Standards Opinion

Are Progressive Critics of Common Core “Getting Played” By Enemies of Public Education?

By Anthony Cody — January 07, 2014 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Today, Politico offers an analysis of conservative’s organized opposition to the Common Core which points out that the end game for many of these Koch-funded groups is total annihilation of public education, through the expansion of vouchers for private and parochial schools, and home schooling. The response on the part of some has been to suggest that those of us on the progressive side who have also been critical of Common Core have “been played.” That somehow we have lent credence to this conservative movement, and therefore we are being manipulated or used.

But blaming progressive critics of Common Core for the rise of this conservative movement turns reality on its head. The people who have let down our public schools are those who are willing to embrace standardization and high stakes tests as some sort of “progressive” guarantor of equity. We have been down this path with No Child Left Behind, which was sold to us by an alliance of liberal and neo-conservative politicians. We were told children in poverty would get more attention and resources once standardized tests “shed light” on just how far behind they were. We got teacher ‘evaluation’ schemes built around faulty VAM metrics, leading to mass demoralization and too-many losses of strong educators, simultaneous with a hypocritical push to replace seasoned teachers with Teach for America novices. The result? Intense pressure to raise test scores, narrowed curriculum, and school closings by the hundreds - all with the mantle of approval by our “liberal” leaders. Who really got played here?

Then Common Core came along in 2009. Everyone was weary of NCLB, and ready for change. But some of us could read the writing on the wall. The fancy words about critical thinking and “moving beyond the bubble tests” sounded nice, but a closer look revealed standards that were originally written with little to no participation by K12 teachers. The promises to get rid of bubble tests only meant that the tests would be taken on expensive computers. The promise to escape the narrowing of curriculum only meant we would be testing more often, in more subjects.

So many of us started raising concerns. The basic premise of Common Core was similar to NCLB - our schools are failing, and we must respond with “higher standards,” and more difficult tests. But the indictment of public education has been wrong from the start, and we should not lend it credence by supporting phony solutions.

But those who objected were drowned out by the incentives provided by Race to the Top and a bottomless well of grant funding from the Gates Foundation, which purchased support from the PTA, professional organizations like ASCD, and even our unions.

In April, I wrote about the trap our leaders fall into when they embrace the Common Core with enthusiasm, and offer largely unqualified endorsements of its inherent goodness:

But there is a new reason to get up on our hind legs and fight the Common Core and it is very political. A number of conservatives are making this a major issue. While corporate Republicans like Jeb Bush remain thoroughly wedded to Common Core, the real energy of the party is elsewhere. The energy is with the more Libertarian types, like Rand Paul and Glenn Beck. They are likely to escalate their attacks on the Common Core, and they already hate unions. That makes it very easy for them to attack Common Core as a Big Government, Big Union plot to squash local control of schools and impose a monolithic curriculum on the populace. The Obama administration's education policies have been, by and large, a disaster. And Republicans are poised to rev up their attack machine on these grounds and teacher unions will be smeared right along with the administration so long as they are on board.

It is not progressive opponents of Common Core who have set our public schools and unions up for this. It is the corporate reformers, and those willing to promote their grandiose Common Core project.

There are some attempts under way to separate Common Core from high stakes tests, most notably in California, as described in today’s letter from Bill Honig. This is the ONLY condition under which these standards ought to be even considered.

The California experiment is worth looking at, with some reservations. First of all, as Mercedes Schneider points out, in California, a number of the largest districts are already working on side deals with the Department of Education that may provide all the high stakes tests any reformer might want. Los Angeles Unified, the second largest district in the nation, has already pledged to spend a billion dollars on iPads to support Common Core-aligned Pearson curriculum and online tests. So while it could be significant if the state as a whole is able to resist some of the high stakes, the fight is far from over.

Progressives who have opposed the Common Core have done so for important, principled reasons. Those who stake the future of public education on embracing standardization and high stakes tests are in danger of giving up the heart of great education in exchange for a false promise of its mere survival.

I think there is a conservative calculation that is being made by some of our leaders. They may believe that in order for public education - and our unions -- to survive, we must convince the powerful elite running corporate reform and our government that the two are useful. The whole thrust of Common Core is to make students “career ready,” and therefore of maximum utility to employers. The Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable are clearly the core constituency for this project.

But if we must trade away the heart and soul of our mission as educators, we have given gold for straw. And as I wrote last June, many of the conservative criticisms of Common Core are actually valid. The response to this cannot be “These people are horrible bogeymen who want to destroy our schools, and thus everything they say is wrong.” The response should be to separate the good reasons to oppose Common Core from the bad, and develop our own clear vision of what public education ought to be all about.

That work can only be done when we have rejected high stakes testing. I believe it would be better done without the highly flawed Common Core. But we cannot defeat those who wish to destroy public education by defending the least defensible aspects of it.

What do you think? Are progressive critics of Common Core somehow “being played” by conservatives out to destroy public education?

Continue the dialogue with Anthony on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.