Dissecting Common Core Assessment Myths and Realities

[From Fairtest.org]


A new fact sheet shows that the Common Core Assessments, which are being rolled out for widespread implementation in the 2014-2015 school year, are not significantly different from the standardized exams currently administered in many states. At the same time, plans call for more high-stakes tests with even greater costs.

“Despite proponents’ claims that the Common Core would lead to a new breed of assessments that focus on higher-order, critical thinking skills, the planned tests are predominantly the same-old multiple-choice questions,” explained Dr. Monty Neill, Executive Director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest).

Dr. Neill continued, “Rather than ending ‘No Child Left Behind’ testing overkill, the Common Core will flood classrooms with even more standardized exams. Their scores will continue to be misused to make high-stakes educational decisions, including high school graduation. They will also end up costing taxpayers millions more for new tests and the computer systems required to deliver them.”

The FairTest fact sheet also challenges the notion that harder tests are automatically better. It states, “If a child struggles to clear the high bar at five feet, she will not become a ‘world class’ jumper because someone raised the bar to six feet and yelled ‘jump higher,’ or if her ‘poor’ performance is used to punish her coach.” Scores recently plummeted in New York State and Kentucky where Common Core tests were initially administered.

Based on its analysis, FairTest is calling for an indefinite moratorium on the Common Core tests. “As the prestigious Gordon Commission of educational experts recently concluded, these exams are not the better assessments our schools need,” Dr. Neill concluded. “Instead, a system of classroom- based performance assessments, evaluations of student work portfolios, and school quality reviews will help improve learning and teaching.”

Bilingual Education: The Research

For those who have any doubts on the efficacy of bilingual education, below is a summary of the evidence from over more than 20 years.  I will follow up with my summary of why it works in a future blog.


National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth (U.S.), August, D., & Shanahan, T. (2006). Executive summary: Developing literacy in second-language learners: Report of the national literacy panel on language minority children and youth. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. [meta-analysis]

“The research indicates that instructional programs work when they provide opportunities for students to develop proficiency in their first language. Studies that compare bilingual instruction with English-only instruction demonstrate that language-minority students instructed in their native language as well as in English perform better, on average, on measures of English reading proficiency than language-minority students instructed only in English. This is the case at both the elementary and secondary levels” (p.11).


Rolstad, K., Mahoney, K., & Glass, G. V. (2005). The big picture: A meta-analysis of program effectiveness research on English language learners. Educational Policy, 19(4), 572-594. [meta analysis]

“Empirical evidence considered here indicates that bilingual education is more beneficial for ELL [English language learner] students than all-English approaches such as ESL [English as a second language] and SI [Structured immersion]. Moreover, students in long-term DBE [Developmental bilingual education] programs performed better than students in short-term TBE [transitional bilingual education] programs.”  (p.19)


Kellie R., Mahoney K. & Glass, G. (2005)  Weighing the evidence: A metat-analysis of bilingual education in Arizona. Bilingual Research Journal. 29(1)

Abstract: This article reviews the current policy context in the state of Arizona for program options for English language learners and produces a meta-analysis of studies on the effectiveness of bilingual education that have been conducted in the state in or after 1985. The study presents an analysis of a sample of evaluation studies (N = 4), which demonstrates a positive effect for bilingual education on all measures, both in English and the native language of English language learners, when compared to English-only instructional alternatives. We conclude that current state policy is at odds with the best synthesis of the empirical evidence, and we recommend that current policy mandating English-only and forbidding bilingual education be abandoned in favor of program choices made at the level of the local community.


Hofstetter, C. H. (2004). Effects of a transitional bilingual education program: Findings, issues, and next steps. Bilingual Research Journal, 28(3), 355-377. [primary research]

“After 4 years in their respective programs, students in ALA [Academic Language Acquisition, a form of transitional bilingual education] and SEI [Structured English Immersion] classes displayed only nominal differences, at best, in their performance on various achievement indicators. ALA and SEI students… were comparable on English-language SAT–9 tests in reading, mathematics, and language arts, as well as the reading and listening and speaking portions of the CELDT, an English-proficiency test. The only significant difference among groups occurred in writing, where students in… ALA … scored lower than their peers.” (p.16)


Howard, E. R., Sugarman, J., & Christian, D. (2003). Trends in two-way immersion education: A review of the literature (Report No. 63): Center for Applied Linguistics. [research summary]

“On aggregate, the research summarized in this section indicates that both native Spanish speakers and native English speakers in TWI [two-way immersion] programs perform as well or better than their peers educated in other types of programs, both on English standardized achievement tests and Spanish standardized achievement tests.” (p.30)


Thomas, W., & Collier, V. (2002). Executive summary: A national study of school effectiveness for language minority students’ long-term academic achievement. Washington, DC: Center for Research on Education, Diversity & Excellence. [primary research]

“Enrichment 90-10 and 50-50 one-way and two-way developmental bilingual education (DBE) programs (or dual language, bilingual immersion) are the only programs we have found to date that assist students to fully reach the 50th percentile in both L1 and L2 in all subjects and to maintain that level of high achievement, or reach even higher levels through the end of schooling. The fewest dropouts come from these programs.” (p.7)


Snow, C., Burns, S., & Griffin, P. (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children [electronic version] . Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Retrieved  March 24, 2007 from http://bob.nap.edu/html/prdyc/index.html [Research summary]

“The accumulated wisdom of research in the field of bilingualism and literacy tends to converge on the conclusion that initial literacy instruction in a second language … carries with it a higher risk of reading problems and of lower ultimate literacy attainment than initial literacy instruction in a first language.”


