We've been told time and again that the current common standards push is guided by the mantra "fewer, clearer, and higher" standards. That's a good thing, since efforts to craft expansive standards tend to crumble under their own weight. Recall what happened to the national history standards panel back in the 1990s, when disputes over who and what should be in and out led the U.S. Senate to resoundingly reject its handiwork.
I've previously written about why it is so tough in the U.S. to craft standards outside of math and language arts that don't devolve into culture clashes, or piles of mush (and even in math and language arts, we know that good standards are no picnic). This has made the "fewer, clearer, and higher" mantra most welcome and suggested that advocates have learned from past mistakes.
So, imagine my surprise when I read this interview with Secretary Duncan's anti-bullying chief Kevin Jennings in the February Phi Delta Kappan magazine.
Jennings, who directs the Department of Education's Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, first tells PDK editor Joan Richardson that no student should worry about "find[ing] something written on your locker or if you're going to be called names in the hallway...Then we also need to make sure that all kids feel like they belong." Fair enough. Jennings elaborates, "Just as we have standards around academic goals, we need standards around school climate...And we need a data system so parents know what kind of environment a kid will encounter in a school." Well, okay.
And then it gets weird. Phi Delta Kappan asks, "So, you want to include this in the Common Core standards?"
Jennings says, "Yes. If we don't get this one right, the other ones don't matter. Right now, they're really focused on the academic standards. This one is much newer. We have to build understanding of the concept first." He went on: "We're not first up to bat, and I'm not troubled by that. The Common Core movement is right to start on the things where there's already widespread agreement. We're way down the road."
Seriously? A high-ranking administration official is telling us that the common standards being financed by $350 million in Race to the Top funds "start" with academics but will eventually encompass "school climate" standards too? Jennings raises further red flags when he concedes that we have not determined "the definition of school climate," though he says it "does not include air conditioning" but does include kids feeling "emotionally safe." Maybe it's my cynical streak, but that sounds like a summons to social agendas, culture clashes, and political fisticuffs. In other words, the stuff that sinks standards.
Mr. Jennings' remarks raise concerns about the old bait-and-switch. If he is speaking for Secretary Duncan and the President, they seem to have been less than truthful so far when discussing their vision for common standards. If not, a President seeking bipartisan comity might want to encourage Mr. Jennings not to suggest that the Department is covertly planning to drive a massive 48-state effort into a familiar ditch...or to turn it into a Trojan Horse.