will be on the school experience, or what teachers can realistically accomplish with their actual students. You know who does? Your kid’s teacher.

What's wrong with a national curriculum?

Common Core supporters are adamant that “It’s not a national curriculum!” It’s true that the Common Core doesn’t prescribe one set of texts or one set of lesson plans. But the Core will clearly channel school districts into a narrow set of curricular choices. Once there is a detailed and extensive national set of standards and a set of corresponding standardized tests, how many real textbook options will there be? Our own district has shifted over to Houghton-Mifflin language arts textbooks that are specifically designed to satisfy the Common Core standards, and, from what I hear, many teachers hate them.

What Common Core supporters aren’t so good at explaining is why a national curriculum would be such a bad thing. In fact, almost all of the arguments offered to support the Common Core standards would support a national curriculum as well (as the host of the panel discussion I participated in astutely pointed out). It seems plain that Common Core supporters reject the idea of a national curriculum just because they are afraid it is unpopular, not because it goes against any of their principles. If they tried to articulate just why a national curriculum was a bad idea, they might find that their rationale is hard to square with their support for the Common Core.

The Iowa Core speaks!

Perhaps I should just let the standards speak for themselves. Force yourself through this, from the introduction to the Iowa Core’s section on 21st Century Skills:
As each Iowa student is provided access to essential concepts and meaningful learning experiences in the core academic content areas, it is imperative that we also look to 21st century skills to build capacity in students so they are prepared to lead productive, satisfying lives. According to Ken Kay, president of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, the 21st century skills set “is the ticket to economic upward mobility in the new economy” (Gewertz, 2007). Business and industry is providing a very clear message that students need the skills to “work comfortably with people from other cultures, solve problems creatively, write and speak well, think in a multidisciplinary way, and evaluate information critically. And they need to be punctual, dependable, and industrious.” (Gewertz, 2007).

The Framework for 21st Century Learning stated, “We believe schools must move beyond a focus on basic competency in core subjects to promoting understanding of academic content at much higher levels by weaving 21st century interdisciplinary themes into core subjects” (2007). 21st century skills bridge the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of students from the core academic areas to real life application.

“The primary aim of education is not to enable students to do well in school, but to help them do well in the lives they lead outside of the school.”
-Ray McNulty, ICLE
Iowa High School Summit, December 10, 2007

Descriptions of the new global reality are plentiful, and the need for new, 21st century skills in an increasingly complex environment is well documented. In one form or another, authors cite (1) the globalization of economics; (2) the explosion of scientific and technological knowledge; (3) the increasingly international dimensions of the issues we face, i.e. global warming and pandemic diseases; and (4) changing demographic as the major trends that have resulted in a future world much different from the one that many of us faced when we graduated from high school (Friedman, 2005 and Stewart, 2007). The trends are very clear that each Iowa students will need essential 21st century skills to lead satisfying lives in this current reality.

Descriptions of what constitute essential 21st century skills are plentiful as well. In the 2007 session, the Iowa Legislature established the Iowa 21st century framework as:
(1) civic literacy
(2) employability skills
(3) financial literacy
(4) health literacy
(5) technology literacy

Within this 21st century skill framework are the common strands of learning and innovation; communication, information, and technology; and, life and career skills. The development of the Iowa 21st century essential concepts and skills was a collaborative process engaging the expertise of p – 16 educators, business, and industry representatives. Sources used for this work included the 1991 SCANS report, What Work Requires of Schools, and Framework for 21st Century Learning, from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. The committee surveyed the literature and endeavored to bring together the common elements of these frameworks. The members have outlined the concepts, dispositions and habits of mind believed essential for success in the 21st century.
For a document that can’t get enough of the word “literacy,” it sure is poorly written (not to mention poorly proofread). I would like to keep people who think and write this way as far away from my kids’ education as possible. Maybe there are people who are impressed by this kind of pompous bureaucratese, and who swoon at the thought that “business and industry is providing a very clear message” about what “each Iowa students will need.” (It has citations, so it must be indisputably true!) For the rest of us, I’m afraid this is the closest thing we have to a Berlitz guide to this kind of edu-speak.

What quadrant of the Rigor and Relevance Framework am I in?

Notice also, by the way, the helpful charts that are included in the Iowa Core. Here’s one from the section on “civic literacy” that I referred to in my last post (click to enlarge):

You can see how the chart helps teachers teach and students learn. So much better than what a teacher could come up with on his or her own. Interesting, too, how the standards manage to turn the discussion of individual rights into a discussion of compliance with school rules.

(Good luck figuring out what the quadrants mean, or how any purpose is served by presenting that information in the form of quadrants. If you can find the answer on the Department of Education’s website, you’ve got more spare time to kill than I do.)

