The Common Core: Far from Home

Michael Toscano

In Something in Common: The Common Core Standards and the Next Chapter in American Education, Robert Rothman lays out the fullest exploration of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) to date. Rothman, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education, is pro-Core. If done right, he tells us, the CCSS will heal what ails American K–12 education. According to Rothman, the standards writers have boldly led America into an educational “revolution.”1 But lest we fear that the revolution be too radical, he assures us that “the standards represent a compact between the states and their citizens.”2

Former governor of North Carolina, James B. Hunt—a long-time proponent of national standards and a major figure behind the Common Core—similarly asserts, “These new standards have not been imposed on states; they have emerged from states.”3 But, despite the assurances of Rothman and Hunt, the narrative that the CCSS are a “compact” with the citizens of states is simply falling apart.

In 2010, the CCSS in both English Language Arts and Mathematics were quietly and hastily adopted by forty-five states and the District of Columbia. (Minnesota adopted the English Language Arts standards only and so is not always counted in the total.)4 This incredible shift was so muted that, according to a May 2012 poll conducted by Achieve, Inc.—a Washington, D.C., nonprofit organization that was a formal partner in the standards’ development—79 percent of American voters knew “nothing” or “not much” about the Common Core.5

Indiana state senator Scott Schneider, who sat on the state Education Committee, had not even heard of the CCSS until two Indiana mothers contacted him, complaining about the new Common Core-aligned math curriculum their children were bringing home. At an Indiana Senate hearing in January 2013, Schneider commented, “Indiana’s standards adoption process before the Common Core was transparent and comprehensive.” He added, “It brought in parents, teachers, community, and business leaders. When we cede control of our standards, that voice is lost.”6

Although the National Association of Scholars (NAS), as an institution, is primarily concerned with higher education reform, NAS president Peter Wood—with whom I co-authored What Does Bowdoin Teach? How a Contemporary Liberal Arts College Shapes Students7—has widened our purview to include the Common Core, because it is one of the most significant educational transformations in the history of the United States.

The CCSS are a set of “common” K–12 standards in English Language Arts and Mathematics, with more to come in other subjects such as history.8 NAS is covering the Common Core from many sides—and not everyone agrees. For instance, William H. Young, former assistant secretary for nuclear energy under President George H. W. Bush, has written a series on the CCSS posted on that covers issues ranging from the emphasis on nonfiction texts to the controversy over whether they constitute a national curriculum. Young favorably quotes Robert Pondiscio, executive director of CitizenshipFirst: the Common Core is the “last chance to shock American education back to life.”9 In the Spring 2013 Academic Questions, Jane Robbins, senior fellow at the American Principles Project (and one of the most prominent critics of the Common Core), and Mark Bauerlein, English professor and a member of the Common Core English Language Arts Feedback Group, debated the quality of the content of the standards. Robbins sees the CCSS as “utilitarian,” as emphasizing “critical thinking” over “knowledge,” and as having a misplaced devotion to what are called “higher-order thinking skills.”10 Bauerlein admits that Robbins rightly criticizes the standards as utilitarian and too often steered “toward leftist…ends.”11 But he holds out hope that certain provisions in the standards—including the requirement that students “demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth century foundational works of American literature”—can be used by “traditionalists” as “a weapon” to combat the “historical ignorance and dumbed-down literary exposure” of high school students.12

To say that the Common Core is a set of “standards” is accurate as far as it goes, but this is also misleading. The standards, as the CCSS proponents often point out, are not a curriculum per se. They do not extend to that level of detail, which is left to the school districts to figure out, with guidance from their state bureaucracies. The standards do, however, summon extensive control in other directions. They entail a vigorous program of standardized testing envisioned as more in-depth than the testing regime imposed under the 2001 No Child Left Behind legislation.13 They also push schools toward a particular understanding of “college and career readiness,” and insist that the curriculum embody that understanding. The CCSS also entail extensive collection and preservation of data on student performance that will be permanently archived. The role of privately owned corporations in some of this archiving has proved to be among the most controversial aspects of the Common Core. None of these control mechanisms—standardized testing, the “college and career readiness” edict, and data collection—are discernible in the word “standards,” which makes the sometimes heated reaction to the CCSS confusing to casual observers.

