Common Complaints

Peter Wood

Common Complaints
Yes, the Common Core is a Federal Power Grab That Will Hurt Students and Lower Standards
A Reply to Sol Stern in 10 Parts

 

My friend Sol Stern has published a rejoinder here to two essays (“The SAT Upgrade is a Big Mistake” and “What the Common Core Will Do to Colleges”) I recently published in which I summarized various objections others have raised to the Common Core K-12 State Standards—and added one of my own. I am responding in the spirit that, while I think that both the facts and the probabilities favor my argument, I understand the hope and the fierce determination to improve education that lead Sol to advocate so strongly for the Common Core. 

The third round in an exchange always bears the risk of toppling over with recapitulations.  To avoid an excess of I-said-then-he-said-and-now-I-say, I’m going to go straight to Sol’s points, which I take to be ten: 

1. My characterization of the Common Core is all accusation, no evidence.

2. The Common Core is a genuine states-based initiative, not an imposition of the Obama administration.

3. The Common Core is perfectly legal.

4. The Common Core doesn’t water down mathematics instruction.

5. The Common Core doesn’t scant the teaching of great literature.

6. The Common Core’s emphasis on “informational texts” is perfectly appropriate.

7. The Common Core is an opening for liberal, humanist education.

8. The states will write their own curricula to embody the Common Core Standards.

9. The Common Core gives aid and comfort to the Tea Party types, who are basically anti-intellectual yahoos.

10. Criticizing the Common Core also plays into the hands of the left-wing teachers unions who are fighting tooth and nail to keep their version of standard-less “progressive education.”

Into the Tunnel

Ad seriatim:

1. My characterization of the Common Core is all accusation, no evidence.

As Sol knows, I’ve been working on the Common Core for several years.  I’ve read every word of the Standards themselves (numerous times) and have studied hundreds of supporting documents, Common Core apologia, and Common Core critiques.  My two articles—about the changes in the SATS and how the Common Core aligns with college admissions—didn’t seem exactly the right place to pore over the detail.  Readers who are interested will find that in a forthcoming book, Drilling Through the Core, which I have edited and to which I have contributed a long and detailed introduction.  But since Sol raises a question about how well founded my summary is, I’ll add some pertinent detail in what follows.  Evidence, of course, adds length. Fill your water bottles now.

2. The Common Core is a genuine states-based initiative, not an imposition of the Obama administration.

The Common Core originated as a private initiative in a small organization founded by David Coleman, who pursued a very smart strategy of selling the idea to the National Governors Association (NGA), which endorsed it in 2008.  That brought many Republican as well as Democratic governors and ex-governors into the Common Core corner, but the NGA’s support was not enough to launch the Common Core into national acceptance.  That came when President Obama in 2009 threw his weight, $4.35 billion in federal money, and a cleverly designed appeal to states battered by the Great Recession into the effort to establish the Common Core.  It worked:  45 states signed on in a matter of weeks.  (Thirty states adopted between June 2, and August 2, 2010.)  

President Obama clearly didn’t design the Common Core.  He just leveraged Stimulus money and an administrative program called the Race to the Top, to turn another run-of-the-mill educational reform program into a de facto national program. In addition, the Obama Department of Education directly funded the two private national testing consortia, which are developing the student assessments aligned with the Common Core standards.

The legal facts in this matter aren’t seriously disputed by anyone.  The question, if there is one, is whether the Common Core should be seen as embodying ideas and values that are characteristically President Obama’s, or whether his role in advancing it is merely incidental.

I favor the former view.  President Obama found in the Common Core something that resonated with his view of how government in general and the federal government in particular should play a greatly expanded role in the lives of Americans.  And he did indeed see the adoption of the Common Core by 45 states as a victory for his larger cause.  Evidence?  On February 12, 2013, President Obama in his State of the Union Address observed:

"And four years ago, we started Race to the Top—a competition that convinced almost every state to develop smarter curricula and higher standards, all for about 1 percent of what we spend on education each year."

