Monday, August 11, 2014

"Common Core - Too Many Questions"

                 Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Common Core – Too Many Questions”
August 11, 2014

God knows that too many of our students are not getting the elementary and high school education they deserve. In international tests, they perform poorly. Remedial classes have become common in colleges and universities for entering freshmen. We all know of some graduates of the nation’s top universities who can neither write a grammatically correct sentence, nor speak coherently. We also know there has been a collapse in moral standards, in the ability to differentiate between right and wrong. Yet, we also know that youth is our most valuable resource – our nation’s future.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) estimates that 50.1 million students were enrolled last year in the nations 98,800 public schools. In 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, we spent $10,615 per student, or approximately $530 billion. An additional 5 million children are enrolled in private schools, costing parents approximately $100 billion. Education is a big business, as it should be. Two questions: Are we getting our moneys’ worth? Will Common Core help?

The concern regarding Common Core is: can schools mold 55 million young people, so as to raise standards for all? Or will conformity of input lead to mediocrity of output?  A perhaps even more critical question: should this happen? Is conformity in teaching protocols a good thing? Each child is unique, with varying degrees of ability, aspiration and work ethic. No two school districts are comparable. Are teachers not better employed trying to extract the best from each individual child? Will Common Core lead to a national curriculum (perhaps politicized?) rendering home schooling, Charter Schools and private schools superfluous? Is less competition a good thing?

In the same survey cited above, the NCES estimates that there are roughly 15.1 pupils for each full-time-equivalent teachers. According to a 2012 report from the Pioneer Institute, $15.8 billion of taxpayer funds have been spent on Common Core. Would not that money be better spent on hiring additional teachers and on paying excellent teachers substantially more?

In my opinion, the purpose of education has five components: It should provide basic skills in math and English, from which all other disciplines flow. It should provide the fundamentals in the sciences, history, geography, literature and communications. It should teach children to ask questions, and to think and to do so critically. It should inculcate a moral sense of universal values. Most importantly, it should be fun, increasing the desire to learn, which should be a life-long pursuit. Accomplishing all this requires remarkable and dedicated teachers who should be paid well, commensurate with their abilities and results.

Many people, far more qualified than I, have written about Common Core, both in favor and against. Among those pieces, I would especially commend an op-ed by Marina Ratner, a professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkley. Her article, which appeared in the August 6th issue of the Wall Street Journal, was based on the experience of her 6th grade grandson who is attending public school in Berkley. In her opinion, the adoption of Common Core standards in California represents a huge step backward, which “puts an end to its hard-won standing as having the top math standards in the nation.”

The principal argument in favor of Common Core standards is that they would remove regional differences between schools, so that a fourth grader in Alabama learns the same things as a fourth grader in Wyoming. If a family were to move from Maryland to Texas, their children would easily fit into the school system. Trying to lift underperforming school districts makes sense, but doing so through conforming to national standards risks lowering the bar for better performing districts. And would not the differences still be extant? Is it not likely that a child in a Loudon County, Virginia public school would be among children of better educated parents than the same-aged child in Owsley County, Kentucky? Should children be penalized because their parents were able to move to better school districts? Isn’t that penalizing success? Wouldn’t such decisions set dangerous precedents with multiple unintended consequences? Life is not fair; it never can be, no matter how much we may wish it were, and fairness cannot be legislated. Equality before the law is a right guaranteed to all of us as citizens. Equality of opportunity is a worthy pursuit, but sadly unrealistic in most cases. Equality of outcomes is a goal of many Progressives, but is misguided as it doesn’t allow for differences in abilities, aspiration or behavior. In education, it can only be achieved at the expense of the gifted.

In implicitly urging a national curriculum, I fear that Common Core standards are another means by which the federal government is inserting its nose under tents rightly belonging to states and local governments. I inherently distrust conformity. There is evidence that suggests standards are being lowered, at least among some states, as Professor Ratner suggests. I find it telling that David Coleman, one of the main architects for Common Core has become president of the College Board, which administers the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test). It seems very probable that the SAT will be changed to conform to the curriculum for which he was largely responsible.

Common Core is aimed at those families who cannot afford SAT prep classes, which, admittedly, give a leg up to the wealthier among us. Common Core standards are advertised as leveling the field – of providing every student an equal chance to do well on tests like the SAT or ACT (American College Testing). But it isn’t about improving education or even about preparing our students to compete in the global market place. If we wanted better math protocols we could have adopted those used in Japan, Singapore or South Korea. It certainly does not appear to be about boosting the prospects of our nation’s most talented youths, whether rich or poor.

The Common Core website is filled with bureaucratic (and frankly condescending) blather. It is an epistolary embarrassment. For example, the website provides a section entitled, “Myths vs. Facts,” with one “myth” being that the adoption of common standards means bringing down standards to “the lowest common denominator.” In response, the website provides opinions stated as “facts.” They explain that the standards were “informed by the best in the country, the highest international standards, and evidence and expertise about educational outcomes.” They use the words “best” and “highest” without comparisons and the phrase “evidence and expertise” without reference to the source. Professor Ratner did not find the experience of her son to be the best.

Homogenization of milk is a worthy endeavor and serves consumers well, as does being able to purchase the same McDonald hamburger in Concord, New Hampshire as in Taos, New Mexico. But I do not believe homogenizing the education process will let flower the unique and myriad talents that lurk within the minds of our youth. General George Patton once wrote: “Anyone in any walk of life, who is content with mediocrity is untrue to himself and to American tradition.” Perhaps it is my age, but my innate skepticism suggests something more cynical is afoot – the preference for an electorate that marches to the music government chooses to orchestrate.

Among some of its promoters and supporters, Common Core may seem a noble idea, but its consequences raise too many questions. It should be abandoned.

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