This essay addresses the question of whether the Common Core is a “top-down” or a “bottom-up” initiative, an issue that resides at the heart of the controversy surrounding the standards.

Let me be up-front: the CCSS are inarguably a top-down initiative to which the states were forced to respond. But not every “top-down” is the same. The standards have emerged from a unique interlocking of powerful private, federal, and philanthropic interests. In short, the standards themselves were crafted behind closed doors by a bloc of policy entrepreneurs and private Washington-based organizations that had the heavy financial backing of the world’s most powerful mega-philanthropy, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The work of convincing the states to adopt the standards, however, fell to the U.S. Department of Education (U.S. ED). As the economy declined in 2009, states were informed by Arne Duncan, the United States Secretary of Education, in a June 14, 2009, speech that they would be allowed to “compete” for a piece of the Race to the Top Fund—a $4.35 billion slice of President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Duncan laid out four criteria for winning Race to the Top funds, including that states must “set internationally benchmarked standards and assessments that prepare students for success in the workforce and college.”14 To remove any ambiguity over which standards he had in mind, Duncan singled out the “common” standards being developed by Achieve, Inc., the National Governors Association, and the Council of Chief State School Officers—the three most significant institutions in the crafting of the CCSS.15 Duncan’s message was clear (if, technically, unspoken): only states that adopted the standards had a chance to win Race to the Top funds.

On July 29, 2009, the U.S. ED sent a notice to states that reinforced this message: if states hoped to win funds they must “comprehensively address” Secretary Duncan’s fourfold reform program in their applications. This was an “absolute priority.”16 States had to show their dedication to implementing common standards. By applying, states were committing themselves to common standards without guarantee of receiving funds.

The Race to the Top competition had two phases. Phase I began on November 18, 2009; applications were due on January 19, 2010. On March 21, 2010, the first draft of the CCSS was posted online for public comment. On March 29, 2010, Phase I winners were announced. On April 14, 2010, applications for Phase II commenced; applications were due on June 1, 2010. On June 2, 2010, after the application periods of both phases were completed, the final draft of the CCSS was published. The U.S. ED extended Phase II until August 2, 2010, so a state could show that it had “adopted common standards after June 1, 2010.” Phase II winners were announced on August 24, 2010.17

Forty-six states in total applied—only twelve states were awarded money.18 Emmett McGroarty and Jane Robbins, scholars with the American Principles Project, summarized:

To be competitive for a share of the $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund, Phase I applicants had to demonstrate a commitment to Common Core before even seeing a draft of the Standards. Phase II applicants had to adopt Common Core with, at most, two summer months to evaluate the Standards, compare them to their current standards, discuss the matter with their citizens, and commit to replace their standards with Common Core.19 (emphasis in original)

In his 2011 State of the Union Address, President Obama boasted: “For less than 1 percent of what we spend on education each year, it has led over 40 states to raise their standards for teaching and learning.”20

Pushing Parents to the Margins

The full effect of the states’ adoption of the CCSS will not be known for years to come. But the immediate effects are drastic enough. U.S. ED heavy-handed tactics have violated the internal democratic processes of states. In many instances during the application period state legislatures were out of session, so state boards of education acted unilaterally to adopt the standards. By truncating the time states had to assess the quality of the standards, Race to the Top effectively displaced the role of parents and local communities as decision makers in K–12 education.

And we should expect this marginalization to continue and increase. For while it is true that the standards alone do not constitute a curriculum, the curricula that schools will generate from here forward will be crafted to reflect their interpretations of the CCSS—not to reflect the desires of parents and local communities. Schools will become increasingly alien, colonizing units among communities that embody a different set of local traditions and values than the schools their children attend.

