Cross-posted on Education Week
A couple of weeks ago, Diane Ravitch came out against the Common Core State Standards, saying that they “…have been adopted in 46 states and the District of Columbia without any field test. They are being imposed on the children of this nation despite the fact that no one has any idea how they will affect students, teachers, or schools. We are a nation of guinea pigs, almost all trying an unknown new program at the same time.”
But the Common Core State Standards are not a program, like a new drug, to be field-tested. They are a statement of what we want our children to know and be able to do when they graduate from high school and what they ought to know and be able to do at key points along the way to graduation. Our parents and students and teachers need to know what is expected. I can understand why we would want to know how well a strategy for helping students reach our aspirations worked before we asked all our teachers to use it, but don’t understand why we would field test our aspirations.
It is actually not possible to field test the standards. What we can field test is the way the standards are implemented. But how do we judge whether the implementation is successful? Presumably by asking whether the students achieved the standards. Suppose they don’t. Did the standards fail? Or was their implementation faulty? Hard to know, because the standard by which we are measuring success or failure is the standard being tested. That makes no sense to me.
Diane Ravitch has played a very important role in recent years as an apostate from the camp that has devoted itself to market-driven education reform and the use of tough-minded accountability systems inimical to teacher professionalism. But her reference in her blog on this subject to her opponents makes me wonder whether she is opposed to the Common Core State Standards because her opponents are for them.
One last point. Among her reasons for opposing the standards is what Ravitch refers to as their “disparate impact” on poor and minority students. “Disparate impact” is a technical term in civil rights law referring to situations in which policies negatively affect minority and poor students relative to majority students. The courts can throw out such policies on findings of disparate impact. As I read that phrase in Ravitch’s piece, a chill went down my back. It came across as a threat.
Let’s be clear here. Poor and minority students in the United States will score lower on assessments based on any internationally benchmarked standards than majority students, because we do not educate poor and minority students to the same standards as majority students in this country. So this blast from Ravitch is not a criticism of the Common Core standards. It is a blast against any serious standards. And that is very disappointing, coming from a former Assistant Secretary of Education responsible for starting the development of academic standards for the schools in the United States. We will not improve the performance of poor and minority students by suppressing standards. It will only improve when we make the implicit standards explicit, which will then ratchet up the pressure to do something about the “disparate impact” of the kind of education those students now get.
The United States has been far behind the other industrialized countries in developing serious standards for student achievement. The attempt to develop state-by-state standards failed ignominiously. What we most need now is not cold feet, but high quality examinations, first-rate curriculum and instructional resources and high quality training for our teachers in the use of those standards, instructional resources and assessment systems. It will take years of determined effort to develop all that infrastructure and years more to implement it effectively. And there is no time to waste.