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National standards will define local curricula

Posted by Jim Stergios  November 20, 2011 07:53 AM

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I don’t know why (well, actually, I do) the national standards project reminds me of France. Yesterday the quote from Jean Cocteau, today … Cardinal Richelieu. Armand-Jean du Plessis, later known to us as Cardinal Richelieu was responsible for expanding the reach of weak-willed King Louis XIII by weakening the regional noble powers and instituting a system of administrative enforcers (intendants). The good Cardinal made possible the Sun King, the king who went so far as to say L'etat c'est moi.

A shrewd and cruel strategist, Richelieu defined the term eminence grise; in reality, he was bolder than a simple strategist waiting in the shadows. He earned himself the moniker of Red Eminence, red being of course the bright royal (and church) colors. Richelieu is known to college graduates in Art History as a man of culture and patron of the arts, but his vision of culture was one of control. And the arts were always an expression of political power. He created the Academie Francaise, which policed the arts and even language. It still does: Yes, they’re the dumb-dumbs who still debate over whether French people can say “hot dog” or “chien chaud.”

Americans have never had a state-sanctioned dictionary, nor such a ministerial, statist view of the arts.

Richelieu coined many phrases worth remembering but the one that comes to mind when thinking about the national standards project is:

To know how to disguise is the knowledge of kings.

In previous posts, I shared two myths about the Common Core standards—that the new national standards are internationally benchmarked, and that they are aligned with workplace needs and college readiness.

Again drawing from friends in the academic world, let me share a third myth. Myth 3: The Common Core standards do not dictate the curriculum. States are free to define their own curricula based on the Common Core.

In laying out the second myth, I noted how powerful the pull of myths can be—and that is especially so when policy gets politicized and when so much money and so many business opportunities are at stake. Interests always color judgment, but especially when entire careers and enormous wealth are at stake. That is life and it is why the founders recognized the need for our institutions to address ambition. From the time of Renaissance political theorists like Machiavelli and Guicciardini, ambition was taken as a fact of life, especially in politics.

And 500 years ago, the now ubiquitous parsings by politicians of their altruistic intentions would have seemed a trough of hogwash. It struck the founding generations of the American project the same way.

Guicciardini’s Ricordi speak of ambitions as powerful forces, and often for good (cf. Mark Phillips’ Guicciardini: The Historian’s Craft)

Ambition is not a reprehensible quality, nor are ambitious men to be censured, if they seek glory through honorable and honest means. In fact, it is they who produce great and excellent works. Those who lack this passion are cold spirits, inclined more toward laziness than activity. But ambition is pernicious and detestable when it has as its sole end power, as is generally the case with princes. And when they make it their goal, they will level conscience, honor, humanity, and everything else to attain it.

Our founders recognized that successful societies depended on ambition. And, given the less structured and hierarchical society of the early Americans than was prevalent in Europe (and so much less structured than in Renaissance Italy), the founding generations of Americans were accustomed to thinking of ambition as a kind of raw passion. That was the reason they strongly believed in the horizontal separation of powers across the executive, judicial and legislative branches and also the vertical separation between the new federal government and the “several” states. The goal was, as James Madison put it, that:

Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.

Defenders of the national standards profess that the Common Core do not dictate state and ultimately local curricula. In this way, they tell us, don’t worry, you state and local folks aren’t giving up any real authority.

While it is technically true that the national standards don’t dictate curriculum by themselves, they are the foundation for national tests already being prepared by federally-funded assessment consortia—and, once institutionalized, the national tests will necessarily force the creation of a national curriculum.

My opinion? Roll out the evidence and the expert tape.

The evidence is written right into the applications and work-product of the assessment consortia funded by the federal government. The Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers consortium’s June 2010 application to the U.S. Department of Education for a Race to the Top Assessment grant (grant received) includes the following clear statements about the development of specific state-level curricula:

  • develop model curriculum frameworks that teachers can use to plan instruction and gain a deep understanding of the CCSS, and released items and tasks that teachers can use for ongoing formative assessment (p. 57)
  • unpack the standards to a finer grain size as necessary to determine which standards are best measured through the various components … To do this, the Partnership will engage lead members of the CCSS writing teams … and the content teams from each state, assessment experts and teachers from Partnership states(p. 174)

So, you might say, well, that’s just the application (don’t understand the logic behind that statement but it’s what I heard from a local supporter of Common Core recently). Well the Curriculum Frameworks were released by PARCC on November 9, 2011. Look at them yourself.

Then there is the other federally-sanctioned consortium aiming to develop assessments, the so-called Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. (I love all these bureaucratic acronyms – CCSSI, SBAC, PARCC, …) In the SBAC’s June 2010 application to the U.S. Department of Education for a Race to the Top Assessment grant (grant received), they stated that they aimed to:

  • translate the standards into content/curricular frameworks, test maps, and item/performance event specifications to provide assessment specificity and to clarify the connections between instructional processes and assessment outcomes (p. 35)
  • provide “a clear definition of the specific grade-level content skills and knowledge that the assessment is intended to measure (p. 48)
  • develop cognitive models for the domains of ELA and mathematics that specify the content elements and relationships reflecting the sequence of learning that students would need to achieve college and career-readiness (p. 76)

Or consider the view of assessment expert, Richard Innes, who writes:

It’s not possible to create good state assessments without considering the curriculum. Otherwise, you wind up with tests that don’t measure what is taught, tests which may not even measure material that should be in the curriculum.

Make no mistake about it: National standards is part of a project that aims to change the face of education in the United States. Arne Duncan has done a Richelieu-esque job of masking the real impacts. I don’t really believe that the impacts will be very positive as regards student achievement; there are many reasons for that, but you could summarize my feelings with the simple assertion of a fact: US DOE has oversight responsibility for the Washington DC schools. Their work cannot be compared to the kind of improvements we’ve seen in Massachusetts or that have been observed in Florida.

One impact I am sure of: Governance of our schools will shift to Washington. And it won’t come back any time soon. Mr. Duncan’s office will function much more as European Ministries of Education. Perhaps it will be like the French system of which the late President Mitterand once boasted that at any minute during the day he knew precisely what French students, whether in Paris or some rural hamlet in Brittany, were learning.

Yes, to know how to disguise is the knowledge of kings.

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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