The political obsession with standards is setting up children for failure

Our students deserve more than politically attractive "Social Darwinism"
Our students deserve more than politically attractive “Social Darwinism”

This guest contribution was written by a veteran New Jersey educator who wishes to be known simply as “a counselor.” He works as a guidance counselor in a public high school and last wrote for this site on February 12, 2016.

In the current education debate, the solutions  proffered by politicians have some mighty (and dangerously wrong) assumptions.  Perhaps most insidious is the notion that the federal or state government can set “standards” that every school can and will meet, and that every student can and should meet them.

Let’s look at five random students in the hallway of my school.  There is that kid whose parent chose to have her stay in the public school instead of the easily affordable private alternative. She is a straight A student in our STEM program with 5’s in all the AP tests she could possibly take.  There is that kid who comes to school occasionally, always on the verge of self-harming and overcome with anxiety and depression.  There is a third child who only wants to hang out with her friends and party.  There is another who was last in school in 3rd grade and came to this country from Guatemala and lives with a distant relative who provides nothing more than a roof over his head.  Finally, a student with some learning disabilities whose aspiration is to succeed in cosmetology.

 The notion that there is one goal for each of them is not just absurd, it is ridiculous.

The second major assumption that is incredibly misguided is that one can combine learning objectives for students with assessment of students and teachers with the same tool.  The PARCC test is that tool.  Let’s deconstruct this.  We start with the Common Core.  The philosophical basis is a good one.  Let’s set some common goals across schools, across districts, across states.  It makes no sense that students in Arkansas are learning totally different things in US history or geometry than those in New Jersey.  And even less sense that Ms. Smith’s biology class  is learning different material with different levels of rigor than Mr. Jones’ class down the hall.  It is hard to argue against some common learning objectives and using common assessments to measure what is learned.  So far, so good.

It is here that things go astray.  Schools that use the Common Core as dogma, and many are, are doing a huge disservice to their students.  Many are throwing curriculum at teachers with no training, no filtering, no oversight and no thought given to what they want students to really learn.

In one school near me, they have students who were previously in a resource room with regular education students.  The teacher was teaching Progressivism.  The support teacher asked the students to define the Industrial Revolution.  They could spit that out.  She asked when Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire was, they could regurgitate it.  But when asked why they were learning this (or even what Progressivism was), there were blank stares.  There was no takeaway.  They learned enough to remember it for the “assessment” and move on.  The teacher, when asked to address this, said she had a mandate to “cover” the material and move on, the exact opposite of what the Common Core is supposed to encourage.

Our teaching of math and science is even worse.  For some of our students, it is necessary to develop the skills to become a future engineer or scientist.  For the rest of us, we are laboring through the trees with no forest.  I get counselors who ask all the time how they can get an unweighted GPA for a student.  My response:  the maximum GPA is 4.7 and you want to know what the student’s GPA is with a maximum of 4.0.  Do a ratio, the student’s GPA over 4.7 compared to the unweighted GPA (“x”) over 4.0.  They look at me like I was asking them to do advanced calculus.  All the counselors I have supervised have had a minimum of two years of high school algebra but they cannot do even the most basic and elementary algebra equation.

That is truly beside the point, though.  Our math education is less than useless, for it does not prepare students for the math most students need to know.  Andrew Hacker, author of The Math Myth and other STEM Delusions, wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed piece that, in his math class, “we talk about how math can help us us think about reorganizing the world around us that makes more sense,” concluding that “in the real world, we constantly settle for estimates whereas mathematics you get the answer precisely right.”  The same could be said for geometry, chemistry and the other myriad courses we are shoving down the throats of our students.

The standards movement is based on the assumption that every student should leave high school with the preparation to become a doctor, scientist or engineer–but why?  My former superintendent, when asked why we are not teaching the trades anymore in school, responded that “those jobs are gone.  Even a utility company lineman needs to know advanced math.”

Yes, we have lost many manufacturing jobs, but there are many jobs where this is not true.  We still need people to cut our hair, paint our houses, fix our plumbing, trim our trees, take care of our elderly parents.  These are respectable jobs that many of our students are well suited for.  We need to respect these students as much as we respect the future doctors and lawyers.

Students who do not want to attend or would not be well served by further education past high school, are being abandoned.

Many ELL students have language, education and financial deficits that make further schooling unrealistic right out of high school.  It is a moral imperative that these students leave high school with skills to be successful in the work force.  If a student chooses to be a landscaper, we should not only promote the skills needed to be successful in this endeavor, but also provide the skills needed to own a landscaping business and have others work for him.  We should be providing paths to students to earn certifications in high school for things like being a home health care aide or cosmetologist.

