Common Core -- A Case Study in Central Planning

Submitted by patrick on Tue, 10/30/2018 - 10:02AM

Circulating around social media again this week are various articles and memes related to Bill Gates' year-old admission that his Common Core experiment has failed[GATES]. No parent of a K-12 student in the last decade would be surprised by this "revelation," but it is a bit refreshing that he admits it. Gates himself, through his Foundation, spent $400 million launching the new math curriculum, and it is estimated that its implementation cost an additional $4 trillion (with a "T" folks) deployed taxpayer dollars. TO FAIL. Reasons for the failure he cited include the remarkably obvious skipping of an important step in product development: running a trial[MSFT]. If a drug company did this, DEA would vanish them overnight, literally if not financially. Yet with virtually no pilot program, the Federal Department of Education made Common Core the law of the land, acting in its capacity as an administrative agency to create de-facto law without the involvement or consent of Congress. Gates threw money at it, DoE threw force-of-government muscle and even more money at it, and the results are disastrous, failing an entire generation of our children in a subject where foundational knowledge and skill is key to ongoing success--in other words, these kids have a house built on quicksand.

Ignoring the further technicalities, I want to focus on one of Gates purported statements that's part of this admission and its surrounding interviews. He was reported to have said, "If there is one thing I have learned, it is that no matter how enthusiastic we might be about one approach or another, the decision to go from pilot to wide-scale usage is ultimately and always something that has to be decided by you and others in the field."

The full extent of this statement of this is important. Common Core is perhaps the quintessential example of central planning. It was pushed through by a few bureaucrats and their well-funded, well-intentioned cronies to become the law of the land. In its enforcement, it was at best a carrot-shaped stick: schools were denied Federal funding if they did not adopt the program. At worst, it was a hammer used to pound districts and administrators with the audacity to ignore the "reward" for compliance. And all of this from an administrative agency that isn't even authorized to exist under the Constitution.

But more importantly, Gates' statement is revealing for this: it is an admission that the power of the individual is greater and more effective than the power of the state. Gates is saying, quite directly, that teachers, students, and parents (the ones "in the field") should be making the decisions for what is right for the individual student. I would never assume that Gates takes this as a lesson at that depth, and is starting to align his thinking with this more libertarian idea. In his view, I'm sure, "the field" stops at the school district, or even the state's education department, but the idea that it inures to the individual, particularly the student, is nonetheless present in the words.

But let that thought sink in a minute. Few businesses remain competitive or efficient without focusing on improving outcomes proportionally to the input (money and effort). In organizational management classes, college students learn that one of the most effective ways to achieve this goal is to decentralize and push decision-making down as far as possible. This almost always increases efficiency, quality, and productivity, with the added benefits of happier workers with greater job satisfaction and longer employment. The auto industry is often used as an example, where decades ago, American auto-makers were very top-down, while Japanese auto-makers took a decentralized approach where assembly-line workers could stop a running line and suggest a change to the process or the vehicle to improve quality, productivity, or safety. The result was not just better cars that crushed American car sales, but very high job satisfaction in the Japanese companies, and very low in the American companies despite unions negotiating higher wages. When Japanese companies began assembly here, they brought their ideas with them, and those eventually made their way into the American companies, to the benefit of us all.

Common Core, and the very existence of a Federal Department of Education, and its state equivalents, are collectivist-principled traps in which the individuals at the bottom--students--are treated like cattle in a factory farm. As these bureaucracies have grown, outcomes have gotten worse--student performance is down, on average, over the last two decades, and where it's not down, it's certainly not up in proportion to the dollars now being spent[FEE1]. The average public school district receives well over $10,000 per student per year of taxpayer money, yet we consistently under-perform countries that spend less[FEE][NCES1], and our inner-city school districts, among some of the wealthiest in the nation, fail at an alarming rate. Performance pressure on principals and teachers has reduced or in some cases eliminated recess, physical education, art and music.

Chinese Entrepreneur Jack Ma famously said recently, that American schools are still educating children for last century's jobs, not the jobs that will exist in their lifetimes[Ma]. This is not a revelation--any involved parent knows this. Teachers know this. Yet somehow, the Department of Education can't wrap its head around this idea over at least two decades of opportunity to do it, and even if it could make the choice, the 17-year failure of Common Core evidences the fact that it would likely be too slow to implement change to save the current generation of kids going into middle school today.

And yet, private schools, not beholden to the full brunt of bureaucratic enforcement in most cases, turn on a dime. Like a business (because they are a business), they compete for students, and so seek out ways to improve outcomes, including massive decentralization and teacher curriculum control. Things change mid-year, or mid-month, if they are not getting the expected results. Few public schools can compete with private on academic performance and student satisfaction--it happens, but it's an exception more than a rule. The free-market choice is the clear winner.

And of course, the ultimate free-market choice is homeschooling. The last two decades have brought a sharp increase in the number of homeschool students[NHERI]. There are certainly many reasons for this, and full disclosure, I am myself a homeschool parent to my two boys. Among our peers, one of the reasons we hear most often is Common Core and other mandated curricula, and the inability of their child to adapt to their prescribed methods rather than adaptable methods being applied to the child--and the overwhelming dislike of school and sense of failure that follow. We also frequently hear the need to escape the pervasive mandatory testing and the "teaching to the test" that is now at every level of public education. Homeschooling avoids these ills, and focuses deeply on critical thinking skills (the very skills Jack Ma calls for), and it shows: colleges and universities (notably the Ivy League) have been actively recruiting homeschooled students for some time not just because of their high academic performance, but independence, self-direction and other life skills[BI].

Common Core is a perfect example of why central planning fails. People are different, and learn differently. Times change, and the needs of the people change with the times. Yet despite any good intentions in design, in its heavy-handed implementation Common Core's top-down model set in motion the explosive growth of already expensive, slow-moving bureaucracies at every level from the state to the classroom that are unable to deal with these demands. It casually discarded decades of prior success in math curriculum, and removed choice from students and teachers, in favor of establishing a "one-size-fits-all" approach to teaching. It thus ignored every cry from teachers and parents that a one-way approach to teaching math, or anything else, denies the myriad different ways in which students learn. Equally deleterious, it contributed to the expansion of mandatory mass testing under the guise of evaluating student performance, when its true purpose was evaluation of program compliance--and there's little evidence any negative feedback from this process influenced the program itself. In a nutshell, it favored the needs of the state over the needs of the individual, and created a monstrous, tentacled bureaucracy that now consumes ever-increasing amounts of taxpayer money with no proportional improvement in outcomes. 

It is now clear that students of Common Core are worse off than their predecessors[HUFF]. It has unquestionably failed, at great expense to taxpayers in real dollars, and to students in confidence, skill, and fluency.

And the worst part of all, is that we all saw this coming, the entire electorate, and still most of the electorate voted for parties that promoted and supported it (both majors), again and again as the ship went down. And in a about a week, they'll almost surely do it yet again. SMH

[MSFT] Author's note: Microsoft users of the Gates era like myself are not surprised by this, as his business often conducted itself in exactly this way.

Publish Date
Tue, 30 Oct 2018 00:00:00 -0400