Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Book Title:  The Education Invasion: How Common Core Fights Parents for Control of American Kids

Author: By Joy Pullmann; Reviewer: Sandra Stotsky

Libraries cannot set out politically balanced displays of books on the Common Core project because advocates and critics of it are far from evenly distributed. Most books on the subject do not consider the project a desirable reform (i.e., they do not favor workforce preparation for all students in place of optional high school curricula and student-selected postsecondary goals).

Nor have parents lauded Common Core’s effects on their children’s learning or the K–8 curriculum. Indeed, few observers see anything academically worthwhile in the standards funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and promoted by the organizations and foundations it has subsidized for that purpose (e.g., the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Educational Excellence), with aligned tests funded by the Obama-led U.S. Department of Education (USED) and guided by Arne Duncan’s and John King’s many appointees still in the USED, despite the change in administration after January 2017.

Joy Pullmann’s book helps us to understand why there is so little on the advocacy end of a library bookshelf holding works on Common Core.

Pullmann’s purpose is to explain what Common Core is and how it got to be implemented in almost every public classroom in almost every state in a remarkably short period of time (less than five years). She does so chiefly from the perspective of the many parents and teachers she quotes. Organized in seven chapters, her book describes how the Gates Foundation promoted and continues to promote one extremely wealthy couple’s uninformed, unsupported, and unsupportable ideas on education for other people’s children, even while their own children are enrolled in a non–Common Cored private school. It explains how (but not exactly why) the Gates Foundation helped to centralize control of public education in the USED ; why parents, teachers, local school boards, and state legislators were the last to learn how the public schools that their local and state taxes support had been nationalized without congressional knowledge or permission; and why they were expected to believe that their local public schools were now accountable to a distant and faceless bureaucracy for what they taught, how they taught, and how it was graded, not to the local and state taxpayers who fund the schools or to locally elected school boards.

Overnight, teachers discovered they were accountable to faraway anonymous bureaucrats for students’ scores on tests that these teachers had not developed or reviewed before or after their administration. In some cases, teachers were accountable for the achievement of students they had never taught. Yet, amazingly, the Common Core project was presented to state boards and school administrators as “state led” (see, for example, Ashley Jochim and Patrick McGuinn, “The Politics of Common Core Assessments,” Education Next 16, no. 4 [Fall 2016]: 44–52) even though it was not accountable to the states despite the fact that the federal government pays for only about 8 to 10 percent of the costs of public education on average across states.

The complex story of how sets of English language arts and mathematics standards (and, later, compatible science standards) created by nonexperts selected chiefly (so far as we know) by Bill Gates got adopted legally by math- and science-illiterate state boards of education (most state board members in most states do not understand the content and sequence of a K–12 math and science curriculum, to judge by the absence of documented questions on Common Core’s math standards at the time they were officially adopted) is carefully told in a relatively short book.

What we miss in the book are analyses of four crucial topics: the academic quality of Common Core’s standards, why they were adopted by state boards of education, why state legislatures can’t seem to replace them with stronger academic standards, and to whom our public schools should be accountable.

The first topic is perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Common Core project—the inferior academic quality of its standards. The mission statement in the first documents released by the Common Core project claims that its English language arts and mathematics standards “are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers.” Yet, curiously, there is no chapter in Pullmann’s book on whether independent academic experts in mathematics, science, or literary scholarship (such as E. D. Hirsch Jr. at the University of Virginia) have ever judged as “robust” Common Core’s “collegereadiness” standards and the tests aligned to them.

Pullmann does make it clear in a subsequent blog post how Common Core’s mathematics and English language arts standards limit if not damage the education of all children, including those it claims to want to make “college ready" but there is no cogent discussion of this central issue in her book.

Second, because the Common Core standards were never judged by independent academic experts as reflecting the “knowledge and skills” needed for success in college and careers, why did state boards or other state agencies (often appointed by a governor) make a decision in 2010 to adopt them, knowing that billions of dollars were needed to implement them, to alter textbooks and other curriculum materials, to prepare new teachers, to retrain practicing teachers, and, above all else, to assess teachers and knowing that many more billions would eventually be needed for continuing implementation?

That is the puzzle some investigative reporters will need to tackle in the future because Pullmann’s book offers no analysis of this situation. Case studies might shed light on why state boards of education across the country chose to adopt secondary mathematics standards (and, later, compatible science standards) that most board members were incapable of understanding on their own (most were not engineers) and without a public meeting with academic experts at their own public universities.

Why did they think they could rely on the staff at their own departments of education, on mathematically weak K–12 teachers, or on a sales pitch from organizations subsidized by the Gates Foundation rather than on people who actually teach mathematics or science at the postsecondary level and have specialized in the subject in undergraduate and graduate school or used mathematics in their daily professional work?

Third, how does “school choice” address any of the problems with the Common Core project? Pullmann’s commendable effort to describe the spider web spun by two wealthy people to ensnare all the nation’s children in their misconceived education agenda ends with a puzzling recommendation extolling school choice, as if giving low-income parents a choice of school building or school management solves the many problems that parents have had with Common Core’s standards, tests, and data-collection activities. Where readers might expect suggestions for how states or school districts might escape or have tried to escape from the Common Core spider web, we find instead a justification for school choice.

It is common knowledge that charter schools or vouchers for private schools (the forms in which school choice most often occurs) are available chiefly to low-income parents and their children. No means test was used for many of the original charter schools in the 1990s. But in 2017 it is quite clear that charter schools and vouchers are designed to help low-income children escape “failing” schools.

If the entire system of public education is trapped in Common Core’s spider web, what helps children of low- to middle-income families (perhaps the bulk of the population in our public schools) escape the curriculum shaped by its standards, statemandated tests, and data-collection activities in the schools they apparently must attend unless they are homeschooled? How can charter schools (mostly public schools) escape the Common Core net?

Fourth, we needed a discussion of accountability in the context of the Common Core project. Why did our governors and state boards seem to agree to the idea that our local public schools and its teaching force are accountable not to the parents of the children in them, not to the local taxpayers who pay on average about 45 percent of their public schools’ costs, and not to the state legislatures that pay on average (across states) about 45 percent of their costs, but to a partisan (and constantly changing) federal government or a Congress that appropriates on average about 8 to 10 percent of their costs?

Even so-called conservative organizations (e.g., the Manhattan Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and National Review) don’t seem to understand why parents whose children are trapped in Common Cored public schools don’t see their (often governor-appointed) commissioners of education and (often governor-appointed) state boards of education as speaking for their children’s interests. Elimination of USED-written accountability rules for the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, voted on by the U.S. House and the Senate in March 2017, is only a baby step toward a solution of the problems in American education.

For sure, Joy Pullmann’s useful addition to the negative side of the library bookshelf on Common Core won’t be the last.


UK: Toby Young is not the problem: Hysterical academics are letting the Office for Students off the hook.

2018 was just minutes old when the custodians of acceptable thought honed in on their latest target – the contrarian turned educationalist Toby Young. As news broke of Young’s appointment to the board of the government’s new Office for Students (OfS), Twitter went into meltdown and Guardian journalists abandoned New Year celebrations to screenshot Young’s beyond-the-pale utterances.

Labour MP and Brexit-basher David Lammy tweeted ‘Welcome to Trumpland’ and declared Young ‘a sexist misogynist’. Never one for understatement, Paul Mason described Young as a ‘Tory eugenicist and educational apartheid guru’ who ‘despises working-class kids who try to make good through education’. Economist Danny Blanchflower called for Young’s removal from the OfS board, arguing he was ‘totally unfit [and] unqualified’. Academics rushed to join the hate-fest.

I have no intention to defend Young’s tweets about women’s breasts, gay sex or even his more detailed plans to incentivise breeding in order to enhance intelligence. Young is more than capable of defending himself. He has described his past comments as ‘sophomoric’ and purged his Twitter account of thousands of politically incorrect statements. Some of Young’s opinions flipped between deliberately provocative and vile. Yet, incredibly, the response of the social-media mob has been more hate-filled and unhinged than anything spilled from Young’s keyboard.

Outraged Twittermobs demanding apologies for thoughtcrimes and social media pile-ons are now a routine part of life. But, even by today’s norms, the furious reaction to Young’s appointment has been hysterical and embarrassing. Labelling him a eugenicist and a fascist doesn’t only display a spectacular historical illiteracy - it also ignores what Young has been up to for the past few years. The more sober response to Young’s appointment is that he is simply unqualified. But Young does have experience in the education sector: as he was quick to point out to Paul Mason, he has opened four free schools in London that will educate almost 2,000 children and take in an above average number of children on free school meals.

In all the hysteria over Young’s tweets, the real problem for higher education – the establishment of the Office for Students (OfS) – has been overlooked. Academics arguing Young is unqualified, that he lacks experience of higher education, score an own goal. Presumably they believe that a better qualified candidate – or even, as some have suggested, a student – would make the OfS acceptable.

The OfS is a regulatory body set up with the aim of ensuring the market in higher education works so that students receive value for money and a satisfactory university experience – as such, it will undermine the autonomy of institutions. None of these demands upon universities is new. Successive governments have sought to bring about efficiency in higher education through the workings of the market. That many students have come to see themselves as customers, in receipt of a service and a certificate in return for tuition fees, has been a fact of life for the past decade. The OfS, while not bringing these problems into existence, will certainly exacerbate existing trends.

The hysteria over Young’s appointment is a distraction from the real issues facing higher education. Worse, the outrage whipped up over one politically incorrect individual actually lends legitimacy to the OfS and the government’s reforms. It makes it appear as if higher education’s biggest problem is Toby Young, and with his sacking, and a politically palatable replacement, everything will be just great. Rather than Young, his critics argue, we should get representatives of the NUS on the OfS board – that is, get students to regulate universities!

It seems likely Young has joined the OfS in order to meet Jo Johnson’s goal of enforcing free speech in universities. Last week, Johnson again reiterated his concerns with No Platforming and censorship in higher education. Ironically, the hysteria directed at Young from academics and the demand that he should be sacked (No Platformed from a job he hasn’t yet begun) shows Johnson’s concerns are not misplaced. It illustrates the need for someone like Young to shake up a higher-education sector that has become censorious and politically conformist.

But unfortunately, Johnson is as ignorant about free speech as the Twittermobs criticising Young’s appointment. Johnson’s desire to see the OfS legislate free speech into existence on campus is not just misguided, but impossible. Much of the current impetus to restrict free speech stems from various government policies. The Prevent Duty, which compels universities to monitor external speakers and report students deemed susceptible to radicalisation, is only the most obvious.

The Teaching Excellence Framework and the importance universities have come to place on student satisfaction also has a corrosive effect on free speech. Lecturers, conscious that students are evaluating their performance, are perhaps less likely to push teaching into terrain that is too intellectually challenging or emotionally discomforting. If students demand trigger warnings and a decolonised curriculum, then all too often that is what they get.

Similarly, the marketisation of higher education, with its institutional onus on brand image and reputation management, keeps a lid on academic freedom. Psychotherapist James Caspian had his research into the experiences of individuals who transition from one gender to another shut down by Bath Spa University. ‘The fundamental reason given was that it might cause criticism of the research on social media, and criticism of the research would be criticism of the university. They also added it’s better not to offend people’, Caspian said.

The remit of the OfS is to enhance the power of students within higher education and to promote the market. It cannot do this and promote free speech at the same time. Its very existence undermines the institutional autonomy that is fundamental to academic freedom. Yet, tragically and embarrassingly, academics and journalists have been far too busy projecting outrage at Toby Young’s tweets to take up these substantive issues.

