Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Common Core: Is “College and Career Ready” the Right Target?

Why "college and career ready?" Could it be because this fits the corporate reform agenda?

The designers of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) determined that the purpose of a K-12 education was to insure that children were “college and career ready” by the time they completed high school. Having determined that our students were not “college and career ready”, they looked at what would be required of a graduate in the areas of literacy and mathematics to be deemed ready and built the standards backwards from high school through middle school to elementary school to provide stepping stones that would lead to that final goal. Holding aside for a moment whether this design construct makes any sense, can we say that “college and career ready” is the appropriate target for public education? And further, if it is not the appropriate target, why have the developers of the Common Core put so much stake in it?

Who could be against standards designed to make children “college and career ready?” It sounds wonderful doesn’t it? Perhaps I have become too cynical. Whenever I hear a slogan that sounds too perfect, I get suspect and go into my Orwellian doublespeak mode. A great example of this is the Bush era “Healthy Forests” Act. The Healthy Forests Act was nothing more than a handout to the lumber industry allowing them to cut down trees and earn profits in areas where this had not been allowed before. It is telling that the “Healthy Forests” Act was opposed by every legitimate environmental group in the country, but supported by Bush’s big business friends. Is “college and career ready” nothing more than a gift to the education privatizers and wealthy corporations who are eager to support the CCSS?

For me “college and career ready” is too narrow a goal for public education. The problem with narrow goals is that you may find ways to achieve them and you may even find ways to demonstrate that you have achieved them, but because your goal was too narrow, you never achieve the larger goals necessary. For example, you may set a goal to have children learn to decode words. You may focus on that goal and you may, and likely will, achieve some measurable success. The problem is that you spent so much time teaching decoding, that you failed to focus on the real purpose of reading, and so you have created kids who have improved in decoding, but still can’t read. Getting meaning from reading is the true goal, not decoding. In public education, an informed and participatory citizenry is the goal. Does “college and career ready” get us there?

I would propose a broader target for public education. It is a target that I believe most of us would easily say “amen” to and yet we have watched as the goals for public education have been narrowed to something “measurable.” To my thinking the education of any human being has four dimensions.

1.    The life of the citizen
2.    The life of the mind
3.    The life of the body
4.    The spiritual life

The spiritual life is, and should be, outside of the purview of public education, but all three others are necessary targets of schooling.

The United States of America is the world’s greatest experiment in democracy. In order for that experiment to sustain itself, an informed populace is necessary. This is, of course, the original purpose behind public education since the days of Horace Mann. This has not changed. In a world where “news” organizations have become little more than political organizations flogging partisan viewpoints 24/7 and where all sorts of unsubstantiated opinions (like this one) are readily available on the internet, it is as important as ever to prepare children for informed participation in our democracy. Of course this preparation will include many of the abilities discussed in the Common Core, including critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills. It would also include empathy for fellow citizens or citizens who are less fortunate. Despite CCSS author David Coleman’s disdain for “how you feel or how you think”, how you feel and how you think are critical components of being a contributing member of a democracy.

Despite what appear to be longer and longer work days for many Americans, we can safely say that most Americans will spend at least 1/3 of their waking lives at leisure. The quality of how that 1/3 of a lifetime will be spent is determined, at least in part, by our education. One target of public education, then, should be developing the habit of mind that leads a person to be a lifelong learner. Lifelong learners spend their leisure time in a variety of pursuits, not one of which is the “right” one. The key is how rich and rewarding these pursuits are for the individual.

That is one reason why in public education a dynamic arts program is critical. Despite President Obama’s view of art history majors, the arts are at the center of a quality public education. Children need exposure to all the rich visual and performing arts, the chance to participate in a chorus or a band or a dramatic production. They need to develop the teamwork that is a part of these activities. They need the chance to experiment with a variety of artistic expressions and they need to get a sense of the history of the arts. We are failing our children and our country if we do not provide them with opportunities that will allow them to have a lifetime of continued learning and the joy that comes from being an informed witness or participant in artistic performance. Public education should prepare our children, then, for the life of the mind.

Finally, there is the life of the body. Strong public education includes strong physical education programs and strong sports programs. It includes health education and nutrition education. One of the consequences I have seen from the three decade long push for higher standardized test scores is the continued diminution of the importance physical education programs and recess in schools. I recently visited a school where the children get one forty-minute physical education class a week and recess is a part of a 25-minute lunch that barely gives the kids time to get their lunches and eat. This is not acceptable, but unfortunately it is also not unusual. Children need plenty of opportunities for directed physical education and unstructured play during the school day. In addition the public school should provide organized sports programs, not only for talented varsity level athletes, but intramural programs for all children who only wish to participate in organized sports.

I am reasonably sure that these goals for public education are shared by most Americans. Some might rightly point out that the architects of the Common Core recognized that “particularly in the early grades social, emotional, and physical development are important considerations (CCSS).” Unfortunately, despite such qualifiers as this, with the CCSS tied so closely to standardized tests and teacher evaluation, they are bound to become the defacto curriculum for public schools.

It appears that the authors of the CCSS recognized that there was more to a public education than these standards. Why then the focus on the narrow goal of “college and career ready?” I think the explanation can best be understood if we look at who has funded the CCSS, who are the biggest boosters and what other initiatives the Common Core is tied to.

The development, roll-out and promotion of the Common Core was underwritten to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars by Bill Gates and The Gates Foundation. Why would this captain of industry want to spend so much money on these standards? If you asked him, I am sure Gates would tell you that he was looking for a way to do good with all his money and this was the way he thought he could do it best. The problem is, of course, that this means the CCSS is representative of Gates’ world view. That world view is colored by his status as a wealthy “self-made” man. What was good for Gates would be good for all America’s children. So we get corporate, privatized education designed to produce a bright and compliant supply of employees for our multi-national corporations.

The true goal of the Common Core State Standards also cannot be understood without viewing them as a part of a total package that includes standardized testing and teacher evaluation. The CCSS had to be narrowly cast because student achievement of the standards was to be subject to standardized testing. It is very difficult to measure empathy, artistic appreciation and physical well-being with a standardized, fill in the bubble test. The CCSS gets rid of all that messiness by simply focusing on narrow, testable standards. Learning is complex and measuring learning is a complex activity that often must be done on the local level; that is, in the classroom, by the teacher who knows the children. The CCSS and the standardized tests they are tied to cannot capture the complexity of teaching and learning.

Why are the standardized tests necessary? Well, one reason is to gauge student progress, but the other reason is to evaluate teachers. The CCSS cannot be separated from the desire to quantify teacher performance. The Common Core leads to standardized tests of children, which leads to “value added” measures of teacher effectiveness. Despite the overwhelming evidence of the fallacious nature of “value added” measures, value added teacher evaluation remains a part of the reform agenda and are inextricably linked to the Common Core. Teachers who like the Common Core, but abhor all the testing and test driven accountability need to recognize that these are all a package.

So, why “college and career ready?” Why design standards that are “standardized test ready?” Why evaluate teachers with a widely discredited value added statistical model? Why take the easy road of an easily quantifiable set of standards that ignores the complexity of learning in all its messiness, all its potential and all its beauty? Why? Because these “reforms” serve the agenda of the corporate privatizers who wish to eliminate the bothersome democratizing impact of public education.