A fundamental lack of agreement concerning the means and ends of public schooling is the basic reality that has troubled, presently troubles and will continue to trouble every serious national school improvement effort. The only way to generate broad national consensus is by formulating goals that are so vague as to be practically useless.
This even applies to goal setting at the local level. Google search a sample of school district mission statements and see for your self. Most consist entirely of happy talk and buzz words. It is in this way that a broad, but mud puddle shallow, consensus is maintained. But if we press for details, the broad consensus invariably disappears.
At first it looked as if the “Common Core,” which focuses on “core skills” and is supposed to promote “real understanding,” was the exception. It appeared to enjoy wide public support. Forty-six states initially joined in. But the latest PDK/Gallup poll of the public’s attitude toward public education shows that as people learn more about the “Common Core,” their support vanishes.
The early absence of public opposition was apparently born of ignorance. A year ago two thirds of those polled said they hadn’t even heard of these standards. Now more than three-quarters have heard of them; and 60% of those surveyed don’t like what they heard.
This isn’t the first time public support for national education standards have evaporated. Two decades ago President Clinton urged standards-based school reform; and Congress responded by passing the Educate America Act. It featured wildly ambitious, although vague and sloganistic, goals. One objective, for instance, was that by the year 2000 every child was would enter school ready to learn. Other goals were that: U.S. students would be first in the world in mathematics and science; every school would be free of drugs, violence unauthorized firearms and alcohol; and every school will offer a disciplined environment conducive to learning.
Who wouldn’t welcome such utopian, if vague, outcomes? But experienced educators could only wonder what Congress had been smoking when they passed such a law, because it certainly could never be realized. But before their unachievable goals went up in flames, Congress wisely backed off, deemphasized standards, and substituted a loosely linked string of projects and computer purchases.
Then, in 2002, came No Child Left Behind. Here again, Congress attempted to set national standards. But they dodged the consensus bullet by defining key standards so vaguely that it gave states lots of wriggle room. For instance, states are required to employ only “highly qualified” teachers and set “one high, challenging standard” for every student. But each state is permitted to establish its own definitions of these terms.
The wimpy result was utterly predictable. With few exceptions, state officials did their level best to adopt definitions that suited their existing circumstances. With the shameless aid of President Obama, for instance, California officials circumvented a federal court ruling and straight facedly declared novice interns “highly qualified” teachers — which is the logical equivalent of declaring black, white. Why do this? They are unwilling or unable to make teaching in California’s educational Calcutta’s sufficiently attractive to draw and retain teachers who actually are ”highly qualified.”
No Child Left Behind also requires schools receiving Title I funding (based on the number of impoverished kids enrolled) to make “adequate yearly progress.” But here they made the mistake made in writing the Educate America Act: namely, instituting impossible requirements. In this case they prescribed that all students must reach 100% proficiency in grade level math and reading by 2014, under penalty of mandatory intervention. Well, 2014 is here, and the patent ridiculousness of this goal now is obvious to all. Or perhaps I should say, obvious to all but the most incorrigible Pollyanna’s. Of course, any competent educator could have told them this demand was preposterous — had they condescended to ask.
Predictably, these would-be reformers are now confronted with a long and rapidly growing list of abject failures to meet NCLB’s requirements What should be done? Well the feds certainly cannot intervene as the law prescribes. The disruption would be epic. So, the practical “solution” is to grant waiver after waiver. In fact, since February of 2012, 43 states and the District of Columbia have been granted waivers. In fact, NCLB might eventually be washed away by a tsunami of waivers that were necessitated by the law’s unrealizable requirements.
Federal politicians, past and present, claim that they build wiggle room, discretion and definitional laxity into their educational goal setting to avoid excessive federal oversight. But tightly defined national standards would, in fact, be political suicide. Why? Because their formulation collides head-on with the fundamental reality that Americans cannot agree on what the nation’s school kids should know or be able to do — or, for that matter, how they should learn it.
What is to be done? Well, to avoid the consensus problem, “leadership” will continue to concoct vague goals. This strategy pushes more and more actual decision-making onto frontline educators. The closer one gets to actual classroom practice, the more counterproductive vague goals are. When it’s time to actually teach somebody something, you can’t feed that bulldog bullshit. Real decisions have to be made. That's why the motto that Harry Truman displayed on his presidential desk fits every frontline educator: "THE BUCK STOPS HERE!" Of course, where the buck stops, so does the blame.
For examples and to examine these issues further, see The Nature of Consensus)