Late in the day, some are now arguing that it’s possible to campaign both for Toby Young to be sacked and for the abolishment of the OfS. But so far, all the bluster has been directed at the easier target: today’s hate figure who once made nasty remarks about disabled children and working-class students. Meanwhile, the Office for Students has had a free pass. The ignorance, ideological conformity and intellectual cowardice that has been on display since the beginning of this year does not bode well for academia in 2018.


Australian workers and businesses say universities failing to deliver useful degrees

MORE than a quarter of university graduates say their degrees are almost useless for their jobs, while a leading employment group says some new graduates are verging on unemployable.

The results come from the largest survey of Australian employers and workers ever conducted which raises questions about the worth of some university degrees.

The Employer Satisfaction Survey, released today, reveals more than 10 per cent of graduates believe their qualification is “not at all” important to their job, while another 15 per cent say their qualification is “not that” important for their job.

Graduates from management and commerce degrees, as well information technology and creative arts degrees, were the most likely to believe their degree wasn’t important for their current work.

The government-funded survey also reveals that employers do not believe the nation’s most prestigious universities are producing the best workers.

None of the Group of Eight universities appeared among the top eight of 41 universities around Australia that were compared for employer satisfaction.

James Cook University received the highest approval rating, at 91 per cent, and University of South Queensland received the lowest rating at 77 per cent.

Overall, the survey found 84 per cent of employers were satisfied with their workers.

“If there was any advice I would give the wave of young people about to enter tertiary studies in the next few weeks, it would be to focus on employability skills and seriously consider developing the science, technology, engineering and maths qualifications new workplaces increasingly require,” he wrote in an opinion piece today.

“There is no doubt that work is changing and jobs along with it.

“Digitalisation means fast-moving workplaces, globally connected systems and rapid change.

“With these daunting developments taking place and the education system failing to keep up, the result for frustrated employers is that they find some new entrants to the labour market to be verging on the unemployable.”

Mr Willox said Australia’s education and training institutions were ramping up their connections with industry to better focus degrees but there was a long way to go.

Universities Australia’s acting chief executive Catriona Jackson rejected the criticism, saying employers had given university graduates “the equivalent of a high distinction”.

“These results tell an overwhelmingly positive story about graduates in the labour market and that universities are preparing their students well for their chosen careers,” she said.

“Employers are seeing, first-hand, the world-class quality of university graduates that we’re producing in Australia.”

The federal government has introduced a two-year freeze to per student funding for bachelor level degrees and has made further funding increases contingent on performance outcomes.

“Australia has excellent universities but they must place student outcomes at the forefront of their considerations to meet the needs of our economy, employers and ultimately boost the employment prospects of graduates,” he said.

“That’s precisely why the changes we announced in MYEFO will link additional funding for bachelor courses to performance outcomes.

“By further incentivising performance in areas such as employer and student satisfaction, completion and retention we should see better outcomes for graduates and better value for taxpayers.”

Steve Shepherd, chief executive of youth career coaching firm TwoPointZero, called for more focus on career education in schools and said targeted performance funding for universities was not the answer.

“It doesn’t actually address the issue, just distracts from it and could lead to higher education being out of reach for many young people today,” Mr Shepherd said.

“What we should be looking at and funding instead is improved career education in schools, as most schools currently spend less than a cup of coffee per student per year on careers advice.

“We need to provide more guidance to parents to help them understand the employment market isn’t the same as when they left school. “And, we need to stop thinking going to university is the be all and end all.”

Mr Shepherd said many young people were picking any degree to simply say they had been to university, without thinking about the impact it would have on their careers.

“We’re essentially suffering from ‘degree inflation’, where the value of a degree is diminishing and rapidly,” he said.

About 97,000 graduates and 4000 employers were surveyed.


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