UPDATE (May 14, 2014): The blog below was post by Diane Ravitch, who was appointed to public office by both Presidents George H.W. Bush (From 1991 to 1993, Ravitch served as Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander) and Bill Clinton (Ravitch was appointed by the Clinton administration’s Secretary of Education Richard Riley in 1997 and reappointed by him in 2001). Secretary of Education, Richard Riley appointed her to serve as a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which supervised the National Assessment of Education Progress. __________________________________________________________________
Common Core State Standards (CCSS) proponents assert that consistent, rigorous education standards are key to a competitive business climate. Yet, advocates of CCSS and standardized assessments such as Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and ACT fail to acknowledge that the standards currently imposed on public education are faulty, inappropriate, and inaccessible to most students. They are in no way a means to this idealistic end.
There is no argument curriculum should be consistent and rigorous, yet standards must meet the needs of the population they serve and not pigeonhole students into a category in which they do not belong. Both PARCC and ACT assume all students will pursue a career requiring post-secondary education offered through a four-year college or university. This just simply is not the case. There are multiple intelligences, and students are unique in terms of their goals and aspirations; they do not define success in the same manner and cannot be crammed through the same academic filter. Not to mention, high school students are still in the process of developing cognitively. These are some of the more obvious flaws, yet there is another much more subtle shortcoming.
ACT and PARCC are standardized assessments that are inaccessible to most students, using text that is too complex and requiring a level of cognition that is completely inappropriate. They are designed as a filter and used to skim the “cream” off the top of the bell-shaped curve. Students who fall into the category of “cream” are admitted into the best colleges and are eligible for scholarships based on their “academic merits”.
What advocates of standardized testing fail to understand is that both ACT and PARCC promote students who demonstrate the wrong type of intellectual functioning by filtering for those who are highly developed in mental processing requiring specific parts of the brain, such as rote memory and language for example. Students who display this type of acute cognitive processing function at a lower level of intellect than those who process information conceptually.
Take, for example, a child who was born with sight but later in life became blind – Ray Charles. When a specific part of the brain became inactive, his sight, the neurotransmitters that brought information to and from this part of the brain diverted to support other parts of his brain. Ray Charles lost his sight, but his senses of hearing, touch, and smell became more acute. This is because these senses were enhanced by the neurotransmitters that once supported his sight.
People who have specific areas of their brain that are highly developed, such as the area of the temporal lobe that processes language auditorily, are lacking support from neurotransmitters in other areas of the brain such as the occipital or frontal lobes, which manipulate information visually or implement problem solving and reason. Therefore, these learners remember much, but they are cognitively weak in areas that would support a heightened conceptual ability, and consequently apply this knowledge to very little.
The same memory can be stored in a variety of different areas of the brain, depending upon how that memory is processed. For example, the same memory can be stored in the occipital lobe, temporal lobe, and parietal lobe if it was seen, heard, and manipulated. Yet, research shows that when two tasks are done simultaneously that require different parts of the brain, the amount of brain activation in both brain regions is reduced, “It appears that the brain has limits and can only do so much at one time,” argues Marcel Just, a psychology professor and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “You can’t just keep piping new things through,” he said, and expect the brain to keep up.” Earlier studies show that, “. . . when a single area of the brain, like the visual cortex, has to do two things at once, like tracking two objects, there is less brain activation than occurs when it watches one thing at a time,” Just said. This research shows that those who demonstrate heightened ability to perseverate on tasks requiring support from a specific region of the brain will lack the support of other regions of the brain.
A brain that actually is highly cognitively developed is one that processes information conceptually. In this case, neurotransmitters provide balanced support to multiple areas of the brain, not specific areas. This learner may not process information as quickly, and it may take repetition to commit information to memory, but when this learner processes information, he makes connections – his learning is deep learning. A person with such brain functioning can see the whole, and can understand how the parts effect the whole, rather than perseverate on specific details. Those in roles of leadership should be “big picture”, wholistic thinkers – the lines. Those in subordinate positions should be “the detail people” – the dots, as is evident in Duncan’s pitiful functioning as Secretary of Education.
Albert Einstein didn’t just regurgitate the academic processes of mathematics and science, rather he understood how a formula produced a parabola; which is a slice of a cone; which is a geometric figure influenced by the physical properties of space and time; and these physical properties not only affected the cone, but also those of similar geometric construction throughout the universe, and etc. Einstein made connections – his mental processes consisted of lines, not dots. In addition, he didn’t just ‘come up with the right answer’, he perfected his formulas over time and persevered despite error after error, setback after setback.
The “cream” that proponents of CCSS and standardized testing should attempt to identify are those found beneath the top ten percent of that bell-shaped curve. They should look for learners who do not perseverate on detail, but those able to contemplate and connect the dots. Dots who are not connected will ineffectually produce imbalance, disharmony, and dysfunction. This would not promote a competitive business climate – just an educated guess, from a line.
Something I purposely left out of earlier versions of this article is that the relationship between the ‘Conceptual Thinker’ and the ‘Detail Thinker’ is symbiotic. One is not, in fact, better than the other; one needs the other. Without the ’Detail Thinker’, the ‘Conceptual Thinker’ will overlook important information, yet without the ‘Conceptual Thinker’, the ’Detail Thinker’ will not be able to see the ‘big picture’. The ’Detail Thinker’ should never be placed in a managerial position; it is the ’Conceptual Thinker’ who was designed for this role.
The reason I left this part out was to make the classic ‘Blue Eyes vs. Brown Eyes’ argument. I wanted, if only for a moment, for those who have been given a prominent position in our society along with all of the educational, financial, and societal perks to know what it feels like to be considered ‘less than the best’, a feeling long felt by those beneath the top ten percent of the bell-shaped curve. And, if only for a moment, I wanted those beneath that top ten percent to be that top ten percent.
I stand by every point I made in earlier versions, but I must add that, in truth, we all need each other.