President Obama doesn’t seem shy about taking credit for the Common Core.  Nor does he stop at praising the Common Core in purely generic language. In his 2014 State of the Union Address he went into some detail about why the Common Core is so good:

"Race to the Top, with the help of governors from both parties, has helped states raise expectations and performance.  Teachers and principals in schools from Tennessee to Washington, D.C. are making big strides in preparing students with skills for the new economy – problem solving, critical thinking, science, technology, engineering, and math.  Some of this change is hard.  It requires everything from more challenging curriculums and more demanding parents to better support for teachers and new ways to measure how well our kids think, not how well they can fill in a bubble on a test."

The importance of this passage is that it shows that President Obama “gets” the Common Core. The words to pay attention to are “skills for the new economy—problem solving, critical thinking…”  The Common Core in the minds of its proponents is about precisely this kind of education—the kind that inculcates “skills” and above all “problem solving.” 

That language is meant to sound appealing to Americans who very rightly worry that our public schools overemphasize ideological mush at the expense of intellectual rigor.  Reading is a “skill,” and if Jonathyn or Jasmin read at the 7th grade level when they finish 12th grade, we have a serious problem.  On matters like this, Sol and I are in complete agreement. 

But President Obama’s phrase—“skills for the new economy—problem solving, critical thinking…”—doesn’t mean old-fashioned literacy.  It is a loaded phrase.  What it is loaded with is the idea that “the new economy” requires brand new ways of reading, problem solving, critical thinking, and so on.  The phrase connects with something called the “21st century skills movement.” 

I’ll come back to that, but let me rest here with the point that, yes, 45 states approved the Common Core.  They did so hastily under the pressure of President Obama’s Race to the Top, and President Obama has repeatedly taken credit for that.  The Common Core as a concept pre-dates Obama’s presidency, but he has assumed broad authority for it and, in practice, it is being shaped by his political appointees. He embedded his support for it in his proposal in March 2010 for the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Other people who are not President Obama’s supporters advocate for the Common Core too.  An outstanding example is Jeb Bush.  But their advocacy doesn’t alter the significant stamp President Obama has put on the Common Core. 

3. The Common Core is perfectly legal.

Three federal laws explicitly prohibit the federal government from establishing a curriculum, programs of instruction, or instructional materials. As the 1970 General Education Provisions Act puts it, no

“department, agency, officer, or employee of the United States [can] exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system, or over the selection of library resources, textbooks, or other printed or published instructional materials…”

Similar prohibitions are part of the Department of Education Organization Act and the No Child Left Behind Act, which is the reauthorization of Elementary and Secondary Education Act [ESEA] of 1965. The ESEA also protects the rights of states to set their own standards for educational content and achievement.  It’s noteworthy that two of the three laws that prohibit any federal role in national standards, testing, and curriculum were signed by President Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter.

None of this is mysterious.  Those laws, in fact, have been a stumbling block for nationalizing reformers who long sought to use the powers of the federal government to enact deep, national changes in America’s approach to K-12 education.  The Common Core was invented in large part as a conscious detour around these federal legal prohibitions. If the states individually agree to reform education according to the same template, no federal law has been violated.  The question is whether the states did indeed, individually and of their own volition, choose to adopt the Common Core.

I am perfectly ready to grant to Sol that great effort was spent in creating the appearance that 45 states entered into this arrangement eyes-wide-open.  After all, as Sol observes, five states took a look at the Common Core and said “no thank you.”  And among the 45 adopters, some, such as Indiana, are now attempting to back out.  That doesn’t sound like an outright imposition of federal authority. 

A former deputy counsel of the U.S. Department of Education, Robert Eitel, and the former General Counsel to Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and former Chief Regulatory Officer for the Department of Education, Kent Talbert, published a report in 2012, The Road to a National Curriculum, which rather painstakingly sifted through the relevant laws and the actions of the Obama administration.  Eitel and Talbert concluded that the Race to the Top and subsequent actions by the Obama administration do indeed violate both the spirit and the letter of these prohibitions. 

