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Teachers unions have seized on Common Core to undermine testing mandates and teacher evaluation schemes, bemoans Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek. Bad model lessons are undercutting Common Core’s potential, exclaims Robert Pondiscio of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Common Core teacher retraining sessions teem with learning theories that research has proven ineffective, complains E. D. Hirsch, founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation. And textbook publishers have twisted Common Core into a resurgence of “fuzzy math,” asserts College Board’s Kathleen Porter-Magee.
In other words, our nation’s 50 million schoolkids enter a storm of curricular chaos this fall, but, like them, Common Core is just a hapless victim. Has Common Core really been hijacked, or has it been a rogue vessel all along?
To answer that question in education terms, consider the current furor among New York educators over whether Common Core supports phonics-based literacy or a content-lite approach known as “balanced literacy.” The two are essentially pedagogical polar opposites, yet both sides claim Common Core justifies their approach.
A look at the standards themselves, as its proponents often demand, suggests this controversy is at least partly Common Core’s fault. Its curriculum mandates are wordy, obtuse, and inaccurate. Try this representative directive, for kindergarten: “Associate the long and short sounds with the common spellings (graphemes) for the five major vowels.” After wading through the blubbery language, an astute reader will ask, “How many ways can there be to spell the five vowels? And are there any minor vowels?” There is precisely one spelling for each of the five, and only five, vowels. So what could this mandate mean?
It’s unclear, and so is the rest of Common Core, as in-depth analysis along these lines from Hillsdale College’s Terrence Moore shows in his book The Story Killers. So no wonder New York teachers, and teachers everywhere, must muddle about, prey to contradictory education theories, in the name of Common Core. The lack of curricular clarity in Common Core has spawned mass confusion. Follow the money: The Common Core beneficiaries are consultants and test developers.
Aside from such complaints, Common Core proponents suggest the curriculum makes for good political arrangements. If it undercuts mediocrity by demonstrating the flabbiness of American children’s mental muscles, or makes U.S. education more efficient and orderly, perhaps all this pain might produce some gain. Or, in the words of Common Core’s biggest financial backer, Bill Gates, “It’s ludicrous to think that multiplication in Alabama and multiplication in New York are really different.”
That’s the real essence of Common Core: a political movement, a neat and tidy scheme to streamline U.S. education through a set of rapid, enormous policy changes rather than undergo the tedious process of convincing people and their elected representatives they should assent to a new way of organizing education. To speed things along, the people who created Common Core requested back in 2008 that the federal government play “an enabling role” and “offer a range of tiered incentives” to get states to sign onto national curriculum mandates and tests.
Once President Barack Obama came into office, he obliged, and then some. Thanks to federal grants offered during the recent recession, 40 state departments of education offered to accept this complete overhaul of their schools’ curricula and tests more than five months before the actual curriculum requirements were published in June 2010 and two months before even a draft was made publicly available. Taxpayers still await the final version of these new national tests.
Given the speed, secrecy, and arm-twisting of this initiative, the resulting chaos is no surprise. Potential pitfalls and a broad base of support never emerged during public debate, because there was no public debate. What is surprising is that people still insist on blaming Common Core’s victims rather than its perpetrators.
Joy Pullmann is a 2013–14 Robert Novak journalism fellow and education research fellow for The Heartland Institute.