Over the last several days I have heard and read several different takes on the loss of Oklahoma’s NCLB waiver as a result of the passage of a law to remove Common Core as the state’s educational standards for Math and English Language Arts. The opinions of the effect of this loss range from “It really isn’t a big deal” to “It’s a disaster!” Clearly, if NCLB remains in place, there is the potential for gut-wrenching readjustments in school budgets and other painful realignments. I have never served in a public school administrative position, so I admit I do not understand the full impact of that. However, if we focus just on this outcome, I believe we are being short-sighted.
As an educator, I opposed Common Core and worked to dismantle it in Oklahoma for many reasons. Not the least of those reasons was the fact that the standards, though in many cases well intentioned, were often developmentally inappropriate, unnecessarily complicated, and not clearly based in recognized research. However, the most important reason that I fought Common Core was that the Initiative of which it was/is the linchpin represented a dangerous undermining of the democratic republican form of government that we have lived under more or less successfully for the last 200+ years.
When the Department of Education was established by Congress, it was with an accompanying fear that such a department might attempt to establish a national curriculum, and lawmakers actually built language into the legislation to prevent that from occurring. What has been happening, slowly and almost imperceptibly, over the last several decades has been an encroachment by the DOE into education at the state and local level that represents exactly what Congress feared. Under the tenure of Secretary Arne Duncan, this encroachment was thrown into high gear. Duncan used Gates money to promote the development of a set of standards that he then tricked and extorted 45 states and DC into adopting using a competition to win grant money to develop the high-stakes tests that would be used to evaluate students taught under these standards, thus establishing a de facto national curriculum. When high-stakes tests are tied to standards, the standards automatically become the curriculum, no matter how the promoters of Common Core do protest. Then to further coerce states into accepting Common Core standards and the tests and the data transfers, he offered them waivers from the draconian effects of failing to meet the 100% requirements of NCLB if they would just pay a little price. The price was, among other things, confirmation of the adoption of Common Core Standards and the use of VAM (value-added modeling) to evaluate teachers using student test scores, a concept that has been repeatedly repudiated in multiple research studies. I do not pretend to know what Duncan’s motivations are, but the effect of his efforts is undoubtedly to federalize public education, and the practical effect will ultimately be the privatization of most of public education, the widening of the achievement gap, and increasing segregation of schools.
A movement is growing to push back against not just the Common Core Standards, but against the excessive use of high-stakes standardized tests and inappropriate collection of student data. There are those, myself among them, who have said all along that the waivers were themselves illegal, amounting to lawmaking by a federal agency, which would also be unconstitutional. Derek W. Black, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, has just written an article (discussed by Peter Greene here)in which he elucidates a clear and reasoned argument as to the validity of this assessment. I understand that Governor Jindal of Louisiana has filed a law suit against the federal government related to at least some part of this issue; I would be surprised if Black is not called to testify in this trial. All across the country, educators, university professors, and legislators are deciding not to roll over and play dead any longer while the federal government rides roughshod over their rights in regard to the constitutional provision that powers not given to the federal government are reserved to the states. They are blogging and talking and learning that they are not alone. It seems critical to me that we seize this opportunity to make a supreme effort to take back what is ours, even if we must pay a price to do so.
One of the concerns of many Oklahoma administrators has been that they are not provided enough money to pay for all the programs and requirements laid on schools and still do the job of educating children, and I agree with them. It seems to me, however, that the most permanent solution to this problem is to fight the machine that is setting up all these requirements, that is, the federal government and its Department of Education. When schools are not required to fulfill unfunded mandates whether at the federal or state level, this should have the effect of freeing up millions of dollars to spend on students, teachers, and classrooms. This, in my mind, is a better solution than asking for more money to do the things we know we should be doing after we’ve spent so much of the money schools are actually given on things that don’t really help kids but are required by silly laws.
So I guess what I’m suggesting is that instead of wasting energy arguing over whose perception about the impact of the waiver is right or wrong, let’s all get on the same page to get rid of high-stakes tests altogether, to get rid of VAM, and to pull down unnecessary databases that serve no one but third party testing and curriculum vendors, all of which suck state and district educational budgets dry. We can only do this when legislators hear us as one powerful voice. Students have been the collateral damage in this fight for years, and I don’t see that ending until we press on to make the voice of free public education heard loud and clear. That means doing even more of what parents and educators in Oklahoma did this past year. It means not wearying in the fight. Ending Common Core was just one battle in a war that will take several years to win, and if we fight each other, we will surely lose. This seems an appropriate place to quote Ben Franklin (who, I understand, is ignored by the new AP History “curriculum”): “We must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” And ineffectively, I might add.