SADOW: Common Core Opponents Can’t Beat Something With Nothing

While maybe in poker you can beat something with nothing, that’s not true in politics – as detractors of usage of the Common Core State Standards in Louisiana found out yesterday in the House Education Committee.

A pair of bills that would have significantly altered or derailed for some time, if not entirely defeated, the program met with defeat at the hands of the committee. Developed under the auspices of the nation’s governors with input from education administrators, teachers, and academicians, CCSS sets up conceptual benchmarks that students are to attain, concentrating on critical thinking ability, while leaving content up to states. Having the same set of concepts as learning goals enables across states comparative testing under four different systems, which are related to standards used to test internationally. Louisiana previously committed to participation in the one known as Partnership for Assessment Readiness for College and Careers.

One bill, HB 558 by state Rep. Cameron Henry, would have removed the state’s participation from PARCC and, unless replaced by other actions with participation in one of the other three systems, would have mooted much of the utility of CCSS, for while the advantage of a program to stimulate critical thinking would have remained, no longer would results be comparable and additional data given to assessing how well educators were doing, making it difficult to ensure performance of a quality job. The other bill, HB 381 by state Rep. Brett Geymann, would have put a moratorium on CCSS implementation (which would have gone into effect after this year’s trial run and testing) and launch a process that could come up with something completely different, with no guarantee that this could be done, or could come up with anything better, or have any accountability to whatever result it produced.

Both were defeated, largely because CCSS opposition in general has been based more upon emotive rather than rational responses – although in the specific cases of politicians involved, for some of these opponents their reasons were tied to perceptions of presumed political career advancement. Concerning HB 558, the issue of data protection has become conflated with that of using PARCC as the evaluative instrument when they in fact are different and solving for the legitimate concerns of the former does not entail scrapping entirely the latter. Nor did the bill send the state to any of the other three systems, which would have left it in limbo for an unspecified period.

Supporters of HB 381 also tended to allow emotive considerations to conflate the extraneous with the essential. Louisiana uniquely decided to allow the districts themselves to come up with the content of the curriculum to match standards and to train their teachers, which went smoothly in some districts but in discombobulated fashion in others. Superintendent of Education John White in retrospect now belatedly realizes, and has directed DOE to provide, more direction and assistance from the state level, but this is a problem in process, not in concept.

Perhaps no criticism of CCSS confounds logic as much as the claim that it does not represent quality in standards at least as good as what the state has presently, or that it in fact is worse. Representatives from a number of organizations, including those who have championed recent effective education reforms such as charter school approaches, value-added measurements of teaching, and school accountability measures, almost exclusively believe the largely-untried standards are an improvement. Yet opponents are wont to argue against them by saying these never have been proven to be effective, which distracts from the real issue that not only have they not been proven ineffective, but, more importantly, this does not mean automatically something else must be better. Why should CCSS get axed, when the state vetted it four years ago (where were the opponents then?), when it’s been undergoing implementation since, when there’s no proof of its ineffectiveness, and there’s no alternative on the horizon other than the current default already undergoing change – and especially when complaints about its quality by some parents and teachers is that, if anything, it’s too demanding (which regrettably probably speaks more for the abilities of the complainers than as any genuine criticism of the program)?

For in the final analysis, all the opponents had to play was feelings about this or that and conjectures about conspiracies, with no hard evidence to demonstrate unambiguous demerits of CCSS nor any plan to roll out anything better. This captured neatly the populist dimension of Louisiana’s political culture – find a bogeyman, impute malevolence, spin an apocalyptic scenario should not the out-group be confronted, and present yourself as the instrument by which to lead the confrontation – in its method for a politician to gain political power or simply to reaffirm his relevance. But principled it was not, and enough lawmakers needed to be shown on principle, and could not be, why CCSS was so inferior, to the point that it was better to scrap it with nothing waiting in the wings to take its place.

This does not mean that CCSS is the answer to all problems, nor that vigilance should not be maintained to ensure it does not get hijacked and turned into that bogeyman detractors warn about, nor it now is absolved of demonstrated difficulties such as its implementation and data privacy safeguards. And there are opponents out there who will provide a more principled basis by which to defeat it – but based on mythology concerning various aspects of testing, rigor in learning methods, and fantasies about corporate America. It does mean that more compelling argumentation than innuendo by opponents, rendered factually and logically, is necessary to change enough minds for them to win the debate.

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