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November 7, 2013

Common core: Equal results or equal opportunity?

Standardization means legalese and bureaucracy

Resolved: That all Indiana students should receive the best possible education.

The problem with this obviously worthy goal is that it is pursued at the Statehouse with a failed assumption. It is that our school districts operate the same way, apply the same standards with the same parental support, all with the same bureaucratic apparatus supervising the same assembly line of interchangeable teachers.

That all is a figment of John Dewey’s imagination. As such, it is being exposed by the Common Core debate. Indeed, state Sen. Scott Schneider and Hoosiers Against Common Core are doing something remarkable. For the first time in 20 years, public attention is focused on how the education system works rather than how education officials want you to think it works.

The reality is that standardization, even in the name of civil rights or scholastic parity, national or local, with every promise of common goodness implied, has two dangerous outriders. They are legalese and bureaucracy. They codify false hope and promise.

Because it is written somewhere in Indianapolis, because it is law, we are expected to believe that our districts and schools are equal. They tell us that our budgets are applied with the same effect for every student of every race, family background and income level; they tell us that union membership and academic credential ensure that the best teachers are rewarded and the worst ones discouraged; and they tell us that our students with equal and innate abilities graduate with equal and actual prospects.

If you believe that is the case, you can quit reading right here. Just be quiet and eat your spinach.

But if you read on, don’t expect us to blame the Democrats. You will recall that it was the Republicans who installed the A+ program, outrageously ineffective even by government standards. Then they gave us the seemingly eternal and useless ISTEP testing.

Those were the first waste baskets of good education intentions — reforms on paper only. After decades of it, plus millions of utterly lost dollars and a couple of generations of squandered public support, we are left with a junk system. Ask any of the thousands of families fleeing it via the new but still-limited voucher programs. Ask them about the difference in the stories they hear each night about their children’s day in school.

So, why not try real reform? Why not abandon the impossible, which is equality of results? Why not replace it with the achievable, equality of opportunity? What if we set individual school boards free of the Indiana Collective Bargaining Act? What if we allowed the faculty of each school to define its own education missions, compete for its own students?

You can review the volumes of research and scholarship that support such reform. Or you can simply imagine how it might change everyday discussions about education.

One discussion changed would be in the teachers’ lounge. What if faculty members were able to use their skills to win a district-wide education niche for their school, i.e., for advanced math, for fine arts, for marketable trade skills or, perhaps most appealing, for a traditional well-rounded education?

Another would be the one at your kitchen table. What if you and your student could choose any curriculum in any school in the district, including the one around the corner?

The insistence on centrally controlled education, though, is entrenched. Some years ago, officers of our foundation sat down with a GOP senator with influence in both legislative houses. We asked him to read the results of a 14-month study analyzing the debilitating effects of the Indiana Collective Bargaining Act. He in effect shoved it back across the table, saying “I couldn’t get that out of committee.”

Perhaps, but that was neither an excuse nor an explanation. Getting good policy out of a committee is a political responsibility; failure has political consequences. An opportunity was missed back then to begin a legislative discussion that by now would be bearing fruit.

Sen. Schneider and his friends are restarting that discussion. Wish them well.

Craig Ladwig is editor of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review.

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