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National standards dissent and pep rallies

Posted by Jim Stergios  April 26, 2011 09:00 AM

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About a week ago, the state of Texas responded to national standards proponents, including the federal government, which are trying to drag it screaming into the mix of states who have adopted the so-called Common Core. The Lone Star state released draft state math standards that are built on the foundation of Massachusetts' now-defunct standards and those in place in Singapore. The goal: To craft standards that are the best in the nation. We'll see how US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will respond now that Texas has the best standards in the land.

Closer to home, Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester recently traveled to central Massachusetts to meet with members of the Tantasqua Regional School Committee. The committee has been skeptical of the quality of the new national standards, which the commissioner and the board of education adopted in late July 2010.

The state’s academic standards were considered among the best – if not the absolute best -- in the country. In a way the standards were the lifeblood flowing through the entire corpus of the landmark Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 because they set academic expectations for all involved. To district leaders and teachers, they gave clear guidance on the high academic bar the state was setting; to teachers they defined the emphases on the teacher licensure tests; and to students, parents, teachers, and district leaders they defined the content of a key accountability, the MCAS.

The Tantasqua School Committee has questioned the quality of the national standards, noting that they lop in half the state’s commitment to teaching rich literary works. Commissioner Chester defended the adoption of the new national standards as equivalent to the state’s nation-leading standards, noting the aspirations of the new national standards but avoiding concrete detail.

The fact is that while the Commissioner suggests that the two sets of standards are equivalent, the now-defunct state standards and the new national standards are distinguished largely by different philosophies about what the purpose of education is: the state standards embodied the view that all kids must have access to a rich liberal arts curriculum for the twin purposes of good citizenship and readiness for the workplace.

That centuries-long emphasis, from John Adams and the Massachusetts Constitution to Horace Mann and his Common Schools to Tom Birmingham and the landmark 1993 reform legislation, set the function of public education in our Commonwealth and democracy as using the liberal arts as the tool to educate schoolchildren for citizenship and a successful life.

Adoption of the new national standards undermines that historic character of the Massachusetts educational system—and importantly the spirit of the 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act. The Patrick Administration’s move away from an academic focus toward new national standards that are heavily weighted toward workforce development is a sign of, guess what, a policy view that is based on a narrower workforce development focus.

Commissioner Chester was much more comfortable at a recent event in Boston hosted by the Rennie Center and the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education. The event was part of a series (here and here) focused on how to implement the new national standards, and it included representatives from two DC-based cheerleaders of the national standards effort, Achieve, Inc. and the Fordham Institute. It was co-sponsored by Pearson Evaluation Systems, the nation’s largest test company which is on the inside track to develop the national test (or tests) that will replace the MCAS.

Today marks the last in this series of pro-national standards pep rallies, and interestingly the event will underscore the real goal of the national standards project—workforce development.

On April 26th, the Rennie Center will present a forum on the recently released Harvard Graduate School of Education report, Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century. The report argues that our national strategy for education and youth development has been too narrowly focused on an academic, classroom-based approach…
As noted in several recent posts, the narrow focus on workforce development is nothing new to the number of DC players who have been pushing this agenda for decades. For Massachusetts citizens, however, it is very important to distinguish between the path that Massachusetts took, which was largely focused on academics, and the DC/national standards focus on workforce development.

In developing the national standards, DC-based trade organizations like the National Governor’s Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve and Fordham, reflected efforts of the early 1990s, which theorized that the United States should be more like Germany and other countries that seek to use their educational systems primarily as ways to shape the workforce. They also reflected the Gates Foundation’s view that workforce development is the critical concern.

Now, I like the free markets as much as anyone, and probably more than most. But the fact is that historically, this country, and especially our state, has aimed for more. Teaching responsibility and the respect for private property was part of Horace Mann’s vision, but so was preparation to be an engaged citizen and knowing your history. As I noted recently, Bill Gates’ publicly stated view is that he is not a great fan of the approach of providing access to rich liberal arts content, and actually advocated cutting the liberal arts in institutions of higher learning.

In spite of Massachusetts’ historic K-12 success, the view of current officials in Massachusetts and in DC is to get all states to sign onto content and tests aligned with weaker national standards. The unkind way to put is that they will seek to bridge achievement gaps by dumbing down standards and focusing on softer, less measurable skills and tests, and by redefining schools to be less academic and more like human resources departments or social service agencies.

I find that vision of education restrictive, but far more importantly, the new DC vision for education reform has no track record of success. Massachusetts’ track record from 1993 to 2009 was without peer.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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