Sunday, February 9, 2014

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?

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