The Education Gimmick of the Year Club Strikes Again

Since sometime in the 1960s, American educators, and especially the federal government, have been enrolled in the Education Gimmick of the Year Club. Like the legendary Time/Life book club, every so often, a package would arrive; educators could peruse it; and if they liked it, they could keep it, and taxpayers would buy it for millions -- sometimes billions -- plus shipping and handling, and the academic achievement of America's youngsters would soar.

Some panaceas, notably forced racial integration and Head Start, are well known; others, like mega-high schools, small themed high schools, community control, team teaching, the New Math, open classrooms, "critical thinking," and more recently, multicultural instruction, merit pay for teachers, for-profit schools, accountability, web-based instruction, and various free-market nostrums like paying students to learn are less familiar, but they share a common trait: They all have failed to deliver despite grandiose claims.  

Unfortunately, American educators have forgotten to cancel their membership, and the latest Gimmick of the Year Club nostrum has now arrived. This is national academic achievement standards -- officially called "Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI)"-- so experts can decide what every student, from rural Mississippi to New York City, should learn across multiple subjects and then diagnose successes and failure. High-sounding banalities aside, nothing in CCSSI points to how the Promised Land will be reached, but uniform testing -- at least it is hoped -- will expose those lagging behind or claiming bogus achievement from dumbed down local or state exams.

And like all handsomely packaged past Club offerings, the rush to buy is on -- twenty-eight states plus the District of Columbia are already enrolled, and by next spring, some forty states will likely join. Perhaps the $4.35 billion in Washington generosity that awaits those who enroll explains this sudden embrace of tough standards (non-participants may also be denied access to other federal education funding). This is like Time/Life paying you to enroll.

It will fail and probably make things worse -- and what is particularly depressing is that the reasons for upcoming failure are both obvious and intractable. The apt parallel would be those gullible couch potatoes who order every no-effort "miracle" weight-loss device or pill versus eating less and exercising more.   

Begin by realizing that the U.S. is not France or Germany, where a central bureaucracy can unilaterally impose strict standards and tests. American education is incredibly decentralized, and local interests are loath to surrender their prerogatives without a fight. Residents of Texas and Vermont probably differ on American history. As the ill-fated No Child Left Behind program makes clear, everything will require negotiation and achieving a political consensus, which means gutting standards. School districts overwhelmed with non-English speakers will receive exemptions. Many students will be classified as cognitively impaired and therefore exempt from testing. This is a world of glittering public rhetoric about "excellence" and out-of-sight, standards-gutting bureaucratic waivers. That Washington, D.C., the poster child for educational incompetence, has signed on should immediately raise suspicions. D.C. bureaucrats are geniuses at gaming the system.   

If grueling tests cannot be negotiated away, there is always cheating. Again, thanks to No Child Left Behind plus hundreds of pay-for-results programs, American educators are no slouches in this department. Cheating is ubiquitous, and this fudging even has its own name. Campbell's Law -- the higher the stake for public policy, the greater the cheating. Worse, such cheating may be impossible to curtail, given that schools themselves will administer the test and, save the occasional brave whistle-blower, few educators have incentives to expose cheating. The tip-off here is that nobody has suggested that this testing task should be farmed out to the non-profit but private ETS that administers the honest SAT tests.   

Still, these problems are relatively minor compared to the Great Truth That Dares Not Speak Its Name: Given a choice between egalitarian outcomes and genuine academic excellence, Americans, including nearly all professional educators, overwhelmingly prefer the former. To say that educators want everyone to score above average, especially certain racial and ethnic minorities, is no joke. Tough tests across serious academic subjects will produce sizable achievement gaps, and these gaps are judged deplorable in today's egalitarian climate.  

Here's the bad news: The tougher the test, the wider the range of outcomes. Everyone would pass a 5th-grade spelling test of "hat," "cat" and "dog." Substitute "fedora," "feline" and "canine," and proficiency declines. Keep increasing the difficulty, and not only will scores fall, but -- and this is key -- blacks and Hispanics will disproportionately do worse. This pattern is written in stone. When New York State recently imposed tougher standards for "proficiency" in math and English, numbers in general dropped -- from 86% to 61% in math and 77% to 53% in English. But among blacks , the fall-off was huge -- in English, the gap went from 22 points to 30.4 points, in math from 17 to 30 points. In one black NYC school, the Choir Academy of Harlem, 8th-grade proficiency in English dropped from 44% to 6%. The unpleasant upshot for egalitarians is that striving for academic excellence inescapably means displaying larger and larger race-related gaps in academic attainment.

Still, assume that everything goes as planned: States adopt no-nonsense tests in multiple subjects, test administration is reasonably honest, and the results are made public. What now? In terms of actually improving performance, the answer is "nothing." Test results will only confirm what we already know -- most Americans are academically mediocre, and blacks and Hispanics on average perform even worse. Moreover, zero in the current repertory of remediation techniques has successfully reversed this sorry outcome, despite countless billion-dollar guaranteed solutions.