Meaningful coercion v. meaningless red tape

Sometimes it feels like a memo went out to supporters of the Common Core instructing them simply to deny that there are any downsides to the enterprise, regardless of how illogical or internally contradictory the denials are. “We’re going to have uniform standards in every state—but don’t worry, we still have local control.” “We’ve got hundreds of pages of detailed standards—but don’t worry, we’re not dictating a uniform curriculum.” “Every kid will have to meet these grade-by-grade standards—but don’t worry, it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.”

As Karen W., and later the Washington Post, pointed out, supporters have begun to realize that the Common Core is not wildly popular (that it is, in Mike Huckabee’s words, “toxic”), so the new strategy is simply to rebrand it in some way that will distract people from what it actually is. (When the advice is, “Let’s keep doing it, but call it something less toxic,” you know you’re in trouble.) This is all just PR, and it undermines their credibility. The fact is, either the standards mean something—in which case they are clearly a big incursion on local control and teacher autonomy—or they don’t, in which case they are a pointless waste of time. The actual standards seem to fall into either one category or the other. The math standards are very detailed about what concepts must get covered from one year to the next; to say that they are not dictating curriculum is slicing the baloney very thin. By contrast, some of Iowa’s “21st Century Skills” standards are largely meaningless. It’s hard to imagine a civics class that wouldn’t arguably satisfy most of the standards in the section on “civic literacy.” So why not just pass a law saying that schools must teach civics?

Take a look, for example, at this portion (drawn pretty much at random) of the 21st Century Skills section of the Iowa Core for middle school:
Essential Concept and/or Skill: Understand the rights and responsibilities of each citizen and demonstrate the value of lifelong civic action.

• Understand rights, roles and status of the individual in relation to the general welfare.
• Understand issues regarding personal, political, and economic rights.
• Understand what is meant by the “scope and limits” of a right.
• Understand participation in civic and political life can help bring about the attainment of individual and public goals.
• Understand the functions of political leadership and why leadership is a vital necessity in a democracy.
• Understand the importance of voluntarism as a characteristic of American society.
Does this meaningfully constrain the social studies teacher? Is there any reason to believe that the kids in two different schools will come away with the same “skills” simply because their social studies teacher had to convince some administrator that his or her lesson plan satisfied these standards? Or do they just add a thick layer of red tape onto the job of teaching, with no meaningful benefit?

Do you believe that a standardized test can assess whether a teacher has complied with these standards and whether a student has met them?

Eggs, basket

As others have pointed out, the Common Core is a national experiment that was not meaningfully field-tested in advance. What explains this desire to put an entire nation of eggs in one basket? It’s one thing to be confident in a policy proposal; it’s another thing to be so confident that you think no community in America should be allowed to try a different approach. What if the approach represented by the Common Core turns out to be a bad idea that has unintended consequences? Won’t we regret that we didn’t diversify our portfolio a bit?

Unintended consequences from education policy? Unimaginable!

Yes, we all did it that way until a few years ago, but now it’s unthinkable!

In the face of the relentless drumbeat for the Common Core—forty-five states have now signed onto it—could we please take a moment to remember that for our entire history until just a few years ago, we all did things differently? What is it about education that makes it so susceptible to fads and trends, to arguments that we must all make large and sudden changes in what we’ve done before?

Could it have anything to do with how much money some people stand to make from supplying the “needs” associated with each new approach?

The One True Way

You don’t have to be a local control extremist to oppose the Common Core standards. The alternative isn’t that every school board will somehow draft its own standards. The alternative is to allow the Common Core standards to be genuinely voluntary, and to allow other models to develop that districts can choose from. In all likelihood, a manageable number of competing alternatives would emerge which districts could choose and modify as they see fit. School boards wouldn’t be inventing their own approaches from scratch any more than they have to write their own textbooks from scratch.

Opposing the imposition of the Common Core just means recognizing that there is more than one way to think about how education works, and that the alternatives reflect value judgments that are exactly what school boards are elected to decide. Many people believe, quite defensibly, that a school system that pursues higher standardized test scores, regardless of what other values are sacrificed in the process, is not offering a good education. That is a permissible opinion. Many people think that the Common Core standards are not realistic or developmentally appropriate (especially in the early grades). That’s also a permissible opinion. Many have other objections to the Common Core – all permissible opinions to hold. Are we so sure that those people are wrong that we want to preclude any community from enacting policies based on those opinions?

Why not Core Parenting Standards?

I think one impulse behind the Common Core is that education is a very complex science that only experts can understand. Pushing the Common Core, then, isn’t so much trying to shift power from local elected officials to state and federal elected officials; it’s trying to shift power from elected officials to “experts.” If educational issues hinge largely on value judgments, then it makes sense to bring the democratic process to bear on them. But if education is like quantum physics, then we just need to consult really smart physicists to find out the correct answers to our problems, and elected officials should just sign on and butt out.

