John Buell

Resisting the Common Core by Uncommon Means

The Common Core is a set of educational standards in mathematics and English Language Arts. Its advocates hope these standards will become the ruling norm in all US public schools. The common core is hardly common. It fails to represent any emerging consensus on educational reform. Economic elites and testing companies in conjunction with neoliberal politicians have pressed this goal. Where this core has been adopted, it has turned teachers into robots and alienates students. Nonetheless, from the vantage point of its advocates these failures serve a purpose. The failures it produces will be used to expand charter schools and privatization of public education.

Fordham University political theorist Nicholas Tampio points out that one of the unlikely products of the Common Core has been joint opposition to it on the part of teachers, grass roots organizations of poor and minority parents and many Tea Party parents. The Common Core makes possible an unlikely coalition across ideological, class, and ethnic lines. Can progressives take advantage of this opening?

I would like to suggest that progressives take some chances on this issue. Traditionally educational reform has involved national standardization of one sort or another. “Reform” has served the interests of corporate capitalist elites eager to ensure a close fit between a future workforce and the hierarchical structures of contemporary enterprise. Today’s Common Core seeks to routinize teachers as well as students and use their “failure” as grounds to expand charter schools. Chicago journalist Robert Koehler has nicely summarized this agenda: “While the educational process has always been hierarchical and right-answer-oriented, things have only gotten worse over the last several decades. Now, with the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which defines and scripts the lessons to be taught, the micromanagement of teaching — and learning — has reached a new extreme.” Teachers’ every move is scripted, thus denying them any chance to use their wisdom or distinct talents and interests.

Tampio, writing recently at Huffington Post, described this process: “Students are not encouraged to connect the material to their own lives, events in the world, or things that may interest them. The script tells the teachers and students, at all times, what to say and do.” Such scripts “suck the oxygen out of a classroom.”

The Common Core, the newest incarnation of a corporate education agenda, can be resisted on both defensive and affirmative grounds. The traditional or defensive would stress the long- time understanding in Constitutional law that education, especially curricular standards, is not a federal matter. The counter that such standards are not being imposed should be rejected. Large federal grants are contingent on adherence to the standards. In today’s state budgetary climate, the power to withhold large grants is the power to destroy.

Liberals, of course, have supported federal intervention in education to foster racial justice, but these interventions are on behalf of equal rights, not curriculum control, and are thus an appropriate federal role.

Opposition to the Common Core can also take a positive turn. Especially in an age of economic crisis in which so much — properly or not — is asked of education, opponents of the Common Core will inevitably have to answer the question of whether public education is to be held to any standards at all. Progressives might answer that if education is a local matter, perhaps even the concept of local control might itself be pluralized by recognizing the diversity that exists even at the local level. Progressive educator Debbie Meier’s alternative to charter schools, the movement to create many small schools within the compass of the public school system, may serve as a model. Parents and students can adopt different curricular agendas and ways of teaching. They can also forge relevant standards and articulate different modes of evaluation.

The claim that this approach will let schools off easily should be immediately rejected. Parents today have high expectation of the public schools. To the extent they have a voice in the kind of education their children receive these expectations will only grow.

But the greater fear of many progressives might be the emergence of what I will call fundamentalist academies. What if a significant set of parents wanted all biology classes to teach intelligent design? Or climate science denial? Or sex education classes that withheld or distorted basic public health information?

No honest progressive could help being concerned about such curricula. But there are some countervailing considerations. It is not as though the push for national educational standards propagated by corporate educators will avoid these fundamentalist currents. As education goes today, much of what is taught is a function of decisions a few textbook companies make, and these decisions are geared to the largest markets. Decisions by the state education board of Texas play a major role in the content of widely used US history book. Along similar lines, how well has the judicial, top-down imposition of abortion rights done in establishing that right? Some advocates of reproductive rights have argued that the judicial imposition of that right, by precluding a broader politicization of the issue, encouraged a harsher backlash.

I am not Creationist or advocate of intelligent design, but I have often wondered what would be the consequence if selective groups of parents could choose to teach such courses. (I am less moved by the church/state argument on this as long as students need not attend such a school.) Would graduates of such schools be unable to contribute to important medical research or become competent physicians? Might pressure from intelligent design not make evolutionary biology more visible and widely discussed? I don’t have a firm answer to these questions, but I would like to hear more discussion of them.

An open and experimental approach to coalition building should include more diverse approaches to local control of schools, even by inviting alternatives progressives distrust. This approach might make possible collaboration around other issues such as bank bailouts, financial and media monopoly. Even absent connections on other issues, willingness by progressives to risk one of their own core convictions might lessen some of the generalized distrust in US politics and alter its tone.

Such an agenda of course would have its risks. What would happen if intelligent design classes became springboards to advocate broader theocratic control of science? Such an evolution would have to be fiercely contested, but any open politics can have destructive outcomes. As one friend puts it to me: “In some situations, you might want a strong centralized education system to pull people out of barbarism. But in modern liberal democracies, the greater threat is homogeneity.”

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His books include Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011). Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2014

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