For years, Bill Bennett, former U.S. Secretary of Education, has avoided taking a position on the Common Core K-12 State Standards. But yesterday he declared himself in favor. His essay in The Wall Street Journal, under the headline “The Conservative Case for Common Core,” dwells on the idea that conservatives generally favor good books, shared truths, and education that equips students with basic math and the ability to “read and distill complex sentences Bennett drives the point that “certain abilities” ought to be “common knowledge of all.” Just so. But then he proceeds as though “common knowledge” and “The Common Core™” are one and the same. They’re not.
He writes that “the fundamental idea behind a core curriculum” is “preserving and emphasizing what’s essential.” A true core curriculum does preserve and emphasize the “essential” in contrast to the merely trendy, the happenstance, the contingent, the experimental, and the trivial. That doesn’t mean that everything that hoists the flag of “core curriculum” really is “core curriculum.” Look around American higher education today and you can barely help crashing into “core curricula” that are barely distinguishable from swarms of intellectual gnats. Bill Bennett knows that about as well as anyone.
The Common Core K-12 Curriculum isn’t a congregation of gnats, but it is astonishingly experimental. It does not build on “essential” knowledge. Rather it ventures out on the thin, thin ice of conjectural innovation, as its highly unusual approaches to elementary instruction in math and its novel approach to geometry. This isn’t the place to go into details, but the weirdness of the Common Core’s approach to math has been widely remarked by parents and roundly excoriated by mathematicians. It actively hinders students from learning mathematical shortcuts, and tried and true techniques in favor immersing them in number theory.
I expect a certain kind of mathematical pedant likes the Common Core approach: mathematicians of this sort don’t want students merely to learn how to do math; they want each and every student to contemplate the deep why of math. My own view is that in most cases, learning how precedes learning why. We don’t need to teach children the laws of physics to teach them how to ride bikes.
Bennett offers more of this sort of misdirection and then turns to another bad argument—the idea that the Common Core really is, despite the Obama administration’s attempt to hijack it, deep down a state-level initiative. The supposed evidence for this is that the Common Core was in play before Obama made it his own and 45 states “signed up originally.” What actually happened is that the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, backed by a boatload of Gates Foundation money, drew expressions of preliminary interest from all those states. It was an idea in development, and there were no standards even in draft form for the states to see. What was in play was a lot of loose rhetoric.
Or you could go back and read some of the original writings by David Coleman, the primary architect of the Common Core, and his colleagues. But if you did, you would have a hard time saying that the Common Core was ever a “conservative idea.” It began as a proposal for lowering academic standards in the hope that simpler and easier benchmarks would permit larger numbers of students to move ahead, undiscouraged by anything like actual difficulty. One of Coleman’s brilliant rhetorical innovations was his decision to call this dumbing down “higher standards” on the grounds that they would permit higher numbers of students to pass.
Bennett assures us that the federal usurpation of the Common Core is a temporary thing and can, in the fullness of time, be undone. The state-level voluntary character of the Common Core can be restored. That’s a fantasy. The Common Core was meant from the get-go to replace state and local autonomy with national control. It was designed that way and federal control is intrinsic to it. Of course, if you like the federal educrats running the curriculum with the aid of a couple of privately held testing consortia and the enthusiastic support of some textbook mega-publishers, the Common Core may be your thing. But to imagine it as a “conservative” undertaking is to imagine what never was and will never be.