This does not, however, mean an unchanged status quo -- things will get worse. National standards for history, social studies, and English are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for politicizing education. And thanks to their long and successful experience in curriculum-meddling, the left enjoys the home-field advantage here (conservatives usually surrender and just elect homeschooling or private schools). Hard to imagine conservative Texas educators beating back the battle-hardened educrats within Washington's Department of Education. They will be outnumbered a hundred to one. Moreover, the encompassing nature of the tests, far beyond the usual math and English, plus the sharper race/ethnic gaps, will only heighten cries for more spending and more federal intervention. Civil rights advocates and their educator allies will now say, "Yes, we knew it was bad, but we had no idea that it was this bad!" Today's dull roar for pouring billions more into a hopeless cause will become a mighty strident chorus.

Under such circumstances, those inclined toward fiscal responsibility may join hands with all the opponents of tests to corrupt this promised elixir. It's that or possible financial ruin. So difficult questions separating whites and blacks will be silently eliminated, more bureaucratic waivers will be granted to exclude strugglers, schools and teachers will be given more administrative freedom, and statisticians will be instructed to obscure awkward findings so as to calm outraged activists. Lagging minority students will be pushed into test-exempt "special education," while results may be race-normed so that awkward comparisons will occur only within ethnic groups, causing gaps to "disappear." American education will thus return to the status quo ante, when we only suspected mediocrity, and while gaps existed, they were modest. With an illusion of gap-closing progress, vociferous demands for national bankruptcy will abate. 

Unfortunately, watering down rigorous exams will not banish newly arrived ideological baggage. Students may fail to recall exactly why America economically exploited minorities, or just why industrialization destroys the planet, but they will now certainly hear about it, be tested on it, and do both in every American classroom. When all is said and done, the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) will not improve education, but it will likely extend leftish ideology-mongering into every school in America. And to the extent that non-leftist parents flee this newly imposed propaganda, CCSSI may further destroy our public schools.

This is Obama's Trojan Horse strategy that will -- surprise, surprise -- only increase government spending, heighten the race-flavored egalitarian clamor, and enhance Washington's domination of once-local education decision-making. My advice: Just pay the shipping and handling and return the Gimmick to sender.      

Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science-Emeritus, University of Illinois-Urbana. His latest book is  Bad Students Not Bad Schools. badstudentsnotbadschools.com
Since sometime in the 1960s, American educators, and especially the federal government, have been enrolled in the Education Gimmick of the Year Club. Like the legendary Time/Life book club, every so often, a package would arrive; educators could peruse it; and if they liked it, they could keep it, and taxpayers would buy it for millions -- sometimes billions -- plus shipping and handling, and the academic achievement of America's youngsters would soar.

Some panaceas, notably forced racial integration and Head Start, are well known; others, like mega-high schools, small themed high schools, community control, team teaching, the New Math, open classrooms, "critical thinking," and more recently, multicultural instruction, merit pay for teachers, for-profit schools, accountability, web-based instruction, and various free-market nostrums like paying students to learn are less familiar, but they share a common trait: They all have failed to deliver despite grandiose claims.  

Unfortunately, American educators have forgotten to cancel their membership, and the latest Gimmick of the Year Club nostrum has now arrived. This is national academic achievement standards -- officially called "Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI)"-- so experts can decide what every student, from rural Mississippi to New York City, should learn across multiple subjects and then diagnose successes and failure. High-sounding banalities aside, nothing in CCSSI points to how the Promised Land will be reached, but uniform testing -- at least it is hoped -- will expose those lagging behind or claiming bogus achievement from dumbed down local or state exams.

And like all handsomely packaged past Club offerings, the rush to buy is on -- twenty-eight states plus the District of Columbia are already enrolled, and by next spring, some forty states will likely join. Perhaps the $4.35 billion in Washington generosity that awaits those who enroll explains this sudden embrace of tough standards (non-participants may also be denied access to other federal education funding). This is like Time/Life paying you to enroll.

It will fail and probably make things worse -- and what is particularly depressing is that the reasons for upcoming failure are both obvious and intractable. The apt parallel would be those gullible couch potatoes who order every no-effort "miracle" weight-loss device or pill versus eating less and exercising more.   

Begin by realizing that the U.S. is not France or Germany, where a central bureaucracy can unilaterally impose strict standards and tests. American education is incredibly decentralized, and local interests are loath to surrender their prerogatives without a fight. Residents of Texas and Vermont probably differ on American history. As the ill-fated No Child Left Behind program makes clear, everything will require negotiation and achieving a political consensus, which means gutting standards. School districts overwhelmed with non-English speakers will receive exemptions. Many students will be classified as cognitively impaired and therefore exempt from testing. This is a world of glittering public rhetoric about "excellence" and out-of-sight, standards-gutting bureaucratic waivers. That Washington, D.C., the poster child for educational incompetence, has signed on should immediately raise suspicions. D.C. bureaucrats are geniuses at gaming the system.   

