Another political season, another frenzied and divisive debate about the education curriculum. It’s hardly a surprise. Teachers know how hard it is to teach the same way to 30 kids in a classroom. Imagine expanding that goal to an entire country. That’s what having the central government involved here does. It will forever generate not light but heat and fire.
The latest reform cliche is “Common Core.” Its genesis has all the earmarks of the usual government racket. It all began innocently enough in the 1990s. Many academics concluded that we need better standards for students. They need to aspire to them and be tested by them. No kidding, right? Nothing new here. The revolt against the standardless 1970s has been going on for decades.
Bestselling books by E.D. Hirsch from the 1990s embodied the idea. Students need specific knowledge. Here is what every 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th grader should know, mapped out point by point. Let’s just forget all this free association blather that’s been going on during the hippie years. Students need to know stuff, real stuff, and be tested on it. Buy the friggin’ book and memorize it people!
It all sounds interesting enough and, actually, on one level, difficult to dispute. So long as this movement remained in the realm of popular selling books, all was fine. And yet in a highly politicized educational system, it never stays that way. The National Governors Association created a new organization to realize this idea. A national curriculum was generated by a handful of well-connected academics.
The entire thing became a copyrighted central plan, which is to say that there is small group of publishers and intellectuals who saw the big bucks in shoving this thing down the nation’s throat.
The Obama administration got involved just three years ago, along with the Gates Foundation. It’s Race To the Top program gave grants to states that adopted the Common Core — effectively bribing school boards all over the country. It was a classic case: the entire establishment got on board. It was supported by both parties. In many ways, it was the fulfillment of the dream of both conservatives (higher standards!) and left-liberals (a better plan!).
No one really expected much resistance. After all, Common Core is really just a followup on the previous central plan called No Child Left Behind, as pushed by President Bush with only marginal resistance on the party of anyone.
No one asked the parents. Even worse, parents weren’t even given any access to the tests, to say nothing of voters. Officials behind the whole racket were incredulous at the demand: of course we can’t share the details because then people would game the system and cheat!
According to Wendy McElroy, the first signs of trouble came when some parents started to look at the history curriculum to discover one question in which students are asked to remove two planks from the Bills of Rights and add two more of their own. Yes, it’s a ridiculously goofy question to ask of students who know very little at all about the history behind the Bill of Rights.
But that was just the beginning. Parents have started looking more carefully at the math sections, which do not so much teach math but rather model massive confusion. Many of the test questions offer three possible answers, two of which are correct, arrived at in different ways, and one of which is incorrect. The goal in answering the question is to correct the incorrect answer using the same method that somehow went awry.
Pretty convoluted? Absolutely. It’s what you get when you ask a “leading educator” of math from an establishment university to write a new national math curriculum. Very few such people can possibly resist the opportunity to try out an untested experiment on an entire nation. You would certainly be better off asking homeschool parents which are the best textbooks already on the market. Even better, have a look at the “Dummies Guide To..” that you can find at the local bookstore.
In any case, it truly appears that a grass-roots opposition movement is taking hold and growing. Some political analysts are sounding a warning bell: this is a huge issue and it is not going away. Candidates are going to be judged based on whether they support or oppose this monstrosity coming our way. At this point, it is pretty clear that no Republican who supports Common Core is going anywhere at the national level.
Nonetheless, Professor Hirsch, in many ways the godfather of the movement, is undaunted: These standards “constitute the first multi-state plan to give substance and coherence to what is taught in the public schools. They encourage the systematic development of knowledge in K-5. They break the fearful silence about the critical importance of specific content in the early grades. They offer an example (the human body) of how knowledge ought to be built systematically across grades.”
In other words, this is just the beginning. It is going to get much more intense year by year.
Opposition groups are forming in every state. That the standards and the tests have long been hidden from parents has led to an intense curiosity and even treasure hunt to find the worst of Common Core. Websites are publishing examples by the day. And truly, many are just egregious. No surprise that there is a serious left-liberal bias to the curriculum: anti-capitalism, anti-gun, vaguely anti-religion, and so. This is the catechism of the new civic religion.
Somehow none of this should surprise anyone who has paid attention to the revolving, repeating fiasco of educational reform over the last several decades. No surprise, nothing seems to work. Mandatory loose standards failed but mandatory tight standards have failed and will fail again. Contrary to the hysterical claims of the activists here, the real problem is not the bias of the curriculum, the shoddy and experimental testing techniques, or the incentives to cheat that come with any program that teaches to the test.
The problem is the central plan itself. Even more deeply, it is the government-owned and government-run system itself. One step further: the ultimate problem is the compulsory system of education itself. It’s hardly a surprise that given the gigantic public apparatus of government-run education that there is a central plan in place for how it should be run.
Let’s just admit it. No one knows for sure what the right curriculum for the nation should be, any more than anyone knows for sure what the national diet, national dress, or national religion ought to be. Such decisions must be decentralized and embedded in the decision-making control of those affected most intensely. And those decisions must be voluntary.
Few issues have given rise to social strife like the attempt to impose a single curriculum on a diverse people. It does not matter of the plan leans left or leans right. The problem is the plan itself. So, sure, down with Common Core, and down with the entire machinery that adopts it or any other plan to come later.