Faith-Based Education Reform: Common Core as Standards-and-Testing Redux

Let’s start with irony:

Compelling research suggests that the public in the U.S. is unique in its commitment to belief, often at the expense of evidence—leading me to identify the U.S. as a belief culture.

Additionally, while I remain convinced that the U.S. is a belief culture, I also argue that, below, the political cartoon posted at Truthout captures another important dynamic: Many committed to their own beliefs both do not recognize that they are committed to belief and belittle others for being committed to their beliefs:

And this brings me to advocacy for Common Core standards, with one additional point: Along with embracing belief over evidence, the public (along with political leadership) in the U.S. tends to lack historical context.

Placed in the century-plus commitment to pursuing new and supposedly higher standards for public schools, then, Common Core advocacy falls into only two possible characterizations:

  1. Common Core is a response to the historical failure of all the many standards movements that have come before, and thus, the success of CC depends on CC being somehow a different and better implementation of an accountability/standards/testing paradigm.
  2. CC advocacy is yet another example of finding oneself in a hole and persisting with digging despite evidence to the contrary. In other words, CC may well be yet another commitment to a reform paradigm that isn’t appropriate regardless of how it is implemented, as John Thompson details in his review of The Allure of Order:

Jal Mehta’s masterpiece, The Allure of Order, answers the question, “Why have American [school] reformers repeatedly invested such high hopes in these instruments of control despite their track record of mixed results?” He starts with the review of how the bloom fell off the NCLB rose, explaining why its results in the toughest schools have been “miserable.” In the highest poverty schools the predictable result has been “rampant teaching to the test” which has robbed children of the opportunity to be taught in an engaging manner.

Mehta explains that this “outcome might have been surprising if it were the first time policymakers tried to use standards, tests, and accountability to remake schooling from above.” The contemporary test-driven reform movement is the third time that reformers have used the “alluring but ultimately failing brew” of top down accountability to “rationalize” schools and, again, they failed [emphasis added].

These two claims are themselves evidence-based (and it will be interesting to watch as others respond, as they have to my previous work on CC, by either ignoring evidence or garbling evidence to support what proves to be faith-based commitments to CC), and thus should provide a foundation upon which to continue the debate about CC.

CC advocacy and criticism are often based on false narratives and baseless claims (seeAnthony Cody for one example of this problem and Ken Libby‘s [@kenmlibby] cataloguing on Twitter #corespiracy)—again reinforcing the pervasive and corrosive consequences of faith-based, but not evidence-based debates.

Instead, we should start with an evidence-based recognition about standards-driven education reform.

For example, the existence and/or quality of standards are not positively correlated with NAEP or international benchmark test data—leading Mathis (2012) to conclude about CC: “As the absence or presence of rigorous or national standards says nothing about equity, educational quality, or the provision of adequate educational services, there is no reason to expect CCSS or any other standards initiative to be an effective educational reform by itself [emphasis in original]” (p. 2 of 5).

Therefore, CC advocacy has some principles within which it should continue if that advocacy is to be credible and thus effective:

  • Claims that CC advocacy is separate (and can be separated) from high-stakes testing must show evidence of when standards have been implemented without high-stakes tests (and how that was effective) or evidence of some state implementing CC without high-stakes tests connected. Otherwise, this is a faith-based claim.
  • Claims that accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing is an effective education reform strategy must show evidence of how that has worked in the previous state-based accountability era and then explain why those examples of success must now be replaced by the new CC set of standards. Otherwise, this is a faith-based claim.
  • CC advocacy has been endorsed as a logical next step built on the call in NCLB for scientifically based education reform; thus, CC advocates must either comply with the two points above or concede that the CC era is a break from evidence-based reform.

I am no advocate for remaining only within rational, evidence-based, and quantifiable norms for decision making, by the way, but I am convinced we must make clear distinctions between evidence and belief—and I am equally convinced that many education reformers enjoy a flawed freedom to call for evidence from their detractors while practicing faith-based reform themselves.

It is the hypocrisy that bothers me, the hypocrisy of power:

Let’s acknowledge that teachers currently work under the demand of measurable evidence of their impact on students while CC advocates impose faith-based policies such as CC, new generation high-stakes testing, merit pay, charter schools, value-added methods of teacher evaluation, and a growing list of commitments to education reform at least challenged if not refuted by evidence.

CC advocates now bear the burden of either offering the evidence identified above or admitting they are practicing faith-based education reform.