Common Standards, Disparate Lives

I get the push for common standards, I really do. Poor students shouldn’t be doomed to lesser expectations. As much as I dislike George Bush’s No Child Left Behind and all the unintended(?) negative consequences it has had on public education, I must admit that the “soft bigotry of low expectations” was and is a real thing. Unintentionally, we sometimes lower our sights for students who struggle, often without even realizing we do it. I don’t think anyone on the education-reform-critical side denies that this happens and should be prevented.

This is one reason proponents support the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). They believe it will work to prevent school districts and individual teachers from settling into comfortable ruts of lower expectations for poor and minority students. I obviously can’t fault them for this motivation. They are on very solid ground when they point to this problem and exclaim, “We have to do something about this.”

It’s a fact that the performance of our poorest students lags, and it’s imperative that we as a nation do something about it. (That doesn’t automatically mean that common standards are the best solution to the problem or the smartest investment of our limited resources. But it does demand an effective solution.)

Another reason proponents support the CCSS is because they perceive American students’ performance on international tests as inadequate. They are on shakier ground here. Yes, American students don’t do as well as several other countries on the PISA exam, but they have often performed quite admirably on the TIMSS. So, in the first place, the test results themselves offer a mixed message, and PISA-fretters do their credibility no favors by touting only the worst scores in order to argue that drastic reforms are necessary.

In the second place, the US has always done relatively poorly on international tests. There was never a “lost era of greatness” when American kids beat the pants off of everyone else. And, yet, what of the post-test outcomes? Did our “failing American students” of the 1960s and 1970s falter in the face of competition with internationals when they became adults? Well, one look at our nation’s economic outputs over the course of these students’ post-secondary lives would suggest, as I have noted before, that doing poorly on international exams has served America quite well. The CCSS proponent, then, is on shakier ground when relying on international test scores to scare us into changing how we do school.

As questionable as the international-test-score argument is, it isn’t the weakest one out there. The worst possible pro-CCSS argument that I’ve ever seen was best expressed recently in an article at the Gates Foundation’s Impatient Optimists website, entitled “America’s Businesses Need the Common Core.” The argument is best summed up with this one super-creepy line: “Businesses are the primary consumers of the output of our schools.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this argument. In my home state–which isn’t anywhere close to adopting the CCSS–I’ve heard business-affiliated education reformers use similar rhetoric to justify a variety of preferred policies, from school choice to merit pay to more testing. The “businesses need smart graduates” assurance feels (to cynics anyway) like it might be meant to deflect attention from the plausible idea that business interests’ education advocacy might actually be driven primarily by a desire to reduce the crimp that school-related taxation puts in profits and shareholder dividends. After all, many of the education policies that business interests most actively promote–private school vouchers, guaranteed-pension-conversions-to-401ks, school closings, and teacher-job-protection-reductions, among others–promise to reduce public ed’s price tag.

I have to wonder at the tone-deafness of the statement about “outputs”. Does the person who wrote it not understand how something like that sounds to a parent or a Kindergarten teacher? It raises hackles. Do big-time CEOs think the little people are raising their children so they can one day serve the fiscal interests of some corporation or another?

Well, my kids are much, much more to me than future cogs in someone else’s money-making machine. Yes, I understand that they have to be employable. And I’ll strive to make sure that they are. But their lives don’t begin and end with their employability. There are greater, nobler, holier purposes for my children than any CEO can quantify. My kids will work so they can live; they won’t live so they can work. I want to ensure that my kids have every opportunity to be humans first, citizens second, and worker bees way, way, way at the end of all that they will ever be.

Do you think I want my kids to be college- and career-ready? No, I’m not setting my sights that low. I want them to be free, just, ethical, brave, persistent, tolerant, responsible, civil, loving, merciful, kind, creative, curious, funny, engaging, polite, confident, smart, and visionary. Among other things.

Okay, plus, on top of all that, the “outputs” statement is wrong. Literally, factually, businesses are NOT the primary “consumers” of our students. (Which, really? Consume?) No, the primary beneficiaries of whatever our students become (I can’t bring myself to refer to kids as outputs or consumibles) will be those students’ current and future families, and then, following from there, society itself. Businesses will indeed benefit from what these kids become, but not primarily, and certainly not more than their families.

When I read drivel about our children being “outputs” meant to be “consumed” “primarily” by businesses, I take a huge pause and have to entertain some of the allegations that my pro-CCSS friends label as “corespiracy” theories. There is certainly financial benefit that will accrue to many of the activist billionaires promoting these standards when they are fully implemented. As Rupert Murdoch (he of massive inBloom and Amplify investments) has noted, education is a rich field just waiting to be transformed (which sounds much better than “exploited”). And as Arne Duncan’s former staffer Joanne Weiss has noted, national standards will create a national market for learning products, and this promise of vastly higher levels of remuneration will unleash the creativity of the nation’s sharpest business minds. This was posed as a way of obtaining quantum improvements in educational materials, but it comes all tangled up with a quantum increase in profit potential. Moreover, the revolving door between the for-profits and the Department of Education has not escaped the notice of many of us who are nervous about the policy environment. We dwell on one question: whose interests?

