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.