Should all U.S. students meet a single set of K-12 education standards? In a democracy should all students be held to the same standards?
This was the question that Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Jay Greene, head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas debated in recent article in the Wall Street Journal.
Yes, says Finn; no claims Greene.
First I’ll describe the positions of Dr. Finn and Dr. Green, and then make comments on each to show that one represents a conservative world-view and the other a progressive world-view.
Yes, We Should: The Fordham View
Chester E. Finn Jr. believes that America should adopt a single set of standards for all students, regardless of where they live, and schools (teachers & principals) should be held accountable by using student achievement scores as the metric. Finn’s Fordham Institute has been in the business of writing non- peer reviewed analyses of state standards for more than 15 years. They’ve analyzed standards in reading, math, and most recently science. He states that their findings of the state science standards are “grim”.
For example, in their 2012 report, The State of the State Science Standards, he tells us In science, just 12 states and the District of Columbia earned A’s or B’s. More than twice that number have standards that deserve grades of D or F. Finn also believes that not involving the government in Washington in developing standards is a good thing. He explains that the common core (reading and math) was developed be a group of governors (government?) and state level school administrators.
The proponents of the common core, such as the Fordham Institute, lead us to believe that because these standards were not developed by the government in Washington, but by state government consortia, they must be better. Finn uses the argument that we need to follow other successful nations who’ve established national standards because they seem to do so much better than those countries that don’t have a national curriculum. Our economic competitiveness is in dire straights because we don’t have a rigorous set of national standards. And students are on the move. We need a single set of standards, and a uniformed and structured curriculum just in case a new child moves into the neighborhood. Plus, well be able to compare education state to state, city to city.
Most of these arguments are not supported in juried research. However, organizations such as the Fordham Institute commission “research” that is completed either in-house, or by hired consultants.
Comments on the Fordham View
The Fordham Institute’s view of national standards presented by Chester E. Finn is consistent with the conservative world-view of educational reform. According to research by George Lakoff, professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, the moral world-view of conservatives (or progressives) can be understood by using the conceptual metaphor of Nation as Family.
Using this idea, ones political beliefs tend to be structured by how we think of family, and our early experiences in our own family which contribute to our beliefs. Thinking of a nation as a family is a familiar notion, as in phrases such as Mother Russia, Fatherland, sending sons and daughters off to war, the founding fathers, Big Brother (see Joe Brewer, Rockbridge Institute, discussion here). In Brewer’s thinking, the conceptual metaphor of nation as family organizes our brains in this way: homeland is home, citizens are siblings, the government (or head) is parent, and so forth. The diagram below shows the organization of schooling according to a conservative world-view.
The world-view of conservatives can be explained using the conceptual metaphor for Nation as Family. Lakoff would say that a conservative family would be based on authority, and would be represented by the “Strict Father Family”. It makes sense to have a single set of standards in the conservative world-view. The flow of authority and decision-making would flow downward from head to the classroom teacher.
In their book, entitled, Thinking Points by George Lakoff, and the Rockbridge Institute, the core conservative values are:
- Authority: assumed to be morally good and used to exert legitimate control (therefore it is imperative that authority is never questioned)
- Discipline: self-control learned through punishment when one does wrong (it is understood that failure of authority to punish for wrong doing is a moral failure)
The public schools in the U.S. reflect the core values of authority and discipline, and many of the laws and acts (especially the NCLB Act of 2001) was written by the authority of the government, and set in motion an image that suggests that students, teachers and administrators are siblings in the Family of Education, and are beholden to the Authority of Federal and State departments of education. It’s a top-down system, and conceptual metaphor of the “Strict Father Family” mirrors the way public schools are conceptualized.
When institutions like Fordham, and individuals such as Dr. Finn suggest that the nation needs “clear standards about what schools should teach and students should learn—and make these standards uniform across the land,” they base this on the conservative core value of authority at the top or the head. In this case, the authority rests in Achieve, Inc., created by the National Governors Association. Achieve wrote, and is now disseminating the Common Core Standards in math and reading/language arts. Nearly all of the states have accepted the authority given to Achieve to create a single set of standards. Coming soon, will be another authoritative set of standards in K-12 science.