Sol points out that the opinions of lawyers are just opinions and do not amount to legal findings such as are issued by courts.  Fair enough.  But the opinions of seasoned federal legal experts have some weight of their own and deserve to be considered on their merits.  Dismissing them out of hand is seldom the wisest course.  The Obama administration has not really earned a reputation for acting scrupulously within the letter of the law on much of anything, let alone issues of federalism.  I recommend the reader who is interested in this question spend some time with the Eitel and Talbert report, and not just assume that the Common Core advocates have successfully dodged all the legal and Constitutional impediments in their way.

Advocates of the Common Core are fond of pointing out that the Common Core is not a “curriculum,” but merely a set of “standards,” on the basis of which a thousand different curricula can be formulated.  It is a weak distinction.  The Common Core “standards” are the infrastructure of a curriculum. The two federally-funded testing consortia are developing curricular materials.  The states that signed up for the Common Core do have a zone left to them where they can make choices, but mostly on incidental matters.  They get to decide on the educational equivalent of whether to put the sofa next to the wall or beneath the window. All else is as the Common Core specifies.

4. The Common Core doesn’t water down mathematics instruction.

I was, once upon a time, very good at math—a set of skills that atrophied in my career as an anthropologist.  But I have retained enough to read the Common Core’s approach to mathematics instruction with a sense of puzzlement.  Mathematics teachers, of course, are always struggling to find ways to bring mathematical literacy to the substantial number of children who just don’t like the subject.  The teachers seem always engaged in a game of “Why don’t we try this?”  The Common Core looks to my eye as one of the wilder versions of “Why don’t we try this?”  The trouble is that, unlike most such experiments, this one involves the students in 45 states.  It is a gamble of unprecedented proportions.  And it seems to be based a lot more on the dream of finding a magic key to the minds of students who are math-resistant than a way of fostering the advancement of those who have natural facility in math. 

Ideally, of course, we want to serve both kinds of students.  It is unclear whether the Common Core mathematic standards will do that. 

It is a hard subject to illustrate with specifics.  You have to sit down and work your way through the standards, sequentially, to see what is missing and what has been strangely ordered.  And you have to look closely at the pedagogical tools invented to advance this new-new-new math.  The internet has made famous some cases of parents becoming shockingly aware of the bizarre Common Core-style approaches to problem solving.  Perhaps the most famous is this video of a child using a Common Core approach to solving an addition problem.  Another is the father of a second grader who was assigned to write a letter to “Jack” explaining a Common Core subtraction problem. 

But the algebra issue is straightforward.  The Common Core indeed defers Algebra I to ninth grade.  The “mathematics progressions” developed and released by the Common Core state flat out that this is so.  The opening sentence of the “High School, Algebra” section of Progressions for the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics, released in draft, July 2, 2013, is:  “Two Grades 6–8 domains are important in preparing students for Algebra in high school.”  (The awkward language, “Two Grades 6-8 domains,” refers to two subject “domains” within the standards for grades 6, 7, and 8.  “Domains” in Common Corespeak are “large groups of related standards,” that have their own code numbers. The language of the Common Core often shakes one’s confidence in the ability of these folks to assume authority over English language instruction.)

When Sol says, “there is not a single reference to the question of whether Algebra should be taught in 8th or 9th grade,” he is referring to the Common Core original skeletal statement of the Standards. Look a little more closely into the Common Core’s supporting material, and the language is explicit.  But even without the explicit statements, the original skeleton lacks the ribs and the backbone for eighth grade algebra.

We can go a little deeper.  The Progressions document makes clear that the architects of the Mathematics Standards see algebra as a subject for ninth graders, with a little bit of conceptual preparation in earlier grades.  But in addition to this, the architects themselves have spoken on the record about how they see algebra in the context of the Common Core and how they see the whole Common Core Mathematics Standards as preparing students for college. 

The leaders of the team that wrote the Common Core Math Standards are Mr. Phil Daro, Dr. William McCallum, and Dr. Jason Zimba. McCallum and Zimba are mathematics professors; Daro is a mathematics educator who works for the San Francisco Unified School District. In its first drafts, the Common Core defined “college readiness” as merely passing Algebra I. 

