Sunday, February 9, 2014

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?

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