Needless to say, I don’t think education is quantum physics. The ultimate questions in education are value questions about goals and priorities, which should be decided democratically. To the extent that there is expertise about how to reach the goals we choose, it rests largely with experienced classroom teachers, not with unelected bureaucrats and private groups. But the Common Core disagrees: it wants you to trust a small group of self-appointed experts to tell every community in America (and its teachers) what the right approach to education is.

(If you want to quickly dispel any illusions you might have about the superior expertise of our state education bureaucracy, you might take a look at some of the materials at the state Department of Education’s website (for example, here). This emperor has no clothes.)

Of course, an entire industry has been built on the idea that education can be trusted only to experts. But if education requires such specialized knowledge that communities full of ordinary people can’t be trusted to run it, isn’t the same even more true about parenting? Parenting is almost certainly more consequential than schooling. How has the human race survived without closer state intervention in everyday parenting? Shouldn’t the state require parents to demonstrate compliance with hundreds of pages of Parenting Standards? How will we ever compete in the global marketplace otherwise? The questions are obviously sarcastic, but I genuinely don’t know what the distinction is.

More powerful ≠ smarter

Local control isn’t everything. Everybody knows that more centralized levels of government are better suited to deciding some issues than local governments are. It would make no sense for states and towns to conduct their own foreign policy. But there should be an articulable reason for giving policy-making power to the state or federal governments rather than to local governments. When it comes to imposing extensive and detailed curricular standards on local school districts, what is that reason?

One possible justification is that there is value in uniformity across districts and states; I’ll return to that in a later post. Is there any other justification? Does the state somehow have better access to “correct” thinking about educational practices than local governments have? I don’t see how.

One unspoken reason is: the state is smarter than local school districts are. Those locals (rhymes with “yokels”!) are just a bunch of amateurs who are bound to make bad choices. But what reason is there to believe that state officials and federal officials are more competent than local officials to decide anything, much less educational issues? They’re elected by the same voters, after all. They have fancier titles, and certainly they have more power. But where’s the evidence that they’re more competent?

This isn't what “voluntary” means

I keep talking about the Common Core being a decision made at the federal level and foisted on states and localities. Advocates of Iowa’s version of the Common Core are careful to say that the Iowa Core was a state choice and that the adoption of the Common Core by individual states is purely “voluntary.” It’s true that the federal government cannot force the states to adopt the Common Core, but to say that its adoption is purely voluntary is disingenuous. The federal government made it clear that adopting the Common Core was a condition of getting waivers from No Child Left Behind and for qualifying for Race to the Top money. In other words, the federal government coerced the states into adopting the Common Core by threatening to withhold federal funds for education. Common Core supporters can defend that practice if they want, but they’re insulting our intelligence if they claim that it doesn’t undermine the values associated with federalism and local control.

Fair-weather federalism

One thing that bothers me is how quickly people move from “I like Policy X” to “The federal government should impose Policy X on the whole nation.” Whether you like the Common Core standards themselves is a very different question from whether you think the federal or state governments should impose them on all school districts. In a year or two, a very different set of people might be in charge of the federal and state governments. They might propose a set of standards that you don’t like at all. If that happens, would a Common Core supporter suddenly become an advocate of local control? Shouldn’t one’s opinion about centralized policy-making be based on principle, rather than on who happens to be in power at any given moment?

Strange bedfellows?

Again, there’s nothing very controversial about the idea that policy should be made locally unless there’s some good countervailing reason. That probably helps explain why there is opposition to the Common Core coming from both “liberals” and “conservatives.” (I dislike the labels, but I would have to be classified as much more in the “liberal” category myself.) Local control is certainly consistent with small-government conservatism, but it’s a caricature to suggest that liberals always favor centralization no matter what. Many liberals have concluded that the Common Core is an illiberal enterprise that promotes a narrow and misguided vision of education, one that disempowers and lowers the status of teachers, and one that assumes that what’s good for big business is what’s good for kids. (The Business Roundtable and the Chamber of Commerce, for example, are some of the Common Core’s biggest promoters.) There is a lot of potential for liberals, conservatives, and even libertarians to find common ground against the Common Core. Authoritarians, though, will have a hard time finding much about the Common Core to dislike.

Standards decided by whom?

What are the claimed benefits of the Common Core? As I understand it, they basically come down to two. First, adopting the Common Core will help ensure that kids are learning the things we want them all to learn. Second, adopting a “common” set of standards – that is, one that is uniform throughout the country – will make it easier for kids to adjust when they move from one school to another.

Starting with the first rationale: “We need standards to make sure kids learn what we want them to learn.” The first objection to this argument is that it does not respond at all to some of main reasons people oppose the Common Core. For many people, the problem is not the idea of standards, but the question of who gets to decide what they are. Traditionally, education has been the prototypical example of an issue that is best governed at the local level. There are good reasons why it should stay that way.

