Ghanan-American Immigrant Speaks Out Against Common Core   15 comments

ALMA O  Guest Post by Alma Ohene-Opare

Raise your heads out of the dust and realize that America is great because America bucked against the status quo. Thinking a standardized and common core curriculum is innovative is like discovering water in the ocean and patting yourself on the back for it. This system is not new. Its greatest success was to create a conforming working class for the industrial revolution. It is not fit for a dynamic 21st century that needs constant innovation and the confidence to create new solutions to the problems that continue to beset and confound the smartest minds in the world. ”

Alma Ohene-Opare, now a Utahn, is originally from Accra, Ghana.  Alma came to the U.S. at age 19, primarily because of what he called “America’s innovative educational system.”   He said, “I was educated from K-12th grade in a Common-Core-like educational system.  My family (who owns and runs a private K-12 institution) battles daily because of the system.The end result is seemingly educated (on paper) graduates, with no ability to think for themselves, solve problems or innovate in any way. Parents and teachers alike have become conditioned to place the standardized tests at the forefront of education, leading to what we call in Ghana, “Chew and pour, pass and forget.” Here is his story.


Common Core – A Failed Idea Newly Cloaked in the Robes of Good Intentions


My name is Alma Ohene-Opare, an alumnus of BYU and a native of Accra, Ghana. Over the past few months, I have followed with much amusement, the nationwide debate for or against the adoption and implementation of the Common Core standards. The arguments have been fierce and passionate on both sides and seem to stem from a universal desire to raise the quality of education in America. The desire is noble. However, this noble desire will not compensate for or mitigate the empirically documentable effects of the failed policy being proposed.


Common Core may be new to America, but to me and the thousands who have migrated to the United States to seek better educational opportunities, it is in large part the reason we came here. If you are wondering what qualifies me to make the assertions I will make in this article, know this; I am one of the few victims of a standardized national education system in Ghana, who was lucky enough to escape its impact. I am also a member of the Board of Directors of a private K-12 institution in Accra, Ghana. Golden Sunbeam Montessori School was founded by my mother in 1989 and is currently leading the fight to rid our country of an educational system that has led to the systematic degradation and deterioration of our human capital.


Let’s get to the core of my argument; pun intended. What Americans are calling Common Core is eerily similar to my educational experience growing up in Ghana. In Ghana, K-12th grade education was tightly controlled by the Ghana Education Service, an organization similar to the US Department of Education. From curricula to syllabi to standardized testing, the government controlled everything.


In 9th grade, all students, in order to progress to high school are required to take a standardized exam known as the B.E.C.E, which stands for Basic Education Certification Examination. Depending on the results of the test, each student is assigned by a computer program to a public high school without regard to his or her interests, passions or ambitions. Each student is then assigned an area of focus for the next three years. Some of the focus areas are General Science, Business Management, General Arts, Visual Arts, Home Economics, Agriculture, etc.


Although things may have changed slightly since I graduated, most students generally did not have a choice as to which area of focus they were assigned. The only way to get a choice was to ace the standardized exam or to call in a favor either through bribery or some other type of corruption. The students who failed miserably were usually those who attended public schools; many of whom dropped out of school entirely.


The process was then repeated at the end of High School with another standardized exam called the W.A.S.S.S.C.E. This exam tested your readiness for college and ultimately determined which course of study you were assigned by the government in college. I did not ace that exam and did not get admission into the state run college of my choice. Instead, I went to a private university founded by a former Microsoft employee and was found smart enough to be admitted to BYU a year later as a transfer student, to graduate with a Bachelor’s in Information Technology and to be hired right out of college as a Program Manager at Microsoft Corporation.


Although the education system in Ghana is not similar in all aspects to Common Core as it is being proposed today, some of the basic tenets are the same. The curriculum was controlled by an external body without input from or accountability to teachers, individual schools or parents. Some argue that teachers and parents have control in Common Core. It pains me to witness such naivety. That myth has always been an inevitable play by proponents of any centralized system. The goal is to make people think they are in control while nudging them blindly towards a perceived public interest. The truth is simple; the institution that controls the exams, controls the curriculum.


