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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Bill Keller: War On The Core

By , NY Times


I respect, really I do, the efforts by political scientists and pundits to make sense of the current Republican Party. There is intellectual virtue in the search for historical antecedents and philosophical underpinnings.

I understand the urge to take what looks to a layman like nothing more than a mean spirit or a mess of contradictions and brand it. (The New Libertarianism! Burkean Revivalists!) But more and more, I think Gov. Bobby Jindal, Louisiana’s Republican rising star, had it right when he said his party was in danger of becoming simply “the stupid party.”

A case in point is the burgeoning movement to kill what is arguably the most serious educational reform of our lifetime. I’m talking about the Common Core, a project by a consortium of states to raise public school standards nationwide.

The Common Core, a grade-by-grade outline of what children should know to be ready for college and careers, made its debut in 2010, endorsed by 45 states. It is to be followed in the 2014-15 school year by new standardized tests that seek to measure more than the ability to cram facts or master test-taking tricks. (Some states, including New York, introduced early versions of the tougher tests this year.)

This is an ambitious undertaking, and there is plenty of room for debate about precisely how these standards are translated into classrooms. But the Common Core was created with a broad, nonpartisan consensus of educators, convinced that after decades of embarrassing decline in K-12 education, the country had to come together on a way to hold our public schools accountable. Come together it did — for a while.

The backlash began with a few of the usual right-wing suspects. Glenn Beck warned that under “this insidious menace to our children and to our families” students would be “indoctrinated with extreme leftist ideology.”

(Beck also appears to believe that the plan calls for children to be fitted with bio-wristbands and little cameras so they can be monitored at all times for corporate exploitation.)

Beck’s soul mate Michelle Malkin warned that the Common Core was “about top-down control engineered through government-administered tests and left-wing textbook monopolies.” Before long, FreedomWorks — the love child of Koch brothers cash and Tea Party passion — and the American Principles Project, a religious-right lobby, had joined the cause. Opponents have mobilized Tea Partyers to barnstorm in state capitals and boiled this complex issue down to an obvious slogan, “ObamaCore!”

There are Common Core 
critics on the left as well, who argue that the accountability movement makes teachers scapegoats for problems caused mainly by poverty. As one educator put it, less than half in jest, “The problem with national testing is that the conservatives hate national and the liberals hate testing.” Discomfort with the Core may grow when states discover, as New York did this month, that the tougher tests make their schools look bad. But overwhelmingly the animus against the standards comes from the right.

Some of this was inevitable. Local control of public schools, including the sacred right to keep them impoverished and ineffectual, is a fundamental tenet of the conservative canon. In an earlier day, more thoughtful Republicans — people who had actually read the Common Core standards and understood that the notion of a federal usurpation was a boogeyman — would have held the high ground against the noisy fringe.

Such conservatives still exist. William Bennett, President Reagan’s secretary of education and now a stalwart of right-wing radio, has 
defended the Common Core. So has Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who is a favorite of religious conservatives. Several Republican governors (including Jindal, though he seems to be wobbling) have stood by the Common Core. Conservative-leaning think tanks like the Manhattan Institute and the Fordham Institute have published sober, sensible arguments for the standards.

But today’s Republican Party lives in terror of its so-called base, the very loud, often paranoid, if-that-Kenyan-socialist-in-the-White-House-is-for-it-I’m-against-it crowd. In April the Republican National Committee surrendered to the fringe and urged states to renounce Common Core. The presidential aspirant Marco Rubio, trying to appease conservatives angry at his moderate stance on immigration, last month
abandoned his support for the standards. And state by red state, the effort to disavow or defund is under way. Indiana has put the Common Core on hold. Michigan’s legislature cut off money for implementing the standards and is now contemplating pulling out altogether. Last month, Georgia withdrew from a 22-state consortium, one of two groups designing tests pegged to the new standards, ostensibly because of the costs. (The new tests are expected to cost about $29 per student; grading them is more labor-intensive because in addition to multiple-choice questions they include written essays and show-your-work math problems that will be graded by actual humans. “You’re talking about 30 bucks a kid, in an education system that now spends upwards of $9,000 or $10,000 per student per year,” said Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute.)

The Common Core is imperiled in Oklahoma, Utah, Alabama and Pennsylvania. All of the retreat, you will notice, has been in Republican-controlled states.

“The experts in education have been wrong before and have forced all kinds of bad ideas on local schools,” Petrilli concedes. “So I have some sympathy for people who say, Uh-oh, here we go again. But I think in this case the standards happen to be very good.”

“Even conservatives, evangelicals,” he said. “when they look at the standards, they tend to come away impressed.”

So let’s take a look at this fiendish federal plot to brainwash our children.

First, it is not federal. President Obama has used Race to the Top money to encourage states to embrace higher standards, but the Common Core was written under the auspices of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, an effort that began in 2007, before Obama was elected. Some advocates of Common Core have actually implored Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, just to stop talking about it, because their endorsement feeds the myth that this is a federal takeover.

Second, there is no national curriculum. The standards, which you can read 
here, describe a reasonable progression of learning from grade to grade, but leave it to state and local school officials to get there. The Common

Core is not an attempt to pack kids’ heads with an officially sanctioned list of facts, but to assure that they are able to read a complicated text and understand it, to recognize a problem and know how to solve it.

So, to pick an example at random, the Common Core says a third grader should be able to “describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events.” By eighth grade the student should be able to “analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama propel the action, reveal aspects of a character or provoke a decision.”

The Common Core does not dictate what stories these kids will be reading or what textbooks schools should use and does not prescribe reading lists, except for a few obvious essentials, including America’s founding documents and a bit of Shakespeare.

Third, the Common Core is not some new and untried pedagogical experiment. Much of it leans on traditional methods that have proved themselves over time. Kids are taught phonics in the early grades. They learn times tables and memorize the formulas for areas and volumes.

The standards encourage more use of informational texts and literary nonfiction to build background knowledge and vocabulary that will be useful in the real world. But the Common Core does not stint on literature. By the end of high school, nonfiction would account for 70 percent of the total reading material in all subjects. That still leaves a lot of room for the classics.

The Core does call for schools across the states to deliver their lessons in the same sequence. Does it really matter if children in Alabama and New Jersey start algebra in the same grade? It matters a lot to a kid who moves from Alabama to New Jersey. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 13 percent of children under 18 move each year, and the numbers are much higher for low-income, military and immigrant families.

Many of them lose their place in the educational order and never recover.

There is, in fact, an important national discussion to be had as the Common Core takes effect and schools begin reckoning with the results of tougher tests. What’s the right cutoff score for a passing grade? Do schools get credit for progress, even if they are performing below grade level? Should there be an opt-out provision for schools that are more experimental or that already have high college placement rates? How do the test results figure in evaluating individual teachers?

E. D. Hirsch, an advocate of the Common Core whose Core Knowledge Foundation distributes a widely used curriculum, warned in an interview that if the standards were not carefully implemented, schools could still end up emphasizing “mindless test prep” over substance.

“The Tea Party’s worried about the federal government,” he told me. “What they should be worried about is the education school professors and the so-called experts.”

But — as with that other demonic federal plot, Obamacare — the Republicans aren’t interested in making reform work. They just want it dead.

“Conservatives used to be in favor of holding students to high standards and an academic curriculum based on great works of Western civilization and the American republic,” two education scholars, Kathleen Porter-Magee and Sol Stern, wrote in National Review Online. “Aren’t they still?”

Good question.

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