Wednesday, May 08, 2013

"Common Core" And The All-Too-Common Tendencies Of Heavy-Handed Government

Is President Obama taking-over our nation’s public schools? Is a United Nations agenda infiltrating America’s K-12 classrooms? No, not exactly. Not Yet. But the so-called “Common Core” public education agenda could be paving the way for some serious trouble.Here are a few basic assumptions that people are making about Common Core – along with the facts of the matter.

Assumption # 1 : “Common Core” is a set of educational curriculum requirements being imposed on the states by the Obama Administration. Technically speaking, this is false. “Common Core,” whose official name is the “Common Core State Standards Initiative,” is not, itself, about curriculum. It is a set of academic standards that students in the various grade levels are expected to achieve. It has not been created by the Obama Administration, but rather, it is actually an effort that first emerged at the state level, undertaken by state governors and state superintendents of education nationwide. The official sponsoring organizations of the initiative are the National Governor’s Association (“NGA”), and the Council of Chief State School Officers (“CCSO”).

Attempts to impose academic standards on public educators date back to the early 1980’s. In the 1990’s it became a state-driven matter, while The federal No Child Left Behind Act, signed in to law by President George W Bush in January of 2002, required the states to create their own academic standards, and then to achieve them, in order to receive federal education funds.

During the past decade, state Governors and state education Superintendents began to collaborate in an effort to bring uniformity to their respective states’ academic standards, and today, there are three primary organizations that advance the Common Core agenda. The NGA and the CCSO, as noted above, remain as the official sponsoring organizations of the initiative. Separately, a group called Common Core, Inc., a non-profit, 501 (c) 3 organization based in Washington, D.C., writes curriculum (not academic standards) that is intended to help educators comply with Common Core Standards.

Assumption #2: The Common Core State Standards Initiative receives bipartisan support around the country. This is true. Both right-leaning and left-leaning individuals and groups across the U.S. support the Common Core initiative. The left-leaning American Federation of Teachers and the Fordham Institute, both champion the Common Core effort, as does the Foundation for Excellence In Education, an organization headed-up by the Republican former Governor of Florida, Jeb Bush. Similarly, both Republican and Democrat Governors - including Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter (R-Idaho), Governor Jerry Brown (D-California), and Governor Duval Patrick (D-Massachusetts), all support the Common Core effort.

Yet just as Common Core receives bipartisan support, it is also subject to bipartisan opposition. The conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation, along with libertarian leaning groups like the Pioneer Institute of Boston, opposes the Common Core effort. Glenda Ritz, a Democrat who currently serves as Indiana’s State Superintendent of Education, also opposes the Common Core initiative.

Ritz’ election in the heavily Republican state of Indiana is often cited as evidence of Common Core’s unpopularity. In November of 2012, Ritz unseated Indiana’s incumbent Republican State Superintendent, Dr. Tony Bennett, in part by campaigning against the Common Core initiative and claiming that Indiana’s adoption of the Common Core standards would result in a loss of state sovereignty. Ritz ended up receiving more votes in that election than did the new (and popular) Governor of Indiana, Mike Pence.

Assumption #3: The Common Core Initiative allows the U.S. Federal Government to directly control educational content nationwide. This is false. However, a scenario like this could come about indirectly.

Federal law prohibits the federal government from dictating educational curriculum content to the nation’s public schools. In fact, according to independent legal research conducted by the Pioneer Institute, no less than three separate statutes prohibit this from happening.

Yet on President Barack Obama’s watch, there has been a concerted effort within his administration to control public education with the Common Core agenda. Back in 2009 and 2010 when the administration was distributing so-called “stimulus” funds, the U.S. Department of Education devised what was called the “Race To The Top” initiative. Public schools could apply for and receive the stimulus money, but they had to meet specific criteria.

One of the criteria was for schools to adopt teacher evaluation procedures (this was a good thing, despite the outrage to the idea from teachers’ unions). Another criteria was for school districts to adopt higher “college and career standards” for students. And it just so happened that, in order to qualify for the stimulus funds, many states chose at that time to adopt the “Common Core” academic standards as a means of qualifying for the funds.

Interestingly, when the state of Massachusetts first applied for the “Race to the Top” stimulus funds in the first round of funds disbursements, the state had not yet officially adopted the Common Core standards, and ended up ranking only 13th among the 17 states that qualified for the “extra” funds. Later, after Massachusetts officially adopted the Common Core academic standards, the state received a #1 ranking when it next applied for the funds.