The reports issued by the Fordham Institute are typically not juried. Their research methodology is flawed, yet because of their influence, Fordham, and other think tanks use their own non juried papers as scientific research. Their public release of these papers is normally cited by the media as the cold, hard facts.
For example, Finn mentions that his Institute recently published a report that graded each state’s science standards, and found the results grim. The report is written in the context of Fordham Institute’s bias about the state of science education in the nation, especially in terms of achievement test results on PISA, TIMSS, and NAEP. It is very similar to the Broad Foundation’s view of American youth which I wrote about here. The Broad Foundation has low expectations for American students, and they go on to support their claim with distorted statistics, and use them to paint negative pictures of American youth.
The Fordham Institute’s view is embedded in the “crisis mentality” that began with “Sputnik” and has carried forward through today. According to the Fordham report, American youth do not show strong science achievement, and show “woeful” results on international tests. And yet during the time that American youth showed such dismal scores on science tests, American science and technology innovations and creative development flourished, and still does. We thought our nation was at risk because of technological advances, and global economic growth of Russia (then, the USSR), Japan, Germany, and China. Now we have to worry about Finland, South Korea, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovenia. Their scores are higher on these tests than ours. They must be doing something different to educate their students in math and science. The race is on! Let’s find out and import it.
Although the Fordham report is being disseminated, the results are flawed, and biased, and should be viewed with suspicion. Access to data for reanalysis, replication and opportunity to build on findings are non-existent. Because the “data” reported are based on opinions, it is difficult to reanalyze the study. Perhaps if the authors subjected their criteria to an outside panel, and applied the same methods, we might get more valid and reliable results.
As you explore the nature of the standards movement as it is happening in the United States, it appears as if non-profits, and professional organizations are at the heart of the development of these standards. The Federal government’s role in all of this is rather interesting. Rather than funding universities, which must be accountable, the organizations that are developing the standards receive funding from non-governmental businesses, organizations, and private philanthropic groups. The groups doing the development, and the funding sources are accountable in this process to no one but their board of directors.
If you follow the money, you would discover that there is actually a core group of foundations and businesses that are providing the financial support for institutes (like the Thomas B. Fordham Institute) and non-profits (like Achieve, Inc.—a group largely responsible for writing the math, reading/language arts, and science standards). If you go to any of these organizations, and click on the link that lists the organization’s financial contributors, you will probably not be surprised to learn that many of same contributors form the financial foundation for the entire standards movement.
Think tank “research” and subsequent views, whether from conservative or progressive organizations need to be examined with caution, and with the full knowledge of the organization’s ideology. The Fordham Institute is a conservative group that supports a centralized educational system. Rather odd, don’t you think?
No, We Shouldn’t: The University of Arkansas View
Jay Green suggests that to hold all students to a single metric is basically creating a national curriculum. He thinks (as many do) that standards drive testing, which in turn will affect what content is covered, as well as how and when. Green argues that having a national set of standards only makes sense if there was a single way for all students to learn, and when. He points out that here is no consensus on what all students should learn. Professor Green is concerned that a national curriculum of learning might be more like nationalized “church” of education. What could be inspiring these groups to do so? And finally, Green suggests we should be wary of central planning, and instead reinvigorate choice and competition.
Comments on the University View
Jay Greene, head of the department of education reform at the University of Arkansas, has presented arguments that tend to be rooted in juried research. The position taken by Greene aligns itself with a more progressive outlook on learning and curriculum. Experimentation and inquiry are values that should drive curriculum, and the focus should be on student learning. If this is so, it begins to get difficult to tailor teaching to student interests and needs when single set of national standards is seen as the goal for all. Dr. Green questions the uniformity that would be put in place with a single set of standards. He suggests that:
Such uniformity would only make sense if: 1) there was a single best way for all students to learn; 2) we knew what it was; 3) we could be sure the people running this nationalized education system would adopt that correct approach; and 4) they would remain in charge far into the future. But that isn’t how things are. There is no consensus on what all students need to know. Different students can best be taught and assessed in different ways.
