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Common Core, China, and the Myth of Meritocracy

We all know that the chief arguments for the Common Core revolve around making our workforce "more competitive," by "raising the bar" to "global standards."

A few weeks ago, Diane Ravitch posed this very important question. "What happens to kids who don't graduate?She wrote:

What exactly is the point of making tests so "hard" that only 30% or 40% or maybe 50% can pass them? What will happen to those who never get a diploma? Do we really want to manufacture failure, knowing that those who fail will be those who already have the fewest advantages in life? As we follow this path, what kind of a society will we be 10 years from now?

The rhetoric of the reformers always insists that when we raise the bar, everyone somehow manages to rise to the challenge. But the results are likely to be quite different, in my opinion. We have already seen the proportion of students passing Common Core tests drop to around 31% in New York, with officials reacting with gladness, as this proves how "rigorous" their system has become.  And this leads me to wonder what is underneath this urgent push to make it harder to get a high school diploma - and to tie that diploma to achievement on ever more difficult tests.

There was a very interesting essay I read on Yong Zhao's site a while back. It relates the reason why tests became so all important in their culture:


China invented the keju system, which used tests to select government officials. It was a great invention because it enabled talents from across the society to join the ruling class regardless of their family backgrounds. Hence, a great meritocracy could be created. But it evolved into a nightmare for China as the system gradually changed into one that tested memorization of Confucian classics. 

Keju is dead now but its spirit is very alive in China today, in the form of gaokao, or the College Entrance Exam. It's the only exam that matters since it determines whether students can attend college and what kind of colleges they can attend. Because of its life-determining nature, gaokao has become the "baton" that conducts the whole education orchestra. Students, parents, teachers, school leaders and even local government officials all work together to get good scores. From a very young age, children are relieved of any other burden or deprived of opportunity to do anything else so they can focus on getting good scores.

The result is that Chinese college graduates often have high scores but low ability. Those who are good at taking tests go to college, which also emphasizes book knowledge. But when they graduate, they find out that employers actually want much more than test scores. That is why another study by McKinsey found that fewer than 10 percent of Chinese college graduates would be suitable for work in foreign companies.


The tests were there to prevent corruption by creating an "objective" means of certifying competence, in an economic environment where opportunities were extremely limited, and the risk of cronyism and nepotism were high. The system required some way to justify the social rank that was so important. But the bar was an arbitrary one, not based on real merit, but on the ability to memorize and regurgitate classical knowledge.

I think there are some parallels with the Common Core project.

We have an economy that literally does not need half the people in the country as workers - college educated or not. This report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the top seven occupations with the largest projected numerical growth require at most a two-year Associates degree, and most require only short -term on-the-job training. And most of the jobs lost during the last recession have not returned, leading to what some are calling "permanent unemployment" for millions. 

So how do we justify leaving many of our citizens in a status where they are permanently unemployed, or stuck in low wage jobs with no realistic hope for advancement? How do we maintain social stability and prevent these people from rebelling? We need to create a rationale that makes them internalize the idea that they have met that fate because of their own inadequacy.

I think there could be a hidden, perhaps even subconscious agenda with the Common Core. We use the Common Core to create an artificial and arbitrary set of barriers to employment, and declare that anyone who is unable to surmount those barriers is too lazy or stupid to succeed in the modern competitive world.

Think about what we are saying when we insist on "raising the bar" for high school graduation, and say that diploma must mean that everyone who graduates is "college and career ready." What does that label imply about anyone who does NOT receive such a diploma? Every student who fails is effectively certified as NOT ready for college or even employment. That is the flip side of certifying people as "career and college ready." Those who do not earn the label are also, in effect marked by the lack of that label.

It is a sorting mechanism, and a system to justify subjugation and abandonment of the poor and disadvantaged.

It is worth noting that the phenomenon of billionaire-funded "education reform" has reached its apex in a time when wealth has been accruing to the top one percent at a phenomenal rate. As we move towards ever more concentrated wealth, there is tremendous pressure to maintain a viable rationale for that inequity, a reason why some people are so hopelessly locked out, while others have it made. That, I believe, could explain the corporate enthusiasm for the Common Core.

We have been warned by those, like Yong Zhao, who have seen this pattern before. The Chinese have been struggling to escape the dead end this sort of system creates. We should think long and hard before we recreate it here with the Common Core.

What do you think? Is the Common Core a sorting system that will be used to justify the rejection of millions of students?

Continue the dialogue with Anthony on Twitter. 

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