Disturbances in the Force

The news from the field of education of late has been less than encouraging. It seems that all the vast and complex problems we are facing as a society have beaten us down. We are more and more willing to take assurances from on high that something is working, goldangit.

One of the latest disturbing news items is the sudden rush towards national “core standards.” Yes, you read that right. If you are someone who was paying attention to education in the 1990s, you will probably get a distinct sense of deja vu from those words. I was a member of two state task forces (Missouri and New Mexico) charged with writing state standards, in my case working on dance as an art form.

What I remember most clearly about the process, both within the arts and in the other groups working on curriculum areas such as English language and mathematics, is how arbitrary, political, and non-standardized it was. To create the national standards that we worked from, “experts” in each curriculum area gathered and hammered out their own vision of what those standards should look like. It was a process very akin to drafting legislation, complete with special interest groups, political intrusions, and wild incongruities.

Now, a couple of decades later, apparently Education Secretary Arne Duncan and President Obama are either unaware of this history or are hoping that we don’t remember it. An administration that has struggled mightily to effect positive change in health care, financial regulation, and unemployment relief (to name a few) has swiftly gotten 27 states to adopt a set of curiously unexamined national standards, and a dozen more to move close to passage. How did they do it?

Marching... forward?

Four words, worth billions to the states: “Race to the Top.” The administration has pledged $3.4 billion to the states as part of this initiative. I’m not sure if I could fairly characterize this as bribe money, but since states risk not getting any of it unless they adopt the standards, it certainly stretches the definition of “voluntary participation.” The interesting part is that none of the news coverage has been about the actual contents of the standards, but rather focuses on whether or not states will adopt them.

According to the NY Times, “The effort has been helped by financial backing from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to most of the organizations involved in drafting, evaluating and winning support for the standards. The common core standards, two years in the making and first released in draft form in March, are an effort to replace the current hodgepodge of state policies.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/21/education/21standards.html?_r=2&hp)

The article continues, “They [the standards] lay out detailed expectations of skills that students should have at each grade level. Second graders, for example, should be able to read two-syllable words with long vowels, while fifth graders should be able to add and subtract fractions with different denominators.”

So, to summarize:

  • A private foundation created by one of the world’s wealthiest men funded the creation of “national” standards by “experts” in their fields.
  • An unelected and unexamined group of people has decided for the entire nation which skills students should be able to master at each grade level; never mind that age and grade level are NOT determinant of readiness to learn any specific skill. (That whole discussion has been buried as inconvenient.)
  • Private enterprise stands ready to scoop up billions of dollars in federal money that will pass right through the states’ hands and into those of textbook and test publishers.

Anyone think this is a good idea?

Here’s the way the Times put it: “Increasingly, national standards are seen as a way to ensure that children in all states will have access to a similar education — and that financially strapped state governments do not have to spend limited resources on developing their own standards and tests.”

Don’t you love the passive voice here? National standards “are seen…” Doesn’t that sound like there’s a growing movement in favor of this idea? But what evidence does the article provide? only a quote from Arne Duncan:

“’We’ll have states working together for the first time on curriculum, textbooks, assessment,” said Mr. Duncan. “This will save the country billions of dollars.’” Wait a minute. Isn’t “the country” spending billions to make this happen? This little statement contains the true heart of the matter, and the real reason why there is no outcry from a Republican party that can’t seem to find any other single Obama policy they will accept: there’s money to be made, boys!

Instead of all the “hodgepodge” of state standards, which result in spreading the textbook and testing dollars around to various sources, the biggest publishing companies now stand to rake in all the state dollars for the uniform, standardized textbooks and tests. And since it’s all new, everyone will have to buy new. It’s the capitalist’s dream of the function of government: to shovel the public’s money into private enterprise.

Once again, dear readers, we are hoist on the petard of profit. Once more we are rushed willy-nilly into a great flurry of sound and fury signifying nothing more than a transfer of money from our pockets to the coffers of big business, all gussied up in the self-righteous raiment of “better education.”

If you can find anyone to take the bet, you could make a lot of money by wagering that, when all the dust settles, actual teaching and learning will continue to languish in favor of showy, big-dollar initiatives that do little more than make politicians seem like they are doing something about a problem they clearly know nothing about.

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About rbdancer

Randy has been a Kennedy Center Teaching Artist and Workshop Leader since 1995. During 35 years as a teaching artist, he has led over 300 in-depth workshops, courses, and seminars for teachers and teaching artists, traveling to 37 states in the process. As a choreographer and professional dancer, Randy has danced and produced dance concerts in some of the country's most storied theaters. Randy now lives with his wife in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in northeastern New Mexico.
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One Response to Disturbances in the Force

  1. Kathleen says:

    This is a very frightening scenario. How do we fight it?

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