24 Nov 2015

Common Core Standards

Jan writes*

The Iowa caucus is around the corner and things are heating up in the [US presidential] primary campaigns. Everything is on the table and the campaign teams makes sure nothing is forgotten. Education is not an exception especially since the “Common Core Standards” are under heavy scrutiny of the GOP candidates.

The Common Core State Standards (CCS) Initiative is an educational initiative that details what students should know in English language and mathematics at the end of each grade. Started in 2007, it was a bipartisan initiative and by 2010, Common Core Standards had been adopted by 45 states. Republican and Democratic states alike, adopted the standard and the initiative has grown ever since.

In 2015, the CCS have reached new areas. As of May 2015, 13 states introduced standards in the subject of science. Now kids in California, Kentucky or Vermont must know about climate change in order to graduate. As expected, this has angered right wing candidates and campaigners alike. They speak of indoctrination, a word that many find too strong, but is there a real reason to worry about centralizing the nation's curricula through common standards?

Any mechanism of centralizing school curricula is a double edged sword. On the one hand, CCS can combat the differences in quality of education of certain states compared to others but on the other it cuts the ability of teachers and schools to adapt to their students and their local realities. Indoctrination is perhaps an overreaction but school dropout might be a real concern.

Many stories of students that disengage because they are frustrated with what they are taught are coming out through the conservative news apparatus. A common claim is that the format of standardized questions is confusing to some. Also, teachers are forced to teach things they might not be fully comfortable with teaching. These arguments are often made by ill-informed journalists or based on the misunderstanding of the CCS, according to its defenders, and as such should not weigh in the debate. But the fear of the republicans are not completely misfounded.

The common core standards initiative started by focusing only on math and English language. Standards in these two subject by themselves are a centralization so light that it can barely incapacitate teachers or frustrate students. However, the initiative seems to be growing to other fields like science. If the common core standards prove to have positive feedback and grow throughout the whole curriculum, the centralization might become dangerous.

Bottom Line: The trade-off between egalitarian education for all and specialized education for most is one without a clear answer. We simply do not know at what point standardizing stops being beneficial and starts being dangerous. Heavily centralized educational systems like the Spanish show some of the highest dropout rates, but it seems clear that the completely decentralized situation in the U.S. is also detrimental. Studies are already showing that the CCS have beneficial results in some states. There is no real threat to the CCS, as still today, republicans that are not running for office still support them. The public scrutiny they undergo today might be ill-informed and misguided but nonetheless important for the future of American education.

* Please comment on these posts from my microeconomics / growth & development economics students, to help them with unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc.


Anonymous said...

Such a great read. Wonderful to see students so engaged in their topics. Keep up the fantastic work!

Kayle said...

Very well-written article. I do agree with you that too much centralization is not necessarily a good thing. However, in the case of the United States, it could be argued that a more centralized education system will create a more unified American identity. The U.S. is highly polarized in political and social opinion, and perhaps by having a more a cohesive core education programme that would include science, perhaps this could be a potential solution to such challenges to national identity. So perhaps one could argue that core education is really case-specific in terms of effectiveness.

Laurens S. said...

I like your blog post, Jan. It is enlightening of the current stances in the political spectrum, while it also signals a trend towards centralisation.

I wanted to comment on the conservative observation that centralized education is a form of indoctrination. They are completely right in making the observation that the centralized education curricula are indoctrinations, because education curricula are per definition indoctrinations of some sort. The choice what to teach in a school always reflects the preferences of the organisation that decides what is being taught. Even when you pick the basic language of education, you indoctrinate people, as the choice for a language reflects you preferences for some form of power relation. For instance, by choosing English instead of a more gender neutral language, you decide to indoctrinate people with a language in which power relations are unbalanced, simply because you believe it is more convenient. Of course this is a logical choice, as the individual benefits of using English in an English society far outweigh the negative effect. However it subtly indoctrinates people with power relations nonetheless.

So the argument that education choices are indoctrination are true. However, they are per definition true as this is always the case with an education system in some way.

The real question is not that education is indoctrination. The real question is how we want to indoctrinate people. This is a decision that should be made as society sees fit. Society should choose whether we want the decisions about indoctrination to be made locally in a decentralised system or nation wide in a centralised system. Conservatives should recognise this and come up with reasons why society should prefer the local form of indoctrination instead of the central form of indoctrination. Stating that new educational policy is per definition true and helps nobody.

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