Welcome to the first of the many evils on my laundry list: Common Core Standards. This was originally written for class in early 2016, and now edited for this blog. I’m recovering from surgery right now, so I couldn’t really start on an entirely new topic yet.
The time between the 1970s and the present day has been marked by the direct proportionality of worldwide socio-economic inequalities and the focus on equality, with both rapidly increasing. Contemporary philosophy especially has shown great interest in this phenomenon, which has led many philosophers to question the concept of equality and how it should be defined. One such aspect of this is the principle of equality of opportunity, a concept that has been defined as the idea that people should all have equal opportunities to succeed in life based on their primary social goods, such as wealth, rights, and liberties. Ideally, this would mean that everyone starts off with the same chance to succeed, though the reality of present-day society has shown the disparity in that idealization. Taking that into account, the principle of equality of opportunity has been the philosophical basis of many government programs for public education.
The federal and state governments first began to pass acts to provide funding for various school needs, and then turned attention to the standardization of education in the effort of providing every child with the same knowledge and chance to succeed. However, while these endeavors have been put into place with good intentions, they have also caused a myriad of problems for the present American educational system.
A number of these undertakings have evolved over time into practices currently in place, such as educational standardization through the Common Core State Standards Initiative and the progression from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, to the No Child Left Behind Act, and finally to the Every Student Succeeds Act. These legislative acts were passed with the goal of benefiting the population in terms of evening the educational footing of the youth, but each came along with its own hefty set of problems as setbacks to any sort of progress that could have been made.
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act
The foundation of the federal government’s involvement in public education was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The act was proposed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in order to fight against poverty by allocating funds to improve schools in impoverished areas to close the gap between the education levels of the children of poor and wealthy families. These funds gave schools the opportunity to do renovations on school buildings, buy books, and train teachers. The Johnson Administration asked that fiscal year for $1.00 billion of the $1.25 billion allocated for elementary and secondary education to be directly spent to help the children of the poor. However, this proposal was controversial and complicated from the very beginning.
Upon analysis of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a war of sorts began brewing between the middle class and the poor. The middle classes had control over the state and local governments due to their socio-economic power, which they were expected to use in order to gain more money for their schools. While the poor were viewed commonly as having no power over the governments, but in actuality they had the ability to bolster their lacking political power with their emotional leverage. Whether or not this war would widen or narrow the disparity between the rich and the poor would be determined by the federal government and if they used federal constitutional and fiscal powers to prevent state and local powers from being abused to benefit a single class, or if these powers would lay dormant in the name of local control.
In addition to this uneven distribution of powers that each side could use to their own advantages, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act aimed to even out the opportunities awarded to the rich and poor by targeting parochial schools to promote cooperation between the Catholic and non-Catholic populations. At the time, the Catholic population resented paying higher property taxes in order to fund public schools that they were in no way affiliated with, which made it very difficult in some communities to improve public education.
Reviewing the legislation did not give many people hope that it would lead to any significant improvement in cooperation between public and parochial schools that mainly served the middle-class and the poor. Revisiting the issues associated with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act gave the government the ability to revise their legislation in 2002 when the act was reauthorized with the No Child Left Behind Act, but a number of issues arose all the same.
The No Child Left Behind Act
President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into effect in 2002 to renovate the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and refocus the country on improving student achievement while closing the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their peers. This legislation introduced key changes for governments to impose upon their schools in areas, such as testing and accountability. The core idea behind testing and accountability would be to provide measures of student outcomes in order to establish standards, the failure of which to meet would result in consequences for poor performance.
Given that logic, schools would have incentives to improve, especially in the instructional time between students and teachers. To credit this endeavor, research has shown that No Child Left Behind has led teachers to allocate more time to core subjects and spend more time developing teaching strategies and lesson plans. However, that is where the benefits end and the problems begin to emerge.
