An Obama Administration education official wants school safety measurements – ”a data system so parents know what kind of environment a kid will encounter in a school” — included in the Common Core State Standards. And that has one prominent ed watcher asking if there’s a social agenda bait-and-switch in the works.
In an interview in Phi Delta Kappan magazine, Kevin Jennings, Assistant Deputy Secretary for Safe and Drug-Free Schools, says, “just as we have standards around academic goals, we need standards around school climate because what gets measured is what gets done.” The interviewer for the Kappan asks Jennings if he wants school climate standards included in the Common Core Standards, and Jennings says yes.
If we don’t get this one right, the other ones don’t matter. Right now, they’re really focused on the academic standards. This one is much newer…We’re still fighting over the definition of school climate. But I can promise you it does not include air conditioning. Once we have standards and a scientific way of measuring school climate, state and local authorities will be able to pinpoint which schools need improvement and implement policies and programs to drive that process.
At his new blog, the American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess reads Jennings remarks and says, “Seriously? A high-ranking administration official is telling us that the common standards being financed by $350 million in Race to the Top funds “start” with academics but will eventually encompass “school climate” standards too?” To Hess, Jennings desire to codify and measure whether kids feeling emotionally safe “sounds like a summons to social agendas, culture clashes, and political fisticuffs. In other words, the stuff that sinks standards.” Hess writes:
Mr. Jennings’ remarks raise concerns about the old bait-and-switch. If he is speaking for Secretary Duncan and the President, they seem to have been less than truthful so far when discussing their vision for common standards. If not, a President seeking bipartisan comity might want to encourage Mr. Jennings not to suggest that the Department is covertly planning to drive a massive 48-state effort into a familiar ditch…or to turn it into a Trojan Horse.
I agree that school climate is enormously important, but schemes that try to codify such conditions are fraught with problems. For a time, New York City principals were judged in part on school discipline–the fewer suspensions, the tighter your ship was perceived to be. Thus principals had every incentive not to suspend students, regardless of the infraction. No consequences meant no discipline, and some of the worst climates were the schools with the best numbers on paper.
Jennings was something of a lightning rod to political conservatives even before this interview. Now that Hess has asked if the Common Core standards are a social agenda Trojan Horse, I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot more chatter about Jennings’ remarks, a clarification from DOE, or both.
Update: At Eduwonk, Sara Mead thinks Hess has strayed into “tinfoil hat” territory. But two paragraphs later she worries that school climate surveys accountability “could water down accountability for academic outcomes.”
Update II: “We do not believe in national standards for school climate,” DOE’s Justin Hamilton tells me in a phone call. “Kevin Jennings was taken out of context.”