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Curriculum Opinion

Common Core Is Not a Government Takeover

By Dave Powell — May 05, 2015 8 min read
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By now most of us are well aware of the concerns raised about the Common Core. It’s too hard, we’re told; students used to love math back in the good old days, and now they hate it. The English language arts (ELA) standards focus too much on “informational text,” we’re told; we are instructed by a “Professor of Education Reform,” writing on behalf of a well known conservative think-tank, that the standards will have a “devastating impact on literary study and analytical thinking.” And, lest we forget, Common Core is a government takeover of education. Enough said, right?

Most of these criticisms are pretty easily answered. The “old” way of doing math definitely was not better, and anybody looking through rose-colored glasses at the state of math education before Common Core should really take the glasses off for a clearer sense of what it was like. I went to school before Common Core was even a twinkle in its collective daddys’ eyes, and I found math to be tedious, boring, and, for the most part, inscrutable. This “new” math, very much to its credit, is supported by academic researchers and professionals who actually spend most of their time thinking about how to teach math, not how to sell math books, and who care a lot about how math is taught in schools. Of course this new way of doing math requires students (and their teachers) to think a little differently, and change is hard—but is that any reason to keep doing things the way we used to do them? As the old saying goes: if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you always got. Is that what we want?

Much of the criticism of Common Core’s English language arts standards is similarly misguided. It’s true that Common Core calls for the use of more “informational text” in classrooms. Where’s the crime there, though? I’m as partial to literature as the next guy is—I was an English major once—but a little balance seems to me to be a good thing. The way I see it, the call for more non-fiction in elementary grades, especially, is tantamount to calling for a greater emphasis on social studies. Now, more than ever, we could use a more robust approach to social studies in schools, especially in the younger grades. Besides that, my experience as a parent has told me that what passes for literature teaching in too many schools is a contract with Renaissance Learning to have kids game their “Accelerated Reader” quizzes every nine weeks. It’s not like most kids were heading off to college (or work) with Mark Twain tucked under one arm, Moby Dick tucked under the other, and a suitcase full of poems and short stories to help them remember the good times in 10th grade. Again: very much not opposed to literature. Just wondering when this golden age was that was supposedly undermined by Common Core.

Of course, the third criticism I mentioned is the most pernicious one; it’s the one that sticks. That’s because “Common Core is a government takeover of education” is an irrational argument, which means it can’t be countered with a rational response. You just can’t open up the standards and show the part where they say “This isn’t a government takeover of your child’s education.” Common Core has become a straw man, and attacks on it primarily survive because it’s really hard to refute a polemical argument that borders on demagoguery. The attacks also survive because the ones doing the attacking count on the fact that most people have no way of knowing if the “government takeover” claim is legitimate or not.

Well, it’s not. Over and over proponents of Common Core have to explain that it wasn’t Obama’s idea, nor did it come from Congress. It didn’t come from the “liberal media,” either, and it wasn’t even spearheaded by snobby coastal elite college professors. In fact, some of the first people on the bandwagon were Jeb Bush and Bobby Jindal and Oklahoma’s illustrious governor, Mary Fallin. They liked Common Core, I presume, because it appealed to the conservative politician’s desire to control what people learn in schools. Unfortunately for them, Common Core doesn’t exercise as much control over what teachers teach as they might have thought it did. It is, after all, a set of standards, not a curriculum. Teachers (well, more accurately, state departments of education; more on that later) are expected to create curricula, even in states where Common Core has been adopted.

But, boy, does that desire to control what happens in schools remain. Want another example to go with the diet of conservative efforts to rewrite American history that you’ve been on recently? Try this one: our old friends down in North Carolina have another great idea. They want to bring “gold standard instruction” to public schools in the Tar Heel State. You might have read that and thought: “this must mean they want to raise standards for learning in North Carolina—you know, establish the ‘gold standard’ of teacher effectiveness or something.” Sorry, no.

Apparently, they actually want to require teachers to teach students about the gold standard. You know, The Gold Standard. A system in which the standard monetary unit has its value indexed to a fixed quantity of gold. The gold standard we abandoned in 1933; anybody know what was going on in 1933? We can discuss the economics if necessary, but just chew on this for a minute: if we index the value of money to the amount of gold we have sitting in storage somewhere, most of the money we have will become worthless. Guess who wins in that scenario? If you chose “the middle class” or lower, you lose. The good news is that this is a non-issue, practically speaking—only a very small number of conservative and libertarian activists are clamoring for a return to the gold standard—but the gold standard is beside the point here.

The point is that the state legislature in North Carolina, as in a lot of other states, just loves to legislate. This may seem strange to regular watchers of Congress, as we have become used to Congress not doing much of anything, but it’s very much by design: conservatives understand that their odds of winning increase the further they get from national politics. The lights just don’t shine as brightly in Peoria, which is very much to their advantage. And before you say, “well they have control of both houses of Congress so that must be some kind of mandate,” go look up the word “gerrymandering.” And do some research on voter turnout in midterm elections.

You want to know who’s taking over your child’s education? This is your government takeover right here, and it’s not just confined to North Carolina. When legislators start telling teachers what to teach, no matter what it is, they, as the state itself, are taking over your child’s teacher’s classroom, and taking over your child’s education. When they make laws requiring teachers to teach certain things, they are taking over your child’s education. Common Core does not do that. It establishes standards for instruction that some state departments of education over-analyze and turn into awful, prescriptive curricula. Blame that part on the state bureaucrats. But don’t blame it on Common Core.

We have a political problem here, obviously. It is that ignorance and pandering to it are rewarded by a damaged political process in need of reform. But we have an educational problem to solve too, and separating it from the political problem won’t be easy. In the first place, we need to begin to separate the over-the-top political rhetoric, which appeals to a small group of people motivated to vote their narrow interests, from the reality of what a reform like Common Core could potentially accomplish. Let me put it this way: the absence of standards creates an opening for self-interested legislators, hucksters, salesmen, and con men to enter the “education market” and either turn a quick buck or turn a quick ideological trick. Sometimes both. Even worse than state departments of education trying to force curriculum on teachers are the private companies hawking pre-packaged curricula of dubious parentage that usually can only be distinguished from the same junk sold years ago by a “Common Core Ready!” sticker thrown on the cover. To be clear, it’s not Common Core that has led to the pre-packaged curricula swirling around schools today. It’s a deregulated education marketplace made possible by the fact that, before now, Common Core never existed. When you don’t have standards, anything goes.

I’m concerned about Common Core, and especially the testing connected to it, but often feel that the depressing nature of our discussion about it has boxed me into a corner. Let’s be careful about blaming the concerns being expressed about Common Core on the standards themselves, or on the idea of standards more generally. Right now, it’s testing season so our attention is drawn there. It’s undeniably true that the tests came out way too quickly and weren’t ready, as they say, for prime time. People are right to be upset about that. It’s also undeniably true that they came out as quickly as they did because there is a lot of money to be made by testing companies; Pearson’s secretive and creepy trolling of the internet to find out if kids or teachers leaked any test questions just underlines the ridiculousness of the situation.

But focusing too much on the tests misses a larger point that’s worth considering: without standards for professional practice, without a shared sense of why we want schools to exist and what we hope students will learn to do there, educators are always going to be exposed to the meddling of uninformed outsiders—outsiders with potentially dangerous ideas that can undermine even the most basic conception of what an education is by using their power to brainwash teachers and kids. That’s the kind of government interference we should be afraid of. See? We need to establish real professional standards to prevent government interference in schools. Where’s the ever-vigilant government-takeover crowd on this one?

The opinions expressed in The K-12 Contrarian 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.