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Does Standardization Serve Students? Or is Common Core a Dead End?

This weekend we have heard some controversy over corporations forcing low-wage employees to work on holidays such as Thanksgiving. Many of us are disturbed by this encroachment on time traditionally allowed for family. It feels as if every aspect of life is being bent towards maximum extraction of profits for the super-wealthy.

One of the undercurrents fueling concerns about the Common Core is the relentless focus on preparation for "college and career." Education has always had dual aspirations - to elevate mind and spirit, through the investigation of big ideas, and the pursuit of fine arts and literature, and the service of the economic needs of individuals and society. What we are feeling in our modern culture is the absolute hegemony of commercial aims, as if every activity that does not produce profit is under assault.

And in our classrooms there is a parallel assault on activities that do not "prepare for college and career," which has been redefined, in practical terms, as preparation for the tests that have been determined to be aligned with that goal. Preparation for college and career has begun to feel more and more like "preparation to make yourself useful to future corporate employers."

A letter signed by 132 Catholic professors made this argument clear: 

Promoters of Common Core say that it is designed to make America's children "college and career ready." We instead judge Common Core to be a recipe for standardized workforce preparation. Common Core shortchanges the central goals of all sound education and surely those of Catholic education: to grow in the virtues necessary to know, love, and serve the Lord, to mature into a responsible, flourishing adult, and to contribute as a citizen to the process of responsible democratic self-government.

One of the signers of that letter, Patrick Deenan, expanded on this idea:

It is unmistakably the case that the most dominant voices in education today insist that education is or ought be solely about ...the accumulation of facts and "critical thinking," divorced from higher ends. A wholly utilitarian mindset now informs our basic approach to education. For example, consider the basic aims expressed in the ambitions of the proposed national standards, the Core Curriculum--for every student to achieve "career and college-readiness." Given the pressures today on colleges to retool their curricula to similarly deemphasize the liberal arts in favor of career-readiness (recall that President Obama recently delivered a speech in which he proposed a set of national standards for rating college success, tying federal aid to such measures, and that among them was a measure for how much income was secured after graduation by the graduates of various institutions), we see clearly how a basic utilitarian mindset now dominates the definition and understanding of education and how it thereby constrains, limits, and narrows the scope of education's purposes solely to the debased end of work.

This brings to mind echoes of Mario Savio's speech from the top of a police car in 1964. Students had been told that they could not set up tables on campus to advocate for racial desegregation in the community. The police had arrested an activist, and a crowd of thousands surrounded the police car on Sproul Plaza. Savio said this:

We were told the following: If President Kerr actually tried to get something more liberal out of the regents in his telephone conversation, why didn't he make some public statement to that effect? And the answer we received, from a well-meaning liberal, was the following: He said, 'Would you ever imagine the manager of a firm making a statement publicly in opposition to his board of directors?' That's the answer!

Well, I ask you to consider: If this is a firm, and if the board of regents are the board of directors; and if President Kerr in fact is the manager; then I'll tell you something. The faculty are a bunch of employees, and we're the raw material! But we're a bunch of raw materials that don't mean to be--have any process upon us. Don't mean to be made into any product. Don't mean... Don't mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University, be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We're human beings!

There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part! You can't even passively take part! And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels...upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop! And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!

 

In our classrooms, the use of standardized tests to measure and monitor learning, and the imposition of ever-more tightly managed and even scripted curricula, make teachers and students feel as if we are part of a machine. The canaries in the coal mine are the students who do not fit in. But our modern system has a pharmacological answer for that, as this recent New York Times magazine article reported that more than one in ten children between ages 4 and 17 are now diagnosed with ADHD, and many of them are medicated daily. That is 6.4 million children. Before the early 1990s, this number was less than 5%. What has changed? According to the report,

During the same 30 years when A.D.H.D. diagnoses increased, American childhood drastically changed. Even at the grade-school level, kids now have more homework, less recess and a lot less unstructured free time to relax and play. It's easy to look at that situation and speculate how "A.D.H.D." might have become a convenient societal catchall for what happens when kids are expected to be miniature adults. High-stakes standardized testing, increased competition for slots in top colleges, a less-and-less accommodating economy for those who don't get into colleges but can no longer depend on the existence of blue-collar jobs -- all of these are expressed through policy changes and cultural expectations, but they may also manifest themselves in more troubling ways -- in the rising number of kids whose behavior has become pathologized.

Our education system, in attempting to make everyone fit the same standardized mold, so as to be of maximum usefulness to future employers, is medicating those who don't fit the mold.

English learners are also placed at great risk by this change. The recent Common Core test results in New York yielded very poor pass rates for English learners -- less than 4% were rated proficient. Special Education students, which may have some overlap with those with ADHD, also scored very poorly, with only about 5% rated proficient. Under a high stakes Common Core system, these students will be held back and labeled as educational failures. The teachers of these students and the schools they attend will be similarly labeled.

In practice what this is likely to yield is an intensification of factory-style education for these low-scoring populations. Students who perform well may be somewhat relieved of this, but those in the low-scoring schools and social classes will get ever an more prescriptive curriculum, closely aligned with the tests.

The cynical among us might begin to suspect that this is exactly the sort of education one might impose on people whose destiny is low-level drudgery-filled jobs - while the elite reserves for itself the small classes, the rich interactive curriculum described on the websites of schools like Lakeside, where the Gates children attend. 

Certainly one of the roles of our educational system is to prepare people for productive work that we hope awaits. But the United States became the most dominant economy in the world without a national, standardized educational system. We now face a monumental challenge: Can we reshape our economy in such a way that it not only provides for the needs of our communities across the nation, but also does not destroy the planet?  This is not a "standard" question. The answer will not appear among four options offered by Pearson or McGraw Hill. The answers will emerge from a generation rebelling against standardization of thought, and the need to be useful and profitable for some corporation.

This discussion serves as a reminder that we have not, as a nation, decided on a single purpose for education. Nor have we decided that education ought to be standardized and aligned on a national basis. As I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, the Common Core has skipped over that conversation and is seeking to impose a single purpose, along with a single set of standards, on all who will adopt it. But many parents, students and educators may have another idea this spring, and may be willing to clog up the testing machine by opting out entirely.

Update: On the Gates Foundation's Impatient Optimists blog, Allan Golston, president of the Foundation's United States Program, writes this week:

I am pleased to see the excitement in the business community for the common core.  Businesses are the primary consumers of the output of our schools, so it's a natural alliance. 

What do you think? Should "college and career readiness" be the goal of K12 education in the US? Or does this further a utilitarian, corporate mindset in our schools?

Continue the dialogue with Anthony on Twitter. 

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