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Common Core for public education is no panacea

Thinking it Through

Since its launch in 2007, the movement for a Common Core of public education standards has been controversial. It is attacked and defended from both the Left (“teaching to the test”) and the Right (“lowest common denominator”). My concern is whether public education can be saved by this well-intentioned reform or whether it will end up like scores of other reforms on the dust heap.

The whole reason that Common Core was proposed was to save public education. Moved to concern by the palpable proof that American students are learning less than children in European and Asian countries, particularly in basic literacy and computational skills, reformers have persuaded most state governors of both political parties to establish benchmarks for achievement.

Contrary to the claims of the Left, there is nothing unfair about evaluating achievement on the basis of standardized tests. As a community college teacher for more than 30 years, I tested students for what they actually had an opportunity to learn in my course lectures and readings. If that was “teaching to the test,” I plead guilty. The complaint is in fact a smokescreen for the diseases of grade inflation and social promotion.

Certainly the Right has legitimate concerns about Common Core degenerating into a political struggle in which only as much quality is embraced as the various contending forces (politicians, administrators, unions, parents) are able to reach agreement on. But the fact is public education is not served by indulging the hope that “business is usual” can be a viable policy.

The existence of thousands of local school districts and 50 state departments of education surely is a challenge to any serious reform efforts. But it is not a mortal threat. Competition is healthy, spurring both educators and students to their best efforts. We cannot assume, however, that this otherwise time-tested approach that has characterized private enterprise will work in public education, at least as it is constituted and managed today.

Our situation is paradoxical. More money is spent on more schools than ever but the universal complaint is that our students are not learning as much as they should and in fact not as much as they used to. American schools were once the envy of the world — California’s especially — but no one makes that claim today.

If that isn’t enough to raise concern, back in the “bad old days” of public education when secondary schools were few, the standards for completion of elementary school were much higher. If there was a “common core” in those times it was that students were required to learn history, geography, mathematics and science well at the various grade levels, or they didn’t pass to the next level, much less graduate. Of course, many students, such as my parents, never attended, much less completed high school.

About the same time that the massive gap between states in secondary education was beginning to close nearly 100 years ago, and education became compulsory, a new breed of educators began to dominate the system. These were adherents of the doctrines of John Dewey of Columbia University, whose “Progressive” idea was that the highest priority was not mastery of subject matter but “social adjustment” in an increasingly democratized and bureaucratized society.

The schools were not transformed overnight, of course. It took decades for the “new” thinking to gain dominance. There was plenty of cultural carryover, so to speak, of the basic curriculum of the Three R’s. But after the Second World War, the “blackboard jungle” had already become a fixture of inner city schools, leading to a series of attempts over many years to get the public schools to focus on academic achievement.

The most devastating critique of our schools was made under the leadership of Bill Bennett, a Secretary of Education in the Reagan Administration (1985-89). In a report entitled “A Nation at Risk,” the charge was made that the nation’s schools were doing so poorly that America’s enemies could not have done worse. Bennett himself popularized the term “BLOB,” his succinct description of the costly, top-heavy and career-conscious bureaucracy that valued the safety, prestige and income of educators more than students’ educational needs.

Many citizens drew the conclusion that public education was itself the problem and that charter schools, magnet schools and private schools should be considered serious alternatives. This has not set well with the BLOB, which nevertheless can no longer deny that a massive failure has occurred, and continues to occur, and is now divided over Common Core.

Therefore, I predict that this latest educational reform will fail to achieve its objectives like so many of its predecessors. Under the circumstances, reform will be partial at best, and soon forgotten. The only real reform is that which takes place in the hearts and minds of individuals functioning within or without public education until the concept itself becomes less sacrosanct and more questionable.

Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of "Taking Journalism Seriously: 'Objectivity' as a Partisan Cause" (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at rhreeb@verizon.net


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