Rebellion against Common Core Hits the Higher Education Fan*
A dangerous argument is ensuing that has little to do with helping a child fulfill their true potential, which in turn would lead to achieving a happier and more productive life (in turn benefiting society), and more to do with the failures of American education, and the failing GDP.
By Stephanie Simon
Florida students no longer need chemistry, physics or Algebra II to graduate from high school. Texas just scrapped its Algebra II requirement. And Washington State has dropped its foreign language mandate.
A standards rebellion — or in the eyes of the opponents, the dumbing down of America — is sweeping red states and blue, promoted by both Republicans and Democrats. President Barack Obama has called for a rigorous college-prep curriculum for all students. States, however, are responding with defiance: They’re letting teens study welding instead of Spanish, take greenhouse management in place of physics and learn car repair instead of muddling over imaginary numbers.
The backlash stems, in part, from anger over the Common Core, a set of standards that Obama has promoted as a way to guide students through a demanding college-prep curriculum from kindergarten through high school. But it’s more than that. It’s pushback against the idea that all students must be ready for college — even if they have no interest in going.
Manufacturing associations, trade groups and farm lobbies have fueled the resentment at universal college prep, arguing that it’s elitist, that it demeans blue-collar workers — and, not incidentally, that it’s cutting off their pipeline of new workers.
“We need pipefitters and welders just as much as we need folks who want to pursue a four-year degree,” said Rebecca Park, legislative counsel for the Michigan Farm Bureau, which wants more vocational classes to count as science and math.
The counterargument: Those pipefitters and welders will need strong academic skills to turn entry-level jobs into meaningful careers. “We want them to come out qualified for the workforce, not just ram them through school as fast as possible,” said Derek Redelman, a vice president at the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, which is fighting a legislative proposal to create a career-track diploma.
The administration is watching the backlash warily.
Both Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have lately talked up the virtues of vocational education — but both have also noted, pointedly, that such classes must not be a substitute for college-prep academics. Not every child need aspire to a four-year degree, they say — but all ought to have college-level skills, so they can succeed at whatever path they take. Otherwise, the fast-moving economy will leave them behind, and they’ll be stuck in low-wage, dead-end jobs.
Especially worrisome: The risk that low-income and minority students, as well as children with disabilities, could be pushed into the vocational tracks.
“We need to make sure we’re graduating students who are ready for college and a career,” Obama said in a 2011 address that framed his vision for raising the bar. “In the 21st century, it’s not enough to leave no child behind. We need to help every child get ahead. We need to get every child on a path to academic excellence.”
That message rankles New Mexico state Rep. Mimi Stewart, a Democrat. She’s introduced a bill to let students earn a high school diploma without taking Algebra II — and without passing state exams. “We are supposed to be doing college and career readiness, not college and college readiness,” Stewart said.
State Rep. Wendy McNamara, a Republican, is making the same argument in Indiana. She’s not proposing dropping all traditional high-school academics. “’Romeo and Juliet’ does have a place,” she said. But she’d like students to be able to earn a diploma by taking a heavy rotation of vocational classes designed with input from local employers. “I see only great things for economic development,” McNamara said.
The backlash against college prep for all has grown so strong that even states fully committed to the goal are taking it slow. New York announced this week that it wouldn’t expect students to meet new college-ready benchmarks until 2022. Louisiana declared it’s aiming for 2025.
The new direction is troubling to those who have endorsed the president’s vision, including CEOs of the nation’s biggest companies, plus many local Chambers of Commerce.
“The dream that we could get to where all American children were educated to a high, common level is in deep jeopardy,” said Sandy Kress, a longtime advocate for tough standards and an architect of the No Child Left Behind law, which required — unrealistically, as it turned out — every student in the U.S. to be proficient in math and reading by this year.
“A lot of really goofy things are happening,” said Kress, now a lobbyist for global publishing company Pearson. “It worries me a lot.”
The roots of the controversy stretch back decades.
