Diane Ravitch, who served in the Department of Education of George H. Bush, has come to see the light in recent years, even going so far as to write a provocative and moving book about the misdirection of American public education. A recent article in Huffington Post sums up her feelings about the current trend towards national standardization with the misguided adoption of the Common Core:
And while I don't think that adopting national standards is a bad thing--or a new thing--I do think the approach taken by state departments of education is wrong on many levels and for a number of reasons. Ravitch is not the only spokesperson for reason and common sense on the issue of standardized testing of students and evaluation of public school performance. She's just the one who sums it up the best.
And now the Tea Party has taken up the cause (as have a large of number of those on the left). Ravitch doesn't see the conspiracy of federal government control that right-wingers see. Her review of Common Core and national standardized testing of all students (with its built in repercussions for minority students in underfunded schools and special needs students who have to jump through the same stressful hoops as their fellow students) leads her to take exception to the new standards on moral grounds. Conservatives make their stand on the grounds of fiscal responsibility and complete distrust of the federal government in general and President Obama in particular.
Should there be standards? Of course there should. Few people in the field of education--including teachers' unions, boards of education, and experts--question the need for standards. But states have bought into Common Core hook, line and sinker because there's federal funding involved. School districts are spending for materials and programs that they don't need at the expense of sorely needed programs that are getting slashed and burned. And the list of programs includes special areas that have the intrinsic and powerful benefit of providing a more multi-disciplinary menu for students. The arts, foreign languages, elementary science--who needs them?
Who benefits? A small but lobby-strong coterie of multinational publishing companies. They make money from state and local contracts at both ends of the equation: the "textbook" series they offer to prepare students and teachers for the tests they publish, with the help of educators and experts who have little idea about the current make-up of the average American classroom. Why else would they be spending so much on the wining and dining of public education policy makers?
Who loses? According to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, it's everyone involved at the classroom level. But students, for whose benefit standardized testing has been nationally incorporated as public education dogma, are receiving little or no measurable benefit:
Measurement experts agree that no test is good enough to serve as the sole or primary basis for any of these important educational decisions. A nine-year study by the National Research Council (2011) concluded that the emphasis on testing yielded little learning progress but caused significant harm. NCLB demonstrated what happens when tests are misused. Negative consequences include narrowing the curriculum, teaching to the test, pushing students out of school, driving teachers out of the profession, and undermining student engagement and school climate. High school graduation tests, used by 25 states, disproportionately penalize low-income and minority students, along with English language learners and the disabled. They do not promote the knowledge, skills and habits needed for success in college or skilled work. Tracking generally hurts slower students but does not help more advanced students. Too often, the assumption is that low-scoring students need low-level remediation rather than enrichment, challenge and support. Retention in grade, flunking or holding a student back, is almost always academically and emotionally harmful. It generally does not lead to sustained academic improvement, lowers student self-esteem, and leads to dropping out. Screening and readiness tests are frequently inaccurate and can lead to misdiagnosis of student learning needs.Political alignments between right and left are not unusual in recent cycles. Obama's continuation of Bush's drone strike policy, the early anti too-big-to-fail agenda of the virgin tea party, and the more recent movement against a military strike against the Syrian regime remind us that sometimes there can be agreement among disparate voices. But like most recent issues, this movement may dissipate as the underpinning motivations make themselves more apparent. Right-wingers want to disband the Department of Education and would love to see the end of traditional public schools--along with the public employees who toil within them.
But in the ensuing dust, if it ever settles, are millions of American kids whose futures depend upon getting a sound and balanced education that is challenging. We spent too much time and effort denigrating a system that was flawed but good. American student performance has always been underwhelming in comparison to other countries.
And yet, our shining history of national ingenuity, creativity and invention cannot be matched and is still an example to be followed. How many nations have explored the reaches of space? How many have explored the parameters of technology or created the frontiers in medicine set in motion in our country? During the so-called golden age of scientific endeavor in this country, our international test score rankings were at their lowest and, in fact, have improved since that time.
Is the United States the exceptional nation that Fox news commentators believe we are? Maybe not quite. But our educational system is nothing to be ashamed about. It never needed these revolutionary fixes. They were, and are, fueled by misguided politics, corporate desires for profit, and a complete misreading of the needs of American students by a class of experts who have spent too little precious time in the average American classroom.