Greene, J. (1997). A meta-analysis of the Rossell and Baker review of bilingual education research. Bilingual Research Journal, 21(2-3), 103-122.

“Despite the relatively small number of studies, the strength and consistency of these results, especially from the highest quality randomized experiments, increases confidence in the conclusion that bilingual programs are effective at increasing standardized test scores measured in English.”


Thomas, W., & Collier, V. (1997). School effectiveness for language minority students. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education. [primary research]

The first predictor of long-term school success is cognitively complex on-grade-level academic instruction through students’ first language for as long as possible (at least through Grade 5 or 6) and cognitively complex on-grade-level academic instruction through the second language (English) for part of the school day, in each succeeding grade throughout students’ schooling…. The second predictor of long-term school success is the use of current approaches to teaching the academic curriculum through two languages.” (p.16)


Ramirez, J. D. (1992). Executive summary: Longitudinal study of structured English immersion strategy, early-exit and late-exit transitional bilingual education programs for language-minority children. Bilingual Research Journal, 16, 1-62. [primary research]

“Providing substantial instruction in the child’s primary language does not impede the learning of English language or reading skills.” (p.44)


Willig, A. C. (1985) A Meta-Analysis of Selected Studies on the Effectiveness of Bilingual Education. Review of Educational Research

“Meta analysis results were compared with a traditional review of bilingual education program effectiveness. When controlled for methodological inadequacies, participation in bilingual education programs consistently produced differences favoring bilingual education.”

The Undermining of Democracy

I just got one of those “Surveys” from the Democratic National Party, asking my opinion about the Republican Party and Obama’s record. It also asked me to prioritize my top issues. The issue it did not include is the undermining of and attack on democracy itself in our country.

These attacks come in many forms. While the Republican party and corporate America has led these attacks, the Democrats and Obama have been complicit in most of them as well.

The influence of money on elections and the ludicrous protection of Corporations as “people” are a couple of the most blatant. The attack on public institutions in general is another.


There are the attacks on the public aspects of public schooling—topics I have written much about— such as NCLB and Common Core undermining the democratic running of our schools. The charter school movement (charter schools select their own boards of governance) and vouchers, and the privatization of public schooling in a myriad of other ways is another way public schools are being undermined as public democratic institutions.

The U.S. Postal  Service is another public institution being undermined. The supposed fact of the post office losing money is a complete hoax. If the post office was allowed to use the accounting methods of its competitors it would be in the black, but they are required by Congress to use accounting methods that make it appear to be losing money. The purpose—to reduce the services of the post office, slowly eroding it—as well as to undermine the union—an issue I will discuss more in a bit.

Part of the attack on the public sector is that corporations and the Republicans truly want to replace democracy with a complete “free” market economy (free meaning those with the most money and power are free to do what they want, with no one to rein them in). To do this they are undermining the main organized force against them—unions. And the only really large unionized force left is in the public sector. By undermining this force in both public opinion and in law, they leave themselves with almost no large force to oppose them. Teachers are demonized. Public employees are blamed for being greedy and ruining the economy—such a blatant falsehood, yet when repeated often enough it gets believed. As anyone who remembers our latest, and virtually all, of our economic collapses, they came directly from corporate greed and the lack of corporate and banking oversight.

One way the unions are undermined is through privatization. By privatizing public schooling or many of their services\, the teachers union is demolished. (Very few charter school teachers are in unions—and even less in private schools.) Destroying the Post Office as another major source of unionized employees goes along with this.

Where they cannot destroy public employee unions outright, they take away their bargaining power, as was done in Wisconsin and Ohio.

Then there are the attacks on voter rights, making it more difficult for students and minorities and the poor to vote. The claim is a voter fraud that there is no evidence exists. We have one of the lowest voter turnouts of any democratic nation, and the strategy is to make it even harder to vote? (Where voter fraud is most likely is in vote by mail—which the voting suppression laws do not affect—and is a population that in general is more conservative).

This is not even to mention the attacks on our civil liberties—spying by the government, changing rules on search and seizure, and on advising us of our rights being just a few of them.

The struggle for democracy is ongoing and we can never rest on the victories of past generations. We either exercise what power we do have, or lose it.

Whatever it is you do, and wherever you are, you need to join organizations that are countering these trends and to let your representatives know how you feel!

Poverty and Education

Progressive educator Deborah Meier and Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Foundation have been debating on EdWeeks’s Bridging Differences blog.

In his most recent post Michael claims that poverty is not the issue (even though, as another commentator to his post mentioned, the issue was not originally framed as poverty, but inequality, even in his own words).

From Petrilli’s Bridging Differences blog:

  • “Most were born to single mothers, and their fathers have been absent from the start, or by the time they turn two or three;
  • Most of their mothers were teenagers or in their early 20s when they gave birth;
  • Most of their mothers have very little education—a high school diploma or less–and thus few marketable skills;
  • Many of their mothers suffer from mental illness or addiction or both;

“If we give these families more money…will it erase the huge gaps….between these kids and their age-mates born into two-parent families? With highly-educated mothers and fathers? To believe so, you’d have to put as much faith in cash transfers and social services as some reformers put in schools. You’d have to believe in miracles.”

income gapIn response, I would say that tackling poverty and creating full employment and tackling society’s inequalities would actually help solve those too. Fathers are absent because they cannot support their families. Young motherhood is often a symptom of hopelessness, as is drug addiction. Michael shows data that America’s poverty is not really that much worse than other countries (though still worse even by his figures), so the problem cannot really be poverty (since he also accepts the data purporting that they do better academically). What he leaves out is that even if its true, those other countries do a better job of providing the supports for the poor that he derides as useless–housing, medical care, food, pre- and post- natal care—than the U.S. It may be those supports that keep fathers at home, create less single motherhood, and provide the supports needed for those who are single mothers.

