Education - Solution 4 - Set Minimum Academic Standards at the National Level and Let States Improve Upon Them! 
An Argument For Standards
STANDARDS, AS THEY RELATE TO EDUCATION HAVE GOTTEN a bum rap lately, at least testing to standards. But, you simply cannot get away from standards or the measurement of them if you have any hope of ensuring America is meeting the educational needs of its citizens and for national security. Without standards what do you know what to teach to? How do you develop a curriculum? Without measuring standards, how do you know if you have succeeded in imparting the knowledge that those who developed the curriculum thought essential?
Take Early American history, for example. Suppose we focus on the Constitutional Convention and how the draft of the U.S. Constitution made it into its final form. Suppose further that our audience is 5th grade students. What standards are you going to set to determine the depth of understanding of what happened during the Convention, what do you want the students to come away knowing? Do you want them simply to know the dates, the participants, the names and facts surrounding some principal issues, who signed the final document, and other such superficial information? Or, do you want the student to have a deeper understanding of major issues that caused slavery to be codified in the Constitution or caused some members from New York State to leave the assembly, never to return? In short, what level of true understanding of how the United States came to be do you want to set as the standard to base the development of the curriculum of Early American history on? It matters.
Having set standards, how do you measure them in a meaningful way? One solution, if all you want to do is present the surface information is not have standardized tests at all, just maintain the status quo or don't even test the students period as some avante-guarde schools have chosen to do.
Today's answer, however, seems to be multiple choice tests at certain points along the educational path; in Florida, for example, they tested reading and arithmetic, starting in 2011, they are adding science. These type of tests lead to, as is the common complaint we hear today, teaching to the test an supports the first example of a standard which I presented in the last paragraph, learning things by rote, not ideas you truly grasp. These types of tests may show knowledge, they may show good memory, but do they show true understanding? Do they show the presence of critical thinking; I critically think not. What multiple tests are, are tests which are fairly easy to take by the student and very easy to grade by the bureaucrats. (Which is why I kept praying for multiple choice tests back in my day, they were much easier and didn't require me to think. Of course, I paid for that stupidity later in life.)
Notice I didn't say teacher, I said bureaucrat. It has been my observation that teachers would rather give, when appropriate, essay tests and similar written exercises that make students use the creative parts of their brain. This is not to say there isn't a place for multiple choice tests, there certainly are, but they can't be the only vehicle for measuring understanding, for measuring whether the standards have been met, for measuring whether the curriculum is up to snuff or even if the standards themselves are sufficient.
It is the bureaucrat, whether from the federal government or from the state or local governments that want to use standardized, multiple choice tests. This must be fought at every turn for in the end, it measures nothing and is worse than not measuring at all. It is worse because it gives you the wrong answer! It gives the wrong answer because it doesn't measure the right thing. In its worst form, it measures the ability of a teacher to teach to the test and the ability of the student to memorize the answers. But in its better form, it is only a variation of the same thing, just not so obvious.
For example, when I was in flight school many years ago in one of my past lives, we were learning to fly by instruments alone and, at the end of the course, had to get certified. We had to take an FAA test to get the certification, so what did we all do? We paid for a class where the weekend before the test, we all sat down with an instructor and, honest to whatever, repeated after him, over and over again, all day, the answers to the questions that were most likely to be on the exam. Nobody knew exactly what the questions would actually be, but the instructor, with years of experience, had a pretty good idea. I passed with a 95. Two weeks later, I would not have been able to pass the test again.
To coin a phrase, "standardized" multiple choice tests destroy standards.
No Child Left Behind
THE NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND ACT(NCLB) of 2001, was the first step in setting national academic standards. For all its faults, it did break the ice in getting the federal government involved, at the national level, in setting standards, and then testing those standards, on a large scale for the first time. Also, for the first time in America's educational history, the law insisted that ALL students had a RIGHT to QUALIFIED teachers and put the onus on the States to ensure this was implemented in all of their schools. Beyond that, NCLB is pretty much a failure. In fact, if most of what I have read is true, NCLB was worse than a failure, it has set our education program back many years. Why?
- Because of it's focus on testing only reading and arithmetic, and later science, coupled with the draconian punishments for failure, schools all over the country reduced or abandoned teaching other subjects.
- Because of the need to produce high scores so schools would not be labeled "failing", there was a huge incentive to jettison poorly performing students, usually minority children because they were saddled with the least qualified teachers. Statistics show this practice was followed by many schools.
