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.

Comment on this article
  • Ze'ev Wurman says:

    Well, Peter. I disagree. I’ll start with David Steiner’s quote you used.

    First, many if not most of our states are big enough to make the economy of scale (aka “resource”) argument mostly moot. They are bigger than Finland or Singapore, so highly praised by many. And for the really small ones we have had local coalitions like NECAP. Yes, many states do mess up their standards and/or curricula, but that is due to incompetence or coalitions that undermine them, rather than scale issues. Central planning can be hijacked even easier by interest groups — they have only one place to focus on — and then there is little recourse for anyone.

    Second, regarding equity, it is wrong to argue that equity demands that everyone across the nation must be taught identical content. This is not only “un American” and flying against our tradition of localized content and devolved control, it is also unwise. Even the currently touted Finland steers almost half of their cohort into vocational tracks. So does Singapore.

    Third, the argument about backmapping of the national standards from college and career readiness is both misleading and wrong. As you must know by now, their “college readiness” is fake and refers only to non-selective community colleges rather than to four year state colleges. Their “career readiness” is too high, as Mike Kirst noted in the past. And their “validation” was a pre-paid “study” by Gates to people that already certified them as “college ready” before they even started their “research.”

    All the above illustrates precisely the dangers of such national standards and curriculum– the ability of interest groups to highjack them and then sell them to the whole nation as a salvation. As they just did.

    But you said that “national” are good, versus “nationalization” being bad. Even if we accept that, and even if we ignore the dangers of ANYTHING that is offered as a single “solution” to a nation of 300 million people, are we really talking here only about national standards and not nationalization?

    When the federal government insist on testing you on THEIR TEST, when the federal government promotes THEIR HS GRADUATION REQUIREMENTS, when the federal government threatens you to withhold your own tax dollars when you do not follow THEIR DICTATES (check Texas), how isn’t it nationalization?

  • Karen Mitcham says:

    I agree. Oh that a not-for-profit could lead the 2014-2015 test design. I am an opponent of for-profit testing at the national level. The College Board has handled its corner of the testing market ably and well, but mercy the money they have made. If the business community wants to be fair to our children, then keep the whole public education challenge above the muck of the for-profits and with the altruistic foundations.

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