While most critics of our current economic system and I think giving the poor more money and supports is a good idea, we do not see it as the solution either, but rather a band-aid, and when you are bleeding a band-aid is good to have! What is needed is a society that can provide meaningful employment for its citizens, that can provide decent housing, food, medical care, etc. It needs a society organized for a more equitable distribution of the resources.

A better education for the poor helps the individual student succeed, but it does not create more jobs nor reduce the overall rate of poverty nor solve the issues of inequality in a developed country such as ours. It does not change the number of winners and losers, though it just might even the odds a bit as to who gets to be winners and losers.

As John Dewey noted almost a century ago, a certain type of better education, i.e. one that help students participate and understand democracy and develop certain habits of mind, can be one of the aspects to creating that society, but it alone cannot do the job. And most of the reforms that Petrilli supports—more testing and top-down “accountability” based on that testing—actually create a less, not more democratic culture in schools, especially schools for the poor.

Common Core

I have been hearing from many friends who work as K-12 teachers, as well as some teacher educator colleagues here in California, that they are excited to see the coming of the Common Core standards. They see in them a move away from an emphasis on teaching by rote and a move toward emphasizing higher order thinking skills. I truly hope that they are right about this. A shift in balance from a preponderance of rote and conformist styles of teaching to more emphasis on creativity and the other aspects of what are called the higher order thinking skills in Bloom’s Taxonomy is needed.

On the other hand, I have been hearing some critiques from other colleagues, especially early childhood educators, about some of the specific standards that they say are developmentally inappropriate. One of those that I hear mentioned often is having young children doing more expository reading and writing.

However, what I want to address here is that regardless of the specifics of the content of the new Common Core standards, they are actually a continuation of what I see as a dangerous trend in the educational policies of this nation.

Common Core standards are now nationally mandated standards. In order to justify such a mandate several assumptions have to be accepted. One is that a lack of uniformity in the curriculum nationwide is part of the problem in today’s education. Such standardized curriculum have often been the mark of totalitarian governments—we used to make fun of how in the Soviet Union on a certain day at a certain time every fourth grader in that nation would be studying the same thing. Is this what we need?

The argument for national standards is that many nations that outscore us on international standardized tests have national standards. First off this connection breaks one of the first rules of research—confusing correlation with causation. Furthermore, other nations that don’t have national standards also beat us, and we beat many that do have them. Not to mention all the problems with comparing the quality of educational systems based on those tests (e.g. who is being tested in each country is not comparable, and is what is being compared what really matters?). Also the meaning of national standards varies enormously. In many countries they are just a general guideline, much like the California frameworks used to be.

The other argument for national standards is that standardization means everyone gets an equal education. The problem, according to this argument, is that in communities serving the poor the children get a watered down curriculum and national standards will mean the poor get the same education as everyone else. This assumes many things—that we want all students to end up the same, that equal inputs equals equal outputs, that as long as the standards are the same, all other differences for rich a poor kids are erased (opportunities beyond school, resources, nutrition, not to mention funding, as we have the least equal school funding of any industrialized nation in the world).


However, the main issue that I want to discuss here is the assumption of a national consensus on how children learn and what they should learn. In a totalitarian state or dictatorship, the right of the State to dictate such matters is assumed. However, in a democracy, to mandate something nationally should only happen in cases where there is a strong national consensus. Even if there were a majority opinion, such a mandate would just be a form of tyranny of the majority.

Do we have a national consensus on what children should learn and how they should learn it? To many people, at first glance people seem to think it is obvious. We teach kids reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. Then I guess history, science, and social studies. But, is there really any such consensus? They have to learn to be fluent in reading and writing, and to know algebra, and the important facts of history and science.

But what does it mean to be fluent in reading and writing? Who says algebra is that important? What are the facts of history and science that are most important? And then there is how do we teach these things, and how do we know if they were learned?

Given that there are major debates on each of the above regularly, it is clear we do not have any actual consensus. Ask a variety of friends regarding how schools should teach, what they should teach, and what the main goal of schools should be, and I bet you will get a wide variety of answers. And that is your friends—once you start asking those in different communities, of different political, religious and cultural persuasions, the diversity increases.

If you ask the leading educational experts of today, you will probably get even less consensus. There is still huge debate among educational theorists about approaches to education. Direct Instruction versus constructivist and discovery approaches. What content is most important. How we measure success. It is just for that reason that most standards have been long comprehensive lists. To reach consensus, the committees making the standards just all accept each other’s ideas.

Now let us look at some things we do know about learning. As all of us notice, children always tend to want to be and act like the important people in their lives, imitating those they see as successful—especially those they want to and think they can be like. We learn from the company we keep and the experiences we have, to sum up and simplify the theories of such giants in learning theory such as Bandura, Vygotsky and Piaget.

Democracy is only partially a set of rules and procedures for making decision and electing representatives. More centrally, it is a way of thinking, a habit of mind. Therefore if we want our students to be democratic citizens they need to be socialized in a democratic environment. Are our classrooms or schools such environments? I doubt many could claim they are. A nationally mandated curriculum makes that virtually impossible. States are required by the Federal Government to impose the standards on their schools. This is done through the school districts who then order their principals to carry it out, who then order the teachers to do so, who then impose the curriculum on the students. We thus end up with people all down the line who are powerless except to carry out the designs of those above them. Those who oppose or disagree with the curriculum will either choose not to be part of such a system, learn to keep quiet about their opposition, or will likely lose their jobs. Children cannot learn democracy in such a culture. A few privileged students may learn it elsewhere or perhaps later, but public schools will not be part of that lesson except as a negative example.

