A Conservative Defense of Common Core
Our Nation is at risk … the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people … If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.
— “A Nation at Risk” (a report commissioned by the Reagan Administration in 1983)
I’m simply stunned by much of what I read from many “conservative” pundits and activists today about education. There seems to be a collective amnesia of the true gains that conservatism has produced in the last decade, and there is also a frightening desire on the part of some to give all those gains back.
The quotes from the Reagan administration report paint an accurate picture of the American educational system in the last quarter of the 20th century (and the actual report has lots of specifics illustrating exactly how bad things were). In theory, local school boards set educational policy and achievement standards, but the reality was that liberal teachers’ unions were in control. School boards repeatedly deferred to teachers because they were the “experts,” and union power meant that most school board members were elected with union support and voted in lockstep. The manifestly horrible quality of our schools started the homeschooling movement, and homeschooling has now grown 19,000% since 1975.
As terrible as our national performance was, Louisiana’s was worse, as we regularly battled Arkansas and Mississippi for the honor of the worst schools in America. Any parents with a plugged nickel to their names tried to pay for private school, and Louisiana had the lowest percentage of public school attendance in the nation. Our schools were so bad that Buddy Roemer was elected governor in 1987 largely on a promise to “brick up the top three floors of the education building.” That didn’t happen, though, and our schools stayed stagnant.
In 2003, Bridget Green had taken a supposedly rigorous curriculum at Fortier High School in New Orleans and was scheduled to be the school’s 2003 valedictorian—only she couldn’t pass the math portion of the Graduate Exit Exam, despite taking it six times. (Despite its moniker, the GEE only required students to be reasonably competent with middle-school mathematics.) Bridget, the finest student at a large high school, had completed Algebra II with an “A”, but she was only able to score an 11 on the ACT, a score in the bottom 1% and a lower score than she would have achieved by random guessing. Bridget, like countless others, had simply been passed along grade to grade, with no accountability for the “teachers” who were giving her “A’s” without teaching her anything. All in all, by the time Katrina hit New Orleans, 95% of the city’s students were not proficient in English and math, and the FBI would later convict 27 people in a probe of bribery and corruption of the Orleans Parish School Board, including the board’s president.
Such was the state of affairs when President Bush pushed through the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. Though the bill was significantly compromised to get it through the Democratic Senate, its effects were still dramatic. For the first time, states that wanted to receive federal money would have to establish standards in English and math and hold students, teachers, and schools accountable to those standards.
Predictably, liberals and unions, both nationally and in Louisiana, fought the dawn of accountability – because testing is racist. Here in Louisiana, testing is also blamed for the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. In the words of Bill Ayers (yes, that Bill Ayers), testing is also demeaning because it reduces students and teachers to a number and fails to measure such things as curiosity, judgment, and “ethical reflection.” Make no mistake, liberals want very badly to eliminate any kind of standards or accountability, because they want to be able to reward students and teachers for proper “ethical reflection” – thinking the “correct” thoughts.
As soon as Louisiana’s standards were implemented, liberals in the state started working to water them down, with some success, eventually loosening the requirements for 4th and 8th graders to be promoted so that students only had to be proficient in English or math, instead of both. At least the standards themselves didn’t get watered down here in Louisiana. Since NCLB accountability went into effect, 15 other states have done just that. Suddenly, many more children in those states have magically become proficient in math and reading! Those lower standards meant that students’ teachers and schools also magically got “better.”
Until Common Core, state standards differed laughably in terms of what was considered “proficient,” with only three states having world-class standards. Louisiana’s standards have been significantly below average, meaning that a student who is currently declared “proficient” in English or math in Louisiana is not really proficient at all when compared to international standards (and are not even near the national average of “proficient”). Our state government has repeatedly lied to parents and told them that their children are achieving at an acceptable level, when they most definitely are not.
