Standards Opinion

Is the Tea Party Right About the Common Core?

By Anthony Cody — June 01, 2013 7 min read
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Yesterday’s Washington Post carried a banner story about growing Tea Party opposition to the Common Core. We learn that across the country, Tea Party activists have been organizing around opposition to the Common Core, and have succeeded in blocking or delaying the standards in at least nine states.

There has been a contemptuous reaction from the highest levels of our educational system. Arne Duncan has implied that opponents are tin-foil hatted paranoids: “It’s not a black helicopter ploy and we’re not trying to get inside people’s minds and brains,” he said last week. A week before he responded to questions at Capital Hill, saying “Let’s not get caught up in hysteria and drama.” And of course corporate-funded conservatives like Jeb Bush, and the Fordham Institute are still on board all the way.

The problem they have is that the substance of the Tea Party criticism of Common Core standards is solid.
And it aligns pretty well with what many of us a bit more to the left have been saying for years. Let’s take the arguments, as presented by this Washington Post article and elsewhere, and check them out.

1. Sharing of student and teacher data with third party developers of all sorts, with no guarantees of privacy. As noted in this post, there are plans in place in some states such as Illinois and New York, and others as well, to collect massive amounts of data, which will be housed in a cloud based databank maintained by inBloom, a non-profit created by the Gates Foundation for this purpose. Given the many ways data has been abused in recent years, there are sound reasons to question this threat to privacy.

2. As the Post notes, “Critics also charge that Common Core was thrust onto schools with little public debate.” This is a huge problem. What hubris it must take to believe that you can assemble a small group of people, and, working largely in secret, completely overhaul what is taught in a supposedly democratic society. When I first got wind of the project back in 2009, I wrote this:

And what about a democratic process? We are apparently about to be handed a set of standards that will dictate what is taught in millions of classrooms across this nation. How will these have been arrived at? Who, besides the Gates Foundation millionaire's club, and the standardized test companies and the publishing companies will have been engaged in this profoundly civic process?

A month later, when the writers of the standards and the “confidential” process were announced, we learned that the group of sixty people included numerous representatives of test publishers, but only one classroom teacher.

In most states, it was the governor or state superintendent of education who made the decision to adopt the standards, with little or no public deliberative process. This back door adoption process is now backfiring, as people realize the entire fabric of our schools is being changed, and educators and the public were never consulted in meaningful ways.

3. Related to the previous point, Tea Party activists have correctly pointed out that Federal law specifically forbids the Department of Education from setting national standards. As Jamie Gass and Charles Chieppo noted in their recent Wall St. Journal op-ed:

Three federal laws explicitly prohibit the U.S. government from directing, supervising or controlling any nationalized standards, testing or curriculum. Yet Race to the Top, a federal education grant competition that dangled $4.35 billion in front of states, favored applications that adopted Common Core. The Education Department subsequently awarded $362 million to fund two national testing consortia to develop national assessments and a "model curriculum" that is "aligned with" Common Core.

There has been extensive federal support for this project from the start, and one of its chief selling points has been the fact that it will create a set of national standards. There is little question that this is federal bribery bordering on coercion. In his rebuttal to Gass and Chiappo, Michael Petrilli, of the Gates-funded Fordham Institute, offers the very weak defense that no courts have, as of yet, found this to be illegal. That is a low standard indeed.

4. Some conservative critics have pointed out that the thrust of the Common Core is aimed at preparing students for the workforce. We are told that the role of our schools is to prepare students for “college and career,” and we find an increased emphasis on informational text. This very thorough conservative critique states:

Common Core changes the mission of the public education system from teaching children academic basics and knowledge to training them to serve the global economy in jobs selected by workforce boards.

The author also writes:

The role of education is not to teach students what to think in preparation for job placement. The role of education, the proper role, is to teach children HOW to think, how to process information, how to analyze, interpret, and infer, and how to solve problems.

This resonates with a more progressive critique offered by Susan Ohanian, who frames the issue this way:

This latest corporate reform plan, the Common Core State (sic) Standards (CCSS), eliminates community-based planning, destroys personal response to literature, and, instead of fostering education for individual need and the common good, puts children on a treadmill to becoming scared, obedient workers for the global economy. The constant exhortation to teachers and students is "You're not good enough for the market economy!" When the ruling class screams about people not measuring up, over time the besieged are trained to blame themselves for the lack of jobs, lack of benefits, lack of a safety net.