If we look at the most successful schools around the country they do not share a common set of beliefs between them, except maybe a belief that all their students can and will succeed. They each have a very different set of ideas about what is important for children to learn and how best to carry it out. There are the Met schools in which students mostly work with an adviser while engaged in internships with minimal formal classes. There is High Tech High, where students develop projects and inventions often using computer technology. There are the schools of Deborah Meier (CPEI, Mission Hill) based on their five habits of mind and using a graduation by portfolio design. There are the KIPP schools based on a philosophy of no excuses, a longer school day and year and family involvement. There are the Montessori schools based on their particular form of pedagogy and curriculum. Waldorf has theirs, and I could go on and on. Each of these schools or programs has a record of success. Those who work at the school often have developed together those standards or at least chosen to be there because of them, as have the families. It is this freedom that we should be striving for in a democratic nation.

Even if you disagree with me about the central purpose of public education being to prepare students for democracy, or if you disagree about how that is achieved—in fact especially if you do not agree—you are in fact bolstering my argument against the Common Core standards (or any set of national standards). That is, we clearly do not have a consensus, and who has the right in a democracy to impose such a consensus by fiat?

Schools and the Business Model

Policy makers and the current so-called reformers talk about the need to run our public educational system more like a business. From what I see, that is being done, with the same disastrous results.

We see businesses paying their CEOs exorbitant salaries while reducing their labor forces and cutting the wages of those who actually do the work. Often these CEOs are hired irrespective of their knowledge or experience in the field or of whatever product or service that company is engaged in. Then when their policies fail, they are paid huge sums to buy out their contracts, while a replacement CEO is paid even more.

In education we see the same rise in wages for superintendents, especially of large school districts, while cuts are being made everywhere else. Often these new leaders come with no educational backgrond at all, their only experience being in the business world. And when they fail, they too see their contracts paid off while a new superintendent is hired at a higher salary.

In business more attention is being paid to short term profits to give investors a quick return on their money, often at the cost of long-term quality or stability.

In education we see schools forced to find ways to get short term test score gains per Federal and State mandates, which are often made at the cost of building a solid educational foundation and understanding.

In business companies engage in cooking the books to make their profits look better than they might actually be, and we read about these scandals almost daily. In education we see districts and schools cooking the books and engaging in practices to make their test scores and other data look better and we act just as surprised as the same scandals appear in education.

In business quick profits are the goal, at whatever cost, legal or illegal. In public schools better test scores are the legal tender to be attained at whatever cost.

Schools are learning to act more like contemporary businesses. In business such practices have taken the world’s economies to the brink of disaster and brought us the worst recession since the Great Depression, while the gap between rich and poor continues to widen. Such practices and mindset are doing the same to our public educational system, widening the gap between the quality of education for rich and poor.

One might notice that it is practically unheard of for the private schools where the elite send their children to use the rhetoric of business practices to describe their own schools.

Standards-Based Education

Currently in education there is a lot of talk about standards-based education and the need for high standards. I will discuss in this column where that concept came from and how it has been distorted from its original use.

The idea of a standards-based educational system came from the work of Ted Sizer (1932–2009). In the early 1980s he was involved in a nationwide study of high schools that resulted in his book Horace’s Compromise (and later Horace’s School and Horace’s Hope). In Horace’s Compromise, Sizer describes the work of a typical teacher, and how no matter how willing, well-meaning, and hardworking, the teacher cannot meet the needs of the over hundred students he sees everyday, and how students by the same token cannot do deep quality work while jumping from one subject to another each with a different teacher and mostly sitting there being expected to soak up facts and concepts. In other words, the lack of real quality learning going on in schools was not the fault of teachers or students, but the design of the institution and the compromises teachers and students made with each other to survive in such an institution.

Sizer proposed that instead of students being rewarded for successfully passing a certain number of courses, and being in school a certain amount of time, they be required to demonstrate the knowledge and abilities of a successful high school student through some sort of performance assessment where students actually showed they could apply what they had learned. He also posited certain attributes that schools would need in order to carry out such an education. What came out of that directly from Sizer and likeminded educators was an organization, the Coalition of Essential Schools, which holds a set of ten common principles that schools doing such work adhere to. This organization supports schools in trying to make the changes to move toward applying these ideas. According to Sizer, how schools would measure this success, and how each school would carry out those principles in practice, needed to be locally decided.

This idea of Sizer’s that students should graduate by being measured against a set of standards rather than just seat time became popularized in the 1990s. However, in many ways the concept got turned on its head. For one thing, the term “standards” took on a new meaning from its usual everyday meaning of a level of quality. Instead “standards” became laundry lists of facts and concepts, both broad and discrete, to be learned, as well as levels of performance. These standards, rather than being locally decided as Sizer proposed, have been mandated by State authorities (and now we are moving to National mandates). In most states these laundry lists of standards are typically so long that one expert declared that it would take over 20 years if students were just exposed to the material for each standard, and much more if they were really expected to master them.

The other distortion is that meeting these standards is measured by standardized tests. Performance has come to mean not what Sizer had in mind—the ability to carry out real world tasks that used the knowledge and abilities that schools decided were important—but how one “performs” on a standardized test. These standardized tests are designed to test students’ recall of a random sample of what is on that laundry list of facts and concepts. High standards have come to mean high scores on such tests.

Sizer’s idea was that graduation by standards should free up schools to look and act differently, and free up students to demonstrate their knowledge in a variety of ways. The current practice of “standards” has meant the standardization of curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment of the students, as well as their teachers, schools, districts and states by the use of standardized tests.

