Federal Opinion

Common Core Values: Do they Include Authoritarianism?

By Anthony Cody — May 08, 2012 14 min read
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This week there has been an upsurge of debate over the Common Core (national) Standards. I hope we can tolerate and appreciate different points of view as we work to understand more deeply what these standards are all about, and the ways they may shift teaching, learning and testing in the USA.

Guest post by Jack Hassard. Originally posted here.

We think that Common Standards and Assessments are the antithesis of the progressive values upon which this nation was founded. The idea of having a single set of standards and associated assessments appears to remove individuality, creativity and innovation from American classrooms.

Authoritarian & Undemocratic

Common standards and assessments were conceived and developed in an undemocratic and authoritarian manner, and have minimized our freedom to have an education system that empowers its citizens to a life that is rooted in progressive ideals. Instead we have enabled conservative thinking and conservative think tanks, acting in their own self interests, and those of their corporate partners, especially publishers and testing companies, to take over pubic education and open it to for-profit corporations and privatization.

The danger of privatization is that the profit motive might replace the moral mission of educating all children. Schools may not accept students who might affect their bottom line which making sure students achieve high test scores. Profit is tied directly to test scores. How can we authentically believe that an education system that uses student test scores is good for its citizens? Not only are test scores used to assess student performance, they are also being used to evaluate teacher, administrator and school performances. In some states, teacher’s job performance and pay will be determined using VAM scores, which have been shown to be unreliable.

Teaching is so much more than teaching to the test in order to amp achievement scores. It is about establishing ethical and moral relationships with our students; it is about helping student learn how to learn; it is about caring for student’s aspirations and goals, and giving counsel as needed. Yes, teachers want their students to understand the content of their courses, but not at the expense of life long affects of their courses including attitudes and values.

Test Scores as a Measure of Competitiveness
But because of the erroneous assumption that test scores are the bellwether measure of America’s competitive edge and ability to compete, achievement scores of American students are targeted as the end all of education. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Competition and competitiveness have been used to argue that America’s schools are failing. Using the argument that American students are not educated to the level that will enable them to compete in a global market requiring 21st century skills, chief state education officials, governors, education department bureaucrats, conservative think tanks, and corporate organizations seeking to privitize schools have set in motion accountability standards and high-stakes testing. Raising achievement test scores is the major goal of accountability standards. Politicians use the mantra of “competitiveness” when they talk about the need to “reform” schools.

There is ample evidence that student test scores are not a barometer of U.S. economic growth, or depression. U.S. test scores did not cause or contribute to the Great Recession, any more than they caused the Economic Boom of the 1990s.

In Balancing Change and Tradition in Global Education Reform, Iris C. Rotberg, Research Professor of Education Policy at The George Washington University, concluded that continuing to use student test scores is not a valid argument to understand a nation’s competitiveness. According to Rotberg, a nation’s competitiveness is too complicated, and is impacted by other variables as identified in the World Economic Report. She puts it this way:

Other variables, such as outsourcing to gain access to lower-wage employees, the climate and incentives for innovation, tax rates, health-care and retirement costs, the extent of government subsidies or partnerships, protectionism, intellectual-property enforcement, natural resources, and exchange rates overwhelm mathematics and science scores in predicting economic competitiveness.

It Started Here
We can trace the present morass to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. NCLB supports standards-based education reform based on the premise that setting high standards and establishing measurable goals can improve individual outcomes in education. The Act required states to develop assessments in basic skills. States were required to give these assessments to all students at select grade levels in order to receive federal school funding. The Act did not assert a national achievement standard; standards are set by each individual state.

However, with the fact that 46 states have “adopted” the Common Core State Standards, individual state standards are a relic of the 1980s and 1990s.

How did this happen? How did 46 state governments agree to adopt a single set of standards for all of their students in mathematics and English/language arts? Why would they give up the autonomy that they had in setting educational goals for students in their own schools and districts?

The movement to standardize education nationally does not align with the basic progressive principles that helped shape the course of American history and education. These principles include freedom, equality, human dignity, tolerance, and the celebration of diversity. It has taken several centuries for these principles to come realities, and over time, each of these principles was articulated by individual Americans such as Thomas Jefferson, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, John Dewey, John Muir, Rachel Carson, and on and on (for further discussion on this, please see: Lakoff, George (2006-10-03). Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision

In the view of many progressive educators, the authoritarian nature of common standards and common assessments looms as a challenge that must be changed. The effects of this authoritarian plan are clearly visible when you read headlines such as “All teachers fired at a Rhode Island School,” “More than 60% of students fail the social studies end-of-year test in Georgia, “Students on the “projected to fail” list will be involved in a “Blitz” session.”