It would be naïve to suggest that the Common Core was the first attempt in the history of American education to take responsibility for K–12 schooling away from families. Rather, public (and much private) education has long been sliding toward “the nation.” As Americans we are so used to framing political issues in terms of federalism—which emphasizes state and federal differences—that we forget that families and states are not the same thing. But long before federal involvement with education, there was state involvement. At the end of the nineteenth century, according to education historian Diane Ravitch:

There was no American education “system.” There were thousands of district schools….Education was very much a local matter, controlled by lay school boards made up of businessmen, civic leaders, and parents. State education agencies were weak…each state had a department of education, but its few employees had little or no power over local school districts.21

This is difficult for us to imagine. Today, state education (even before the CCSS) involves large bureaucracies with heavy powers of oversight.

The Common Core has finalized a reframing of K–12 education that began long ago. K–12 education has been re-anchored in “the nation”—at the expense of the family and its surrounding community. Indeed, the standards themselves are copyrighted by two private organizations in Washington, D.C., which are not subject to the same accountability structures and transparency requirements as elected officials. According to the CCSS website, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers “shall be acknowledged as the sole owners and developers of the Common Core State Standards, and no claims to the contrary shall be made.”22

To whom can parents complain when their children come home with a book that threatens the values of their family?

Forty-Five States and Washington, D.C.—Now What?

But an odd thing has happened. Even though the standards were forced on the states by the heavy hand of the federal government, no structure—private, state, interstate, or federal—was put into place to govern them. A power vacuum has opened up. Many critics fear that the U.S. ED will rush in to fix this problem, which is, of course, of its own making.

For instance, Race to the Top applications required states to commit to participating in one of two national testing consortia, themselves financed by a separate pot of Race to the Top funds. The assessment consortia were established (1) to measure and compare state performances on implementing the Common Core, (2) with the intention that collected state scores would be used to keep states “accountable,” i.e., penalized for low student achievement.23 These assessments are crucial to the implementation of the CCSS. As Rothman puts it, “assessments make the standards concrete.”24 He does not exaggerate. And yet, despite how crucial assessments are to the success of the Common Core, no structure has been devised to ensure state “accountability.” Which institution will have the authority to penalize the states for low assessment scores? As of right now, there is no answer.

In fact, no structure has been established to provide continual governance of any aspect of the Common Core. In October 2010, the Fordham Institute, a proponent of the Common Core, published Now What? Imperatives & Options for “Common Core” Implementation & Governance, which observed, “Standards describe the destination that schools and students are supposed to reach, but by themselves have little power to effect change.”25 The report’s authors, Chester E. Finn Jr. and Michael Petrilli, feared that if a new governing structure is not developed, the CCSS will either be “corrupted or co-opted.” “Who,” they asked, “will ‘own’ the standards ten or twenty years from now? Who will be responsible for updating them?”26

Finn and Petrilli offered three different models for a governing structure of the Common Core. Rejecting the softer and harder governing models, they recommended an unrolling model, which would entail the establishment of an “interim coordinating body [that] may evolve into something more permanent or may itself make recommendations for long-term governance.”27

To date, Finn and Petrilli’s crucial questions have gone unanswered: no governing structure has emerged. But experts have their suspicions about what to expect. Jane Robbins, for instance, while noting that the situation is “still evolving,” has speculated that Common Core assessments are likely be tied to “Adequate Yearly Progress Requirements in No Child Left Behind,” or some “similar mechanism” resulting from Congress’s current debates on No Child Left Behind. “In other words,” she added, the U.S. ED “will probably eventually measure schools/states’ performance.”28

Some CCSS critics hope that early implementation failures will snowball into a full-scale demise of the standards. It’s just as likely that such problems will hasten the birth of a centralized authority structure called on to save the Common Core, which many see as the last and fullest hope of America’s public education system. Common Core’s failure could very well lead to stronger and stronger CCSS enforcement.

