Thursday, April 23, 2015

"Common Core & Common Sense"

                     Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Common Core & Common Sense”
April 23, 2015

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.” The speaker is Thomas Gradgrind. He is talking to two adults, the school master and Josiah Bounderby and to a class of students, each known principally by a number. The quoted sentences form the first few lines of Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times. Today’s focus on STEM programs, Common Core and standardized tests – the robotic production of students – suggest that the 160 years separating the publication of Mr. Dickens’ novel and today have brought only limited change in the desire for centralized control and the unpredictable whims that are fundamental to human behavior.

The brouhaha over Common Core, and especially the standardized tests that will not only measure students’ achievements but will also be used to evaluate teachers, has reached a fevered pitch. On the “affirmative” side, there are those, like David Coleman, Bill Gates and Thomas Reville who are personally or financially invested in its success. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Thomas Donahue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have endowed the “standards” with the imprimatur of their offices. On the “negative” side is a patchwork quilt of opponents: individuals who object to increasing federal control over what they consider a “local” issue; unionized teachers who object to being objectively evaluated, and parents who see their children being tested at the expense of getting an education. The consequence is an odd assortment of bedfellows: Barack Obama and Jeb Bush cuddle on one half of the bed, while Randi Weingarten and Rand Paul nestle on the other side.

Everyone agrees that – with notable exceptions in wealthier communities – most public schools do not adequately prepare our youth for college and the job market. Twenty percent of high school graduates matriculating at prestigious colleges arrive in need of remedial courses in English and math. Silicon Valley has regularly complained that American high school job applicants do not measure up to their global competitors. Unionized teachers do not want to accept responsibility for educational inadequacies, nor do many parents choose to assume that behavioral problems of their children might have something to do with their home life. The federal government, always looking for tents under which to insert its nose, sees an opportunity. But Washington being Washington, they cannot do so in a straight forward manner. They disingenuously enshroud their real goal (increasing control and conformity) behind insidious veils of red herrings and euphemisms. They note that Common Core was designed by the National Governors Association (NGA) and is supported by the Chamber of Commerce, and (or at least it was once) by the two principal teachers’ unions – the NEA and the AFT. But the Feds have no objection to withhold moneys from states not in compliance, using a stick shaped like a carrot.

The federal government compounds the problem. In the interest of “fairness” and “equality” they want everyone to have the same education – a noble goal, but impossible unless schools become nothing more than manufacturing facilities where computerized instructors stamp out robotic-like students. Many politicians have never seen an inequality they didn’t want to quash. They make no allowance for differences in ability and aspiration. They ignore what George Will has called the effect of “curriculum conformity” on “parental empowerment.” They risk “extinguishing” what Mr. Will wrote is “federalism’s creativity.” Equal opportunities produce unequal outcomes.

There is, as mentioned, a problem with our public schools, but Common Core does not address its root causes, which are teachers’ unions. Unions play an important role. They allow workers to band for better pay, benefits and working conditions. But when bad teachers are protected at the expense of students, they do more harm than good. When seniority replaces meritocracy, good, young teachers tend to move on. When union rolls are fattened by administrators, expenses rise with little or no advantage to students and higher costs to taxpayers.

In free-market capitalism, supply side economics plays a critical role. It is how new products get developed. When Karl Benz produced the first automobile in 1888, he did not build it because there was a demand for cars. He did so because he made a bet that if he supplied such a product, buyers would come. When Steve Jobs announced the first iPhone in June 2007, he did not do so because of demand for iPhones. He did so because he gambled that innovative technology would create demand. Their successes were examples of Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction.” But for every product that becomes successful, there are hundreds, if not thousands that fail. Most products that become successful are due to the creative spirit of people – individuals who are willing to bet their fortunes and their time on an idea. Apart from DARPA, the most important role government can play in product development is allowing people the freedom to garner success when it appears and to suffer disappointment and possibly bankruptcy when it does not.

Education is not that much different. It is funded, of necessity, by the people through taxes. There is persistent demand that grows with population. Innovation, however, evolves by responding to failure and to changes in knowledge and material. Competition takes advantage of such disjointedness. It is a driver toward change. Catholic schools once provided competition, but as their funding diminished so has their presence. Charter schools have become the new catalyst for change. However, like the first automobile it was not demand for Charters that caused the first to open; it was concern that the current system was not working. Today, demand exceeds supply, as the latter has been artificially retarded because of the financial and political clout of the AFT and NEA. Common Core is a bureaucratic response to the failure of traditional public schools.

I am a believer in good education. Success is based on meritocracy, not on one’s name, race, gender or creed. Students should be challenged and they should be tested. But first they must be taught. The amount of knowledge in the world doubles every year. There is no way any one person can learn all there is to know. Our youth must learn and understand the basics in English, mathematics, science, history, geography and the humanities. Common Core is a policy prescription forced on an unwilling buyer – one that makes little common sense. Teachers must impart the desire to learn – and to never stop learning. Education isn’t only about facts that Thomas Gradgrind was so intent on; it is teaching our youth how to access the information they will need for a productive career; but also for a life of learning – knowledge of our history, government and culture, and the joy that comes from an appreciation of art, music and literature.

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