The lesson from Massachusetts was pretty clear. Adopt Common Core standards, and you’ll get more money from Washington. The Obama Administration could technically and legally mandate educational content to the states, but it has successfully used a “third party entity,” of sorts – the Common Core initiative – to have its way with the states. Given this precedent, it’s not difficult to see how the feds could eventually begin requiring certain types of curriculum for kids nationwide.

Many of the nation’s Governors and state school Superintendents who support Common Core still like to remind their constituents that the initiative is a “state thing,” not a “federal thing” – and, therefore, it’s a good thing. For them, to reject the agenda is to ignore their brilliance.

But all Americans should heed the warning: when a majority of the states begin to all do the same thing in terms of public policy, we, the people, become an easier target for federal control.


A Leftie who saw the light: A good school freed me from a suffocating, lonely life. But wanting the same for every child made the Left detest me, writes MELANIE PHILLIPS

One of the most toxic successes of the Left in Britain in the past 30 years has been to hijack the centre ground in politics and opinion, leaving them free to denounce as ‘extremist’ anyone who dares disagree with them.

The true middle ground — that area of truth, decency and reasoned debate where I believe most of us situate our thinking — is now vilified as ‘the Right’.

This is as mind-bending as it is destructive. By loudly asserting that Left-wing ideology is really ‘centrist’, the Left has succeeded in presenting their own extremist, anti-social and even nihilistic ideas as unarguably good.

A terrifying example of this is in the wrecking of our education system, where, rather than make things better, a so-called ‘progressive’ creed has actually turned back the clock. Education changes lives. It certainly transformed mine. School was where I — a solitary, serious-minded only child — felt free from my suffocating family background and happy.

Studying also made me feel in control of my life. If I worked hard, I could make good things happen, and they did — Oxford University, followed by a sought-after job as a journalist. Opportunities like this had been denied to my father back in the impoverished Thirties.

His innate intelligence hit an early cul-de-sac when his parents turned down the grammar school place he had won because they couldn’t afford the school uniform and he was forced to leave school at 13. But decades later in the apparently enlightened Eighties, I was horrified to discover that people like him were still being denied opportunity for advancement.

The Left-wing dogma dominating education meant that many state schools were simply not up to the job — and once again it was the poor who were suffering.

In a column in the Guardian, where I had worked for ten years, I wrote in support of a national curriculum the Conservative government was introducing in a desperate attempt to ensure that teachers actually started teaching children something at school.

I argued that, while the better-off could buy their way out of the system through living in leafy suburbs or sending their children to private schools, the poor were trapped by lousy local schools to which there was no alternative for their own children.

The reaction was instant and seismic. In Left-wing Guardianland, there was only one permitted explanation for the crisis in Britain’s schools, and that was the spending cuts imposed by the ‘heartless’ Thatcher government. To suggest it might actually have a point about the breakdown of teaching was simply unthinkable.

My colleagues gazed at me in perplexity and dismay. Overnight, I became ‘Right-wing’. ‘This is a Daily Mail view,’ I was told — the greatest possible crime and insult, since in such circles the Mail is considered to be off the graph in its opinions.  The fact that I had written with passion about the plight of poor people was totally disregarded.

How had I reached this heretical position? By the staggering tactic of actually observing what was going on rather than following some ideological diktat. I looked at the local state schools for my own young children, Gabriel and Abigail, and found them wanting — not because they lacked money, but because the teachers had abandoned structured teaching in favour of ‘play’ and ‘self-discovery’.

There were two decent primary schools in my area in West London that stuck to traditional methods. I could get my children into neither —they were hugely over-subscribed. In the end I gave up and sent my children to independent schools.

I could afford it; but I knew most could not. As ever, I was concerned about those at the bottom of the heap. Desperate parents and teachers intimidated by the education orthodoxy wrote to me in support.

However, friends and colleagues denounced me as a reactionary Gradgrind, a devotee of the unimaginative, fact-obsessed headmaster in Dickens’s Hard Times.

What was ‘progressive’ about an approach that inflicted its most devastating damage upon children at the bottom of the social heap, who depended on school to lift them out of disadvantage but who were being left ignorant, illiterate and innumerate?

I ploughed on, though it was a lone furrow at the Guardian, writing next about the refusal to teach Standard English in speech, spelling and grammar in our classrooms on the grounds that this was ‘elitist’.

