Ravitch: Why I Cannot Support the Common Core Standards

Excerpts from her blog post; my comments are outside the quotes.

I have thought long and hard about the Common Core standards.

I have decided that I cannot support them.

In this post, I will explain why.

I have long advocated for voluntary national standards, believing that it would be helpful to states and districts to have general guidelines about what students should know and be able to do as they progress through school.

Such standards, I believe, should be voluntary, not imposed by the federal government; before implemented widely, they should be thoroughly tested to see how they work in real classrooms; and they should be free of any mandates that tell teachers how to teach because there are many ways to be a good teacher, not just one. I envision standards not as a demand for compliance by teachers, but as an aspiration defining what states and districts are expected to do. They should serve as a promise that schools will provide all students the opportunity and resources to learn reading and mathematics, the sciences, the arts, history, literature, civics, geography, and physical education, taught by well-qualified teachers, in schools led by experienced and competent educators.

​For the past two years, I have steadfastly insisted that I was neither for nor against the Common Core standards. I was agnostic. I wanted to see how they worked in practice. I wanted to know, based on evidence, whether or not they improve education and whether they reduce or increase the achievement gaps among different racial and ethnic groups.

After much deliberation, I have come to the conclusion that I can’t wait five or ten years to find out whether test scores go up or down, whether or not schools improve, and whether the kids now far behind are worse off than they are today.

I have come to the conclusion that the Common Core standards effort is fundamentally flawed by the process with which they have been foisted upon the nation.

The Common Core standards have been adopted in 46 states and the District of Columbia without any field test. They are being imposed on the children of this nation despite the fact that no one has any idea how they will affect students, teachers, or schools. We are a nation of guinea pigs, almost all trying an unknown new program at the same time.

While I applaud her general stand, the idea that “no one has any idea how they will affect students, teachers or schools” is inconsistent with the history of U.S. “reform” — which Ravtich knows quite well. Certainly she is aware of recent reports, providing evidence that the CCSSI will not improve education.[1]

In fact, there is a long strand of comparative education research that attempts to discern the affect of national standards on measures of the quality of education, and if I recall correctly, that research did not demonstrate a necessary link between countries with “national standards” and the quality of their education system. That the CCSSI is premised on the same flawed logic as its predecessors over the past 30 years or so (NCLB all the way back to A Nation at Risk) suggests the CCSSI will yield the same unpleasant results, but on a grander scale. While details and context do matter, and the future is by definition uncertain, the evidence and experience of the past make a strong case agains the CCSSI, and this is far from having “no idea”. The reason to have “national” standards is not educational, but political; by that I don’t mean to shut the door on national standards in the absolute, rather, I simply mean to properly categorize the project.

President Obama and Secretary Duncan often say that the Common Core standards were developed by the states and voluntarily adopted by them. This is not true.

They were developed by an organization called Achieve and the National Governors Association, both of which were generously funded by the Gates Foundation. There was minimal public engagement in the development of the Common Core. Their creation was neither grassroots nor did it emanate from the states.

​In fact, it was well understood by states that they would not be eligible for Race to the Top funding ($4.35 billion) unless they adopted the Common Core standards. Federal law prohibits the U.S. Department of Education from prescribing any curriculum, but in this case the Department figured out a clever way to evade the letter of the law. Forty-six states and the District of Columbia signed on, not because the Common Core standards were better than their own, but because they wanted a share of the federal cash. In some cases, the Common Core standards really were better than the state standards, but in Massachusetts, for example, the state standards were superior and well tested but were ditched anyway and replaced with the Common Core. The former Texas State Commissioner of Education, Robert Scott, has stated for the record that he was urged to adopt the Common Core standards before they were written.

The flap over fiction vs. informational text further undermined my confidence in the standards. There is no reason for national standards to tell teachers what percentage of their time should be devoted to literature or information. Both can develop the ability to think critically. The claim that the writers of the standards picked their arbitrary ratios because NAEP has similar ratios makes no sense. NAEP gives specifications to test-developers, not to classroom teachers.

