The Move to Cast Local Boards of Education as Obstacles to Effective School Reform

move is afoot to get Americans to see local school boards as a major obstacle to effective school reform. What is the overt charge against them? That low achievers or minority groups get the short end of the stick and languish, while their “privileged” peers flourish. 

This is part of the rationale used by Common Core’s supporters for eliminating the one political body that stands between the arbitrary authority of the United States Department of Education (USDE) and “white suburban moms,” as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan described the latest parent group to protest Common Core’s tests. 

Duncan is making the case that this group of mothers is protesting only because it is really against “rigorous” standards and tests that make their “brilliant” offspring look like dullards. Interestingly, the media seem to be quite willing to make this case for him. Common Core’s standards are always described as more “rigorous” than whatever the old standards were, even if few reporters can point to what makes for “rigor.”

Yet, no education policy-making board has acted more irresponsibly than state boards of education in recent years. State boards, generally comprised of intelligent and educated folks, adopted Common Core’s “college readiness” standards almost within hours after the final versions were released in June 2010:

(1) Without asking for an analysis of these standards by the faculty in their own state’s institutions of higher education who teach mathematics, science, or the humanities to the state’s high school graduates enrolling in college;

(2) Without asking for a cost-benefit analysis of new standards and tests in K-12;

(3) Without notifying local school boards what they were doing to the entire K-12 curriculum; and

(4) Without extensive public discussion to let parents and teachers know what Common Core was all about.  

In fact, many state boards (e.g., Kentucky) voted to adopt Common Core’s standards before they were written or finalized. In addition, most boards did not bother to let state legislators--the people who would eventually pay some of the bills for the technology-driven common tests--know what they were doing to public education in the state.

State boards of education are now doing the same thing with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), released by Achieve Inc. a few months ago. About 12 states have adopted these standards, yet not one state board of education, so far as I know, has had the common sense to ask for collective recommendations from the math, science, and engineering faculty in its own institutions of higher education as it is considering adoption.

Why should state boards of education have asked for advice from higher education faculty in science, mathematics, and literature? For the simple reason that most state board members and commissioners of education cannot read standards documents in these subject areas. They have little idea how to evaluate content, or organization to judge “rigor” or extent of coverage. Neither do most staff members at departments of education, who spend excessive amounts of time developing comparison charts they call “crosswalks.” 

That is why drafts of the K-12 standards that Massachusetts was developing or revising in 2000-2002, in English, science, history, and social science, and science and pre-engineering, were sent out to a number of arts and sciences faculty members around the country for review first, before finalization and adoption.

Perhaps the ultimate in betrayal of the public trust (and degradation of the public schools) was the decision by the California Board of Education to consider the NGSS and dump its “gold standard” science standards developed under Glenn Seaborg’s leadership a decade ago. Seaborg was a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry and one may safely assume he intended well for California high school students. Yet, the standards that the state board of education appears to be adopting omit most of high school chemistry and make physics unteachable. 

If anything, we need to strengthen the authority of local school boards in every state on matters of standards and tests. The public is entitled not only to accountability but also to educational policy determined in public, with vigorous debate among interested parties. Debate may not happen often or often enough at the local level, but if they happen anywhere, they will happen at the local level because there will always be a few parents who pay attention to what is taught in their children’s classrooms.

Sandra Stotsky, Ed.D. is Professor Emerita, University of Arkansas.




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