It is fine to evaluate, promote and recognize higher order thinking skills in our students.  Students, though, fall on a bell curve on their capacity to achieve these skills and to deny a high school diploma to those who cannot reach some arbitrary standard is not only misguided, it is cruel.

A high school diploma should not be tool of Social Darwinism to leave those students behind who were not fortunate to have the accident of birth provide them the tools to meet these standards. Until we address the economic circumstances that keep our students from reaching their potential, we are setting up a system where failure is predictable, even designed, for the most vulnerable of our students.  

We can, without great cost, communicate different levels of intellectual achievement by our students, as New York State does with the Regents Diploma.  You want to put PARCC scores on transcripts, allow for International Baccalaureate diplomas, or have multi-level diplomas that communicate a higher level of achievement, that is all fine.  It is also fine to expect a minimum level of skills in math and language arts that we expect all our high school graduates to attain.  But to keep raising the bar for all students ignores the vast differences children face, both in terms of the ambient learning  in their homes and the financial resources available to their families.

The hard work of education is providing oversight of teachers with constant feedback, training and mentoring.  It is designing programs that are flexible and creative enough to meet the needs of a wide variety of students.  It is creative enough to push the most talented of students to their limits while meeting the needs of those who need more support and guidance to achieve more modest goals.

The assumption that higher standards will automatically result in high achievement ignores the reality that creating a rich educational environment involves investment of time, energy and thought into creating and carrying out an education mission, not in setting up a one-size-fits-all approach that does little but punish those who learn differently and have different educational needs.

  1. Community colleges offer ESL programs to provide instruction to students wishing to improve their English proficiency.

  2. I’m wondering was “the assessment” for Progressivism/social studies for Student Growth Objectives? The CCSS are for ELA and math, not science or social studies. I was an American Civilization major (my grandmother saw the Triangle Shirt Factory Fire when she’d left work early) and I cannot imagine any reason to ask a student to memorize its date. A teacher could meaningfully point out the dates of NY labor laws that followed the fire.

  3. A Counselor,
    Thank you.
    I have read and enjoyed each of your posts. In this piece and in the previous post regarding unintended consequences, you offer insightful and, in my opinion, valid critiques of the solutions to issues that have confronted your schools and any number of others.

    But what if the solutions didn’t stand a chance right from the ‘get-go’?

    What if the problem doesn’t lie so much with the solutions themselves but in development of solutions that had to fail because we had misidentified the problem?

    What if the underrepresentation of children of color in the school’s honor society was not the problem, but a symptom of a larger problem?

    What if the cause of underachievement of students in our country’s schools is not the lack of sufficiently rigorous standards and connected large-scale assessments? 40 years of standards and such assessments accompanied by essentially flat NAEP scores might imply that either the solutions aren’t working or that these solutions aren’t addressing the root causes of the underachievement. Spending additional millions on this direction seems to benefit the assessment corporations far more than our students and teachers.

    In both cases, the implications are daunting. The questions are equally uncomfortable.

    What if, as the overwhelming volume of research indicates, the problem to be solved in not the ‘symptom’ of underrepresentation of children of color in the National Honor Society, but poverty and the conditions faced by those living in such poverty?

    What if the problem for which student underachievement in core areas serves as a symptom is actually that the structure of schools no longer matches the needs of our society and our learners?

    Here’s a novel and anger based suggestion. Why don’t we have the folks who give us catchy names like “No Child Left Behind”, “Race to the Top”, and the “Every Student Succeeds Act” spend a year teaching in Camden, Newark, Detroit, etc. and see if they still like their proposed solutions? Maybe we could declare ‘war on underachievement’. It worked quite well on poverty, drugs, and terrorism.

  4. PARCC is all about the subtext, and its prime subtext is all about the bargain for control. PARCC is as much or more about who will be denied as it is about who will be affirmed and allowed a decent share in their own lives. The magic of PARCC, despite what they sell you, is in its power to threaten.

    If you “successfully” internalize (at your own risk) the message of PARCC, then you are invited to:

    A) Bite hard on the test and (maybe) feel its meager sense of glory – or alternately, you may go lite and simply play along in order to secure your own official stamp of approval.


    B) Come up short (in any one of the ever-changing, capricious, and arbitrary ways that shuffle into each new monthly version of the official and retroactive PARCC bureaucratic edicts, like so many state-sponsored terroristic phantoms) and accept your place among the institutionally denied, also known as the vast and burgeoning underclass, where pay scales are desperately and systematically inadequate for a life within the dawning billionaire utopia.

