Standards Opinion

Tennessee Student Ethan Young: “We Need Change, But Not Common Core”

By Anthony Cody — January 13, 2014 8 min read
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Videos of teenagers occasionally “go viral,” racking up thousands of views on YouTube. But rarely do they feature discussions of education policy. This video of Ethan Young, a senior at Farragut High School, in Knox County, Tennessee, is an exception. More than two million people have watched this over the past two months, and still counting. I wrote to Ethan Young, and asked if he would share his words with us here, and answer some questions as well. Here is the video of his talk, followed by a transcript of his remarks, and then his responses to my questions.

Ethan Young’s Remarks:

In a mere five minutes, I hope to provide insightful comments about a variety of educational topics. I sincerely hope you disprove the research I’ve compiled.

Here’s the history of Common Core. In 2009, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers partnered with Achieve, Inc., a non-profit that received millions in funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Thus, the initiative seemed to spring from states, when in reality it was contrived by an insular group of educational testing executives with only two academic content specialists. Neither specialist approved the final standards, and the English consultant, Dr. Sandra Stotsky, publicly stated she felt the standards left students with an empty skill set, lacking literary knowledge. While educators and administrators were later included in the Validation Committee and Feedback Groups, they did not play a role in the actual drafting of standards. The product is a (quote) “rigorous preparation for college and career.” Yet, many educators agree that “rigorous” is a buzzword; these standards aren’t rigorous, just different - designed for an industrial model of school.

Nevertheless, Common Core emerged. Keep in mind the specific standards were never voted upon by Congress, the Department of Education, State, or local governments, yet, their implementation was approved by forty-nine states and territories. The President bribed states into implementation via Race to the Top, offering $4.35 billion taxpayer dollars to participating states; $500 million of which went to Tennessee. And, much like No Child Left Behind, this new program promises national testing and a one-size-fits-all education - because, hey, it worked really well the first time.

While I do admire some aspects of the Core, such as fewer standards and an emphasis on application and writing, it is hardly going to fix our academic deficit. If nothing else, these standards are a glowing conflict of interest and lack the research they allegedly received. Most importantly, the standards illustrate a mistrust of teachers, something I believe this county has already felt for a while.

I have been fortunate to have incredible educators that opened my eyes to the joy of learning. I love them like my family and respect them entirely, which is why it frustrates me to review the TEAM and APEX evaluation systems. These subjective anxiety producers do more to damage a teacher’s self-esteem than you realize. Erroneous evaluation coupled with strategic compensation presents a punitive model that, as a student, is like watching your teacher jump through flaming hoops to earn a score. Have you forgotten the nature of the classroom? A teacher cannot be evaluated without his students because, as a craft, teaching is an interaction. Thus, how can one expect to gauge a teacher’s success with no control for students’ participation or interest? I stand before you because I care about education, but also because I support my teachers. Just as they fought for my academic advancement, so I want to fight for their ability to teach. This relationship is at the heart of instruction, yet there will never be a system by which it is accurately measured.

But I want to take a step back. We can argue the details ad infinitum, yet I observe a much broader issue with education today. Standards-based education is ruining the way we teach and learn. Yes, I’ve already been told by legislators and administrators, “Ethan, that’s just the way things work.” But why? I’ll answer that question: bureaucratic convenience. It works with nuclear reactors, it works with business models, why can’t it work with students? How convenient, calculating exactly who knows what and who needs what. I mean, why don’t we just manufacture robots instead of students? They last longer and always do what they’re told. But, education is unlike every other bureaucratic institute in our government. The task of teaching is not quantifiable. If everything I learn in high school is a measurable objective, I haven’t learned much of anything. I’d like to repeat that: If everything I learn in high school is a measurable objective, I haven’t learned much of anything. Creativity, appreciation, inquisitiveness - these are all impossible to scale. Yet they are the purpose of education: why teachers teach, why students learn.