For years, many states had only bare-bones graduation requirements, often mandating little more than a year of physical education and a civics class. Then came “A Nation at Risk,” the 1983 report that warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity” in the public schools “that threatens our very future as a nation and a people.”
States began laying out strict requirements for high school diplomas. Some ratcheted them up further in the past decade, as international testing showed U.S. kids far behind global rivals.
President George W. Bush highlighted the need for universal high standards with his call to end the “soft bigotry of low expectations” for low-income and minority students.
Obama has amplified the theme with his heavy promotion of the Common Core, which is built on the assumption that students will at get at least through Algebra II in math and through four years of English heavy on close reading and critical analysis.
“You ought to make sure that when you hand kids a diploma … they are prepared not just for the first thing they’re going to do out of high school, but for other choices later on,” said Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, a nonprofit that helped write the Common Core standards.
It’s unclear whether higher standards prompt teens to drop out of school; a study published this summer by the National Bureau of Economic Research found a connection, but the national graduation rate has been rising steadily, despite increasing demands in many states.
There’s widespread agreement that college matters. In 1979, a typical young adult with a high school diploma could expect to earn 77 percent as much as a peer with a bachelor’s degree. Today, that person would earn just 62 percent as much. College graduates also are more likely to be satisfied with their jobs and to believe they have the skills to get ahead, according to a Pew Research report released this week.
Given those statistics, letting kids opt out of Algebra II and other college-prep courses is irresponsible, said Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business. He sees the trend as a cop-out by educators who don’t want to do the hard work of helping all students achieve their true potential. “The tragedy of it is, more kids born in poverty will now remain in poverty,” he said.
Hammond rallied a few major companies in the state — including Texas Instruments and ExxonMobil — to fight against watering down graduation requirements.
But they were up against a tidal wave.
Parents furious about the state’s heavy focus on standardized testing teamed up with educators irate at the one-size-fits-all curriculum. Then an even more powerful ally stepped aboard: The Jobs for Texas Coalition, representing trade groups and businesses that collectively employ 6 million Texans, a third of the state’s workforce.
The coalition argued that the college prep curriculum eats up so many hours — especially when kids fail a required class and must retake it — that students have no time for vocational courses that introduce them to skilled trades. That’s led to fewer students seeking out jobs in construction and manufacturing. Those who do apply lack the technical training and the soft skills — such as on-the-fly problem solving — such classes nurture.
“For 20 years, we’ve been ratcheting up the rigor required to get out of high school, and we started to see unintended consequences,” said Mike Meroney, a spokesman for the coalition.
Letting kids opt out of college prep doesn’t mean they’ll spend a lifetime flipping burgers, Meroney said. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists two dozen fast-growing occupations that don’t require higher education and pay $35,000 to $55,000 a year, including heavy equipment operator and car mechanic. “What is the real purpose of education if not to prepare your students for jobs?” Meroney said. “Seriously. That’s what we keep asking.”
The pressure from parents, teachers, superintendents and the jobs coalition culminated in a landmark legislative vote last spring to cut the number of required exit exams from 15 to five and to scrap Algebra II as a requirement for a mainstream diploma. The Texas Board of Education recently finalized the new rules.
To be sure, not all states are going easy on students. Maryland added a high school civics exam to its testing battery. Minnesota and Connecticut are phasing in Algebra II mandates.
But many statehouses are ringing with conversations like those Michigan state Rep. Ed McBroom has been having with his colleagues as he pushes to relax the state’s college-prep requirements.
McBroom, a Republican, says he appreciates the benefits of learning a foreign language, but points out that welding could also be considered a form of expressive communication — so why not let kids study that, instead? Chemistry and physics are great, he says, but what makes them inherently more valuable than agricultural science or anatomy or auto collision repair?
As for math, McBroom says he took Algebra II as a student and enjoyed it. “But I don’t see much use for it in my everyday life,” said McBroom, who trained to become a teacher but now splits his time between the Legislature and his family dairy farm. “If I had taken some welding classes,” he said, “I’d be a lot better off.”
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