Some 45 states have adopted Common Core, a national education standard designed to replace state standards. Game, set, match? Not exactly. An odd coalition of opponents, including conservative Republican governors and liberal teachers unions, is pushing back.
Governors like Mike Pence (Indiana), Nikki Haley (South Carolina), and Mary Fallin (Oklahoma) have successfully urged their legislatures to pull their states out of earlier Common Core commitments made by state education boards. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal wants to take his state out of the national standards as well, provoking a conflict with Education Superintendent John White. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker wants his state legislature to pull out.
Other states are calling for delays and second looks, or are abandoning national testing consortiums. Opponents object to the nationalization of education through Common Core. Ohio Gov. John Kasich says, “I share the concern about loss of local control.” Teachers unions, for different reasons, don’t like their salaries tied to likely poor student performance on Common Core tests.
Many are skeptical about the latest educational “revolution,” since every other one over the past several decades has failed. But the heat on this one is unusual—especially since the consensus for Common Core is deeply woven into the educational establishment, from the Obama administration down to curriculum textbook publishers. In Indiana some Common Core critics think the state’s new standards are too close to Common Core, despite a new name.
Behind the scenes, as state after state was considering Common Core, the Gates Foundation (funded by Microsoft’s Bill Gates) was spending well more than $200 million to promote the Common Core idea. Gates gave grants to liberal and conservative education groups, teachers unions, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Then the Obama administration tied the standards to massive federal aid. The result has been an overwhelming financial push for Common Core.
The Gates money also gave Common Core a smooth sail through the checks and balances that usually apply to educational innovation. Sarah Reckhow, an education policy researcher at Michigan State, said, “Usually there’s a pilot test—something is tried on a small scale, outside researchers see if it works, and then it’s promoted on a broader scale. That didn’t happen with Common Core.”
The actual standards also are not written with the eloquence or simplicity of the Declaration of Independence or Gettysburg Address. They are filled with educational jargon, as in this elementary-school example: “They must also be able to determine or clarify the meaning of grade-appropriate words encountered through listening, reading, and media use; come to appreciate that words have nonliteral meanings, shadings of meaning, and relationships to other words; and expand their vocabulary in the course of studying content.”
The core standards also have provoked controversy over whether they really raise the bar for students. Some states like Indiana already had stronger standards.
Sandra Stotsky, a retired and respected University of Arkansas professor, has objected to the emphasis on informational reading in place of classic literature. Other critics think the standards emphasize an abstract approach to math theory in early grades, when students need to be learning multiplication tables. Frustrated parents call it “fuzzy math.” Homeschoolers worry that Common Core ideas will creep into college entrance exams such as the SAT or ACT. Others express concern about national and state databases of student records.
More controversy emerges once students actually take a test. In New York last spring parents and teachers protested new tests. “I’m not against tough standards,” said teacher Ralph Ratto, a union official. “I’m against these standards. They have not been tested and have not been researched.”
New York had a grassroots revolt against an untested set of tests. Some critics wanted New York to pull out of Common Core; but instead the state legislature compromised, staying in Common Core but not tying teacher salaries to test results. In other states, though, conservative governors are listening to activist opponents and pulling out even before students start the tests.
For parents seeking a way out of this controversy, classical schools offer one alternative. These schools don’t worry about new tests or new theories of teaching math or English. They offer Latin in elementary school. They read classics such as The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe in early elementary years, and The Pilgrim’s Progress in junior high.
“Classical education has worked well for thousands of years,” says Andrew Hart, who heads The Oaks Academy in Indianapolis. The school has a 50-50 black-white racial balance and a mix of wealthy and low-income families. Students score well above average on state tests, but standardized tests don’t drive the curriculum or classroom instruction.
One of the leading critics of Common Core has been Terrence Moore, who starts classical schools and has taught history at Hillsdale College. Moore was pulled into the Common Core debate by Indiana opponents and wrote a 263-page book, The Story-Killers.
“The Common Core and the textbook editors are replacing the classic stories with postmodern tales of cynicism and ennui,” he writes. “Both the human mind and soul long for greatness, for stories that are good and beautiful and true. If we allow our stories to die, our love of the good and the beautiful and the true will die with them.”
For other parents homeschooling offers another way out of the Common Core confusion, and some homeschoolers adopt aspects of classical education. Some parents have another concern, that Common Core is not a neutral attempt to assess academic skills but will open the door to tests that demand conformity to a left-wing or politically correct political agenda.
A couple of years ago Common Core looked inevitable, like the sunrise. Now grassroots opponents are stopping it right and left. The small libertarian-leaning Pioneer Institute in Boston has offered a constant stream of opposition research. Other states are pulling out of testing consortiums. If states go their own way on testing, the common will drop out of any core.
A practical result might be state-controlled education after all. Some states could still try Common Core and its tests, and other states may discover something better. The competition between the states should prove better than a Common Core monopoly on standards and testing.