How could this be? I had seen at first hand in my own under-educated family of Jewish immigrants that an inability to control the language meant an inability to control their own lives.

My Polish grandmother had not been able to fill in an official form without help; and my father (although born in Britain) just didn’t have the words to express complicated thoughts, and would always lose out against those who looked down at him from their educated citadels.

Teachers wrote to me in despair at the pressure on them not to impose Standard English on the grounds it was discriminatory. They knew that, on the contrary, this was to abandon vast numbers of children to permanent servitude and ignorance.

Yet it was clear that the professors, advisers and experts from the education establishment putting such pressure on these teachers were the supercilious upper-middle classes, who had no experience of what it was actually like to be poor and uneducated or an immigrant, but were nevertheless imposing their own ideological fantasies on the vulnerable — and harming them as a result.

I also wrote about how black parents in inner London were cheering on the government’s education reforms, despairing of a system which had so grievously failed two generations of black children. But at the so anti-racist Guardian, the views of those black parents counted for nothing.

The Left-wing Inner London Education Authority (which ran schools in the capital at that time) could never be wrong; the Tory government could never be right.

My view was that deteriorating education standards had little to do with low pay for teachers or schools starved of money. It was teachers and teaching that made the difference to children’s lives.

The problem was that the entire education establishment had taken a desperately wrong turn and the increasing number of bad teachers were turning good teachers into a beleaguered minority.

Here was, as I wrote in the Guardian, ‘the vicious circle of an education establishment that perpetuates its own myths down through generations of poorly taught children’.

Reaction to this was extreme and ugly. I was described as ‘ignorant, silly, intellectually vulgar, vicious, irresponsible, elitist, middle-class, fatuous, dangerous, intemperate, shallow, strident, reactionary, near-hysterical, propagandist, simplistic, unbalanced, prejudiced, rabid, venomous and pathetic’.

Three-quarters of the letters were hostile. But it was the letters of support which shed a devastating light on the situation in our classrooms.

One educational psychologist wrote: ‘In my job I see small children whose ability to focus on a task is chronic —yet they are put to learn in an [open and noisy] environment.

‘Children do not learn through play but through instruction, explanation, guidance, motivation from an adult. Children need to be taught to make connections, to look for meanings. They do not learn from Wendy houses or computers, they learn from people.

‘And whenever I say this to a group of teachers, the older and wiser ones thank me; they have been waiting for years for someone to make this point. But for some reason they cannot say this in public.  ‘And neither can I — which is why I do not want my name published. My job is important to me, and public condemnation of teaching methods will not be approved.’

A chill came over me when I read those words. What was being described was more akin to life in a totalitarian state. Dissent was being silenced, and those who ran against the orthodoxy were being forced to operate in secret.

Worse still, the very meaning of concepts such as education, teaching and knowledge was being unilaterally altered and thousands of children were being abandoned to ignorance and institutionalised disadvantage.

If ever there was an abuse of power for journalists to investigate, this was surely it. But for most of my colleagues, it was I who was out of step.

In 1996, I published a book called All Must Have Prizes, from the race in Alice In Wonderland where the dodo announces that ‘everybody has won, and all must have prizes’.

Education standards, I wrote, had not only plummeted but education itself had been redefined. It was no longer the transmission of knowledge and culture, but a process of self-discovery by ‘autonomous meaning-makers’, once known as pupils.

Knowledge had given way to creativity and spontaneity. The essay had been replaced by the imaginative story, substituting teaching children to think by allowing them to imagine.

Teaching the rules of grammar or maths was frowned upon for stifling a child’s creativity. Right and wrong answers were no longer distinguished from each other; relativism reigned and children were told to make it up as they went along.

I suspected a deeper and even more sinister ideological agenda here. The so-called ‘New Literacy’, which substituted listening, memorising and guesswork for being taught to decode the printed page, encouraged the use of English teaching to ‘empower’ children to correct social inequalities.

Since teaching children to read was apparently an injustice against working-class students, children were to be empowered by ‘making their own meaning’. Correcting children’s mistakes was an illegitimate exercise of power.

The outcome was the disaster of mass illiteracy among school-leavers and soaring behavioural problems among pupils excluded from classroom life through their inability to read. Even universities were forced to provide remedial courses for undergraduates to  compensate for the inadequacies of the education system.