So far there is no evidence that the current use of standardized curriculum and the high stakes use of standardized tests has improved the quality of education. The achievement gaps these so called reforms were to solve are as great or greater than before these changes. Graduation rates are overall no better, and we do not hear high school teachers claiming that students are coming in more prepared than they used to be. So far the only response the education establishment has offered to this lack of results is that we need more standardization, more tests, and higher stakes.

On the other hand, Sizer’s ideas of standards without standardization have also been tried out, at times with astounding success. One of the first schools to implement Sizer’s ideas was Central Park East Secondary School (CPESS) a public school of choice in New York’s East Harlem. Deborah Meier, building on her work at Central Park East Elementary School, collaborated with Ted Sizer on how to meld his ideas and hers to develop a secondary school on the Coalition principles. They came up with a school where students studied fewer topics, and worked with fewer teachers more intensively. All faculty and administrators worked as advisors who stayed with students over time and met with their advisory group daily. Students took part in internships in real world professional settings. The standards of the school were upheld through a series of portfolios and defenses of those portfolios in front of a committee. Students graduated, not after a prescribed number of years or prescribed number of completed courses, but when they had successfully passed and defended those portfolios. The standards of Central Park East were built around certain “Habits of Mind” that the faculty believed were important in all facets of life and in all disciplines. To a large extent, the demonstration of the use of those habits was the rubric used to decide if the portfolio or defense of the work met the schools standards. The students of CPESS had success at graduating high school and going on to, as well as succeeding in, college far beyond their demographic equivalents in other public high schools in New York (see David Bensman’s fascinating book Central Park East and its Graduates which documents his study of CPESS alumni).

After CPESS, a whole network of such schools sprung up all over New York City, and to some extent nationwide. Schools such as Urban Academy, the International High Schools, the Met schools, High Tech High, and Boston Arts Academy, to name just a few, continue in this tradition of high standards without standardization, of depth of knowledge over coverage, and of the importance of relationships with students as essential to successful education. While each of these school looks very different, in each school one will see students who are passionately following their own interests while being held to a common set of high standards in a non-standardized curriculum. These schools have shown that they help students beat the odds in terms of graduation and getting into college. Even more importantly, these schools produce graduates with positive attitudes toward learning and their ability to shape their own futures and contribute to the larger society.

Why Go to College?

I usually discuss k-12 schooling in this space. However this time, I would like to address higher education. In several of my columns here I have addressed the issue of the purpose of public schools, and I am going to bring that question to this next level. One of the purposes of k-12 schools we are now told is to prepare students for college and university work. What, therefore is the purpose of college and university work? The obvious or cliché answer is to get ahead in life. However, this assumption that the purpose of college is to get ahead in life needs further examination.

In k-12 schools we are told that students must spend more time studying academic subjects. Those involved in higher education are often referred to as Academia. But the people of the United States have contradictory attitudes toward things being academic. On the one hand we have the expression “It’s academic,” meaning it has no practical significance—maybe interesting philosophically or intellectually, but when real or practical decisions matter, irrelevant. On the other hand, in schools today, especially k-12 schools, if it is not academic it is not important. Arts, music, physical education, recess, everything that is not “academic” must  be thrown out in this time of crisis. (That such a crisis actually exists is also a matter for much debate, but the media ignores that fact as well—reminds me of how at airports for the last 10 years we are in a constantly reminded over the PA system that we are in a state of emergency. Deborah Meier points out in a recent column that such a crisis seems to have always existed in our public education system.)

It was not long ago that Colleges and Universities were purposely seen as “only academic.” They made no claim to study anything practical, to prepare anyone for the workforce. To do so was seen as beneath them—that was the job of trade schools. Colleges and Universities were where the elite went to improve their minds, to become cultured and well educated—but not trained for the work world. Back when medical schools were being established as the main way for doctors to be certified, many universities resisted having medical schools attached them precisely for that reason—not wanting to be seen as trade schools.

In many fields, the more practical the study, the less esteemed it is—this is certainly true in the mathematics and hard sciences. And even within the hierarchy of university departments, it has historically been that the more practical the less esteemed, with teacher education being at the bottom of the totem pole, and theoretical sciences at pretty much the top.

However, college is more and more being sold to the public as an economic necessity. We are bombarded with charts of the higher earnings that college graduates make. We are told there is no future for those without a college degree. High schools are measured by how many graduates get in to college. Colleges advertise how well they do at getting their graduates good jobs.

For most of the first half of the 20th century most students did not finish high school. But there was no shame in that. Not only no shame, finishing high school was not seen as necessary or even useful in getting a good working class job—one on which someone could end up supporting a family and buying a home, living the American dream.

By the second half of the 1900s, a high school diploma appeared to be necessary. Now in the 21st Century, it seems the college diploma has become the new high school diploma. Whether jobs actually require the higher skills and knowledge obtained in college, or whether it is just that one needs a higher diploma to beat out the competition (or a combination of the two) is a matter of debate. Few employers actually claim that what their employees learned in school in terms of any content was really that helpful for what they needed to do the job.

Despite the debate of the actual practical knowledge learned, colleges and universities are certainly sold as the keys to an improved financial future. This has led to a crisis in identity for higher education. Many, in if not most college professors still think of themselves as teaching students in order to broaden their minds, get them intellectually interested in topics for their own sakes, improve their ability to communicate and think about the larger issues of life.

