The Core Problem of Common Core.

I suppose it is time to write about Common Core again, in light of the recent withdrawal of a former Bush administration pro-Common Core staffer, Hanna Skandera, from consideration as an assistant secretary for the Department of Education.  This blog is not about her specifically, though she is a member of one of the Common Core testing organizations, PARCC (Partnership of Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers).  Rather I am concerned about the incredible confusion that has set in regarding the fate and nature of Common Core.  This announcement just galvanized me.  

Common Core is very unpopular with a significant segment of the population, especially in more conservative states, and among many teachers (that is, those who really teach and don’t spend all their time working for teachers’ unions).  In fact I have spoken to many present and former teachers who decry Common Core. I myself have experienced it through my daughter, whose math curriculum was atrocious (I have a Physics degree and math past differential equations).  Parents have worried, rightly, that Common Core incentivizes “teaching to the test,” removing any innovation and tendency to go beyond the standard content to challenge students.  But perhaps the greatest concern for parents (like me, I admit) is the bias that creeps into the curriculum.  What I mean, it should be evident, is leftward bias in social studies related curriculum such as history, politics, economics, etc.  In the end it is more difficult to make math biased, as somewhere along the line, either you get it or you don’t and if you don’t then you simply can’t function mathematically at all except for very simply problems.  And you soon run into reality in fields like the sciences or engineering.  It is rather difficult to build a bridge if you can’t do the calculations.  And if you tried, well….

But in social sciences, it is possible to get content that seems plausible to a child and even to a parent, but which may be extremely distorted.  It can for example, be biased against a constitutional order and limited government, or a free markets (properly understood), or a rule of law.  It may distort American history, presenting it as one long chain of oppression of various identity groups, with no redeeming features, and never escaping its past.  It may teach that all gender is socially or individually constructed, even that all reality is socially constructed.  It may denigrate traditional, particularly Christian ideas, as biased, homophobic, racist, or oppressive, and that Christianity has been the main source of violence in the world.  Even at its most practical and unbiased level, it may try to teach content in a way that is unnecessarily complicated and accomplishes little benefit for students, and it may do so with a philosophical orientation behind it that appeals to relativism or at best, epistemological pluralism.  Too many reports have been published pointing out this kind of bias.

In addition, it is not at all clear that students come out prepared for life in the real world or at college, except to function as purveyors of social justice message and an odd attitude of entitlement.

Now I realize that it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to get everyone to agree on any common curriculum for all children in America.  And perhaps that was the fatal flaw in Common Core in its design.  Beyond the most basic content, such as reading, the ability to write well, and the ability to perform at least relatively simple math, perhaps we are too utopian in our vision.  Perhaps even we are taking away what ought to be left to individual communities, not even the state, to decide–the ultimate laboratories.  If a community in Vermont wants to teach its children that economic equality is the prime directive, to be accomplished by the state through taxation, as well as other means, then I say, have at it.  But to use Common Core to dangle Federal money in the eyes of state education departments who then require everyone to tow the line as they decide, is not just a bad idea but unethical, as it forces a “one size fits all” curriculum on everyone, and a curriculum that is not even desired by many.

Of course Common Core is not mandated by the Federal government, but it is used as a “carrot” by which to get states to adopt it, promising them money if they do and no money of they don’t.  For our politicians–another story–this is too much.  State governments have frequently adopted it without even stopping to ask what is in it (familiar story?).  And state departments of education not only go along, but embrace it, for a different set of reasons, related more to ideology than anything else.  Then the state forces it on all,schools in that state, even if they have performed quite well without it for decades and even if parents don’t like it.

Behind all that is the sometimes incestuous relationship between Common Core designers and Federal officials and politicians.  Here is what the Washington Post wrote in 2014:

On a summer day in 2008, Gene Wilhoit, director of a national group of state school chiefs, and David Coleman, an emerging evangelist for the standards movement, spent hours in Bill Gates’s sleek headquarters near Seattle, trying to persuade him and his wife, Melinda, to turn their idea into reality.  Coleman and Wilhoit told the Gateses that academic standards varied so wildly between states that high school diplomas had lost all meaning, that as many as 40 percent of college freshmen needed remedial classes and that U.S. students were falling behind their foreign competitors.  The pair also argued that a fragmented education system stifled innovation because textbook publishers and software developers were catering to a large number of small markets instead of exploring breakthrough products. That seemed to resonate with the man who led the creation of the world’s dominant computing system. (Lyndsey Layton, June 7, 2014)

