ARE YOU A PARENT of children whose education has been impacted by the Common Core? Are you a teacher, a school board member, or an administrator who wants to learn more about the standards and why they are controversial? Are you a journalist or a citizen who wants to understand one of the major developments in recent American history, namely, the creation of a national set of performance expectations in English language arts (ELA) and mathematics? Then you are the intended audience of this book, which collects, thematically, op-eds, blog posts, and magazine articles that I have written about the Common Core and the education reform movement.
The opening section includes two blog posts that explain why my wife and I entered and remain in the fight against the Common Core. The first describes our eldest son’s experience in kindergarten when New York started to implement the Common Core. In a flash, our son’s Montessori-trained teacher had to stop doing hands-on activities and start using a packaged curriculum aligned to the standards. Like many parents, we protest the Common Core because we have watched it make school a miserable place for our children. A few years later, the local school adopted the New York State Education Department Common Core Curriculum. Common Core proponents say that there is a difference between standards and curriculum. Though I understand that conceptual distinction, the Common Core makes it easier for schools across the country to use scripts that give little freedom to teachers or students.
The second section is on the villains of the Common Core story. Bill and Melinda Gates, the main funders of the Common Core, use their wealth to impose their vision of education on other people’s children. David Coleman, the architect of the Common Core, wrote standards that express an antidemocratic philosophy of education premised on regurgitating evidence from an assigned text. Michael Barber is the chief academic officer of Pearson and a theorist of deliverology, the process by which reformers enact change on a large scale even in the face of popular opposition. Arne Duncan, John B. King Jr., Rahm Emmanuel, Andrew Cuomo, and Barack Obama are Democratic Party elites who send their own children to private schools that do not strictly follow the Common Core. And Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, which prohibits the secretary of education from requiring states to use the Common Core but contains provisions that make it difficult for states to use an alternative to it.
Are the standards themselves the problem? I offer a long answer to that question in my book Common Core: National Education Standards and the Threat to Democracy (2018). Here I identify a few problems with the Common Core standards and two other sets of standards aligned with them. The ELA standards require students to “cite specific textual evidence,” not think about how the material relates to the world, other things that they have read, or their own lives. The mathematics standards use pretentious language to describe a slow-paced math progression that does not prepare many students for STEM careers. The Next Generation Science Standards are connected to the Common Core and lead to a science education using computer simulations rather than hands-on activities. And the Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH) enables one group, the College Board, to hold a de facto monopoly on how honors students learn American history. E. D. Hirsch thinks that the Common Core standards can be saved if they are supplemented with national content standards; I argue that education traditionalists should join forces with education progressives and contest the Common Core with its emphasis on testable skills.
The fourth section considers how the Common Core fits within what Finnish scholar Pasi Sahlberg calls the “global education reform movement” (GERM). The United Nations (UN) has published several recent reports calling for the worldwide adoption of standards-based reform, and reformers use America’s middling ranking on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) as proof that the country needs the Common Core. I wrote an article for a Brazilian newspaper arguing why that country should not adopt the National Curricular Base and a blog for an online international relations journal arguing that the United States should not embrace a testing regime similar to the Chinese gaokao. Reformers sometimes say that American students need to have more grit; I argue that teaching grit can contribute to an authoritarian political culture wherein young people do what they are told rather than question the status quo.
In the fifth section, I offer concrete advice about what people can do to contest the Common Core and advocate sensible education policies. Parents, educators, and citizens need to forge wide-ranging coalitions to stop systemic education reform. Democrats, Republicans, and Independents got us into the Common Core mess; Democrats, Republicans, and Independents will have to get us out of it. People need to see the relationship between Common Core testing and the collection of personally identifiable data, including students’ moods. Yohuru Williams and I coauthored an article arguing that the civil rights movement ought to oppose the Common Core for narrowing the curriculum, particularly for historically disadvantaged communities. Elites did not want a public debate before states adopted the Common Core as part of their Race to the Top applications; refusing the Common Core tests is one way for parents to signal that they are dissatisfied with the new educational regime. Finally, parents should question when policy makers such as secretary of education Betsy DeVos say that the Common Core is dead; as long as states retain the Common Core ELA anchor standards, Standards of Mathematical Practice, and math progressions, they still follow the Common Core.
In the last essay, I articulate a positive vision of democratic education drawing on the American philosopher John Dewey. Educators should find out what interests children and use that as fuel to inspire them to reach the forefronts of academic knowledge. Schools should be filled with building materials, gardens, woodshops, theaters, art studios, and computer labs and have ample opportunities for students to do field trips and meet with people in the community. A good school has well-trained teachers, small class sizes, a library, a beautiful campus, healthy food, and opportunities for students to do self-directed projects. Presently, schools are teaching a few children to lead and the vast majority to do what they are told. Democratic education means empowering each child to understand how the world works and instilling the confidence to change it.