How had this self-destructive process come about? To my mind what was happening in our schools was part and parcel of a country and a society that had become radically demoralised.

The ideological dogmas undermining education were also eroding family life and the moral codes that kept civilised society together, replacing these by the ‘no blame, no shame, no pain society’.

Respect for authority both in and outside the classroom had collapsed.

Most teachers, I wrote, were unaware that they were the unwitting troops of a dangerous cultural revolution. In our universities and training establishments, they were being taught to teach according to far-Left doctrines whose core aim was to subvert the fundamental tenets of western society.

My book caused a sensation. I was accused of ‘paranoia’, ‘tunnel vision’, ‘unfounded prejudices’, ‘ignorance’ and ‘arrogance’.

I was the author of the ‘worst written book of the year’, ‘a farrago of ignorance and inaccuracy’ and a ‘reactionary diatribe’. A former senior chief inspector of schools called the book ‘beneath contempt’ while a leading professor of education pronounced it ‘cr*p by anybody’s standards’.

He implied that I had cooked the evidence and quoted non-existent sources. Apparently all the teachers, psychologists, government inspectors, university professors, politicians, civil servants, parents and pupils I had spoken to, and all the educational texts and research reports I had read, were just ‘anecdote’ and ‘tittle-tattle’.

None of the evidence I produced was debated, merely denied. As usual.

But the campaign against me took a vicious turn and reached to some surprisingly high places when innuendo appeared in print about the proximity of my views with those of Chris Woodhead, then the outspoken Chief Inspector of Schools.

He had controversially gone to war against what he described as failed teaching methods; in piece after piece, I endorsed his views.

As a result, the education press presented us as conspirators and perhaps more. The phrase ‘an item’ was used. ‘Nothing romantic, you understand,’ wrote one commentator in the Times Educational Supplement. ‘No, the link with Chris and Melanie is intellectual, but it is powerful and dangerous all the same.’

I suspected that some of this sniping was being fed by those around the then Education Secretary, David Blunkett, who seemed to feel personally undermined by Woodhead.


Australia:  Funding students based on race demeaning and wasteful

The Labor government’s education proposal adds grants for Indigenous students on top of the Gonski recommendations for increased school funding. This proposal does not take into account the overwhelming evidence that funding is not a principal constraint on educational outcomes in Australia.

Past funding increases have failed to close the COAG ‘gap’ between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.

The 2012 NAPLAN results showed that a ‘gap’ persists between the majority of students (Indigenous and non-Indigenous) who pass literacy and numeracy tests and a minority of Indigenous students who fail.

A majority of Indigenous students – at least 120,000 out of a total of 180,000 students enrolled – pass NAPLAN. These students attend a large range of mainstream private and government schools. They are mainly the children of working parents who ensure that their children attend school regularly and achieve good results. These successful students and their parents are demeaned and stigmatised by being classed as ‘disadvantaged’ just because of their Indigenous ancestry.

Some 40,000 failing Indigenous students attend schools that concentrate students from low socioeconomic and often welfare-dependent backgrounds. Employers constantly complain that these schools produce school leavers who cannot read, write or count and are not ‘job ready.’ Low socioeconomic characteristics contribute to poor attendance and behavioural problems that undermine school performance. Good teachers leave such schools. Parents enrol their children in performing schools. In the absence of strong principals, such schools become ‘residualised.’

Another 20,000 Indigenous students attend separate ‘Indigenous’ schools in remote communities that have no individual property rights and, therefore, no economy or jobs. These Indigenous schools have developed separate curriculums and teaching standards that fail to deliver literacy and numeracy. There are still 40 Homeland Learning Centres in the Northern Territory that do not have qualified teachers every school day. Although many students do not speak ‘standard’ English, unlike schools with high concentrations of immigrants, Indigenous schools do not have ESL teachers. Attendance is usually poor in Indigenous schools, and more than 90% of the students fail NAPLAN tests.

There is no correlation between funding per student and education performance. Indigenous schools already receive the highest funding, often more than $30,000 per student – more than three times the mainstream school average per student. Yet (with a few notable reformed exceptions), Indigenous school NAPLAN results are persistently at the bottom of all Australian schools.

Using ethnic characteristics to identify students who should receive additional education funding is doubly wrong: Indigeneity is not the cause of high failure rates so race-based funding will not reduce failure rates. Poor teaching, not lack of funds, is real reason for poor educational outcomes.


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