Bruce Baker: Why do corpreformers advocate standardization & choice?

Here is a cross-post from Bruce Baker’s blog, School Finance 101. Bruce is a professor at Rutgers and if you don’t subscribe to his blog, you should.  It features the most incisive and substantive critiques of the corporate reform policies  that we’ve seen.  Here, he explores the apparent contradiction between the corporate reform insistence, exemplified by the work of the Thomas Fordham Institute,  that  the  Common Core and high-stakes accountability systems be imposed on our public schools like straitjackets, while at the same time, the charter school sector be radically expanded, subject to none of the same constraints.  I have noticed the same tendencies of groups like Democrats for Education Reform  — which started out lobbying primarily for charter expansion, but in New York has taken up the test-based teacher evaluation issue with a vengeance, though none of the charters operated by their  hedge fund-backers will be required to implement this same system. One would think if  standardization and teacher evaluation linked to test scores were good for the goose it should be good for the gander, but no.  Is there a logical reason for this apparent contradiction — or this evidence of a subterranean plot to wreak havoc on our public schools, hoping the ensuing exodus of teachers and students will benefit the charter school sector?  You be the judge!  Please leave a comment below.

I’ve long been perplexed that the Thomas B. Fordham Institute frames as its top two policy priorities:

1.    Implementing the Common Core

2.    Advancing Choice

Their new web site layout makes this more obvious.

More recently, a report released by the Council on Foreign Relations (referred to largely as the Rice-Klein report in the media and on twitter) argued that our “failing” education system is  a national security concern, and that the road to addressing that concern involves:

1.    expanding the Common Core State Standard initiative to include subjects beyond math and English Language Arts;

2.    an expansion of charter schools and vouchers

Now, as I understand it, there’s at least a subtle difference between these two sources on the point regarding vouchers and charter schools in that Fordham does not appear these days to be out front on promoting vouchers and instead seems to be favoring charter expansion (avoiding the word “voucher” but welcoming “other approaches that provide parents and children solid options and the capacity to make maximum use of them”).

Let me be clear that this post isn’t about favoring or slamming either vouchers or the common core, but rather pointing out that favoring both is entirely inconsistent, unless there’s some weird, warped agenda behind it all. This post IS about slamming the two, when used in combination. It just doesn’t make sense.  Let’s throw into this mix other policies promoting standardization of the operations of traditional public schools like forcing those schools to make personnel decisions based largely on student assessment data.

Collectively what we have here is a massive effort on the one hand, to require traditional public school districts to adopt a common curriculum and ultimately to adopt common assessments for evaluating student success on that curriculum and then force those districts to evaluate, retain and/or dismiss their teachers based on student assessment data, while on the other hand, expanding publicly financed subsidies for more children to attend schools that would not be required to do these things (in many cases, for example, relieving charter schools from teacher  evaluation requirements).

For example, if we believe that improving understanding of core scientific concepts is important for our national security or economic competitiveness, why would we be trying to increase the number of students who opt out of those standards, opting instead to attend fundamentalist religious institutions which may be decidedly anti-science? It seems like it would be one or the other? Certainly, TB Fordham Institute appears concerned with the importance of teaching science, and evolution specifically. When they simultaneously promote “other” choice alternatives, are they suggesting the regulation of science curriculum in those alternatives?

Also, if one believes that competitive pressures create improvement across schools (by stimulating innovation), why set up totally different rules – absurd constraints – in fact – for the largest set of schools in the mix. That seems rather counter productive and certainly limits any potential for real innovation. My critique all along about Race to the Top as a stimulus for innovation was that RTTT was anything but a stimulus for innovation and was instead a bribe to get states to fast-track a handful of preferred and completely unfounded reformy template policies – effectively squelching any real innovation that might have otherwise occurred.

One might instead argue for forcing all schools – public, private (if voucher receiving) and charter – to adopt the common core and evaluate teachers with student test data – and to simultaneously promote a broad based choice program. Yeah… let’s try really hard to make all schools the same and then let individuals choose among them? What we would have is a program that allows parents to choose which school adopts the common core better, and uses testing data better when firing teachers. That doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense, either.

No matter how you cut it, combining these two broad preferences leads to a ridiculous mix of policies, whichever side you’re coming from (unless, of course, you’re trying to come from both at once).

So, this all has me wondering if the real objective here – among advocates of these seemingly contradictory policies – is actually to make traditional public schooling so utterly unbearable for both teachers and students by expanding the testing and standards driven culture, expanding curricular standards across areas previously untouched, sucking any remaining creativity out of teaching, and mechanizing the teaching workforce in traditional public schools, making even the worst of the less-regulated alternatives seem more desirable for future generations of both teachers and students?

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