Changing My Mind (An Education Post)

As recently as a few years ago, I leaned in favor of national education standards. It alarmed me that the states were reporting internal proficiency numbers that wildly contradicted the NAEP/PISA/etc., and it seemed quite clear to me that some sort of federal brake on rampant cheating would have to be established. What’s more, as a Navy brat and a lifelong public school student, I’d had personal experience getting screwed in a state-to-state move* and consequently felt that some standardization would be beneficial.

Well — I’m here to officially announce that I’ve changed my mind. I still have sympathy for those pushing for such standards; unlike many who oppose the Common Core, I think Bill Gates, et. al. generally have their hearts in the right place and aren’t simply trying to turn us all into brain-washed liberals and/or corporate automatons. Moreover, I’d like to note for the record that my opinion on standardized tests in general has not changed; after years in my current line of work, I remain convinced that such tests do provide useful information. Even the SAT, one of the most hated multiple-guess tests among anti-test activists, measures something valid, as anyone who’s worked with teenagers with combined SAT scores ranging from 900 to over 2100** will tell you.

HOWEVER — federally-established education standards are just not workable. Gaaah, I hate to say that, but they aren’t – not now, and possibly not ever – and the reason is pretty simple: As Kevin Williamson has trenchantly observed in his latest, anything that politics touches turns to crap.

It alarms me, for example, that the Common Core discourages taking Calculus in high school. Granted, the reasoning behind this makes partial sense; as an experienced math tutor, I agree that American students often enter higher math courses woefully unprepared to tackle the material due to weaknesses in foundational skills, and I further agree that said foundation in arithmetic and algebra should be mastered first. But removing Calculus as a goal is, in essence, misdiagnosing the problem. The issue here is not that our students are being rushed through the preliminaries. Ten years (from kindergarten through the ninth grade) is plenty of time for a striver (barring any organic hindrances***) to prepare for Algebra II and beyond provided the curriculum is solid and focused. And there’s the rub! The American math curriculum is neither of those things – indeed, it has been described on more than one occasion as “a mile wide and an inch deep” – and that is the real malady we need to address. Will that happen if we poo-poo taking Calculus at the high school level? No. On the contrary, that will set up perverse incentives not to improve — a disastrous result for the bright-normal inner city kid who probably could take Calculus and become a competent engineer if only he had access to teachers who were willing to push him the way Asian tiger parents push their kids.****

The reality of the situation is this: There are very powerful political players out there who have a vested interest in keeping any national standards regime toothless. Going through the political apparatus, therefore, will result (as we have seen) in standards that are laughable in their lack of rigor. English classes that downplay the importance of wrestling with great literature? Check. A glacially-slow math curriculum that lags behind the international standard? Check. At base, I’m an egalitarian when it comes to education; I want to bring as many of our students as humanly possible up to world-class standards. But the Common Core – and similar initiatives – are not going to make that happen. I think our problems here are much more complex — and not all of them can be solved with legislation.

*In the early 90’s, the schools in Bremerton, Washington, didn’t offer full-year science courses in junior high. Thus, when I transferred to a Virginia public school as a freshman in high school, I was one year behind my honors-level peers and had to take a summer school class to catch up.

**For the confused oldsters out there, those scores are out of 2400. The SAT I now has a writing/grammar section that didn’t exist when you and I took the test.

***Which do exist. Don’t misunderstand my meaning here. I’m fully aware that some students simply won’t be able to master higher mathematics. However, I’ve seen plenty of students with unspectacular IQ’s succeed in the Calculus track solely because they had parents and teachers who set a high standard and then worked their butts off to meet it.

****Which is not to say that I approve of Asian tiger parenting in every particular. It’s just hard not to notice how disproportionately successful the children of such parents are academically even though there’s nothing particularly special about their protoplasm.

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