Board should go slow before voting to opt out of reform

May 21, 2013

Nothing is certain except death and taxes,” wrote Benjamin Franklin more than 200 years ago.

If he were alive today he might add, “and educational reform.”

Every few years, it seems, another educational movement comes down the pike. It’s going to set higher standards. It’s going to be better than the last one. Then it turns out it’s not. No wonder people are wary when they hear about the latest reform.

The newest version is the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which was developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association. Forty-five states have signed on, including Delaware, at least partly because the federal government offered financial incentives for doing so.

Not everybody’s happy about this, including Cape Henlopen school board member Sandi Minard, who on May 9 presented a blistering anti-Common Core resolution demanding the district opt out of the initiative. It’s not clear the district would be allowed to do this, even if it wanted to.

Minard has a basic objection: By going along with Common Core, which aligns Delaware with national standards in subjects such as math and English, the Cape Henlopen School District would be giving up local control.

As elected board members, Minard said, “We have a responsibility … We are accountable to those people in the community. And when we can’t even be accountable for the curriculum that is taught in our schools, there’s a problem.”

Board members Spencer Brittingham and Jennifer Burton also expressed concerns about Common Core.

Superintendent Robert Fulton, who said it was the first time he had seen the resolution, asked the board to give district administrators a chance to look at the resolution and provide comment. No action was taken.

I can’t speak directly to the merits of the Common Core curriculum, because I’m not that familiar with it.

But I do question the fear some people have of anything to do with national standards. The idea behind Common Core was partly in response to employers and business leaders who said too many students across the country were graduating unprepared for the world of work. National standards would help ensure that students from Maine to New Mexico would graduate with similar skills and knowledge.

Many people, I realize, emphasize the importance of local control of schools. I’ve even heard people say that local control is necessary because children learn differently depending on whether they live in Dover or Milford.

I don’t buy that argument. Here’s why. Over the course of 30 years, I hired quite a few reporters, most with four-year degrees. But the overall, best-prepared reporter I ever hired was a working-class kid with zero college experience.

How was that possible? He was in the Air Force, which trained him to put out an airbase newspaper.

The Air Force had identified all the things he needed to know - writing, photography, layout, editing, pagination - and crammed them into a six-month course. When he finished he was proficient in all of them, unlike many college grads who tended to take more English and literature classes. Those classes are good and certainly worthwhile, but not as important as you might think for actual newspaper work.

In other words, the Air Force had prepared him for a real-world job in half a year, a goal many colleges are unable to accomplish in four years. That’s impressive.

And the Air Force doesn’t worry about local control. Standards come from the top, and they work. The Air Force takes young people from different races, backgrounds, income levels and regions of the country and educates them to do the difficult work the military demands.

If you accepted the arguments of those clamoring for more local control, you’d say this was impossible. And yet, the Army, Navy and Air Force do just that, educating young people and building the most professional military in the world.

Superintendent Fulton told board members that Common Core isn’t perfect - what is? - but he said, “It’s an attempt to raise the bar, to give more of our kids a realistic view of what it takes to be successful in college and life.” He called it an improvement over present standards.

Board members have reason to have reservations, but they owe the superintendent and the rest of the administrators a respectful audience before making what may be merely a symbolic vote.

  • Accomplished writers appear in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

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