There’s more to education problem than Common Core

New York may soon have a new version of Common Core.

New York may soon have a new version of Common Core.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced this past week that he is assembling a review panel which, he hopes, will issue a “total reboot” of the policy and all that comes with it. This means not only content, but also tests and the curriculum itself.

Common Core, for all its failings, has gotten an unfairly deserved bad rap. Opponents of Common Core — on both sides of the political spectrum — are undoubtedly happy with the governor’s recent decision.

Liberals are taking this as a tacit admission that the focus on standardized testing has been harmful to students. Conservatives, on the other hand, are taking this as evidence — straight from the horse’s mouth — that having public standards in education is a misguided philosophy.

There’s no doubt that Common Core has its problems. But if you base your opinion on Facebook memes, it would seem that it is being grafted onto the American public via a committee of lunar UFO dwellers.

Needless to say, these memes present a pretty wacky picture: “simple” math being done in a strange series of steps — or utilizing boxes and dots in some bizarre combination.

These sorts of snapshots present an admittedly strange picture to a casual outsider. But for the sake of argument, let’s switch things up. Imagine a world in which long division had never been taught. It’d look pretty wacky, no? No, the big problem with Common Core is not the misleading Facebook posts. The problem is the overreliance on tests — and the fact that such a standardized testing push allows us to ignore some of the other root problems in our educational system.

You can probably guess that most developed European countries rank higher than the United States. Finland stands out as a model, not only because it is engaged in a minimal-testing, heavily public system, but because it is consistently top-ranked in the world.

Much of this is because students in Finland aren’t overtested. They’re barely tested at all. They don’t even start school until they’re age 7. And — shocker — they are almost universally enrolled at public school. The few private schools there are have to behave virtually like public schools, offering students education and social benefits without tuition and accepting them via the same standards as the local public school.

Are we going to attempt such a policy here? Of course not. And it may not work for us. But it’s worth a look. Remember, the United States scores leagues below our other developed-world counterparts.

Rather, the line will be that the real problem is top-down federal government intervention in what should be a state issue. A national curriculum is on the way, say some fearful of the federal government. But it’s worth noting there are problems with giving too much power to the states.

We now have a system where larger states like Texas are able to dictate the curriculums for the rest of us, due to the market share they wield in terms of the education industry. In recent years, this has resulted in textbooks with warped history — putting, for instance, Moses as a founding father and largely omitting Jim Crow, segregation and the like.

Similarly, allowing nongovernment entities such a significant weight at the table is how we get advanced-placement courses sidelining slavery in favor of teaching American exceptionalism.

Call me crazy, but I’d prefer that students learn about history — unvarnished, even if that means, God forbid, forcing students to consider some of the darker periods in American history.

Another major issue: Kids are poorer in the United States than in other Western countries — by some estimates, a quarter of U.S. children live in poverty. Childhood poverty has ripple effects across the board, but perhaps nowhere more so than in terms of educational achievement. It’s pretty obvious, if you think about it: If you come from a poor family, you’re less likely to have parents with the time to raise you and help you learn at home. If you’re hungry, you’re less likely to pay attention during the day.

This is not even to mention the way that property taxes funding education keeps rich districts educated and leaves poor districts behind.

Those standards I mentioned before? Feeding kids is a priority in the rest of the developed world. Here, an increasing number of kids have to pay for lunch. And if more fiscally conservative measures were implemented, the amount of kids who have to worry about lunch money would only grow.

By tackling some of the root, systemic causes of poverty, we can ensure that when in the classroom, kids are able to focus and that they’re able to get the familial support they need.

Common Core doesn’t do that, and the debate about the program is sidelining this significant component.

Having core educational standards is a good thing. To be truthful, I trust the federal government more than I trust random local legislators to come up with standards for students.

All of this being said, I can’t speak to the value of certain standards Common Core is imposing. Nor can I speak to the effectiveness of methods being used. No doubt some of the methods are odd, and some of the standards too stringent.

But what I can say is that an approach based on stringent standards deserves serious criticism — and that testing kids too much is a bad idea.

I can also say what’s working in Finland is worth a look here.

Steve Keller of Averill Park is a regular contributor to the Sunday Gazette.

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