But McCallum, in a presentation at the national meeting of the joint national mathematics societies in January 2010, criticized that standard as too low:  “It's not what we aspire to for our children, it's not what we as a nation want to set as a final deliverable […] The level that was set at the college and career ready document was not based on university admission requirements but was based on data about what students actually do, how well they succeed if they go to a certain level of mathematics."  McCallum said, “And we should go beyond that."

Daro, however, had long advocated Algebra I as all that is needed for “college readiness.”  He chaired a committee on mathematics instruction for the National Center on Education and the Economy that supported Algebra I as sufficient for getting students into college.  The committee was convened in 2009 and issued its report in May 2013, after the Common Core Mathematics Standards were issued in final form

McCallum followed up his public disagreement with Daro by supporting a March 2010 draft of the Mathematics Standards that included a natural path to calculus, but this draft quickly vanished.  The final document, issued three months later, eliminated almost all of the more demanding content.  The only additions were in Geometry and Algebra II, and were not nearly enough for students interested in technical areas or STEM majors.

The third member of the Common Core Mathematics leadership team, Jason Zimba, testified before the Massachusetts. Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in March of 2010.   Responding to a question about the definition of “college readiness” as passing an Algebra 2 course, he answered, “I think it’s a fair critique [of the Common Core] that it’s a minimal definition of college readiness.”  Zimba explained that, when it comes to math, the Common Core college-readiness standard is “Not only not for STEM, it’s also not for selective colleges." 

All three of the main authors of these Mathematics Standards admit that the Common Core (the actual, final version) aims pretty low.  By Zimba’s 2010 account (he has since backtracked), the goal was only to prepare students for community college and definitely not to prepare students who aim for college-level study of science, technology, engineering, and math.  I think we should take Daro, McCallum, and Zimba’s 2009 and 2010 views seriously.

Why should this matter?  For a certain audience, it doesn’t matter at all.  Students who can’t or won’t learn algebra in eighth grade can’t or won’t learn it in ninth grade either.  The Common Core won’t get them there with an additional year of tiny steps for baby feet.  What is alarming about this is that deferring algebra to 9th grade squeezes the time left to take the more capable students further in their mathematical development.  The clearest way to put this is that high schools will be hard put to make room for pre-calculus or beyond. 

I freely admit that some schools will shoehorn it in, and some students will find other ways to learn pre-calculus and calculus too, by taking prep school courses or MOOCs.  But the ability of Americans to invent work-arounds for the academic deficiency of their schools is not an excuse for deliberately designing a program that prevents students from advancing at a pace that is time-proven as appropriate and needed for college.  The Common Core represents a step backwards in this regard.  Pre-Common Core, two-thirds of students in California took Algebra I in the eighth grade, and since 1995, nationwide there has been a 50 percent increase in eighth grade Algebra I. I take those figures from a forthcoming chapter, “An Academic Fraud:  Pretending to Rigor.  The Common Core Mathematics Standards,” which I’ve read in draft.  The authors, the electrical engineer  Ze‘ev Wurman and mathematician R. James Milgram, describe Common Core defenders who “frequently excuse” the Common Core’s deferment of algebra by saying the Common Core “expects students to perform ‘algebraic tasks’ and engage in ‘algebraic thinking’ in grades seven and eight,” but this is “specious.”  Why is that? 

