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The Art of Teaching Science: 6 Reasons Why the Common Core is NOT Progressive Ideology


A growing criticism of the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards is that its a way for progressives to inject their philosophies and ideology onto children and youth in American schools.

One reader of this blog made this comment about my post in which I discuss why Bill Gates defends the common core.

Common Core is Progressive Speak for a Nationalized (Common), Centrally Planned (Core), Agenda (Education), System (Standards). It will become a continuous accelerated march to Socialism and to the destruction of America through indoctrination of our kids. It is the means by which Socialists can insinuate better control of children and destroy the influence of parents on kids views, via electronic media teaching (See comment by Wordwaryor, March 26, 2014.

Any thought the standards movement is an idea hatched by progressives is without merit.  Indeed, the idea of standards is a conservative idea that proposes that what students learn is out there, and that what is out there can be expressed in discrete sentences or objectives, performances or standards.  Further, the idea is that not only can we tell students what they should learn, the standards spell out when.

On this blog I’ve written many posts summarizing the work of others who take a critical look at the standards movement, and its associated high-stakes testing mania. Here are six criticisms of the standards, and their effect on student learning.  None of these support the idea that the Common Core was the brainchild of progressive educators: Hint–think John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Alfie Kohn, Lisa Delpit. 

1. Brick Walls

 In the face of teaching and learning, standards are like brick walls. According to research published by Dr. Carolyn S. Wallace, a professor at the Center for Science Education, Indiana State University, science standards are barriers to teaching and learning in science. She makes this claim in her 2011 study, published in the journal Science Education, entitled Authoritarian Science Curriculum Standards as Barriers to Teaching and Learning: An Interpretation of Personal Experience.

One of the key aspects of her study is her suggestion “that there are two characteristics of the current generation of accountability standards that pose barriers to meaningful teaching and learning in science.”

  • The tightly specified nature of successful learning performances precludes classroom teachers from modifying the standards to fit the needs of their students.
  • The standards are removed from the thinking and reasoning processes needed to meet them.

And then she adds that these two barriers are reinforced by the use of high-stakes testing in the present accountability model of education.

Dr. Wallace’s suggestions are significant in that nearly every state has adopted the Common Core State Standards, bringing America very close to having a national set of common standards and possibly a national curriculum, at least in English language arts and mathematics, with science next in line to be adopted by each state.

An important point that Wallace highlights is that teachers (and students) are recipients of the standards, and not having been a part of the process in creating the standards. By and large teachers are not participants in the design and writing of standards. But more importantly, teachers were not part of the decision to use standards to drive school science, first. That was done by élite groups of scientists and educators.

In the rhetoric of the standards, especially Achieve, the U.S. system of science and mathematics education is performing below par, and if something isn’t done, then millions of students will not be ready to compete in the global economy. Achieve cites achievement data from PISA and NAEP to make its case that American science and mathematics teaching is in horrible shape, and needs to fixed.  The solution to fix this problem is to make the American dream possible for all citizens by writing new science (and mathematics) standards. According to Achieve, quality science teaching is based on content standards “that are rich in content and practice, with aligned curricula, pedagogy, assessment and teacher preparation.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are theorized to improve learning because the new standards are superior to the existing state standards. Indeed, two groups that studied the state standards did conclude the that Common Core standards were of higher quality. A second improvement to learning is that expectations will be higher than those that now exist in the Common Core and science. The claim here was that the states set their expectations too low, resulting in “inflated” results. And the third area of improvement in learning is that standardizing might lead to higher quality textbooks and other resources since they would only have to be aligned to one set of content standards.

2. The Social-Emotional Consequences

Anxious teachers, sobbing children was the title of an opinion article published in the Atlanta newspaper.  The article, written by Stephanie Jones, professor of education at the University of Georgia, asks “What’s the low morale and crying about in education these days? Mandatory dehumanization and emotional policy-making — that’s what.”

Policy makers, acting on emotion and little to no data, have dehumanized schooling by implementing authoritarian standards in a one-size-fits-all system of education. We’ve enabled a layer of the educational system (U.S. Department of Education and the state departments of education) to carry out the NCLB act, and high-stakes tests, and use data from these tests to decide the fate of school districts, teachers and students. One of the outcomes of this policy is the debilitating effects on the mental and physical health of students, teachers and administrators.

The emotional and behavioral disorders that youth experience have only been amplified by the NCLB act.
In research by Ginicola and Saccoccio, entitled Good Intentions, Unintended Consequences: The Impact of NCLB on Children’s Mental Health, they report that NCLB is indirectly damaging children by disproportionately stressing childhood education and blatantly disregarding other areas of child development. Their research on NCLB is enlightening and disturbing.

3. Dehumanization of Students and Teachers

In 2001, the U.S. Congress enacted the No Child Left Behind (NCLB). NCLB requires that each state develop assessments in basic skills, mathematics and reading, at first, but it has now expanded to other areas. The “testing game” is an annual event making every boy and girl take part (starting at grade 3) to make sure that their state and school continue to receive federal funding. The testing games that children and youth are annually required to take part in are used to find winners and losers. Unlike the Hunger Games, children are used to decide winning schools, teachers and districts. No one dies. However, we are testing the life out of our children and youth.

Here is how the testing games work. Student scores decide whether a school has done a good or bad job. Schools which receive Federal ESEA funding must make progress (known as Adequate Yearly Progress) on test scores. Schools compare scores from one year to the next, and use the difference to decide how well or poorly the children and youth did.

