I have children in elementary school. As a parent, I have a front-row view of the attempted corporate takeover of America’s schools.
The Common Core State Standards Initiative provides a justification for this takeover. The Common Core is a set of educational standards in mathematics and ELA. Many people from across the political spectrum endorse the notion of national education standards. This version of the Common Core, however, has been funded and promoted by groups like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation, Exxon, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Common Core proposes to make students “college and career ready,” but corporate interests define what that readiness means.
If a countermovement does not act soon, then the Common Core will impose a neoliberal model of education on America’s schools where results, for instance, are measured by standardized test scores.
Fortunately, I am part of several groups contesting the Common Core. Some allies are on the political Left, including Diane Ravitch, who wrote Reign of Error, a polemic against the educational privatization movement, and Mark Naison, a colleague at Fordham who helped organize the Badass Teachers Association (BAT). Many people recognize that the Common Core’s progressive rhetoric is a Trojan horse for the corporate takeover of schools.
I also work with groups composed largely of self-identified conservatives, such as members of the the Truth in American Education Listserv. Many of the members protest the trend whereby corporations and the U.S. Department of Education, rather than teachers and school boards, determine the standards that drive curriculum and assessment.
I oppose the Common Core because I’m watching it harm my children’s school experience. But my personal interests align with my political theoretical ones. I’m a small-d democrat and a pluralist. I agree with philosophers like James Madison, J. S. Mill, William E. Connolly, Richard E. Flathman, and Deborah Meier that centralized power facilitates tyranny. Positively stated, I favor political arrangements that distribute power as widely as possible. In the realm of education, I support a variety of educational experiments, including Montessori and Waldorf schools.
In general, I believe in critical thinking, rigor, high education standards, and student and teacher evaluations. Even if I had the power, however, I would not impose one model of education upon the country or define once and for all the key terms in the debate. Intelligent people disagree on how to educate children; it would be foolish to put all of our eggs, so to speak, in one basket.
Proponents of the Common Core sometimes claim that opponents belong to what Paul Krugman calls the “party of stupidity.” That is an unfair description of the coalition forming to stop the Common Core.
Here is one map of the current educational landscape:
To stop the Common Core, citizens need to forge a coalition of people on the political Right and the political Left. In a pluralistic society, citizens need to make alliances with people we agree with on some issues and disagree with on others.
Following are responses to a few potential objections.
Aren’t the Common Core just standards? Yes, but that is not the whole story. The Race to the Top program incentivized states to adopt the Common Core standards, aligned tests, and value-added modeling in teacher evaluations. On paper, schools and teachers have flexibility in how or what they teach; in practice, local education authorities are making teachers use Common Core–aligned curricula, including scripted lesson plans or modules. Teachers whose students’ scores do not meet the targets on Common Core tests may be fired; school districts whose students do not score highly enough may be taken over by the state.
Does local control mean that schools may teach intelligent design in science classes? The Supreme Court case Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) prohibits that.
Might the problem with the Common Core be the execution? Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, for instance, supports the idea of the Common Core and argues that the states are failing it. The problem with this line of defense is that it can be used to justify any idea. My school district in Westchester, New York, was thriving before the Common Core and is suffering under it. Some people say that the problem with the Common Core is the high-stakes testing associated with it. Proponents, however, will respond that there needs to be “Big Data” to determine if students are learning the Common Core. The Common Core is the bait to make people adopt much of the corporate education agenda.
Might the Common Core improve the educational standards for some districts? Maybe.
Up to now, however, there is no evidence that the Common Core prepares young children for eventual success in college or careers. There are also stories from around the country (many posted on Diane Ravitch’s blog) that students, teachers, and parents hate the Common Core.
The Common Core is a tree that prevents other educational models from getting sunlight. The American educational landscape should be a garden with many flowers.