    Oh, and let’s not forget the popularity of the less advertised “option C,” whereupon you or your loved ones refuse the thing in its entirety, because your place in society is, by some other traditionally recognized standard, reasonably assured. This option generally assumes you are not among the systematically disenfranchised, where PARCC-themed threats of excommunication tend to get the most traction. It may also indicate that you are simply not so easily threatened, despite the PARCC-inspired array of intimidating consequences marshaled across the educational horizon. Some are rumored and others openly declared, while many are simply implied.

    We should never lose sight of the fact that there is, was, and always will be a better way, and consider, very carefully, that PARCC might not be it.

    And bear in mind that when the sunk costs of PARCC have been sufficiently washed in pure profit, they’ll just load a new round into the chamber of red hot reform weapons.

    Under the specious banner of uniform standards and equality for all, PARCC has been designed and employed to accomplish something more akin to the opposite.

    PARCC also aims (and more directly) to speed the ceding of critical control of the (allegedly impractical and impracticable) ideologies and practices of public institutions to a narrow sector of inherently undemocratic interests, namely, the (in most cases) privately educated and therefore PARCC-free people who commissioned this latest iteration for the restructuring and management of the great American public schools adventure.

    PARCC is a Trojan Horse companion (and not the only one) to big box charter school companies. It’s a back door guarantee for when more glitzy and seductive reformers fail – as they are known to do — in their overt play to storm the main gates of public education.

    Like lead in the water, the subtext of PARCC and its regular ingestion will slowly poison and further diminish the people and institutions it claims to serve, rendering them defenseless to a feigned magnanimous takeover at the hands of carefully orchestrated private interests. The prized canons of industrial siege warfare have, for millennia, collected and provided for every known tactic and technique in the dark art of hostile regime change. Within any given generation, their devotees will spare no effort in inventing endless new variations on old established themes. It’s what they do.

    Questions that will not appear on the PARCC test:

    Can you medicate yourself into a condition of good health, or is it best to care for what God gave you (and all of us) in the first place?

    Can you poison and batter your way into a healthy food supply, or is it best to respect the land and the water – and the people who live there and work it – that you intend to beat and strangle into submission?

    Can you improve on the coherence of the natural world by re-splicing it into your own image of commercial success, or is it best to allow for the benefits of patience, broad appreciation, personal humility, and the deep recognition of inherent beauty in all of its forms and expressions, as these qualities might then serve your welcome presence in the world of the wise? You know, among people who really care about the life around them?

    There are consequences to force-fed learning, which is why there are only six states left – plus the nation’s capital – to sing the praises of the PARCC consortium, and wouldn’t you know that New Jersey, with its uniquely twisted family dynamic – under the sick sway of Governor Father-of-the-Year (2014) – would still be one of them?

    Complete and carefully veiled corporate control over the norms, means, and aims of public education? With the added authority to subjugate and decimate entire populations of young people?

    C’mon, what could possibly go wrong with that mega-billion-dollar brainstorm?

    There are times when the latest cure which is offered – even when something is obviously required – is irrevocably worse than the disease. Such remedies fail, often completely and deliberately, to account for the true nature of the affliction in the first place. Entire industries are rooted in our documented receptivity to this well-worn exploit.

    And there are always people in power who really, really like it that way. They find the maniacal perversity of it all to be very exciting, displaying no qualms in telling us that it serves us right to suffer a cruel fate – the kinds they keep in mind for those whom they regard as lesser mortals – and particularly when it’s on account of the very deliberate actions, strategies, and practices of the powerful themselves. They like it almost as much as they love sending us invoices demanding payment for their standard treatments – first for busting us up, and then the eye-poppers which correspond to line items for the latest non-negotiable remedies they’re hawking.

    When they aren’t too terribly busy “boycotting” their own public meetings. The ones where they’re in charge.

    So, we say, hold the abuse! We’re only interested in the good stuff. Well, if you demand that much of this certain kind of operator, it’s really going to cost you. Something you can’t readily pay, and something you can ill afford to lose in the first place.

    But they just keep smiling away, because their profits are mad sick, and they have it all wired. And what about all those so-called hidden costs and collateral damage?

    Well, check out the big smile on Senator Booker. Like the rest of ’em, he’s not about to spoil it for himself. He’s not about to turn around and actually tell it – not for one honest public moment – exactly like it is. His image can’t sell it and his owners won’t have it.

    If the day of honest public reckoning ever comes, it probably means:

    A) They’re done with us, so they’re packing up and moving on, like locusts do.


    B) They’re finally holding all the cards, so it’s game over for anyone who speaks to the contrary.

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