More and more though, professors are being asked, not just by students, but by administrators and the university system as a whole, to justify the purpose of what they are teaching in practical terms. Departments that are seen as practical, as leading directly to a job, are growing, such as business and engineering schools, while ones that are seen as purely “academic” shrink. And universities, in the competition for students and for money, steer toward those that are attractive in that way.

When college was just for the elite, to better their minds, professors could just say to students, if you are not interested, you do not need to be here. Now professors need to sell their students, and the university as a whole, on the purpose and practicality of what they are teaching. Students complain about having to take courses to fulfill breadth requirements, and professors dread having these students in their courses.

If colleges and universities are just places to further train our youth for a workforce that (supposedly) requires higher levels of education in our technological information rich society, why have such requirements at all? Why not just let students take those practical courses they need for the field they have chosen to pursue? Is there a place in society for the idea that an educated populace is well rounded in terms of the arts, humanities, literature, languages, and sciences? Does such a notion fit with what we want our society to look like?

Maybe we need to actually go back to differentiating between the two? Maybe to most people we offer college as a trade school, clearly focused on preparing them for a professional or economic field. Then reserve, for those who want it, an education to broaden their minds? Is there a way to separate the two without the latter being purely elitist; can we make it affordable and realistically open to all who were interested? Or is this broader purpose something we really want to insist (or encourage at least) for most people, rather than just leaving it up to see who might want it?

I believe that these are issues that our k-16 educational system is ignoring. If not addressed explicitly, the tensions will not go away, but the conflict will be resolved without a serious consideration of the trade-offs we are making, but rather will be the result of small moves seemingly made to meet the current “demands” of “the system.”

Taking the Public Out of Public Education

I recently went to a talk by my old professor and mentor, Art Pearl. Art has been a political activist, writer and teacher, focusing on issues of democratic education for over four decades. Now in his 80s, he is still teaching, writing and acting on his beliefs. He spoke about the attack on public schools, on unions, and the need for democratic education. In this column, I am going to use his talk as a springboard for expanding my own ideas on the current attack on public education and the unions representing public school teachers.

One can trace the beginning of this movement to the report, A Nation at Risk, written in 1983 written by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, at the behest of then Secretary of Education Bell. The report was really a call to arms to reframe the debate about education. It made a rhetorical claim that the mediocrity of our educational system put our nation at risk—equating it with an attack by a foreign country. No evidence was provided to support this claim. In fact, while every decade throughout the history of public education, headlines have proclaimed that it is going to hell in a hand basket, and bemoaning the loss of the good old days, most evidence we have only points to continual progress, at least up through the 1990s (see The Way We Were? by Richard Rothstein, and The Manufactured Crisis by David C. Berliner and Bruce Biddle for extensive discussion and data on this topic).

School_ChoiceOne aspect of this effort to undermine public education has been to reframe the purpose of education as purely preparation for the workforce. In the past, public schools have been considered to have multiple purposes—socialization in its many forms, citizenship in its many forms, and providing students with a well rounded general education—cultural and “academic,” meeting both individual potential aims as well as societal aims. Since that report, the public media discussion of education, including the U.S. Department of Education, has cast the purpose of education purely in terms of its economic impact. They, as did the report, describe the threat of a failing educational system as a threat to our national economy. They sell education for its ability to get one a better job, a better income—using educational attainment to income correlation data. Today, one virtually never hears mention of any other purpose for schools in the mainstream media or from government spokespeople.

Even if we accepted that schools should be about job training, the economic argument used by the government and media is mostly based on lies and false information. The claim of A Nation at Risk, (one that has constantly been repeated since) is that our mediocre schools are leading to our economic downfall. However, there is no causal link in developed countries between schooling and the health of the economy (such a cause-effect link does exist in developing countries that do not already have a basically educated population). If there were such a link, why didn’t we hear those same forces cheering what a great job our schools must have been doing when we had an economic boom in the 1990s? In fact, that would have been the work force that was in our public schools during the time to which A Nation at Risk referred. If this cause-effect relationship were correct, then our schools could not have been as bad as they claimed.

In fact, the relationship between schooling and the economy in developed countries is mostly non-existent, or the reverse of that claimed. To some extent, schools do respond to the job market. For example, in the early 1990s almost nobody studied computer technology in school. The early dot-commers were often self-educated in terms of technology. However, soon colleges and universities were establishing new programs in the computer sciences, quickly filling up with students. Then when the tech bust hit a decade later, the job market was flooded with these new graduates and the recently laid off workers.

However, for the most part, having an educated workforce neither creates nor destroys jobs. We now live in a global economy where such things have more to do with larger economic forces. Job loss in the U.S. has mostly been due to outsourcing, first of manufacturing jobs, and lately other technical and professional jobs as well. The driving competitive force is that people in certain countries will work for less, often much, much less. The way we can compete with them in a free market economy is to take lower wages, less benefits, and accept other reductions in workplace quality and safety, as well as lowering environmental protections. Having better educated people to compete for these jobs will not bring them back to the U.S.

The only area of the job market that is increasing (at least in numbers that are significant in terms of the size of the U.S. workforce) is in the service sector, jobs that actually require little in the way of schooling, and certainly not a college education. However, employers of such workers do want workers who are obedient, punctual and docile—just the sort of education that children in schools serving poor and minority children are receiving, even if they do get low test scores (WalMart, for instance, is one of the largest employers in the U.S.).

While getting a “good” education may make you, as an individual, in a better position to compete for what jobs do exist, there is no evidence that a better-educated population would in any way lead to job creation. If however, schools are just job training sites, then while it is clear that I want my child to get the best education possible, it is less clear why the “public” should care or even want good schools for all. This may be especially true if all children getting a good education means they might out-compete my child for those scarce good jobs! This promotion of schools as the pathway to better jobs makes the free market and student as consumer mentality for schooling more appealing. I need only concern myself with finding the best school for my child at a price I can afford.

