From the Sept/Oct, 2014 issue of Touchstone
Once Seized, Fits All by Michael Avramovich

Communiqué

Once Seized,
Fits All

The Hegemony of the Common Core Educational Standards by Michael Avramovich

Albert Einstein once observed, "It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education." As more people learn about the Common Core educational standards being introduced into American schools, they are likely to echo his sentiment.

What are these standards, and why do they pose such a dire outlook for our children's education? Common Core educational standards were first launched in 2009, by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Although these organizations have official, governmental-sounding names, they are actually private groups financed primarily by the Gates Foundation (which has given $200 million towards the development of Common Core), along with other foundations and various corporations.

But that doesn't mean that Common Core is a wholly private and voluntary initiative. Some of the Gates' funding went to President Obama's Department of Education, which pushed the standards to the states. Obama also used $4.35 billion of stimulus money to create an incentive for states to implement Common Core. All but five states (Virginia, Texas, Nebraska, Alaska, and Minnesota) rushed to grab a share of these federal funds. Meanwhile, neither Congress, the state legislatures, nor local school boards were ever given an opportunity to weigh in on Common Core, effectively making the standards a top-down, one-size-fits-all initiative of the federal government.

Moreover, most of the states induced with federal money to participate in the standards never actually received any of the related stimulus funds. But now that they are committed to Common Core, they are obligated to spend what some have estimated to be at least a collective $16 billion to implement it. Clearly, states and local communities will need to raise taxes or borrow heavily to fund this endeavor.

A System of Federal Control

Common Core itself encompasses specified national education standards for each grade level from kindergarten through high school. Thus, in the states that have signed on, it will dictate what all public schoolchildren learn and don't learn. But even children who are homeschooled or in private school will be affected, because all students will be given nationally administered tests, and, beginning in 2016, these tests (such as the SAT and ACT) will be based on Common Core. In fact, one of the chief architects of the Common Core standards, David Coleman, is now head of the College Board that prepares the SAT, and he is revamping the 2016 test to align with the standards.

At first, it might seem a good thing to have national educational standards, especially since we are a mobile society. But there have been no studies showing the efficacy of Common Core with respect to student outcomes. Moreover, by imposing one set of universal standards, Common Core standards stereotypes students, and prevents them and their parents from enjoying the benefits of educational choice.

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Common Core fundamentally means federal control of school curricula by Department of Education bureaucrats. There are grounds for viewing this as an unconstitutional usurpation by the federal government over educational standards and policies. After all, power over education is not one of the enumerated powers granted to the federal government under our Constitution. Educational matters have traditionally been handled by state and local school boards, state legislatures, and parents, consistent with the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution.

Common Core seeks to impose on all elementary and secondary school students a comprehensive national education system with a national curriculum. Students are then evaluated based upon tests, the results of which, in turn, determine teachers' evaluations, as well as their promotions and raises. Thus, Common Core obliges teachers to teach "to the test."

An Industrial Model of Education

By now it is a truism to state that, because every student is different, with different interests and varying levels of aptitude, no one teaching style or pedagogical method fits all. Similarly, no one method suits all eras. The industrial model of education, which worked reasonably well in the early twentieth century, when most Americans left school after eight years to work in factories and offices, is no longer adequate but has continued to operate right on into the twenty-first century. In a presentation titled "The Industrialization of Education," Timea Kernacova described the absurdity of our present system: "Very much like the work day 9–5, no matter what a class is discussing and no matter how engaged the students are, a bell rings and the subject is dropped immediately and all of the students get up and move on to the next class."

The industrial-style public education model fails far too many, particularly minority youth. In Chicago, for instance, only one in 40 black high-school boys will go on to finish college. But we also see a lack of basic knowledge, critical thought, and independence in many who get through college. In the March 2005 issue of The Atlantic, Ross Douthat wrote a piece showing that "while it may be hard to get into Harvard University, it is easy to get out without learning much of enduring value." (This is a dark secret that many alumni of elite schools know is sadly true.)

Common Core continues in the industrial model despite the fact that the world is changing rapidly. The standards are sold as making all students ready for college-level work, but it doesn't take a genius to realize that, if all students are to succeed in meeting the standards, they must be set low enough to enable all students to pass the Common Core tests. In actuality, the graduation and testing standards for Common Core more accurately prepare students for non-selective two-year community colleges with open admission. So when President Obama says that Common Core prepares all to attend college, he is technically correct. But we should not be under any illusion that Common Core will make students smarter or more competitive with their international peers.

In fact, the academic level of Common Core is lower than what many states use now. In a Wall Street Journal article entitled "Common Core Education Is Uncommonly Inadequate" (May 27, 2013), Jamie Gass and Charles Chieppo show that its standards are lower than the ones traditionally used in Massachusetts, for example.

Criticism & Pushback

As more parents find out about Common Core and generate more discussions about it, hard questions are beginning to be asked. Although 45 states (and the District of Columbia) initially accepted the curriculum, there is now some pushback from parents and state legislatures. A number of states have proposed either repealing or delaying the implementation. In late March, for instance, Indiana governor Mike Spence signed legislation that steps back from the Common Core standards. At least 11 states have backed out of commitments to use shared Common Core assessments. And the movement to scrap the standards altogether remains very much alive in several states, including South Carolina, Missouri, and Louisiana, where Gov. Bobby Jindal recently recanted his previous support and urged the Louisiana legislature to reject Common Core.

Even Randi Weingarten, president of the National Association of Teachers and a proponent of Common Core, has now called for a moratorium on its implementation, though only because it affects her unionized teachers. Some liberal writers and celebrities, such as Judy Blume, the late Maya Angelou, and actor Matt Damon, have also weighed in with criticisms of Common Core. The comedian Louis C. K. tweeted to his 3.3 million followers: "My kids used to love math. Now it makes them cry. Thanks standardized testing and common core!" He followed that with several pictures of third-grade math problems that he deemed incomprehensible or just plain dumb. Within a day, his original protest had been re-tweeted more than 7,000
times.

By the tens of thousands, parents have refused to let their children take the Common Core tests. And they have taken to social media to explain why. On outlets like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, they talk about their children sobbing over nonsensical homework and vomiting from test-day jitters. Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert picked up on that social media angst and amplified it with a segment that ridiculed some of Common Core's befuddling math questions. He also aired a series of clips of parents explaining how the tests had rattled and stressed out their children. His wry conclusion: "Common Core testing is preparing students for what they'll face as adults—pointless stress and
confusion."

The stresses related to Common Core's standardized testing also caught the attention of more than 120 authors and illustrators of children's literature, who last fall sent a public letter to President Obama expressing alarm at the administration's Common Core agenda. "Our public school students spend far too much time preparing for reading tests and too little time curling up with books that fire their imaginations," they wrote. Among the signatories were widely respected authors such as Angelou, Blume, and Jules Feiffer.

Overview of the Literature Standards

Interestingly, even though Common Core is upon us, as of this writing, only the literature and mathematics standards have been published. Though available online, they are not easy to navigate, but after wading through some "educationese," one can find some specific content.

The high-school literature standards, for example, divide the categories of readings into "Literature: Stories, Drama, Poetry" and "Informational Texts: Literary Nonfiction and Historical, Scientific, and Technical Texts." The dozen or so suggested literature readings include Macbeth (the only suggested Shakespeare play or poem), The Great Gatsby, and The Namesakeby Jhumpa Lahiri. Conspicuous by their absence from this short list are any excerpts from the Bible, any excerpt from Moby Dick, anything by Charles Dickens, or Stephen Crane, or Gustav Flaubert, or Lao Tzu, or Victor Hugo, or Giuseppe Manzoni, or Dante Alighieri, or Thomas Hardy, or any of numerous other works of literature that have added to world culture, the knowledge of which has traditionally been an important part of the formation of an educated person.

Among the "Informational Texts," there are some positive examples, including Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass; "Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat: Address to Parliament on May 13th, 1940" by Winston Churchill; Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address"; and Dr. Martin Luther King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." But the following are also included among the suggested informational readings:

  • "The Evolution of the Grocery Bag" by Henry Petroski;
  • "California Invasive Plant Inventory," a publication of the California Invasive Plant Council;
  • Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, by Mark Kurlansky;
  • a chart showing "Recommended Levels of Insulation," put out by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency/U.S. Department of Energy;
  • FedViews, a publication of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco;
  • an article from a 2007 issue of Scientific American titled "Working Knowledge: Electronic Stability Control," by Mark Fischetti;
  • Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management, put out by the U.S. General Services Administration; and
  • Atul Gawande's "The Cost Conundrum: Health Care Costs in McAllen, Texas."

Of course, the texts are merely suggested as "exemplars" for reading. But if you are homeschooling your children and don't think that charts of insulation levels and inventories of invasive plants are the best materials with which to pique your child's interest in reading and learning, be forewarned: neglecting these texts will make it more difficult to grade your children successfully on an SAT test once Common Core is fully implemented.

