In the current education debate, the solutions being proffered by politicians have some mighty (and dangerously wrong) assumptions. Perhaps most insidious is the notion that the federal or state government can set “standards” that every school can and will meet, and that every student can and should meet them. Let’s look at five random students in the hallway of my school. There is that kid whose parent chose to have her stay in the public school instead of the easily affordable private alternative. This is that straight A student in our STEM program with 5’s in all the AP tests she could possibly take. There is that kid who comes to school occasionally, always on the verge of self-harming and overcome with anxiety and depression. There is that kid who only wants to hang out with her friends and party. There is that kid who was last in school in 3rd grade who came into the country from Guatemala and lives with a distant relative who provides nothing more than a roof over his head. There is that kid with some learning disabilities whose aspiration is to succeed in cosmetology. The notion that there is one goal for each of them is not just absurd, it is ridiculous.
The second major assumption that is incredibly misguided is that one can combine learning objectives for students with assessment of students and teachers with the same tool. The PARCC test is that tool. Let’s deconstruct this. We start with the Common Core. The philosophical basis is a good one. Let’s set some common goals across schools, across districts, across states. It makes no sense that students in Arkansas are learning totally different things in US History or Geometry than those in New Jersey. And even less sense that a Biology class of Ms. Smith’s is learning different material with different levels of rigor than Mr. Jones down the hall. It is hard to argue against some common learning objectives and using common assessments to measure what is learned. So far, so good.
It is here that things go astray. Schools that using the Common Core as dogma, and many are, are doing a huge disservice to their students. Many are throwing curriculum at teachers with no training, no filtering, no oversight and no thought given to what they want student to really learn. In one school near me, they have students who were previously in a resource room with regular education students. The teacher was teaching Progressivism. The support teacher asked the students to define the Industrial Revolution. They could spit that out. She asked when Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire was, they could regurgitate it. But when asked why they were learning this (or even what Progressivism was), there were blank stares. There was no takeaway. They learned enough to remember it for the “assessment” and move on. The teacher, when asked to address this, said she had a mandate to “cover” the material and move on, the exact opposite of what the Common Core is supposed to encourage.
Our teaching of math and science is even worse. For some of our students, it is necessary to develop the skills to become a future engineer or scientist. For the rest of us, we are laboring through the trees with no forest. I get counselors ask all the time how they can get an unweighted GPA for a student. My response: the maximum GPA is 4.7 and you want to know what the student’s GPA is with a maximum of 4.0. Do a ratio, the student’s GPA over 4.7 compared to the unweighted GPA (“x”) over 4.0. They look at me like I was asking them to do advanced calculus. All the counselors I have supervised have had a minimum of two years of high school algebra but they cannot do even the most basic and elementary algebra equation.
That is truly beside the point, though. Our math education is less than useless, for it does not prepare students for the math most students need to know. Andrew Hacker, author of The Math Myth and other STEM Delusions, wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed piece wrote that, in his math class, “we talk about how math can help us us think about reorganizing the world around us that makes more sense,” concluding that “in the real world, we constantly settle for estimates whereas mathematics you get the answer precisely right.” The same could be said for Geometry, Chemistry and the other myriad of courses we are shoving down the throats of our students.
The standards movement is based on the assumption that every student should leave high school with the preparation to become a doctor, scientist or engineer, but why? My former superintendent, when asked why we are not teaching the trades anymore in school, responded that “those jobs are gone. Even a utility company lineman needs to know advanced math.” Yes, we have lost many manufacturing jobs, but there are many jobs where this is not true. We still need people to cut our hair, paint our houses, fix our plumbing, trim our trees, take care of our elderly parents. These are respectable jobs that many of our students are well suited for. We need to respect these students as much as we respect the future doctors and lawyers. Students who do not want to attend or would not be well served by further education past high school, are being abandoned. Many ELL students have language, education and financial deficits that make further schooling unrealistic right out of high school. It is a moral imperative that these students leave high school with skills to be successful in the work force. If a student chooses to be a landscaper, we should not only promote the skills needed to be successful in this endeavor, but also provide the skills needed to own a landscaping business and have others work for him. We should be providing paths to students to earn certifications in high school for things like being a home health care aide or cosmetologist.
It is fine to evaluate, promote and recognize higher order thinking skills in our students. Students, though, fall on a bell curve on their capacity to achieve these skills and to deny a high school diploma to those who cannot reach some arbitrary standard is not only misguided, it is cruel. A high school diploma should not be tool of Social Darwinism to leave those students behind who were not fortunate to have the accident of birth provide them the tools to meet these standards. Until we address the economic circumstances that keep our students from reaching their potential, we are setting up a system where failure is predictable, even designed, for the most vulnerable of our students. We can, without great cost, communicate different levels of intellectual achievement by our students, as New York State does with the Regents Diploma. You want to put PARCC scores on transcripts, allow for International Baccalaureate diplomas, or have multi-level diplomas that communicate a higher level of achievement, that is all fine. It is also fine to expect a minimum level of skills in math and language arts that we expect all our high school graduates to attain. But to keep raising the bar for all students ignores the vast differences ambient learning and financial resources of our students.
The hard work of education is providing oversight of teachers, with constant feedback, training and mentoring. It is designing programs that are flexible and creative enough to meets the needs of a wide variety of students. It is creative enough to push the most talented of students to their limits while meeting the needs of those who need more support and guidance to achieve more modest goals. The assumption that higher standards will automatically result in high achievement ignores that creating a rich educational environment involves investment of time, energy and thought into creating and carrying out an education mission, not in setting up a one-size-fits-all approach that does little but punish those who learn differently and have different educational needs.