In the meanwhile, states are subject to educational standards copyrighted by organizations that hold no legitimate political authority, leaving parents and participating states without any legal recourse to alter them. To be sure, the bureaucratic structures and private interests associated with the CCSS are expanding rapidly even without a clear governing authority, and they will soon be an entrenched force. What is emerging is an extensive, irresponsive structure with a power vacuum at its heart.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Philanthrocapitalists

The U.S. ED has placed its full weight behind the CCSS, but had little to do with their development. The standards themselves were drafted under the umbrella of two private organizations—the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO)—both of which received millions of dollars from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to create them.

Other organizations, like Achieve, Inc., have also been granted millions from Gates for Common Core-related work, including advocating for them publicly. According to Joy Pullman, a research fellow of the Heartland Institute, Gates was not only the financial driver behind the development of the Common Core, he also heavily finances Common Core advocacy. For instance, she discovered, “Twenty-six of the 32 people who testified against a bill to withdraw Indiana from the Core are members of organizations the Gates Foundation funds.”29 According to Pullman, as of February 2013, “Gates has spent $163 million to develop the Core and corresponding curriculum, and to get lawmakers and business leaders to support it.”30

No person in America has had greater influence over the CCSS than Bill Gates. Through the concentrated financial influence of one charitable foundation, the education of over forty million American students—and the relationship among schools, parents, communities, state governments, and the federal government—has been radically altered. In the case of the Common Core, we are witnessing the beginning of a new political reality in which focused philanthropy can fully upend and reorder American society.

There is no doubt that throughout the nation’s history wealthy Americans have had an incredible effect on the political and social order. The influence of private interests on American politics has been scrutinized from countless angles over the last few decades and important controls, such as campaign finance reform and sunshine laws, have been set in place to check the power of the wealthy and to trace the routes of their money (admittedly, with varying degrees of success). But private philanthropies have been given much greater latitude. It is simply assumed that they are well-intentioned. They do charity, after all.

In the case of some foundations, however, like the Gates Foundation, charitable giving is frequently used to leverage policy on a wide scale. In May 2011, Allan C. Golston, president of the Gates Foundation’s United States Program, told the New York Times: “Over the next five or six years…the foundation expects to pour $3.5 billion more into education, up to 15 percent of it on advocacy.”31

Robin Rogers, associate professor of sociology at Queens College, CUNY, calls this “philanthro-policymaking.” In “Why Philanthro-Policymaking Matters,” Rogers recounts a crucial moment in philanthropic history:

In 2009…a select group of super wealthy met in New York to decide which of the world’s problems were most pressing and should be targeted by high-power philanthropic giving.32

Known as the Good Club, the group was “convened by Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and David Rockefeller, and is reported to include Ted Turner, Michael Bloomberg, George Soros, and others.”33 According to Rogers, “The Good Club identified global population growth as the problem to target.” She notes,

This is not a choice of a group concerned with public opinion. It veers into the murky waters of women’s reproductive rights and religious, cultural, and ethnic politics, and, not least, eugenics.34

One year after the meeting of the Good Club, “Bill Gates and Warren Buffett announced, in what became known as the Giving Pledge, that 40 American billionaires had pledged to give at least half their wealth to charity in their lifetime or at their death.”35 After population control, Rogers writes, “Education policy is where mega-philanthropists are making the most significant inroads.”36 Gates is spearheading the charge.

Philanthro-policymaking is not new. The reach of philanthro-policymakers, however, has expanded to global proportions, and domestically—as with the CCSS—their influence has grown to include social spheres previously off-limits. As Rogers points out, “With the economic crisis, the government is broken and broke, leaving a vacuum for the very rich to become more directly involved with the formation and implementation of social policy.”37

And yet, the most distinguishing feature of the Good Club is not its unforeseen entrance into new policy arenas, but rather its members’ business-managerial approach to philanthropy.

