Common Core–The Elites Did It

At the invitation of the Alabama chapter of Eagle Forum—Phyllis Schafly’s pro-family conservative organization—I flew to Birmingham last week to give a talk on the Common Core K-12 State Standards.  Alabama was one of only a few states I had never set foot in.  When I mentioned that to an elderly gentleman I met at the event, he returned volley: I was the first person he had ever met who had not been to Alabama.

I am not entirely lacking in Alabama credentials.  My Wisconsin-born father took his undergraduate degree from the University of Alabama in 1937. America is a big place but we move around and connect with one another, at least if we want to.  Sometimes, of course, we don’t.

Cook’s Tour

The day before I arrived, Apple CEO Tim Cook gave an address in Montgomery on behalf of the new inductees into the Alabama Academy of Honor at the State Capitol.  The state governor, Robert Bentley, greeted him by pulling two iPhones from his pockets and Cook received a rousing welcome.  But then Cook, who grew up in the state, changed the tone of the event.  He lambasted Alabama: “As a state, we took too long to steps toward equality. We were too slow on equality for African-Americans. We were too slow on interracial marriage, and we are still too slow for the equality for the LGBT community.”

The speech now appears to have been Cook’s warm-up to his announcement later in the week that he is “proud to be gay.”  He made his declaration in an essay published in Bloomberg Businessweek.  It surprised few but the New York Times treated it as major news and ran a follow-up front-page story weighing its cultural significance.

Be that as it may, the folks in Birmingham I talked with felt stepped on.  Alabamians don’t seem to care what Cook’s sexual preferences are, but they clearly didn’t like having their honorific ceremony re-purposed as a demonstration of how far above his local roots Cook has risen.

Standard Gauge

I was in town to talk about the Common Core, not Tim Cook, but several connections became clear.  Both matters entail a stand-off between national elites and inhabitants of Middle America.  Both involve rich and powerful people denigrating the views of others whose views are generally marginalized. And both center on questions about standards.

The core question of the Common Core is who should set standards.  “Who decides?” is at least as important as on the question of what the standards should be. The answer to “Who decides?” in fact determines what we mean by “standards” –a word which has surprisingly diverse meanings.  The “standard” of a standard-gauge railroad, for example, is fixed convention that has no intrinsic meaning.  It just ensures that the same tracks can carry a freight train from Newark to Los Angeles.  We have a lot of standards of this nature:  time zones, and weights and measures among them.

The “standard” when we speak of a “standard treatment” for an illness is something else.  It means something like the generally approved practice that we follow because we know it has pretty good odds of working.  The standard in this case is something we feel free to depart from depending on circumstances.  Maybe something better than the standard treatment will benefit a particular patient.

The “standard” we have in mind can vary in lots of other ways too.  The “standards” with which we judge performances in the arts are nothing like the “standards” we apply to behavior at the bus stop.  Standards may be intellectual, moral, aesthetic, scientific, legal, or medical; rooted in social convention or derived from deep principle; conceived as universally applicable or locally variable; and so on.

Once you begin to reflect on the breadth of the idea, it makes no real sense to ask, “Are you in favor of standards?”  The question always resolves into “Whose standards and for what purposes?”  When it comes to the Common Core K-12 State Standards, these are the key questions.  Educational standards, at least at first pass, should be something more like “standard treatment” standards than “railroad gauge” standards.  They ought to represent our evolving approximations of best practices, not conventions determined for the sake of uniformity.  But it isn’t clear that the proponents of the Common Core see it that way.  Uniformity ranks very high in the list of desiderata for many of its advocates, who seem at times to view the sheer variety of America as a danger to national prosperity and even dignity.

The Common Core is a top-down affair. It arrived with a veneer of being an initiative led by the states.  It wears that veneer proudly in its name: The Common Core K-12 State Standards.  But scratch the 1/64 inch maple burl surface and it is all federal particleboard underneath. We have the Common Core in 40-some states because the Obama administration devoted $4.35 billion of the stimulus package to the Race to the Top, which offered major financial incentives to the states to sign on to Common Core before it was even written.

A National Elite

Defenders of the Common Core like to look back to the period before President Obama made the cash offer to the states to sign on.  It is indeed true that the Common Core was rooted in developments that preceded the Obama administration’s enthusiasm for it.

