Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal (D-Council Bluffs)
Gronstal serves as President of the National Council of State Legislatures.
Dishonesty has been a defining characteristic of the campaign to promote and implement the Common Core national standards. The project was “state-led”; the standards were “internationally benchmarked”; they were created by teachers across the nation; they are “rigorous” and promote “critical thinking.” None of this was true, of course, but once states had adopted the standards in an attempt to obtain federal Race to the Top money, the propaganda had the desired effect of beating back the opposition.
The dishonesty continues with an effort to build on Common Core to accomplish a full-fledged transformation of the American education system. The new volley comes courtesy of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), an organization that enjoys funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (Gates, of course, has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into propagating Common Core).
NCSL has issued a report, No Time to Lose: How to Build a World-Class Education System State by State, warning that U.S. education is “falling dangerously behind” those of competitor nations and must be “reimagined” if America is to succeed in the “21st-century economy.” NCSL bases its analysis and recommendations largely on American students’ mediocre 2012 scores on the international test called Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), administered to 15-year-olds by the United Nations’ Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
But there’s reason to view the message of this report with a skeptical eye. The entire enterprise might be described as “gaming the tests.”
Revamping education to improve PISA scores is, at its root, a flawed undertaking. Subpar performance on PISA simply isn’t the warning bell that NCSL suggests. Unlike the other major international assessment, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), PISA focuses not on academic content knowledge but on the “skills and competencies students have acquired and can apply . . . to real-world contexts by age 15.” In other words, PISA is aligned to the same type of non-academic training embodied in the Common Core standards. (The head of OECD’s Directorate of Education, Andreas Schleicher, in fact was appointed by persons unknown to serve on the Common Core Validation Committee. How many Americans would have thought it appropriate to have a United Nations official — and a German citizen at the time — influencing American education standards?)
Sandra Stotsky, who as an education official in Massachusetts largely sparked the “Massachusetts Miracle” before the state accepted a federal bribe to replace its remarkably successful academic standards with Common Core, explains the difference between PISA and TIMSS: “PISA assesses the skills that average young adults are presumed to need in daily life. It is not for college-bound kids. It fits with Common Core and an emphasis on skills. . . . TIMSS is a test of the math and science curriculum. It’s the test that tells a country how well these subjects are being taught in the schools. The U.S. Department of Education doesn’t like TIMSS because it’s oriented to content; the USED wants to go with PISA because it fits Common Core’s stress on skills.”
Scholars in other countries have reached the same conclusions about PISA and TIMSS. Dr. Paul Andrews of Stockholm University examined the math performance of students in Finland – a country routinely held out by the U.S. education establishment as exemplary – and found the claims of stellar performance to be misleading. Those claims, he notes, are based on PISA results.
But Finnish students’ scores on the TIMSS content-based assessments – particularly with respect to algebra and geometry –are much less impressive, so much so that Finnish mathematicians have warned that students aren’t really being prepared for higher education. “University mathematicians have voiced concerns that curricular reforms have compromised the intellectual integrity of mathematics,” Andrews reports. “They argue that emphases on equity and preparation for a world beyond school may have secured PISA success but are incompatible with preparation for higher mathematics.”
“Skills.” “Competencies.” “Application to real-world contexts.” “Equity.” PISA reverberates with echoes of Common Core. No wonder the U.S. Department of Education wants to gauge all student performance by PISA.
But to genuine educators, PISA results are simply beside the point. Because PISA isn’t based on content knowledge, Stotsky concludes that “it really doesn’t matter how well kids do on PISA. What matters is how well they do on TIMSS.”
So, how well do American students do on TIMSS? The most recent available results in mathematics are from 2011, before Common Core’s “skills” emphasis was implemented. U.S. 4th-graders scored above those of 42 education systems, below those of eight, and about the same as those of six. (The term “education systems” is used rather than “countries,” because some states and other jurisdictions compete as if they were separate countries. North Carolina did so, and its students ranked number seven, just above the U.S. as a whole.) U.S. 8th-graders didn’t perform quite as well, but still scored higher on average than students of 32 education systems and below only 11 (and four of those 11 were U.S. states — students from Massachusetts ranked sixth; from Minnesota, seventh; from North Carolina, ninth; and from Indiana, eleventh).
U.S. results were similar in science. American 4th-graders scored above 47 education systems and below only six; 8th-graders scored above 33 education systems and below 12.