Prevent Excessive Data Collection
In October 2012, the White House chief technology officer explained what the Big Data revolution entails for education. In remarks to a Datapalooza conference, Todd Walker explained, “You take the data that’s already there and jujitsu it, put it in machine-readable form, let entrepreneurs take it and turn it into awesomeness.” In colorful prose, Walker expressed the Obama administration’s enthusiasm for what Big Data can accomplish in schools. What Walker fails to acknowledge is the dangers posed by Big Data and the need to safeguard children’s personal information.
Like a lot of Americans, I was captivated by Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, an account of how the Oakland As in the early 2000s were able to compete with teams with bigger budgets. The key was exploiting market inefficiencies through Big Data. Rather than send scouts to judge players by how they looked, statisticians could calculate whether a batter got on base more frequently than other comparable players. The As let the Yankees spend for big names; the As won by signing unheralded players who mathematically provided the best chance of winning.
Secretary of education Arne Duncan made a similar insight when, in a 2009 speech, he explained the rationale for building Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems: “We want to know whether Johnny participated in an early learning program and completed college on time and whether those things have any bearing on his earnings as an adult.” If researchers know that children earn higher incomes when they learn to read at age five rather than six, so the logic goes, then the government has grounds for funding early learning programs. Although education standards and data collection are not necessarily connected, the Race to the Top program entwined the Common Core standards and data systems ostensibly designed to prepare students for colleges and careers.
Schools have long collected basic data, such as names, addresses, emergency contacts, and allergies. Federal and state governments have also, in recent decades, required schools to provide data about race, individualized educational programs, and free or reduced-price lunch status. Few people today wish to deny the need for these categories of data collection.
Like the Oakland As, however, Big Data enthusiasts want schools to collect ever more data. According to a December 2013 Fordham Center on Law and Information Policy report, some states now collect data about parental education, pregnancy, birth order, birth weight, medical test results, bullying behavior, and mental health information.
The cutting edge of research and public policy, though, is collecting attitudinal data—that is, information about the inner life of individuals. More precisely, researchers and policy makers want to know whether students have grit.
A February 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Education defines grit as “perseverance to accomplish long-term or higher-order goals in the face of challenges and setbacks.” Why measure grit? “Successful students marshal willpower and regulate their attention during such tasks and in the face of distractions.” In other words, the U.S. Department of Education wants to know whether students can keep on task or whether they are easily distracted. More precisely, the Education Department wants to know whether students look at the computer and sit in their seats for a long time or whether they look out the window and fidget. The Education Department wants to know if your children like to work or daydream.
Remarkably, the department report on grit does not address much recent scholarship on the benefits of daydreaming, such as the 2012 Psychological Science article “Inspired by Distraction: Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation.” The report also barely acknowledges the pernicious political consequences of raising a docile citizenry that rarely wonders if the world could be different.
Collecting Attitudinal Data
In the U.S. Department of Education report on grit, we learn that researchers have designed affective sensors to measure students’ blood volume, pulse, and galvanic skin response to determine students’ frustration in an online learning environment. We also learn about a mood meter with a camera to detect facial expressions and formulate a smile intensity score.
The science of collecting attitudinal data already exists, including through facial-expression cameras that can be installed on virtually any new computer. The challenge now is how to design systems to collect attitudinal data on a wide, affordable scale.
The Common Core Tests
The Race to the Top program incentivized states to join an assessment consortium, of which there are only two: PARCC and SBAC.
Both testing consortia measure cognitive ability, but SBAC also has said that it may test for attitudinal skills like “time management, goal-setting, self-awareness, persistence, and study skills.” Likewise, the president of Achieve, the group that created PARCC, told the New York state assembly in fall 2013 about the need for assessments that “capture digitally the student’s test responses and other task-relevant interactive behaviors.”
If most American students have to take either the SBAC or PARCC test online, and these tests have the means to measure grit (i.e., persistence in staring at a computer screen), then the United States is much closer to a massive data bank about student attitudes.
