(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
Checker Finn wrote a response to the eight or so of us incurable skeptics of Common Core Standards. I will address a few points. Checker wrote:
Yes, it would have been better if the voluntary move by states to develop and consider adopting common standards hadn’t been entangled in a competition for federal money. Yes, it would be better if more of that same federal money weren’t paying for development of new assessment systems to accompany the standards. Yes, it would have been lots better if President Obama had never hinted at harnessing national standards to future Title I funding. Yes, the long-term governance of the standards and tests remains to be worked out.
But good grief, folks, do you really want to preserve the meager academic expectations, crummy tests, and weak-kneed accountability arrangements that currently drive—or fail to drive—K-12 education across most of this broad land? Are you so risk averse and change resistant as to see no merit in trying to do this differently in the future?
So other than that, how did you like the play Mrs. Lincoln? The final point about long-term governance alone is more than enough to reject Common Core. Checker quickly moves the discussion straight into a straw-man argument. Do I want to preserve a status quo of meager standards? No thank you. Good standards and tests are a vital part of a comprehensive reform package.
No one who supports Common Core can seem to muster anything better than a “yeah, we’ll figure that out later” on long-term governance. Let’s just say that I’d happily bet my left big toe that Common Core has already reserved a final resting place in the failed education fad graveyard. This has all happened before, and it will all happen again. Tick tock.
Checker goes on to very odd paragraph:
Third, much as I wish otherwise, conservatives’ preferred alternative ed ucation-reform strategies haven’t gained the traction or scale that advocates (myself included) hoped for, nor have they delivered reliably better academic results. Yes, the principle has largely been accepted that kids need not necessarily attend the district school in their neighborhood. Yet you can count the voucher programs on your fingers. And charter-school enrollments, while respectably up, don’t amount to more than 3 percent of all kids. The parent marketplace isn’t causing bad schools to close. (Only Catholic schools, many of them fine, seem to be closing.) One can keep beating this drum—and you’ll find more and more people snapping their fingers in time with the beat—but, mostly for political reasons that aren’t going away, it hasn’t produced a lot of marching.
Oi vey- again with the magic bullet straw man. Let’s get this straight once and for all: within real world political constraints parental choice programs are not a panacea to the ills of public education. Neither is anything else. Let’s all pull up our big boy pants and have everyone admit there are no magic bullets in K-12.
It is not the case however that a reform needs to either be a cure-all, or we don’t do it at all. By that logic, Massachusetts should abolish all student testing because there are still illiterate children in Boston. Florida may as well abolish their reforms too- after all, 27% of 4th graders still score Below Basic in reading!
Parental choice programs have been demonstrated to have positive academic effects on participants, and positive impacts on district schools. So far as I know, no one else has come up with another decentralized system of accountability that allows parents to hold schools directly accountable. Please let me know when someone does- and sign me up. Until then, it is worth bearing in mind that no system of schooling will ever be as effective as it could be in the absence of parental choice. Top down command and control efforts have their limits. Comprehensive approaches are the way to go- and the one state that has tried it succeeded in vastly improving student learning.
Checker is frustrated with the trench warfare pace of the battle for parental choice. So am I, but let’s not lose sight of what has been accomplished. Nationwide, 25 percent of students attend schools other than their zoned district school. Figure at least that many parents have exercised “check-book choice” by paying a premium for housing in neighborhoods with desirable district schools. I’d guess it is more than that, but it would be just that, a guess. Half down, half to go. Don’t give up yet, Checker.
In any case, none of this discussion about choice this has anything to do with whether states should adopt Common Core. Back on task, Checker writes:
So yes, I’ve partly changed my mind about national standards and tests. I’m mindful of the risks and unknowns that lie ahead. I’m not totally satisfied with the Common Core. (Our raters gave it honors grades but not straight As). It troubles me that we’re so narrowly focused on just two subjects within the school curriculum. I’ve no idea what “cut scores” will be established for the forthcoming tests nor whether colleges and employers will take them seriously. I’m alarmed that one of the new assessment consortia doesn’t seem serious about accountability. I’m wary of what Congress will do to the Common Core when it finally gets around to reauthorizing NCLB. I’m nervous about the administration’s political backbone as electoral stakes rise. I’m skeptical about the stick-to-it-iveness of states that pledge their troth to Common Core but are rejected at the Race to the Top altar. (This may get clear fast. On Tuesday, a dozen states that had already adopted the new standards—more than one third of all adopters—were omitted from Secretary Duncan’s list of RTT finalists.)
Right, now we are getting somewhere. Checker forgot to mention that no one has any assurance whatsoever about the maintenance of the standards and tests, if they are any good to start with, which is in doubt.
But what’s the point of just fretting and biting my nails and issuing cries of alarum? The education status quo sucks, to put it bluntly. Conserving it is no fit work for conservatives. In most of the country, they—we—should demand something better.
I certainly can’t speak for all Common Core skeptics, but “conserving the status-quo” is not my cup of K-12 tea. I completely agree that the status-quo sucks out loud. That doesn’t mean I should support something as poorly thought out as Common Core.
My state (Arizona) received pretty good grades for standards from Fordham, but it is painfully obvious that nothing about the status-quo of testing has been driving improvement. Our state has 44% of 4th graders who can’t read according to NAEP, and 4% of schools labeled underperforming by the Arizona Department of Education.
Arizona’s system, in short, devolved into a cruel joke on kids.
So what did we do? Rather than dreaming about some implausible federal “solution” we fought back. We talked to our policymakers. Our governor called for Arizona to adopt the Florida method for grading schools based upon a combination of overall scores and student learning gains. Our legislature adopted the law with a bipartisan majority. There will be attempts to water this down. The fight goes on.
If Arizona adopts the Common Core standards, and they turn out to be unteachable mush, how do I seek redress? I know who to talk to here in Arizona. I get to vote for these people. Why should I want academic standards for my children drawn up by some faceless body of alleged grandees? Churchill’s had it right when he said that democracy is the worst form of government ever devised, except for all the other ones.
In 2005, Esquire ran an article about Donald Rumsfeld called “An Old Man in a Hurry.” As the United States continued to wallow in a full-blown Iraqi insurgency for which it had failed to prepare, the title of this piece became increasingly ironic. The title derived from an old English expression “Beware of an old man in a hurry.”
Checker isn’t old in my book, but is a highly respected veteran of the school reform movement. He’s earned the stars on his shoulder, and my admiration. He has an insightful intelligence and a knack for quickly getting to the heart of things. He may have forgotten more about K-12 policy than I’ll ever know.
Passion however can lead to impatience, impatience can lead to recklessness, and recklessness leads to suffering. David Petraeus ought not to have been forced to write the United States Army Counterinsurgency Manual on the field in Iraq in 2006. ( Hundreds of thousands of people in the military, but no one had time to write one before. Hmmm.) Likewise, Donald Rumsfeld ought not to have invaded Iraq without an occupation plan.
“Relax, don’t worry, be happy, we’ll figure out that stuff later” is an opening verse to a song that often ends in disaster. Rushing to adopt academic standards without so much as a reassuring fairy-tale of how they will be maintained over time is reckless.
Conservatism isn’t exclusively about preserving the status-quo. It also involves caution and a healthy respect for the law of unintended consequences. Rummy forgot this and it seems to come and go with Checker, sometimes within the span of a single essay. Checker circa 1997 seemed to have it figured out, Checker circa 2010 seems to have thrown caution to the wind.