Students as Political Pawns

In the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), American 15-year olds did not improve their scores. Since 2000, the US science and reading scores have ranked average among the other 64 PISA nations, but the math scores were much lower.  Some cynically spin this to mean that since the US has higher economic success than high-scoring PISA nations, math, reading and science must be of little relevance. Pushing this deceit even further, they ascribe our economic success not to ability in reading and math, but to individuality, creativity and enthusiasm, i.e., factors not measured in PISA tests.

In each country, there are relatively few jobs for outstanding technical wizards, athletes, business leaders and artists who don’t starve. They may exhibit remarkable individuality, creativity, and enthusiasm, but they are very few in number.  The vast majority of us have jobs requiring technical skills (medical, coding, scientific or mathematical analysis) or requiring clerical interactions with keyboard, screens, and telephones.  The technical and clerical jobs require agile reading and composition abilities and many require familiarity with high school algebra.

When US students perform below those of our trading partners, we are losing to economic competitors and we will eventually lose the jobs. That is precisely what has happened over the past few decades.  The migration of jobs offshore has stunted income and employment opportunities for Americans.  Too many of the current jobs are un-exportable, menial service jobs.  Even well-paying jobs in science, technical and math-based work have been leaving the U.S.  Beyond employment, high school graduates need reading and math skills to continue into college-level education and to perform their civic duties competently.

Most of us have direct experience of our K-12 schools’ failure in the form of retail clerks who bungle small transactions unless a computerized till guides them. Indeed, one in five high school graduates cannot read. While some states are better at math and reading, most states’ performance is poor. Aware of that failure, 41 states opted-in to Common Core, a standardized curriculum and testing regime chosen to cure systemic failure in math and reading.  Common Core math standards are not radical, they “are like earlier math reforms, only further refined and more ambitious.”

Since agreeing that a classroom fix was needed, two states have retreated partly because “the reforms have arrived without any good system for helping teachers learn to teach them.” Teacher ineptness is not a flaw that warrants tossing Common Core.  Teachers’ ineptness in teaching math is a chronic well-known problem that local school boards and teachers need to address regardless of what standard is adopted.

Some Common Core opponents focus on state’s rights, as if math in a federal program is inferior to math in a state program, or as if federal coordination of a state-run reading program forfeits state’s rights. While those opponents play their game of bray and delay, our children pass through school without acquiring adequate skills in reading and math.

The American Federation of Teachers has recently flipped its stance and is beginning to condemn Common Core. They have persuaded the U.S. Department of Education to delay requiring test scores as a factor in teacher assessment. Of course, Common Core test scores could document classroom failures in math and reading and that would be inconvenient evidence in unions’ lawsuits against student opposition to easy tenure policies.

Some parents protest “excessive standardized testing” and many are distressed by math homework that is too long and silly in content. Common Core does not require silly math homework – homework problem sets are of local schools’ choosing, and the silliness confirms that some are unready to teach math.

The real interests of our children are warped or entirely lost in the bizarre and self-absorbed positions of some interest groups. For many, schools are primarily about free daycare, unionized-teaching jobs, or about indoctrinating future party stalwarts.  If these perspectives dictate the fate of Common Core, children expecting schools and teachers to deliver a serviceable education are out of luck.

Alan Daley is a retired businessman who writes for The American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research