In 2006, the Economist published “The Birth of Philanthrocapitalism,” reporting: “The need for philanthropy to become more like the for-profit capital markets is a common theme among the new philanthropists.”38 These new “philanthrocapitalists,” the article continued, hoped to see philanthropy evolve in three key ways: that (1) “social entrepreneurs,” a new type of social actor, would provide innovative social goods for philanthropists to “invest in,” like a philanthropy market; (2) this philanthropy “market” would develop an “infrastructure, [which acts as] the philanthropic equivalent of stock markets”; and (3) “philanthropists themselves [would] behave more like investors.”39

While no such philanthropy market has materialized, a market orientation has indeed worked its way into the basic operations of philanthropic organizations. The real value of philanthrocapitalists, the Economist averred, is their freedom to experiment, to “take whatever risks they like with their money,” and to pilot “new models for welfare provision.”40 This is a sorely needed freedom, according to the Economist, because federal and state governments simply lack it.

Indeed, this risk-taking freedom of philanthrocapitalism has become the modus operandi of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Even in the crucial and deeply sensitive world of children’s education, the Gates Foundation has taken an entirely “experimental” approach. In fact, it is the Common Core’s embrace of untested pedagogy that has drawn some of the heaviest criticism.

In February 2013, Diane Ravitch, a long-time advocate of national standards, decided that she—after having “thought long and hard about the Common Core”—could not support them. The standards, she said, “are being imposed on the children of this nation despite the fact that no one has any idea how they will affect students, teachers, or schools. We are a nation of guinea pigs, almost all trying an unknown new program at the same time.”41

Similarly, James Milgram, professor emeritus of mathematics at Stanford, who sat on the Common Core Validation Committee, eventually refused to sign off on the standards. In his July 7, 2010, “Testimony to the California Academic Content Standards Commission,” he declared, “I feel that [with the CCSS] we are dealing with an experiment on a national scale.”42 Milgram was specifically referring to the Core’s “very unusual” approach to geometry, which “would generally be regarded as something that would be done in a college level geometry course for math majors.” It had been tried previously in Russia, he informed the commission, but it was “quickly rejected,” because it was “too non-standard, and basic geometric facts and theorems had to be handled in entirely new, untested, and ultimately unsuccessful ways.”43

In an essay critical of philanthrocapitalism, author David Bosworth focused on the “disturbing…scope and pace” of Gates’s educational experiments. He lamented the “rush to nationalize reforms that have either yet to be proven or have even been shown to be largely ineffective.” This is “the sign of an ideologue,” Bosworth wrote.44

As the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has proven through its advancement of the Common Core, mega-philanthropies are now a powerful political reality. While their new primacy of place has a lot to do with their spending power and aggressive approach to issue advocacy, just as critical to the circumstances is the debilitated state of American governance. As Rogers points out, “In the United States, the federal budget is consumed by entitlement programs and many states are nearly bankrupt.”45

Gates stepped forward and delivered an experimental product that is now being implemented in schools across America.

A Family Affair

Which brings us back to this essay’s initial question: Where is the power of the Common Core vested? We know for sure that it is not with parents and local communities.

Readers of Academic Questions are likely to be familiar with the work of the late James S. Coleman, but it is useful to revisit it here because he did the first (and likely the most lasting) research on the relationship among families, communities, and educational success.

In his groundbreaking and lengthy 1966 report, Equality of Educational Opportunity, Coleman was the first scholar to show the correlative relationship between a child’s family background and his academic achievement.46 From a sample set of over 650,000 students at 4,000 randomly selected schools, Coleman collected statistics on a great many characteristics, including racial segregation, expenditures per pupil, teachers’ college degrees, school library sizes, and family background. Coleman’s watershed discovery was that, despite clear differences in educational results between white and black students, there was little difference in educational funding. The monetary support for white and black students—compared within rural, suburban, and urban environments—was about the same. Money and material resources could not sufficiently explain achievement differences.

