Evidence? They Can’t Handle the Evidence

February 22, 2013

In the spring of 2005 several months before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, I attended the annual ASCD conference in that city—for my first and only time. Sessions at ASCD were not only sponsored by vendors, but vendors themselves were presenting. That conference was a disturbing lesson in the commodification of education.

Fast-forward to the December 2012/January 2013 issue of Educational Leadership, the flagship journal of ASCD: Common Core: Now What? The entire issue consists of primarily articles scrambling to implement Common Core State Standards (CCSS), all wrapped in a series of advertisements touting the requisite materials educators must have to make that implementation work.

During the stampede to out-implement others in regards to CCSS, I have confronted the failure of unions and particularly professional organizations to reject the move to CCSS and the eventual battery of national high-stakes tests. Notably, I have questioned the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) for falling into line with the implementation argument and not standing up for the profession itself (we ELA teachers already know what to teach, by the way).

So I must take a moment to recognize what I consider a rare and perceptive criticism of CCSS from Randy Bomer and Beth Maloch in an NCTE publication (Language Arts, 89(1), September 2011). Before I highlight some key points from Bomer and Maloch, however, please consider the roots of CCSS.

In 1996, Achieve was formed at the National Education Summit by governors and business leaders as an organization directly committed to raising expectations for students and schools by influencing accountability policy based on standards and high-stakes testing. Soon after Achieve was founded, the seeds of CCSS were planted. Just over a decade later, Achieve published a report, Out of Many, One: Toward Rigorous Common Core Standards from the Ground Up (2008), announcing: “All students should graduate from high school prepared for the demands of postsecondary education, meaningful careers and effective citizenship [emphasis in original]”; the report then claimed:

For the first time in the history of American education, educators and policymakers are setting their sights on reaching this goal. Achieving the goal will require states to address the twin challenges of graduating more students and graduating them ready for college, careers and citizenship. (p. 1)

To understand how CCSS is devoid of evidence or any historical context, two contradictory points must be noted about Out of Many: (1) the goals stated by Achieve are nearly identical to the ones expressed by The Committee of Ten over a century before, yet (2) Achieve makes the claim that their report was “the first time in the history of American education” for this process. CCSS, then, began wrapped in rhetoric that mischaracterized the history of standards in the U.S.

Now, back to Bomer and Maloch, who offer a perceptive characterization of CCSS:

These arguments [for CCSS implementation], whether or not we agree with them, aren’t about evidence; they’re about values. Professionals should be able to name that kind of argument, perhaps in order to answer it, and to counter claims that a particular policy is “evidence based” when it’s not….The point is, the people who wrote, publicized, adopted, and imposed the Common Core Standards have no idea….Ironically, the word “evidence” is used 136 times in the Common Core Standards, and in 133 of those instances, it is something that students are expected to provide. For the writers of the standards, not so much….But teachers should not be overly confident about the knowledge base behind these very important standards, and as part of their response when teaching in Common Core Standards states, they should continue to use evidence from what they know about young children’s learning and composing to fill in the substantial gaps in the vision of the Common Core Standards. (pp. 38, 41, 42)

So what about the evidence?

Stephanie Simon notes:

A federal commission on Tuesday said the U.S. education system had “thoroughly stacked the odds” against impoverished students and warned that an aggressive reform agenda embraced by both Democrats and Republicans had not done enough to improve public schools.

And Robin Hiller adds:

Research has shown that testing doesn’t make students smarter or improve the educational outcomes for those at risk. It just makes test-makers wealthier.

Most importantly, Mathis highlights about the standards-based accountability era:

Yet, there are informative lessons from related research. There is, for example, no evidence that states within the U.S. score higher or lower on the NAEP based on the rigor of their state standards. Similarly, international test data show no pronounced test-score advantage on the basis of the presence or absence of national standards. Further, the wave of high-stakes testing associated with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has resulted in the “dumbing down” and narrowing of the curriculum. (Bandeira de Mello, Blankenship, & McLaughlin, 2009; Kohn, 2010; McCluskey, 2010; Robelen, 2011; Whitehurst, 2009)

In other words, after thirty years of state standards, high-stakes testing, and accountability aimed at students, schools, and teachers, the educational sky is still falling?

And the solution is new standards and more tests?

According to Secretary Duncan speaking to Achieve in 2010, yes. In that talk, Duncan mentioned “assessment(s)” over 80 times, “test(s)” and “standard(s) over 20 times each, but failed to mention “poverty” even a single time (just as “poverty” is never identified in Out of Many [2008]). What are the problems and solutions for education, according to Duncan?

First, Duncan notes that current highs-takes tests are inadequate, but adds that these tests fail because they are built on weak standards:

We want teachers to teach to standards—if the standards are rigorous, globally competitive, and consistent across states. Unfortunately, in the last decade, numerous states dummied down their academic standards and assessments. In effect, they lied to parents and students. They told students they were proficient and on track to college success, when they were not even close.

When faced with the evidence of test-based accountability failing, as Duncan does here, the solution appears to be to double-down on that which has failed.

Instead, let’s consider what the evidence tells us: The problem is a lack of equity of opportunity for “other people’s children.”

Because standards are always reduced to what is tested is what is taught and because standardized testing labels, sorts, and ranks children and then facilitates funneling those children either into challenging and rich courses such as Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) with the most experienced and highly certified teachers, the affluent and disproportionately white children, or into test-prep hell with inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers (increasingly Teach for America recruits), the impoverished and disproportionately minority children.

Ultimately the quality of the curriculum and the standards are irrelevant if we maintain a stratified education system that mirrors our stratified communities.

The evidence shows that education reform must be about equity and opportunity. Everything else is mere distraction.

But the most damning evidence of all is who actually benefits from all the CCSS mania:

Ultimately, we call for a reframing of the CCSS from redeemer to rainmaker. Rainmakers are defined by their ability to generate business by using political associations. The need to implement and assess the established CCSS situates those who created the standards as rainmakers for educational publishing companies and educational consulting non-profits they are affiliated with.…Therefore we raise the following questions, (1) Is education destined to be guided by the testing of national standards created by a small group who profits from the test they are paid to create? (2) What does that mean for historical notions of public education for all with local decision making rights? and (3) Are the CCSS the national beginnings of the corporatization of education? (Pennington, Obenchain, Papola, & Kmitta, 2012)

And if you are looking for the evidence, flip through the December 2012/January 2013 Educational Leadership issue I mentioned above.

Cha-Ching.

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P.L. Thomas

Paul Thomas, Associate Professor of Education, taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. Recent books include Parental Choice?: A Critical Reconsideration of Choice and the Debate about Choice (Information Age Publishing, 2010) and 21st Century Literacy...