Thursday, December 12, 2013
James L. Perkins
On July 21, the MaineToday papers published a lengthy puff-piece about the Common Core State Standards headlined, "Test scores may drop under new standards," subtitled more hopefully, "'Common Core' could enhance future learning."
Several years ago, James L. Perkins surveyed all 675 of Maine’s high school math teachers by mail, with a 35 percent rate of return.
• Of those 238 replying, 94 percent thought the Maine Learning Results were not a realistic standard for all high school students.
• Only 23.4 percent thought that “any one set of standards could be appropriate as the basis for the education of all of Maine’s high school students.”
The facts that our state Legislature voted "unanimously" for the Common Core and the governor signed the law should reveal to us that nobody read it. The CCSS was a way to escape from the failed model that was the bipartisan, but logically flawed, No Child Left Behind: "All students will reach the level of the average student."
The standards model is one familiar to manufacturing or prepared food production: a steady flow of the components arrive and are assembled into the desired product. All along the way there are responsible people and simultaneous efforts for quality assurance and control. With attention to detail and regular checking and oversight, the items roll off the line in the desired form to the mandated specifications and will meet the target rate of success.
The fundamental difference between that model and public education is that in manufacturing there are clear and unambiguous specifications for the raw materials.
For example, a candy manufacturer might start out: Butter will be of this grade and no less; chocolate will be sourced from that standard level of production; the sugar will be from cane, not beets, and will be of this color with no artificial ingredients; et cetera. These are the standards for the input raw materials, and we will manufacture candies of this grade within a narrow band of tolerance. They'll all look alike. They'll all "meet the standard."
Colleges and private schools use a process to decide which students they will accept: You did well before; you have skills we want; you have enough money or credit-worthiness. We'll take you in.
A public school, on the other hand, takes every student who appears at the door. We don't say to a 5-year-old or to a 14-year-old: "You aren't up to it." We don't say, "Your family circumstances make it unlikely you'll succeed," or "You can't afford it," or "Your last school reports you failed everything, so go away." With rare exceptions, the public schools don't say, "You can't be here."
Rather they say, "If you didn't succeed, come on in and we'll try again. You were sick the entire spring semester? It's a new year; come on in. You can multiply and you're only 6? Come on in and let's find the challenge you need."
Students come to school from all walks of life with widely divergent inherited and acquired capabilities and widely varying levels of motivation. The mission of the public schools is to meet each and every child and help him or her have the best possible preparation for some meaningful and valued pathway.
Contrary to the standards model, however, that should not mean the mission is to provide the same preparation. We cannot and ought not treat every student as having identical needs or identical capabilities.
The standards model works for guiding the production of automobiles or candies, but the standards model is, and always will be, unsuited to guiding the education of a normally distributed band of 8-, or 11- or 15-year-olds.
We should have learned the lesson from the 15-year effort to implement the Maine Learning Results. We were mired in a swamp trying to treat every kid the same.
The Common Core State Standards are just a new swamp. Not every child is average. Not every calling, not even every 21st century calling, requires the same sort of preparation. We should learn much faster this time that the same single set of "standards" for every single student is not the appropriate standard.
James L. Perkins of Wayne has just retired after 25 years of teaching mathematics at Lewiston High School. He also taught and was a department head in a private school and taught at a public middle school and part time in three colleges.