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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Orwellian Irony of Common Core

How many decades will it be before we can have a productive, reasonable conversation about national standards in education? I think many, and here’s why: The biggest, most successful push to date for national standards was co-opted by the data junkies of the current education reform movement, who married the idea of national standards to the misbegotten notion that data from standardized tests should be used to reward and punish teachers, kids and schools.

That’s incredibly unfortunate. National standards, done well, could solve certain problems that plague public education, like the influence of local and regional extremists on what happens in the classroom, or the elimination of important subjects to make room for the pedagogical flavor of the day, or the sacrifice of valuable traditional skills on the altar of new technology. When you read about a state school board modifying the social studies curriculum to include American exceptionalism, the insertion of intelligent design into the science curriculum, sex education programs that teach only abstinence, books banned from classrooms for content relating to sexual orientation or atheism, the replacement of foreign language instruction with computer programming, or the elimination of civics classes from public schools, you wonder why there isn’t a mechanism to protect kids from the stupidity of their elders. As with civil rights and the environment, national standards for education would be less easily manipulated and could be a powerful tool for progress.

I hear the objection now: What if the forces of stupid take control of the national discourse, and all those terrible things become part of the national standard to be imposed on every kid throughout the land?

Which is exactly why national standards are not a no-brainer and need to be discussed in a reasonable way. Personally, I’m not sure where I stand on the issue, though I tend to think that, as with civil rights, the tendency of the nation as a whole is more trustworthy than certain regional proclivities.

But as things stand now, we can’t even hope to have that discussion, because the education-industrial complex has gotten its mitts on the whole idea and hijacked it as a way to sell tests, testing technology and test-prep materials; to beat up the unions by predicating decisions on teacher tenure and merit pay on the results of those tests; and to privatize public education by touting magic silver-bullet charter schools that churn out better test scores through drill-and-kill practices. The name of their strategy? Common Core.

Meanwhile, parents are waking up to the data-driven nightmare their schools have become after years of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, federal programs that encouraged the ballooning of high-stakes standardized testing. They're waking up, and they are not happy. They've been watching their kids become nervous wrecks over tests; seen schools scrap art, music and other subjects that don't appear on the tests; heard from teachers who are being directed to teach to the tests; and seen good schools labeled as failures because of scores on the tests. Their ire is being directed at the Common Core and the new tests being introduced under it, even though the testing problem has been upon us for quite some time.

Also contributing to the growing public animosity is the fact that, in some part of the country, knee-jerk opposition to national standards in anything has become the norm, whether it has to do with education, public health, guns, or voters' rights. That's why the Tea Party mob is breaking out the pitchforks on Common Core. Note that, despite what Tea Partiers might think, Common Core is not a federal program, but a set of standards created in the hope that all states would adopt them, making them a de facto national standard. Also note the irony of Tea Party opposition; many of the same education-industry players who stand to make a mint out of Common Core, and therefore promoted the hell out of it, are also the people who fomented the Tea Party mentality. It's a wonder the Kochs and Waltons of America didn't see this coming.

So now, for a wide variety of often contradictory reasons, the people are starting to rise up against the Common Core. In the short term, that’s a good thing, because the whole project has become more about testing and related data-driven reform than about actual standards. The pushback from parents could slow the onrushing Common Core train, stanch the hemorrhaging of teachers from a system that imposes unreasonable demands on them, and generally throw a monkey wrench into the plans of those who would use data-driven reform to dismantle government-run public education. But the unfortunate collateral damage is that the underlying notion of national standards in education is now poison. A sensible endeavor by actual educators to formulate a workable standard that could promote academic excellence uniformly throughout the nation won’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell for quite some time.

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