Don’t buy new ‘content-light’ Mass. ICCR standards

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The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s 2008 Task Force on  21st Century Skills called for refocusing public school curricula on fuzzy  concepts like “cultural competence” and “global awareness.”  But  Massachusetts citizens were less than excited about trading in the success that  flowed from the commonwealth’s liberal arts-rich academic  standards.

Four years later, the board is back pushing essentially the same ideas in  the guise of recommendations from another task force, this one on “Integrating  College and Career Readiness” (ICCR).

Massachusetts’ laser-like focus on academics has produced historic results.  In 2005, Bay State students became the first ever to lead in all four categories  on tests known as “The Nation’s Report Card.”  Since then, they have  repeated the feat each time the tests have been administered.

American students may not be globally competitive in math and science, but  Massachusetts students are. They shined on 2008 international testing, even  tying for best in the world in eighth grade science.

The performance of the commonwealth’s students wasn’t always so impressive.  But when Governor Bill Weld and legislative education committee co-chairs Tom  Birmingham and Mark Roosevelt crafted bipartisan education reform legislation in  1993, they insisted on liberal arts-rich state standards.

These framers of education reform not only knew literacy and numeracy are  the best routes to genuine college- and career-readiness, but that providing all  the commonwealth’s schools with a liberal arts curriculum is the best way to  bridge class- and race-based achievement gaps. In contrast, by promoting fads,  the ICCR task force’s strategy is to close these gaps by lowering academic  expectations.

In an introductory letter to fellow task force members, Board of Elementary  and Secondary Education (BESE) member Gerald Chertavian, who chaired both the  21st century skills and ICCR task forces, writes that their recommendations  promote “what works.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.

The task force would make academics just one-third of a three-legged stool,  sharing equal time with “workplace readiness” and “personal and social  development.”  And we thought parents were responsible for kids’ personal  and social development.

But it is the idea of education as workforce development training that is  most demonstrably misguided. Massachusetts BESE members and other  soft-skills advocates have often pointed to West Virginia as a beacon when it  comes to incorporating workforce development and 21st century skills into public  school curricula.  Yet in its recent state-by-state report card on public  postsecondary education, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce gives that state a “D” for “meeting

Underprivileged kids are among the biggest victims of the education as mere  workforce development model. An analysis by Dr. Matthew Ladner, a  research scholar at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, found that West  Virginia was one of only eight states in which reading and math scores for  low-income students declined between 2007 and 2011.  During the same  period, scores rose by an average of 10 points nationally and Massachusetts’ scores went up by 13 points.

But the move away from academic content is nothing new.  When the BESE  voted in 2010 to replace Massachusetts’ English and math standards with less  rigorous national standards, it chose to reduce by more than half the amount of  classic literature, drama, and poetry public school students will  read.

Instead of building on Massachusetts’ academic successes, the ICCR task  force would build a bigger state education bureaucracy. Its recommendations  include one that would “increase staff and resource capacity” at the state  Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Another one calls on the department to develop an entirely separate set of  career readiness education standards. The result would be a state  bureaucracy that grows even as public school enrollment shrinks. Statewide,  there are about 24,000 fewer students than in fiscal 2003 and Boston’s  enrollment has declined by over 6,700 in recent years.  This drop is  projected to accelerate in the commonwealth’s urban and rural areas.

Longtime supporters of K-12 education as workforce development training were  buoyed by Massachusetts’ ill-considered decision to adopt less rigorous national  standards. But the content-light recommendations of the Board of Elementary and  Secondary Education’s Task Force on Integrating College and Career Readiness  deserve the same icy reception they got four years ago, when they were packaged  as 21st century skills.

Also seen in The HErald News and Gloucester Times.