This remains true today. As Allan C. Ornstein, professor of education at St. John’s University in New York City, wrote in 2010, “U.S. students consistently score on achievement tests below students in other industrialized nations, despite the fact that we spend more money per student on education than all the countries except Switzerland.”47 Indeed, “after spending nearly half a trillion dollars on compensatory programs for low-income and low-achieving students, educators are still unable to determine which programs work and whether more spending affects educational outcomes.”48

Even more crucial for our purposes, Coleman also discovered that the factors most closely related to educational success were family characteristics—parents’ education, income, number of siblings, etc. In 1982 and 1987 respectively, Coleman and his colleagues published High School Achievement: Public, Catholic, and Other Private Schools Compared and Public and Private High Schools: The Impact of Communities.49 These were extensive statistical analyses, the former of the achievement differences between school types, and the latter of the relationship between communities and educational success. This research midwifed Coleman’s great theoretical breakthrough: the concept of “social capital.”

In his 1988 essay “Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital,” Coleman drew on three crucial discoveries:

  • Children from two-parent households have a significantly lower dropout rate than children from single-parent households.50

  • The raw dropout rates are much lower for religious schools than for public and non-religious private schools: public school students drop out at a rate of 14.4 percent, non-religious private school students at a rate of 11.9 percent, Catholic school students at a rate of 3.4 percent, and non-Catholic religious school students at a rate of 3.7 percent.51

  • “Frequency of attendance at religious services…is strongly related to dropout rate, with a 19.5% of public school students who rarely or never attend dropping out compared with 9.1% of those who attend often.”52

Educational success, Coleman concluded, is dependant upon the child’s ability to participate in healthy families and communities—not only Catholic communities, because other creedal communities also had low dropout rates. Healthy families and communities, he surmised, are ones that have “closure,” meaning that they are structurally sound and that they confess and embody a unity of ideas and values, i.e., a common good.

Closure can exist within families and also between families, that is, within a community of families. There is a higher likelihood of closure within religious communities, Coleman discovered, because participating families presumably believe one and the same thing, and behave according to the same prescribed code. What this means for student x, “Tommy,” is that his household’s moral code is repeated in “Bobby’s” house. This closure among families creates a community of trust: Tommy’s parents can rely on Bobby’s parents to reinforce the values and behaviors they wish to foster in their son.

Closure also exists between Tommy’s parents and Tommy’s school, which reinforces the attitudes and beliefs of his home. This makes moral and intellectual education a seamless whole—family life, community life, and school do not conflict with but rather reinforce one another. This “social capital” in Tommy’s life gives him the platform to pursue education unimpeded. Coleman summarizes:

The social capital that has value for a young person’s development does not reside solely within the family. It can be found outside as well in the community consisting of the social relationships that exist among parents, in the closure exhibited by this structure of relations, and in the parents’ relations with the institutions of the community.53

Families and communities with “closure” provide the foundation for educational success. Families and communities that lack it undercut the schooling of their children. According to Coleman, America’s wide-scale educational breakdown is itself a symptom of another sickness—the breakdown of American families.

Educational success is also dependent upon closure between families and their schools. In the case of the CCSS, little real “social capital” exists between parents and schools, because the standards were adopted out of the reach of parents and because they will remain out of their reach. This is a crucial mistake. Education must be a common good that emanates from the relations of families in a community.

And so we find ourselves in a dilemma. Education needs to be returned to families and communities, the only place where it can flourish. But many American families and communities are falling apart, and along with them so is American education. If there is a way out of the bull’s horns, it is a hard one. And I doubt America will choose to take it. To fix American education, we must first fix American families. The American mind will not be re-opened until American virtue is recovered.