- Because of the NCLB's scoring and accountability methodologies coupled with the use of multiple choice tests led to the abandonment of more useful forms of scoring such as writing, critical analysis, problem solving, and hands on testing.
- Even though Conservatives would rather cut off their right er .. left arm before they would ever put an unfunded mandate on a State, they took a page from Thomas Jefferson enforcing the Embargo of 1807and did it anyway; with a vengeance. The unfunding was so bad, it severely hampered the States ability to implement NCLB even though the testing and the punishments kept on going. States such as Connecticut have sued the Education Department and California School Districts have sued California for relief.
- The list goes on. At the bottom of this Hub are links to Hubs and articles on NCLB including an excellent one I picked up from another Hub, also included, from The Nation by Ms. Linda Darling-Hammond.
All that said, the "No Child Left Behind" Act was still a start; more needs to be done and a lot better!
"Common Core" is the Next Step
(update) HOWEVER TOO MANY MISSTEPS HAVE TAKEN PLACE in rolling out this program as well. As a result it is rapidly losing acceptance from two core groups: parents and teachers. Nevertheless, it was a great improvement over No Child Left Behind in that it attempts to teach relevant material and test in such a way as to show learning, not memory.
Common Core is an initiative of the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). The purpose of Common Core is "to establish consistent educational standards across the states as well as ensure that students graduating from high school are prepared to enter credit-bearing courses at two- or four-year college programs or to enter the workforce.": a noble purpose. What is more it is NOT a federal government initiative, although they are most definitely involved. In fact, it appears the feds hold quite a bit of responsibility for the current poor state of affairs with the Common Core program.
The work on Common Core began in 1990 as it became apparent that the nations schools weren't cutting the mustard; that the educational requirements needed by employers were not being met by high school graduates. Consequently, the nation's governors and corporate leaders founded Achieve, Inc to study and make recommendations. According to Achieve, Inc.,
"current high-school exit expectations fall well short of employer and college demands." The report explained that the major problem currently facing the American school system is that high school graduates were not provided with the skills and knowledge they needed to succeed in college and careers. "While students and their parents may still believe that the diploma reflects adequate preparation for the intellectual demands of adult life, in reality it falls far short of this common-sense goal." and that the "the solution to this problem is a common set of rigorous standards."
While the NGA and CCSSO provided much funding for Common Core, so did the Bill Gates Foundation, Pearson Publishing Company, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. The federal government gets involved by incentivizing states to adopt Common Core by providing funding through President Obama's Race to the Top initiative beginning in 2010. It is this relationship where those who oppose Common Core, mainly the political Right, get the idea that Common Core is another attempt to "nationalize" education. Clearly it isn't, but it makes good press.
While the plan called for testing to begin in the 2014 - 2015 school year, most states are missing that goal because they are simply not ready. For Common Cause to work, it takes buy-in from both State governors and legislatures; well that hasn't happened and in many cases that conflict has slowed things down.. Several states like Kentucky, Delaware, and New York have actually implemented Common Core while the rest of the states who have signed on are still in various states of readiness.
Results, at the moment, are mixed, as exemplified by a recent You Gov poll of 1,676 teachers from pre-K to 12th grade where a little less than half thought Common Core would be "positive" for students. If you look at only those with a year or more experience with Common Core, however, the vast majority opined it would be very good for students. To me, that clearly shows a resistance to change as being a big factor in ones perception.
It appears that much of the resistance from teachers comes from two aspects of the program: 1) the use of test results in their job performance and 2) the difficulty in changing teaching methods to accommodate the Common Core standards. In addition, parents and teachers have real issue with the testing procedures themselves with the complaint being the same as it was with No Child Left Behind ... "teaching to the test" and way too much testing overall such that there is little time to actually teach. I agree with this last point.
The Problem With Common Core Testing and My Solution
I ACTUALLY DON'T ARGUE WITH THE WAY COMMON CORE wants to test students by getting away from memory-type multiple choice tests to methods which test "understanding". To me, that is a no-brainer. The problem is, this "standardized" testing, created by for-profit educational organizations, is overlaid on top of normal testing by the teachers during the course of a school year. My question is why?
Why do the promoters of Common Cause want to create new tests when there are plenty of opportunities to test the students as they receive the education. I am not entirely sure how they do it today, but back in the day I took two or three major tests plus a final each quarter for each class (if we are talking about high school). Why can't they instead leave test development to local jurisdictions, but require each test meet well defined content and is "understanding" oriented.