If grueling tests cannot be negotiated away, there is always cheating. Again, thanks to No Child Left Behind plus hundreds of pay-for-results programs, American educators are no slouches in this department. Cheating is ubiquitous, and this fudging even has its own name. Campbell's Law -- the higher the stake for public policy, the greater the cheating. Worse, such cheating may be impossible to curtail, given that schools themselves will administer the test and, save the occasional brave whistle-blower, few educators have incentives to expose cheating. The tip-off here is that nobody has suggested that this testing task should be farmed out to the non-profit but private ETS that administers the honest SAT tests.   

Still, these problems are relatively minor compared to the Great Truth That Dares Not Speak Its Name: Given a choice between egalitarian outcomes and genuine academic excellence, Americans, including nearly all professional educators, overwhelmingly prefer the former. To say that educators want everyone to score above average, especially certain racial and ethnic minorities, is no joke. Tough tests across serious academic subjects will produce sizable achievement gaps, and these gaps are judged deplorable in today's egalitarian climate.  

Here's the bad news: The tougher the test, the wider the range of outcomes. Everyone would pass a 5th-grade spelling test of "hat," "cat" and "dog." Substitute "fedora," "feline" and "canine," and proficiency declines. Keep increasing the difficulty, and not only will scores fall, but -- and this is key -- blacks and Hispanics will disproportionately do worse. This pattern is written in stone. When New York State recently imposed tougher standards for "proficiency" in math and English, numbers in general dropped -- from 86% to 61% in math and 77% to 53% in English. But among blacks , the fall-off was huge -- in English, the gap went from 22 points to 30.4 points, in math from 17 to 30 points. In one black NYC school, the Choir Academy of Harlem, 8th-grade proficiency in English dropped from 44% to 6%. The unpleasant upshot for egalitarians is that striving for academic excellence inescapably means displaying larger and larger race-related gaps in academic attainment.

Still, assume that everything goes as planned: States adopt no-nonsense tests in multiple subjects, test administration is reasonably honest, and the results are made public. What now? In terms of actually improving performance, the answer is "nothing." Test results will only confirm what we already know -- most Americans are academically mediocre, and blacks and Hispanics on average perform even worse. Moreover, zero in the current repertory of remediation techniques has successfully reversed this sorry outcome, despite countless billion-dollar guaranteed solutions.

This does not, however, mean an unchanged status quo -- things will get worse. National standards for history, social studies, and English are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for politicizing education. And thanks to their long and successful experience in curriculum-meddling, the left enjoys the home-field advantage here (conservatives usually surrender and just elect homeschooling or private schools). Hard to imagine conservative Texas educators beating back the battle-hardened educrats within Washington's Department of Education. They will be outnumbered a hundred to one. Moreover, the encompassing nature of the tests, far beyond the usual math and English, plus the sharper race/ethnic gaps, will only heighten cries for more spending and more federal intervention. Civil rights advocates and their educator allies will now say, "Yes, we knew it was bad, but we had no idea that it was this bad!" Today's dull roar for pouring billions more into a hopeless cause will become a mighty strident chorus.

Under such circumstances, those inclined toward fiscal responsibility may join hands with all the opponents of tests to corrupt this promised elixir. It's that or possible financial ruin. So difficult questions separating whites and blacks will be silently eliminated, more bureaucratic waivers will be granted to exclude strugglers, schools and teachers will be given more administrative freedom, and statisticians will be instructed to obscure awkward findings so as to calm outraged activists. Lagging minority students will be pushed into test-exempt "special education," while results may be race-normed so that awkward comparisons will occur only within ethnic groups, causing gaps to "disappear." American education will thus return to the status quo ante, when we only suspected mediocrity, and while gaps existed, they were modest. With an illusion of gap-closing progress, vociferous demands for national bankruptcy will abate. 

Unfortunately, watering down rigorous exams will not banish newly arrived ideological baggage. Students may fail to recall exactly why America economically exploited minorities, or just why industrialization destroys the planet, but they will now certainly hear about it, be tested on it, and do both in every American classroom. When all is said and done, the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) will not improve education, but it will likely extend leftish ideology-mongering into every school in America. And to the extent that non-leftist parents flee this newly imposed propaganda, CCSSI may further destroy our public schools.

This is Obama's Trojan Horse strategy that will -- surprise, surprise -- only increase government spending, heighten the race-flavored egalitarian clamor, and enhance Washington's domination of once-local education decision-making. My advice: Just pay the shipping and handling and return the Gimmick to sender.      

Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science-Emeritus, University of Illinois-Urbana. His latest book is  Bad Students Not Bad Schools. badstudentsnotbadschools.com

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