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For the first time in history Americans face the prospect of a unified set of national academic standards for schools from kindergarten to the end of high school. The Common Core is touted as a system that can narrow the achievement gap and make all students “college and career ready”. Most states have bought into it, but many educators regard it as a disaster for American education and an unconstitutional bid for centralised control. Among its most trenchant critics is Peter Wood, President of the National Association of Scholars and editor of a recently published book: Drilling Through the Core: Why the Common Core is Bad for America. In the following interview with MercatorNet he explains what exactly is wrong with a project backed by one of America’s smartest – and richest – citizens: Bill Gates.
MercatorNet: What is the Common Core?
Peter Wood: The Common Core is short for the Common Core State Standards, CCSS. The Common Core was first conceived in 2007 by David Coleman, head of the newly created Student Achievement Partners (SAP), which was funded by the Gates Foundation. Coleman stood in a long line of people who had sought to reform American schools by creating some kind of national curriculum. All of the earlier efforts, stretching back over decades, had been stymied by the US Constitution, which leaves schools to the states and localities, and by federal statutes that explicitly prohibit the federal government from setting curricula. Coleman’s breakthrough idea was a way to get around these legal obstacles. His idea was to get all the states individually to adopt the same curriculum. If that could be arranged, the United States would have the unified national curriculum the reformers had long sought, without running afoul of the law.
To accomplish this, Coleman persuaded two other private organizations, the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), to endorse the idea. In December 2008, these two bodies released a report, Benchmarking for Success, which called on the states to create such a “common core.” Six months later they announced that 49 states had joined the effort to write national standards that would cover education from kindergarten through 12th grade.
Does the federal government support it?
The standards had not yet been written when President Obama took office in January 2009, but he soon linked the concept to the expenditure of federal funds. Congress had approved a giant spending bill, “The Stimulus” in fall 2008, and the President was in search of “shovel-ready projects” on which the money could be spent. In July 2009, the Department of Education announced one of the ways that the Stimulus money would be put to good use. Parts of it would be handed out as prizes to states that endorsed school reforms that matched a certain profile–a profile that fit the still unwritten “Common Core State Standards” and nothing else. This competition among the states for Common Core stimulus money was called “The Race to the Top.”
In September 2009, the first and incomplete draft of Common Core was released to the public for a 30-day comment period. In January 2010, the first Race to the Top applications were due. Forty states and the District of Columbia applied. But it wasn’t until two months later that the first complete draft of the Common Core was released. In other words, those forty states and the District of Columbia had committed themselves to a radical reform of their schools’ curricula without knowing what exactly the reform entailed.
Is it a national curriculum or not?
In the end, the Common Core consisted of two “sets of standards,” in mathematics and the “English language arts.” The terminology here is pregnant with meaning. Common Core advocates argue fiercely that the Common Core consists of “standards,” and is not a “curriculum.” That distinction matters to them because part of the sales talk for the Common Core is that it leaves a great deal to the discretion of the states, the schools, and the teachers. Critics, however, point out the areas of discretion are severely restricted by the fine-grained Common Core standards. Moreover, the whole Common Core was tightly integrated with national tests to be administered by two new private entities, the Smart Balance Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). These tests implied a very high degree of standardization across state lines. The Common Core is plainly a curriculum in the two areas it focuses on–mathematics and English–though it leaves other subjects to be filled in later.
Whose initiative is it?
David Coleman. The Gates Foundation. SAP. NGO. CCSSO. President Obama. The Department of Education. Numerous state governors in 2009. It is creature born of ideology and politics that bears the fingerprints of thousands of people. The principal actors were Coleman, Gates, and Obama, and among the governors and former governors, James B. Hunt, (Governor of North Carolina 1977–1985, and 1993–2001) and Jeb Bush (Governor of Florida, 1998-2006) were the most prominent.
Peter Wood at the Heartland Institute, April 6 (starts 5 mins in)
What needs or problems in the US education system is it meant to address?
The advocates of the Common Core made a variety of claims. At first Coleman and his colleagues claimed that the Common Core would ameliorate the “achievement gap” between underperforming minority students and other students. When NGA and CCSSO became involved, the explanation shifted to making all students “college and career ready.” In other words, it implied that schools before that were failing on both those fronts. The reformers also claimed that the Common Core would raise overall performance levels to meet “international benchmarks.” That is, they would improve America’s international competitiveness. And finally, the Common Core would ease the transition of students who moved from one state to another. Such students would no longer face the disruptions of starting over in a different curriculum.
As it stands, can it fulfil its promise to make all K-12 students “college and career ready”?
No. It has fallen so far behind these twin goals as not to bear discussion. Many states found themselves in the unexpected position of having to lower their existing school standards to match the Common Core. Both mathematics and English instruction have been ratcheted downwards. The “college ready” part of the claim does not fit with the thinning out of mathematics instruction, e.g. no pre-calculus. The English language arts part of the Common Core drastically demotes literature and complex writing in favour of “informational texts,” i.e. non-fiction. The only way the Common Core can now make students “college ready” is by forcing colleges in turn to lower their standards. Lamentably, public colleges and universities in some states are doing just that. As for “career ready,” that turned out to be empty rhetoric. There is nothing in the Common Core that prepares high school students for any career. Indeed the derisory level of math an English instruction may well be another impediment for students seeking to enter the workforce rather than college after finishing high school.
You are critical of its underlying vision — what are the main issues here?
Yes, I’m critical of the underlying vision. It was a vision of intellectuals and politicians who were enamored with a utilitarian theory of learning. They liked innovation for innovation’s sake, and uniformity for uniformity’s sake. Much of the math curriculum they propose is an experimental design that makes some sense to professional mathematicians but very little sense to parents or teachers. Experiments are one thing when they are tried on a limited basis locally and can easily be discarded if they don’t pan out. They are something else when they are imposed on a whole nation at once by an unaccountable bureaucracy and locked in by national testing consortia.
The English portion of Common Core is even more ill-conceived. By demoting literature and turning everything it touches into an “informational text,” the Common Core goes to war with the effort to teach students ideals, values, tradition, imaginative aspiration, and character. The Common Core favors a mechanistic idea of the mind. When it is not treating students as programmable robots, it is preparing them to be argumentative lawyers who see everything as evidence to be used rather than ideas to be explore. The Common Core is the curriculum for robot-lawyers. It is a dire prescription for young people. Dickens’ Mr. Gradgrind would bow down to David Coleman and the other architects of the Common Core.
Can this curriculum be saved, or is it fatally flawed?
No, it cannot be saved. Its flaws are deep and intrinsic. Amending individual standards would not do the job. Even if the individual standards were much better than they are, we would still have the whole, founded on principles that are fundamentally at odds with the psychological realities of K-12 instruction and the larger goals of education.
What needs to happen in the US now regarding CC?
A phase-out as quickly as can be managed given the enormous expense of un-doing the mess.
Are there any lessons in this for other countries?
If there is any remaining temptation for other countries to look to the prosperous US for model of public education, they should resist it. Top-down reform, even in the stealthy manner of the Common Core, is not a good fit for a republic that values citizen control of government. Schools are not like the military, which must fall under centralized control. The US experiment in trying to replace overnight a system that has been essentially decentralized for over 300 years has become a rolling disaster for the public and for the politicians who ushered it in.
Peter Wood is the President of the National Association of Scholars, an anthropologist and former provost of The King’s College in New York City.