Thursday, May 30, 2013

Common Core Uproar

The latest round in the fight for education reform involves the imminent introduction of the "Common Core" curriculum in at least 46 of these United States. Not unsurprisingly, many of the brickbats come from educators; any changes which do not include more money and/or smaller class sizes, are generally viewed as regressive. 

But what is surprising (at least to me), is the complaints from the Republican National Committee, theTea Party, and other conservative groups who have traditionally looked upon the education establishment as the womb of leftist ideology. Their complaint, generally speaking, is that the curriculum is a Gates-sponsored initiative and "that states were pressured (or bribed) by the Obama administration to sign on to the Common Core through the billions of dollars handed out by the administration's Race to The Top competition." 

Perhaps the most noted (and respected) critic of the program is Diane Ravitch, who, after considering the program for two years, opted against it because she had "…come to the conclusion that I can’t wait five or ten years to find out whether test scores go up or down, whether or not schools improve, and whether the kids now far behind are worse off than they are today."  In fact, most who oppose Common Core use her "fundamentally flawed" argument.

On the other hand, there is E.D. Hirsch, who enthusiastically endorses the program. In 1987 Hirsch wrote an essay entitled "Cultural Literacy." The same Diane Ravitch read the essay and "urged him to get a book out fast and to call it Cultural Literacy as well."  Not only did he write that book but from it, developed his own proprietary "Core Knowledge" program. 

In 1993, Massachusetts, deciding that its education program was inadequate, adopted a "Hirschean knowledge-based curricula for each grade." Twelve years later (there is no "race to the top" or rushing of education), on "the 2005 NAEP tests, Massachusetts ranked first in the nation in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and fourth- and eighth-grade math. It then repeated the feat in 2007. No state had ever scored first in both grades and both subjects in a single year—let alone for two consecutive test cycles." (They repeated again in 2009 and 2011.) 

On the Trends in International Math and Science Studies test in 2008, the Bay State's fourth graders ranked second globally in science and third in math; the eighth-graders tied for first in science and placed sixth in math. 

Further evidence of success comes from Joel Klein, chancellor of the country's largest school district. Klein had introduced Hirsch's program into 10 of New York's city school's reading programs. Those students "achieved progress at a rate that was 'more than five times greater,' Klein said, heaping praise on the program." 

I would hope that would be enough to convince the Republican National Committee, the teacher's unions, and the Tea Party that this is a credible program - and that the one currently in place, the one they apparently wish to retain, is demonstrably a failure. But I'm sure there will still be those who object on the basis of its once-size-fits-all characterization. Again Hirsch rebuts the contention by pointing out that "the standards do not prescribe a definite curriculum, many different curricula could fulfill them." 

Why is a common core essential? Because this nation was founded on enumerated principals that cannot be found elsewhere. To endure, they must be faithfully passed down from generation to generation (much as the Hebrews have done with their faith for thousands of years). As far back as 1833 Abraham Lincoln was urging that these principals "be moulded into general intelligence, sound morality, and in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws…" 

A century later, educator William C. Bagley, "felt the school curriculum was too diluted by nonessentials and should consist of essential facts and a common culture…one that was an intellectual curriculum rather than a curriculum focused on growth and development…"  And equally important, a recognition that education requires hard work and respect for authority.

Perhaps Bagley's most power flu argument was that a core of common knowledge is more needed in the United States than in schools of smaller, less diverse nations. That very diversity, which has morphed into a civic deity, makes it more important than ever that those founding doctrines be passed on as they were enacted.

It was 30 years ago last month that "A Nation at Risk"  was unveiled by President Reagan. It found that the prevailing system “incoherent, outdated patchwork quilt” of courses and learning and that this “cafeteria style curriculum” was designed to allow students to advance with only a modicum of effort. The study's committee put forward 38 recommendations. None of the major ones and only a very few of the minor ones have ever been adopted. 

Other similar studies were conducted under Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Bush II. Twenty-five years after "Risk" was published an analysis claimed that "The missing ingredient isn’t even educational at all. It’s political…[programs have been] stymied by organized special interests and political inertia."

It would appear a major effort is being put forward once again to maintain a status quo that most everyone agrees is a failure.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Dynamics of Immigration - part 1

Back  in 2000, The Economist, ran an article ("Who gains?") on the pros and cons of a liberal immigration policy. Not surprisingly, the arguments then were not unlike those we hear today. Toward the end of the article I came across a  phrase that has stuck with me: "a self-selected elite." That is how a representative of the Cato institute characterized the immigrant - going on to add, "in a world where nine out of ten people live within 100 miles of their place of birth, they have already taken a big, bold step simply by coming to America."

