Ending inequities in academic outcomes drives much of the decision-making for bureaucrats who run our schools. Ultimately, the education bureaucrats, who are beholden to Washington, express much anxiety over losing federal aid. The message from Washington is that outcomes will be equalized. It’s in the President’s proposed education budget and new guidelines to eliminate “disparate punishment” on the basis of race. Merit and fairness are cast aside, as both rewards and punishments are redistributed.
When I teach college English, the topic of communism comes up because many writers, such as Richard Wright, were at one time communists. But I inevitably get students who think redistribution of wealth is nice-sounding. Karl Marx’s dictum, “To each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” resonates with young adults who have been raised on tolerance and social justice. But then I challenge them on the reality of this precept. Would you share your cars, I ask. How about your electronics? How about your grades? What if I redistribute the grades, so everyone gets the class average? That’s when there is an objection!
Of course, they mind. It turns out that there is some resentment about similar efforts at redistribution they had been forced into when they did group projects in school. Inevitably, there were one or two students in the group who did most of the work. But the slackers still got the benefit in terms of their grade.
The Common Core standards are intended to replicate such redistribution on a national scale.
The main impetus behind Common Core is closing the achievement gap because it’s the main objective of school boards, superintendents, principals, and many teachers. The way to close the achievement gap is by redistributing grades.
This may sound far-fetched or conspiratorial. But the language is there even in the many reports produced by commissions and committees promoting Common Core. For example, the report by the Gordon Commission, “To Assess, to Teach, to Learn: A Vision for the Future of Assessment,” calls for recognizing “collective knowledge” in the Common Core assessments for the “21st century.” This report, authored by 30 “scholars, policymakers, and practitioners” (including Bill Ayers ally Linda Darling-Hammond who is in charge of one of two national Common Core tests) and 50 consultants, was commissioned by the Educational Testing Service, the company that puts out the SAT, which was changed on March 5, 2014, to align with Common Core.
Common Core redistributes grades in three ways, primarily:
- By lowering standards.
- By assigning points for behaviors and attitudes instead of academics.
- By grading students as a group instead of individually.
It does this in the areas of Math, English, and Science.
Lowering Standards in Math
Algebra is delayed until ninth grade (from eighth grade). Here in Atlanta, the president of Georgia Institute of Technology said a student who had not had algebra in eighth grade and calculus by senior year wouldn’t be qualified for admission.
As in the other disciplines, Common Core math emphasizes “process.” So, those students who arrive at the correct answer through the straightforward old-fashioned methods suffer when they fail to explain the process through convoluted diagrams, drawings, and explanations. A student who comes up with the wrong answer but performs the required task of demonstrating process may get more points than the student who arrives at the correct answer. But if we really look at the boxes and visual representations of math problems, we see that Common Core math speaks to those who do not grasp the concepts abstractly, but need visual representations. It’s like using fingers and toes to do calculations. Those who are able to memorize, work the calculations, or even do the math in their heads, will be punished. Those who need the pictures will be rewarded.
Lowering Standards in English Language Arts (ELA)
Reading experts, like Maryanne Wolf, describe various levels of literacy or reading ability. Beginning readers “decode” words, moving along slowly on the page. “Fluent” readers read effortlessly and quickly. They read with such ease that they are able to spend most of their mental energy analyzing what they are reading, bringing in prior knowledge, and adding new ideas. Fluent readers read with pleasure; decoding readers struggle.
Under the pretext of “close reading” of short excerpts, Common Core forces the fluent readers to stay on a short passage until the entire class or group understands the content.
Section B of the Publishers Criteria reinforces reading as decoding by demanding that “All students (including those who are behind) have extensive opportunities to encounter grade-level complex text.”
Curiously, this section insists that rather than improving their own reading skills, struggling students be pulled along: “Far too often, students who have fallen behind are only given less complex texts rather than the support they need to read texts at the appropriate level of complexity.” More opportunities for catch-up are embedded in the charge to “build progressions of texts of increasing complexity within grade-level bands that overlap to a limited degree with earlier bands (e.g., grades 4-5 and grades 6-8).”
