The Conspiracy Theory in Search of a Conspiracy

By 02/29/2012

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From where I sit, a member of the local school board and head of our board’s curriculum committee, I appreciate what No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have meant for our district: forcing accountability on a school district that pushes inexorably against it. And I see the Common Core as promising us a curriculum where none has ever existed.

Sure, we have plenty to worry about when it comes to the role of the federal government in our lives. The current cover story in the Economist is about an “Over-regulated America,” smothered by a wave of “red tape” that may crush the life out of America’s economy. It sure seems to have already crushed much of the life out of America’s public education system.

Coming at the question from a different direction, David Brooks recently suggested that the United States is just as freighted by central government as the Europe is; we just do it differently—and not so well. Our economic briar patch, says Brooks, is in the tax code.

There should be a lesson here for our education policy-wonks and -makers: instead of getting hung up on which government agency is making the rules, let’s dig a little deeper into the question of red tape, at all levels, and find out exactly which ties are binding so firmly to mediocrity and entropy. Chris Cerf in New Jersey has a team going through every Garden State education rule and regulation with an eye of stripping away unnecessary restraints.

The point is, this isn’t a federal problem; at least, not exclusively.

But what worries me about the reasoning of some of the anti-Common Corers (see Jay Greene) is that they seem to confuse a popular national trend with nationalism. The problem was on fine display last week in an exchange between Jay and W. Stephen Wilson, a mathematician who defends the Common Core standards in the current Ed Next forum. When Jay wrote that Wilson saw the Common Core “as a first step toward developing stronger national standards that would be comparable to those of our overseas competitors and better than all previously existing state standards,” Wilson shot back,

Never said that. Anyway, that’s politics, and I try to stay out of politics. I’m a content sort of guy. Also, although technically I’m the pro-Common Core person, the questions don’t actually ask me to be pro-Common Core. Thus I could answer all the questions without taking a political stance, unless being pro-math is political.

This is a fascinating reply by Wilson and I would recommend reading the full exchange between the two. There is, as I read it, some welcome concession on the part of Jay that the Common Core standards can indeed be evaluated for their content not their commonality—but even that is a far cry from a nationalized curriculum.

In fact, a national curriculum is great; a nationalized one is not. And there’s a difference. Here’s what New York State Commissioner David Steiner told me last year when I asked him for the argument for a common curriculum:

[T]here’s every argument for it.  First of all, there’s an equity argument.  We have students in this state who are, through no fault of the teachers, but just because of the history in that school, or the training and preparation of those teachers, or the lack of resources or whatever it may be–those teachers are teaching material that is one year, two years below (in content sophistication) what it needs to be.  That’s an equity problem.

Second, there’s a resource problem.  By having multiple different and fragmented curricula, we can’t get the quality we could otherwise get from a really, superb curriculum that has online, that has multimedia, that creates internal assessments for students that enables the teachers to get data about performance.  All of that is much too expensive for an individual district, still less a school to be able to produce.

And third, we’ve never had a common set of standards before that have been back-mapped from college and career readiness, which is what the Common Core standards are.  And so, for the first time we can say we have a ladder to college and career readiness.  It’s time to build that curriculum on that ladder.

There is no doubt that our educational governance system needs overhaul. But let’s not begin by throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Let’s at least hang on to the good that we have (remembering, of course, that good need not be perfect) and start knocking down the barriers to improvement.

-Peter Meyer

This post originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Board’s Eye View blog.

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