This is not to deny problems with U.S. education, but merely to cast doubt on NCSL’s assertion that U.S. students are “overwhelmingly underprepared.” The 2011 TIMSS results show that – at least before the full implementation of Common Core — American students performed much better on tests of content knowledge in math than they did on meaningless tests of non-academic “skills.” NCSL apparently wants to reverse that (or more precisely, to improve the skills scores and just ignore the content tests), and implementing Common Core is a good start. But NCSL recommends going even further to ramp up the workforce-development training embodied in Common Core.
To be sure, some of the report’s recommendations, such as suggestions about improving the quality of the teaching profession, are worth considering. But the problem is the goal that NCSL has in mind.
Just about everything that comes from the education establishment — a term that includes government bureaucrats and private-foundation officials (two groups whose members routinely change places) — abetted by powerful corporate interests, preaches the necessity of aligning the entire education system to the narrow goal of workforce-development. Unwary or intentionally complicit politicians go along with this, because who doesn’t want a skilled workforce? The NCSL report embraces this education-establishment/corporatist view. It urges state legislators to determine what kind of economy they want and then create an education system that produces the worker bees to make that economy hum.
The question is whether this goal is achieved better by offering students a challenging academic curriculum that increases their content knowledge and develops their full potential (you know, the way the American economy became a behemoth), or just training them to read a spreadsheet. Evidence and common sense suggest the former; Common Core insists on the latter. But that’s a topic for another time. The point is that NCSL has swallowed the workforce-development philosophy whole.
This focus isn’t surprising, given the “experts” relied on to produce the report. Notable among them are Marc Tucker and his National Center on Education and the Economy. Tucker is infamous for his “Dear Hillary” letter of 1992, in which he urged the newly elected Clintons to convert American education into a workforce-training dystopia of authoritarian “human resource development” from cradle to grave. (Never shy about self-promotion, Tucker describes the NCSL report he helped produce as “stunning.”)
Among other predictable recommendations, NCLS advocates more preschool (despite the documented ineffectiveness and even harm from government-controlled, institutional “early learning”) and more career pathways and technical training as a replacement for classical liberal-arts education. It also mentions that state education systems should develop government-approved “behaviors” in students. All of these tactics are now being pushed onto the states through federal legislation such as the Every Student Succeeds Act, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, and pending legislation that would balloon and standardize career and technical education and “social-emotional learning.” The goal is to create a managed economy powered by narrowly trained workers with government-approved mindsets. All of these efforts, NCSL believes, will improve PISA scores, and they may well do so. But as genuine educators might say, so what?
The NCSL report also mentions in passing the disappointing scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, or the “nation’s report card”) as a reason to implement more workforce-development reforms. Not surprisingly, the report is fairly vague about the NAEP situation, gliding over the inconvenient fact that NAEP scores have stagnated or declined since the workforce-development-oriented Common Core was fully implemented. If scores are already disappointing as schools head down NCSL’s preferred path, what will happen if schools accept NCSL’s recommendation to turbo-charge the things they’re doing now that aren’t working?
But, contemplating another predictable test-gaming technique, some officials and education researchers are already discussing the need to align NAEP with Common Core. That sleight of hand could mask the fact that students increasingly don’t know the content they should know at a particular grade. If that happens, presumably NAEP scores would improve despite continued decline of student content knowledge. Then the improved NAEP scores and the improved PISA scores could be brandished as proof that progressive education works!
All this maneuvering about various assessments is designed to accomplish two things: to provide an excuse for further “transforming” education into the progressive dream, and to hide from parents and the general public that students are no longer being educated, but rather simply trained for the workforce. Meaningless PISA scores are being leveraged to gin up anxiety about American education, and that anxiety in turn is used to justify even more efforts to convert education from the classical liberal-arts model that worked so well for decades (before the federal educrats and other progressives got hold of it) to sterile workforce-training.
Implementing Common Core was Step One in the most recent phase of this lengthy process. Step Two, aided by this new NCLS report, is to accelerate everything harmful that Common Core is doing to move schools away from genuine education. But at least the PISA scores will be better.
In the early days of the struggle against Common Core, an insightful state senator from one Southern state mused that it seemed to him the proponents wanted kids to “look smart rather than be smart.” Developments since then have borne out his observation. Appearances can be deceiving, and Common Core and its progeny are tools of master deceivers.
To keep the education establishment honest, legislators should insist that participation in international tests focus on TIMSS rather than PISA. Then they can make decisions based on reliable evidence rather than meaningless measures of performance. Perhaps NCSL’s next report will recommend that.