Education Opinion

Change, Sputnik, and Fast Food

By Bobby Ann Starnes & Phi Delta Kappan — April 01, 2011 6 min read
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I love change. I really do. I get bored when things become routine. I’m always first in line to think about how we could tweak this or that or restructure, refine, and redefine. I love making up new systems, new courses, and new answers to old questions. But sometimes enough is enough. And change based on a whim, a sound bite, or political expediency always makes me feel . . . well, a little twitchy. Saying I’m twitchy these days is a lot like saying the Grand Canyon is a mud puddle.

Do you remember gold-standard research? A few years back, the research division of the U.S. Department of Education, the Institute of Education Sciences (the name alone makes me twitch), announced that gold-standard research required randomized control experiments, and only such research counted for selection of No Child Left Behind-acceptable teaching programs. While the decision created a financial boon for such programs as Success for All and Direct Instruction, this unilateral decision caused many progressive approaches and programs to wither away. I was teaching on an Indian reservation at the time this announcement was made. Over the next few years, I witnessed — as a direct result of this pronouncement — the elimination of culture-based programs designed to teach native children in ways that responded to and respected their histories and cultures. A lot was lost, that’s for sure. But I was told this is how it has to be Sure some people will suffer, but we have to focus on the greater good. No longer will programs be implemented in schools that are not gold-standard research based.

That is, until the government wants to. Think Race to the Top. In 2009, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced an “exciting” new reform initiative, Race to the Top. A very catchy name, I think. Perhaps not as uplifting as No Child Left Behind, but much better than the last Democratic education reform — Comprehensive School Reform. So, while we haven’t learned much about how to support real change, we’ve learned that we need catchy names to sell it.

This $4.35-billion U.S. Department of Education program was designed to bring “reforms” to local schools, but Race to the Top is awarded to states, not local districts. And the application process is no less controlling than any NCLB funding process — there are strings. Race to the Top “outlines key education reforms states must demonstrate a commitment to advancing to be eligible for funding, such reforms include adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace.” It seems here we should say allegedly or theoretically or hypothetically or some sort of qualifier. After all, there is no evidence, let alone gold-standard evidence, that such a statement is true.

Incentives for Standards

The biggest string — about the size of an anchor rope — is an “incentive” enticing states to adopt the Common Core State Standards. Touting the principles of standards-based education reform, the Core Content website (www.corestandards.org) claims these standards will provide “a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them.” Such fundamental misconceptions always worry me. I’d only been teaching a few days when I realized that understanding what children need to learn doesn’t ensure that we know how to help them learn it. “Knowing what” is really quite different from “knowing how.” For example, I know children need to learn algebra but have almost no understanding of how I might effectively teach it. At the same time, I know all children need to learn to read, and I know the skills they’ll need to become good readers. I’ve even taught many children to read. And in that process, understanding “what” wasn’t nearly as important as matching my ways of teaching to each individual child’s way of learning. If all we needed to know was “what,” no child really would be left behind.

But the standards, the website assures me, “were informed by the highest, most effective models from states across the country” — not high praise in this post-NCLB world. But there is big money in adopting these standards. And with the big-money carrots hanging just out of reach, budget-deprived states are rushing to sign up like starving sheep. While some states have chosen to just say no to the Common Core Standards, between February and November 2010, 41 states adopted them. Signing up was necessary, you see, in order to score points for the Race to the Top funding, and states need that money.

Due to be implemented by 2015, bureaucrats in state departments of education are working furiously to implement the Common Core Standards. In Kentucky, the state department of education is pushing hard to be one of the first states to implement. So, though we have four years, Kentucky will begin implementation right away. If we waited, we might get a little insight into the challenges of implementation or even some research — not gold standard, but perhaps something approaching a bronze standard. But then we wouldn’t be first.

Of course, I haven’t seen one piece of research assessing the Common Core Standards or pointing to any positive impact on student learning, improved teaching, or even raising test scores. It just seems right. The website promises that these standards are based on research but never points to anything specific. But then, I haven’t seen any research — gold standard or otherwise — that convinces me that anything coming from the Department of Education has any efficacy. Certainly not their major reform efforts! Why, I wonder, do we think this latest shiny object will do any more than dazzle us until the next big reform comes along? Have we learned no lessons from the failure of No Child Left Behind or any of its predecessors?

When President Obama delivered his State of the Union address, he evoked our national pride by calling for a “Sputnik moment.” I remember the day the news broke that Russia had launched Sputnik. And I remember President John F. Kennedy challenging schools to prepare more scientists. And I remember winning that race. Yet, in that time of national pride, in that moment when our education system rose to meet the challenge, there was no Department of Education. There were no Common Core Standards, and there were no high-stakes tests. Now, I’m not saying that schools were perfect before the creation of the Department of Education in 1980. They were far from it. All kinds of societal inequities were institutionalized in our schools. Then and now, we need change. But we need careful, thoughtful, considered change. Change that responds to individual needs and change grown much closer to home and in much more modest surroundings than a massive office building in Washington, D.C.

But we are a fast-food nation, and we want our change the way we want our food. We want to drive up to the big menu and order what tickles our fancy at the moment, giving little thought to what we know about healthy eating. My local McDonald’s proudly announced that from the time an order is placed at the first drive-up window until it is served at the third window, customers wait no longer than 45 seconds. That’s OK, I guess, if we want a diet of Big Macs and fries — and if we don’t worry about the McDonaldization of America any more than we worry about the standardization of education.

BOBBY ANN STARNES is chair of the Educational Studies Department at Berea College, Berea, Ky.

All articles published in Phi Delta Kappan are protected by copyright. For permission to use or reproduce Kappan articles, please e-mail kappan@pdkintl.org.


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