However, thinkers as different as John Dewey and Horace Mann from the early days of public education, to more recent thinkers as disparate as Deborah Meier, Ted Sizer, Diane Ravitch and E.D. Hirsch, have all argued that what and how children are taught at school matters for the survival of a democratic society, not just solely for how well trained for the workforce the students will be. Schools are the place where children move from the private sphere of the family to the public sphere of the larger society. It is the habits and knowledge formed and developed in these public institutions that in part frame students’ understanding of their larger place in society. When public schooling is about preparing students to be citizens for a democratic society, then clearly we all have a stake in what it means to be an educated citizen, in what habits and understandings are promoted there, in what knowledge is imparted there.

Another connected strand to this attack on public education is an attack on unions. We have lost a large segment of our skilled workforce to other countries, and we have had several Federal administrations unfriendly to organized labor. Due to these forces, the U.S. (once the leader in organized labor) now has among the lowest percentage of unionized workers compared to any other democratic industrialized nation. However, the one place where organized labor is still strong is in the public sector. The attack on public school is part of an attack of that last bastion of organized labor, the last place where workers can speak in a unified manner as a counterpoint to the powerful voices of corporate interests.

More and more, teachers and their unions are being blamed for the supposed failure of our public school system. It is brought out in a way that connects to the general public’s emotions and immediate experience. There is a lot of current fanfare in the media that incompetent teachers are hard to fire and teachers unions block reforms (both claims central to the premise of the movie “Waiting for Superman” for instance) Do they provide evidence? Very little. An easy way to check the validity of their claim would be to compare non-union states to union states, as many states do not allow teachers to unionize. There is either no correlation or a positive correlation between states that have unions and academic success as measured by high school completion and test scores. In addition, most of the reforms that are touted as successful by the administration and think-tanks have taken place in cities with strong teachers unions.

While it may be true that it is not easy to fire poor teachers, no evidence is provided that too many poor teachers really is a major problem. Moreover, the principals I talk to all tell me that, while not being easy, they have always been able to get rid of the poor teachers they had. Is my sample of principals unrepresentative? Maybe—but then one could say that the problem is poor principals (though I hold them no more to blame than the teachers). When you make it easier to fire bad teachers, you also make it easier to fire the good ones as well. What “tenure” provides is not a guarantee of a job for life, but that the teacher cannot be fired without cause, and it puts the burden of proof for that cause on the employer. The question framed that way becomes, do we believe in due process? It is just such due process that teachers unions and the “tenure” process protect.

Charter schools and vouchers are currently the “reforms” of choice. Charter, private and parochial schools typically do not have teacher unions. These schools also bypass publicly elected school boards that oversee their vision, mission and curriculum. They often also exclude unionized or public employees for many other positions in schools—such as custodial and food services. The normal checks and balances of the democratic process are bypassed in the name of “efficiency” and the advantages of “market forces.” These forces see charter chains, and private forms of education, which answer to their own private boards, as competing for the students. Parents and children are merely consumers of this commodity, and the more effective and efficient schools will get a bigger market share. The only thing left that will be public is that it is the public’s money being used to pay for them.

This attack on the public nature of schools is in line with other current agendas of the free marketers—such as the privatization of Social Security and undermining public health care reforms. These are all part of a clear and premeditated mission to have this country run only by the dictates of the “free-market” economy (read as: run by trans-national corporations and financiers). Schooling is just one of these fronts.

The only thing that can stand in their way is a truly democratic citizenry that takes action and speaks out. That means you!

What is the Evidence?

Deborah Meier, in collaboration with her faculty at Central Park East Secondary School, developed five habits of mind that were at the heart of their school. One of those habits of mind was to ask “What is the evidence?”

I was rereading an article on Direct Instruction(1) that I have my teaching credential students read. The article ends with the claim that Direct Instruction, unlike discovery approaches to learning, has research evidence demonstrating its effectiveness. However, as educational reformer Deborah Meier keeps reminding us about such claims, we have to always ask what counts as evidence? How is achievement defined? Effective at what?

In educational research test score results almost always constitute the evidence, and more and more particularly, the scores on the standardized test mandated by each state to meet the rules of the No Child Left Behind legislation.

However, we must look at all the assumptions that are built into using such test scores as evidence of learning. The assumption that test scores are meaningful and accurate has been one that is questioned by many educational experts (see, for example, Alfie Kohn’s The Case against Standardized Testing(2), or the FairTest website for more in depth information on this topic).

CausationOne assumption is that such tests actually test what they claim to test. If what we really want to know is how people can use a skill in an authentic situation, how close to that performance are their results on a multiple choice paper and pencil test? Can you imagine if we only used the written test to decide whether someone could drive? When researchers have looked how people do at using math algorithms in school, and then how they try to solve real problems that require the same math in their daily lives, they see little connection between to the two.

Even in something that seems as basic as reading, where one does read in the test and then answer questions about it, researchers have found that often the reason students get the answer right or wrong has as much to do with their prior knowledge and cultural assumptions about the content as it does about being able to read the passage(3). And often, in the case of so called reading tests, it is not reading at all that is tested, but what are called reading subskills, which are believed by some to be precursors to skilled reading, such as recognizing certain sound or spelling patterns. However, doing well on such subskills has not been shown to be connected to comprehension of what one reads (see my article on Reading First for more on this(4)). Typical standard reading tests also test other aspects of knowledge of language, such as recognizing synonyms and homonyms. While these and others may be a good terms to understand, does knowing the terms make one a better reader, or just more knowledgeable about linguistics?

