Setting standards is one achievement but meeting standards is something else

To the Editor:

Hardly a day goes by without media reporting on Common Core.  Despite the heavy coverage (parents’ complaints, State Education Department rebuttals, the governor’s mixed messages, editorial positions, teacher and administrator comments, columnists’ remarks, etc., etc.), my contention is that at least three major issues have rarely, if ever, been addressed publicly.

First, it is remarkable that there has been little study and report on the history of efforts to reform the American schools. Might something be learned if the media were to cover such efforts?  What worked or appeared to work? What were the failures?

I began my career in education and psychology in the 1950s.  Why Johnnie Can’t Read was a bestseller.  This led to some serious debates, some of which are still active. 

A bit later, there was “Sputnik” and the schools were blamed for allowing the Russians to beat us in space endeavors.  The response? Heavy governmental interventions to promote math and science in high schools (sounds a bit like STEM [science, technology, engineering, math]?).

Soon we were in space although later study showed that schooling had little to do with the Russian edge — it turned out that our presumed failure was a result of a lack of planning for space travel.

Several reform efforts were to follow: Teaching machines (didn’t work very well); early education and preschool programs showed mixed results and even led to emotionally charged and physical attacks on some critics.

Then there were “A Nation at Risk,”  “No Child Left Behind,” and currently “Race to the Top” — and there were several others including efforts to adopt Japanese educational models because, at that time, our economy was floundering and theirs was booming. But, before long, Japan’s went into a slump.

The second topic: using the findings of developmental psychology.  It strikes me that attempts to create new curricula to accommodate new standards (viz. Common Core) should rely on the findings of years of research on cognitive development in children and adolescents.

A great deal is known about the stages children and teens go through. The higher stages rely heavily on one’s ability to deal with such issues as abstract and critical thinking, how to generalize, and how to acquire an advanced vocabulary — and all individuals do not progress at the same pace and some fail to ever reach the higher cognitive levels.

And third: the little known field of education and psychology — “psychometrics” — the study of individual differences and the development and use of educational and psychological tests and measurement.

This subfield was begun in England in the late 1800s.  By 1900, the French psychologist, Alfred Binet, was commissioned by the city of Paris to develop an instrument to identify pupils who were incapable of profiting from usual school instruction (special education?). Using school-like items, he computed the “mental age” of children.

Soon after that, the German psychologist, William Stern, added chronological age to the equation to yield a quotient, the IQ [intelligence quotient], which is still with us. Later, Stern reported that German children of the higher social classes earned higher IQs than those from lower classes, a finding that still holds true. 

For generations, IQs from tests of intelligence, aptitude, ability, and so forth have been sound predictors of scores obtained on standardized achievement tests — the predictions are most accurate at elementary levels.

What we don’t know — or perhaps haven’t been told — is how well IQ tests predict scores based on “Common Core.”

Psychometrics is based on the premise that individuals vary on many of the characteristics that are used to describe people, ranging from such indicators as height, weight, strength, speed of responses, verbal ability, vocabulary, spatial abilities, ethnicity, and on and on.

Common Core has been promoted with little information given to the public as to, among other issues, what efforts have been made to ascertain how well students of varying abilities and backgrounds perform. It is hard to believe that the professionals who developed the standards and the tests do not know what the scores are likely to look like.

One step in test construction is to determine the difficulty level of each test item and, when these item indices are combined, they yield a difficulty index for the entire test.

Given the huge dollar costs of developing this new set of standards and the stress and anxiety suffered by pupils, parents, teachers, and other professionals, promoters of Common Core should provide the public with all the information that is available on the subject. Setting standards is one achievement but meeting standards is something else.

A review of decades of attempts to improve schooling is a reminder of the difficulty of this task.

In closing, I should point out that there are a number of respected and talented researchers who do not believe that the entire public educational system — if, in fact, there is such a universal system — is anywhere nearly as bad as critics have made it out to be.

There is widespread agreement as to the problems faced by inner city (and rural) schools.  But there is evidence that the majority of districts vary from satisfactory to excellent.

John Rosenbach 
Professor Emeritus
Educational Psychology and Statistics
University at Albany

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