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The Problems with the US Common Curriculum

Fleeing From Education

by BINOY KAMPMARK

It doesn’t look good when States give the proverbial finger to the Washington establishment.  The old constitutional woes surface; the contest around autonomy, and the federal compact, surface.  Is the central government authorised to meddle, shape and alter what might be the purview of states?

Education remains one such area. It is absent in the Constitution. The framers may well have been privy to the role of the press, the necessity to prevent factional disagreement through checks and balances, and protect general liberties associated with the person. But the idea of a central educations system was still embryonic.

This has not stopped the Federal government exerting its control with standardised procedures, deemed a utopia of education excellence.  In 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson, during a period of heavy federalising, came up with his Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  In 2009, President Barack Obama came up with “Race to the Top” funds.  It was, however, the 1983 publication A Nation at Risk by the National Commission on Excellence and Education that shone the brightest of spotlights on the urgency of a common state-wide platform.

Unfortunately, it has been shown that such measures, however well intentioned, can implode in its air of presumption. Programs such as the No Child Left Behind were critically deficient, mere demagoguery in action. Meddling became deconstructing.  Which brings us to the latest program – that of the Common Core national standards and curriculum, termed in some circles the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

The program has involved forty-five states, the District of Columbia, four US territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity.  It has its genesis in the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Governors Association (Guardian, Feb 10).  Given the fact that the Department of Education cannot by law, direct, control or supervise elementary and secondary school curricula, a sweetener for adopting the guidelines was added: Race to the Top Grants would be awarded to those adopting the Common Core standards.

Since its commencement, opposition from across the political spectrum, be it from disgruntled teacher unions, or politicians concerned by the usurping powers of Washington, has gathered some indignant steam.

Conservative pundits such as Glenn Beck have taken to the airwaves with suggestions that the Common Core is a Stalinist platform, a doctrinaire’s mandate: “Kids are being indoctrinated with extreme leftist ideology” (Glennbeck.com, Mar 14).  Much of Beck’s spouting is based on the staple paranoia that is indispensable to American political debate, but like all paranoid narratives, some grains of verity do exist.

On the surface of it, the revolt has been primarily from the Red states, and those associated with GOP or Tea Party sentiment.  Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, Alabama have all taken back steps implementing the program. Oklahoma has gone even further, saying it will withdraw from the program altogether. But it is worth noting that New York, that blue pocket of Democratic existence, has been resisting as well.

The problems with the common core system lie at several levels.  There is a structural deficiency – funding, matters of process, and the rationale of outsourcing.  States, seeing a chance to receive funding, swallowed the proceeds without wise implementation.  These were also states which have had a good share of poor-performing students.

As ever with management, the issue is not results in fact, but results on paper. The paper is the world, the reality, the nominal fact. The abysmal reality of education in the US is that discussions of any Common Core take place in an imposed vacuum.  Social environments, and by virtue of that, realities, are excluded in favour of artificial engineering.  The sense that Common Core was created, not through a discussion with politicians and parents, but a sterile laboratory process, is hard to dispel.

This shows.  The Common Core was, as Jose Vilson (Sep 12, 2013) put it, a “package deal with the new teacher evaluations, higher stakes testing, and austerity measures, including mass school closings.”  Funding and defunding have occurred, with standards being used as the band aid that inadequately patches the wounded patient.  Standards, as the New Jersey decisions in Abbott v Burke remind us, are on their own insufficient, the leanest of straw men.  Without resources, students might as well stay home.

Furthermore, the Gates Foundation got busy investing in a program with the guidance, not of educators and those within the school system, but corporations priding themselves on mantras of lobbying and reform.  Achieve Inc., the key drafter of Common Core, proudly trumpets itself as “the only education reform organisation led by a board of directors and business leaders” (Guardian, Feb 10).

The picture tends to get bleaker, given that the standardised tests are contracted to companies ever keen to get a profit at the expense of education.  Such companies, Pearson foremost amongst them, have become fixtures of the classroom set.  In yet another demonstration that the private sector often fails, rather than adopts, the best practices and policies, instances of maladministration, missing tests and general incompetence in handling grades have characterised the process.  Pearson has also been in the soup for using charitable funds to promote for-profit products.

The tests themselves have seen an extraordinary attack of abstraction on what should be elementary problems. Laboratory language, the stuff of test tube logic and managerialism, has displaced that of instructive pedagogy.  The management speak of Frederick Winslow Taylor has come home to roost in the school system.  Terms like subtraction and edition are ditched in favour of “decrease” and “increase”.  Children were, as Alec Torres explains, bored by “word problems” which are now replaced by “math situations”.  “Carry the one” is replaced by, “Regroup ten ones as a ten” (National Review, Mar 20).

There are also changes of emphasis that suggest the embrace of blunt, uninformed technocracy over literacy – a move away from literature proper in the form of dusty classics to the literature of management and governance (government documents, dry and dreary “informational texts”).

Things have become so dire that former Congressman Ron Paul has advanced his own model, focusing on solid areas he feels will provide ample paving for the rocky road of education.  The primary focus here is on homeschooling centred on three tracks: natural science and maths; social sciences and humanities; and business (Fits News, Jun 23).

In a country which is becoming increasingly ungovernable, education remains, along with welfare and poverty, the great handicaps of the US.  A country that has the means of deploying forces across the globe in any location in a matter of hours has troubles ensuring safe school environments and equitable access.  Bureaucrats and managers have, in their characteristic way, shown the way on a central, standardised measure, a system of splendid isolation rather than general application.  As it stands, it is bound to fall flat.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com