In 2008, the National Governors Association (NGA)—a private body, not an open forum for sitting governors—adopted the idea of the Common Core.  It worked with the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and its own daughter organization, Achieve, to develop the idea of voluntary state standards.  Before NGA and CCSSO took it up, the Common Core was the 2007 brainchild of three individuals who were the principals of a non-profit called Student Achievement Partners (SAP):  David Coleman, Jason Zimba, and Susan Pimentel.

The names and the acronyms swirl around.  It is hard for anyone who isn’t bound and determined to follow this trail to keep the details straight.  The players also move.  In 2012 David Coleman became president of the College Board, where he pledged to “align” the SATs and the advanced placement tests with the Common Core.  Susan Pimentel is now an “educational consultant” and serves on the National Assessment Governing Board, the body that sets policy for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), “the nation’s report card.”   The path to the Common Core was greatly smoothed by the generosity of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has spent over $200 million in the quest. ($200 million is The Washington Post’s figure; some estimates are far higher.)

The details do, of course, matter, but so does the larger picture.  The broad view is that the Common Core didn’t grow out of grassroots demand for curricular reform.  It isn’t the work of school boards or an initiative put in motion by dissatisfied parents.  It didn’t come about because good teachers convened and came up with a proposal to improve K-12 education.  It was instead the product of a handful of very-well connected intellectuals who dreamed up their own vision of what American schools should do.

Coleman, a Rhodes Scholar and the son of the then-president of Bennington College, was and is a smart player.  Backed with Gates money, he devised the basic strategy of lining up the states by appealing to the current and former governors in the National Governors Association.  A key recruit was Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.  Wilhoit was instrumental in selling the plan to the NGA members.  Later he became a partner with Jason Zimba and Susan Pimentel in SAP, which greeted his appointment appropriately acknowledging, that Wilhoit “helped spearhead the historic state-led effort to develop the Common Core State Standards.”

Which is to say, wherever you turn, the Common Core is the work of people who comprise a national elite. The kind of standards that the Common Core represents are the kind an intellectual elite prefers:  an orderly regimentation of knowledge and skills marching to a fixed destination.  The Common Core destination is “college and career readiness.”  How did its architects know what it will take to be “college ready” thirteen or more years into the future?  Or what career readiness will mean in 2025?  Be that as it may, one of the most significant flaws in the Common Core is that it is not designed to be revised, updated, or improved.  It is what it is and is frozen into place.

Robots and Lawyers

No one can really know what “college and career readiness” will entail a decade or more from now.  That’s one good reason to avoid over-standardization in K-12 education. Standards that elaborate the concerns of the moment are almost certain to be obsolete in a few years.  The Common Core is top heavy with them.  One of its overriding emphases is to teach students to how to process information, and to this end it lays out hundreds of “standards” that focus on teaching students to be efficient performers of various simple routines.  Read the standards through, beginning to end, and what you find is not a humanizing education but one that outfits the student to be a robot.

That’s a bit unfair, but only because the Common Core is also concerned to teach students that everything, in both math and the English language arts should be approached as “evidence” and grist for argument.  That’s to say that the Common Core also wants to turn students into lawyers, or at least to think like lawyers.  Perhaps its highest ideal is the robot-lawyer, who treats everything in the world as potential evidence to be efficiently processed into argument.

There is a rough fit between the student who finishes high school as partly assembled robot-lawyer and what that student will encounter in today’s college.  We are, after all, in the age when college has become dominated by ideologies that demand allegiance and that repel independent thought.  On matters such as race, sex, class, and climate change, the student confronts an orthodoxy and is handed the task of making sure that everything is cut to conform with it.  Sandra Korn, at Harvard last spring, gave us the perfected version of this with her call to replace “academic freedom” with “academic justice.”  With legions of Common Core-prepared students headed for campus in years to come, Ms. Korn may well have her wish.  They will be lawyer-robots perfectly suited to prosecuting the curriculum on behalf of “academic justice.”  We already are more than half way there with the new “affirmative consent” rules and sexual assault codes on campus.

But to say that the Common Core is consonant with the reigning spirit on campus is not to say that it really makes students “college ready.”  It is only to observe that the same misunderstandings are present in both the Common Core and in contemporary colleges.  Both reflect an odd turn away from culture and an embrace of a new kind of utilitarianism.

