Common Core: Concepts and Misconceptions
Fads and Dangers in American Education
I have been sorely tempted to dismiss the entire kerfuffle about Common Core Standards as a fad (or perhaps several fads). But there is a problem here and a dangerous movement underway in American education. Let me explain.
The Common Core Standards controversy grows as conservatives and homeschoolers increasingly dig in their heels to denounce and oppose the standards. The opposition genuinely puzzles many elected officials and education bureaucrats. They’re scratching their heads because the Common Core Standards seem (to them) to be innocuous.
At the root of the varied reactions, I am convinced, is a problem of definition. There are powerful forces at work trying to make fundamental changes in the American education system. The Common Core Standards are one piece of a larger movement. In and of themselves they are not alarming. The larger movement is. My fear is that homeschoolers and conservatives, by focusing too much of their energy on opposing the standards, will be sidetracked, pigeon-holed, and all-too-easily dismissed.
There are other factors which must be understood in order to evaluate the Common Core standards and formulate an intelligent response to them.
One factor is the century-long effort to nationalize and standardize American education. The standardization efforts have their roots in Dewey, Cubberley, and the schools of education at Stanford and Columbia. They picked up steam in the 1960s and 1970s as the national teachers’ unions gained more power. They strengthened more when President Jimmy Carter fulfilled a promise to the NEA by creating a separate, cabinet-level Department of Education.
The educrats dream of a day when every student in America will receive exactly the same education, using the same textbooks and lesson plans. Those textbooks and lesson plans will, of course, be developed by the best and the brightest, who will pass them down on tablets of stone. The worker bees and drones will be programmed to follow them exactly. This is a nightmare scenario, one which anyone who believes in individual rights, local control, and federalism should oppose at every opportunity. The Common Core Standards become dangerous when they form a stepping stone which helps to move the educrats’ vision forward.
The standards themselves, however, are not inherently offensive or even controversial.
I strongly recommend that anyone who wishes to form an opinion on this topic take the time to read the standards themselves. They can be found at www.corestandards.org.
Here’s a sample:
One of the key requirements of the Common Core State Standards for Reading is that all students must be able to comprehend texts of steadily increasing complexity as they progress through school. By the time they complete the core, students must be able to read and comprehend independently and proficiently the kinds of complex texts commonly found in college and careers. The first part of this section makes a research-based case for why the complexity of what students read matters. In brief, while reading demands in college, workforce training programs, and life in general have held steady or increased over the last half century, K–12 texts have actually declined in sophistication, and relatively little attention has been paid to students’ ability to read complex texts independently. These conditions have left a serious gap between many high school seniors’ reading ability and the reading requirements they will face after graduation.
Homeschool parents, conservatives, and teachers of all stripes should have no quarrel with either the observation about text complexity or the recommendation that the curricula we use to teach our children should account for it.
Our objection and opposition should not be to the standards themselves. The standards are, in fact, simply common sense. They align with much of what homeschoolers have been saying about public education for twenty years. We should instead object to the premise that the current deficiencies can be addressed by a top-down solution imposed by any central authority.
One of the huge areas of confusion created by the implementation of the Common Core Standards is that several of the first curricula developed and implemented have been egregiously biased and amount to little more than progressive propaganda. They do align with the Common Core Standards because they consciously train children to read increasingly complex texts. They should be opposed for their content, not for their opportunistic use of the Common Core label.
There is another insidious national movement, coupled with the Common Core standards, which is far more frightening.
A national testing and comprehensive student database is being built to measure students’ progress, ostensibly in learning the skills laid out in the Common Core. The creation and use of this testing program and database was made a requirement for any state which wanted to receive education funding under the Stimulus Act. The educrats have run wild with the possibilities. A February 2013 draft report from the federal Department of Education has set off alarm bells. This report calls for gathering, collating, and analyzing a wide array of non-academic data in order to assist students in developing the character traits of “grit, tenacity, & perseverance.” This goes far beyond the Common Core Standards and should be denounced from the rooftops for all the obvious reasons.
My heartfelt recommendation to all involved in the struggle and public debate is this: carefully define your terms and identify the specific objectionable parts and principles which we must oppose.
We don’t oppose the development of the skills described in the Common Core Standards. They’re common sense. Parents and traditional textbooks and Christian curricula and worldview education have always identified them and exceeded them.
What we oppose is top-down federal control and the imposition of a national curriculum and national standards. (Click to tweet!) And we most deeply oppose the central government’s presumption in thinking that it can or should take over responsibility for shaping our children’s character and attitudes. Such a move is not merely impractical or unwise; it is tyranny. I care too much for my children and grandchildren to let it happen without a fight.
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victim may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. – C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock (1948)