Common core an uncommon mistake

By Brendan Shea

May 15, 2014

Unless you’re a political or social activist, you may not be very familiar with the term Common Core – and for good reason. It’s the name of the nationalized K-12 educational standards that have discreetly swept the country, including the state of Ohio, over the past few years.

Common Core’s manner of creation and propagation provides crucial insight into how such a colossal change in education could be taking place while many parents and educators remain virtually unaware of the shifting plates beneath their (and their children’s) feet. The details of its implementation reveal a great deal about why we should all be concerned.

Common Core is, in many respects, the younger sibling of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the wildly unpopular and largely discredited Bush II-era federal education program. But while No Child Left Behind is a household name, Common Core remains mostly a mystery to parents, teachers, and lawmakers alike.

The reasons for this are simple. Despite all its shortcomings, NCLB was enacted through the relative transparency of the legislative process. Common Core, on the other hand, was written and adopted almost entirely out of the public eye. And this was exactly how the “powers that be” orchestrated it.

The idea behind Common Core and the standards themselves were devised by a small group of private organizations in Washington, D.C., funded, in part, by more than $100 million dollars from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (B&MGF). B&MGF’s involvement raises some serious red flags about the underlying philosophy and long-term vision for the standards.

The organization seeks to spread its own vision for a kind of global utopia, a vision which ends up looking eerily dystopic in practice. For evidence of this, one need look no further than B&MGF’s support for universal abortion-on-demand in places like Sub-Saharan Africa. And it doesn’t take much imagination to see this pseudo-eugenics program for what it is. But thanks to Common Core, B&MGF values will soon be coming to a school near you.

Here’s why. In 2009, the Obama administration announced millions in stimulus dollars for states through its Race to the Top program. The one proviso for reception of the money was the complete embrace of the Common Core Standards once they were rolled out a few years later.

Suffering budget shortfalls in the midst of the Great Recession, many states (46 in all) hastily signed-on ahead of the administration’s tight deadline. Thus, without so much as the opportunity to evaluate the Standards or mandatory assessments, the states were now on the hook, where many, including Ohio, remain today.

Many folks pose a perfectly reasonable question: “what’s so problematic about more rigorous educational standards?” Of course, there’s nothing wrong with greater rigor in education; it’s sorely needed. But the unfortunate reality is that rather than injecting more rigor into our educational system, these standards impoverish it with less. For instance, Common Core math and English, rolled out ahead of more controversial subjects like health or social studies, have been deemed defective by countless practitioners in their respective fields.

Consider Common Core math. According to a joint paper from the Pioneer Institute and American Principles Project, under the new standards, algebra I would be taught in 9th rather than 8th grade, resulting in the majority of high school students graduating without calculus, a subject in which most elite colleges expect incoming students to demonstrate proficiency. In fact, many schools offer level-one calculus as a remedial class. But it’s not just calculus. Common Core delays or eliminates instruction in many other crucial math skills, as well.

For instance, division is postponed from 5th to 6th grade and converting between fractions, decimals, and percents is eliminated altogether. After all, who needs such skills when your iPhone can do it for you? More rigorous indeed.

And Common Core English is no better. According to the paper cited above, the average reading level needed to pass Common Core tests designed to determine “college readiness” has been shown to be around the middle school level. Most troubling of all, Common Core English standards downplay the study of classical literature in favor of so-called “informational texts,” such as government documents or technical manuals. There are multiple problems with this approach.

For one, there’s no reason to believe such bland materials would be more effective than classical literature at developing the vast array of skills we seek to hone through reading –comprehension, creativity, vocabulary, among many others. If anything, they’re likely to be less effective.

But there’s something even more insidious about the Common Core approach to literature. We revere great books and study classical works of literature not only to develop key life skills and stretch the limits of our imagination; we do so that we might discover truth and explore concepts transcending time and space.

In a society so dismissive of principle and truth – indeed, so divorced from reality – we must cultivate a deeper love and appreciation for great works of literature, not less. But the Common Core philosophy only perpetuates the rampant relativism and skepticisms that plagues us today.

As its lax academic standards suggest, when Common Core boasts of “college readiness,” what it really means is nonselective community college, not four-year university. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with community college; for many, it’s the best use of time, talent, and treasure. But Common Core proponents shouldn’t pretend it’s about making our kids competitive with the rest of the world or preparing them for the Ivy League; it is not. It’s about grooming the next generation of workers to make American businesses more competitive, not our kids.

Then there are questions of privacy and parental rights. Common Core involves the collection of numerous data points on every child from cradle to adulthood.

This data includes personal information, like health-care history, religion, and parents’ income. Defenders of Common Core insist that the data will be used only for the noblest of reasons and will never be consolidated into a federal database. Many even deride those who warn of the serious potential for abuse inherent in such a system. But we dismiss such possibilities at our own peril, particularly given the federal government’s precarious track record of late.

And what about parents’ fundamental right to exert the greatest possible control over their children’s education? With educational decisions being made at increasingly remote levels of government, parental access to decision makers has become allusive. The experts in Washington know best, we’re told, so we needn’t worry.

But what if we profoundly disagree with those experts? What if we simply can’t stomach elements of the forthcoming national sexuality standards, for instance, which take a decidedly anti-Judeo-Christian view of reality? What if we continue to cling to the “old fashioned” notion that there are, in fact, differences between boys and girls? What if we know that two and two still equals four and that no amount of so called self-expression can change it? What are we, as parents, to do then? We are not told.

What we are told – and disingenuously so – is that the adoption of national standards does not equate to the imposition of a national curriculum. But what are standards for if not to directly influence the material taught in the classroom? Historically, a parent with concerns about the curriculum could appeal directly to the school principal or district board of education. Now, that same parent will have to find a way to get an audience with the federal government. And good luck with that.

Finally, there’s the enormous financial burden Common Core imposes on states and taxpayers. A commissioned study conducted by AccountabilityWorks estimated initial start-up costs for the required technology, textbooks, and assessments to total $15.8 billion for state taxpayers.

Considering such a hefty price tag, shouldn’t voters at least have had a say in the program’s adoption – whether through public referendum or the legislative process – especially during a time when so many still find themselves needing to tighten their own belts?

Ohio’s state Board of Education adopted the Common Core in June of 2010, and the standards are still in the process of being implemented today. But it’s not too late to chart a different course. Just this past March, Indiana became the first state to withdraw from Common Core by an act of legislation. Ohio should follow suit. There’s simply no denying that Common Core is an uncommon mistake for our kids, our state, and our country.

Brendan Shea is founder and president of Madison County Right to Life. He lives with his young family in London, and can be reached at brendan.shea7@gmail.com.