The Problem With Definitions
The now infamous Bill Clinton quote “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” comes to mind when you look at how changing definitions of formerly well understood words can create chaos. The definition of a high school diploma used to have a fairly common understanding. The definition of a good school used to be well understood, as were special needs and gifted. I doubt you would find agreement about these definitions today. Most recently the New York Times questioned what a high school diploma means (although they are jumping on a band wagon that has been circling for many years.) Then there’s the term career ready which even the titans of industry can’t seem to agree upon.
Fortune magazine related a story about a meeting between Bill Gates and Charles Koch in which they tried to discuss the merits of Common Core. Gates is obviously pro Core while Koch is siding with those who oppose a one size fits all mandatory uniform education. Gates is clear that his definition of what a high school or college diploma means is that graduates are prepared to work for him. They will come out of schools preloaded with a skill set that is desired by the business community which has been seeking better schooled workers for years. He buys into the definition of Common Core as a guarantee that those having a high school diploma will, by definition, be universally career ready because they have all been taught to the same standard. He doesn’t seems to understand that the push for uniformity deforms the education process, creating the poorer trained graduate that some American schools are pushing out.
Fortune writes, “The Common Core standards were drafted by determining the skills that businesses (and colleges) need and then working backward to decide what students should learn.” It is clear that career and college ready are now synonymous. College is merely a more advanced career training facility than high school. The classical liberal arts education that used to qualify one for a Bachelor of Arts degree (future students are going to have no idea why their degree is named that) has been all but erased from the modern college campus. Mizzou’s 207 majors, e.g. Accountancy, Real Estate, Leisure Service Management, Forest Entrepreneurship and Business, Radiology, sound more like business titles than classical arts college majors.
But preparing a K-12 student for more advanced career training in college DOES call into question what the definition, or value, of a high school diploma is. The definition of what a good school currently means a school whose students score high on standardized tests aligned to common standards and who graduate the most students (give out the most diplomas.) This definition causes schools and states to tinker with the metrics to improve their stats.
The New York Times notes that a school district in South Carolina has increased their graduation rate from 65% to 80% in four years. At the same time their scores on standardized tests have dropped from one in ten scoring well on the ACT to one in fourteen. They achieved this feat by changing the requirements for high school graduation to accommodate those students who, for various reasons, have not mastered the usual required skills in 12 years. They changed the definition of a high school diploma. We still have no magic key to unlock every student’s potential (or even solid evidence that we can know a child’s potential) so uniformity is best achieved by lowering the standard to encompass even the mediocre performers. Koch seems to get this. Gates, not so much.
The problem with Gates’ understanding of the Common Core standards is that he does not see them in context. He should look at the history of Temple University to understand that education does not take place in a vacuum, where teachers and students have the luxury of just focusing on a set of skill standards, and that true change is not something the business community can just gift upon public schools. Back in the late 90’s Temple University, an institution proud of its diversity, working hard to provide opportunity and a good education to minorities from Philadelphia’s poor neighborhoods, found itself embroiled in racial controversy. Temple, a school where 40% of the students are minorities, joined then President Clinton’s call for a national debate on race and found itself accused by demonstrators of being racist and practicing apartheid. The LA Times asked the question, “Can an institution simultaneously undertake twin tasks of seeking excellence and boot-strapping those left behind without pulling itself apart?”
Here we are almost two decades later looking at similar unrest at MU where, what the Temple administrator described in 1998 as “Old wounds, continuing grievances, conflicting agendas, mistrust and skepticism that had been ingrained in many from childhood–all these and more boiled to the surface, barriers to understanding,” are still prevalent and making the education process very difficult. The answer is not a simple uniform set of standards. Gates and the Business Roundtable don’t get that.
It would be one thing if there was simply a set of standard skills that businesses said they wanted applicants to master. We could debate about whether the public school system was the proper place to teach these skills, but at least we could have a high water mark that everyone could shoot for, though not necessarily achieve. This would actually provide the sorting mechanism that businesses want for applicants. Instead we are attempting to give businesses a limitless supply of applicants who are all equally qualified and thus interchangeable.
The more critical point is that standards are only one part of what we require our schools to do and it is the collision of all these different requirements; teach all comers from developmentally impaired to gifted, bring every one of them to the same academic level especially those who are in subgroups who have traditionally not performed well, be racially sensitive to their cultural history and background, teach manners and morals while being racially sensitive to their cultural history and background, teach business skills like collaboration before they have mastered basic skills like numeracy, prepare them to score well on a standardized test you can’t see while not teaching to the test and collect data so everyone can critique your skill at doing all these things, that has created the mess that is today’s public school.
Even though Bill Gates has been meddling in education for a couple decades, he still seems rather myopic when it comes to understanding the full scope of what has been done to education in terms of definitions and how all this meddling has actually served to drive down achievement rather than raise it. IBM’s Lou Gerstner has a better perspective. He told Fortune, “You really can’t work this issue on a national level. You’ve got to work it state by state, city by city. It’s messy. Unfortunately, it doesn’t yield completely to reason, which businesspeople like.” That’s a problem when big business inserts itself in education. As Kevin Williamson wrote in the National Review, “[T]he corporate manager often suffers from the same fatal conceit as the economic étatist — an unthinking, inhumane preference for uniformity, consistency, regimentation, and conformity.” This describes Common Core and ultimately its fatal flaw.