It was for reasons such as these that I and other conservatives have supported the Common Core Initiative to create standards for math and reading that states adopt in cooperation. Common Core was not created by the federal government; it was instead a state-led initiative. It was and is completely voluntary (though federal money in the 2009 “stimulus bill” was affected by it). Common Core is not a curriculum. It is not a textbook. It does not tell teachers how to teach anything. The English standards do not include a reading list. It is, rather, a set of benchmarks that we should expect students to achieve in each grade. Students
Louisiana was right to adopt Common Core because it is evil to expect less of Louisiana children and tell them that they are proficient when they are really below average. We can’t risk a future liberal dumbing-down of our (already low) curricula standards. Most importantly, we need to actually educate our children to a level enabling them to compete in a global information economy. IBM just announced plans to open an 800-person software development center in Baton Rouge. Such a center can only be successful if IBM is able to hire employees whose math skills are on par with employees of Asian companies, and there’s no doubt that IBM would have gone elsewhere if Louisiana had failed to adopt the more challenging Common Core standards for math.
At this point, you might be shocked to learn that many prominent conservatives have decided to strongly oppose Common Core. Glenn Beck, Michelle Malkin, Phyllis Schlafly and others have attacked the standards, and the RNC just passed a resolution condemning it. Some otherwise conservative state legislators such as Brett Geymann used Common Core as an excuse to oppose Governor Jindal’s education reforms last year.
Why? Basically, because President Obama decided to support Common Core. The logic goes like this:
Since Michelle Obama wants to control our diets and force us all to eat vegetables, and since liberals such as Michael Bloomberg want to restrict our freedom to buy sodas, vegetables are a liberal, big-government plot and we should all drink soda instead.
As an aside, you’ll have to excuse me for not getting into too many technical criticisms of the standards, as I have read both that they are too hard and that they are too easy (sometimes in the same argument!). The truth is that, while Common Core standards are significantly higher than Louisiana’s standards right now, they still are not challenging enough; they are still not up to international standards.
No, the real opposition to Common Core doesn’t come from what it actually does; it comes from fear, fear that Common Core represents an attempt by the federal government to take over education and indoctrinate our kids with liberalism, a fear justifiably heightened when President Obama and some teachers’ groups came out in support of Common Core.
Why would teachers support Common Core? Teaching is incredibly hard today. My three-year stint in East Baton Rouge public schools was by far the most difficult and challenging job I’ve ever had. The biggest problem in education is the one that no one wants to talk about, because it doesn’t have an easy fix. (Liberals want to blame poverty, racism, and a lack of funding; conservatives want to blame teachers and the education establishment.) That problem is parenting – or rather, the lack of it. The explosion of single-parent families has created a generation of kids who think they are entitled, have no discipline, and who frequently have no desire to learn. A student could cuss me out and call me a MFer and be back in my classroom the next day after getting “counseled” by the principal.
As hard as it was, our old standards made life extra difficult for teachers because there were no textbooks that aligned with Louisiana’s state curriculum. For example, if I wanted to teach my students to add fractions, I wouldn’t be able to use the practice problems in the textbook because those problems assumed that I had already taught the students how to add negative numbers, which I had not. That meant that I had to design my own material from scratch in many cases. Though not quite the same as being forced to make bricks without straw, it’s still quite a burden for a teacher already suffering in an extremely stressful and demanding job. Even though Common Core will require Louisiana teachers to teach to a higher standard, it will mean that teachers will have much better resources to teach, resources that will actually align with the curriculum without requiring each teacher to reinvent the wheel.
Since the Obama administration included states’ adoption of Common Core in the criteria for Race to the Top funding, many conservatives have decided that Common Core represents a federal takeover of education.
My first response is: “How incredibly naïve!” The federal government already controls education through a number of methods, and it has for some time. In 1979, Barbara Morris wrote Change Agents in the Schools, a seminal book which helped jump-start the homeschooling movement. She wrote (p. 64):
Much is made of education being controlled by local school boards that reflect the wishes of the local community. Local control may have existed at one time, but today it is a fantasy. Just about all of local education is controlled by the federal government through money funneled to government agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). In turn, the NSF, NEH, and other government agencies contract with change agent curriculum developers who produce curricula that win the approval of federal bureaucrats who control the purse strings.
