Ratatat, Sissy, Bay State Boom: Obama Whacks K-12 Standards

Peter Wood

Last week Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that Delaware and Tennessee are the winners of the first grants in President Obama’s Race to the Top.  That’s the initiative that will hand out billions of dollars to the states for joining a federal program to improve education. Delaware scored a cool $100 million, and Tennessee (the Volunteer state, after all) took home $500 million.  Other contestants need not despair.  Round two has a piñata stuffed with $3.4 billion more.

Not everyone is flailing at the donkey.  Some states have school standards already higher than the ones promoted by the Race to the Top, and have taken umbrage at what they see as an invitation to race to the middle, or even race to the bottom.  A few weeks ago we reported on The New K-12 Standards Debate.  The Race to the Top (RttT; we pronounce it “ratatat”) is intimately tied to something called the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI; which we now pronounce “sissy”).  CCSSI is a product of the cogitations of the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers.  But don’t be fooled.  CCSSI is really the stalking horse of the Obama administration, which had to outsource the curriculum-building in light of restrictions on what the federal government can do by way of muscling into the states’ supervision of public schools.

CCSSI was released as a draft report in March—allowing time for the public to comment before it freezes into place as a monument to its own magnificence.  The last day for the public to comment was April 2.  We are now in the unofficial period for public lamentations.

Some of the problems were immediately apparent.  CCSSI, for example, shuns specific curricular content in favor of “skills” and vague hortatory positions.  It calls, for example, for students to be able to “cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text,” but declines to say what texts.   This is a fine formula for avoiding controversy and debate, but means that CCSSI is pretty much an empty shell.  State A can decide that a diligent search for textual evidence in the pages of Spiderman #457 will suffice, while across the border, State B has students mining the Iliad.

No state, of course, will veer to either of those extremes, but the differences do matter.  And some states clearly view the proposed standards as a step backwards.  Massachusetts is the outstanding case.  Since we last posted on this topic, Massachusetts newspapers and national media have poured out scathing critique after scathing critique on what’s wrong with CCSSI, at least as applied to the BayState.  The Economist noted in Race to the Middle?  that the new standards are only superficially “voluntary,” and that states like Massachusetts with high standards will be forced to choose between keeping them high or going for the cash.  The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by the Pioneer Institute’s Jim Stergios and Charles Chieppo, “Massachusetts Does It Better,” noting that the awards to Delaware and Tennessee ignore “the hard political work it took to elevate Massachusetts' public schools from so-so performers two decades ago to a system that other states try to emulate.”  The Boston Herald, declaring, “Kids Need the Best,” warned the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education that CCSSI is, in effect, a “remedial ready” standard, far below the state’s  “ current hard-won, best-in-the-nation standards.”  The Worcester Telegram and Gazette in “Education Hypocrisy” suggested that Washington butt out:  “Department of Education gurus in Washington, D.C., appear intent on dictating what each state’s education standards should be, but their track record hardly inspires confidence, and from where we sit, it seems there are plenty of problems in their own backyard.”

The Pioneer Institute has now released a white paper by mathematics professor R. James Milgram and Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Sandra Stotsky, Fair to Middling: A National Standards Progress Report, that devotes thirty pages to entombing CCSSI in its own mediocrity.  Sections include, “An Organizing Scheme Incapable of Generating Grade-Level Academic Standards in Reading,” “Pedagogically Weak, if Not Useless, Vocabulary Standards,” “Uneven Mathematics Standards in the Primary Grades,” and “Delayed Development of Pre-Algebra Skills.”

We at the National Association of Scholars are, of course, chiefly interested in standards  in higher education, but that inevitably draws us into the question of how the nation’s schools prepare students for college. The answer right now is “not very well.”  The answer tomorrow may be “considerably worse.”  This piñata is a Pandora’s box.

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