The "Silly Season" in Education Reform

So much silliness, so little time. Where to start?

New York's new commissioner of education, MaryEllen Elia, made some curious remarks in an interview with Politico recently, revealing a troubling level of unawareness with respect to the Common Core State Standards, education, schools, learning and children. Let's take a look at what she said...

1. “We’ll make necessary adjustments, but we cannot go backwards,” she said. “Our students need the skills and knowledge the higher standards demand to be successful after they graduate from high school. Change is always difficult, and change takes time, but this change is necessary.”


Teaching to the test and the resultant narrowing of the curriculum is the very definition of "going backwards." If we want to "move forward" then we should let teachers teach and students learn, and stop the incessant testing. This naive belief that "going back to basics" will somehow propel our schools into the future is a dangerous bet that we are playing with our children's futures as the kitty. There is nothing remotely "progressive" about more tests, more retentions, and more punishment. This is not the kind of change that improves anything but the profit margins of the testing companies and charter management groups that stand to cash in from this agenda.

More thermometers don't make the meat cook faster or better.

Standards, in and of themselves, have nothing to do with helping students to be successful. Student success has everything to do with the supports that children receive at home and in their communities, and to how effective we are as a society in addressing the ravages of child poverty that have exploded in too many of our communities in the last 20 years. It is a cruel joke that even as increasing numbers of American children are living below the poverty line, American politicians and corporate reformers float the lie that "higher standards," "more rigorous expectations," and "No Excuses" are the silver bullets that will "fix" our students and schools.

2. “The United States used to lead the world educationally, but we’ve fallen to the middle of the pack. Our students are lagging behind, and the global economy is growing more competitive every day.”

No. No.

American students are not lagging behind. "When results are controlled for the influences of poverty, nearly every international test of student learning shows that American students score at the top of the rankings. For example, when test scores for U..S students on the 2009 Program for International Assessment (PISA) exams were disaggregated by poverty levels, American children from middle– and upper–socioeconomic status families performed

as well or better than students from the top three nations in the rankings: Canada, Finland, and South Korea (Walker 2013a)."

The truth is that US students in suburban schools score at the very top of the PISA tests that these faulty comparisons are inevitably based on. The problem here is poverty, not schools, teachers or students--we know that, and yet ignore addressing poverty in favor of making illogical, ill-advised changes to the curriculum, and insisting on more and more tests, as though that will change anything.

But the larger issue here is the fact that a state commissioner of education is uncritically accepting the myth of "failing schools" and buying in to the corporate reformers' belief that the purpose of education is to make America "globally competitive." 

That's not the goal of education; that's the goal of business. That's not an education goal; that's an economic goal. Since when did the failures of America's business sector become the fault of 3rd grade reading in Michigan or the supposed lack of attention to STEM subjects in American schools? If Ms. Elia is that concerned with the global economy, perhaps she should seek a position in commerce, and leave education to the teachers in NY's classrooms.

3. Elia has partly attributed the rapidly growing testing opt-out movement to a lack of publicly available information on the Common Core. In her effort to reduce the number of students refusing to take the state standardized tests, she has said that parents and the public need to become more involved in the process, because many don’t know what the Common Core is.

No. No. No.

When 68% of citizens in your state believe that they are "very or somewhat familiar with the standards," and huge numbers of parents in your state are opting their children out of state and national tests, your response should not be to attribute their opposition to your agenda to ignorance and a lack of parental involvement. That's not just tone deaf--that's insulting. And ignorant.

Parents and teachers in New York have demonstrated that this agenda of obsessive testing and standards disconnected to practice are not conducive to learning, and last year's 20% opt out rate is likely to be obliterated this year as more and more New Yorkers join the movement to push back against the reform agenda.

It's time for leaders like Ms. Elia to wake up and recognize who they work for: the children, teachers and parents of New York State--not Pearson, the Gates Foundation, and Arne Duncan.

Education is a public trust, and leaders like Ms. Elia need to understand that it is their responsibility to establish that trust. Stop the silliness, support your schools, and get to work.