Ed Glaeser’s Straw Man on Common Core (by Jim Stergios)

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In today’s Globe, Ed Glaeser, an economist by trade and a member of the Gates Foundation advisory board for domestic programs, shares his thoughts on education standards – a topic on which we generally refer to experts. Think national education experts like Sandra Stotsky, James Milgram, Ze’ev Wurman, Mark Bauerlein, and folks who have worked in states and studied this topic closely.

Ed attributes opposition to Common Core to fear (the title of the piece is “Fear of Common Core”). It’s the old win-an-argument-against-a-straw-man tactic, which he compounds by saying that critics of Common Core (I’m a card-carrying member of a loose affiliation of tribes opposing the Core) are even scared of a “bogeyman.” A ghost, a chimera, we’re seeing things.

Set aside the emotional play Ed is making whereby you, reader, determine up front that there is nothing to fear but fear itself – and whereby you run headlong to align yourself with Ed’s supposedly rational side of this argument. Let’s look at facts – facts that Ed gets wrong (as he has in the past).

Ed: A common test will lift performance of U.S. students. There are nations that have national standards and tests that do better than the US on international assessments; others that do worse. There are nations that don’t have national standards and test and do better than the U.S. (ahem, Canada…), as well as those that do worse. There is no correlation between the existence of national standards and tests, or the lack thereof, with student performance on international assessments.

In point of fact, K-12 schooling in America has not failed not due to a lack of centralizing forces, but from the largely mediocre academic content found within these ever growing edu-bureaucracies and edu-trade groups. Ed should know this because higher education in America is the envy of the world yet lacks any centralizing or nationalized impulses and is driven by widespread parent and student choice for offers complete academic and curricular independence from each college to college and even each department to department.

Ed, like others, is simply saying that we have not made the gains we need to make, so because we haven’t figured out a different path forward, let’s nationalize important aspects of our K-12 education agenda so that technocrats far removed from classrooms and schools can drive the train. That’s an argument, but a very weak one to make.

Ed: Reform requires measurement. This is the ultimate straw man argument. Of course, Ed is right, but no one disputes that. Isn’t it a fact that we already test quite a bit? Has anyone missed the news that Mississippi and Arkansas are under-performing states? Has anyone missed the news that Massachusetts has risen on national and international assessments since 1993 in a unique way in the U.S.? In Massachusetts, students take the MCAS, some the NAEP, some the TIMSS, many the SAT, others the ACT, private school students have their own admission tests, and there are more.

Data is an important tool, but a tool that’s subordinate to academic content and excellence. Both are lacking in Common Core.
So what is Ed really arguing? Well, this…

Ed: A common test will make it easier to understand innovation. We need a test that allows an administrator/principal/teacher X in Brockton to compare student Y’s performance up against student Z’s performance in Little Rock, otherwise reform cannot happen. That is a ludicrous argument.

An effective testing regime should do at least two things: We need to know which policymakers are making the right moves (therefore compare states to states, and localities to localities) and we need to hold educators and students accountable for acquisition of knowledge. The NAEP and the MCAS do the former, and the MCAS, SAT, ACT and other tests do the latter. The rest is federal hubris – a view of education that is steeped in the view that technocrats in Washington will bundle this information and craft all sorts of interventions that work. For anyone who has watched the 30-plus years of the U.S. Department of Education knows (and anyone who watched the abject failure of the recent $3 billion School Improvement Grant effort knows), that’s not going to work.

Ed: Common Core is not a curriculum, it’s just a test. Ed completely misunderstands the nature of Common Core and the national tests here. First and foremost, he ought to read the applications for federal funding submitted by the consortia developing the tests. They explicitly note that they are developing nationalized curricular materials, instructional practice guides and more. That not only goes against Ed’s representation of the facts, but it is not legal given than there are three federal laws that prohibit such federal involvement in national standards, testing, and curriculum. I hope that Ed is not so “evolved” that he eschews the rule of law.

Ed: Federal intrusion has worked to help states in the past. Ed needs to read education history. “A Nation at Risk” was not what propelled states like Massachusetts, Texas and California to undertake big education reforms in the early 1990s. The 1993 Education Reform Act was not “fueled” by any federal agency or initiative. It was recognition by state lawmakers and several governors that we needed to do something – and Massachusetts (and really a number of other states) did.

Ed argues, remarkably, that No Child Left Behind “nudged” states to higher performance. The fact is that, even among NCLB supporters, the major complaint about the Act is that it led to states watering down their tests and gaming federal mandates. Is that a good result from federal action? (Massachusetts was one of the few states that held the line and kept up the rigor of its state test. We largely ignored NCLB because we were already on a strong path forward.)

Ed: Can we talk about international competitiveness again – that’s why we need Common Core. Ed makes my own argument for me on this front. Massachusetts is in the top six countries in math and science and is the top-ranking state in the nation. The Bay State’s progress on both fronts had nothing to do with Common Core, NCLB, America 2000, Goals 2000 (remember those highly successful, game-changing federal initiatives?).

Massachusetts, as a state, has accomplished a lot. So have a handful of other states. The feds, in contrast, have no history of success in decades of deepening involvement. In fact, the architects of Common Core, whether Achieve, Inc., the Council of Chief State School Officers, the lobbying arm of the National Governors Association, and other minor players such as the Fordham Institute in Ohio, have zero record of success improving student achievement anywhere in the last 20-25 years.

This is policy-making on the basis of empirical results?

Ed: Don’t be concerned by a potential loss of literature or waiting until high school to access algebra. I am honestly not sure what Ed understands about tests, standards and curricula. First, we have not seen the national tests, so there is no comfort to be had in saying that “it’s just a test.” Second, the national test is of course built off the chassis of the national standards (Common Core); as a result, what is in the standards will be on the test. Third, all the add-on topics, books, etc., that local communities and states bring into the picture will not matter after a few years. The fact is that teachers do and will continue to teach to the test. That is the case in Massachusetts and across the country.

In Massachusetts’ case, teaching to the test, as Tom Birmingham noted, is a good thing. Our state standards required and the tests tested high-quality liberal arts content, including, yes, Huckleberry Finn, Charles Dickens, Edith Wharton, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, and many other wonderful books and poems, as well as a math sequence that reached algebra, geometry, and other important topics in what we considered grade- and academically appropriate settings. We aimed high – higher than any other state.

Common Core tests and standards will not do that. After a few tests, administrators and teachers will teach to the national test, which represents for Massachusetts and many other high-standard states dramatically lowering their standard of instruction and learning. Is racing to the US middle how we intend on competing with China and India?

It is well-known that the Gates Foundation’s international programs enjoy a strong reputation, while its domestic programs lack such a record of success. The Foundation’s work in education has some bright spots (support for proven charter schools and some interesting support of e-learning), but it too often has been sidetracked by fads such as the small school movement and now Common Core. If the Foundation wants to help improve education in the US, it needs fresh and better thinking.