Today, we find ourselves in a nation that produces workers. Everything is career and college preparation. Somewhere, our founding fathers are turning in their graves, pleading, screaming, and trying to say to us: we teach to free minds. We teach to inspire. We teach to equip. The careers will come naturally. I know we are just one city in a huge system that excitedly embraces numbers. But ask any of these teachers, ask any of my peers, ask yourselves - haven’t we gone too far with data?

I attended tonight’s meeting to share my critiques, but as Benjamin Franklin quipped, “Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain - and most fools do.” The problems I cite are very real, and I ask only that you hear them out, investigate them, and do not dismiss them as another fool’s criticisms. I’ll close with a quote of Jane L. Stanford that Dr. McIntyre shared in a recent speech, “You have my entire confidence in your ability and in your determination to do earnest, conscientious work to the very best advantage to the students, that they be considered paramount to all and everything else.” We are capable of fixing education, and I commit myself to that task. But you cannot ignore me, my teachers, or the truth. We need change, but not Common Core, high-stakes evaluations, or more robots.

Q & A with Ethan Young:

1. What prompted you to take the time and energy to speak to the Board about your education?

The problems I addressed in my speech have bothered me as early as the seventh grade. In years prior, I wrote several letters to state and local legislative bodies in the hopes my concerns would be heard, but received no replies. The speech I gave was simply the first public articulation of ideas welling up over time in my mind. I felt my position as a student would present a certain “realness” that might cause the Board to be more attentive or responsive. While my estimations of the local board were erroneous, the attention I received nationally assures me my words were not arranged in vain.

2. What has been the response since the video was posted?

Overwhelming. Humbling. Incredible. Encouraging. I’ve now appeared on national news programs, radio shows, and plenty of newspapers. Each time I review an article or segment, I am heartened by the number of people a particular medium will reach. I want as many people in this discussion as possible.

3. How have you seen high stakes testing affect your education in Tennessee?

High-stakes tests complement standards-based education. As our state has implemented testable objectives in virtually every subject area, it has intentionally shifted the instructional style of teachers to one that is always measurable. In doing so, the classrooms I learned in were essentially test preparation facilities. Of course, many items on tests are crucial for students to learn and are thus being taught. Yet, this leaves much less room for a teacher to do what they do best: teach.

4. How do you think students should be involved in the process by which decisions around standards and education are made?

Student voice, like teacher voice, should be integral - not an afterthought, or even a means of validation. There is a tangible attitude in education that children are to do what the adults say, since the adults know best. They can complain and protest, but their voices should be dismissed because, well, it’s petulant and uneducated. This philosophy is synonymous to a physician ignoring his patient’s report of pain or symptoms because he clearly knows more about the human body. Just as a physician must, our educational legislators should know more than children about the specifics of engineering an education system. But this is no reason to dismiss student’s input and ideas.

5. How do you think we should approach education standards?

Cautiously. Standards should exist to provide guidance and form to education. I imagine such standards as signs that, when followed with diligence, lead students to an ideal platform for their next ventures in life. However, these signs should not offer turn-by-turn directions, but rather general landmarks students will pass on their journey. Sometimes, the sign may offer instructions without pointing anywhere in particular, leaving direction up to the student or teacher. Flexibility is crucial. Equally important, though, is the need to articulate alongside a set of standards the reality that these guidelines detail a mere 10% of what students and teachers should enjoy in learning.

6. Do you plan to continue to stay involved in these issues after you graduate high school?

Absolutely, and I actually plan to become even more involved in these issues. I feel as a nation we were hoodwinked by Common Core and other initiatives because no one was watching. I refuse to become a non-participant. As the old adage goes, “In politics, you play or your get played.” While education should not be and is not politics, politicians will never leave the institute alone.

What do you think of Ethan Young’s perspective?

Note: Last month I spoke with another outspoken student at Farragutt High, Kenneth Ye. That interview is here.

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.