The drive towards Common Core State Standards and standardized assessments to enforce them has been described as an unstoppable train, and teachers are warned that we had better get on board with the process, or risk being run over. But opposition to this juggernaut is emerging from some surprising places, which creates the possibility of some unusual alliances. Education Week reports today that many states are facing new resistance -- not surprising in light of my recent encounter with some very angry Arizonans.
Last week I was the lone skeptic at an Arizona event focused on school choice (you can watch the videos here).
I was not surprised by the vigorous support of choice - the event was sponsored by the very conservative Americans For Prosperity. The audience was not happy when I spoke in favor of public schools, or in defense of due process for teachers. However, when I criticized standardized testing, I received loud applause. In the Q and A session, several audience members keyed in on the Common Core, and expressed clear opposition.
This conservative Arizona audience is not isolated in its opposition to the Common Core. In the state of Indiana last November the superintendent's race was a big surprise. The top statewide vote-getter, with 53% of the vote, was Glenda Ritz. This educator defeated Tony Bennett, a well-funded corporate reformer and the chairman of Jeb Bush's "Chiefs for Change." Analysts explained that conservatives who value local control of schools were furious with Bennett's embrace of the Common Core.
To be clear, Ritz' candidacy was propelled by a powerful grassroots campaign, and vigorous support from teachers and parents, many of whom were truly fed up with standardized testing. But Ritz would not have won 53% of the vote without a significant swing of Republican voters over to her side.
Moreover, It was a Republican Commissioner of Education from Texas who, just a year ago, sounded the alarm about testing, writing:
The assessment and accountability regime has become not only a cottage industry but a military-industrial complex. And the reason that you're seeing this move toward the "common core" is there's a big business sentiment out there that if you're going to spend $600-$700 billion a year in public education, why shouldn't there be one big Boeing, or Lockheed-Grumman contract where one company can get it all and provide all these services to schools across the country.
This was not entirely new. In 2011, a group of conservatives released what they called a "critical response" to the Common Core initiative.
I have been curious since then about the extent and basis of common ground around this. Investigating this uncovers some of the deeper philosophical issues at play, which are sometimes hidden by the partisan clothing we wear, as "progressives" or "conservatives."
Progressives have, by and large, favored a more expanded Federal role in education in recent history. Ever since 1954, when President Eisenhower sent US Army troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to ensure that African Americans could integrate the local high school, the Federal government has played a role in pushing for equity and integration in our schools. The Federal government pushed for desegregation through the 1960s and 70s, and the War on Poverty brought expanded federal subsidies for school breakfast and lunch programs in 1966.
Back then, conservatives fought federal interference under the banners of "states rights" and "local control." School choice was introduced as a means to preserve segregation in many southern states. When President Clinton pushed for national education standards back in the 90s, he was blocked by conservatives. When Clinton created the Department of Education, he was forced to include language that forbade the creation of national standards - which is why we have this elaborate Common Core process under way now, supposedly led by the states.
No Child Left Behind was the product of an alliance between conservatives and liberals. The conservatives thought strict accountability could open up the education market, by "proving" that public schools were failures. Some liberals, like Ted Kennedy, thought the pressure to improve, coupled with additional resources, would lead to better education for low income students.
That brings us to the present day. The next great project of this neo-liberal/conservative alliance has been the Common Core State Standards. The Common Core has been aggressively marketed by the Gates Foundation, and is designed to create something that will function as a national set of standards. Performance will be measured by national assessments, and this will eliminate some of the enforcement loopholes that have plagued NCLB, which allowed each state to choose their own assessments and proficiency levels.
Conservatives who are opposing the Common Core have some interesting reasons. This post by Jenni White of Restore Oklahoma Public Education states:
Why would you, as a parent, move your child from one school to another when the same COMMON standards shape the curriculum at EVERY school in the district or city? Yes, one school may have a better teaching staff, or one might be perceived to be 'safer', but if the teaching curricula of all schools are derived from the same COMMON standards, how can one school produce a more exceptional student than another? How can schools in states who have adopted the CCSS really differentiate themselves one from another when the basis of all educational knowledge is derived from the same COMMON standards? Where is the ability for any school to create a student that excels beyond what is "common"?
