Again with Common Core!

Within the past week I have had two different individuals ask me about Common Core. What is it? What does it mean for schools? The perspective in both instances was that Common Core is evil, the result of some corrupt attempt by politicians and bureaucrats to manipulate the public and to force cookie cutter educational standards on every child in the United States. In both instances I have been able to explain what Common Core is — and is not — and hopefully allay some of the fears that these individuals possessed. I cannot have a face to face conversation with everyone who has heard the horror stories about Common Core, though.

Just a few minutes ago I finished watching a film created by the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) called Building the Machine. The film is available online; just Google the title or “Common Core movie” and you will have no trouble finding it. Here is how the web site for the film describes the movie: “Building the Machine introduces the public to the Common Core States Standards Initiative (CCSSI) and its effects on our children’s education. The documentary compiles interviews from leading educational experts, including members of the Common Core Validation Committee. Parents, officials, and the American public should be involved in this national decision regardless of their political persuasion.” There is nothing inaccurate there and I certainly agree that the American public should be involved in making decisions about education in America.

The web site goes on to describe Common Core this way: “The Common Core is the largest systemic reform of American public education in recent history. What started as a collaboration between the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to reevaluate and nationalize America’s education standards has become one of the most controversial—and yet, unheard of—issues in the American public.” I would question the assertion that it is unheard of; sometimes it seems like I hear about nothing else but Common Core!

I have addressed Common Core in this space at length in the past so I am going to attempt to avoid restating that which has already been said. I do want to make a few comments on specific things in the HSLDA movie, though.

First of all, the film laments the fact that there was no “public comment” on the development of the Common Core standards. This statement is questionable in and of itself. However, even if it were true, it is not necessarily cause for concern. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were not developed by a an elected board of education or any such body. The CCSS were, however, developed by groups that included elected officials (such as the National Governor’s Association). One commentator in the HSLDS movie compared the supposedly-secret development of the CCSS to the development of state standards in Massachusetts. He said that in Massachusetts the process took years to select texts, etc. That was no doubt appropriate for standards being developed within a state and by a state board of education. Furthermore, the CCSS do not dictate texts to be used, so there was no need for the review of texts. (The CCSS do include recommended texts or exemplars of texts that may help meet the standards, but the adoption of any specific texts is up to states and/or local boards of education). Oddly enough, one individual on the movie even went so far as to assert that the fact that elected governors were included in the process of developing the CCSS, and developing the process for the creation of the CCSS, does not mean that the voices of the people were represented. Really? I was under the impression that that was exactly how representative democracy worked….

At one point in the movie one of the “experts” stated that the federal government “played a major role in incentivizing states to adopt Common Core.” That’s true. But that’s exactly how the government works. It offered money to states that adopted the CCSS — or developed their own equally rigorous standards. It was up to the states to decide to adopt them, however. The movie continued with experts suggesting that many states blindly signed off on Race to the Top grant requests which committed the states to the CCSS. If true, that may well warrant investigation but it is a problem with the elected officials and/or the funding process — not with the CCSS themselves.

Sandra Strotsky is one of the experts heard from frequently in the film. She was on the CCSS validation committee and decided she could not endorse the standards as developed. That’s fine; it is certainly her prerogative. She stated in the movie, though, that the CCSS diminish the importance and use of literary texts in English classes in favor of technical texts. Having reviewed the lists of text exemplars I do not agree. The lists include novels, works of non-fiction and so-called technical texts (which are often speeches and other first-person or primary source documents that effective teachers include anyway, such as the Gettysburg Address or Patrick Henry’s speech to the Virginia Convention).

Another point emphasized in the movie is that the CCSS do not prepare students for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs or selective colleges. Would you imagine for a moment if they did, please? Imagine the uproar that would have ensued had standards been adopted that were designed to ensure that every student would meet the admissions expectations of the nation’s top colleges and STEM programs! High school diplomas have always been a statement that minimum standards have been met by the students receiving them. Some states offer various kinds of diplomas, such as advanced, standard and general. That’s fine if they want to do that, and there is nothing in the CCSS that prevents them from continuing to do that. But the CCSS themselves are a statement of what every student should know as he progresses through a K-12 education.

Michael Farris, the chancellor of Patrick Henry College and the chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association, describes in the movie a conversation that he had with David Coleman, the lead writer of the CCSS. Farris indicated that Coleman has some good ideas for public schools and Farris thinks he has some good ideas for home schooling. The difference between them, Farris said, is that Coleman is “trying to use the force of law to require everybody to implement his good ideas.” Again, this assertion is simply not true. Coleman may want every state to adopt the CCSS but he cannot require that and neither, I might add, can the federal government! Any state that has adopted the CCSS has done so of its own accord and by its own choice.

Texas is one well-known state that has not adopted CCSS. Indiana was an early adopter but has since decided to opt out. Indiana must now develop its own standards in order to retain funding from the federal government. If Indiana feels this is the best move for its students then good for Indiana. Let me reiterate that I am not necessarily for the CCSS. My concern is simply that so much of what is being said about the Common Core is inaccurate.

If you watch Building the Machine you will no doubt notice a counter at the top of the screen prominently displaying how many times it has been viewed. When I was watching it had been viewed more than 118,000 times. That’s great. I’m sure the HSLDA is tickled pink. But my hope is that individuals who are truly concerned about the education of children will research the facts for themselves. Watching Building the Machine can be an important part of that process but it is only that — a part of the process. Do not swallow whole the perspectives or statements of any individual or group (including me!). Check it out for yourself.

Building the Machine ends with the statement that the single most important element in an effective education is parental involvement. That is absolutely correct and a statement on which I imagine we can all agree. Like the Common Core or hate it, it is not a magic potion that will miraculously produce brilliant kids. Parents still need to be involved.

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