By controlling the standardized exams, each school in Ghana was forced to make passing the exam its primary focus rather than actual teaching and learning. Hence anything that was deemed outside the purview of the test was cast aside and treated as non-important. Extra-curricular activities were cut if not totally eliminated and the school day was lengthened to ensure that students had even more time to prepare for the test.


In my case, school started at 6:00 am and ended as late as 6:00 pm. We attended school on Saturdays. Even when school was out we still attended school half day. Our lives were consumed with preparation for the standardized test. We all had booklets of past tests going back 15 years. Those who anticipated failing the test registered in advance to retake the test. The value of teachers was measured solely on the performance of their students on the standardized tests. Scammers who purported to know what would appear on the tests duped schools, parents and teachers alike by selling bogus test questions. Schools with political connections always unanimously aced the tests.


You may wonder why nobody ever tried to change the system. The answer was simple. The government made it impossible by requiring all students who wanted to go to High School or College to take the test. Hence, any time spent trying to change the system meant time taken away from preparing for the test. Parents became completely beholden to the system and would threaten to take the kids to other schools if administrators spent any time not preparing their kids for the test.


Now that you have a sense of how an education system can become trapped in the death spiral of standardized tests, let me interest you with the impact of this system on actual student outcomes. In Ghana, we had a phrase to describe how we felt about standardized tests. We called it “chew and pour, pass and forget”. Translated, it means memorize, regurgitate, pass the exam and forget everything.


Unfortunately that has become reality for many graduates of our educational system. As my father put it in a recent petition to the Ghana Education Service, “the education system in Ghana is akin to an assembly line setup by the government to create employees for an economy largely devoid of innovation, entrepreneurship, originality or risk taking”. Because students never learn to solve problems or think critically for themselves and are largely discouraged from challenging their teachers or the status quo, they are inevitably groomed to maintain the failed traditions of the past while believing they are completely powerless to change anything. The result is the fact that even with an abundance of natural resources, the country in general continues to suffer in the doldrums of socio-economic development without any clear path out of it.


Recently my brother left a well-paying job in the US to return to Ghana to take over my parent’s school. He had dreams of changing the system. He imagined students groomed to become innovators and entrepreneurs. He soon learned it was impossible to achieve any of those dreams if the school was to remain subject to the rules, restrictions and common standards the government had set. The only solution was to completely abandon the system, which he fears would cause parents to withdraw their children from the school. He is now stuck in the limbo of a catch 22 but continues to fight to win students, teachers and parents over to a new beginning for the education of their children.


In December 2012, I returned to Ghana with my family and had the opportunity to speak to 10th grade students at the school. I gave what I thought was an inspiring speech. I proposed to start an innovation and entrepreneurship club which will employ students to identify and propose solutions to some of the problems facing the country. I promised to provide the capital and resources necessary to support these kids in this new challenge. I ended by asking the kids who were interested to write their names on a piece of paper and email it to me. It’s been more than 18 months since I returned. I have received nothing and I don’t blame them. Their parents have paid a large sum of money because they believed our school would help their kids pass the standardized exam. I was not about to distract them from that goal. What a tragedy.


I have personally wondered what makes Africa so uniquely challenged in its attempts at economic development especially when all the innovations needed to do so are readily available to us. I came to a personal conclusion which admittedly is not scientific but captures what I believe to be the elusive culprit. It is contentment with mediocrity and a lack of curiosity to change the status quo. The problem is not inherent in the nature of Africans but rather the imposition of an educational system that burned out the light of innovation and made us content to live on the spoils of the countries brave enough to venture into the glory of the unknown.

When I came to the US, many people would ask what the difference was between the US and Ghana. I responded that in Ghana, I could dream. In America I can do.