She also voices fears that students who are home-schooled may face consequences if they are not taught according to the new standards.
As I contemplate this, I find myself a bit torn. On the one hand, there are elements of a conservative or libertarian approach I find genuinely appealing. Former Nebraska commissioner of education Doug Christensen made a powerful case for local initiative here a couple of years ago. He explained:
Assessment and accountability must have their locus of action and policy at the local level and in the hands of educators and local policy leaders. Name a profession that is not in charge of their own metrics of success and the metrics of what is good practice? Lawyers are in charge of theirs. Medical doctors are in charge of theirs. So are accountants, nurses, bankers, and even morticians. Why aren't educators? Why aren't the local folks in charge and accountable?
We could have a great three-way partnership of educators and policy leaders at the local, state and federal levels if we would dump the notions of "local control" and that accountability at the state and federal level is the only locus of public accountability. The local leadership should take the initiative and use their discretion to guide the operation of the schools at the local levels. The state leaders should provide policy direction and capacity so that we can have schools of both excellence and equity. The role of federal leadership should be to give energy, policy direction and capacity at the state level to serve those populations that are most difficult to serve, are currently under-served and/or for whom the issues of equity can best be addressed by policy and capacity from the federal level.
This relates closely to the idea of "mass localism" that Yong Zhao has articulated.
...a decentralized system with strong local control and professional autonomy is an effective way to cultivate the diversity of talents that will help keep a nation, a community, and an individual competitive. In contrast, a national common curriculum, enforced through high-stakes common assessment, is just the poison that kills creativity, homogenizes talents, and reduces individuality through an exclusive focus on the prescribed content and teaching-to-the-test by schools and teachers, as we have already seen with NCLB. There is no question that education should help develop some common basics for the purpose of citizenship, but that is the extent to which government can mandate. And for hundreds of years, despite the lack of a national curriculum, the decentralized education system has performed that function well.
I agree with Zhao. I believe our local schools ought to be accountable not to a distant federal government, which exercises supervision through ever more specific standards and tests, but to their local communities. Local schools should be responsible for working with community members, parents and students to develop programs that meet their needs, and they should make learning visible, so everyone knows what students are achieving. I think there is some resonance between this vision, and the one held by some conservatives.
Perhaps progressives and conservatives alike can support the democratic idea of the common school - a place where a community sends its children to learn together. This lays the foundation for our common future together, as students are learning much more than their ABCs, they are also learning to work and live together. For conservatives, the idea of a common school may evoke nostalgic Mayberry-like visions of simpler times and more homogeneous communities. However, this may come into conflict with the idea that schools should operate under free market principles, with every parent able to choose the school that is just right for their child.
While there are areas of agreement, there are some areas where progressives clearly part company with some conservatives. Progressives generally do not want public funds going to schools that promote religion. It seems reasonable to have a set of education standards that guides schools as to the focus of instruction at each grade and in each discipline. These standards should be developed by educators, in consultation with academic experts, and should reflect current scientific understanding. Democratic processes matter, so we support public schools overseen by elected school boards, and collective bargaining for teachers. Progressives also generally think we ought to continue to support desegregation and are concerned about the way in which school choice and voucher programs have increased racial and economic segregation.
There is palpable discord in conservative ranks over the drive towards Common Core standards, and many are highly skeptical of the corporate elites and technocratic titans leading the charge. While some of our core values will inevitably come into conflict, there appears to be some common ground to be found among progressives and conservatives, in opposing the efforts to homogenize and standardize education. This is one area at least where we can agree.
What do you think? Is there a basis for common ground between conservative and progressive critics of standardized testing?
Continue the dialogue with me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody