Mike the Mad Biologist

It’s bad enough that the Texas Board of Education, through its new ‘standards’, will result in the mass mental disability of millions of American students. But the new federal standards could potential harm Massachusetts’ educational system–and if it’s working well (and it is)–then don’t fix it. With friends like Arne Duncan and the Obama Administration, who needs enemies (or Republicans)? Ze’ev Furman and Sandra Stotsky:

The Obama administration plans to make states adopt proposed national academic standards as a condition for receipt of federal education grants. The problem is what the administration has proposed is not near the quality of what the Commonwealth already has.

High academic standards are the foundation of Massachusetts’s landmark education reform success….

The latest draft of national English language arts and math standards looks very different. The prestigious National Math Advisory Panel identified algebra as the key to higher-level math study and recommended that more students should be ready to enroll in Algebra I by eighth grade. But it is unlikely that these standards could even support the teaching of such a course in ninth grade.

Rather than relying on English teachers to determine the relative complexity of the texts they would assign, the draft also recommends use of a formula that would be unusable by the average teacher. Indeed, the formula shows “The Grapes of Wrath” to be at a second- or third-grade level of complexity.

Not very standardey at all. But what’s really problematic is that, unlike the Massachusetts standards which actually define concrete goals that can guide teachers, the federal standards are rather nebulous (italics mine):

While the Commonwealth’s standards steadily move to higher levels of academic content from K-12, the draft English language arts standards move along a yellow-brick road to an empty set of skill-based “college and career readiness” benchmarks. The content consists mostly of non-binding lists and titles included in the appendices. In math, the standards end somewhere short of Algebra II.

Ripple effects of the common core standards would be felt throughout public education in Massachusetts. New standards require new assessments to test mastery of them, and that would spell the end of MCAS.

Because who needs math anyway? Worse, those proposing the new standards do not seem to have learned from previous failures (italics mine):

Rather than focusing on academic achievement, Darling-Hammond has long touted using student portfolios and other forms of assessment like “those that have been used in leading-edge assessment systems . . . such as those in Connecticut, Kentucky, Maryland, Maine, and Vermont.”

“Have been” are the key words here. Connecticut scrapped its former standards and assessments in favor of ones that look more like Massachusetts. Vermont and Kentucky also gave up on student portfolio assessments because they proved unwieldy, unreliable, and too expensive.

It takes time to develop and implement quality standards. The common core standards would be implemented just a year after the process was initiated. Only three weeks will be allowed for public feedback before the standards are finalized.

It’s easy to understand much of the support for national standards, dubbed “no vendor left behind.” The standards development committee includes an inordinate number of folks from major testing companies. But state policy makers should think long and hard before scrapping the nation’s best standards in favor of an untested substitute.

I understand the desire to have national standards: Alabama and Mississippi, for instance, have crappy educational systems. But federalization should raise the bar to the system that is among the best in the world, not lower it. I’m also leery of using failed standards simply because a politically-connected education professor has influence: U.S. education is littered with failed educational reforms–reforms which have been disproportionately inflicted on those who can least afford them, the poor.

The Massachusetts congressional delegation better get its shit together on this. And, Governor Patrick, aren’t you and Obama supposed to be buddies, or something?


  1. #1 Phillip IV
    March 17, 2010

    With friends like Arne Duncan and the Obama Administration, who needs enemies (or Republicans)?

    Independent of what kind of friends you have, few people actually need enemies, and absolutely nobody needs Republicans. How much need there is for friends like Arne Duncan and the Obama Administration will remain to be seen, however.

    I’m not very hopeful, though, that any national standard eventually adapted will not turn out to be at least a moderately retrograde step for the states currently near the top, if only in the name of homogenization.

  2. #2 becca
    March 17, 2010

    I know. Kids should totally be reading The Gapes of Wrath in Kindergarten, not as late as 2nd grade!!!

    Seriously, I want to be with you on this, and knowing very little about this I think I’d want *my* kid to be educated according to the Massachusetts standards, but I really felt this article didn’t do a good job of explaining exactly what’s wrong with the likely federal standards, or what’s right with the current Massachusetts ones.

  3. #3 Rob Monkey
    March 17, 2010

    Um, I read at a much higher level than my grade, and I don’t think the Grapes of Wrath would have been at my level in second or third grade at all. Granted, I don’t think it’s appropriate for any age, seeing as how it’s so godawful fucking boring, but that’s me :) Yet another case of right author, wrong book, the right Steinbeck book being Of Mice and Men in this case. Same with Dickens, teaching kids to read Great Expectations only teaches them to not touch Dickens with a 10 foot pole. As to the actual SUBSTANCE of the article, I agree, this obsession with standards is getting ridiculous. Why not just look at the successful systems we have around instead of trying to come up with some new way of achieving success?