Thursday, July 22, 2010

Pols and Media confuse the public on new education standards

Question 1: What has shed more heat than light? Select from: a) Massachusetts politicians b) Massachusetts media c) the public debate about replacing Massachusetts testing standards with new national ones. Answer: all of the above.

Massachusetts’ education standards and testing achievements, first adopted in the Education Reform Act of 1993, have helped place the Commonwealth at the top nationally in education achievement. Not surprising then that the recent move to newly adopted national “Common Core” standards in English and math seemed like a classic case of “if it ain’t broke, mess with it anyway.” Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker sped to Beacon Hill to argue it would be a big mistake. Independent candidate Tim Cahill decried that “the Patrick administration has decided to put Washington ahead of our children and the future of our state.”

The Boston Herald warned that “Massachusetts public schools, the nation’s best, will be unacceptably dumbed down.” By contrast, the Boston Globe praised the new standards for emulating standards in Singapore, Korea and other countries that do well in science and technology.

WCVB-TV Channel 5’s report noted that Republican Senator Richard Tisei wants Attorney General Martha Coakley to check Gov. Deval Patrick's e-mails to determine if there's any connection between the proposed change in policy and the Massachusetts Teachers Association's decision to endorse Patrick for re-election. To its credit, Fox25 did a thoughtful nearly-five-minute interview with Boston School Superintendent Carol Johnson that explored the topic in a balance way. It doesn’t seem to have been the norm.

For some, the move has been praised because moving to the national standards will make Massachusetts eligible for millions of federal “Race to the Top” dollars. For others, including Globe columnist Joan Venocchi, we are selling our kids to the highest bidder. It has all been very confusing.

What’s been nearly lost in all the rhetoric is a presentation of what specifically the federal and state standards are and what they’re designed to achieve. In other words, coverage of the issues has been all about the histrionics and little about the history, math, reading and science.

The MA Board of Education web site  asserts that “The Common Core Standards will continue to be assessed through the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), ensuring that all Massachusetts students continue to achieve at the highest levels in the nation and preparing them to succeed in the global economy.” So does that mean that MCAS isn’t going away? As Ed Board Chair Maura Banta explained to me in a telephone interview, there will still be MCAS to measure the success of the standards. MCAS changes every year anyway and will now be the vehicle for assessing the Common Core standards, 90% of which are based upon Massachusetts standards anyway.

States are free to deviate from Common Core standards up for 15 percent, so our autonomy shouldn’t be an issue. Furthermore, Massachusetts educators have had input into the national standards for more than a year. Banta said the state will continue its involvement in an effort to see that what is unique to Massachusetts is incorporated into the federal standards.

Unfortunately, scouring the media has yielded only the most minimal explanations that the national math standards will include more on statistics, and the new English standards will lean more toward expository writing and informational text reading than fiction reading and creative writing. Banta said that reading literature won’t go away. She added that, in math, the idea is to lay the groundwork of math literacy before rote learning of multiplication tables, for example.

Support for the change from the Mass. Business Alliance for Education, the group that pushed for the original ed reform act, under the leadership of the late Jack Rennie, is somewhat reassuring, as is the support from other business groups that most need a highly educated workforce. So too is Banta’s insistence that, “No way would we sell our own standards short. The Core Standards are at least as good and, in some places, superior to what we have now.” And, she adds, “If you don’t look at what you’re doing and ask how to make it better, you risk becoming irrelevant.”

The school districts will have two years to align their curricula to the new standards. But wouldn’t it be nice if the media and politicians had provided the public less bloviation and more specifics that answer the questions: What do our kids need to know, and what are they being taught?

- Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.


  1. I'm surprised, Marjorie, that you believe the battle over standards is simply about educational policy. It's about so much more, and so much more fun!

    The state standards, whatever their worth as educational tools, are a competitive advantage. When they were introduced, they were supposed to provide a floor, a basic level of performance for poor urban school districts, and a way to fire teachers and principals in those districts. The surprise has been the effort on the part of suburban districts to win the MCAS arms race. So why give up what they have worked hard for?

    Educationally, the changes in English standards take the most damaging effect of the MCAS and make them worse. The MCAS relies on a reporting of facts, a straightforward presentation of evidence. But convincing writing does not depend on a simple presentation of evidence. In fact sophistry and style is much more important. My daughters' high school is consistently near the top in the English MCAS, however the students struggle to write decent essays.

  2. The current Massachusetts standards are "a competitive advantage" (per Eric) if they are better, and remain better, than national standards not only in the abstract but in application. A large part of the opposition to adopting national standards, on the part of teachers and right-wingers alike, is based on fear of change - but if we won't change we will be surpassed (as has happened before). Some of the support for national standards is based on the notion that economies of scale will permit developments of better, and yearly, assessments, which will make standards-based reform more effective in terms of supporting student learning and assessing teacher performance.

  3. I agree that resistance to change is typically part of institutional reaction. Witness the longtime critics of MCAS who now are opposed to tampering with it. My criticism of the whole debate is that the public has received precious little information about what's being taught and how well it is being measured. The debate has been posturing on both sides. And, by the way, show me the student with facility in grammar and spelling and the discipline to research and develop a cogent argument, and I'll show you a student who is learning something in language arts.