It’s déjà vu all over again.
Nearly 20 years ago, after the Clinton administration proposed a program of voluntary national student testing, Chester Finn, then a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, warned that if it failed it would be because “liberals hate the word ‘testing’ and conservatives hate the word ‘national.'” He was right.
The growing national backlash this spring against the Common Core State Standards and the testing programs linked to them – in California, the testing program has the clumsy name of Smarter Balanced – fits not only Checker Finn’s diagnosis but belongs in a longer national history of controversies and uncertainties about what and how to teach our children, and who should decide.
In the decades before and right after World War II, the battles centered largely on progressive education, which in the eyes of some on the right during the Cold War was a communist plot.
In 1962 our own Max Rafferty was elected state superintendent of public instruction with his attacks on progressivism and his call for a return to “the fundamentals.” His recipe was phonics, memorization, drill and patriotism.
At nearly the same time schools around the country were buffeted by battles over the “new math,” the “new physics” and the “new biology,” school curricula that were themselves responses to the launching of Sputnik in 1957 and the resulting national panic that the Russians were about to beat our technological brains out.
The new curricula brought their own backlash, some from conservatives, some from parents who couldn’t understand what their kids were being asked to do. All that fancy new stuff, but my child can’t spell (can’t add, doesn’t know who Lincoln was). Let’s get back to the basics.
For a variety of reasons California so far has been largely immune to the Common Core backlash. Indiana this spring became the first of the 44 states that embraced Common Core standards three years ago to formally abandon them – now there will be fights about the replacement, “written by Hoosiers for Hoosiers.”
But Wisconsin, Louisiana, Georgia, Oklahoma and a number of other Republican-dominated states may be heading in the same direction. In New York, meanwhile, the teachers unions have been battling, with some success, to prevent any attempt to link Common Core assessments to teacher evaluations.
The fact that Common Core was created under the aegis of the nation’s governors and state school superintendents for voluntary adoption by the states hasn’t kept conservatives from describing it as yet another attempt by the administration to expand federal control. In some circles, it’s now become “Obamacore.”
California has escaped most of that because, in the words of Stanford Education Prof. Linda Darling-Hammond, “California has done it better, with care and focus, in a logical order and without punitive stakes.” Which is to say that since test scores have no bearing on teacher evaluations here, the teachers unions have been neutralized.
California Deputy State Superintendent of Public Instruction Deb Sigman, California’s testing honcho and co-chair of the Smarter Balanced Testing Consortium, also credits the transparency of the adoption process. In the past few months, nearly 2 million California students have been part of the Smarter Balanced exam field-testing regimen – testing the test – which, Sigman said, has “gone incredibly well.”
Combine that with the weakness of the state Republican Party and the strong support here for the Obama administration and there may not be much political gold to be mined in this vein. CUACC, Californians United Against Common Core, the most visible organization opposing the new standards in this state, is a rickety collection of Tea Party, Eagle Forum and local Republican groups.
No doubt Common Core, with its emphasis on problem solving and its de-emphasis of rote learning and bubble tests, seems like a refreshing step in education.
But for the better part of a century, Americans have swung between extremes in education; they’ve been offered one promising program after another, and then rejected it. David Tyack and Larry Cuban, both now retired from Stanford University, called it “Tinkering Toward Utopia.” If history is any guide, the Common Core honeymoon may not last forever, even in California.
Anyone who’s watched America’s schoolhouse fights since Sputnik – battles about how to teach reading and math, about homework, about social promotion, about evolution and creationism, about “secular humanism,” about vocational ed and tracking, even about the use of calculators – may have uneasy recollections of all the great new programs that came to naught and all the great ideas that crashed.
Some fell of their own weight; some were shot down in some great ideological battle, now long forgotten. There was even a time in the late 1960s when some liberal educators and school critics, wanting to get out of the “lock-step” of traditional schooling, supported vouchers. I was one of them.
Maybe Common Core and Smarted Balanced will do better. Sigman thinks even poor and minority students will do better with Common Core. But will kids who come from socially disadvantaged backgrounds have what E. D. Hirsch called the “cultural literacy” to master the higher-order skills that Common Core presumably requires? Will they even have the computer experience that the tests require?
What of teachers? Some will thrive on it. Maybe Common Core will also draw better people into a profession that’s always drawn disproportionately from the lowest-scoring college graduates. But what about those who’ve long relied on all the old ways? Can they adapt?
There’s lots of potential out there for yet another flameout. Our schools, like our politics and much else, have always been plagued by our historic anti-intellectualism. Can Common Core live through all that?
Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future,” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press).
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