Wurman and Milgram explain that “algebraic thinking” isn’t algebra but just a loose manner of talking about the wide range of mathematical concepts that students learn on the way to algebra.  They then criticize the content of the Common Core’s actual Algebra I course, which they call “functional algebra,” to distinguish it from the traditional approach:

Traditionally, the first algebra class develops fluency with handling basic equations. First, students master solving linear equation, inequalities, and systems of linear equation. Then they are introduced to quadratic equations and inequalities, and finally to polynomials and rational expressions. These skills serve them well both as stepping stones to quantitative sciences such as chemistry or physics, as well as to more advanced mathematics. In contrast, in Common Core the first algebra class’s focus is on students’ understanding of “functional relationships,” largely in the form of graphing functions and discussing their behavior, rather than developing the ability to quantitatively and analytically manipulate them. This is particularly true since many of the functions suggested by Common Core, such as tables, exponential functions, step and piecewise-linear functions, are not yet amenable to analytical and quantitative handling by students at that level. Consequently, much of what will happen in such classrooms will be “talking the talk” rather than “walking the walk” since such classes do not develop students’ crucial technical skills to handle those functions.

This is an explanation that is pretty powerful if you remember learning algebra, and not so much if you don’t.  But Sol challenged me to provide specifics.  The Common Core really does water down mathematics instruction.  It does so, in that startlingly contemporary way of announcing that it is doing the opposite.  The Common Core says it is making students mathematically “college ready.”  It is the pedagogical equivalent of one of those deft fellows who says, “I am not stealing your watch” as he slips it off your hand and into his pocket.

5. The Common Core doesn’t scant the teaching of great literature.

Sol answers my concerns on this by providing a list of great (and some not so great) novels, stories, and poems that the Common Core holds up as exemplary, and various works of non-fiction that are also exemplary.  There is nothing really to quibble over in the selections. It would be great if one and all read Don Quixote, Crime and Punishment, Pride and Prejudice, The Scarlet Letter, As I Lay Dying and so on.  And I am all for reading works by Frederick Douglass, David McCullough, Alexis de Tocqueville, and (most of) the other writers of non-fiction.   But let’s restore some context.

The Common Core may represent higher standards for some states, but it plainly lowers standards for Massachusetts, Indiana, California, and Georgia that had higher English Language Arts standards before the adoption of the Common Core forced those states to lower them.  Between 2005 and 2013, Massachusetts built a record of high achievement in national tests of education progress.  This came about because Massachusetts focused student reading on higher quality, superior vocabulary rich classic literary, dramatic, poetical texts, including: Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Edith Wharton, and Charles Dickens, etc. Not one of these texts is included or found in Common Core.

The Common Core doesn’t ask or expect teachers to assign all or many of the works Sol listed.  It has designated them as places where teachers might find a suitable excerpt.  In some case, the exemplary text is short enough that the teacher can use the whole.  Presumably, the teacher who chooses Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” will make it though all 24 lines.  But the thrust of the Common Core’s approach to literature is to sample and de-contextualize.  Those aspects of literature that depend on the whole story have low rank in the Common Core scheme of things.  Likewise, historical context is diminished at times almost to the vanishing point.  Anybody can create a list of titles.  Reading the books and understanding what they say is something else.

The Common Core’s emphasis on extracting “information” and on citing documents as “evidence” cuts against both the values of literature and the comprehension of history.

6. The Common Core’s emphasis on “informational texts” is perfectly appropriate.

An “informational text,” as Sol points out, is Common Core jargon for non-fiction, or in some cases, “literary non-fiction.”  The Common Core is explicit and emphatic about its elevation of “informational texts” over literature.  In the earlier grades, the Common Core treats this as a matter of “balance.”  The Common Core Standards for English Language Arts explain: 

In K-5, the Standards follow NAEP’s [National Assessment of Educational Progress] lead in balancing the reading of literature with the reading of informational texts, including texts in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects.

Thereafter, the Common Core, grade by grade, increasingly emphasizes informational texts and de-emphasizes literature.  This abundance of reading in informational texts is naturally not limited to the English classroom.  It is meant to spread across the curriculum.  Students read history “informational texts” in history classes, etc. but they are also reading informational texts inside the English classroom.  (Or the “ELA classroom” in Common Corespeak.)  That’s where the “literary nonfiction” comes in. 