I have often wondered at just how accurate a characterization this was and is. From tales passed down through our family and others, there WAS little doubt that those who dared, arrived with great hopes but no promises. There were no welfare offices, job placement facilities, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, relief programs or any of the other amenities that exist today. As Rose Lane Wilder put it in one of her essays, the standard admonition to pigs, freemen, the indentured, and the immigrant was "Root, hog, or die." 

For today's immigrant, there IS a variety of organizations, both public and private, which do much to alleviate some of the difficulties initially encountered. Many, in fact, have grown substantially and, it is argued (with some merit), for reasons that go far beyond genuine compassion - the politics of the voting booth have played a central role. Immigrants under the impression that they are valued for their unique folkways, cultural vibrancy, and intellectual contributions, are sadly mistaken. 

Observers will testify that while one side cynically welcomesimmigrants as a source of votes, the other side insidiously welcomes them as a source of cheap labor. True enough…for certain groups. But it must be noted that all immigrants (legal or illegal) are not equally solicited. An undocumented, unskilled continental European, for example, would find few organizations specifically designed to help him gain permanent admittance. Those from eastern Europe, Russia, and the Indian subcontinent would encounter similar indifference. 

If this were not true, movies would be sub-titled in Russian, Norwegian, Farsi, and Hebrew. Automated phone answering machines would ask non-English speakers to push different numbers for those wishing prompts in Polish, Lithuanian, German, or Italian. And our public schools would offer special classes for students of those nationalities. Why are these "conveniences" not available? Quite simply because we "expect" speakers of those languages to be capable of communicating in English also. 

It behooved early immigrants to this country to learn the language; especially as the nation industrialized and the machinery increased in complexity and the necessity of understanding instruction became essential to life and limb. Going a step further, immigrants were expected to accept the laws of the land (which were far fewer then than now). Some native folkways and traditions continued to be practiced in the ethnic enclaves which developed and, in many cities, still exist. 

However, newcomers were strongly advised to adhere to our governmental and legal systems. At the time, America's political structure remained a severely tested, never-before experienced structure. New challenges in the form of new and imported social and/or economic doctrines, were unwelcome. The degree to which Americans trusted either of the two major political  parties can be seen in how frequently the party leadership of both houses changed regularly. The rise and fall of various "splinter" factions was not an unusual and destabilizing occurrence - what endured was an often uncomfortable compromise between democracy and republicanism. 

With the abolition of slavery and as immigration accelerated so too did the constituencies most likely to push for democratic changes. So various poll taxes, land ownership requirements, gender qualifications, and citizenship tests were put in place to limit access to the polling booth. In the late 1800s the Populists attempted to harness these groups into an effective bloc, but failed. 

However, the Panic of 1893 was to become a watershed event leading to dramatic and lasting changes in the American electoral process.* At the time, it was the worst depression the county had experienced and was brought about by over-lending, over-expansion, and over-speculation (sound familiar?).  While no segment of society was unaffected, the poor, the black, and the recent immigrant were impacted most. On the eve of the panic the Democrats controlled the White House and the Populists still had measurable influence. As a result, both parties were trounced in '94 elections and the Republicans swept both houses. By '96 things were still dismal and the Republicans (in McKinley) gained the White House also.

By 1897, the economy was recovering and the Populists had been replaced by the Progressives, an amalgam of educators, scientist, lawyers, physicians, and clergymen. Notably, these had all been very influential groups prior to the introduction of technology, big cities, and big business. They were to achieve influence once again, first at the local level, and then nationally, through an ideology that most problems, if submitted to scientific scrutiny, could be adequately diagnosed and cured.**

The passing of the Depression may have had some positive effects on business, but "Big Business" was held in contempt. Nor was the situation alleviated by the influx of 8.8 million immigrants between 1900 and 1910. Their addition to the labor pool fueled a push toward even lower wages and increased big city poverty. While many big city "machines" worked to ease this burden among favored ethnic groups through nepotism, patronage, and aid (in return for votes), the federal government had neither the funds nor inclination to step in. 

However, the Progressives, aided in no small part by the burgeoning popularity of the "muckrakers", pushed for a stronger national role in the economy, the regulation of business, and immigration. Government action, though, came about less through a sense of equity or largesse, and more through an appreciation of the dangerous economic and social implications should it go unaddressed. 

Many of the dynamics that drove the next developments exist today. In the next installment I'll examine what followed and see if we can get an idea of what to expect in the near future. 

*Commager, Henry Steele. The American Mind: An Interpretation of American Thought and Character Since the 1880's. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1950.

**Hofstadter, Richard. The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955.