(Guest Post by Sandra Stotsky)
An illuminating essay titled “Education’s Forsaken Vision,” by Avner Molcho, an Israeli historian, appeared in the Autumn 2010 issue of Azure, a publication of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. In it he presents an assessment of the shift in educational philosophy he has observed in Israeli public education since Israel’s founding. Evolving from a mission to serve the civic needs of a new nation as well as the mathematical, scientific, and other intellectual needs of a modern society—a mission that enhanced social cohesion despite wide differences in student achievement–the reigning view he sees today emphasizes student rights instead of shared civic values and promotes upward social mobility for students from low-income families as the chief purpose of public education.
Molcho’s purpose is to suggest that Israeli society would benefit from a revival of the central features of a classical education—its stress on intellectual goals and civic virtues. As justification, he points to the failure of the new mission for education to stimulate academic achievement in poor students or their upward mobility, despite increasing resources dedicated to these ends. In fact, he notes, achievement gaps between children of low- and high-income parents seem to have grown even as they all learn less, according to international test scores.
However, Molcho omits mention of the most recent expression in U. S. public policy of this problematic mission for public education, an expression that is likely to have undreamed-of negative effects on the school curriculum, academic achievement, and American society as a whole. U.S. educators have long looked for ways to improve the academic achievement of students from low-income families and, hence, their social mobility. The American public needs to learn what signposts U.S. education policy makers are following on the yellow-brick road to Oz. Otherwise, “Education’s Forsaken Vision” may soon become “Education’s Long Forgotten Vision” in both countries.
As is well-known, the original formulation of “equal educational opportunities” did not imply equal outcomes or the repudiation of intellectual and civic goals by the schools. Equity was understood to mean a fairer distribution of resources to raise poor children’s achievement. But as it became clear by the late 1990s that the increasing flow of federal and other funds to improve their “basic skills” was not changing the demographic profile of low achievers quickly, if at all, U.S. educators and policy makers redefined equity to mean equal outcomes for all demographic groups (except for boys and girls) and altered the goal line.
Stressing the “closing of demographic gaps” as the supreme goal of the schools, the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act set forth a utopian goal: proficiency for all students by 2014 as determined by state assessments. An additional accountability criterion required “adequate yearly progress” for each demographic group. However, no practically significant increases in achievement at higher grade levels resulted for low-performing groups after accountability was added to the formula (although there has been progress on basic skills in the early grades). And serious problems elsewhere were ignored by policy makers.
Not unexpectedly, schools focused on what mattered to NCLB–getting low-performing students to pass state tests. But NCLB offered no reward at the same time for, for example, increasing the number or percentage of students, regardless of demographic category, who moved from Proficiency to Advanced, or completed an authentic Algebra I course in grade 8, or passed more advanced mathematics courses in high school. Yet, the need to pay attention elsewhere was clear. On TIMSS 2007, only 6% of U.S. students were at the advanced level in grade 8 mathematics, compared to, e.g., 40% of the students in South Korea. As a November 2010 report noted, “the U.S. trails other industrialized countries in bringing its students up to the highest levels of accomplishment in mathematics.” The report did not identify “any single cause of the relatively small percentage of students in the U.S. who are performing at a high level of accomplishment,” although the shortage of academically qualified mathematics teachers looms as a major cause.
Despite the stunning comparisons of percentages at the highest performance level, no alarm bells were set off and no policies incentivizing increases in mathematics and science achievement at higher performance levels were forthcoming. Instead, the new mission for education drove public policy in the Obama administration to higher utopian heights than the Bush administration had aimed for, with an even more intense focus on low-achievers and little attention to anyone else.
While early advocates of “equal educational opportunities” wanted more poor students reaching high academic goals, not a change in these goals, supporters of the goal of social justice were quick to see an idiosyncratic and shrunken secondary curriculum (as content-free as possible), accompanied by changes in pedagogical practices and classroom organization, as a quicker means to their desired ends. If academic credentials (i.e., a college degree) are what promote social mobility, then what needed fairer distribution to get low-achieving groups moving upward were the credentials, not necessarily what they were designed to reflect.
The first step in facilitating a more equitable allocation of academic credentials was development of national standards in English and mathematics loosely tethered at the secondary level to their traditional content. That step was completed with the help of the Gates Foundation, which paid for the development, review, post-facto validation, and promotion of the reading and mathematics standards Common Core released in June 2010, and which also influenced the selection of most of the personnel involved. Public officials and the media were repeatedly told by the developers of the standards that they were research-based and internationally benchmarked, even though independent subject matter experts and researchers indicated this was not the case. To clinch the first step, the U.S.D.E. ensured state adoption of these skills-oriented standards (about 45 states so far) with the lure of Race to the Top competitive funds.
The next crucial step is the development of tests based on Common Core’s standards and the working out of important matters such as the quality and difficulty of the test items and the level of the passing scores. The U.S.D.E. is funding and supervising this step directly. So far as we now know, the U.S.D.E. also wants, in a re-authorization of NCLB, schools to ensure that all their high school graduates are “college ready” as determined by the passing score on high school level tests. If so, schools will be held accountable for a greater utopian reach than was expected in 2001.
Efforts are already underway to make sure that all “college ready” students can be successful in their freshman college courses. Public colleges are being asked to “align” entrance requirements and the content of freshman courses to Common Core’s secondary standards, not the other way around. And, to ensure that “college ready” students can graduate from a college degree program in record time, all of their freshman courses must be credit-bearing, not tagged as remedial. (Otherwise, these students could not be called “college ready.”)
This means, in effect, that those who pass the national high school tests, which are to be first given at the end of grade 10, can go right to a college that accepts them and earn college credit for the content of the grade 11 or 12 courses they skipped, if the content is deemed necessary for their degree program.
Does anyone doubt that public colleges will be under pressure to admit “college ready” students and produce equal group outcomes in retention and graduation rates? Like high school teachers, public college instructors will find it in their interest to produce equal group outcomes no matter how the outcomes are related to the content of what individual students know.
Once upon a time, making students “college ready” meant strengthening, not weakening, the high school curriculum. Selective colleges in the U.S. will likely be able to fill their freshman classes with students from schools in, say, South Korea, Japan, and Singapore. But how long can any modern society sustain itself if it ignores both the intellectual and civic goals of public education and believes that able students come only in a few colors.
 See http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/college-and-career for a critical review of the research base for Common Core’s standards, by Diane Ravitch and William Mathis for the National Education Policy Center.
See also the letter sent by Sandra Stotsky explaining why, as a member of the Validation Committee, she could not sign off on the final draft of Common Core’s secondary English language arts and reading standards, at http://www.doe.mass.edu/boe/docs/0710/item1.html?printscreen=yes§ion=stotsky;
See also Appendix B, an analysis by mathematician R. James Milgram of the problems he sees in the final draft of Common Core’s mathematics standards, at http://www.pioneerinstitute.org/pdf/common_core_standards.pdf