By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
It is not surprising that the debate over the federal government’s attempt to set standards for the nation’s schools through the Common Core curriculum grows more intense with each passing day. Most Americans had never heard of Common Core until a few months ago. It seems the more people learn about it, the more alarmed they become. M.S.D. of Wyoming writes to join those who protest the manner in which Common Core unnecessarily and unwisely increases the federal government’s control over our local schools: “The fundamental problem with Common Core is that the federal government has neither the power nor the authority nor the competence to meddle at all in education. None.”
M.S.D. then asks the question that troubles many Americans. Americans with traditional values tend to reflexively favor the establishment of “standards.” It implies an attempt to achieve excellence, to raise up underperforming segments of society when those segments seem incapable of reforming themselves from within. But that is not always the case. It depends upon who is setting the standards.
“Who exactly,” asks M.S.D., “is behind the Common Core standards that have surfaced to date? Is it really the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School officers? Those people are responsible to the voters of their individual states. Did these groups have any sort of widespread ‘dialogues’ with the people of their states to determine what was needed in their own state? Who exactly wrote the standards that have come out so far, and to whom are those who put together the standards responsible? Why have not the standards been made public and subjected to rigorous debate?
“And why was it decided that federal officials should assume the responsibility for the standards? Where is the funding coming from? The taxpayers, whom one would assume would have the right to ask questions about the standards and to be answered in good faith? Or have various ‘foundations’ with mega-millions of dollars at their disposal and behind-the-scenes agendas been the force behind Common Core?”
The answer to M.S.D.’s question makes a difference. M.S.D. encourages us to focus on the fact that, often enough to matter, modern American foundations see themselves as agents of change for the purpose of undermining traditional values and “enlightening” middle-Americans about the value of the secular liberal agenda. The Ford Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation come to mind.
M.S.D. proceeds to ask if there may be a connection between Common Core and the resistance to charter schools in much of the education establishment. “From what I have seen, charter schools using core knowledge as the centerpiece of their educational philosophy and actual teaching far outstrip their public school counterparts when it comes to students’ test scores. Why are so many states so antithetical to charter schools? Could it be the multiple millions of federal (‘taxpayers’) education dollars that come attached to Common Core?”
On another topic: the rising percentage of women in our liberal arts colleges and in law schools and medical schools, in contrast to the ongoing pattern of women being underrepresented in schools of engineering. This topic was raised in the October 17 edition of First Teachers. Is this discrepancy a moral and legal issue? Does it indicate “prejudice” of some sort, the existence of an injustice requiring corrective measures through the force of law? Do varying percentages of different races, sexes, and religions in our institutions indicate collusion by those in power? Or might there be innate differences that explain why these differences occur?
Specifically, why are there so few women in schools of engineering? Obviously, it cannot be a lack of intelligence in women. Law schools and medical schools require high scores on standardized tests, as well as ranking at the top of one’s class. H.A.L. writes to offer his observations based on his many years as a professor of engineering. “The desire for race and sex equality started decades ago. In the late 1980s the engineering department at the school where I taught decided to join (or perhaps was directed to join) the push to obtain more women students. At the time, we had perhaps 1-3 percent of women in the school of engineering.
“Offering as an explanation the idea that men and women were different, with different personalities and career aspirations, was unmentionable in that era of ascendant feminism. So we set up an outreach program promoting engineering among the high schools in our part of the state. In addition, we would have weekend programs to give women a taste of our engineering programs.
“The result? We increased our enrollment to perhaps 4 or 5 percent. At what cost, I don’t know, but lots of manpower went into this effort. But we came nowhere near a 50 percent enrollment of women. After reading the article in The Wanderer about the underrepresentation of women in schools of engineering, I got on the phone to one of my old cronies familiar with the engineering situation around the country. His response was that engineering is still only about 4-5 percent women.”
Does H.A.L. have an explanation for the discrepancy? He does. He argues that women “just don’t want to get their hands dirty, I guess.” We know what H.A.L. means. Except that not all departments of engineering require that students work in a hands-on manner with oily machinery or on dusty construction sites. Some do — civil engineering, petroleum engineering, and automotive engineering, for example. But the same cannot be said of electrical engineering and computer software engineering. Why are women underrepresented in these fields, too?
Perhaps the answer is a version of the old nature versus nurture discussion. If women are not “born” to not be engineers, perhaps it is just a question of when and how — and if — engineering will be seen by women as an attractive profession. It can be argued that women will never be suited for — and therefore never will be attracted to — the career of an automobile mechanic, lumberjack, and deep-sea diver. But there was a time when the same thing was said about police work and the practice of medicine and law. That changed once women decided that these professions were attractive career choices. Engineering may be the next on the list. Or it may not. We await our readers’ reactions.
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Readers are invited to submit comments and questions about this and other educational issues. The e-mail address for First Teachers is email@example.com, and the mailing address is P.O. Box 15, Wallingford, CT 06492.