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Common Core, Education and Standardized Tests

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Before you read on here, please take the time to read this Newsweek article from 2006.  I am going to say some things here about Asian culture in general, and the Asian education system in particular by way of contrast with ours.

Please also note, I write as the American half of an Asian-American family.  I am married to a wonderful Chinese lady from Malaysia.  My high school age boys proudly identify themselves as Malaysian as well as American.  But the comparison I'll make here is important because it is part of the overall context of the "Common Core Standards" debate.  I'll also point you to Dr.James Popham's "The Truth About Testing" as a primer in standardized tests.  This is a very important debate, and it is important that we take the time inform ourselves.  (Dr. Popham has a number of more recent books which are also excellent resources for understanding this debate.)

There is a lot of information available on Common Core.  I am going to try to avoid repeating what you can get elsewhere, but I'll have to lay a bit of a foundation.

Advocates of Common Core will frequently answer critics who accuse the government of trying to impose a national curriculum by noting that Common Core is not a "curriculum" but a set of educational "standards." While this is correct, and it is important to understand the difference, I'll show here why this distinction is disingenuous at best.  But on the conservative side we also have to address our insistence that teachers be evaluated in part on the basis of student test scores.  I'll attempt to show here - and this is where the comparison with the Asian education system will become important - why this is a grave mistake.

A Little About Me & Asia

In 1988 I had just graduated from a community college here in the San Diego area with an Associates Degree in General Studies.  I was not sure what I wanted to do going forward, but I was interested in being involved in church work.  The pastor of the church I attended had immigrated here from the Philippines, so I spoke with him about spending some time there to see what missionary work was like.  I spent four months there visiting his friends and family, and even spent a couple weeks in remote forest regions with an American missionary I had met when he had visited our church.

It was during this time that I discovered that college and above in the Philippines is conducted in English.  (The Philippines is the third largest English-speaking country in the world.)  I knew a little about what my friends had to pay for their church leadership degree programs here in the U.S., so I did the math on tuition, books and room & board in the Philippines.  With the currency exchange rate where it was, it came out to $0.10 on the dollar.

No, that is not a typo.  And the math holds true to this day.  (The economics of that is an entirely different discussion.)

So when I returned home to church I told my pastor I was going to save up some money and return to the Philippines to sit in the same classrooms (and even be taught by one of the same teachers!) he had sat in many years before.  The long and short, then, is that I graduated from Bethel Bible College in Manila in 1992 with a Bachelor's Degree in Biblical Studies.  I went from there to Asia Pacific Theological Seminary (APTS - in lighter moments we would call it the "Association of Pharisees Together with Sadducees") in Baguio City to get my M.A. in Theology in 1994.  But perhaps even more importantly, it was at APTS that I met my wife, who had come to study from Malaysia. (And who I can hear asking me "Perhaps???")

All in all, the six years I lived in the Philippines were terrific years.  I turned 21 there in 1988.  In many ways it was in the Philippines - being about as far away from home as possible for the first time - that I grew up.

But I learned something the hard way, and very quickly.  Here in our schools, we not only allow our kids to debate issues, we expect them to.  We not only allow them to challenge authority and argue with their teachers, we grade them on how competently they do so.  We expect them to be respectful to their teachers.  But we are even more interested in seeing them develop a love for learning.  And to gauge that love for learning we want to see them forming their own opinion on things, so when they disagree with their teacher we do not see disrespect - we see the formation of a love for learning.

This is not the case in the typical Asian classroom.

In the typical classroom in the Philippines - at least at the undergraduate level and below - the teacher is at the top of the classroom pyramid.  The teacher teaches and the students learn - which largely means memorize - and then show what they learned on the test.  If you have read the Newsweek article linked to at the start of this post, you understand that even Asian educational officials recognize the limits of this.  But this stems much more from culture than it does from policy.  In the Philippines I learned that a student who would challenge his professor would be seen by his peers as mayabang - or boastful and not mindful of his place.  To engage in debate in the classroom is to be seen as pilosopo, or roughly "philosophical" - and this is not an endorsement of your social graces.