In truth, that was only one small example of the federal control that existed in 1979. And there are many, many more avenues of control today, and their effects are horribly destructive. For example, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (2004), when combined with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Social Security disability laws, is largely responsible for the lack of discipline in inner-city public schools. Rampant Social Security Disability fraud allows mothers to get their kids diagnosed as “mentally disabled” so that the moms each get an extra $700 per month in spending money, whereupon the kids must stay in the special education system, which means that they must be placed in regular classrooms if possible and can’t be effectively disciplined because of the special rules related to their “disabilities.”
While the feds already control education (and conservatives need to quit kidding themselves about a “takeover”), I will readily concede that federal bureaucrats and the Obama administration want to use Common Core to enhance their control over education. Of course they do! They want to use anything that they can to tighten their control, because they are socialists (so we shouldn’t let them!), but they don’t need Common Core to do that. Even if Common Core opponents were correct in labeling Common Core a means of federal control, it would only be one of the smaller tools in that regard.
How does the federal leviathan control education? Primarily in the same way it did in the example Morris pointed out in 1979: controlling how it gives away money. Federal spending on education is $100 billion per year, and discretionary spending is $68 billion of that. Conservatives who want to extract the federal government from education therefore have a simple method of accomplishing that – gut federal spending on education. The more we cut, the more federal control we eliminate, but GOP Congresses since 1994 have had little stomach for that, because they know that the media will portray them as heartless zombies intent on devouring the flesh of young children. And so, the situation remains unchanged. As long as the Obama administration has money to dangle in front of greedy state and local governments, it will continue to control education, and blocking Common Core would have no effect on that control.
The second argument, that Common Core would introduce liberalism into public schools, is even more pathetic. I don’t know if the conservatives making this argument are being deliberately deceptive, or if they are among the most ignorant people on the planet. Everything about public education is liberal. If you have a child in public school, then your child is indoctrinated with liberalism every single day from teachers, curricula, school counselors, and other students. This again is nothing new.
The idea of using public schools to indoctrinate children in liberalism first gained currency with John Dewey in the early 20th century. This old newsreel is stunning and must be watched to understand “progressive education” and why Dewey’s followers today (almost all teachers and liberals) would dislike standardized curricula or testing. (Also note the “bad” method of education taught the 23rd Psalm).
Marxists, including Leon Trotsky, personally praised Dewey, who was one of 34 signees of the original Humanist Manifesto in 1933 (and many scholars believe that he wrote most of it). I strongly urge you to read that original Humanist Manifesto so that you will understand how Dewey’s educational theories were all designed with the objective of teaching children that Christianity was false and they themselves were the only gods (Humanism). In fact, if you read it and watch the video, you’ll begin to understand a lot of things about education that are beyond the scope of this essay, such as the self-esteem movement and grade inflation (in 1988, 28% of students taking the SAT had an “A” average, while in 2008, 42% did).
While many states had previously required students to pass standardized tests to graduate from high school, Dewey and his fellow progressives got rid of them. Indeed, they disliked tests in general. Progressive educators were fundamentally opposed to a standardized curriculum, preferring a “child-centered approach.” Students were to be regarded as individuals and encouraged to explore their own interests. Instead of teaching content, schools taught kids to question authority—particularly the authority of parents and churches. Indeed, many teachers today would agree with Bill Ayers that content knowledge is one of “the least interesting and least significant aspects of learning.”
Though progressive education suffered setbacks in the 1950’s (such as when the launch of Sputnik revealed the failure of progressive education in teaching math and science), cultural indoctrination in public schools regained critical mass in the 1960’s. Absurd twaddle such as Teaching as a Subversive Activity (a book which still gets lots of good reviews from teachers on Amazon and Goodreads) was widely praised and emulated.
