The School Standards Debate: Time for Tech To Weigh In

School kids (Photo c Monkey Business-Fotolia


Tech people are very fond of whining about the U.S. educational system, complaining that it is not producing the sort of workers they need. With a few notable exceptions–Bill and Melinda Gates and Dean Kamen come quickly to mind–the are much less good when it comes to doing anything about the problems of schools.

OK, here’s your chance. It won’t even cost you anything–calls for better education seem to die quickly in places like Silicon Valley when the talk turns to taxes–except some leadership.

The Common Core State Standards are the most important school reform to come along in many years. The standards fo mathematics and language arts lay out what we expect students to learn, year by year, from kindergarten through high school. They are not a curriculum, but a set of mileposts for what curriculum should cover, and they inject a badly needed dose of rigor into education. If you have any interest in K-12 education, you should take the time to read them here.

dear_industryDespite a studied effort by their authors and sponsors at the National Governors’ Association and Council of Chief State School Officers to avoid political pitfalls, the standards have come under increasing attack from both the left and right. CCSS was initially adopted by 48 states and the District of Columbia, but three states have withdrawn their support and their is pressure in many others to do the same.

On the left, opposition to CCSS is closely tied to opposition to standardized testing, based on the assumptions, not necessarily warranted, that the standards will lead to increased testing. The anti-testing advocacy group FiarTest argues:

More grades will be tested, with more testing per grade. [No Child Left Behind] triggered an unprecedented testing explosion (Guisbond, et al., 2012). The Common Core will compound the problem….

Lured by federal funds, states agreed to buy “pigs in a poke.” The new tests do not yet exist except for a few carefully selected sample items, so it is not possible to judge their quality. Nevertheless, states are committing large sums of taxpayer money for the equivalent of “vaporware”—much hype, little substance. New drugs must be carefully tested before release lest they do more harm than good. Yet, these new measures are being pushed through with at most one year of trials. There’s no guarantee that they will function as advertised and many reasons to believe they will not.

The argument that more study is needed is especially pernicious. CCSS has been in development for more than a decade and, unlike the radical math and science curriculum reforms of the early 1960s (remember New Math?), the new standards are mostly a compilation of best practices already in use. Then there’s the obvious paradox of demanding more evaluation while opposing the testing the could provide the data. (The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, which oppose the use of standardized tests to assess teacher performance, both are on the record in support of CCSS.)

But the truly fevered opposition to CCSS is coming from the right, and this is what is threatening implementation in the states, largely through interference by state legislatures. The main objection, despite evidence to the contrary, is that CCSS represents a federal takeover of local education. Then there’s the complaint that CCSS is both untested and that the government is trying too hard to test it. Tiffany Gabbay, writing on the conservative site The Blaze, syas:

According to the conservative think tank American Principles Project, Common Core’s technological project is “merely one part of a much broader plan by the federal government to track individuals from birth through their participation in the workforce.” As columnist and author Michelle Malkin has pointed out, the 2009 stimulus package included a “State Fiscal Stabilization Fund” to provide states incentives to construct “longitudinal data systems (LDS) to collect data on public-school students.”

With attacks, often ill-informed (or completely uninformed; many of the people attacking CCSS show no sign of any knowledge of what they contain) coming from all sides, CCSS could use some friends, and I think its time for the tech industry to step up. I am much more familiar with the math standards than language arts, both because it is my area of interest and because by the nature of the beast, the language arts standards or vaguer and harder to interpret. The math standards, if properly implemented, would represent a huge step forward. They aim both at increased computational skills, largely deprecated in the standards in use for the past 25 years, and deeper understanding of the connectedness of critical topics in mathematics. Curriculum based on these standards should produce students better able both to do math and to think more deeply and critically.

This is exactly what tech companies is looking for in its future labor force. So instead of complaining about the deficiencies of American students, get out there and work for some constructive change.