You may have noticed the hot debate about the Common Core Standards (and tests) being rolled out across the states. The Common Core is the latest chapter in the test-based accountability movement. The idea is that if we set the standards much higher and make the tests harder, our children will improve and their test scores on international tests will become competitive with the scores of the children in Shanghai and Finland.
The tests for the Common Core Standards have been developed by two statewide consortia—the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. Forty-five states have bought into this effort, which has been heavily “incentivized” through requirements of federal programs like the Department of Education’s No Child Left Behind waivers. Qualifying for a waiver demands that states adopt “college and career-ready” standards, with participation in the Common Core the most immediate way a state can meet this requirement. Development of the Common Core has been extensively supported by funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
What should children know? What should they be taught at each grade level? Can we use standardized test scores as a motivator to push teachers to expect more at every level and students to work harder? These are the questions underneath the standards and accountability movement that has washed across the country in the past quarter century.
There is nothing scientific about any of this. It is, of course, possible to make academic expectations so unreasonable and the tests so hard that virtually everybody will fail. If we were to develop a test for second grade that expected all of our children to be able to read the encyclopedia, know the periodic table of the elements, and do trigonometry, all the children would fail. There are several significant variables here including whether the material on the test has or has not been taught, whether the students are developmentally ready and academically prepared to have learned the material, and how the test are graded. Where the passing mark on any test is set is an arbitrary matter; cut scores on the Common Core are being set arbitrarily high for the purpose of getting everybody to work harder.
I do not oppose high expectations; in fact I believe all children should have the opportunity to be challenged by and excited about what they are learning. I have not really taken sides about the Common Core, because in some ways I agree that we need to be more systematic across our fifty states about challenging children everywhere. However, it is clear that there are problems in the way the Common Core was developed including the dearth of educators among the writers, the unrealistic setting of cut scores that make it look as though a majority of children are failing, and the use of these scores—with passage made very difficult for students—to condemn school teachers. There are also worries about which companies are going to make huge profits from the tax dollars that will be used to purchase the related curriculum, the tests, and the computers and tablets that are going to be required for on-line testing. In an excellent and well-documented article last week, Anthony Cody summarizes these issues.
Over this past weekend the debate took on racial overtones when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan opined that many of the critics are white, suburban moms who want to believe their schools are excellent and their children brilliant but who are being disillusioned as the low scores roll out from Common Core testing. Duncan’s comment has spawned an outcry from those who feel that Duncan insulted them.
In response to the outcry by those who feel insulted by Arne Dunan’s comment Paul Thomas of Furman University has published a thoughtful and important response. While Thomas acknowledges that the Secretary of Education ought not to be insulting any group of parents, Thomas wonders why there has been less concern about how Arne Duncan’s policies are hurting black, brown, and poor children than how Duncan’s comment is hurting the feelings of white, suburban moms.
“Duncan has personified and voiced an education agenda that disproportionately impacts black, brown, and poor children in powerfully negative ways. And the entire agenda has been consistently cloaked in the discourse characterizing these policies as the Civil Rights issue of the day… Public commentary that highlights that education reform under Obama and Duncan fails the pursuit of equity in the context of race and class in the U.S. tends to fall on deaf ears. The same urgency witnessed in the responses to Duncan’s ‘white suburban moms’ contrasts significantly from the silence surrounding challenges to Duncan’s discourse and policies that are classist and racist, policy designed for ‘other people’s children.'”
I share Thomas’s concern. There is an urgent need to build political will for investing in and supporting the public schools in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities, places where poverty is concentrated and opportunity stunted. Like Thomas, I would challenge President Obama and Education Secretary Duncan to begin talking about what we can do to support the educators in our struggling schools. I worry far more about this project than development of the Common Core.