Common Core State Standards: Cogs for the Economic Machine

William H. Young

The increasing effectiveness of opposition to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) by conservative critics was the theme of a segment of “The Daily Rundown” of MSNBC on June 11, 2013. NBC’s Chuck Todd interviewed Emmett McGroarty of the American Principles Project (APP), who proclaimed that public education was not a matter for the federal government or private interests, but parents and state legislatures, “who had been cut out of the CCSS process.”

McGroarty called the CCSS mediocre, drawing upon the conclusions of a May 2012 White Paper, Controlling Education From the Top,[1] which he had co-authored with Jane Robbins of APP and which was issued jointly by APP and the Pioneer Institute. He asserted that, for mathematics, the CCSS “would put students two years behind those of high-achieving nations by 8th grade.” For English language arts, he charged that the CCSS “do not prepare students for all kinds of college work.”

APP, located in Washington, DC, and Pioneer, located in Boston, MA, are independent, privately funded public policy organizations which, along with the Heritage Foundation, lead the derogation of the CCSS. Pioneer’s and APP’s underlying theme is that more advanced and literature-oriented standards, like earlier Massachusetts state standards, are superior to the CCSS for college and career readiness.

APP and Pioneer argue that the academic content and level of the CCSS are inferior because they will produce graduates trained only for jobs in the global economy rather than qualified to enter any program at a four-year university.[2] As the 2012 White Paper avers:

Their de-emphasis of the study of classic literature in favor of “informational texts” would abandon the goal of truly educating students, focusing instead on training them for static jobs. Among the many deficiencies of the mathematics standards is…that most students will not reach calculus in high school…as expected by elite colleges.[3]

In her essay “Uncommonly Bad” in Academic Questions, Spring 2013, APP’s Robbins contends that the CCSS will create “an education system designed to produce right-thinking cogs for the economic machine.”[4]

Students will be trained for jobs—a concept recycled from earlier Progressive theory but given a new twist. The new standards extend the “school to work” idea beyond the longstanding practice of providing vocational education alternatives for students not inclined to pursue a four-year college degree; instead they dictate that even the academic English curriculum be recreated along more utilitarian lines….

The objections to Common Core are many, including the unconstitutionality of nationalizing education, the use of political coercion to ensure state adoption, the illegality of imposing the national curriculum that the standards will inevitably entail, and the loss of local and parental control over children’s education….

If students are to become “career-ready” and able to compete in the “global economy,” there is no time to waste on frills….Unfortunately, this view also appeals to many pragmatic “conservatives,” who have drawn the wrong conclusion from the steady decline of educational outcomes as control has shifted to the federal government, and as curriculum has been watered down to introduce popular works at the expense of classic literature. Rather than return to what worked in the past, these conservatives argue, we must refocus curriculum on what will get our poorly educated students a job.[5]

I previously rebutted the many fallacious contentions by Robbins in several articles, especially "College and Career Readiness," "Nonfiction Versus Fiction," "A National Curriculum?" and "An Overview."

Pioneer’s war against the CCSS is also being waged in other media outlets. Writing last May in the Wall Street Journal, Jamie Gass and Charles Chieppo alleged that:

Common Core recycles a decades-old, top-down approach to education. Its roots are in a letter sent to Hillary Clinton by Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, after Bill Clinton’s presidential victory in 1992. The letter laid out a plan “to remold the entire American system” into a centralized one run by “a system of labor-market boards at the local, state, and federal levels” where curriculum and “job matching” will be handled by government functionaries.[6]

From the Fordham Institute, Michael Petrilli replied that:

This seems to refer to “outcomes based education” and “school-to-work” initiatives. That would be quite disconcerting, if true. It’s not….I would argue that Common Core’s roots were in the advocacy of groups like…Fordham…(in the mid-2000s) as we watched with disappointment as state standards refused to get much better over the course of fifteen years… If Common Core is school-to-work recycled, how does one explain its support from the likes of E. D. Hirsch Jr., a champion for academic content….[7]

Gass and Chieppo are correct in stating that Mr. Tucker sent such a letter, and he was indeed a peripheral participant in the CCSS process, as a member of one of many review groups. But I have found no indication in the CCSS history or materials of what his letter proposed.

