Common Core Documentary Makes Hazy Case Against Standards

By Mark Walsh — April 01, 2014 4 min read
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A group wary of the Common Core State Standards Initiative has released a documentary film about the effort.

“Building the Machine” was produced by the Home School Legal Defense Association, based in Purcellville, Va., and directed by Ian Reid.

The film is not a one-sided, conservative screed against the common core. In fact, it presents quite a few voices on both sides of the debate, and in the end, it comes off as damning the standards with faint praise, even though that may not have been the intent.

The home-schooling group says in press materials that the 40-minute film grew out of its effort to understand how the common core might trickle down to affect private schools and home-schooling families. The group says it was struck by how quickly 45 states had adopted the standards by 2010, but that as of last year a Gallup Poll showed that 62 percent of Americans had never even heard of the common core.

While the film does give more voice to critical voices, the first person interviewed on camera is Michael J. Petrilli, the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, which is pretty gung ho for the common core.

“I think the best argument for the common core are the standards themselves,” Petrilli says in the film. “They’re very good.”

We also get snippets (from public appearances, not interviews for the film) of pro-common-core comments from Bill Gates, whose foundation largely funded the initiative, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and David Coleman, now the president of the College Board, but earlier the lead writer of the standards. The film indicates that Coleman and the other writers of standards declined to be interviewed or didn’t respond to interview requests.

Michael P. Farris, the chairman of the HSLDA and an executive producer of the film, appears in the film to note the pleasant, civil conversations he’s had with Coleman about the common core and to say that Coleman’s motives for trying to improve public education shouldn’t be attacked.

But Farris adds he does not agree with Coleman’s approach at all, and that “on balance, his proposals are not for the good of the public schools. They certainly aren’t good for the home schools or private schools.”

One of the film’s main indictments of the common core is that the standards were developed in a semi-secretive fashion—an “immaculate conception,” as one education analyst puts it, because of the difficulties faced by earlier national standards efforts going back to the administration of President George H.W. Bush.

The chief witnesses against the common core on this point are Sandra Stotsky, a former associate commissioner of education in Massachusetts and a member of the common core validation committee; and Jim Milgram, another validation committee member and an emeritus mathematics professor at Stanford University.

Those two were among five members of the 30-member validation panel who declined to back the standards, but their dissent was swept under the rug, they say.

Meanwhile, it’s Stotsky who makes some of the few criticisms of the actual content of the standards in the entire film.

She is critical of the common core English/language arts standards’ much-debated emphasis on informational texts—prose from history and science, etc.—at the expense of “literary texts.” And she says, “Why shouldn’t we have the same math standards in every single state? But then, it turns out, at the high school level, they’re about two grades lower.”

That’s about all the film has to say about the content, though it also pursues the charge that the common core’s embrace of “college and career ready” goals will drive colleges to dumb down their courses. (The film claims a “smoking gun” piece of evidence of one of the common core’s writers testifying before the Massachusetts state board of education and acknowledging that the standards aren’t designed to boost college-level science, technology, and math, or STEM, education.)

At times, the film seems to seems critical of the standards for not being vigorous enough, and at other times, it gives voice to people who argue that such national standards and high educational goals are not right for every student.

Toward the end, the film veers into the idea the common core will have undue influence on colleges, on admissions test such as the ACT and SAT, and on school curriculum and achievement tests. That, in turn, means a trickle-down effect on private schools and home-schooling families, which is why that world should be concerned, the film suggests.

“At the end of the day, you really have to decide this,” Farris says. “Is education about my child or my children, or is it about the system?”

The film concludes by calling for more parental involvement in education and for viewers to join the debate over the common core. That’s hardly the killer instinct that the standards’ fiercest critics have. In fact, some viewers may actually follow the advice of Fordham’s Michael Petrilli and go read the standards and decide they’re not so sinister.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.