I believe the emphasize on “informational text” signifies more than attacking professional judgment of teachers and silly regulatory arguments. It signifies that the CCSSI is premised on students as products, with the “critical thinking” capacity only of an unconscious organism. This is a key transition from the former “commercial” mentality of student as consumer. This student (really his or her “skills” or capacity to work) is a product to be developed for market, with that development itself serving the accumulation of capital.[2]

I must say too that it was offensive when Joel Klein and Condoleeza Rice issued a report declaring that our nation’s public schools were so terrible that they were a “very grave threat to our national security.” Their antidote to this allegedly desperate situation: the untried Common Core standards plus charters and vouchers.

It’s more than offensive. It reveals the political nature of the CCSSI (and “Career and College Ready” agenda) and the desperate means the neoliberals will go to get what they want. To true constitutionalists, all this should suggest treason, where the lot of the venture philanthropists and reformers should be put on trial for trying to overthrow government institutions.

Another reason I cannot support the Common Core standards is that I am worried that they will cause a precipitous decline in test scores, based on arbitrary cut scores, and this will have a disparate impact on students who are English language learners, students with disabilities, and students who are poor and low-performing. A principal in the Mid-West told me that his school piloted the Common Core assessments and the failure rate rocketed upwards, especially among the students with the highest needs. He said the exams looked like AP exams and were beyond the reach of many students.

When Kentucky piloted the Common Core, proficiency rates dropped by 30 percent. The Chancellor of the New York Board of Regents has already warned that the state should expect a sharp drop in test scores.

What is the purpose of raising the bar so high that many more students fail?

I think we may be farther along in fashioning an answer than this hanging question suggests. There is a move to radically restructure education in the U.S., and that move requires tools, such as arbitrary standards, to justify the wrecking, and alter who is in control (standard setting empowers those who set the standards). The restructuring first and foremost requires power shifts from the legislative to the executive, and public to the private (taken together this should be considered more than privatization, it should be considered anti-publicization and a form of civil death).

Now that David Coleman, the architect of the Common Core standards, has become president of the College Board, we can expect that the SAT will be aligned to the standards. No one will escape their reach, whether they attend public or private school.

Is there not something unseemly about placing the fate and the future of American education in the hands of one man?

Yes, of course this is troubling. But why the silence regarding the Big Brother of the Common Core, the boot that will step on the necks of K12 educators long before their students have the pleasure of taking Coleman’s SAT? Dare we speak of that which should not be named: the PARCC and SmarterBalanced assessment apparatuses? Already computers are magically appearing in the Buffalo School District for testing and implementing PARCC assessments. The cage is silently being built. Here we see again that the money always appears for “their” efforts, while all the requests of educators and parents continue to be met with “there’s no money”. It certainly is time for a change, and that change has to be with respect to who decides, not simply what is decided.

Notes

  1. e.g., Tom Loveless, “The 2010 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning?”: Bronw Center on Education Policy at Brookings, 2012, February. Available: http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/newsletters/0216_brown_education_loveless.pdf; and William J. Mathis, ” ‘Common Core’ School Standards Roll on without Supporting Evidence,” EPIC, 2010, July 21. Available http://nepc.colorado.edu.
  2. I’ve been thinking of this entire project — taking into account charter chains selecting their raw materials through essays, parent questionnaires, etc., like the specification of the quality of raw materials prior to manufacturing — as labor farming. I say farming because even as the CCSSI thinks of students as products, as things, it does have to contend with the biological life side — humans are “living” “things.” The CCSSI and its for-profit purveyors are like Monsanto: culturally modified curriculum leading to “Career and College Ready”. The CCSSI is the “pasteurization” and “homogenization” being planned to make youth safe and appropriate for capital accumulation on an even grander scale. Of course this argument requires far more elaboration.

1 Comment Ravitch: Why I Cannot Support the Common Core Standards

  1. Chris Cerrone February 26, 2013 at 11:31 am

    Mark,

    Great post.

    My favorite quote: “The cage is silently being built. Here we see again that the money always appears for “their” efforts, while all the requests of educators and parents continue to be met with “there’s no money”.

    This is so true on a national, state and local district level. It is amazing how politicians, superintendents and school boards somehow find money for their pet projects, but cannot fund schools properly.

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