The testing consortia have emphasized that all data collection will be subject to the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA). In January 2012, however, the Education Department revised FERPA to permit “authorized representatives” the power to receive personally identifiable information (PII). For nearly four decades, only educational authorities had access to PII; now, this information may be distributed to government agencies, private nonprofit organizations, research groups, and for-profit companies.
In sum, the Education Department has colluded with the Common Core testing organizations to circumvent the laws against creating a federal student database.
How Does This Affect Homeschoolers?
In The Prince, Machiavelli observes that when fevers are hard to discern, they are easier to cure than when the fever is manifest. In other words, astute political actors need to be ready for events before and as they unfold.
Homeschoolers have long been required to take state exams in math and English. At the time of writing, I have not found evidence that states are requiring homeschooled students to take the grades 3–8 PARCC or SBAC test. Homeschoolers should anticipate, however, legislators and educational agencies demanding that children take these tests to prove they are becoming college and career ready.
The task, then, is to contest data acquisition of attitudinal data, including through the PARCC or SBAC test or whatever may replace the tests down the road. In the short term, that means entering the current political debates about whether states should pay the astronomical costs to build the technological infrastructure to support the PARCC and SBAC tests.
The government does not have the right to know whether our children daydream. The time for parents to fight for their children’s right to privacy is now.
Take Up the Civil Rights Legacy
Given the power of its symbolism, many individuals and entities have attempted to appropriate the legacy of the civil rights movement for their own purposes. In 2010, for instance, conservative talk show host Glenn Beck led a march on Washington to restore what he professed was the distorted history of the movement. While Beck’s tenuous appeal to the movement’s heritage might be dismissed, the danger of misappropriation of its core values of justice and equality are greater when the person or group doing the usurping can legitimately lay a claim to that legacy.
This has become clear with a 2014 campaign to promote the Common Core State Standards by the National Urban League, which played an important if less visible role during the civil rights movement. Marc H. Morial, president of the National Urban League, has declared that the Common Core will “help bridge the achievement gap by leveling the playing field so that all students, regardless of race, geography or income, have an equal shot at gaining the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in the 21st century global economy.” The National Urban League partnered with Radio One to deliver this message on multiple media platforms.
Education should empower young men and women, of whatever race or background, to succeed in college and careers. The Common Core’s promise, however, does not correspond to its reality. More strongly, the Common Core betrays the civil rights legacy more than advancing it.
In his book on the origin and consequences of No Child Left Behind, An Education in Politics, the political scientist Jesse H. Rhodes explains why civil rights activists support the idea of national education standards. For years, activists demanded that black children have the same opportunities as white children, including science and history courses, music and theater programs, and qualified teachers running small classes. The equity movement failed, however, to produce measurable results and overcome conservative opposition.
The idea of educational standards, however, unites civil rights and business groups convinced that all Americans need a quality education. That is why both the National Urban League and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce support the Common Core. The excellence movement, as it is called, may succeed where the equity movement didn’t.
Yet good intentions do not always translate into effective policies. The National Urban League, whose mission is to “enable African Americans to secure economic self-reliance, parity, power and civil rights,” is on shaky ground with the Common Core. There are at least three reasons why the Common Core is already harming a generation of young African Americans.
First and foremost, Common Core testing has branded a large percentage of black youth as failures. In New York, only 19.3 percent of black students demonstrated proficiency on state math tests, and 17.6 percent demonstrated proficiency on state ELA tests. Do these numbers light a fire under educators to do a better job? Maybe. But they also mean that the educational system is signaling to many black children that they have no future in higher education or the modern workforce.
Second, the Common Core focuses attention on math and English test prep above all other academic or extracurricular pursuits. The Race to the Top program incentivized states to adopt the Common Core as well as a testing regime that punishes teachers or schools with low student test scores. In New York City, the Success Academy charter schools excel on the Common Core tests. How? According to one administrator, they do so by turning children into “little test-taking machines.” It goes without saying that many wealthy parents would never accept such an education for their children; in practice, the Common Core widens rather than narrows the opportunity gap.