From there things moved rapidly.  Federal officials got behind the idea quickly, as we would expect.  As Layton continues:

The Gates Foundation spread money across the political spectrum, to entities including the big teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, and business organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — groups that have clashed in the past but became vocal backers of the standards.  Money flowed to policy groups on the right and left, funding research by scholars of varying political persuasions who promoted the idea of common standards. Liberals at the Center for American Progress and conservatives affiliated with the American Legislative Exchange Council who routinely disagree on nearly every issue accepted Gates money and found common ground on the Common Core.  One 2009 study, conducted by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute with a $959,116 Gates grant, described the proposed standards as being “very, very strong” and “clearly superior” to many existing state standards.Gates money went to state and local groups, as well, to help influence policy makers and civic leaders. And the idea found a major booster in President Obama, whose new administration was populated by former Gates Foundation staffers and associates. The administration designed a special contest using economic stimulus funds to reward states that accepted the standards.  (Post)

That is how it began.  But where was the deliberation?  It went missing.  There was a reason, I submit, why national standards could not be agreed on for so many years.  Wisdom tells us that it is extremely difficult to have all the knowledge necessary to uniformize a national curriculum.  Long ago Friedrich Hayek warned about the inability of central planners to possess the knowledge to plan such large and expansive endeavors.  Local knowledge, in this case, that of local schools and parents, simply cannot be gained in sufficient quantity or quality to make any plans actually provide benefits.  In fact, such plans may actually be bad for children in the long run, and derivatively, for our nation. (see Hayek, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” American Economic Review, 1945).

And that is presuming perfectly idealistic and laudable motives for the planners.  If the planners have perverse motives, to force some particular agenda on everyone, as central planners often do, then the problem is compounded.  And politicians frequently rush headlong to embrace new programs that include money from others to jump start them, and which in the short run at least, seem to promise rewards from the “right” groups–unions, administrators, and state governments.  

Many states are now either leaving Common Core or are considering leaving.  Some, unfortunately, like my own state of West Virginia, appear to to be repealing it, but in reality continuing it in another guise–something Indiana also appears to have done.  In Ohio, Governor Kasich seems enamored with Common Core, in the face of mounting opposition–except from education bureaucrats.  

What then will Betsy Devos do?  I don’t know.  I hear and read conflicting reports on her attitude toward Common Core. My hope is that she and Congress will simply decide to cut funding to states for Common Core, removing the food that keeps the beast alive, and the incentives that keep state governments using it.  IF we still want to fund education from Washington, then funds should be without strings attached.  But I would support the abolition of the Department of Education in addition, since is now populated by the kinds of planners that continually would have us all believe they and they alone know what is best for the rest of us, and then attempt to find ways to impose their ideas (the content of which is the subject for another day) on us without any accountability to us.

A word to Christian schools is also in order.  If upon careful examination (do your due diligence for the students’ sakes) you find this curriculum to be lacking in terms not only of its academic quality, but also its ideological bias (including religious bias), then by all means, do NOT kowtow to the god o funding.  Refuse it, even at the peril of going broke.  “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?” (Jesus).  If that sounds harsh, it is a call to courage.  We need people of moral courage in all spheres of life.  

2 thoughts on “The Core Problem of Common Core.”

  1. You’ve echoed my sentiments with exceptionally accurate resonance, Dr. Clauson. The whole idea of educational choice seems so instinctive to me, yet many balk at the idea of letting parents manage their own child’s education. I cannot figure out why. They either have a very inflated view of their own capacities, in which case they are quite haughty for thinking so; or they have a most deflated view of parents’ capacities, thinking of them as backwards, flea-bitten neanderthals rather than caring protectors of their offspring. There is some conflicting evidence about how free-choice systems perform against the current model (keeping in mind that the yardstick is generally standardized testing and not future success), but one fact that is crystal clear is that parents are significantly more satisfied with a free-choice system.

  2. In light of what we are learning in Macro right now, I wonder if Common Core helps or hiders productivity in general, opinions set aside. My initial guess would be it hinders productivity because teachers are under such a rigid set of objectives. It takes some of the joy from teachers who actually care and want to be passionate about certain topics that may or may not be in Common Core standards. On the other hand, people like Bill Gates were convinced Common Core would help productivity and innovation. (I’m not sure how textbooks aid in “exploring breakthrough products” BTW… what does that even mean?)

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