Light a Candle, America, for the Common Core

On December 10, President Obama signed a reform of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, which had been passed by Congress the day before. It preserves standardized testing but eliminates any consequences to states and school districts that perform poorly. It also bars the Federal government from imposing academic requirements like the Common Core, America’s first serious attempt at a national curriculum for elementary and secondary school students.

Parents, weary of test preparation, celebrated. Teachers rejoiced. School boards and state education departments cheered. Republican Presidential candidates applauded the brave blow struck against government encroachment on our sacred liberties.

In this season of rejoicing, I make a humble request. Let us light a candle of mourning for the NCLB and the Common Core.

The NCLB Act was a bold and bracing vision wrapped in a truly terrible package, like a Ferrari engine shoehorned into one of those Ford Pintos with the exploding gas tanks. It introduced the idea – revolutionary in America – that states and school districts should not be the final judges of what is taught in schools. There are good reasons for this. In the best-performing state in 2015, Massachusetts, about 50% of 8th grade students rated proficient or better in math and reading, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In the worst-performing state, Alabama, only 17% of 8th graders were proficient or better in math and 31% in reading. The last time I checked, the residents of both state qualified as American citizens. In my book, that should entitle children in both states to a decent education at public expense.

Dunce-cap_(1).jpgThe Common Core introduced the idea – another American revolution – that a child in Massachusetts and Alabama should be learning more or less the same thing at each grade level. That’s not a bad idea in a country where, according to Pew Research, 12% of people change residences every year and 38% say that the place they consider home is not where they are living right now. If I move my family from the state of New York to the state of California, how much better would it be if my children entered schools teaching essentially what they were teaching in their last school?

Unfortunately, these goods ideas went up in flames. NCLB demanded that every student in every school improve every year. The mathematical impossibility of such a thing boggles the mind, yet ratings of school and teacher performance depended on it. Testing based on the Common Core was introduced in some states before a curriculum or teacher training was in place. That’s like building the foundation after you put up the house.

The only way to achieve a poorer outcome would have been to put America’s most bloodthirsty enemies of education reform in charge of implementation. Conspiracy theorists, check your email.

Why do I want to light a candle to mourn the demise of such a misbegotten creation? Because in the 2012 international comparison of educational achievement by 15 year olds, called the Performance for International Student Assessment (PISA), the United States ranked 36th. The top five spots were held by China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea. Also ahead of us were such rich-world peers as the UK, France, Germany, Canada, the Netherlands and Japan. And let’s not forget such world leaders as Vietnam, Slovenia and Russia, which also bested the USA.

In most of these nations, the funding of education, design of the curriculum and assessment testing is centralized at national level. Even in the Netherlands, where more than 70% of educational decisions are made at the local level, the Ministry of Education produces a national curriculum, funds both public and private schools, and administers national assessment testing. School districts are in charge of how the goals are achieved but nobody gets to play fast and loose with the standards without paying a price.

A price is paid in every community where weak education fails to prepare the next generation for the global economy. In the broadband era, that economy is at our doors whether we like it or not. The “Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015,” which the President called “a Christmas miracle,” turns America back in a direction where Some Students Succeed – if they grow up in a wealthy place where parents demand the best and know how to make their demands count.

Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research, analysis and content development activities.
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