Finally, the Common Core dedicates limited resources to textbook and testing companies rather than teachers and children. The Race to the Top program awarded $330 million to two Common Core testing consortia: PARCC and SBAC. Schools, in turn, must purchase aligned curricula as well as the technology to run the online Common Core tests. Meanwhile, financially strapped school districts are cutting art and music programs that stimulate brain development and teach skills such as cooperation and perseverance. This is a disaster for all students, including African American ones.
Even if one shares the National Urban League’s ambition to prepare black youth to succeed in the twenty-first-century global economy, the Common Core is not the way to make that happen. So far, the Common Core is draining educational budgets, narrowing the curriculum, and turning students into test-taking robots. This is no way to advance the civil rights legacy. Instead, the country should recommit to the principle that all children, of whatever race or background, can attain the same kind of education only available, right now, to the children of privilege.
Refuse the Tests
In spring 2014, thousands of students refused to take the Common Core ELA exams. In New York, as in states across the country, parents told administrators that their children would not sit for exams that pressure teachers to teach to the test and drain school budgets.
Ignore the baseless charge that families don’t want high academic standards for their kids or are afraid their kids won’t live up to higher standards. Parents and students want schools that offer a well-rounded curriculum and a sensible amount and way of testing. But the Common Core has transformed much of public education into preparing for and taking standardized tests.
According to the 2014 New York Testing Program School Administrator’s Manual, parents may eventually review students’ responses to open-ended questions, but they are not allowed to look at the test itself. Although educators are under a gag order from New York State and Pearson that prohibits them from discussing specifics of the tests, Principal Elizabeth Phillips of PS 321 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and other educators across the state have decried the ELA exams as confusing and developmentally inappropriate.
The situation may be the same in mathematics. Stanford professor James Milgram argues that the Common Core math standards do not command international respect and will not prepare students for STEM careers. If the state keeps hiding the exams from public scrutiny, then parents and educators have a right to doubt their pedagogical value.
There are other issues. The Race to the Top program awarded New York $700 million on the condition that the state adopt a value-added modeling (VAM) teacher evaluation system, in this case, APPR. Put plainly, the state may now fire teachers if test scores are low. That creates incredible pressure to teach to the test.
Additionally, English language learners must take the tests, regardless of how well they can understand them, and teachers in impoverished school districts are more likely to be punished, despite taking on harder assignments. In the words of noted education scholar Diane Ravitch, VAM is a sham.
In spring 2014, I attended an iRefuse rally held on Long Island. The poster for the event juxtaposes two silhouettes of a child’s head: one, under the title “Learning,” is filled with images of Shakespeare, a guitar, a flower, math equations, and plants; the other, under the title “Testing,” is filled with a multiple-choice exam. That is why parents are refusing—they want school to be a place where children’s talents are cultivated and not harmed by tests whose main use is to fire teachers.
In 1849, the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote a classic essay on civil disobedience that has inspired countless activists around the world, including Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. According to Thoreau, “it is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.” According to Thoreau, people are too inclined to respect the government rather than question whether the people who lead it are acting justly.
A parent inspired by Thoreau would object to the School Administrators Manual’s policy that “schools do not have any obligation to provide an alternative location or activities for individual students while the tests are being administered.” This sentence justifies the sit-and-stare policy whereby refusing children are not allowed to read or talk but are forced to remain at their desks while their peers take the tests. In other words, this manual encourages administrators to employ the “silent treatment” on kids who don’t want their education to become endless test prep. This is bullying pure and simple.
As a parent, what should you do regarding your child’s participation in high-stakes Common Core tests? Write a letter or email to the board of education, superintendent, principals, and teachers in your school district to formally notify them of your decision on behalf of your child to refuse the tests.
There is a chance that administrators will try to dissuade you. Tell them that you are advocating for your children to receive a well-rounded, personalized education. Tell everyone in your district that you are not fighting him or her but rather political and corporate forces that are trying to centralize and standardize public education.