It isn’t a conspiracy to suggest that CCSS is big business. It is, in fact, an act of reckless naivete to merely take billionaires at their word and assume that the Michael Milkens and Rupert Murdochs of the education reform world have suddenly shed hard-nosed Gordon Gekko business values and converted into heartfelt and selfless advocates for the poor. I don’t dispute that there are good intentions intermingling with hopes for capital gains among the big money CCSS-promoters. And there isn’t anything wrong with making money in education or any other field, but those highlighting the competing interests of reform advocates serve an important purpose. We breezily dismiss their concerns to our peril, or to the peril of our children.

There are many heartfelt advocates for national standards who aren’t Bill Gates and Eli Broad. I think they likely get upset at all the attention CCSS critics pay to billionaires and don’t really get why critics don’t simply see the standards for what they are and embrace the promise of rigorous expectations for all American students.

Why can’t I see it their way? Because I’m afraid of the bait-and-switch, that’s why. I lived through No Child Left Behind. It was awful, and it did awful things to our schools, our teachers, and our students. Yes, it made us pay attention to the test scores of our poor and minority students, but that is the only positive thing it did. It didn’t spur equitable investment in our schools. It spurred, instead, school closings in our poorest neighborhoods. Struggling neighborhoods didn’t get smaller classes or infusions of technology or needed physical repairs in their schools when NCLB diagnosed learning deficiencies. Instead, they got labels, firings, closed libraries, and relentless bad press. NCLB provided an x-ray machine for diagnosis and nothing more than a billy club for treatment.

Very few people today argue that NCLB was a good law. It disfigured public schooling, it demoralized the people doing the educating, and it eroded public support for this institution.

Educators who most adamantly oppose CCSS fear one thing: more of the same. They fear that these standards are a Trojan horse for a whole slate of education-perverting punitive measures and “improvement strategies”. After CCSS, we will still rate schools by how students do on tests (over the standards). We will rate teachers by how their students perform on tests (over the standards).

The standards are just a foundation, supporters believe, and how can anyone be against a strong foundation? But how can anyone NOT want to blow up a foundation when the bolts for mounting gun turrets are plainly visible, and when we are still healing from disfiguring wounds inflicted by the last generation of turrets. We are pretty sure we know how this will go down. Poor kids will do worse than rich kids on the CCSS tests. And educators will get 100% the blame for the gaps. Educators will have a hard time closing the gaps in the absence of significant positive social change outside of the schools, which they will be prohibited from asking for, because they must “focus on what they can control” and not make excuses. And, finally, educators will still get fired if they don’t get results in the absence of the desperately-needed social supports they’re not allowed to plead for. Our poorest schools will still get closed.

When we are asked to support CCSS, many of us fear that we are being recruited to build our own gallows. And not only our gallows, but gallows for the institution of public education. Here’s the deal: common standards may make our schools’ expectations align, but that in itself won’t flip things, and schools and teachers are under punishment UNTIL THINGS FLIP.

It’s as if I told my son he would be grounded unless our yard were spotless. This sounds reasonable unless it means that he must not only pick up his toys but also rid the yard of puddles, while it’s raining. He would really have problems with the second half of that expectation.

It’s raining injustice in our classrooms.

At this moment the appetite of our nation’s thought leaders for quality and equity in the schoolhouse is positively ravenous, particularly when it comes to learning standards and teacher quality. But these same aggressive advocates for justice often lose their voices completely outside of the school. I find it bizarre. They may say they want to focus on education because it’s in their wheelhouse, but if there are non-education-related policies that are hamstringing the education of children–and there are–“We focus on our locus of control” sounds pretty hollow and self-defeating. Education reform, as I put it in my forthcoming book, has come to look less like “the civil rights issue of our time” and more like “the civil rights issue of our timid.”

CCSS proponents are ultimately advocating for common standards in the midst of disparate lives, and they hesitate to challenge the disparity. “We shouldn’t wait until poverty is fixed to improve the schools,” some say, implying that this is what people like me are asking for. But hopefully they realize that’s an imprecise representation. We are asking for simultaneous action within and without the school, action of an equally-tenacious nature. We are asking for an identical impatience with all social practices and existing realities that hinder our children’s academic success–whether they exist in the schools or merely devour the schools from without. The non-comprehensive accountability they advocate simply feels like the nation is picking on its teachers and giving a free pass to everybody else.

Teachers are quite reasonably asking that the outcry against their poverty-enabling insufficiency not be one decibel louder than the outcry against the poverty-enabling sins of those who prevent better health care for students, permit insufficient wages for parents, etc., etc., etc. The outcry shouldn’t be disproportionate. If something harms students, it harms them no matter where it originates from, and the harms of the CEOs and their lobbyists are very doubtfully less grave than the harms of the teachers.

Some honestly believe the standards will help rescue many children from poverty, which is pleasantly hopeful. Sadly, however, this useful naivete–that the standards are enough–also has the downside of excusing an increasingly-abusive global business class for its many quantifiable failures, failures which manifest themselves in our students’ test scores (along with a million other depressing national symptoms). Inequity and unfairness–intolerable in school these days, which is a good thing–persist in any number of other areas, and seemingly without terribly troubling the consciences of the foundations and individuals pouring millions into education reform. Our economic policies and tax codes, our health care practices, our drug laws and penal codes, our housing policies, our wages and hiring and outsourcing practices, and so on–all of these things shave points off of PISA and NAEP and TIMSS and all the other tests.

I am not anti-CCSS. I am not pro-CCSS. I am CCSS-cautious. After looking around at the corrosive conditions that envelope our students–and I haven’t even mentioned the inequitable school funding that persists around the nation and provokes very little outrage–I would be crazy not to be cautious.

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