Lies They Told You About Common Core

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Amazingly, the Common Core project was sold to state boards and school administrators as “state-led.” (See, for example, here.) Even so, it was never designed to be accountable to the states that presumably promoted it despite the well-known fact that the federal government pays for only about 8 to 10 percent of the costs of public education on average across states.

How sets of English language arts and mathematics standards (and, later, matching science standards) created by non-experts selected (so far as we know) by Achieve Inc. (a D.C.-based organization developed in the 1990s to assess state standards) and by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation got adopted legally by (generally speaking) mathematically and scientifically ignorant state boards of education is a complex story. This story is carefully told in Joy Pullmann’s newly published and very readable book The Education Invasion: How Common Core Fights Parents for Control of American Kids (Encounter Books, 2017).

What we still need are analyses of four crucial topics:  the academic quality of Common Core’s standards, why they were adopted by  mathematically illiterate state boards of education, why state legislatures (as in Oklahoma, Indiana, and Alaska) can’t seem to replace them with stronger academic standards, and to whom our public schools should be accountable.

The first topic is perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Common Core project — the inferior academic quality of its standards. The mission statement in the first documents released by the Common Core project claimed that its English language arts and mathematics standards “… are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers.” Yet, curiously, there is no current article on whether independent academic experts in mathematics, science, or literary scholarship (such as E.D. Hirsch Jr. at the University of Virginia) have ever judged its “college readiness” standards and the tests aligned to them as “robust” — a problematic issue for American education in the 21st century. Pullmann makes it clear in a recent blog how Common Core’s mathematics and English language arts standards limit if not damage the education of all children, including those it claims to want to make “college ready.”

Second, since the Common Core standards were never judged by independent academic experts as reflecting the “knowledge and skills” needed for success in college and careers, why did state boards or other state agencies (often appointed by a governor) make a decision in 2010 to adopt them knowing that millions of dollars were needed to implement them, alter textbooks and other curriculum materials, prepare new teachers, retrain practicing teachers, and, above all else, assess them; and that more millions would eventually be needed for continuing implementation? That is the puzzle some investigative reporters need to tackle in the future. Case studies might shed light on why  mathematically and scientifically illiterate state boards of education across the country chose to adopt secondary mathematics standards (and, later, compatible science standards) that most members were incapable of understanding on their own (most were not engineers) and without a public meeting with a range of academic experts at their own public and private universities. Why did they think they could rely on the staff at their own departments of education, on mathematically weak K-12 teachers, or on a sales pitch from organizations subsidized by the Gates Foundation — rather than on those who actually taught mathematics or science at the post-secondary level and had specialized in the subject in undergraduate and graduate school or used mathematics in their daily professional work? 

Third, how does “school choice” address any of the problems with the Common Core project?  Pullmann’s commendable effort to describe the spider web spun by two wealthy people to ensnare all the nation’s children in their misconceived education agenda ends with a puzzling recommendation extolling school choice, as if giving low-income parents a choice of school building or school management solves the many problems that parents have had with Common Core’s standards, tests, and data collection activities.

The country’s new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, seems to share this unsupportable belief. It is common knowledge that charter schools or vouchers for private schools (the forms in which school choice most often occurs) are available chiefly to low-income parents and their children. No means test was used for many of the original charter schools across the country in the 1990s. But by 2017 it is quite clear that charter schools and vouchers are to be designed for low-income children to help them escape “failing” schools.

If almost the entire system of public education is trapped in Common Core’s spider web, what helps children of low-to middle-income families (perhaps the bulk of those in our public schools) to escape the curriculum shaped by its standards, state-mandated tests, and data collection activities in the schools they apparently must attend unless they are homeschooled? How can charter schools (mostly public schools) and vouchered students escape the Common Core net?

Fourth, we needed a discussion of accountability in the context of the Common Core project.   Why did our governor and state board seem to agree to the idea that our local public schools and its teaching force are accountable, not to the parents of the children in them, not to local taxpayers who pay on average about 45 percent of their costs through their property taxes, and not to the state legislature that pays about 45 percent of their costs, but to a partisan (and constantly changing) federal government or Congress that appropriates on average across states about 8 to 10 percent of their costs?

Even so-called “conservative” organizations (e.g., Manhattan Institute, American Enterprise Institute, and National Review) don’t seem to understand why parents whose children are trapped in Common Cored public schools don’t see their commissioner of education and their governor-appointed state board of education as speaking for their children’s interests. Elimination of the accountability rules written by the U.S. Department of Education for  the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and voted out by the U.S. House and the Senate this month (March 2017), is only a baby step toward a solution of the problems in American education.  For sure, Joy Pullmann’s book on Common Core won’t be the last.


Sandra Stotsky, former senior associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is professor of education emerita at the University of Arkansas. Read her past columns here.