A Modern Parable
Imagine that you are incredibly wealthy. This is not just the kind of wealth that allows you to have a half dozen homes. It’s a fortune that you will never use in your lifetime. From your detached perspective, you can see that things in the nation are not going as you think they should. You believe the problem lies in the education system.
However, you have a mistaken idea of education. You see it as a means to train children to fit into a practical hands-on system without set values. You do not see the need to waste time on character, literature, knowledge and virtue.
You respond with the same impetus that sparked your meteoric business career. You bring together the most prominent experts in the field. You open your checkbook. Your name also opens the doors to the political muscle that turns the experts’ ideas into law. You lack only one resource—time. Every year that passes means a graduating class of ill-educated students passes into the night. The experts insist they already know the problems and the solutions. All they need is the wherewithal to apply their knowledge.
You are frustrated that it takes two years for the experts to roll out their solution. It takes another two years to implement it. However, during those four years, you are feted and celebrated at the White House, Congress and dozens of college campuses. Finally, the long-awaited day arrives. You sit back confidently and wait for the dawning of a new day in America’s schools.
And then there is nothing. The new sun does not rise. After all your efforts, the children still do not learn.
The “you” in this story is Bill Gates, the multi-billionaire founder of Microsoft. He joined with like-minded billionaires to advance the “solution,” known as Common Core.
Despite the hoopla, there was nothing new in Common Core. The only novel twist was that it tried to solve the problem on a national scale instead of local school boards. Even this aspect was camouflaged behind the phrase “Common Core State Standards.”
The Real Experts
Thousands of teachers could have told Mr. Gates and friends that Common Core would not work. These teachers were trained by the same experts (or their predecessors) that cooked up the program. The teachers on the ground, however, had already tried “progressive” methods and found them lacking. In this system of continual “reform,” they witnessed each new group of students come out less prepared than the last. Each new curriculum was watered down more as the only alternative to avoid the wrath of principals and parents.
Those teachers had no voice in the process that led to Common Core. The experts dismissed their hard-won insights as “anecdotal.” Such information had no value because it was subjective. Those teachers had not done “double-blind” studies with randomly chosen subjects. They were the resistance—stuck in their prejudices. All they had were their experiences against the experts’ reams of charts, graphs, and “data-driven” conclusions.
The Common Core Debacle
Now, the data show that the experts were wrong. The Pioneer Institute, a Public Policy Research group in Boston, Massachusetts, has produced a report on the program’s massive failure.
Pioneer differs from others who examine the educational landscape in that they base their work on “free market principles, individual liberty and responsibility, and the ideal of effective, limited and accountable government.”
Its study titled “The Common Core Debacle: Results from the 2019 NAEP and Other Sources presents a plain picture of the failure of Common Core.”
The acronym in the title refers to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test administered by the U.S. Department of Education. Since the early seventies, the test has collected information about the overall state of education in the nation. It also evaluates American education compares with the rest of the world. The NAEP is sometimes referred to as “the nation’s report card.”
The Experts Were (And Are) Wrong
The study found that student achievement not only failed to improve since the Common Core was fully implemented during the 2014-2015 school year – it has actually dropped. Two aspects of the decline caused even greater concerns.
First, these declines reversed a slow but steady trend of increases that went back over thirty years. Those gains were insufficient, but they were, at least, gains. Common Core turned those marginal victories into defeats.
The pattern of the decline caused a second level of concern. Those students who were already doing well continued to do well. Those at the ninetieth percentile improved slightly. Students at the seventy-fifth percentile declined, but so slightly that the study’s author considers it insignificant. However, those students at the fiftieth percentile showed a significant decline. Students at the twenty-fifth and tenth percentiles did progressively worse.
Most students in the top quarter would learn under almost any curriculum and almost any teacher. Common Core targeted students in the lower half of the range. The Pioneer Institute report provided an example of that thinking. “The Common Core English standards also incorporated key progressive elements, such as a reduction in challenging, classic literary content and its replacement with simpler informational text supposedly intended to align with a student’s future activities in the workforce.”
Thus, Common Core hurt those students that it was designed to help.
The Well-Entrenched Experts
When Mr. Gates and friends faced such situations in industry, they could fire those responsible and called in a new set of experts. Three conditions prevent that from happening in the wake of the Common Core debacle.
First, the designers of Common Core work do not work for companies. They are employed by a wide variety of universities, school systems, and state and federal government departments of education. The university professors are tenured. The others are burrowed into the labyrinths of bureaucracy. Nobody is going to get fired for this failure – the only ones who will suffer are the students.
Second, a new set of experts does not exist. American education is thoroughly steeped in the ideology of John Dewey that all experts think the same. This humanist, utilitarian and socialist-leaning school of thought – usually referred to as progressive education – has held sway nearly a century. Anyone who does not hold those views is looked upon as a “crackpot,” and stands no chance of becoming a professor of education at the vast majority of America’s universities.
Third, average Americans, even most teachers, know little about the effects of John Dewey’s theories. They have been the norm for so long that most people cannot imagine another way of educating.
Is There a Solution?
The Pioneer Institute’s study recognized these conditions. One passage in the report reads, “Common Core, which largely packaged the views and biases of the educational establishment and labeled them “reform,” was unsurprisingly embraced by that same establishment.”
The Common Core is either dead or dying. Unfortunately, the ideas behind it are still very much alive. Some resist the Dewey Ideology in some Classical Academies and other traditional schools. However, they are few and far between.
Preventing a reincarnation of these errors in the form of another government program will take something that has never happened before. Dissatisfied parents and taxpayers need to demand more common sense and less Common Core. Traditionally-minded teachers need to come together and publicly defend their methods. The errors of Dewey must be definitively rejected. Only then will real change be possible.