One of the members of the Common Core Validation Committee, Dr. Sandra Stotsky, also a professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas, found the literature standards so inadequate that she not only refused to sign off on them, but has also gone on to testify to state legislatures and school boards about them. In her testimony before the South Carolina House Committee on Education, Professor Stotsky observed that the Common Core choice of novels for grades 9–10 are on average at a fifth grade readability level, and the novels recommended for grades 11–12 are at a readability level of eighth grade, with the exception of The Scarlet Letter and Pride and Prejudice.

Overview of the Math Standards

The Common Core math objectives exhibit similar problems. Like the literature standards, they are written in educationese and difficult to navigate online. For example, here is how Common Core standard 2.OA.4 introduces multiplication: "Use addition to find the total number of objects arranged in rectangular arrays with up to 5 rows and up to 5 columns; write an equation to express the total as a sum of equal addends." In real English, this means repeated addition. But that is not clear to a parent who wants to supervise his child's math education. The education elite have rejected the tried-and-true way of teaching mathematics in favor of the trendy and novel. But the new methodology is so different that it will render the majority of parents unable to help their children.

Here's another example: when children are given double-digit numbers to add, instead of being taught to carry the tens to the next column, they are encouraged simply to estimate the numbers. They are also discouraged from counting on their fingers. Their teachers would prefer that they estimate totals rather than be precise.

Making matters more convoluted, children are encouraged to explain their answers. No longer is it sufficient simply to add 2 and 2 and get 4. Now a child must explain why that is so. If a pupil decides that the answer is 5 instead of 4, but provides a logical reason for his answer, teachers are encouraged to give him points.

Another grave concern with the Common Core math standards is that they are set lower than what many states use now. In fact, Professor James Milgram of Stanford University and of NASA, who is the only real mathematician who served on the official Common Core Validation Committee, refused to sign off on the academic legitimacy of Common Core. Dr. Milgram, wrote the following in an email clarifying his objection to the math standards:

I can tell you that my main objection to Core Standards, and the reason I didn't sign off on them was that they did not match up to international expectations. They were at least 2 years behind the practices in the high achieving countries by 7th grade, and as a number of people have observed, only require partial understanding of what would be the content of a normal, solid course in Algebra I or Geometry. Moreover, they cover very little of the content of Algebra II, and none of any higher-level course. They will not help our children match up to the students in the top foreign countries where it comes to being hired to top-level jobs.

My own study of the math standards confirms that many of them, particularly for the early grades, reflect what has been called "fuzzy math," where students are taught few arithmetic and computational techniques. No more boring memorization of the multiplication tables! But the old methods are not replaced with better ways of teaching children how to arrive at correct answers; instead, class time is devoted to such things as having children describe how they got their answers. High-school math emphasizes something called "modeling," which involves the application of "acquired expertise as well as creativity." Here are some problems listed in the math standards that students are expected to use modeling to solve:

  • Estimating how much water and food is needed for emergency relief in a devastated city of 3 million people, and how it might be distributed;
  • Designing the layout of the stalls in a school fair so as to raise as much money as possible;
  • Modeling bacterial colony growth;
  • Analyzing risk in situations such as extreme sports, pandemics, and terrorism; and
  • Relating population statistics to individual predictions.

Note that all of the above may be useful for a future generation of governmental bureaucrats.

The Wrong Direction

As mentioned above, in formulating and promulgating the Common Core standards, the federal bureaucracy has bypassed parents as well as state and local school boards. When fully implemented, the standards will fundamentally transform education by having what every child learns determined by that same central bureaucracy. No Child Left Behind was a step in this direction, but at least it allowed the states to set their own educational standards. Common Core, by contrast, requires all states to adopt the same federal standards. In so doing, it eliminates state and local autonomy in educational matters, and yet forces states and their taxpayers to incur the large costs of implementation. Moreover, given that the Common Core standards apply, via testing, to students in parochial and private schools and to homeschoolers, they also intrude on student and family privacy.

And all this for standards that are, as I have sought to show, at best of mediocre quality. They rest on questionable philosophies and their efficacy is completely untested by any empirical studies. Professor Stotsky succinctly concluded her criticism of the Common Core literature standards by saying that they "require English teachers to emphasize skills, and not literary or cultural knowledge."

It has always seemed to me that the route to an excellent education goes in the opposite direction of national standards. In fact, it goes towards universal school choice, an approach that tends to produce high standards, accountability, and flexibility. The Common Core educational standards make matters worse than they are already, to the detriment of our children and our nation's future. •

Michael Avramovich is a lawyer in private practice, and is Adjunct Professor of International Business and Trade Law at The John Marshall Law School in Chicago. He also serves as a volunteer speaker on behalf of The Voice of the Martyrs, and is a regular contributor to the Touchstone blog, Mere Comments.

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