The structure would be such that demographic data can be obtained to follow progress in a standard way. But, beyond that, the testing shouldn't be too much different from the way it is done now. Among other things this would eliminate teaching to the test since the testing is integrated with the curriculum as has always been the case. It also gets rid of a single, cummulative set of tests unfairly holding students back if they have a bad day or week OR have legitimate, genetic-based reasons to perform worse under stress than they would otherwise would. (Yes, I can tell which genes are responsible for this not uncommon condition.)
Instead, matriculation can be based on grading as it has always been done, poorly maybe, but the structure is nevertheless already in place. What must be done to the current systems is they be standardized such that an "A" in one school in one state means the same thing as an "A" does in another school in a different state. Graduation would be based on a cummulative grade point average for the year meeting a certain threshold. Further, teacher's careers would no longer be determined by artificial testing but instead on overall success in getting students graduating to the next level.
Schools would similarly be graded on their success in graduations and matriculation to college or major vocational schools. Instead of penalizing poor performing schools, a vigorous investigation should be conducted to determine the cause; which probably breaks down to a combination of 1) poor administration, 2) insufficient resources, and 3) poor quality teachers (which, in my opinion, results from poor funding). The bottom line is that the methods and procedures used to improve student performance should not, at the same time, be used to bludgeon schools, teachers, and administrators.
Minimum Federal Standards
IN MY VIEW, ONE OF THE MAJOR PROBLEMS WITH "No Child Left Behind" is it leaves it up to the 50 states and the District of Columbia to set their own minimum standards which the schools have meet in order to pass (Common Core solves this problem, nevertheless the following still applies). From a national security perspective, that is a big mistake. For this country to surge to the forefront globally, all states have to rise, not just some states. The old saying that "a chain is only as good as its weakest link" applies in this case as well. It makes sense on the face of it because all states contribute to the pool of talent America draws from to compete globally. The lower the overall average of that pool, the less chance America has of becoming number one again.
Consequently, it is my view, this simple logic cries out for making education a national security issue; to me it is a no-brainer. Then, carrying this logic to the next level, if we assume education is a matter of national security, then setting minimum national education standards must be of national concern as well, for those standards must be sufficient to meet national security goals. Those minimum standards would then drive the necessary curriculum to meet those standards.
This approach takes nothing away from the states. It just reorders things a bit. The states are absolutely free to improve on these standards and curricula and, later, testing methods, to their hearts content. All they have to do is meet the minimum set by the U.S. Department of Education which, in turn, meets the needs laid out in the National Security Strategy.
Further, the States should never be excluded in the development of the minimum standards. Instead, they should be major players but the process needs to be so constructed that they cannot become impediments, which they often like to be. Further, there are a lot of brilliant and dedicated educators at the State and local level that must be taken maximum advantage of by the federal government, which, likewise, must shed itself of the arrogance it so often shows.
From "not Child Left Behind" to "common Core"
1/27/2014: SOUTH CAROLINA GOVERNOR, NIKKI HALEY's, statement
“We don’t ever want to educate South Carolina children like they educate California children,” South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley recently told a gathering of Republican women. “We want to educate South Carolina children on South Carolina standards, not anyone else’s standards.”
(Read more: http://www.politico.com/story/2014/01/new-york-common-core-teachers-schools-education-102614_Page2.html#ixzz2rhU1SY00)
represents everything wrong with much of the opposition to improving education in America when the goal is defending America as a whole, rather than taking a State-centric view. What Governor Haley is referring to is the Common Core testing standards put out, ironically, by a collaboration of minds from various State government governors, legislatures, and education departments; education institutions; school administrations; and teachers. If you notice what is missing, it is the Federal Department of Education (DOEd).
Now, I am sure the DOEd is somehow involved, it would be dumb not to use their expertise, but the Common Core.org web site makes it clear DOEd is not leading the effort. This program was designed to take the good parts of Bush 43's No Child Left Behind Act and Obama's Race to the Top program, both good first starts and what I think are absolutely needed at the federal level if this country is survive as a nation and not be just a collection of warring States (which it was prior to the Constitution), and do what should have been done at the State level decades ago by improving the parts of those programs that were weak or not working.
Frankly, it is my view that if you agree with Governor Haley's opinion, then you are a "Statists" first and an American second, benefiting from the Nation without contributing to it.
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- No Child Left Behind
For those who don't know, the
- ED.GOV - US Dept of Education "No Child Left Behind" Web Site
- THE NATION - Evaluating 'No Child Left Behind' by Linda Darling-Hammond
A very in-depth, yet easy to read look at how No Child Left Behind has fared up to 2007
© 2011 Scott Belford