The Department of Education Reform headed by Dr. Greene, is comprised of six endowed chairs and one faculty member. Standards-based reform, school vouchers, charter schools, and school choice appear to be research interests of this distinguished group of professors.
Because of their research interests and political experiences, Dr. Greene may not agree that his views reflect a progressive world view. Nevertheless, his views open the door to the following discussion.
Using Lakoff’s conceptual metaphor theory, the position taken by Greene reflects a progressive world view. In Lakoff’s view, the progressive world-view is based on the nurturant parent family. He suggests that nurturing has two key aspects: empathy and responsibility. Lakoff explains that nurturant parents or teachers are authoritative but with out being authoritarian.
If we apply the nurturant parent model to politics or education, Lakoff suggests that what we get is a “progressive moral and political philosophy. The progressive world-view then is based on these two ideas:
- Empathy: the capacity to connect with other people, to feel what others feel, to imagine oneself as another and hence to feel a kinship with others.
- Responsibility: acting on that empathy—responsibility for yourself and for others. (Lakoff, George (2006-10-03). Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision (Kindle Locations 827-830). Macmillan. Kindle Edition)
In research by Carl Rogers many decades ago in his person or client centered theory, empathy was considered one of core conditions for facilitative (counseling and teaching) practice. Realness of the teacher, and prizing, accepting, and trust were two additional core conditions.
Green’s opposition to a set of national standards imposed on local schools makes sense from the progressive world-view. In this view teachers would inquirers and would ask lots of questions such as:
- Why is our state and district willing to accept a top-down authoritarian set of standards that weren’t developed with our students’ interests or aspirations in mind?
- Do you know what the research tells us about the ineffectiveness of using high-stakes tests on students achievement?
- Why does the state department of education have so much authoritative power over the inner workings of every school district in the state?
- Why aren’t educators involved in the development of curriculum that is based on the lived experiences of students, and the interests that students might have for getting involved in real work?
One More Thing
The move to centralize education in the United States is one that has gained momentum over the past ten years. Americans are being convinced that its school system is broken, old, and in crisis. Professor Yong Zhao, Presidential Chair and Associate Dean for Global Education at the University of Oregon puts it this way in one of his blog posts:
in short, the argument goes, to save America, to retain America’s preeminence in the world, to ensure America’s global competitiveness, we must dismantle America’s education system and import policies and practices from other countries.
The core group of “reformers” who want to create a single test-based curriculum have oddly suggested that we ought to import educational ideas from other countries since their economies are improving or better than ours, and their students do so well on PISA and TIMSS international tests. As Zhoa writes in his blog post entitled The Grass is Greener: Learning from Other Countries:
The belief that education in certain other countries is superior has mostly started with and reinforced by a myopic perspective of what constitutes high quality education. This perspective easily leads to the tendency to quickly jump to the conclusion that when a country rises economically (in the case of Japan and China) or militarily (in the case of the Soviet Union), it must have an excellent education system. The same perspective also leads to the conclusion that high test scores indicate educational excellence. As a result, observers rushed to Russia, Japan, China, Singapore, Finland, and Korea to search for their secrets to educational excellence and of course found what they wanted to find: standardized curriculum, focus on academic subjects that “matter,” teachers prepared and incentivized to deliver the prescribed subjects efficiently, and well-disciplined students devoted to mastering the prescribed content, with parental support.
The mistake we are making in educational reform is taking away from local educators and local systems the ability to make the policy decisions that will affect the students they know best, and of course they are the students in their own schools. We need to stop enabling the “think-tank mentality” as evidenced so well by the Fordham Foundation, and Achieve, Inc. and their view that all kids should learn the same stuff, at the same time, and in the way that are defined by a collection of central common core standards.
Tags: chester e. finn, chester finn, conceptual metaphor, core standards, department of education reform, education reform, Fordham Institute, george lakoff, jay greene, science education