We need to be careful to avoid the fallacy of the excluded middle.  We are not faced with a choice of only literature or only “informational texts.” The issue really is one of balance.  It is helpful to consider how the Common Core itself frames that.  In the “Introduction” to the ELA Standards, the authors explain that they have “a vision of what it means to be a literate person in the twenty-first century.”  It is a vision of students who learn:

the close, attentive reading that is at the heart of understanding and enjoying complex works of literature. They habitually perform the critical reading necessary to pick carefully through the staggering amount of information available today in print and digitally. They actively seek the wide, deep, and thoughtful engagement with high-quality literary and informational texts that builds knowledge, enlarges experience, and broadens worldviews. They reflexively demonstrate the cogent reasoning and use of evidence that is essential to both private deliberation and responsible citizenship in a democratic republic. 

As an expression of ideals, of course, this sounds quite positive. Who could be against “wide, deep, and thoughtful engagement?”  But there are some phrases in this passage that foretell where the Standards really devote the lion’s share of attention.  That “staggering amount of information” turns out to be a major preoccupation. 

Let’s pause on that for a moment.  The sheer number of things that can be known always far exceed what any individual is capable of learning or interested in.  Real learning is built on acquiring discernment, so that we can tell the difference between the important and the trivial and develop a sense of proportion on how much detail is needed.  We should never be “staggered” by the amount of information.  That’s because a good education helps us acquire information in the context of larger concepts and pertinent questions.  Here is the Common Core explaining “Research to Build and Present Knowledge” for 4th graders: 

Recall relevant information from experiences or gather relevant information from print and digital sources; take notes and categorize information, and provide a list of sources.

Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

a. Apply grade 4 Reading standards to literature (e.g., “Describe in depth a character, setting, or event in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text [e.g., a character’s thoughts, words, or actions].”).

b. Apply grade 4 Reading standards to informational texts (e.g., “Explain how an

author uses reasons and evidence to support particular points in a text”).

Notice the inordinate emphasis on “information.”  The student’s personal experience is assimilated to “information,” as is what can be “gathered” from “sources.”  This conjures a world where everything is potentially “information,” and the task is to make students into vigilant gleaners, analysts, and assemblers of reports.  That’s in 4th grade, where the Common Core is still seeking to “balance” literature with “informational texts.”

Sol cites a list of some august documents that the Common Core sets out as exemplary texts.  All of them, for sure, contain “information.”  But are students really best served by reading the Bill of Rights as an “informational text?” 

That’s not a rhetorical question.  Clearly one reason for reading important historical documents is for the information that can be gleaned from them. Students should know how to do that. But there is something beyond informational content in Paine’s Common Sense, The Declaration of Independence, Thoreau’s Walden, the Declaration of Sentiments by the Seneca Falls Conference, and so on that the Common Core casts into shadow.  Are these works true?  Why are they important? 

At its best, the Common Core recognizes such questions, but often it slips into an obsession with handling information, as though students are essentially information processers, rather than young people whose minds must develop in more complex ways. The praise of “cogent reasoning and use of evidence” that are also part of that ELA introductory statement is also, of course, welcome.  Students should learn to reason well and use evidence. The trouble comes from the Common Core’s disproportionate elevation of these skills. 

7. The Common Core is an opening for liberal, humanist education.

I’ll agree with Sol about this, provided that we recognize that “an opening” is not necessarily a likelihood.  I imagine a few resolute and very clever teachers who are fortunate enough to be in that rare school where the administration and the board are supportive and the teachers union is too, might be able to turn the Common Core Standards into an opportunity for liberal, humanist education. 

Moreover, I believe that the Common Core has attracted support from people like Sol mainly because they glimpse that possibility and have talked themselves into thinking that it is more than just possible, but actually likely.

Sadly, they are wrong.  They are building shimmering cloud castles out of next to nothing.  The intellectual pretensions of the Common Core are a recipe for a re-branded utilitarianism that is opposite in spirit from “liberal, humanist education.” At bottom the Common Core seeks to make children into efficient information processors, not thoughtful, well-rounded human beings.  Granted, a child who learns to process information efficiently may be better off than a child who doesn’t learn even that.  But that is setting the bar awfully low.