Common Core discourages teachers from using any information beyond the text at hand. For example, the sample teaching instructions for the Gettysburg Address bewildered teachers who were told to teach this seminal, historically and literarily important document “cold.” Students in such class discussion are discouraged from bringing in outside information to the class discussion so as to level the playing field.
Common Core’s emphasis on “visual literacy” and speaking and listening skills also redistributes grades from fluent readers to struggling readers. Students up through grade 12 are evaluated on “Speaking and Listening Standards” – abilities formerly mastered by first grade. Under Common Core, 11th and 12th graders have to demonstrate their ability to “Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions . . . with diverse partners on grades 11-12 topics. . . .”
So, much of class time is spent on group reading of very short passages, watching videos, playing educational computer games, and then having discussions among groups of students. Students are graded on their ability to collaborate and accept diverse views. Thus, we jump ahead to another means of redistributing grades: rewarding compliant behavior.
Assessments Based on Attitudes and Behaviors
Another lengthy report, on assessments, sponsored by the Department of Education and titled “Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century” on new assessments, encourages following the KIPP charter school character report card, where students are graded on behaviors and attitudes. Sample measurements go beyond the simple “citizenship” segment of report cards of yore. Teachers evaluate the student on 24 characteristics, under the categories of “Zest,” (“Invigorates others”) “Grit,” “Self Control – School Work,” “Self Control Interpersonal,” “Optimism” (e.g., “Believes that effort will improve his or her future”), “Gratitude,” “Social Intelligence” (e.g., “Knows when and how to include others”), and “Curiosity.” The report also encourages the use of biometric computer measurements.
The evaluation of such “noncognitive” skills indicates a violation of personal boundaries between teachers and students, and between data companies and students. And why should a student be graded on his ability to “invigorate others”? This places the burden of other students’ performance on the student.
NGSS are not technically Common Core standards, but they are standards developed by the same group, Achieve, a consortium of corporations and some governors, that developed the other Common Core standards. Many, however, fear that they are the next phase in the imposition of federal standards. Ten states have already adopted them.
During a March 5, 2014, hearing on Georgia SB 167, an anti-Common Core bill, opponents objected to the fact that the bill precludes the implementation of NGSS.
As in the standards for ELA and math, the NGSS are intended to be transformative, or as Appendix A states, “to reflect a new vision for American science education.” They call for new “performance expectations” that “focus on understanding and applications as opposed to memorization of facts devoid of context.”
It is precisely such short shrift to knowledge (dismissively referred to as “memorization”) to which science professors Lawrence S. Lerner and Paul Gross object. Writing at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation blog, they charge that standards “slight” essential math skills and effectively eliminate high school physics. They claim that the “practices” strategy of NGSS is an extension of the failing “inquiry learning” of the early 1990s.
As in ELA and math, “knowledge” in NGSS is shirked, while attitude is assigned high importance. Students are given ideological lessons on such things as “Human impacts on Earth systems.” According to section ESS3.C, in grades K-2, students should understand, “Things people do can affect the environment but they can make choices to reduce their impact.” In grades 3 through 5, students should learn “Societal activities have had major effects on the land, ocean, atmosphere, and even outer space. Societal activities can also help protect Earth’s resources and environments.”
As I learned from attending the hearing on SB 167, ending inequities in academic outcomes drives much of the decision-making for bureaucrats who run our schools. Philip Lanoue, superintendant of Clarke County Schools, one of the many state employees testifying against the Common Core withdrawal bill, praised Common Core for “equaling the playing field” and “closing the achievement gap.” Principals, teachers, and superintendants spoke about how Common Core “engages” students and involves “critical thinking.” (Teachers opposed to Common Core risk their jobs if they speak out.)
Sure, students are engaged when they work on fun projects. Most would rather do that than read, write, or solve math problems. Pretending to be pundits, or “critical thinkers,” as they repeat politically correct pieties, appeals to students’ vanity. Common Core makes lagging students feel good about themselves, and it makes administrators look good.
Ultimately, the education bureaucrats are beholden to Washington. Much anxiety was expressed at the hearing about losing federal aid were SB 167 to pass.
The message from Washington is that outcomes will be equalized. It’s in the President’s proposed education budget and new guidelines to eliminate “disparate punishment” on the basis of race. Merit and fairness are cast aside, as both rewards and punishments are redistributed.
EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.