Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Crony Capitalism of Common Core

When people talk about having standards, it’s with the shared assumption that standards are a “good thing.”  When we talk about minimum standard for something, we’re talking about a baseline, below which is considered unacceptable.  When we use the phrase  “a standard of excellence” we associate the word standard with an ideal that we should all strive for.

It’s not accidental then that the Federal government, in a well intentioned attempt to direct the path of education in the country, used that word to introduce the Common Core State Standards.   Common Core is a set of standards for elementary and secondary education that are meant to provide a guide to educators and parents as to what should be taught in schools.

According to the Common Core website,

“Building on the excellent foundation of standards states have laid, the Common Core State Standards are the first step in providing our young people with a high-quality education. It should be clear to every student, parent, and teacher what the standards of success are in every school.”

The statement alone makes it clear that the goal is to provide young people with a high quality education.  And this is a laudable goal.  Who would not want to provide students with a quality education?  When is anyone ever against education?  Education is another word, much like “standards” that has become loaded.

In America, we are the greatest bastion of capitalism -- and that’s a good thing.  We use market forces to drive many of the decisions in our economy.  We understand the benefits and efficiencies of “economies of scale.”  We understand that if you buy a truckload full of pencils, you get a better price per pencil than if you are just buying one.

Taken to the extreme, we see Wal-Mart as a model of efficiency.  They have a database that connects every warehouse to every cash register.  Every day they analyze what sold in a store and based on sales and inventory they send price adjustments to the store to move things that they need to sell, and they send trucks to replace the items that the store is running low on.  Managers don’t order what they need -- they open the trucks from the warehouse and find exactly what they need in them.

It’s a model of efficiency, and it has made Wal-Mart the most successful retailer in the history of money.  Yet inspite of this success, when Wal-Mart comes to a town it is often faced with opposition from locals who know that Wal-Mart can sell bread cheaper than the local baker.  Wal-Mart can sell paint cheaper than the local hardware store.  Wal-Mart can sell clothes cheaper than they local dress shop.  All these businesses will be forced to adapt to a Wal-Mart in their midst.  And as a result, some may have to change the way they do business.  Some will be forced to lower their standards to provide a cheaper product.

And in business, that’s an appropriate adjustment to make.  

Mark Twain famously wrote “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.”  Education has become BIG business here in the United States.  We have a Higher Education industry fueled by government loans that has been increasing tuition and profits steadily.  According the Department of Education the average cost of a 4 year degree has doubled over the last 10 years.

And Elementary and Secondary education are no different.  Textbook contracts are worth millions.  School spending is typically are HALF of a city’s budget.  Massachusetts spends ~$14,000 per student per year.  It would be a huge boon to business to be able to apply economies of scale to that money.  The Wal-Marts of education are champing at the bit for the application a single purchasing directive to schools.

But Walmart clothing, though cheap and sufficient, is meant for for the lowest common denominator.  And it’s not built to a standard of quality, but to a standard of immediacy.  While consumers are welcome to satisfy immediate needs, when paying for our childrens’ education we should be concerned with quality.

And as economies of scale take over, smaller competitors are driven out of the market.  There are currently THOUSANDS of small businesses that facilitate educational advancements (full disclosure, I work for one).  The plethora of options benefits school systems in that they are able to chose a system that fits them well, and then frequently is custom tailored to their specific needs.  The adoption of common core by most states threatens the ability of individual states to customize their education system.

Oversight from the Federal level is abstracted.  Oversight in your own neighborhood in personal.  What has made education work in the United States is the idea that a local School System has a better idea of what its population needs.  In Massachusetts, where 83% of graduating seniors take the SATs focus on college preparation makes a tremendous amount of sense.  In Illinois, where 5% of graduating seniors take the SAT, they might determine that more vocational training is a better implementation.

“The Common Core is about raising the bottom half,” says Common Core Development Team member Mark Bauerlein. “One problem is the broader issue of trying to equalize school situations. We need to do so, but we will never equalize home situations.”

I would argue that if this were true, there would be no need for standards for the states that are currently excelling.  Why then is there pressure on Massachusetts to adopt standards that are less than the current state standards?  If the standards are so good, why wouldn’t states voluntarily choose to adopt them?  Why the pressure for the Federal government?  The Race to the Top initiative awarded more than $4 billion in federal grants to 19 states that demonstrated a commitment to education reform and innovation. Race to the Top applicants who agreed to adopt the Common Core standards had points added to their score.

So the Federal government is collecting $5b in taxes from the people to return $4b (I’m assuming 20% waste as the money passes through the bureaucracy).  This coercion is subtle, but key to the way Federal oversight worms its way into local issues.

A school system that operates locally and is responsive to the parents operates best.  Absolving localities of responsibility for curriculum by presenting them with a “common core” will be detrimental to the quality of many local school systems.  Undoubtedly there are school systems for whom Common Core will be beneficial.  In states like Mississippi the emphasis on communication skills and math will certainly benefit many student.

But the fact that a curriculum will benefit some students -- even MOST students, does not mean it should be required.  And while common core adoption is not forced upon school districts, they are now disadvantaged in their ability to get Race To The Top money.  And as common core text books come out, the financial pressure to buy the cheapest books will also mount.  

Common core is an attempt to apply economies of scale to education.  Small business that cater to their customers are vanishing before the expansions of the megastores.  While we gain cheap products, we lose quality craftsmanship.  Is this the direction we want elementary and secondary education to take?

1 comment :

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