The Neoconservative Drive for Common Standards in Math and Science

For the past two decades there has been a drive to create a common set of standards in math and science (and English Language Arts).  The enterprise is well-funded, and supported not only by the U.S. Department of Education, but by corporate and philanthropic America to the extent that the initiative is pushing ahead at an urgent speed.

The drive to set up common standards is part of “rightest” movement that Dr. Kristen L. Buras (2009) describes in detail in her book Rightist Multiculturalism: Core Lessons on Neoconservative School Reform.  She hones in on a fundamental question about curriculum, and that is “What knowledge is of most worth?.”  But Dr. Buras has us consider the question from another frame, and that is “Whose knowledge is of most worth?”

As Buras suggests, curriculum development in a democratic society must be:

the result of long-term democratic and substantive discussions, and it must also be grounded in an honest and searching appraisal of the structures of inequalities in this society. A “core” cannot be imposed from the outside and legitimately claim to be based on the “knowledge of all of us.

The word “core” is as it relates to knowledge is used in the two major standards’ reform efforts in the past decade: The Common Core State Standards in mathematics and English language Arts, and in the Next Generation Science Standards.  In the NGSS, the content of science is referred to as Disciplinary Core Ideas.  As Michael Apple points out in the Introduction to Buras’ book, “What counts as “core knowledge” has all too often been someone’s core, not everyone’s core (Apple, 2000).

The “core” knowledge outlined in the mathematics, English language arts, and science standards has been spelled out by committees of experts largely from colleges and universities, and with very little initial comments by teachers and curriculum specialists.  The deliberations have primarily involved impersonal online reading sessions and the completion of online multiple choice evaluation surveys.  Face-to-face deliberations have been held, but behind closed doors, with little to no public record. The process to develop and “adopt” the CCSS and NGSS has not been deliberate, and has not been critically assessed by the education community.

Buras’ publication is an analysis of the rise of neoconservatism, and how neoconservatives have focused on the “restoration of a “common” cultural tradition and a disciplined, socially cohesive nation.”  In particular her book is an analysis of E.D. Hirsch’s cultural literacy and core knowledge publications and movement.

Hirsch’s core knowledge lays out what should be taught at every grade level.  Starting in Kindergarten through grade six, a complete curriculum is outlined in terms of what “your student needs to know.”

Hirsch first published his ideas in 1986 on cultural literacy, and just a few years later, the AAAS published its book on science literacy, Science for All Americans. The Hirsch core knowledge work is the exemplar neoconservative approach to school reform.  The AAAS’ work in science curriculum established the guidelines and benchmarks for science learning, K-12.  Unlike Hirsch’s neoconservative approach to cultural literacy, the AAAS science literacy embodied some progressive ideals such as inquiry, and social constructivism.  However, the core ideas in science were still based on the traditional disciplines of science.

The neoconservative reform movement’s goal is to create core knowledge in math, English language arts, and science, and expect that every American student be tested on the same content.  Buras thinks of this as inculcation.  She writes,

We might think here of Hirsch’s promise that the inculcation of common knowledge represents the new civil rights frontier, as formerly culturally illiterate students are given access to “literate” culture and thus the cultural capital needed to ascend the ladder of mobility and ultimately participate as “equals” in the marketplace of America.

In doing so, Core urges us, pushes us, to think about culture and democracy in specific ways—ways that tend to reinforce patterns of cultural disrespect and pressures to assimilate—and to overlook other understandings. We are being schooled to avoid the radical lanes, left and right, of the American civil rights highway, and to join the wider lane of moderation, which, we are told, promises peace and happiness. (Buras, Kristen L. (2009-01-21). Rightist Multiculturalism: Core Lessons on Neoconservative School Reform (Critical Social Thought) (p. 144). Taylor & Francis. Kindle Edition)

The core knowledge and the common standards movement is a mix of neoconservative and neoliberal advocates, who appeal to populist sensibilities of authoritarian and traditional family and religious orthodoxy.  As Michael Apple and Kristen Buras tell, the neoconservatives defend historically dominant cultural traditions and national cohesion.  Neoconservatives advocate political individualism and free markets.  For education this means, for example, core knowledge claims and standards-based reform.  Neoliberals, according to Apple and Buras, proclaim the free market and privatization (of schools, for example) at the expense of the public sector.  This of course has opened to the doors to school choice, vouchers, and charter schools.  (See Apple, M., Editor’s Introduction to Neoconservative Multiculturalism by Buras, K., 2009.)

The standards movement is a neoconservative and neoliberal imperative that has engulfed nearly all state departments of education, and the U.S. Department of Education.  It’s well-funded, and politically secured with Republican and Democratic talking heads.

There is some glimmer of hope.  Last year, the Chicago teacher’s union went strike and challenged the political apparatus of Chicago.  Educators, including superintendents, in Texas have gone on record as opposing standards-based high-stakes tests.  And most recently, Teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle announced their refusal to administer the standardized test, Measure of Academic Progress (MAP). The Chicago and Seattle cases are grassroots, bottom-up and determined opposition to the top-down and dominant neoconservative take-over of American schooling.

It’s imperative for professional organizations,  university professors and colleges of education to raise questions about educational reform, and join with their K-12 colleagues to oppose and overturn the neoconservative infusion of standard and basic education for a democratic nation.  The National Council of Teachers of English have written a resolution opposing high-stakes tests, and groups of professors of education in Georgia and Chicago have written letters opposing the use of high-stakes tests in the context of standards-based reform.

In science education, we have been relatively silent, especially in raising concerns about the Next Generation Science Standards.

 

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University

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