In 1983, President Reagan's National Commission on Excellence in Education produced a report called A Nation at Risk, which caused consternation from coast to coast. In 20 years the SAT scores of American students had fallen by 50 points in the verbal section and 40 in the math, with dire consequences for our ability to compete in a global market. The commission made stern recommendations regarding educational content and extent, including seven-hour school days, 220-day school years, higher teacher salaries, and three years each of math and science in high school. Also, a greater role for the federal government in "helping meet the needs of key groups of students," such as the gifted and the economically disadvantaged.
In case you're wondering, it didn't work. In 2010, a nonpartisan organization called Strong American Schools reported that "stunningly few of the Commission's recommendations actually have been enacted." The problem was political: "organized special interests and political inertia." The solution was also political: "vigorous national leadership to improve education." We can't seem to steel ourselves against the siren call of "vigorous national leadership." In the first Bush administration it was Goals 2000; in the second it was No Child Left Behind (NCLB). "Goals" did not meet its goals and NCLB succeeded mainly in becoming universally despised.
The latest acronym to ride to the rescue is the Common Core State Standards, or CCSS. Technically this is not a federal initiative, but a coordinated effort by the State Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, who commissioned a nonpartisan council called Achieve to write the standards and implementation guidelines. After two years, Achieve has published the Language Arts and Mathematics Standards, with Science and Social Studies yet to come. Language Arts covers Reading, Writing, Speaking & Listening, Language, and Media & Technology, with 10 "anchor standards" for each. Mathematics consists of eight basic principles in four domains for each grade level with the addition of six conceptual categories for high school. The grand goal is "college and career readiness."
There's nothing new in the standards, and nothing particularly wrong with them either. They sound very similar to NCLB standards, which owed their wording to Goals 2000 standards, which were based on more or less traditional expectations. What is new is the national scope. States could set their own standards for NCLB - a fatal weakness, as it turned out - but the Common Core applies to all participants. Participation is voluntary. Just one catch: States that wanted to compete for Race to the Top money three years ago had to adopt the standards. Forty-eight of them did, excluding Texas (which is too big to mess with), and Alaska. Now that Race to the Top money is gone, the Obama administration is signaling it may withhold Title I aid to low-income schools in states that don't get with the program. The federal government has an inexhaustible supply of carrots and sticks.
But even worse than their potential for federal manipulation, ambitious plans like NCLB and CCSS inevitably fall prey to the vending machine theory: Put in x, receive y. Put in Curious George, receive "Compare and contrast the adventures and experiences of characters in stories" or "Interpret point of view in a text." Education becomes a checklist of conceptual categories to be covered and little circles to be filled in so the USA can compete in a global market. What's missing is the actual child.
A "text" will produce different responses in different children, or none at all. Feed input A into Sadie and you may get output C, or Mikey will give you a combination of output A and C, and Ernesto won't get it until third grade, but he would have been all over output C in third-grade math. Busy little competitors they are not, but competitiveness shouldn't be the goal of education anyway - much less "college and career readiness." What education traditionally aims to produce can't be accomplished with a checklist: reasoning, moral human beings. Without them, any nation is at risk.