Since the Common Core standards are not scheduled to be implemented until next year, it’s too early to tell whether or not they are a success or a failure. But it’s very clear that they will probably be the greatest philanthropic triumph since the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created after the Carnegie Corporation proposed the corporation’s creation in a 1967 report. These standards are the creation of the Gates Foundation, collaborating with a Department of Education that had a lot of stimulus cash they were eager to lavish on any state willing to accept national educational standards.
It might well be that the Common Core will be a success. But as Andrew Ferguson notes in this fine piece in the Weekly Standard, it’s far more likely that they will be a great philanthropic mistake.
I’ve known Andrew Ferguson ever since he burst on the scene with a 1987 article in the Washington City Paper accurately describing gassy pundit David Gergen as a “goggle-eyed melonhead.” Ferguson is an excellent writer, who has no use for fools or frauds and always tells some good jokes at the expense of mandarins who deserve them. But his is best quality is that he is levelheaded. Any one of his pieces has good reporting but is also fair to all sides. So it is with his Common Core piece.
Ferguson begins by reporting about the Gates Foundation’s effort to try to capture the essence of good teaching in ways that schools can easily duplicate. Now in the past we asked whether or not teaching was a virtue, and if virtues could be taught. Those were questions that Plato and Aristotle would both have understood and discussed intelligently.
But talk about virtue and of course you’d be accused of wanting to turn back the clock to the fourteenth century. And the ancients didn’t have smartphones, so who cares about them? So what Gates has done in their Measures of Effective Teaching (or MET) program is record around 3, 000 teachers, who were observed by highly-trained experts, who then boiled everything down to 22 “competencies,” such as “attention to access, equity, and diversity” and “intellectual engagement in key ideas.” But Ferguson argues that most school districts can’t pay for the expensive training these monitors underwent. And researchers observing the monitors found that evaluations of a particular teacher varied widely, depending on which “instrument” the monitor was using to grade teachers. The result, says Ferguson, is that “MET research tells us nothing about how to improve the world that students and teachers inhabit”—even after burning up $335 million in Gates grants.
As for the Common Core, Ferguson notes, “there’s much in the Standards to reassure an educational traditionalist.” Phonics has replaced “whole-language” courses that do a poor job in teaching kids to read. Schools are told to have students put away their calculators in early grades and actually memorize multiplication tables. The standards recommend that students read Shakespeare, a lot of nonfiction, and the Preamble and the First Amendment to the Constitution.
(But if I hear you saying, “But wait! Kids have to learn the First Amendment but not the Second Amendment!”—well, learn to breathe through your nose, pal.)
Moreover, some criticisms of the Common Core are unfounded. Some critics have taken examples from textbooks that say they are “Common Core-compatible” but aren’t really part of the Common Core. And even though some enthusiastic leftists have come up with something called the National Sexuality Education Standards, these standards have never been implemented anywhere, not even in Vermont or Hawaii.
But the fundamental problem of the Common Core is—who wrote these standards? The Gates Foundation won’t explain. All they will say is that 10,000 educators had their say—but the public and the press weren’t involved. As a result, Ferguson accurately notes, “the impression of a mysterious elite gathering secretly to impose a New Educational Order is hard to shake.”
Another problem is that the U.S. Department of Education both made insistence on accepting “common standards” part of their Race to the Top grants in 2009-10 and then denied it had anything to do with developing Common Core, although states recovering from the Great Recession wouldn’t have passed Common Core if they didn’t want federal grants. Moreover, as Ferguson shows, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has declared that while Common Core is not a national education standard, it is as convenient as a national educational standard, a position that Ferguson says is “nakedly untrue.”
Ferguson documents that several groups have begun to pull back their support for Common Core. Some liberal teachers fear that the Common Core policy that teachers be evaluated on what their children learn is a return to the “long-ago era where students had to really, you know, learn stuff.” While the National Education Association and most of the American Federation of Teachers still support Common Core, the Gates Foundation has been picketed in Seattle and the Chicago Teachers Union has stated its opposition.
States are also beginning to question Common Core. Three states have withdrawn, and in Louisiana there’s a legal fight over whether Gov. Bobby Jindal has the power to withdraw, As this post from the John Locke Foundation notes, the North Carolina legislature has passed a bill, which Gov. Pat McCrory says he’ll sign, that would replace Common Core in that state with new standards to be written by a state commission.
But Ferguson suggests that the history of education reform suggests that Common Core will be neutered, probably after the first national tests next spring show students don’t know very much. “In that case,” he writes, “Common Core would survive the way NCLB (No Child Left Behind) survives—as a velleity, a whiff of a hint of a memory of a gesture toward an aspiration or excellence.”
At that point, we will know that the Gates Foundation has committed a great philanthropic mistake.