In writing this article, I am by no means endorsing the current state of public education in the United States. The problem with the system today is that the US government, aided by self-interested unions, has spent decades and billions of dollars trying to return to a system of education that America abandoned a long time ago; a system which has proven a failure in many parts of the world. Common Core is just the latest iteration of the failed system. Like a wise man once said, oh that I were an angel and could have the wish of my heart; to stand on the mountain top to warn against the path you are choosing to take. As an outsider looking in, I recognize one thing that most Americans lack. Because America has been free for so long, many have no sense of what tyranny looks like and how quickly physical and intellectual freedom can be lost on the path paved with good intentions.


I plead with all you well-intentioned but definitely misguided administrators, teachers and politicians. Raise your heads out of the dust and realize that America is great because America bucked against the status quo. Thinking a standardized and common core curriculum is innovative is like discovering water in the ocean and patting yourself on the back for it. This system is not new. Its greatest success was to create a conforming working class for the industrial revolution. It is not fit for a dynamic 21st century that needs constant innovation and the confidence to create new solutions to the problems that continue to beset and confound the smartest minds in the world.


America is desperate to find a solution to a problem that you solved decades ago. Return to originality. Put teachers and parents in charge of the education of their children. Encourage critical thinking that rejects conformity for the sake of some perceived societal benefit. Teach children to solve problems and not just to regurgitate the solutions of generations past. I have been silent too long and have now seized this opportunity to stand up for what I believe, which ironically is something I have learned from my experience in America.


America, I urge you to learn from the mistakes of those around because, like the plaque in my former bishop’s office read, “you may not live long enough to make all those mistakes yourself.”


–Alma Ohene-Opare, Salt Lake City, UT




15 responses to “Ghanan-American Immigrant Speaks Out Against Common Core

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  1. Excellent. Please forward my thanks to this courageous young man.

  2. I second that comment from Kimberly Call!

  3. This is great perspective from one who had experienced the highly centralized educational system that relies on high stake standardized tests. “Chew and pour, pass and forget.” So true! I too was a product or victim of such schooling in China.

    What is really scary is that some victims of such educational system seemingly have permanently lost the ability to think for themselves, even after they moved to an environment that allows and encourages free thinking. I’m referring to some of my fellow immigrants in the states who refuse to see the colossal errors in Common Core and fail to recognize how much it resembles the system in our mother country.

  4. How bout instead of making kids solve the unattainable esoteric problems educated adults cannot solve, like world peace and general poverty for example, we first educate them with basics like American history that is not slander against them and geography so they know where the heck they are in the big global situations thrown at them and who runs these places and historic relationships between countries major milestones in civilization and how to read write and speak eloquently with proper and a broad vocabulary. Read great literature maybe in latin or italian or german or french or sanskrit. Having an arsenal of information and skill is what kids need. They know how to think, they are human. Suggesting that children need to learn from a curriculum how to think is like suggesting that we need to teach fish in the ocean how to swim.
    The problem that is ignored is that children are not human capital like hogs or cattle serving a purpose to be counted and penned but they are human beings with brains and souls to be filled with the beauty and goodness of the world, they will be able to think just fine. The propaganda jargon mixes up these facts with utility and skill only disregarding truth. If you deny the truth and the facts and the stories of our human story you get robots. Teaching kids to be leaders and entrepreunors without the ability to read or diagram a complex sentence is a futile smokescreen to feature critical thinking lifelong learning college and career excellence grit rigor and all other propaganda misleading slogans that are hiding the stupidifying of the worlds students now called common core and funded by this authors employer Microsoft and bill gates, who stands to profit greatly from all of this mess.