Leaning Mostly on Utility

Utilitarianism has always had a strong appeal to the American character.  A frontier society inevitably cared more about “what works” than about the life of the mind or the shaping of a person for a well-lived life.  But the utilitarian element has always been met by another side of the American character that is bent on high ideals.  The new kind of utilitarianism offers a fusion of “what works” and “high ideals,” but a fusion that leans mostly on utility.  In the Common Core, students are trained to read “informational texts,” and to extract the pertinent information.  This operation is packaged in lofty rhetoric about “higher order thinking skills” including “critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity.”  It is buttressed with “media awareness” and “systems thinking.”  But it comes down to mining the written word for usable “information” and treating mathematics as problem solving.

To be sure, those are important parts of both reading and math.  But they far from the only parts, and if they are over-emphasized our children are left with a great hollow in their preparation for life, regardless of whether they go on to college.  What is missing is perhaps those things that the Common Core must regard as “lower order thinking skills.”  These would include furnishing the memory with things worth holding; puzzlement; uncertainty; and even distaste.  Educating someone toward morally-grounded maturity requires openness to some qualities we might regard as negative.  But to be moved by ideals and to have high aspirations requires that we go searching in many directions.

How Many Dogs in London?

Bill Gates a few years ago told the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Riley that, “It’s ludicrous to think that multiplication in Alabama and multiplication in New York are really different.”  This, in Gates’ view, justifies “common standards.”  But that begs the question of what standards really are.  Multiplication is the same in Miami and on the Moon too, but the circumstances differ, and it would be wise to approach the task of teaching multiplication and anything else with an eye to local realities.

The Common Core has now famously run into widespread mockery for the elaborate procedures it insists children in the early grades use to solve simple math problems.  YouTube videos display children using Common Core math to turn simple problems into Himalayas of complexity.  Comedians have mined it too, such as Louis C.K.’s example on the Letterman Show, “Bill has three goldfish.  He buys two more.  How many dogs live in London?”  The upshot has been plummeting popular support for the Common Core.  A Gallup poll released on October 28, reported that 58 percent of Republicans who have children in public schools hold a negative view of the Common Core, and only 19 percent have a favorable view.  Parents overall are more even divided:  35 percent negative, 33 percent positive, and 32 percent unfamiliar or having no opinion.  Among teachers, the split is 44 percent negative, 41 percent positive. But all these figures have shifted dramatically toward the negative since the last Gallop poll in April.

One of the local realities is that many parents who are actively involved in their children’s education view the Common Core as state-imposed disaster.  They are immune to the Coleman-Gates appeal for uniformity of teaching for the sake of uniformity itself.  They are suspicious of an approach to math that vaults over tried-and-true approaches for the sake of the unproven benefits of a new “theory.”  They are equally perturbed by an approach that derogates the importance of literature and, when it does introduce literary works, chops them into fragments and short extracts.

I can’t say from my short stay in Alabama whether all the complaints I heard about the Common Core are justified, but I can definitely say that the Common Core in that state has been received as an unwelcome imposition by large numbers of parents and teachers.  As in many other states, the Common Core is treated by educational authorities as a done deal.  The state bureaucracy likes it as does the Chamber of Commerce and a fair number of business leaders.  But they face a large and increasingly passionate opposition.

There are many reasons for this.  Dissatisfaction with the Common Core usually begins with seeing what it looks like in homework assignments and textbooks.  But before long, critics usually find their way to deeper questions about the spirit of Common Core and how that spirit came to have such authority over the whole country.  It seems we woke up one day to find an invading army had taken command of the nation’s schools.  And indeed, something like that happened.   We never asked for “standards” like these.  They were invented elsewhere and with trickery, stealth, and an almost complete lack of transparency, they became law in 45 states.  Trying to win back some reasonable level of control over the schools will require hard political effort.  In Alabama and in many other states that effort is multiplying.  It is the same in Alabama and New York.


  • Peter Wood

    Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project.”

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2 thoughts on “Common Core–The Elites Did It

  1. Peter, I found this the best I’ve read on origins, tenor, and reasons for opposition to Common Core. In my view, creation of standards by a group of elites, alone, is sufficient to question and oppose. We ought have known that power and money, and, yes, progressivism are behind the effort to regiment our youth into a radical new way of learning and thinking. And a way that satisfies and advances an overriding ideology not accepted by the majority of Americans.

    Thank you sir!

    Gary B Hulsey

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