Sam Uretsky

Education Reform: It’s Complicated

On Aug. 7, the newspapers reported, “In New York City, 26% of students in third through eighth grade passed the tests in English, and 30% passed in math, according to the New York State Education Department.” Parents, teachers and school principals were not happy. The Times cited a middle school in a low income area where 7% of students were rated proficient in English, and 10% in math. In 2012 the proficiency levels numbers were 33% and 46%, respectively. The difference was that New York was the first state to test according to the Common Core standards, a set of standards intended to overcome the failings of No Child Left Behind.

On Long Island, which, if you don’t count the Hamptons, has a more uniform upper-middle-class population than New York City, 37.5% of students in grades three through eight passed math tests in April, compared with 75.4% who passed in 2012. In Port Jefferson Station, 1,500 parents and students gathered on the football field to protest the test. Not protest the test results – protest the test. One parent was quoted as saying “ how do you tell a child that she’s not college material?” (USA Today reported that 20% of college freshmen require remedial courses. The Huffington Post found a figure of 40%.)

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was well intentioned. The goal was to improve educational standards, and the way to prove it was working was by standardized testing. The problem is that since the tests were multiple choice, teachers, who had their own concerns about job security, quickly learned to teach to the test. The concept set off a debate within the educational establishment since some parents and teachers argued that the tests represented the goals of education, and so teaching to the test meant that the goals were being achieved. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching argued that the teacher who teaches to the test is similar to the coach who teaches the skills that students will need in competition. The problem was that teachers, whose jobs, as in Texas, depended on test results, focused narrowly on the tests.

A set of vocabulary words that appear on a test are supposed to be representative of a larger group of words that the student should know. If the student knows only the words that are likely to appear on the test, the system fails. Then there are lessons in how to take the test itself: “In a question with an ‘All of the above’ choice, if you see that at least two correct statements, then ‘All of the above’ is probably the answer.” Test taking is a useful skill, but not the basis for a career.

The response to the failings of No Child Left Behind was Common Core, developed by a consortium of states and endorsed by 45 states, intended to provide a grade-by-grade outline of what children should know to be ready for college and careers. The curriculum places a focus on interpretation and understanding. The test includes sections that require human grading such as essays, and math problems that require that all steps be shown.

In the reading standard for the 4th grade, a student should “ Refer to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.” (A fourth grader who can tell “infer” from “imply” is doing pretty well.) Common Core is a set of standards intended to expand education to include reasoning as well as memorization. It reflects what we want, or should want as opposed to a curriculum designed to be enforced by a computer gradable exam.

Of course Glenn Beck saw the problem ahead of anybody else. “Glenn has been warning about the centralized national curriculum that would happen if Common Core was fully implemented by all 50 states ...”

Beck warned that children would be “indoctrinated with extreme leftist ideology.” He was joined by the usual suspects, Freedom Works, the American Principles Project, and Michelle Malkin. Oklahoma, Utah, Alabama and Pennsylvania plans to adopt Common Core have been postponed on the grounds that having humans grade essays and math problems would be too expensive.

Common Core is not a federal program – it was created under the auspices of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, It describes goals, but the texts and methods of teaching are left to the states. It is not, repeat not a curriculum, just a goal of including reasoning along with the memorization. There are legitimate questions about Common Core, but they’re not the ones coming from Republican governors, Glenn Beck or Fox.

And school is not summer camp where everybody gets an award. And we don’t all live in Lake Woebegone where every child is above average. And education needs more than flash cards. Much more.

Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living on Long Island, N.Y. Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2013

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