I start with the relatively uncontroversial proposition that government policies should be made at the local level unless there is a convincing reason to shift them to a more centralized authority (like the state or federal governments). There are at least three good reasons for this approach. First, it makes government more democratically accountable. Local school boards are elected solely to deal with education issues, so they are the entities best able to express community preferences and values on education. Presidents, members of Congress, governors, and even state legislators are elected to deal with a multitude of issues, and few such elections hinge on educational issues, so those elections are a much less useful way for voters to express their preferences about education.

Almost nobody changes his or her vote for President because of a candidate’s stand on education; I certainly don’t, and I’m pretty riled up about educational issues. So what reason is there to believe that federal education initiatives like the Common Core reflect what the public actually wants from its schools? And how democratically accountable are federal and state-wide actors for their choices about education? Has any federal or state office-holder ever been voted out of office because of his or her education policies?

Because state and federal officeholders’ elections don’t depend much on education issues, it is more likely that their policy choices will be driven by factors other than community preferences and values—for example, by well-funded interest groups with agendas that diverge from what the larger public values.

A second reason to favor local policy-making is that one size seldom fits all. Local governments are plainly in the best position to take local differences into account. They are also in a better position to accommodate variation in community values and preferences. Almost by definition, your own policy preferences are more likely to be reflected in the laws that govern you if you live in a decentralized system of government than if you live in a winner-take-all centralized system.

A third reason is that local variation allows good ideas to come to light that would not have otherwise—the “laboratories of democracy” idea. A related idea is that variation is a good hedge against risk—that you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket.

There’s nothing very controversial about any of that. The first question, then, is whether there are good reasons to take the decision about educational standards out of the hands of the locally elected school boards and give it to the state, or to the federal government, instead. My only point in this post is that just saying “we need standards to make sure kids learn what we want them to learn” tells us nothing about which level of government should set standards. (The “we need uniformity” argument might; on that, more later.)

The main reason I’m against the Common Core

The push for the Common Core rests on the proposition that there is a particular way of thinking about education that is so objectively correct that we should not allow any communities, anywhere in America, to choose a different approach. That would be bad enough, but it’s even worse when you see what that way of thinking is: one that assumes that all kids must learn the same things at the same time and has a limitless faith in the ability of standardized test scores to capture everything that we care about in our children’s school experience, without any unintended consequences. Proving that you have the One Right Approach is an awfully heavy burden, and this particular attempt doesn’t even come close.

A Common Core micro-blogathon

The discussion I had on the panel show about the Common Core was interesting, but there were a lot of issues we did not have time to get to. I wanted to write a post here to raise some of those issues, but it turns out that a blog post isn’t large enough either. So I decided to hold a little micro-blogathon, with a stream of shorter posts, starting now. My possibly unrealistic goal is to put up one post every hour for the entire day, just to get these rambling thoughts out of my system. This will be blogging in its truest sense – off the cuff and thinking out loud, all subject to change, with comments and corrections welcome. (My apologies in advance to any commenters – it will probably be hard for me to take part in the comment threads while churning out additional posts.)

The Common Core is a detailed set of standards that is designed to govern what kids should learn—often on a year-by-year basis—throughout their K-12 education. It was developed by a national organization, and is being heavily pushed (though technically not mandated) by the federal government. It is designed to be accompanied by standardized tests that are much more extensive than the tests that have been used until now in Iowa.

Iowa has adopted a set of standards that is closely aligned with the Common Core (by participating in the Common Core, the state agrees not to vary them by more than 15%), but which supplements them with detailed standards in other areas not covered by the Common Core. The state of Iowa requires all local school districts to follow the Iowa Core. Iowa’s Department of Education has also been pushing for the adoption of the Core-aligned standardized tests, known as the Smarter Balanced Assessments, though the legislature has yet to impose them on school districts.

What could be the objections to such a plan? Stay tuned.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Some debate about the Common Core

I recently got talked into appearing on a local Sunday morning TV show called “Ethical Perspectives on the News,” which was hosting a discussion of the Common Core standards. The other guests on the show were Cedar Rapids School Superintendent Dave Benson and Tania Johnson, a Cedar Rapids kindergarten teacher who was named Iowa’s 2013 Teacher of the Year. Benson and Johnson are both supportive of Iowa’s version of the Common Core, and I think the station asked me to join the group to get another view and also for the sake of including a parent on the panel. I don’t know how well I did in that role, and we could barely scrape the surface of the topic in the half hour that we had, but I enjoyed myself more than I expected to (maybe too much!). The show was hosted by Kirkwood Community College Philosophy Professor Scott Samuelson, known here for his music blog. In case you’re interested, the show runs this Sunday, February 9, at 11 a.m. on KCRG (local channel 9).

I hope to post a few more thoughts about the Common Core in the meantime.