  5. The Ghanaian system of education bears no resemblance to American education, with or without Common Core. He can only make these claims because most of you have not lived and taught overseas, as I have. I have conducted Master Teacher workshops in Mexico, Iraq, and Myanmar (Burma), and have done workshops twice in Accra in the last year. African education systems, typical of many post-colonial systems in the Third World, are characterized by rote memorization of school texts that are shared across the country, and then regurgitated on national exams. By contrast, there are no standardized curricula under Common Core, the CC standards value critical thinking over rote memorization, and assessments AND standards are developed by consortia and non-profit education foundations, not by a national Department of Education. Believe me, if you or your child had spent just a day in a typical school in Accra, you could never read this post without laughing. There are modest issues with Common Core standards, and serious issues in some states with high-stakes testing. But uninformed and extreme posts like these are probably doing more harm to your cause than good.

    • Steven, I can only make these claims because I lived under the system for 19 years. I also was a teacher in that system for 3 years. My parents are fighting the system as we speak. I stated in my article that the system in Ghana is not exactly like the common core as it is being proposed today but some tenets are similar. I am not making an apples to apples comparison between Ghanaian education and common core. I am just warning that any system of top down education will never live up to its goals however noble they may appear. Americans who support common core cannot point to one objective study (prove me wrong if you can) that can substantiate the claims made by the proponents of common core. Common Core as it stands today is a grand experiment which for all intents and purposed bribed States to adopt it by tying it to Race to the Top funding. I don’t know about you but I do not wish my children to used as lab rats to test some business leader’s ideas about how education should work across the country. If they feel they have a better system, they should start a private school, test the system, publish independent results on the outcomes and then give parents, teachers and students the choice to participate. Can you refute my assertion that the institution that controls the tests controls the curriculum whether implicitly or explicitly? Spending a few weeks overseas is hardly evidence of an understanding of how things actually work in 3rd world countries. That’s the mistake many foreigners make.

      • First, many thanks for your reply.

        What the U.S. looks like after Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is not Ghana, but the U.S. before CCSS. I would suggest you do some research on Common Core before posting, instead of relying on what your hosts are telling you, or on highly partisan websites like this one. An EBSCO search turns up over 800 peer-reviewed articles in scholarly journals on CCSS. That would be a good place to start. The experiences of teachers in one of the states that has relied on CCSS since 2010 would be another good starting point. Teacher surveys show that teachers generally feel positively about Common Core standards. Here’s one from 2013:

        Click to access epe_survey_teacher_perspctives_common_core_2013.pdf

        Second, there is, and there should be, a strong relationship between curriculum, assessment, and standards. I hope that you don’t disagree with this statement! Presumably, even before CCSS, publishers created curriculum for teachers in Utah that would help them teach to the standards existing at that time. I assume that this did not create standardization of curriculum and teaching in Utah, and it doesn’t with CCSS In fact, with CCSS, there can be even more diversity of curriculum. The standards are generally skills-based and not knowledge-based. If the skill is, say, comparing and contrasting viewpoints in two articles, it is up to the teacher or school to develop curriculum (or to choose curriculum) to help students attain this standard. This didn’t, and doesn’t, induce conformity of teaching practice.

        Third, we can’t even refer to “the test,” as there will be multiple different assessments depending on the state. There are two major consortia (PARCC and SBAC) that will be using adaptive testing, drawing on an immense test bank. This means that no two tests are the same, so it is really not possible to ‘teach to the test’ in the old-fashioned way. There are a number of states relying on CCSS standards that are not part of any consortia. These states are developing (or contracting out) their own assessments. And there are a number of states that are using standards similar but not identical to CCSS. There is nothing ‘top-down’ about this model.

        I’m not arguing that there are no flaws in CCSS, or in its implementation, or in assessments based on CCSS (which is another issue altogether). I am simply arguing that U.S. education under CCSS does not and will not resemble Ghanaian education. It will remain uniquely American, somewhat piecemeal, with teachers enjoying as much autonomy as their districts and schools allow them, with a loose yet adequate set of standards in most states, with power to determine ed policy resting firmly with the states.* I write as an American teacher who has trained and taught extensively world-wide.

        Many thanks again for your response to my comment.

