On this week’s special Dropout Nation Podcast, RiShawn Biddle takes a look at the Obama Administration’s counterproductive effort to eviscerate No Child and explains why it is wreaking havoc on systemic reform our children deserve. It’s time for the President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to stop this incoherent, intellectually indefensible, and morally unacceptable warping of federal education policy.
You can listen to the Podcast at RiShawn Biddle Radio or download directly to your mobile or desktop device. Also, subscribe to the podcast series, and embed this podcast on your site. It is also available on iTunes, Blubrry, Stitcher, and PodBean. A new Dropout Nation Podcast debuts on Sunday.
On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, RiShawn Biddle looks at debates over income inequality, and explains how the nation’s education crisis helps cause (and exacerbates) it. Providing all children with high-quality education is the long-term solution for addressing the gaps in wealth resulting from an increasingly knowledge-based economy and society.
You can listen to the Podcast at RiShawn Biddle Radio or download directly to your mobile or desktop device. Also, subscribe to the podcast series, and embed this podcast on your site. It is also available on iTunes, Blubrry, Stitcher, and PodBean.
One of the problems for opponents of the Common Core reading and math standards, especially movement conservatives and some conservative reformers such as Stanford’s Williamson Evers and Jim Stergios of the Pioneer Institute, is that they have debased their arguments with so much in the way of what can best be called conspiracy-theorizing. From the attempts by Joy Pullman of the Heartland Institute to embrace Susan Ohanian-like arguments that Common Core is an effort by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to usurp democracy, to arguments by the Eagle Forum that the standards are somehow an effort by progressives to indoctrinate children in schools, the conspiracy-theorizing (and the unwillingness of more-sensible, if still wrongheaded, Common Core foes such as Evers, Stergios, and Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute, to distance themselves from such statements) effectively taken away attention from whatever legitimate concerns they may have.
So Common Core foes were clearly pleased when Washington Post columnist and movement conservative icon George Will jumped into the battle over the standards last week with a piece supporting their side. They were even more happy when a Common Core skeptic, Andy Smarick of Bellwether Education Partners, validated their perspective by declaring that Will’s piece epitomizes the”principled opposition” to the standards that supporters of them supposedly ignore and caricature.
But most of Will’s arguments against Common Core fail to stand up upon close scrutiny of the facts; in fact, Will engages in some of the same conspiracy-theorizing that has made it difficult for even the most-objective observer to take the arguments of opponents of the standards seriously. As for Smarick? In ignoring the flaws in Will’s arguments — and in failing to admit that many Common Core foes have only themselves to blame for their most-serious arguments being taken seriously by supporters of the standards — Smarick fails to do the proper job of holding his allies responsible for making smart arguments that advance their cause.
Arguing that Common Core is “designed to advance… the general progressive agenda of centralization and uniformity”, Will contends that supporters of the standards — including conservative reformers such as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and your editor — are doing all they can to keep the “nature and purpose” as “cloudy as possible for as long as possible”. How? By supposedly slyly arguing that the standards are voluntary and warily talking about the Obama Administration’s role in supporting implementation of them by 45 states and the District of Columbia. From where Will sits, Common Core’s effort to push what he calls “conformity”, along with the tests aligned with them, will do little more than “take a toll on parental empowerment”, lead to “the politicization of learning”, and “extinguish federalism’s creativity” by supposedly restricting “innovative governors” from undertaking their own systemic reform efforts.
Smarick cheers on Will’s piece, declaring that Common Core supporters cannot call his arguments “black-helicopter” thinking, both because “his conservatism is rooted in time-tested principles” and because of Will’s “deeply learned” background. From where Smarick sits, Will is speaking for those politicians and suburban families whose opposition to the standards spring in part from how the Obama Administration has bungle implementation of ObamaCare and has continued the growth of domestic surveillance that began with predecessor George W. Bush after the massacres at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon 12 years ago. Smarick then complains that Common Core supporters, especially centrist and liberal Democrats, are often too dismissive of the arguments offered up by Common Core foes, engaging in the same kind of “superciliousness” that liberal intellectuals would reserve for discussing the policies of Dwight David Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan.
As a once-avid reader of Will’s columns and the proud owner of six of Will’s most-famous books, including Suddenly: The American Idea Abroad and at Home (all of them read when I was in high school and college), your editor is likely far-more familiar with Will’s thinking than Smarick can ever proclaim. But I while I respect Will’s thinking, I don’t do so without reservation. And particularly, when it comes to Common Core, Will’s arguments against the standards just don’t hold up.
Will’s complaint that Common Core is some form of effort to advance “progressive education” is pure conspiracy-theorizing. More importantly, Will’s statement ignores what is actually required in the standards themselves. Asking children to read and analyze the great works of fiction and nonfiction, including Ovid’s The Metamorphosis, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus, and Winston Churchill’s Blood, Tears, Soil, and Sweat speech, is by no means some “progressive” plot.
