Reading & Reacting: Does Standardization Serve Students? Or is Common Core a Dead End?

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cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by arbyreed

By Anthony Cody @ EdWeek‘s Living in Dialogue blog

In the last few months I have become a genuine fan of Anthony Cody, who has really been on an inspired roll of late. Column after column, he has been has been highlighting hypocrisy and speaking some truth to power.

In this recent post, Cody marshals a number of sources that build on the ever-strengthening case that there is an assault underway against public education. While he has been hammering the Common Core, with good reason, the rotten Core is merely a symptom of a broader, more virulent disease.

One of the undercurrents fueling concerns about the Common Core is the relentless focus on preparation for “college and career.” Education has always had dual aspirations – to elevate mind and spirit, through the investigation of big ideas, and the pursuit of fine arts and literature, and the service of the economic needs of individuals and society. What we are feeling in our modern culture is the absolute hegemony of commercial aims, as if every activity that does not produce profit is under assault.

Of course this commercial hegemony has been gaining ground for decades. As each generation of the last forty or so years has come of age with the implicit than explicit expectation that a university degree is a requirement for life, higher education prices have been riding that high enrollment and raising prices.

It only stands to reason that working class parents, with dreams and aspirations of their children being better educated and more successful than they were, would start to question the return on a humanities degree that comes with sizable student debt and no immediately obvious application in the workforce. To keep the enrollment high and money rolling in colleges and universities adapted and minted degrees in new domains with the promise of employability.

Cody references some striking resources as he makes a case against the dehumanizing qualities of standardization. Referencing a remarkably erudite commentary by Professor Patrick Deenan, who explains, “A wholly utilitarian mindset now informs our basic approach to education,” Cody is reminded of past political protests. He cites Mario Savio’s 1964 condemnation of “the machine” and rally for resistance, “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part!” The implication is obvious, a new machine may need stopping.

Continuing by referencing the surge in ADHD diagnoses that coincides with the college and university trends previously mentioned, Cody further raises suspicions. Provocatively, he argues, “Our education system, in attempting to make everyone fit the same standardized mold, so as to be of maximum usefulness to future employers, is medicating those who don’t fit the mold.” The numbers help him make a pretty compelling argument. I only wish that the one out of ten of school-age children being diagnosed revealed the percentage that were boys.

All of these factors contribute to wider effort of standardizing students and marginalizing those that fail to fit. The Common Core looks as though it will only exacerbate this endeavor and further exploit the differences between those who have and those who do not, labeling the latter as failures.

In practice what this is likely to yield is an intensification of factory-style education for these low-scoring populations. Students who perform well may be somewhat relieved of this, but those in the low-scoring schools and social classes will get ever an more prescriptive curriculum, closely aligned with the tests.

There is the legacy of No Child Left Behind to substantiate these claims. Yet, I would submit that there may well be no escape for students, regardless of performance. Working at one of the top-rated high schools in the nation’s top-rated state in the nation no longer provides relief to teachers or students. The pressure for increased uniformity and alignment with tests, both current and coming, continues to grow an encompass top public schools too.

Cody alludes to a growing number of parents, students and educators that may escalate opt-out efforts. Yet, I wonder if the numbers are growing fast enough to reach a level that demands to be noticed or if they can simply be dismissed as a fringe, further marginalizing any efforts at resistance.

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