In another May 2013 article, in The Weekly Standard, Pioneer’s Jamie Gass and Jim Stergio charged that:

It would be hard to imagine an approach that has less in common with the Bay State’s than the one promoted by Race to the Top. The most obvious difference is that Massachusetts’s success built upon a relentless focus on academics, specifically on literacy, math, and the liberal arts. Common Core emphasizes experiential skills-based learning while reducing the amount of classic literature, poetry, and drama taught in English classes. Its more vocational bent includes far greater emphasis on jargon-laden “informational text” extracts, and it supports analyzing texts shorn of historical context and background knowledge.[8]

Fordham’s Petrilli again answered:

This would be terrible if it were true. It’s not. In fact, Common Core is so strong on content knowledge that E. D. Hirsch Jr….strongly supports it….Nothing in the Common Core reduces “the amount of classic literature, poetry, and drama taught in English classes. Yes, it demands students to read more non-fiction, because that’s what college students mostly read, but explicitly says that is to be done across the curriculum—in history and science class, not just in English. Another four Pinocchios![9]

In "The Knowledge Curriculum," "Nonfiction Versus Fiction," and "College and Career Ready," I explained the CCSS philosophy and provisions for reading needed informational as well as literary texts—to replace the education Blob’s focus on contemporary young adult fantasy fiction. In "The Gettysburg Address," I addressed the CCSS provisions for close reading of texts for information.

The Boston Globe has summarized some results from a September 2012 report by the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education that addressed college readiness in that state.

Massachusetts is among the nation’s leading states for college enrollment…[and] leads the nation in percentages of public high school students who test as academically proficient in 12th-grade reading and math. But those percentages are high only in comparison to other states…Just 46 percent of public high school students in Massachusetts read at a 12th-grade level, and only 36 percent can handle the equivalent level of math. (Other states do worse.)

The Globe also highlights the following ironic report findings:

The upshot is that high school students’ abilities do not line up with colleges’ expectations. Sixty-five percent of Massachusetts community college students need at least one remedial class before they can take on college-level work, as do 22 percent of students at state universities and 7 percent at UMass institutions….[10]

In "College and Career Readiness," I argued that the CCSS seek to produce college- and career-ready high school graduates who can master entry-level courses at either four-year or two-year colleges, or other secondary education, without remediation. The CCSS would place more high school graduates on a path to a middle-class living for the first time in many years. That is a desired and needed outcome, even if such successful graduates might inappropriately be designated as “cogs for the economic machine.”

According to The Washington Post, APP has come to serve as

a nerve center of sorts for the anti-Common Core movement…helping state-level organizations establish web sites and networks. Emmett McGroarty…has appeared on Glenn Beck’s talk show and traveled to Tea Party meetings nationwide.[11]

Unfortunately, the misinformation being circulated by APP and Pioneer not only fuels what has become zealous Tea Party opposition to the CCSS, it plants erroneous beliefs in the minds of the public and parents. A recent survey by Phi Delta Kappa and Gallup found that 62 percent of respondents and 55 percent of public school parents hadn’t even heard of the CCSS. But, The Washington Post reported:

Of those who did recognize the term, most had major misconceptions about the standards and believed that they will have no effect or will make American students less competitive with their peers across the world.[12]

In Education Week, Deborah A. Gist, the commissioner of education in Rhode Island, said her biggest worry is “the abundance of misinformation about the standards, not that more parents haven’t heard of them….That’s what we need to address.”[13] The CCSS are at a critical stage of implementation. Those who support the CCSS need to step up efforts to counter the falsehoods aimed at thwarting what I believe is the last best hope for replacing the Blob’s enervating academic curriculum in public education.

The next article will argue that “equal opportunity” rather than the “achievement gap” should be the measure of education to the CCSS.


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

[1] Emmett McGroarty and Jane Robbins, Controlling Education From the Top: Why Common Core Is Bad for America, A Pioneer Institute and American Principles Project White Paper, No. 87, May 2012, 9‒10.

[2] McGroarty and Robbins, Controlling Education From the Top, 1, 9.

[3] McGroarty and Robbins, Controlling Education From the Top, 1, 11.

[4] Jane Robbins, "Uncommonly Bad," in "The Common Core State Standards: Two Views," National Association of Scholars, 16 April 2013.

[5] Robbins, "Uncommonly Bad."

[6] Jamie Gass and Charles Chieppo: “Common Core Education Is Uncommonly Inadequate,” The Wall Street Journal, 27 May 2013.

[8] Jamie Gass and Jim Stergios, “The Beginning of Common Core’s Trouble,” The Weekly Standard, 29 May 2013.

[10] Mary Carmichael, “Many in Massachusetts Are Unprepared for College, Report Finds,” The Boston Globe, 20 September 2012. Time to Lead: The Need for Excellence in Higher Education, Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, 20 September 2012, 16, 18‒19.

[11] Peter Wallsten and Lyndsey Layton, “Tea Party Groups Mobilizing Against Common Core Education Overhaul,” The Washington Post, 30 May 2013.

[12] Emma Brown, “Poll: Most Americans Unfamiliar with New Common Core Teaching Standards,” The Washington Post, 21 August 2013. PDK International/Gallup Poll,

[13] Lesli A. Maxwell, “Most Americans Unaware of Common Core, PDK/Gallup Poll,” Education Week, 21 August 2013.


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