The fact that Common Core also requires children to build up their numeracy from the moment they enter kindergarten — which both mathematicians and researchers as David Geary at the University of Missouri point out is key to mastering algebra and other forms of math needed in adulthood — also makes Will’s contention rather suspect. The fact that Common Core itself is opposed by many hard-core progressives such as the aforementioned Ohanian, Education Week columnist Anthony Cody, and once-respectable education historian (and former conservative) Diane Ravitch also belies Will’s contention.
If anything, what Common Core does is nothing more than what all high-quality curricula and standards do: provide all kids with the well-rounded education (based on a common and, yes, uniform, set of knowledge) needed to choose their own paths (and succeed) once they reach adulthood. This includes understanding the ideas, philosophies and abstractions that are the building blocks of the world in which they live. An adult with strong literacy and math skills (including algebra), for example, can understand why the Laffer Curve matters in discussions about fiscal policy. A plumber who has read The Canterbury Tales can also move up socially, converse with executives, play his part as a leader in his community, and even pave a path for his children to continue along into the middle class.
Meanwhile, in arguing that Common Core supporters are being dishonest about the voluntary nature of the standards, Will conveniently ignores the history of how the standards originated in the first place. Starting in 2004, Achieve Inc. started working with a group of innovative states through its American Diploma Project to help them develop curricula requirements for obtaining high school diplomas. That work would become more extensive when state governments through their two policymaking groups — the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers — began developing what are now Common Core reading and math standards. Common Core was well on its way to becoming a reality by the time the Obama Administration supported the implementation of Common Core through its Race to the Top initiative and its less-sensible gambit to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act. Considering that NGA and CCSSO developed the standards, states hardly needed the Obama Administration to purchase their “obedience”.
Will also fails to admit that Common Core essentially builds upon the innovations on the curricula standards front undertaken by states such as Massachusetts and Indiana (the latter of which was a key player in the American Diploma Project). Common Core, in turn, builds upon the lessons gleaned from earlier efforts by reform-minded governors and standards and accountability activists within the school reform movement to craft curricula standards at the state level. One of the lessons learned was that it is difficult for reform-minded governors to develop college preparatory standards in part because it meant facing opposition from traditionalists opposed to being accountable for providing kids with high-quality education.This fact is one reason why just two states had eighth-grade math standards that match that of the top seven nations in mathematics, according to the American Institutes for Research. Another lesson: That it makes little sense for states to craft curricula standards on their own when it is pretty clear what children need to know in order to succeed in an increasingly knowledge-based economy.
Meanwhile Will’s argument that Common Core interferes with systemic reform efforts at the state level doesn’t square with what has been actually happening on the ground in the five years since states began developing and implementing the standards. From the launch and expansion of school choice programs in more than 13 states, to the development of online learning efforts (including the launch of virtual charter schools in states such as Pennsylvania), to the passage of Parent Trigger laws in seven states, reform-minded governors and school leaders have been doing plenty of work. And save for dealing with opposition to Common Core from their respective political bases, those politicians haven’t found the standards to be an interference to their efforts.
[The fact that some of these reform efforts, including the elimination of caps on the growth of charter schools, took place thanks to the encouragement of the Obama Administration through Race to the Top and other initiatives, is also a reminder that the federal government can play a powerful and much-needed role, both in building upon efforts undertaken by reform-minded governors and school leaders who have managed to overcome opposition to their efforts, as well as in providing cover to those state leaders who face even fiercer opposition on the ground. This role is neither new nor improper. And as seen with the Reagan Administration's publication of A Nation at Risk three decades ago, and welfare reform in the 1990s, it is one that movement conservatives have embraced.]
As learned as Will may be, his arguments against Common Core shows that he doesn’t know much about the nation’s education crisis, the low-quality curricula and standards that are at the heart of it, or the consequences of low-quality education for both the children of conservatives who read his columns as well as for those from poor and minority backgrounds. Even worse, Will merely trots out the same tired arguments offered up by other Common Core foes over the past few years. None of this is shocking. As with most public intellectuals among movement conservatives, Will is focused more on foreign policy and the expansive role of the federal government in civil society than on education.
Smarick, on the other hand, is a movement conservative and a school reformer. In fact, he does a far better job than Will in articulating why many movement conservatives oppose Common Core. But in unquestioningly championing Will’s column and the arguments in it, Smarick fails to actually defend the kind of principled and factual arguments he proclaims Common Core foes are offering. Smarick should have used his piece as an opportunity to both support Will’s more-defensible arguments against the standards — sparse as they are — and call him out for trotting out arguments that don’t match up to the facts. If Common Core foes want to be taken seriously, then they need to continuously offer serious arguments and distance themselves from conspiracy-theorizing.