Students are not televised when they take these tests. However, the results are published in the local newspapers, and using the students’ test scores, schools that didn’t make AYP are labeled and their names published in the papers. And one more thing. Policy makers are hunting for bad teachers. To do this, they have required states to begin using VAM (Value Added Modeling) to rate teachers, and to then humiliate the teachers by publishing VAM scores in the local papers. Check Los Angeles. Check New York City. Check the State of Florida.

In the scenarios described above, The Hunger Games and The Testing Games, (read a fictional account of the testing games here) youth are dehumanized and used as gladiators, or in the case of The Testing Games pawns, where their moves are used to punish or reward states, districts, schools and teachers. On Valerie Strauss’ blog, there was a recent post that gets to the heart of the tragedy of The Testing Games, and how it is not only a dehumanizing event, but has nothing to do with helping students find out about their own learning.

4. The Research Evidence Is Not Supportive for the Standards

According to the 2012, Brown Center Reports, the Common Core State Standards will have little to no effect on student achievement. Author Tom Loveless explains that neither the quality or the rigor of state standards is related to state NAEP scores. Loveless suggests that if there was an effect, we would have seen it since all states had standards in 2003.

For example in the Brown Center study, it was reported (in a separate 2009 study by Whitehurst), that there was no correlation of NAEP scores with the quality ratings of state standards. Whitehurst studied scores from 2000 to 2007, and found that NAEP scores did not depend upon the “quality of the standards,” and he reported that this was true for both white and black students (The Brown Center Report on American Education, p.9). The correlation coefficients ranged from -0.6 to 0.08.

The researchers concluded that we should not expect much from the Common Core. In an interesting discussion of the implications of their findings, Tom Loveless, the author of the report, cautions us to be careful about not being drawn into thinking that standards represent a kind of system of “weights and measures.” Loveless tells us that standards’ reformers use the word—benchmarks—as a synonym for standards. And he says that they use too often. In science education, we’ve had a long history of using the word benchmarks, and Loveless reminds us that there are not real, or measured benchmarks in any content area. Yet, when you read the standards—common core or science—there is the implication we really know–almost in a measured way–what standards should be met at a particular grade level.

Then, in the 2014 Brown Center Report on Education, it was reported that the Common Core in math had insignificant effects on student math achievement.

5. Injustice

The authoritarian standards and high-stakes testing movement conjure up for me the use of power and privilege to create injustices for not only schools and teachers, but for students and their parents. Using invalid test scores, the government has cast a net around schools that have high poverty ratesresulting in many of them being labeled as failures with teachers and administrators fired, and replaced by teachers, many of whom are un-certified, and lack the teaching experience needed for these schools.

And all of this is done with data that is not only invalid, but is not reliable. As Dr. Michael Marder says, “the masses of nationwide data do point to the primary cause of school failure, but it is poverty, not teacher quality.” So what do we do? We create a system in which life changing decisions are made about teachers and students based on data that is not examined in the context of power, privilege, and income. This leads to a corrupt system in which we predicate schools’ and teachers’ performance on false data, and use these results to embarrass and destroy careers of highly educated teachers, and bring havoc to families. Why are we doing this?

6.  Testing

Many bloggers have added to the conversation about standards, and especially its companion, high-stakes testing.  One of the important voices in this discussion is that of Anthony Cody, a former science educator and curriculum developer who blogs over on Living in Dialog on Education Week.  Anthony has written extensively on standardized tests, and you can see all of his posts on this topic here.

Anthony brings to the table a strong knowledge base on current educational reform, perhaps more than any other blogger.  In one post, he explored some of the ideas of Governor Jerry Brown of California.  Brown strongly takes issue with a system of education that depends on experts from afar who impart their opinions about what should be taught and when, and who should decide what students are learning.  He is more concerned with how we teach our children, as he is with what.  In his view, education is about the “early fashioning of character and the formation of conscience.”

But more importantly his ideas are considered in the context of the state of California which has six million students and 300,000 teachers.  And three million of California’s school age students speak a language at home that is different from English, and there are more than 2 million students living in poverty.

He’s very clear on his place on testing.  Here is one comment he made in the State of the State speech:

The laws that are in fashion demand tightly constrained curricula and reams of accountability data. All the better if it requires quiz-bits of information, regurgitated at regular intervals and stored in vast computers. Performance metrics, of course, are invoked like talismans. Distant authorities crack the whip, demanding quantitative measures and a stark, single number to encapsulate the precise achievement level of every child.

In stark contrast to the place that poverty, violence, joblessness, home environment have little effect on academic performance,  he suggested the following for the coming year:

My 2013 Budget Summary lays out the case for cutting categorical programs and putting maximum authority and discretion back at the local level–with school boards. I am asking you to approve a brand new Local Control Funding Formula which would distribute supplemental funds — over an extended period of time — to school districts based on the real world problems they face. This formula recognizes the fact that a child in a family making $20,000 a year or speaking a language different from English or living in a foster home requires more help. Equal treatment for children in unequal situations is not justice.

Standards and Progressive ideology?

I want to be clear that neither the Common Core, nor the Next Generation of Science Standards are based on progressive ideology.

The progressive movement was about inclusiveness.  It was grass-roots movement that fought to change the economic, social, legal and educational problems that many Americans endured.  The standards are a top-down, authoritarian system–just the opposite of progressive thinking.

So, there you have it.  What is your opinion about the relationship between the standards movement and progressive thinking?

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Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a former high school science teacher and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University. While at Georgia State he was coordina...