How Common Standards Got In & Developed Rapidly
Governors and state commissioners of education from across the United States formed the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI). “The goal was to develop a set of shared national standards ensuring that students in every state are held to the same level of expectations that students in the world’s highest-performing countries are, and that they gain the knowledge and skills that will prepare them for success in post-secondary education and in the global arena” (from Understanding Common Core State Standards by John S. Kendall).

The Common Core State Standards was a joint effort of The Council of chief State Schools Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association (NGA).

Behind this initiative is to make sure that as a nation we are economically competitive in the global environment. Again, this group used the “competitiveness” argument. Much of the distress here is that the CCSSO and NGA officials accept what they see as poor performance of American students on international tests such as PISA and TIMSS. Data that has been reported on this blog and in research publications does not support this basic rationale that drives the common standards movement.

In a peer reviewed study of the common core standards-development process, researchers at the University of Colorado, questioned whether the common core standards movement was an effective reform tool. In general research on standards-based reform is weak, according to these researchers. They also report that:

The NGA/CCSSO standards-development process was completed quickly--in approximately one year--by Achieve, Inc., a private contractor. This brief raises several concerns about the development, content, and use of those 500 pages of standards and supporting documents. For instance, the level of input from school based practitioners appears to be minimal, the standards themselves have not been field tested, and it is unclear whether the tests used to measure the academic outcomes of common standards will have sufficient validity to justify the high-stakes consequences that will likely arise around their use. Accordingly, it seems improbable that the common core standards will have the positive effects on educational quality or equality being sought by proponents, particularly in light of the lack of essential capacity at the local, state and federal levels.

The Authoritarians
At a Chicago meeting in the Spring of 2009, CCSSO and NGA brought together representatives from 41 states and there they agreed to draft a set of common standards. They hired Achieve, Inc., which was founded by the NGA, to draft a set of common core standards in math and reading. They had until the end of the summer to have a draft of the standards, and one year to have a full set, grade-by-grade.

When the National Science Education Standards were developed in the 1990s, it was done by teams of professional science educators, including K-12 teachers and university scientists. When the common core was commissioned and developed in was done in secrecy behind the doors of Achieve. According to the University of Colorado researchers, the development of the common core took a path that undermined one of the tenets of research, and that is openness and transparency. Here is what William J. Mathis, author of the University of Colorado study said:

By contrast, Achieve work groups met in private and the development work was conducted by persons who were not, with apparently only a single exception, K-12 educators. The work groups were staffed almost exclusively by employees of Achieve, testing companies (ACT and the College Board), and pro-accountability groups (e.g., America's Choice, Student Achievement Partners, the Hoover Institute). Practitioners and subject matter experts complained that they were excluded from the development process.

Funding for the common standards was provided by the U.S. Department of Education, the Gates Foundation, and other foundations. Only one classroom teacher was involved in the review of the common standards, with nearly all reviewers being university professors. There were no school administrators in the review process.

The process used to create the common core was authoritarianism at its best. Governors and high ranking education officials, speaking for administrators and teachers in thousands of schools across the country, were saying that there was something wrong with your schools, and that they have a solution to fix them. The solution was to impose on you a set of standards in mathematics and reading/language arts that you will be held to account. In fact, the authoritarians decided, with the help of the U.S. Department of Education to develop a set of national tests that will be used to hold all teachers, administrators and schools accountable.

Are the authoritarians accountable to anyone? No!

The self-interests of a few groups, including but not limited to NGA, CCSSO, Achieve, a few testing and publishing companies, the Gates Foundation, & yes, the U.S. Department of Education along with 47 state department’s of education, is driving the common standards and assessments movement.

The value that is missing from this movement is empathy and responsibility. The groups that are leading the common standards movement have framed the it as a top-down enterprise, and assume that they have the authority to create standards that states should adopt. There was great reluctance by states to adopt the common standards at first, but, when one of the key players in the movement, the U.S. Department of Education, decided that proposals for the second round of Race to the Top Funds should indicate that they were going to adopt the common core, things changed. Even though only 11 states were funded in the Race to the Top, most of the states have adopted the standards--in a heavy handed way.

There is no empathy for the work of teachers, administrators and schools in creating environments that help students become learners in the 21st Century. Governors and legislators have used their authority to put into place policies that are determined to unfairly evaluate teachers using statistical methods that have been shown not to be valid, and unreliable. It’s as if teachers are the enemy, and we need to find the bad ones, round them up, and remove them from the teaching profession.