In order to measure student performance and outcomes, teachers must prepare students for standardized examinations, the scores of which are then ranked and compared across the nation. The test scores of students are seen as a direct representation of the quality of their teachers and, consequently, their schools. Due to this, teachers have begun “teaching to the test,” or teaching material solely based on what will be on the exam instead of tailoring the curriculum to what students may want to learn about or taking as much time to go over a concept as some students may need in order to go over everything students will be tested on. Alongside this, teachers may focus on certain students or materials over others, which not only places stress and discomfort on students, but also on teachers when these practices conflict with their own professional judgment.
That conflict can cause teachers to experience frustration or burnout, feelings that can be intensified if the exam scores do not measure up to the national average and, therefore, the school is considered a “failure.” The sense of inadequacy or failure that results from that poor ranking of a school can have drastic impacts on the mental health and perceptions of self-worth of both students and teachers. To combat this, teachers may focus on particular students or topics, which is a good practice in theory but not in actuality.
Realistically, focusing solely on one concept in the curriculum will cause some students to be, in a way, “left behind” because they are forced to sit through lectures on information that they already know; effectively, this will cause students to waste time because they are required to go through the same information with nothing to do when they could be being productive elsewhere.
Teachers focusing only on certain students who need a great deal of extra help causes the same issue. Given the amount of stress and problems that come from this approach to meet national accountability standards, it would make sense how teachers and students alike feel so much frustration with No Child Left Behind. In an effort to change this system and correct some of the issues, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act in December 2015.
The Every Student Succeeds Act
The Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 was designed to alleviate the challenges that No Child Left Behind suffered, update and strengthen the laws to expand opportunities to more children, and grant more flexibility to states in regards to specific No Child Left Behind requirements in exchange for well-developed state plans. This act gave states serious leeway in a many areas of education because it included having the U.S. Department of Education take on a considerably smaller role in determining accountability so that the states could create their own plans.
Each state’s accountability system would have to include performance on state tests, English-language competency, an academic factor of their choosing such as growth on state exams, and another factor that the state believes would be important, including access to advanced coursework or school safety. While this ability for each state to make their own plans so long as they adhere to a general set of national standards would seemingly solve many of the issues that both the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the No Child Left Behind Act caused in terms of disjointed government cooperation and inability to respect a single set of standards, it has been evident that this bill is on track to cause more problems than it is to create solutions.
Giving a great deal of flexibility and leeway to the states with the Every Student Succeeds Act sounds great in theory, as it would allow each state to choose what they believe to be the best course of action for their educational system while still coming together to observe general national standards. However, it remains to be seen how and where this leeway will be taken, and how said decisions will impact the founding of new schools and categories of students and schools that have been historically overlooked, despite these groupings being the very targets that the No Child Left Behind Act attempted to help. In addition to this, when scaling back the role of the U.S. Department of Education, roughly 50 programs have been consolidated into a large block grant, such as elementary and secondary counseling.
When the funding for crucial programs, including those that greatly impact students’ health and wellness, is funneled into a large block grant instead of categorical grants, it can cause issues with how the money is budgeted. Block grants would allow the states to use the money in any way that they want to within their educational system, whereas categorical grants would force states to use the money for tasks that the federal government has deemed important. Because of this discrepancy, many schools could lose funding for valuable programs to other programs that the state considers to be more important, regardless of reasoning. Budgeting and leeway aside, the very wording of this initiative, set to go into full effect for the current 2017-2018 school year, has already been causing confusion.
The Shortcomings and Next Steps
Acts, such as The Every Student Succeeds Act, which serve to continually revise and reauthorize previous initiatives, often contain confusing wording as they seek to remedy past jargon and prepare for the future. One such example of this would be within the language detailing the education secretary’s authority, which will potentially cause more problems, both politically and legally, for the U.S. Department of Education to truly regulate this law. If the wording is unclear, the lines of jurisdiction for which party has the responsibility to oversee which matters become blurred and difficult to prove or justify. While The Every Student Succeeds Act serves to create a balance between giving leeway to the states and providing general standards as guidance, these provisions do cause wording issues throughout the regulatory process.