As Fareed Zakariah notes in his Newsweek article, education in Asia generally is seen as a chore rather than something to love.  Work hard and test well - because your future opportunities are almost entirely tied to how well you do on high stakes standardized tests.

As a conservative I will ask here: Is this where we want to go?

Common Core: Funding, Testing, Standards & Curriculum

I have noted above how the distinction between curriculum and standards, as made by advocates of Common Core, is disingenuous.  It is also disingenuous to insist that this is merely a state-led initiative.  To understand why, we have to start with Race to the Top.

This is a 2009 initiative which made $4.9B (yes, B as in Billion) of Department of Education funds available to the states.  These funds are doled out in grants, which are awarded on a competitive basis.  State applications are scored based on a number of different criteria, amounting to a total of 500 possible "points."  Among these criteria, 70 points are awarded based on the adoption of "Standards and Assessments."  40 of the 70 points are awarded for adoption of "common standards."  20 points are awarded for supporting the transition to "enhanced standards" and "high-quality assessments"  The final 10 points are awarded for "Developing and implementing common, high-quality assessments."  Note: "assessments" is educator-speak for standardized tests.

It is not a mistake that "Common Core" was developed at the same time as "Race to the Top."  It is disingenuous to call this a "state-led" initiative, seeing as it is explicitly called out in the scoring rubric for federal grants.

In order to compete for federal funds, the states must adopt a common set of standards.  They also must show that the lowest achieving schools are improving (40 of the 500 points) and adopt data systems to support instruction.  The data, of course, has to come from somewhere.  Enter standardized tests.  In order for these tests to provide a meaningful comparison across states, they have to be written to a set of standards.  Enter Common Core.  In order to understand the next and last step - curriculum - we have to understand a little of the history of standardized tests.

I'll leave the details for the reader of my book, or of Dr. Popham's "The Truth About Testing".  The salient point is how a study of a standardized math test compared the test with the text books used by the students taking the test.  No less than 50%(!!!) of the items on the test represented concepts not even covered in the students' text book!

And so today we see curriculum development companies offering "Common Core-aligned" text books and related material.  The distinction between standards and curriculum is a real distinction, and an important one for us to understand.  It becomes meaningless, though, the minute you introduce federal funding into the mix.   In order to compete for funding, states must participate in the development and implementation of both common testing and common standards.  And in order for state schools' test scores to support competing for federal funding, the momentum toward a common curriculum is inexorable.  It is the prior dynamic - or shall I say distortion - of federal funding which makes the advocates' insistence on the distinction between standards and curriculum disingenuous at the very best.

Test Scores vs. "Thought Leadership"

But there is a more important question we need to be asking.  If we are engaging in a "Race to the Top" we should be asking "the top of what?"  As Zakariah's article points out, Asian education officials are asking why it is that while their students are at the top of the test score ladder, later on in life, when they look for "thought leaders" - those challenging the conventional wisdom and questioning authority - those former students are noticeably absent.

So, again, we're racing to the top of what?  The test score ladder?  Why?  Do we want our kids to be competitive in the disciplines of the 21st century - especially in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM)?  If so, exactly what do these tests tell us about that?  If they tell us anything about the ability to be competitive, why are those who are doing the best on these tests noticeably absent among the "thought leaders" in these disciplines?

It is because these tests - and now a whole bureaucratic construct of funding, testing, standards and curriculum have been sold to us - and have not, do not, and never will live up to the sales hype.  Our best teachers are now abandoning the field because they cannot stand to watch the love for learning they have spent their lives nurturing robbed from their kids by the budgetary imperatives of the educational bureaucracy.  Make no mistake, this is what Common Core is producing.

It is for this reason, as one who has lived, studied and even taught in Asia, when I hear people complaining about how poorly our students are doing on standardized tests - in comparison with their Asian counterparts in particular - that I ask: "So what?"

"But we need to be competitive in the 21st century world economy!" I will usually hear in response.

"OK," I reply, "Why is it that you believe these tests tell us anything about that?"

"But they're beating us!"

"Yup, there they are, beating us with their #2 pencils filling out those little bubbles.  And here we are, graduating future thought leaders like we always have."

Will someone please tell me, what is the problem, again, that Race to the Top and Common Core are trying to solve?

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