Parents versus Planners


Parents have dreams for their children. Sometimes, the dreams are specific; we want our children to play an instrument, enroll at our alma mater, or become engineers. Mostly, however, we want our children to do what will make them happy. If they want to try out for the school play, enroll in an out-of-state college, go to veterinary school, or enter the corporate world, great. If they want to drop out of college and teach ski lessons, well, maybe that wouldn’t be our first choice, but we will support them. Parents want the future to be wide open for their children.

Is that a realistic option in the modern world? Certain education reformers—let’s call them planners—think that our country can no longer afford to let children find their own way. According to planners, children need to be placed on certain college and career pathways. The name for this is a P20 system, and the way that it runs is through data collection.

The basic idea of a P20 system is to collect data on children from preschool (or prenatal) until the early years of their careers. If children satisfy conditions such as high test scores, then doors such as admission to state institutions of higher education open for them. If children do not test well, then they may be slotted for career and technical education. A P20 system, in theory, is a seamless pipeline from cradle to career. For advocates, this system helps policymakers identify what works in education and prepare young people for long-term success.

Schools have collected data on children for a long time, but things have been changing rapidly in the past two decades. The federal government greatly expanded its role in data collection with the passage of the Education Sciences Reform Act and the Educational Technical Assistance Act in 2002. Now, the Institute of Education Sciences of the U.S. Department of Education administers a program for states to build state longitudinal data systems. In 2009, New York won a $19,670,975 ARRA grant to create the “building blocks” of a P20 system that is transforming every corner of the public education system.

Here is a sketch of how the New York state longitudinal data system works. Initially, local education agencies collect data about students’ demographics, coursework, test scores, and teachers. This data is collected, formatted, and standardized before it is delivered to a state data repository. Then, this data is sent to the American Institute of Research to produce growth reports. With these reports, the state can identify a data linkage between teachers and students. In other words, the growth reports enable the state to identify which teachers help their students’ test scores grow more or less than predicted.

Though there has recently been a wrinkle in the state’s plans to use the end-of-year state tests for this purpose, New York continues to have a high-stakes testing regime that evaluates educators on how students perform on standardized tests. In my book, Learning versus the Common Core, I argue that this system pressures schools to narrow the curriculum to testable skills. Gone are the days when teachers could help children develop their unique gifts. This is enough reason for parents to protest the new educational paradigm.

But it gets worse. New York’s state data repository creates transcripts for students. This transcript determines if children may enter the state’s public universities (CUNY, SUNY) or other colleges in New York and out of state. The education department shares the transcript with the state agencies responsible for housing, workforce development, health and social services. The education department also gives this information to the armed forces and the department of correction services.

In short, the state is creating a permanent record for each student that follows them from age five (or before) until they get started with their adult lives.

Will this system benefit young people? Advocates of P20 say yes. But it also creates a condition ripe for abuse—at least if you believe that young people deserve second chances or that there are many ways to show your talents. For example, the state universities may determine that students need a certain score on a single standardized test to earn admission. But what if students shine in other ways?

There is a scene in the movie Interstellar (2014) where Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey, expresses a sentiment that many parents experience when they discover the details of a P-20 system.

Cooper: You’re ruling my son out for college now? The kid’s fifteen.

Principal: Tom’s score simply isn’t high enough.

Cooper: What’s your waistline? 32? With, what, a 33 inseam?

Principal: I’m not sure I see what you’re getting at.

Cooper: You’re telling me it takes two numbers to measure your own ass but only one to measure my son’s future?

Central planners are making themselves, in effect, gods who can determine children’s fates. But there is no reason that parents should accept this new arrangement. Young people deserve to have a wide range of options available to them.


Nicholas Tampio is professor of political science at Fordham University. He is the author of Learning versus the Common Core (Minnesota, 2019).

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