Sunday, January 4, 2015

Common Core: Top-Down Ed Reform Doesn't Work

Below is a letter to the editor published in the New York Times the other day.  It references an earlier opinion piece, "Rage Against the Common Core," that was skeptical that setting new standards would achieve better academic results in public schools.

        "A significant group of students doing poorly are from backgrounds of chronic
        deprivation and neglect.  The No Child Left Behind law and the Common Core
        standards both ignore the problem:  chronic absenteeism, disorganized homes,
        living in shelters, parents incarcerated or using drugs, separation from siblings,
        foster care and more.

        "Those who develop these 'solutions' and the politicians who promote them show
        no understanding of the challenges these students and their teachers actually
        face.  No curriculum will address these obstacles to academic success."

The Times noted that "the writer was a teacher and a psychologist for the New York City public schools for 35 years."

Teachers understand this.  The idea that new top-down standards and testing will change schools is an idea that has been tried and tried again, at district, state and federal levels.  But it has failed, every time, for at least 30 years.  And yet we still keep trying it.

Why It Has Failed

Years ago, French schools used a single curriculum.  Every eight-year-old in every French classroom would read the same passage of the same book on the same day.  This seemed to work in France at the time, but at that time, all the students were French and there were homogeneous values across the country's culture.

The United States is not a homogeneous country.  We have students from a variety of family backgrounds and countries and speaking many different native languages.  There is no universal commitment to education from family to family.  Children are raised in a variety of situations, ranging from upper-middle-class security to utter chaos marked by poverty, family upheaval and parents who cannot organize their own lives, let alone attend to their children's schooling.

Put simply, students start from different places.  The idea that one set of education standards issued by the federal government will assure that they all end up in the same place -- with no adjustments along the way -- is ludicrous on its face.

What to Do

We need to tailor schools to work with students as they come.

In relatively wealthy districts with well-educated parents and intact families, the old paradigm of 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. classes for 9 months each year still works pretty well.  In these districts, parents have for years resented the instruction time diverted to testing because their schools were effective and students finished high school ready to succeed in college or on the next step of their careers.

In inner-city districts with parents of all backgrounds, annual testing schemes have slotted schools and students as losers.  A more useful approach would be diagnostic tests at the beginning of each school year to give teachers an idea where individual students were weak and strong, and to help teachers address their individual needs.

Additionally, students in inner-city districts might benefit from longer school days, longer school years, extra P.E. periods, personal tutoring and regular contact between teachers and parents or guardians.

This would cost more than the average school program, but at least some of the needed funds have been there for years.  Every state I know of devotes vastly more per-student funding to school districts in high-poverty areas. So does the federal government.

Unfortunately, the money does not yield results.  Inner-city schools by and large are organized in the same traditional way as schools have been for generations.  The idea of starting with students -- individually, as they come -- seems not to be considered.

Unfortunately, mandating a new set of outcomes will not do any good until the process of schooling students -- students as they are -- is given as much attention as specifying what they should know at the end of their high school years.


I do not mean to say that the situation is impossible.  I know of many efforts that are helping poor children achieve and thrive, and I plan to describe some of them from time to time.

What distinguishes these successful efforts is that they are small in scale.  They are achieved by private and religious groups, by well-led charter schools -- essentially,  by community-based commitments to individual children and their needs.

Unfortunately, there is no top-down solution.  That is why federally imposed Common Core standards seem likely to fail.

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