Common Core: Reinforcing Failure
There are three distinct outcomes of the educational process: skill acquisitions, learning specific content, and critical thinking. Acquiring the skills of reading, writing, and doing basic math is the initial stage of education. Good education should promote skills that will enable the student to progress to the level of content acquisition. But the purpose of education is not accomplished by a self-indulgent pursuit of content acquisition alone. Gaining knowledge should be accompanied with the ability to think critically and evaluate one's beliefs.
How does Common Core, the latest governmental effort at educational reform (following "No Child Left Behind" and "Race to the Top") measure up to these criteria?
Government educational initiatives have continuously focused on implementation of rigorous all-inclusive educational standards. Unfortunately, the goal of implementing universal educational outcome criteria addresses the symptom and not the cause of the problem. The educational crisis in this country was not caused by lack of universal criteria for success, in much the same way that widespread obesity is not caused by the lack of criteria for healthy weight and body mass. Many Americans fail to meet the standards for healthy weight, but this is the effect and not the cause of being overweight.
The analogy with education should be apparent. While too many American students fail to meet government standards for literacy and overall academic aptitude, this too is just the effect and not the cause. Passing an academic aptitude test is neither necessary nor sufficient indication that learning has taken place. Over the last decade, it has become apparent that the exclusive pursuit of higher test scores has had a detrimental effect on the educational process as a whole. The quest for comprehensive assessments of academic outcomes has been focused on skills and has obscured the importance of learning and critical thinking.
This fact has been tacitly acknowledged by the latest educational criteria, which are formulated in terms of learning outcomes. The renewed focus on learning outcomes is an important step in the right direction. But merely introducing such criteria does not guarantee that learning will re-enter the educational process. Enacting uniform standards for learning outcomes will not resolve the educational crisis, in the same way that strict prohibition of alcohol failed to eliminate the problem of alcohol abuse.
Another essential element of current education reform is the uniform curriculum. Public school teachers are put in the difficult position of competing for government funding by implementing government-approved curricula and administering standardized assessments. If school funding and status is determined by test outcomes, then public-school teachers are encouraged to teach exclusively for the purpose of preparing students for standardized assessments.
There are at least two problematic assumptions underlying the implementation of Common Core standards. First, it is assumed that standardized assessments will attest to the success of all aspects of the educational process. In reality, Common Core standards, or any standardized system of assessments, are likely to evaluate the skills and the competency of the students but not their creative and critical thinking skills. Thus, there is a clear danger of neglecting an essential component of education. The second assumption behind current education reform is that with proper instruction most students will be able to satisfy the Common Core standards and proceed to college-level education. The government has fostered a strong public expectation that most high-school graduates are capable of pursuing college education. Unfortunately, this assumption is demonstrably false. The error in this conjecture is illustrated by the great number of remediation courses that many American high school graduates have to take in order to gain access to colleges and universities. As a result, we are faced with duplicate educational expenditures, overloaded classrooms, and excessive dropout rates in colleges and universities. This point is clearly reflected in the demographic makeup of the current college student population. It is projected that within a few short years the new majority at American colleges and universities will be students of over 25 years of age who are making their second or third attempt at post-secondary education.
A uniform curriculum raises serious concerns about the specter of indoctrination, dependency, and manipulation, even if implemented with the best of intentions. Centralized control over any educational curriculum is not only detrimental to science, it is also contrary to the principles of individual autonomy, democracy, and independent thinking. The essence of modern science is not captured by set core beliefs that can be all-inclusively taught and tested. Instead, the essence of modern science lies in the rigorous method of enlightened, critical, and independent thinking. The astounding progress in modern science since the 18th century has been achieved through a dynamic battle between rival scientific paradigms. The strength of science lies in fostering uncommon beliefs by a common and uncompromising commitment to critical thinking.
The present argument is not directed against academic standards in general or the Common Core standards in particular. Instead it targets the naive and exaggerated hope that the implementation of a uniform curriculum and rigorous all-inclusive standards will result in improving the quality of education. The sweeping educational reforms offered by the government are driven by politicians' desire for quick solutions, even though the very metrics of the reforms demonstrate the failure of their good intentions at the expense of the taxpayers and students.
The fiscal sustainability of K-12 education and the affordability of college education are real issues that can no longer be ignored. In 2010, the educational debt of the United States population reached $830 billion and surpassed national credit card debt. There is a well-justified fear that current rates of unemployment in the United States will soon burst the educational bubble, leading to a massive default of educational loans.
Pouring money into the educational system has long been the dominant political strategy and source of profit for school administrations. For decades, politicians have allocated money and provided for generous student loans while school executives engaged in spending money and systematically raising tuition fees. The problem is that enormous educational expenditures did not translate into quality of education. The United States spends more on education by far than any other country, but the educational outcomes do not match these expenditures.
The affordability of education is an urgent issue and its solution requires more than political rhetoric and feel-good expressions of good intentions. At stake are the livelihood and the wellbeing of generations of Americans.
The latest hope is that online delivery will prove to be the panacea for all the ailments of the education system and especially for college education. In pursuit of volume, some academic centers have developed massive open online courses (MOOCs). The states of Florida and California are considering legislative bills allowing students to earn academic credit from accredited institutions offering MOOCs. While skepticism and caution stalled the California legislation, the Florida legislators passed a version of a bill allowing MOOCs not only for college education but also for K-12 education.
Online formats are praised as efficient, convenient, and cost-effective tools for delivering information, but they cannot cure the deep problems of the educational system. Proponents of online education often choose to ignore the hidden costs associated with the development, delivery, and maintenance of online courses. The issue of quality is also eclipsed by a hunger for effective delivery and the public's infatuation with online formats. Historically, massive production of any item has led to a considerable reduction of quality. For example, the attempt to mass-produce art with significant content led to a distorted, low-quality art trend called Kitsch. Mass-production, fast delivery, and cost-effectiveness are not substitutes for craftsmanship, especially when we desire quality of education.
We cannot keep kicking the proverbial can down the road while ignoring issues of educational quality and unsustainable expenditures. We need to resist the temptation to find a "silver bullet" and a fast solution to the looming educational crisis. Current government attempts at top-down education reform rest on flawed assumptions about the benefits of standardized assessments, uniform curriculums, and educational expenditures. Education issues are complex and their solutions will require the systematic efforts of the whole society and not trendy bureaucratic initiatives. Societies have survived or perished depending on their ability to reproduce capable and educated populations. Historically, quality educational systems have been created by people's convictions and commitment to the pursuit of knowledge, not by government compulsion. It is imperative that we learn from our failures and reassess the merits of centralized education reforms.