From the beginning, the marketing of the Common Core and other progressive education schemes has been brilliant. The PR guys seized on words and phrases that sounded good to the uninformed public and then painted all opposition as manifestly unreasonable. Why would anyone not want “rigorous” standards that teach “critical thinking” and make our children “college- and career-ready”?
Now Jeb Bush and his minions (including his Foundation for Florida’s Future, or “FFF”) are doing the same thing in Florida on a related topic – assessments and school accountability. This time the popular terms are “proficiency” and “honesty gap.” But the real honesty gap yawns between what FFF claims to be doing and what it’s really up to.
As Karen Effrem of the Florida Stop Common Core Coalition explains, all this has to do with school-accountability ratings included in the state plans required by the recent fed-ed bill, the Every Student Succeeds Act (you know, the statute that supposedly eliminated federal requirements). FFF is pushing legislation imposing school accountability ratings that are linked to whether students are deemed “proficient” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – “the nation’s report card” – rather than whether they score at grade level on the state tests.
As Dr. Effrem observes, another Bush foundation website – “Why Proficiency Matters” – “makes it appear that these two achievement levels are completely equivalent and that anyone who opposes this idea is against honesty and raising student achievement.”
But like so much else in the “education reform” universe occupied by FFF and its co-advocates, (such as Achieve, Inc., which helped develop the Common Core national standards), this simply isn’t so. Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution states flatly, “Equating NAEP proficiency with grade level is bogus.” Why? Because the NAEP proficiency score is “aspirational” – it was set significantly above what most students could be expected to achieve (as Loveless reports, even some education organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences objected to NAEP’s achievement levels from the outset as “fundamentally flawed” and “consistently set too high”).
Even the NAEP governing board warns against conflating the NAEP proficiency level with grade-level achievement. From the board’s “myths vs. facts” brochure: “Proficient on NAEP means competency over challenging subject matter. This is not the same thing as being ‘on grade level,’ which refers to performance on local curriculum and standards.”
This misalignment seems particularly apparent in math. The 2007 Brown Center Report on American Education projected that even in Singapore – with the world’s highest-scoring math students – over a quarter of students would fail to achieve proficiency on the 8th-grade NAEP test.
The irony here is that Bush and his cohorts nationwide are largely responsible for imposing the subpar Common Core standards on most public schools – thereby practically guaranteeing diminished student performance on any genuine achievement test, and especially on a test such as NAEP with elevated proficiency scores. Recent flatlining or declining NAEP scores have borne that out. Bush’s foundations, in keeping with their longtime enthusiasm for Common Core, refuse to acknowledge the connection between those standards and poor academic performance. But while downplaying this negative trend with NAEP scores, they push the bizarre notion that academic achievement can be improved merely by requiring higher scores – without fixing the underlying “Core” problem that depresses achievement in the first place.
Maybe there’s a larger plan in the works. Dr. Effrem outlines the devastating consequences of saddling Florida’s public schools with inferior standards and curricula and then subjecting them to the NAEP proficiency standard rather than a more realistic grade-level standard: “[T]he passing rate on the fourth-grade reading test would be cut in half from 54 percent to 27 percent. . . . The costs to local districts would skyrocket . . . . These costs would include remediation, progress monitoring, more summer school, and make-up exams . . . .” As she sums up, “the public schools would implode.”
Could this be designed to drive education in a different direction? One possibility would be increasing the number of charter schools (with, perhaps, their politically and financially connected management companies). In fact, the Florida House is proposing an increase in charter funding of $200 million and a school-turnaround plan that accelerates converting schools into charters. Whatever their possible benefits, charters are less accountable to the public and in direct competition with private schools that seek to provide an alternative to Common Core (charters, as public schools, teach Common Core).
An alternative direction would be Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s favorite project, private-school choice programs. The obvious problem here is that once government money begins flowing into private schools, government regulations will almost inevitably follow. Indeed, when the nationwide anti-Common Core movement originated in such states as Missouri, Utah, and Indiana, the Indiana parents were battling the national standards in Catholic schools –which were forced to administer the state Common Core test, and therefore to teach the inferior Common Core standards, because they accepted voucher students.
While it’s laudable to raise the bar on meaningful academic achievement, that won’t be done by setting the passing scores unreasonably beyond grade level while simultaneously imposing standards and curricula that practically ensure failure. In Florida, this failure will then be tied to high stakes such as 3rd-grade retention, graduation, teacher pay, and school accountability grades. Labeling so many students, teachers, and schools as failures — when they probably couldn’t meet the new requirements even without the downward pull of Common Core — is simply deceitful.
Whatever the motive of the proponents of this plan, Effrem warns about the negative personal and financial “accountability” consequences of holding students, teachers, and schools to an unreasonable standard. “Raising the bar to a level that is quite simply unattainable,” she says, “is just not fair.” If Mr. Bush and his foundations really want to improve schools, they should advocate freeing them from the snare of Common Core. That would be the honest thing to do.