Possibly Sol’s argument should be read that the Common Core itself is just a threshold and that schools that use it will find ways to go beyond it. I suspect there is some truth in that.  Schools in affluent areas, schools that are led by ambitious principals and enlightened teachers, and other schools that are just determined to bootstrap themselves and their communities to a higher level will find ways to go beyond the Common Core.  Americans are ingenious in getting around cumbersome laws.  But those will be exceptions.  For the most part, the Common Core will be both floor and ceiling.  Most schools will settle for the ethic of minimum effort.  That’s what they have been doing for generations and that’s what the Common Core invites them to continue doing.

8. The states will write their own curricula to embody the Common Core Standards.

Technically, yes. The problem is that all those separate state curricula have to line up with the standardized tests that are the enforcement wing of the Common Core. Originally, the tests were developed by two private national consortia called Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers (PARCC). States could opt out by developing similar tests and some have now done so, but states with their own tests will also have to shape them to Common Core Standards.  The essential point is that the content of the tests will inevitably shape the curricula.  The Common Core mandates the tests.  States that stick with SBAC or PARCC have no legal or even any practical informal say on what is in the tests. The state-created curricula will therefore be efforts to march to the beat set by the Common Core drummers.  The freedom that states get to choose their own curriculum within the outline of the Common Core Standards is largely an illusion.

9. Criticizing the Common Core gives aid and comfort to the Tea Party types, who are basically anti-intellectual yahoos.

Sol uses “Tea Party” as a scare word, but I’m not scared.  Most of the Tea Party-ish folks I have met are well-educated and thoughtful, though pretty clearly alienated from the attitudes that prevail among my neighbors on the Upper West Side.  In 2010, the “establishment” in the Republican Party took the Common Core in stride, never raising the pertinent questions. That said, in April of 2013 the Republican National Committee passed clear and condemning resolution against Common Core.   One of the most vocal leaders against Common Core has been Iowa’s moderate Republican US Senator Charles Grassley.

If there is a populist revolt against the Common Core, I welcome it.  No one should mistake the overly-excited pronouncements of a few political novices for a more general lack of maturity and seriousness.  Quite a few of the critics of the Common Core know what they are talking about in depth.  Dismissing them as cranks or as heathens is not a good countermove. 

10. Criticizing the Common Core also plays into the hands of the left-wing teachers unions who are fighting tooth and nail to keep their version of standard-less “progressive education.”

Sol and I share an aversion to what “progressive educators” have done to our nation’s schools.  The problem has tangled roots, but the taproot is probably the schools of education that prioritize the pursuit of their version of “social justice” over educating competent teachers. 

Teachers, of course, vary.  Both national teachers’ unions, the AFT and the NEA, have supported the Common Core. The AFT’s Shanker Center authored a “manifesto” for a nationalized curriculum, which included such noted progressives as AFT’s Randi Weingarten, Marc Tucker, Dr. Joycelyn Elders, and Donna Shalala. The major Beltway players behind Common Core—the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), the National Governors Association (NGA) and Achieve, Inc.–for 20 years have emphasized skill-based workforce development as the ideal of public education, and they have correspondingly de-emphasized the liberal arts and content-rich approaches to K-12 education.  The Common Core offered a public policy finesse:  workplace development packaged as if it were liberal arts friendly, content-rich education. 

But if we are speaking of the organized opposition to the Common Core among teachers, it seems to be gathering strength from those who recognize the threat of the new testing regime.  Teachers bitterly opposed the “high stakes testing” of No Child Left Behind.”  Such was the fervency of their opposition that teachers generally supported the Common Core before it was clear that the Common Core would just substitute one form of standardized testing for another. 

In view of the forces lined up in support of the Common Core, I rather welcome the growing dissent from the teachers. I doubt that turning back the Common Core would result in a restoration of ed school progressivism as the reigning doctrine in our schools.  The public is now engaged and is demanding something better.  Along with many others, Sol and I will be part of the ensuing debate about what that better thing is. 


Image: "tunnel" by Trent . // CC BY-SA

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