The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Common Core

In the abstract, Common Core is the education establishment's worthwhile attempt to improve public education, to provide more coherence in the way core subjects are taught, to establish some degree of consistency in the subject matter at various grade levels. In the abstract. The problem is, and will always be, that the abstract is fundamentally meaningless when a broad-based federal program is rolled out. Peggy Noonan addresses this when she writes:
My conversations with several Core proponents over the past few weeks leave me with the sense they fell in love with an abstraction and gave barely a thought to implementation. But implementation—how a thing is done day by day in the real world—is everything. There is a problem, for instance, with a thing called “ObamaCare.” That law exists because the people who pushed for it fell in love with an abstract notion and gave not a thought to what the law would actually do and how it would work.

The educationalists wanted to impose (they don’t like that word; they prefer “offer” or “suggest”) more rigorous and realistic standards, and establish higher expectations as to what children can be expected to have learned by the time they leave the public schools. They seem to have thought they could wave a magic wand and make that happen. But life isn’t lived in some abstract universe; it’s lived on the ground, in this case with harried parents trying, to the degree they can or are willing, to help the kids with homework and study for tests. The test questions that have come out are nonsensical and impenetrable, promise to get worse, and for those reasons are demoralizing. Louis CK was right “Late Show With David Letterman,” when he spoofed the math problems offered on his daughters’ tests: “Bill has three goldfish. He buys two more. How many dogs live in London?”

There sure is a lot of money floating around. Who is watching how those who’ve contracted to do Common Core-related work are doing their jobs?

George Will focused on the higher, substantive meaning and implications of the Core, but the effort has also been psychologically and politically inept. Proponents are now talking about problems with the rollout. Well, yes, and where have we heard that before? One gets the impression they didn’t think this through, that they held symposia and declared the need, with charts and bullet points, for something to be done—and something must be done, because American public education is falling behind the world—and then left it to somebody, or 10,000 somebodies, to make it all work.
It seems that education is all about fashion. By this I mean that a educational concept becomes fashionable, it might even evidence anecdotal success, and it is then rolled out without targeted scientific testing (to determine whether it really works), without thought to the broad-based operational problems of implementation across thousands of schools and hundreds of thousands of students with significant variability in their ability to absorb the material. The roll out is facilitated with bribery—that is, federal monies are offered to administrators who adopt the new fashion. Those monies evaporate over time, leaving the locals to fund unproven mandates.

My guess is that common core will follow that trajectory.

As a strong proponent of limited government at the federal level, I firmly believe that Washington should have very little to do with the education of our children. If common core were simply a set of suggested goals—to be implemented and funded at the state and local level, it's far more likely that it would be assessed critically, that worthwhile elements would be extracted and used and foolish recommendations would be jettisoned. But that isn't how it will work (regardless of the protestations of it proponents). It will, like Obamacare, become a cudgel that will force unproven and possibly counter-productive educational methods on state and local educators who are enticed by federal money (our tax money).

Looking at this more broadly, we are rapidly plunging into an "era of the takers." Washington prospers (and centralizes its immense power) when it becomes the source of all funding, all mandates, all entitlements, and all programs. The takers—in this case state and local governments, but more broadly, the minority of taxpayers who pay income taxes—are forced to adopt things that may not be appropriate for their situation. But Washington redistributes our money, so Washington calls the tune.

But there's another problem. Washington has proven to be very bad at implementation, at the operation details that are required to ensure effectiveness, eliminate waste, and ensure success. In essence there are very few makers in Washington, particularly under the current administration. Takers and makers—it's a meme that applies to Common Core and to many other programs that will affect our lives.