Don’t Be Fooled by Rebranding
In a speech in Washington in early 2018, secretary of education Betsy DeVos called the education standards known as the Common Core a “disaster” and proclaimed, “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”
The reality, however, is that the Common Core is still very much alive. As indicated in a November 2017 report from Achieve, twenty-four states have “reviewed and revised” their English and math standards under the Common Core. In some instances, such as in New York, the revised standards are known by a different name.
This is worth pointing out because the Common Core has soured many people on public education and civic life in general. When one group of people decides the national education standards, other people feel alienated from the schools and the democratic process.
Many families oppose the Common Core and have refused the associated end-of-year tests, such as the PARCC, SBAC, ACT Aspire, or New York State Common Core 3–8 English Language Arts and Mathematics Tests. Critics argue that Common Core math expects students to justify their answers in ways that are “unnecessary and tedious.” Others note that the standards will not prepare many students to major in a STEM discipline in college. And for some scholars and parents, the “close textual reading” under Common Core makes learning a chore rather than a pleasure.
In 2013, then secretary of education Arne Duncan said the Common Core may “prove to be the single greatest thing to happen to public education in America since Brown v. Board of Education.” For Duncan and others, the Common Core promised to prepare all students to succeed in college, career, and life.
But that view did not align with popular support for the Common Core, which dropped from 83 percent to 50 percent between 2013 and 2016. For many parents and educators, the Common Core has made public education worse.
For critics like author and former assistant secretary of education Diane Ravitch, the Common Core is “fundamentally flawed” because of the way the standards were developed. Common Core work group members included more people from the testing industry than experienced teachers, subject-matter experts, or early-childhood educators. According to some early-childhood health and education professionals, the standards conflict with research about how children learn and how best to teach them.
When President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) stated that the Republican congressional majority had “kept its promise to repeal the federal Common Core mandate.”
As a candidate for president, Donald J. Trump tweeted how he had been consistent in his opposition to the Common Core and argued that the federal government should “get rid of Common Core—keep education local!”
It seemed only a matter of time before many states would move away from the Common Core.
As of 2018, however, nearly every state that adopted the Common Core during the Obama administration has kept the most important features. Across the country, children will study for and take end-of-year tests that align with the Common Core.
Alexander’s claim that Congress has repealed the Common Core mandate is misleading. The federal government has made it an expensive gamble for states to adopt education standards that differ from the Common Core.
According to the Every Student Succeeds Act, states that wish to adopt an alternative to the Common Core must now prove to the secretary of education that the standards are “challenging.”
According to the law, “each state shall demonstrate that the challenging state academic standards are aligned with entrance requirements for credit-bearing coursework in the system of public higher education in the State.” Most states adopted the Common Core as part of their Race to the Top applications during the Obama administration. Race to the Top gave an incentive to states to align high school graduation requirements and college entrance requirements with the new standards. States that keep the Common Core do not have to change anything to satisfy this provision. States that adopt new standards must prove to the secretary that high school graduates will be able to take credit-bearing courses as soon as they enter a public college or university.
In addition, the law requires states to adopt standards that align with “relevant State career and technical education standards.” The main Common Core reading standards are called the “college and career readiness anchor standards.” For states that want to meet this criterion of the law, the safest bet is to keep the Common Core.
States have a strong financial incentive to meet these criteria. The Every Student Succeeds Act directs approximately $22 billion a year to states around the country, including more than $700 million to Ohio, $1.6 billion to New York, $2 billion to Texas, and $2.6 billion to California. If a state fails to meet any of the requirements of the law, “the Secretary may withhold funds for State administration under this part until the Secretary determines that the State has fulfilled those requirements.”
Secretary DeVos has approved virtually all plans that include the Common Core or a slightly modified version. According to Education Week, even when states have revised the standards, “the core of the Common Core remains.”