5. Many conservative activists are, like myself, deeply concerned about the role of the Gates Foundation, which has, to date, invested an estimated $150 million in the Common Core project. Check out those out front advancing the standards - you will find they are almost all recipients of Gates money. Educators have come to understand the market-driven, test score-focused agenda of the largest philanthropy in the world. The Gates Foundation has promoted charter schools, test score/VAM teacher and principal evaluations for the past decade, and have been hugely influential across the country, and at the Department of Education. The Tea Party analysis often applies the label “progressive” to the Gates Foundation, while some of us might use a different term.

We also have some major reasons to be concerned about the Common Core that have NOT been mentioned by conservatives. The tests associated with Common Core are likely to renew the false indictment of our public schools. Proficiency rates are predicted to drop by at least 30%. There will be a significant expansion in the number and frequency of tests, and the technology needed to fully implement to Common Core will divert billions of scarce education dollars. The data systems not only threaten student privacy, but also provide more fuel for the phony value added systems being developed to micromanage our work as teachers.

While these are some significant areas of agreement, there also major areas where many of us part ways with aspects of the Tea Party perspective. As I learned on a visit to Arizona a few months ago, many in this movement are strongly in favor of vouchers and deeply suspicious of public education. Part of the reason some oppose national standards is that they are happy to see public funds flowing to private and religious schools in many places, and fear that these schools will be obligated to align their curriculum with the Common Core. Many are also strongly opposed to unions, including teacher unions.

Some who are influential with Tea Party folks have some misconceptions. For example, some have suggested, with very little supporting evidence, that Bill Ayers was one of the authors of the Common Core. I actually checked with Mr. Ayers, and he told me he has had nothing to do with them, and does not even support them.

Tea Party conservatives, unlike many educators, are not at all convinced that schools ought to be pursuing the goal of equitable outcomes for students. Some of them even go so far as to equate equity with communism. This critique of Linda Darling-Hammond’s work takes on the Opportunity to Learn campaign:

Also included in the "Opportunity to Learn Campaign" are "wraparound supports" such as extended learning time which might sound good until you realize that we're moving away from a family-centered to a school-centered way of life that pushes parents to the periphery of children's lives.

To be clear, those of us who support social services do so not because we are opposed to families and parents having central roles in students’ lives, but because we are aware of the toll poverty is taking on children, and wish to provide much-needed support so that children can succeed.

While we might disagree with the Tea Party on some key points, there is no question that they have been highly effective at reversing the forward momentum of the Common Core. Their pressure led the GOP to recently pass a resolution declaring the party’s opposition to the Common Core, along the lines described above.

Why have educators and parents with similar concerns about corporate reform and the Common Core been less influential than the Tea Party? The combined membership of the two largest teachers unions in the nation - in excess of four million, is far larger than the number of members of any Tea Party organization. But our union leaders have largely embraced the Common Core, and rarely confront corporate reform head-on. AFT President Randi Weingarten continues to voice strong support for the new standards, though she has called for a year’s delay for the punitive consequences attached to Common Core test results. In a sign of mounting pressure on AFT leadership, however, the AFT issued a statement yesterday raising serious questions about the inBloom database.

There are additional signs that educator, parent and student voices may be gaining strength. While billionaire corporate reformers recently spent millions on their chosen candidates in the Los Angeles school board race, the voters chose more independent candidates instead. The Network for Public Education has begun endorsing candidates, such as Monica Ratliff, the teacher just elected in Los Angeles. (disclosure: I was a co-founder of the NPE and serve as the group’s treasurer.) In recent union elections in Chicago, 80% of the teachers there voted for the CORE leadership caucus led by Karen Lewis, which has been more willing to fight back against school closures and corporate style reforms. Students are becoming far more active as well, and in recent weeks we have seen walkouts related to these issues in Philadelphia, Chicago, and other cities around the country.

If educators, parents and students are capable of clearly defining issues that we care deeply about, we can communicate this through groups like the NPE. And perhaps we can encourage more candidates who are knowledgeable about these issues to run for office, and ensure they have grassroots support so they have a chance to beat the big money they are likely to face. And perhaps we can even convince our unions to see the value of taking a stance independent of the billionaire sponsors of the Common Core and corporate reform.

What do you think? Is the Tea Party correct in their critique of the Common Core? What can we learn from their success?

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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.