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The Doctrine of Common Core: Raising Public Education Standards Does Little in Our Modern Economy

Ali HanganThomas Jefferson once said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” For a large part of the 20th century, public education has been wedded to economic opportunity and the ideals of a participatory democracy.

Common core, to a large extent, is premised on linking education to economic opportunity to democracy and based on assumptions of a 20th century school to work model. But that is not the world we live in today.

Digital tools have fundamentally transformed the workplace, connecting the most obscure regions into global circulation where capital, labor, information and commodities move more freely across national boundaries. The new economic realities have established a new historical context for industry, work and education challenging the fundamental premise of a national education strategy behind common core.

The data support the basic premise of common core that our education system is not keeping pace enough to prepare the American workforce to compete for jobs in a modern, globalized economy. A report recently published by Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance found that “6 percent of U.S. students were found to be performing at the advanced level in mathematics, a percentage lower than those attained by 30 other countries. Nor is the problem limited to top-performing students. Only 32 percent of 8th graders in the United States are proficient in mathematics, placing the United States 32nd when ranked among the participating international jurisdictions.”

Even more troubling, globalized industry is finding it difficult to find newly minted U.S. high school and college graduates with the requisite skills. The Broad Foundation published excerpts from business studies on their website that echoes, even more so, the thinking behind the common core concluding, “despite sustained unemployment, employers are finding it difficult to hire Americans with the skills their jobs require.” And, “many expect this problem to intensify all the while more than 75 percent of employers report that new employees with four-year college degrees lacked ‘excellent’ basic knowledge and applied skills.”

To close the impending skills gap, nearly 46 states, at last count, have adopted the doctrine of common core in a move to address this challenge, but a compendium of mounting evidence that the labor market is rapidly being impacted by modern technology. Two recent contributions have shined a bright light on the changes taking place in the labor market. Martin Ford, a software engineer and author of the book The Lights at the End of the Tunnel, has written that technology is being adopted by industry so quickly that it is destroying jobs faster than industry can create jobs. This claim is supported by MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson’s and coauthor Andrew McAfee, authors of Rage Against the Machine, that support Ford’s thesis and are quoted in an article that appeared in the MIT Technology Review that “Productivity is at record levels, innovation has never been faster, and yet at the same time, we have a falling median income and we have fewer jobs. People are falling behind because technology is advancing so fast and our skills and organizations aren’t keeping up.”

If you dismiss the thesis that technology is rapidly replacing human labor, there is growing evidence that education is not as big a factor in providing a pathway out of poverty as once believed. The assumptions that underlie common core advance the idea that education lifts all boats and that a supply of educated workers will lead to greater opportunity across incomes and social strata yet, the most current data contradict this thinking.

It turns out that the lack of fiscal resources may play a bigger role in preventing student economic opportunities irrespective of the educational opportunities afforded to a student. The Hamilton project of the Brookings Institute conducted a study on social mobility and incomes. It concluded that, “While social mobility and economic opportunity are important aspects of the American ethos, the data suggest they are more myth than reality. In fact, a child’s family income plays a dominant role in determining his or her future income, and those who start out poor are likely to remain poor.”

If we take into account the 2010 census data that reported the ranks of the poor are swelling placing one out of six Americans in poverty, the implications are far-reaching and pose improbable hurdles to overcome by the raised standards advanced by common core.

Despite a mounting challenge of a more impoverished America, education is becoming more accessible to the masses. The badge system is slowly gaining favor with national leaders to replace the diploma conferring system. Former President Clinton is promoting a new open badge system that verifies skills for industry outside of the traditional public education system. Through online credentialing, students can take tests from home and earn badges that can prove to employers that workers have learned skills picked up outside the traditional education system. Major universities such as DePaul have already signed on to accept badges for college credit.

Common core is premised on the idea that the diploma will remain as the central evaluation tool for industries to verify that graduates entering the job market are qualified for hire. But, at the end of the day, industries do not want diplomas; they want skills that can meet their demands to remain competitive in an increasingly globalized and technology based economy. Despite disappointing data of completion rates of online courses, students continue to flock to online learning in droves. The online magazine Campus Technology published that students taking online courses have increased by 96 percent over the last five years.

Common core has been marketed to the American public by linking the expansion of economic opportunity to democratic rights through public education therefore, public education should raise its standards and all will be good in the world for future generations. Certainly, we should ask our kids to know more, do more and learn more, but the forces behind common core are not taking into account how significant income is as a factor in rising up the economic ladder, job-eating technology is rapidly entering the modern workplace or how disruptive technology is rendering traditional diploma conferring institutions superfluous. Simply put, the argument that common core will increase economic opportunity and, therefore, expand democracy is contradicted by the new realities of the modern economy.

The advocates of common core have their heart in the right place, but the assumptions behind common core amount to no more than a wish list in light of a fractured school to work model and a rapidly changing economy. If industry and the future American workforce are looking outside of the public school system for economic opportunity then so should policy makers look elsewhere to expand democracy for future generations.

Ali Hangan is a Desert Storm veteran and currently a high school economics teacher in Pomona, Calif. He can be reached at [email protected].

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