This is a very personal story for me, something I don’t often do, but I do think it is instructive for the larger policy debate we are having over education.
Education has long been one of my personal interests. It must be a family thing, as my sister also has long been enthusiastically involved in different educational ventures. This eventually led her into becoming a teacher, and later an administrator of a charter school. Both my sister and I have been involved in starting charities involving advancing educational opportunities. We have also promoted education overseas, predominantly in India.
I have always believed that a strong public education system is essential to the survival of a democracy. A democracy without intelligent, thoughtful individuals is more of a dictatorship than a representative government.
The first time I can recall ever having this debate was when I was in the 8th grade. Our family had recently moved from Ohio to the suburbs of Detroit. We lived in what was at the time one of the best school districts in the state of Michigan. Yet, my parents seriously considered (at what would have been great financial sacrifice to them) placing me at the Country Day School, one of the elite private schools in Michigan. I refused.
Now, most would think that was because I didn’t want to leave my friends, my classmates, etc. Actually, that was not the case. As a new student to the area…I had very few friends. I had, fundamentally, no real emotional connection to anyone. However, even at that age, I understood some of the advantages that public school could potentially provide, even though private school had its own advantages.
My recent transition from a hard-core public school advocate to one looking for wider options happened in a time span of less than a year, and largely occurred because it had a direct effect on my family. My son was in second grade this past year. He is a smart, enthusiastic boy (if I do say so myself). He is very strong in math, and reads a fair amount for his age. Overall, he was ahead of his class for most of the year.
The breaking point for us was…Common Core.
Now, my reaction to Common Core was not in any way similar to that of many activists you see around the country. Here is the irony: in general, I SUPPORT national standards in education. I generally supported them with No Child Left Behind, and more recently with Common Core. I will admit I had issues with both (especially the ham-handedness of both programs in relation to local decision-making), but I have long believed a general national standard could prove to be helpful.
However, as is often the case, these things sound better in theory than in practice. Full Common Core implementation has not occurred in my local district yet, but the pain is already apparent. My son would bring homework that made little or no sense. Many of you have seen such examples on Twitter and blogs all over the internet, as parents struggled to explain these worksheets, and sometimes even had answering the problems themselves. Some of these were intended to be ‘logic problem solving’ endeavors, but actually amounted more to Sphinx-like trick question that nobody could understand. My son, who was quite advanced in math, struggled mightily. Not only did he struggle..at times, he actually regressed.
As a parent, I faced a similar conundrum as my own parents did: at what point do you opt out of the public school system?
The more I delved into my own personal concerns regarding these issues, the more I realized I wasn’t alone. A recent study showed that states with more aggressive testing standards and more recent implementation of national standards also demonstrated parents that expressed more negative attitudes about their children’s schools and about government in general than public-school parents in states with less extensive testing policies
In general, parents in the United States support public education, but they also resist centralized control of that same system. A centralized standards system disempowers local districts, teachers, and ultimately, the parents themselves…which echoes much of my own fears and feelings on the subject.
The lack of evidence on which Common Core was actually based on should worry anyone interested in improving public education. An article in the American Journal of Education last fall shows that the development phase of Common Core centered mostly on identifying the problems in the American education system…and far less time in developing solutions to those problems. Many of the solutions actually do not appear to be based on data at all, but more on the anecdotal evidence of certain powerful voices in policy debate. That is quite apparent in the real world interaction that many have seen with the program so far.
Additionally, some of the core beliefs in Common Core appear to not be based necessarily on any scientifically based result at all. One key example is the virtual dismissal of the role of rote memorization in understanding and confronting complex problems. Memorization has long been one of the central tenets of education overseas, especially in Asian countries (which many point to for their high test scores these days). Our educators, for several decades, have moved away from such teaching, fearing that such forced memorization hinders the child’s overall ability to understand complexities of the real world.
However, several studies have shown rote memorization is a vital part of a student learning how to solve complex calculations. In effect, as young math students memorize basic math, their brains slowly start to utilize what their memories already know, and allow them to ‘adapt’ to the more complex nature of the newer, more complex math problems they face. Common core doesn’t totally ban memorization as a tool, but it largely dismisses the usefulness in learning. Defenders of Common Core argue that memorization can still be used in their system, but if you look at materials publised by the Department of Education and others, almost none of them use memorization as a major tool. This appears to be based on shaky science at best.
People who favor centralized standards are well-meaning, but dismiss those with feelings such as mine as ‘fear’ or ‘based on hyperpartisanship. My conclusion of this was nothing of the sort. In fact, I would argue my decision was far more evidence based than their claims. In this decision, I was faced with actual, real life results from the educational progress (or lack thereof) my son made before and after the introduction of Common Core materials. And once introduced, not only did those materials regress my son’s educational standing…but his emotional well-being as well.
That is what I define as a conclusive behavioral test failure.
I still have a lot of respect for my school district, and the teachers at my son’s school. They were friendly, approachable, and really understood our complaints. In fact, at least one teacher secretly admitted that the Common Core material they had been provided by the state was problematic at best. The simple reality is, they had little or no flexibility to deal with my issues.
The more I learn about the real world implementation of Common Core, versus the high-minded philosophy behind it…the more I oppose the program. Centralized standards are still a goal I fully support, because providing a universal basic goal for education, and more important, achieving those goals, should be an important metric to achieve. However, Common Core, for all its good intent, is unlikely to achieve anything of the sort, because it simply ignores the reality of the real world in lieu of bureaucratic declarations. Maybe it can overcome its original mistakes, adapt and change direction, but in all honesty how many large Federal programs are ever able to achieve that?
More and more parents that have and do maintain choices in education will use those avenues to give their child better outcomes. On the other hand, those left behind will have to figure out how to struggle through Common Core’s complicated maze of questionable Federal recommendations. We are once again left with the long existing problem in education: the haves versus the have nots.
My family is one of the lucky ones. I have the financial means to make choices others cannot. And thus, last week my son started at an elite private school. So far, we are ecstatic, and my son has adjusted well. I am sure he will excel given time. However, I am still left with regret and guilt that I abandoned a public education system that I have so long tried to be an advocate of. It is unfortunate, but like so many others around the country, I have now had to face the reality of what our public education system is, not how I wish it to be; and I have found it to be lacking.