        *States have as much autonomy as they want. They may choose to sacrifice some autonomy to gain additional federal money. I’m not sure why you call this a bribe. The same thing happened with the drinking age. A number of years ago, the federal government disbursed highway construction funding to states that raised the drinking age from 18 to 21. No one spoke of bribes then (no one except 18-year-olds like myself at the time!). But even states with complete autonomy and no federal dollars (Alabama) have chosen to adopt CCSS.

        • My goal is to provide some perspective on what high stakes standardized testing can do to an educational system and its resulting effects on students. I don’t disagree with the notion of standards. My contention is that when standards are unilaterally imposed and then tested using exams, you stand the risk of creating a system where the focus becomes the tests and not actual learning. I was not a good test taker growing up. If my ability to go to college was dependent only on my performance on those tests, I would not have qualified.

          I believe in decentralization wherever it can be implemented. I believe the people closest to the problem are better equipped to resolve them. I disagree that a consortium of experts, no matter how noble their goals may be, have the ability to capture the true needs of individual schools and students. The model I recommend is the Charter School model where schools retain autonomy in determining what works best for their students. I understand there may be mistakes but those mistakes would be contained to a small number of students and can be easily corrected.

          All in all, I like the fact that we are talking about this rather than hurling insults.

          • Thanks again for your comments. If you dislike the idea of standards, then of course you wouldn’t have liked the American education system before Common Core either, as each state had its own set of standards. What you are describing could be a very progressive model. It could also be an extremely totalitarian model, as complete autonomy gives a school (teachers, parents, administrators) total control over a child’s learning, without the checks and balances that come with a broader based set of standards and expectations. I’m sure you’ve seen this happen in Ghana, too. Either way, good luck to you.

  6. Reblogged this on Common Core Migraine.

  7. I continue to be struck by commentors that SOUND articulate and expert (to the layman), but to someone who has taught in the California public school system the above poster Steven Davis does not describe an educational setting that I am at all familiar with. Even before Common Core, I found NCLB a pointless and mind numbing exercise for both students and teachers. I DID have to teach to the annual test, while also covering an overwhelming number of standards that only created a feeling of boredom and scripted learning for my students.

    In my view, [ I have a UC BA in English and a MA in psychology ] there is critical content that must be learned in every subject. Some information serves students best when it is memorized, like the multiplication tables and a sonnet by Shakespeare, but generally, learning can be a collaborative effort with appropriate assessments along the way, such as 3-D student presentations/dioramas/book reports/a speech/video documentary that show progress in mastering the concepts. Spending 75% of classroom time on preparing for multiple choice tests or inconsistent measures on how students can draw conclusions on irrelevant informational text is not authentic learning, and prevents teachers from truly understanding students’ conceptional skills and knowledge acquisition. The teacher is no longer in relationship with students’ evolving minds but merely a proctor/faciliator of tests. What are all these tests for when the teacher has barely had time to impart the content to the students? I seriously suspect that these are not tests to measure whether students are meeting learning standards but are in fact veiled psychological tests which can be used in countless data mining ways by marketers and social engineers.

    Public education is an opportunity for a society to educate its citizens to be thriving, self-sufficient individuals AND contributing members of society. Schools are NOT to treat children as experimental fodder owned by corporations and a centralized government. I think it might be time to return to 1870 and the one room school house. A credentialed teacher that was trusted by the community, making sure the students could read, write and do their arithmatic. Population may require many such schoool houses but the teacher is a real teacher and knows his/her students and the situation is manageable. School should not be a factory where Bill Gates gets to bilk US tax payers, getting rich forcing every American child to use his computers.

    • I completely share your vision of what American education can and should be. I’m sorry you taught (teach?) in a school system that required you to spend 75% of your time with test preparation. My experience is very different. I agree: we can certainly learn a lot from the one-room schoolhouse. However, none of this has much to do with the set of standards known generally as Common Core. Some states are creating flawed accountability systems, or carrying over the flawed system they had from NCLB. I hope that Utah will create accountability systems that have a more balanced assessment program than it had under NCLB. Good luck to you, from a fellow English teacher.

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