Meanwhile Smarick’s insinuation that many Common Core supporters do little more than caricature foes and skeptics of the standards is pure excuse-making. So long as Common Core foes and skeptics continue to tolerate conspiracy theories as well as fail to offer solutions that address how to deal with the low-quality curricula standards and other underlying causes of the nation’s education crisis, they will always find themselves on the rhetorical defensive. This isn’t to say that Common Core supporters should belittle the arguments of opponents and skeptics. But opponents of the standards need to do what William F. Buckley, Jr., did in 1950s when he began advancing the conservative movement: Get the rhetorical house in order by clearing out those arguments that shouldn’t be made.
As an admirer of both Will and Smarick, I wish they could have done a better job by Common Core foes and skeptics, even if I oppose their arguments. Neither have done so.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new chancellor, Carmen Fariña, has gone on record saying that she would prefer retirement to leading the nation’s largest traditional district. But she has accepted responsibility for running the institution that, along with the criminal justice system and the economic system, one of the Big Apple’s three pillars of inequality. And she has a lot to do.
There isn’t much debate to be had about how de Blasio’s predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, and his chancellors, improved achievement for the city’s fourth-graders. Graduation rates have also improved. But the real measure of district and school success lies in how well children are doing by eighth-grade. This is because by then, districts should be provided their students the preparation they need for success in high school, and ultimately, in college and career; eighth-graders reading at or above grade level will be able to do well once they graduate from high school four years later. Eighth grade achievement also matters because the teaching, curricula, and academic services districts provide can (and should) have mitigated any effects that come from as a result of families and socioeconomic background. Children who graduate from high school reading below grade level aren’t likely to succeed after leaving school.
So how well is New York City doing with its eighth-graders, especially for its black and Latino students? Based on data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal exam of student achievement, not well.
Three-quarters of the Big Apple’s eighth-graders read at and below Basic levels of proficiency in 2013. This means that just 25 percent of Big Apple eighth graders read at Proficient and Advanced levels, the key levels of grade level success. Between 2003 and 2013, the gap between the city’s performance and that of the national average increased by two points (from eight percentage points to 10).
Even worse, 80 percent of New York City poorest eighth-graders read at and below Basic levels in 2013. Only one out of every five impoverished eighth-graders read at Proficient and Advanced levels. Between 2003 and 2013, the Big Apple’s rate of progress for its poorest eighth graders fell behind that of the nation as a whole.
Nearly 90 percent of young black men in eighth grade attending New York City’s schools are reading at or below Basic levels of proficiency; in short, just 10 percent of young black men are reading at or above grade level. This is a situation that has not significantly improved within the past decade.
As for young Latino eighth-graders? In 2013, just 18 percent of Latino students read at proficient and advanced levels – three percentage points lower than the national average – while the remaining 82 percent read at or below Basic levels. Even worse, the one percentage point improvement in the percentage of Latinos reading at or above grade level between 2003 and 2013 is worse than the seven percentage point improvement nationwide within the last decade.
It isn’t all bad news. In 2013, 18 percent of black eighth-graders of both genders read at Proficient and Advanced levels. This is a five percentage point improvement over 2003, and better than the four percentage point improvement (from 12 percent to 16 percent) nationwide. But the city still hasn’t improved college and career success for Asian and white non-Latino eighth-graders, who often come from more economically-prosperous households.
Just 44 percent of New York City’s Asian eighth-graders read at Proficient and Advanced levels in 2013, six percentage points lower than the 50 percent rate for their peers nationwide. The percentage of Big Apple Asian eighth-graders increased by 10 percentage points between 2003 and 2013, a lower level of improvement than the 12 percentage point improvement nationwide.
Meanwhile 44 percent of white eighth-graders were reading at or above grade level in 2013, matching the national average. But a decade ago, 42 percent of white eighth-graders were reading at Proficient and Advanced levels, three percentage points greater than the 39 percent national average. The city’s two percentage point improvement was less than half the five percentage point improvement nationwide.
The challenges facing the new Chancellor are clear enough. Not enough of New York City’s children are prepared for success in college and career. The city no longer has time for happy talk about reform. We must focus our resources and energies to improve educational outcomes for all students – or else the Big Apple will remain a tale of two cities for another generation.
I favor integration on buses and in all areas of public accommodation and travel,. I am for equality. However, I think integration in our public schools is different. In that setting, you are dealing with one of the most important assets of an individual — the mind. White people view black people as inferior. A large percentage of them have a very low opinion of our race. People with such a low view of the black race cannot be given free rein and put in charge of the intellectual care and development of our boys and girls.
Martin Luther King, in 1959, presciently understanding why integration as school reform doesn’t work. This is why reformers must focus on providing all kids in every neighborhood with high-quality school options, not on integration.
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.
And so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and security of justice. We have also come to his hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.
Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
King, in his I Have a Dream speech, issuing a challenge to every reformer to be antagonists for our children and transform American public education for them. This is the subject of this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast.