Are U.S. public schools failing, and if so, will implementing Common Core and next-generation tests as part of school accountability correct those failures?

At Valerie Strauss’s The Answer Sheet, Gerald Graff, an English professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has challenged Diane Ravitch’s stance on the both public schools and Common Core, which he characterizes as follows:

“Public education is not broken,” says Diane Ravitch in her new book, “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.”  The “diagnosis” of the corporate reformers “is wrong,” Ravitch writes, and their solutions are also wrong.  “Our urban schools are in trouble because of concentrated poverty and racial segregation.  But public education as such is not ‘broken,’” and “the solutions proposed by the self-proclaimed reformers have not worked as promised.”

Ravitch’s argument — that the real problem is not public education but its would-be reformers — has become a familiar one for opponents of current attempts to reform the American educational system.  Like most such opponents, Ravitch concedes that the system is far from perfect, but she argues that the causes lie in social conditions outside education, in “concentrated poverty and racial segregation,” as she puts it, and in the false story of a broken system that reformers disseminate in order to justify privatizing education and enriching themselves.  So goes this argument.

Graff concludes: “I don’t buy it.”

While he concedes that Ravitch is correct about the negative impact of poverty and inequity on schools as well as the failure of many aspects of the reform movement (“more charters, more standardized tests and fetishized test data, all of it used punitively, more privatization”), Graff argues that, based on his experiences as a professor, public schools are failing and poverty cannot be the sole cause: “Few of the college students I teach are poor and many are white, middle class, and relatively privileged, yet their command of basic skills of reading, writing, and critical thinking falls far short of their potential.”

And thus, Graff aligns himself with the promise of Common Core standards, “which focus on precisely these ‘college readiness’ skills that my students not only struggle with but don’t seem to have been told are important” (See Mercedes Schneider’s response to Graff’s endorsing Common Core).

First, Graff’s characterization of Ravitch, I think, distorts how public school effectiveness should be described (and likely Ravitch’s position).

Public education is not failing the ways that reformers claim, typically based on raw test score comparisons (year-to-year in the U.S., international, state-to-state) and sweeping charges about “bad” teachers, public school monopolies (and lack of choices), and the negative influences of the status quo (often code for “unions”).

However, public schools are failing as they are overburdened by out-of-school influences (as long as we focus on standardized test scores, that influence remains the dominate problem facing education reform) and in the ways in which they perpetuate those social inequities (for example, tracking, inequitable discipline practices such as zero tolerance policies, rising segregation in public and charter schools, and inequitable teacher assignment including commitments to Teach for America for high-poverty minority students).

But the larger public school failure (the one I believe at the root of Ravitch’s “Public education is not broken”), however, is not that public education is failing the U.S., but that so far, we have failed public education. In other words, Ravitch’s argument is a call to reconsider our commitment to public education as part of the essential Commons and the need to reject market-based critiques and reform for that institution.

Here, Graff ignores that much of Ravitch’s Reign is, in fact, a call for reforms—which would be an odd thing to do if she in fact held as Graff claims that public schools are fine as they are.

Next, Graff’s reasons for endorsing the Common Core are ironically the reasons Common Core standards will never address the failures of public schools.

Since Graff and Ravitch highlight that public education struggles under the weight of poverty and inequity, we must acknowledge that there is nothing about Common Core (or any aspect of the accountability movement based on standards and testing) that addresses those inequities; in fact, a great deal of evidence suggests that high-stakes accountability simply labels inequity and often increases inequity—along with failing to achieve the goals often associated with accountability-based reform.

For example, there is nothing in Common Core that will change African American males being disproportionally suspended and expelled, nothing that will change African American and impoverished students attending majority-minority schools that are underfunded and staffed by inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers, nothing that will insure that minority and high-poverty students will have access to high-quality courses (such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate), and nothing that will end the disproportionate retention of minority and male students (in fact, a growing trend of the accountability movement is retaining third grade students based on high-stakes test scores).

Finally, and directly drawn from Graff’s concerns about college students not burdened by poverty, is the claim that those students are not well prepared by public education.

Setting aside that every generation has bemoaned the failure of the children coming after them (including Aristotle), we must ask why those students appear not prepared for the demands of college work.

The answer, for example, lies in Graff’s experience with students analyzing text and writing original essays.

Applebee and Langer have explored what students are asked to do as student writers in middle and high schools. Their research reveals a powerful, but damning dynamic: English teachers of middle and high school know more than ever about best practices in the teaching of writing, but students do little extended writing and much of that best practice is never implemented in U.S. classrooms.

Applebee and Langer’s research appears to expose why Graff finds his students ill prepared for college demands related to text analysis and writing, but the most important pattern found by Applebee and Langer is the reasons students are not be challenged are the inordinate high-stakes demands of the standards and testing era under which U.S. public schools function.

College-bound students, currently and over the past thirty years, have disproportionately spent their time in English classes learning to write to prompts for AP exams, high-stakes state tests, and, since 2005, the one-draft, 25-minute essay on the SAT.

As a writing teacher of freshman at a selective liberal arts university, I can attest that Graff’s characterization of students’ ability to write autonomously and with authority is lacking, but unlike Graff, I recognize that the problem is grounded in high-stakes accountability.

I also recognize that the historical record of standards and testing reveal that Common Core and next-generation tests will not change the entrenched failures of the accountability era, and Common Core has no mechanism to shift traditional failures of public schools (the inequities I have identified above).

In the end, Common Core is continuing to dig even after we have found ourselves in a pointless hole.

As Deborah Meier explains, even if Common Core standards do align better with college readiness (and that claim falls short), we are still asking too little of students with that goals.

And that is the problem, ultimately, with standards-based education and education reform.

If schools are failing to meet the needs of children living in a free society—and they are—that failure can be traced to the narrowing of teacher and student expectations—the one guaranteed consequence of standards-based education about which we have ample evidence.

In ten years, political leaders and the public will be decrying the failures of public education, professors such as Graff will still bemoan the inadequacies of their students, and we will again hear demands for yet another round of new standards and new tests—standards and tests that must be world-class and address college readiness. And Common Core will be placed on the shelf with all the other disappointing trophies to how we continue to fail universal public education.