Today, liberalism makes its way into all corners of the curriculum. As Bill Ayers says, liberals today have “absolute access” to classrooms and schools. When I taught math in a poor public school in Baton Rouge, Rethinking Mathematics: Social Justice by the Numbers was suggested to me as a way to make my teaching more “relevant” to my students (other books like it are here and here). Common Core will have no impact either way on teachers who use these techniques to use the math classroom to indoctrinate children.
Of course, much of the indoctrination that occurs happens through social studies curricula. My own daughter was upset (and rightly so) this year when her 5th-grade teacher suggested that Spanish colonists’ abuse of Native Americans was a result of their Catholic faith. Here are a couple of examples from just this month: a school teaching that the 2nd Amendment doesn’t protect the right to bear arms, and a school teaching an anti-American view of WWII.
Of course, the Common Core Curriculum Standards are only for math and English, so (again) none of this indoctrination will be affected one way or the other. Will liberals, in the future, try to require Common Core to teach certain liberal tenets? Of course they will! If there are going to be standardized curricula and tests, then Leftists ultimately want to add science standards written by Al Gore and social studies standards written by Louis Farrakhan and La Raza. Nothing in this essay should be construed to mean that I think conservatives don’t need to concern themselves with Common Core—quite the contrary. Vigilance is essential, just as it is with state and local standards.
One of the strangest criticisms of standards and testing, which I sometimes hear conservatives make, is: “We don’t want teachers to have to teach to the test.” Oh, but you do, believe me. First of all, the basic principle in strategic design of education is that one begins by creating the assessment – measure exactly what one wants the student to learn – and then teach that material. I did that and so does every good teacher. You create your exam first so that you make sure you teach that material comprehensively. When a standardized test (such as the LEAP) is designed to measure exactly what students are supposed to learn in a year, then that test causes the teacher to teach the desired content.
You should ask yourself exactly what teachers are forced to leave out when they have to “teach to the test.” Better yet, ask Bridget Green. In the wake of that scandal, even the liberal Times-Picayune had to ask: “If the senior with the best grades can’t pass … what, if anything, are students being taught?”
Do you want to give teachers more freedom to teach their students songs to sing to our Dear Leader? Do you really want schools to have more time to create “anti-bullying” presentations which tell girls to ask each other for “lesbian kisses”? How about giving teachers more freedom so that they can teach kids to pledge allegiance to Mexico? You don’t like that? What about allocating more time for sex education, so that middle-school kids can be taught how to use a condom? What about turning kids into “eco-police” who fight for the environment? (Priceless quote: “Some critics say such lessons are a distraction as districts struggle to meet minimum standards on math and reading tests.”) How many lessons do you want your kids to get on “white privilege”? Maybe you want kids to learn songs about the Occupy movement and the evils of the 1%? A rigorous math and English curriculum with strong accountability minimizes the opportunities for indoctrination and gives parents more of a chance to raise their children with conservative values.
Conservatives should support the Common Core Curriculum Standards. Opponents of Common Core need to answer why they support giving Louisiana students a 3rd-rate education with math and English standards significantly lower than the rest of the country. They need to explain why it’s OK to lie to kids and parents and tell them that their kids are proficient in English in math when they are actually well below national standards. And they need to explain why they want to give teachers’ unions more power and giving liberals more opportunities for indoctrination instead of holding of holding them accountable for actually teaching English and math.
Addendum: I began working full-time for the Republican Party of Louisiana in 1995, and I worked in politics until 2005, when I decided to become a certified teacher. I then taught 6th-grade math in East Baton Rouge Public Schools for three years before opening up Mathnasium of Baton Rouge, a math learning center. I do not expect to profit in any way from writing this essay or from the implementation of Common Core, as Mathnasium centers in other states have not experienced any significant changes when implementing the new standards.