As the governments try to blindly feel their way through the regulatory process, several key points may be explored or illuminated, such as when states must identify schools in which traditionally underperforming groups of students are struggling. This continual issue with academic standards does lead to problems with student performance and the base of knowledge that students are sent off to other educational systems and the workforce with. In light of the great deal of issues surrounding the establishment of these standards, however, there are more issues that arise within the curriculum that students are taught and how that measures up across the nation.
In the age of intense educational competition and highly selective universities, state governments began to notice that each had different standards for their public schools, which would either make their students more or less prepared to fight their way into higher education or the workforce and succeed there. This national revelation caused both federal and state governments to reevaluate their educational standards in order to create a system that would allow students to each have an equal basis of knowledge so that they would be able to compete not only with other American students and workers, but also with those internationally in this global economy.
In the face of this admission of responsibility, an assembly of governors came together with educational administrators in 2009 to establish a state-wide initiative, which would be used to standardize the academic systems in grades K–12 mathematics and English language arts across the nation, named the Common Core State Standards.
Common Core Standards
The Common Core State Standards have been adopted by 42 states thus far in an effort to specifically outline a standard set of curriculum goals for what every K-12 student should know at the end of each grade level in the academic system, thereby allowing schools to better compare one another and further progress towards a better education system as a whole. In the six years since the initiative was enacted, a great deal of research has been conducted on how well the standards have been implemented across the states and how the standards have affected student outcomes. This initiative was put in place with high hopes and expectations for the results, but research has not shown this to be true.
Research shows that Common Core has not had enough of an impact on reducing the achievement gap among students to display any consistent evidence and that the implementation of standards has been weak. An example of this is that teachers usually report considerable attempts at instructional improvement, though academic instruction remains poorly structured across grade levels and regions. This poorly structured instruction is, in part, due to curriculum resources available to teachers.
Though Common Core has tried to standardize the curriculum across the states, it has done nothing to standardize the resources available for teachers to teach this new curriculum. One of these resources would be the textbooks that teachers use to guide their lesson plans and that students learn from through guided notes and problem sets daily. In the classroom, textbooks serve as one of the primary influences on the materials that teachers go over, with little to no information being taught on the information left out of the textbook.
The educational system relies on textbook authors to interpret the national standards of Common Core and write their textbooks accordingly, which results in many different implementations across schools due to using different textbooks for the same subjects, or using textbooks that do not have all of the information that students are then expected to know at the end of their grade level. While textbooks play this major role in the classroom and in what students know as a whole, they are simply one part of a disjointed system. To see positive changes resulting from the Common Core State Standards Initiative, the educational system must also work on standardizing the rest of the curriculum materials, or try to find a new initiative that will work to prepare students for college and the workforce.
Throughout the recent history of the educational system of the United States, many laws and initiatives have been enacted to try to pull the country back into the worldwide leaders in education. These efforts are important in order to ensure that students each start out with the same chance to succeed, based on the knowledge gained in their studies, which is known as the principle of equality of opportunity. This principle has led to many of the changes that have been put into place, such as the progression from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, to the No Child Left Behind Act, and then to the Every Student Succeeds Act, and the Common Core State Standards Initiative.
While the government’s endeavors to standardize education to provide each child with the same basis of knowledge have shown great attention to detail, these initiatives have caused more harm than good. These issues, such as trying to close the achievement gap in schools and standardizing the curriculum, grow with each new law that passes. This is because each revision to a previous law takes the existing problems into account, but also adds more legislation that then, in turn, causes more problems. The state and federal governments have tried to pass initiatives in order to better the nation’s educational system, but have only had success in both uncovering and creating more problems as time goes on.
I hope that this has shown at least a smidgen of why I have a problem with the US educational system. Trust me, there will probably be more to come soon!
I think that this song sums up a good bit of how I felt while writing this, and while going through the US educational system as a whole.