The Indiana legislature has wisely pushed the pause button on the implementation of the Common Core State Standards. Now it’s time to think again about how the development of and campaign for the Common Core expose deep rifts in our federalist system.
The current debate over the Common Core is not primarily a debate over the existence of high expectations and standards for education. It is rather a debate over who should establish these expectations and standards for students. Should these expectations be set within local contexts by parents, teachers, and local school boards, or should these standards be imposed on students and teachers by administrative fiat backed by expensive advertising campaigns paid for by big philanthropy and big business?
Regardless of any substantive merit in the proposed standards, if federalism still means anything in America, it still matters who decides and whether there are rights of exit from the influence of the interlocking directorates of educational and philanthropic “experts,” government agencies, and companies standing to reap the rewards from selling new curriculum-aligned materials and tests to thousands of local school districts and families.
Defending our constitutional system of limited government does not mean returning to educational arrangements that fail to provide access and opportunity for all children. But it does require renewing one of the perennial conversations of a self-governing people. In the words of Vincent Ostrom: How can a society so constitute itself that its members will be free participants in a self-governing order and not merely the subjects of the state?
The question brings us squarely up against the power and persuasion of the Public Service Announcement State. I received a photo this week of a glossy advertisement New York City has posted at bus stops, explaining that when standards rise, we should expect test scores to decline, at first. I wonder how many teachers’ salaries might be now pasted all over public transit in such fine exhibitions of bureaucratic apologetics.
From Madison Avenue’s viewpoint we are each little more than a bundle of the various market segments that we resemble. Already, so much of what we read today reduces us to the status of information consumers: get the soundbite right, and, ka-ching!, you just might buy the right perfume, send a donation to save the whales, or vote for the right candidate.
And so it goes with the debate over the Common Core, which is being marketed to the American people through an expensive advertising campaign across the media. In this, the ends and the means advancing the Common Core seem to unite in a travesty of common sense, obfuscating the open discourse necessary among educated citizens in a free republic. “Mass media,” wrote Ostrom, in The Meaning of American Federalism, “are destructive of the essential reciprocity for intelligible communications. Citizens, addressed en masse, no longer function as intelligent artisans in self-organizing and self-governing communities of relationships.”
To get education right, and to get liberty right, we will in the end have to pay serious attention to this little word “self.” We will have ask, is education for the individual or for the state?
The Victorian English pedagogue Charlotte Mason founded her educational philosophy on the premise that “children are persons.” “I am jealous for the children,” Mason wrote just after World War I, “every modern educational movement tends to belittle them intellectually.” “What was the note of this new gospel of education?” she asked.
Practically that same note which had proceeded from England, France, Switzerland a century earlier: a utilitarian education should be universal and compulsory; child and adolescent should be "saturated with the spirit of service, provided with the instruments of effective self direction." Behold, Utopia at hand! Every young person fitted, body and soul, for the uses of society; as for his own uses, what he should be in and for himself—why, what matter?”
A century later, it’s clear that our educational theorists have followed the principles of Jeremy Bentham more than those of Miss Mason. From the compulsory common schools of Horace Mann to the Common Core today, American schooling more and more reflects the social control principles of Bentham’s panopticon, where we are watched, surveyed, and tested for our social roles. We may pretty up the architecture of the educational Matrix with slogans and glossy images, but in the end the possibility of cultivating real personality further diminishes.
Would you like to take part in rescuing America’s kids from such oppression? Go find one and open up a book together—for those under 12, try Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes or Jean Lee Latham’s Carry On, Mr. Bowditch; for teens, crack open Orwell’s Animal Farm or even Suzanne Collins’ wildly popular The Hunger Games. Don’t rush. Take your time. Read slowly, a few pages a day. Talk together about what you are reading. Listen more than you talk. Invite a child to become a person.
Indiana students were scheduled to take their state exams this week. For two days the computerized system kicked students out of the system and disrupted the peace and order of the testing window. Some kids got an extra recess out of the deal, and some of those used the free time to pick flowers. It’s hard not to believe that a better sort of learning took place on the playground than in front of the testing terminal.
Can we find the courage and wisdom to slow down. and maybe even stop, on the Common Core, and re-examine all the other centralizing reform regimens that treat our children as material that comes to us merely so our state will be competitive and great? If we invite children instead to feast on the great conversation of mankind, maybe we will grow up with them into a nation of free people. America’s greatness would then take care of itself. I don’t need a “market segment” to begin the conversation or a “target market” to take action. Just persons like you. There won’t be a test.