Minding the Gaps

Bill Gates and all the other Common Core proponents are trying to fix real problems, notably the domestic and international achievement gaps (which need no rehearsing here). The Common Core State Standards, like No Child Left Behind before it, are built to bridge these gaps—so the standards writers hope. “It’s ludicrous,” Bill Gates famously told the Wall Street Journal, “to think that multiplication in Alabama and multiplication in New York are really different.”54 By adopting “internationally-benchmarked”55 standards on a national scale, the argument goes, every American student will learn at the same pace, which will fix the variation in state performance, ensure that minorities will be held to the same ideals as whites, and raise American students in international rankings. The Common Core is a cure-all.

The sad truth about the Common Core, however, is that it is a product of a major misdiagnosis of what ails American schooling. Based on the available data, there is no reason to assume that national standards will fix the problem. Think of it this way: under No Child Left Behind, the same statewide standards existed for all students in New York State, and yet within the state the achievement gap persisted; indeed, it barely budged. Certainly New York State is a large enough sample size to draw accurate conclusions about the effect that universal standards have on educational disparities. The same can be said for California and, for that matter, every other state in the Union.

The 2012 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning? confirms this. Tom Loveless, senior fellow at the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, analyzed “states’ past experiences with standards” and examined “several years” of NAEP scores.56 He found that “[t]he ability of standards to reduce…differences in achievement…is…weak,”57 and:

Achievement variation existing within states is already influenced, to the extent that standards can exert influence, by the states standards under which schools currently operate. Within state variation is four to five times larger than the variation between states. Put another way, anyone who follows NAEP scores knows that the difference between Massachusetts and Mississippi is quite large. What is often overlooked is that every state has a mini-Massachusetts and Mississippi contrast within its own borders.58

According to Loveless, we can expect little to no effect on the racial and ethnic achievement gaps from the CCSS.

Still, Bill Gates did what he does best. He spent a lot of money—and got a lot of other people to spend money, too. His great work, the Common Core, is unlikely to help the students who need it most.

Could the CCSS end up being on the “right side of history,” regardless of what they do to the relations between families and the institution of public schooling? There was a time in American history, for example, when there were no compulsory public schools and families were free to educate or not educate their children. The old principle of exclusive family control was sacrificed for a greater public good and nearly everyone today except perhaps a libertarian fringe would agree it was a good decision. But I think it highly unlikely that the imposition of the Common Core will emerge as this kind of decision.

Rothman has placed his hope in the new assessments for the CCSS—but the early returns are not good. Scores have plummeted in Minnesota, Kentucky, and New York where Common Core has been implemented and tested. On April 30, 2013, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), speaking at a meeting of the Association for a Better New York, pleaded—with whom is not altogether clear—to put a “moratorium on the stakes associated with Common Core assessments” (emphases in original).59 Her speech was a response to “objections” raised by New York State United Teachers, a union affiliate of the AFT.60 If teachers’ unions end up resisting the assessments, the CCSS will be rendered ineffective.

On the other hand, Bauerlein notes in the Academic Questions piece cited above, there are a “few” elements in the CCSS, such as two standards that require the reading of Shakespeare, which “gainsay politically correct axioms”—including those embedded in the Common Core. But, he says, these more “traditionalist” portions of the standards have real force only insofar as they are faithfully implemented by teachers.61 Alas, as Bauerlein himself has attested, his hopes appear to be coming up short. After reviewing New York City’s Common Core-aligned text recommendations, he concluded, “In short, there is now very good reason to worry that the coming of the Common Core may produce a widespread de-emphasis and devaluation of some of the greatest books ever written in the English language.”62

My criticism of the Common Core State Standards ultimately has very little to do with their innate quality, but rather that their relation to other social spheres is disordered. I am referring to the full reordering of American education away from families and local communities—which are absolutely essential to educational success—toward some abstract list of standards copyrighted in Washington, D.C. A blaze, after all, can either warm the house or burn it down, depending on whether the fire’s in the hearth or under the stairs.

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