What are the values that promote this kind of thinking and policy making?

Not the kind of values that attracted us to become teachers in the first place. Teachers have chosen the education profession because they want students to love the subjects that they teach, and to take with them a positive attitudes about the content they are studying. Karen Borders, a science teacher in Lakebay, WA, an award winning educator says this about why she teaches:

My students are not passive learners of science, they ARE scientists. They embrace the idea that they are empowered to own their learning. In addition to creating a love of learning within my students, I am intentional about equipping students with wonder, teamwork strategies, and problem-solving skills for jobs that may not exist yet.

The kinds of progressive values that I think should be fundamental to educational reform are missing from the top-down reform that is consuming American education. George Lakoff, a cognitive scientist, who studies why the mind makes meaning, has written extensively about progressive values and how they impact politics, and our way of life. As we look at the standards movement, Lakoff’s research is helpful in understanding the common standards movement, as it has played out over the past few years.

Dr. Lakoff uses the metaphor of the family to talk about two kinds of ways to organize : the strict father family, and the nurturing parent family. The strict father family is a conservative view of order, while the nurturing parent family is the progressive view of order. Let’s take a look how we might use these metaphors to examine the common core standards movement and an alternative view of schooling.

Conservative Metaphor: The Strict Father Family

In my own analysis, the top-down governance of schools based on the NCLB Act and the common standards is likened to the “strict father family.” There is no room for debate in the strict father family, in the sense that the father decides what is best of everyone. Education appears tonhave adopted strict father family if we look at some aspects of the NCLB Act and the common standards movement. The rules of behavior are very clear. Schools must adhere to a set of basic skills set forth in state standards now, but very soon by the common standards. Schools should foster strict discipline when it comes to making sure that students master the material on the end-of-year tests. There is no recourse (except perhaps a summer of misery taking classes to prop students up for another test).

The strict family metaphor, or the traditional view of schooling removes control from teachers, and administrators by locating the power of curriculum, assessment, standards in the hands of outside officials, who are in turn controlled by Federal regulations. The decisions are made outside the normal realm of the classroom. Father knows best.

Progressive Metaphor: The Nurturing Parent Family

In the progressive family, the nurturing parent family, things are very different. The decisions that are made by based on the progressive values of empathy and responsibility. In this case, teachers and administrators are guided by empathy for their students and families, but also know that they must act responsibly to ensure that the curriculum and associated instructional approaches are based on what they know about their own students, their aspirations, and goals.

In this progressive view, teachers and administrators are the deciders, and work in the best interests of their students. Educators in this environment also know that they need to be held to the highest level of the standards of their profession, whether it be mathematics, science, history, or reading, and that they should also be evaluated using a multi-modal approach. Responsible educators have known for years that their work with students is more complex than simply following some outsider’s lists of behavioral objectives (standards). It involves establishing a community of learners in their classroom and in their school, and using the kinds of pedagogy that bring out of students their desire to learn. It acknowledges that student’s learn by constructing their knowledge through interaction with others and the world, and that not all students will learn the same stuff, at the same rate, and at the same time.

There you have it.

Update: Jack Hassard develops this analysis further here: K-12 Education Viewed Through the Lenses of Conservative Values and World-view.

And here: K-12 Education Through the Lenses of Progressive World-View and Values.

What do you think? Do the Common Core standards embody authoritarian values?

You might want to watch this video of Dr. Lakoff speaking on FORA.tv where uses the family as a metaphor to look at conservative and progressive views.

Lakoff, George, (2008). The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain

Mathis, William (2010). The Common Core Standards Initiative: An Effective Reform Tool?

Jack Hassard is a former high school science teacher and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University. While at Georgia State he was coordinator of science education, and was involved in the development of several science teacher education programs, including the design & implementation of TEEMS, a clinically based masters program for mathematics, science, and engineering majors. He was director of the Global Thinking Project, an Internet-based environmental program linking schools between Russia and U.S.A at first, and then many countries around the world. He also conducted seminars around the country on science teaching, inquiry and technology for the Bureau of Education and Research and for school districts’ staff development programs.
He is author of more than 20 books including The Whole Cosmos Catalog of Science, Science Experiences, Adventures in Geology, and most recently The Art of Teaching Science, 2nd Edition and Science as Inquiry, 2nd Edition. His blog is The Art of Teaching Science.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.