The next major assumption I want to challenge is that short term results on such tests predict long term results. This is often not the case. If early learning is speeded up in order to improve short term test results, it can result in leaving students with a shaky foundation, therefore actually leading to poorer long term results. There is a parallel in business. When financial institutions and businesses go for short term profits to please stockholders, it is often at the risk of the long term stability and interest of the company, as we have seen with our recent economic collapse. In math, teaching the rote memorization of algorithms may help students pass the next test, where each problem is presented just as you taught it, but then in the following years, without a foundation in the concepts that underlie those algorithms, such students’ abilities to understand more complex concepts and solve the more complex problems that go with those concepts will not be there, and their scores will collapse like a house of cards. This sort of short-sightedness exists in many areas of the curriculum, especially when there are large pressures to get those short term results.

Another aspect I want to challenge is whether the possible side effects have been looked at. When pharmaceutical companies tests new drugs, they are required to not just look at whether the drug cures the ailment, but also what are the possible side effects on other aspects of health. This never seems to be done in educational research. In the pursuit of raising test scores, might the new methods create other problems? We act as if the child is made up of discrete skills and knowledge, each of which can be taught and measured separately, without an effect on anything else, rather than looking at the child as a whole being. For instance, are we increasing obesity, as schools cut out recess and other activities in which students are more active to spend more time studying the tested subjects?

Even in terms of the activity we are testing, might the way we teach have an effect not just on how well one does it, but whether one wants to do it? Stephen Krashen pointed out in his book on whole language(5) that studies comparing free reading time to direct instruction of reading found the test scores were similar. However, which is more likely to lead to a love of reading—students who get to choose what they read, or those who read decontextualized texts over which they no say, and then get tested regularly on those passages? Yet, this love and desire to read is not assessed.

The last assumption I want to examine is that what we are testing is what matters most. No one questions that students should be able to read, write and do arithmetic. But if you ask parents and teachers what they mean by a well educated person, and what they want their children to get out of school, these generally are not the first ones they mention. How does the students treat others? How motivated are they for further learning? Do they like school? Do they have empathy for others? Are they likely to be civic minded and civically active?

Others questions we might ask are: how persistent is a student in the face of difficult tasks? What is their ability to put together knowledge and abilities from a variety of areas and use them in novel ways? Can they express their ideas effectively? Do they listen to the ideas of others? How and what we teach can and does have effects on these as well. There are many others each of us might think are equally or more important. Yet, these almost never get asked or taken seriously in educational research, particularity not the research that is used for policy. The very question of what is most important to assess is not even asked.

There have been a few exceptions to this trend. In the area of progressive education, for instance, I can name several. In the 1930s, there was the Eight Year Study(6) which matched students who went to high schools implementing progressive methodologies to those in traditional high schools, and then followed them through college. This study looked at a wide variety of definitions of success, finding that those who attended the more progressive schools showed better results.

David Bensman did a study of the progressive Central Park East schools, (a group of public schools in New York City serving predominantly low income African-American and Latino students) that looked not just at the test scores, but looked at college, employment, civic involvement and their impressions of the impact of the school in their lives(7). He also found that these students did much better than their counterparts who went to neighboring schools.

A friend just sent me a recent master’s thesis on the Peninsula School, a progressive independent k-6 school, comparing the graduates in regards to their high school achievement to a random sample of their high school classmates who had gone to other elementary schools—finding the students at the progressive school did better academically. Not only that, but the study also found they had better attitudes toward school and their learning experiences(8).

A study done on types of programs for second language learners, while not going beyond test scores, was at least longitudinal, using a very large sample and following students throughout the grades, found that programs that used more of the primary language, and those that used methodologies where language was taught in context embedded ways, had better results(9). This despite the fact that in the early grades the students with more English instruction and less primary language did better. Short term results were negatively correlated with long term results in this case.

Whenever someone says that the evidence proved that a certain method is better, one must ask, what is that evidence? Did the assessment really match your definition of what it means to be able to do or know that? Were the results short or long term, and if short term, what is the evidence that these short term results will add up to long term success? Also, it is important to ask what are the effects on other aspects of learning or the life of the student. And most importantly, are they assessing what really matters?


1. Tarver, Sarah G. “Direct Instruction: Teaching for Generalization, Application and Integration of Knowledge.” Learning Disabilities 10, no. 4 (2000): 201-07.

2. Kohn, Alfie. The Case against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2000.

3. Meier, Deborah. “Why Reading Tests Don’t Test Reading.” Dissent, Fall 1981, http://deborahmeier.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/1981_whyreading.pdf. 457-66; and Meier, Deborah “The Fatal Defects of Reading Tests.” In The Open Classroom Reader, edited by Charles Silberman. New York: Random House, 1973.

4. Meier, Nicholas. “Reading First.” Critical Literacy 3, no. 2 (2009): 69-83. http://www.criticalliteracyjournal.org

5. Krashen, Stephen D. Three Arguments against Whole Language & Why They Are Wrong: Heinemann, 1999.

6. Aiken, Wilford M. The Story of the Eight-Year Study. New York: Harper and Row, 1942.

7. Bensman, David. Central Park East and Its Graduates: Learning by Heart. New York: Teachers College Press, 2000.

8. Dinwiddie, James, and Anne M. Young. “Comparative Outcomes for Progressive School and Non-Progressives School Students.” Maasters Thesis, San Jose State University, 2010.

9. Thomas, Wayne, and Virginia Collier. “School Effectiveness for Language Minority Students.” 97. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education, 1997. http://www.escholarship.org/uc/item/65j213pt