Scott Walker’s shift on Common Core could usher in education chaos
Here’s a suggestion for something to include in Wisconsin-specific education standards for Wisconsin children:
By the end of first grade, children will know that two Badgers plus two Badgers equals four Badgers.
You want Indiana-specific standards for Indiana kids? By the end of first grade, children will know that two Hoosiers plus two Hoosiers equals four Hoosiers.
North Carolina standards for North Carolina kids? You got it—two Tar Heels plus two Tar Heels equals four Tar Heels.
What kind of silliness is this? Best as I can see, it’s about the level of silliness the whole discussion of education expectations for our children is reaching, both in Wisconsin and across the nation.
With Governor Scott Walker’s one-sentence statement on Thursday that he wants the legislature to repeal Wisconsin’s involvement in the Common Core standards movement, we have crossed onto turf where chaos in education policy is likely to reign for the coming school year.
At the same time, I bet we’re also on the way, in the long run, to changing very little when it comes to state standards for what kids should learn. I say that because states that have announced they are going to set their own standards are generally coming up with new plans that actually change little. That’s for two reasons.
- The Common Core standards are not perfect, but they’re really pretty sound (and there is wide agreement they’re a lot better than what Wisconsin had before). Any serious-minded group, regardless of politics, would agree on a big portion of what’s there. The current furor has focused little on problems with specific standards, because, for the most part, there are none.
- What is so state-specific about what to teach kids? Two plus two is four in every state. Kids need to learn to read well in every state. Math and reading achievement need improvement in every state. So much of this isn’t political and isn’t specific to one location.
But rather than settling down now and working in a constructive, united fashion on improving outcomes for Wisconsin kids, we appear set to go through a period of unhelpful posturing, bickering, and disruption.
Statewide, educators have put tens of thousands of hours into getting ready for the coming school year, using the Common Core standards as their guideposts.
I’ve seen and heard enough to be impressed with how many school staffs are working on how to reach kids more effectively through classroom work that is deeper, richer, and more involving. Not everyone likes it, nor are things going entirely smoothly, but teachers are putting a lot of energy into how to up their game. This is good, even as midcourse corrections are inevitable.
What should teachers think?
But what are teachers to think at this point? Are they supposed to pursue these goals or not? Are they going to confront political blowback directly as parents and communities handle this?
After a couple of years of development, is the new wave of state tests scheduled for next spring going to come or not? Walker said he wants the legislature to repeal the Common Core “in early January”—the middle of the school year. If that happens, then what? The new generation of tests is scheduled to be conducted in the spring.
Of all the dizzying circuits of the education merry-go-round, where policies, programs and initiatives come and go, this might be the most amazing.
Fifteen months ago, Wisconsin and its leaders (including Walker) seemed to be united over the Common Core as part of a broader approach to improving education.
Nationwide, 90 percent of states had joined the standards initiative, with the goal, pushed in large part by Republicans, of raising national achievement and America’s global competitiveness.
A second goal that seemed to have wide agreement: It was not good to have standards for what it means to call a student “proficient” vary widely from state to state. (Wisconsin was on the low end, meaning that many kids we called proficient would not earn that title elsewhere.)
Nationwide, the once-sleepy subject of the standards is now hot and controversial. It’s become the new battleground in the fight against Big Government, federal heavy-handedness, and the Obama administration. Fight Big Government by fighting Big Ed. Fight Obamacare and fight “the Obamacore,” as some label it.
States are bailing or considering bailing. One fascinating aspect of this: Republican governors with presidential ambitions, such as Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal and our own Walker, have reversed positions in favor of Common Core now that there’s so much opposition among groups on which they count for core support.
How hot is the subject? The National Governors Association, which, on a bipartisan basis, was one of the organizations that launched and promoted the Common Core most energetically five years ago, omitted the subject from the agenda of its summer gathering a week ago. Too politically radioactive, participants said.
The one-sentence news release issued by Walker symbolized how little this controversy has to do with serious work on specific aims for children’s education and how much this is about politics and appealing to blocs of voters as the November election approaches.
Despite all the fury and potential for policy chaos, school will open in a few weeks. Teachers and students will do their best, presumably along the lines of what they’ve already being prepared to do. There is ultimately some insulation between what goes on in Madison and what goes on within the walls of schools.
And I’m guessing that a couple of years from now, we’re going to end up kind of where we are now in terms of what we expect kids to learn, how schools will pursue those expectations, and how we’ll monitor their success.
But as everyone involved proclaims they want to do what’s best for kids and education, brace yourself for events full of fury, signifying close to nothing.
The silly season is in full swing.
Alan J. Borsuk is senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette University Law School. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article originally appeared in the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel.