Hardly a day goes by that we don’t hear of a lesson being delivered in a public school that is inappropriate or seemingly designed to push a particular ideology. While such egregious examples are surely the exception and not the rule (most educators have the decency and common sense to avoid that kind of nonsense), they are nonetheless troubling and worthy of derision — and pushback.
In a democracy, we have a responsibility to hold institutions to account. In fact, the smaller and more local the unit of government, the greater the weight placed on each individual person. In his first annual message to Congress on the State of the Union, President George Washington noted that, “To the security of a free constitution [knowledge] contributes in various ways — by convincing those who are intrusted with the public administration that every valuable end of government is best answered by the enlightened confidence of the people…”
Unfortunately, it seems many conservatives recently have been satisfied to shirk their responsibility as citizens to hold their local governments accountable and instead have blamed every bad educational decision an all-purpose bogeyman: the Common Core State Standards.
First, let’s get one thing out of the way: many people who oppose the Common Core do so for legitimate reasons, often drawing on their conservative principles to fight for greater local control over schools. All things equal, I am a firm believer in the idea that the government closest to the people is best, especially on an issue as important as the education of our next generation. Yet killing the Common Core won’t protect federalism in education (though there are other battles on that front worth fighting), end indoctrination in the classroom, or fix our schools.
The reason is that standards — whether the Common Core or something else — are simply the goals that educators are trying to help our students meet. The difference between the Common Core and most of the standards in place in states previously is that most of the old standards fell short (often hopelessly so) of preparing students to be ready for a productive and self-sufficient life after high school (you can find out how your states’ old standards compared to the Common Core here).
There are a million ways to attempt to meet each of the goals built into the standards and some attempts — with or without the Common Core — can be confusing, inappropriate, or just plain factually wrong. Some of them even claim to be “Common Core-aligned” and parents are right to be upset when they see them in their child’s backpack. But it is important to remember that the claims of purported alignment are not certified by the creators of the standards or anyone else. In short, errant attempts at meeting a high standard like that set by the Common Core should not impugn the standards themselves.
It’s for this reason that those who mistakenly or dishonestly try to link good standards to bad curricula can never seem to demonstrate exactly how this or that lesson can be traced back to a specific provision of the standards. That’s because the Common Core, which only covers English language arts and math (and not other subjects like science or history), doesn’t get much more controversial than the assertion that third graders should be able to “know from memory all products of two one-digit numbers.” Many Common Core opponents would have you believe that specific content that might disparage your favorite president or get its basic facts backwards is baked right into the Common Core. In reality, the Common Core standards are praiseworthy because they are fairly traditional, focused on such basics as mastering phonics, memorizing times tables, and learning to write about evidence instead of your feelings (you can and should read the actual standards here).
Most conservatives I know wish schools would get back to focusing first on teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. Those who support such a back-to-basics approach should be pleased that the Common Core sets a higher bar. After all, when there’s a greater focus on foundational knowledge, there’s less time for the nonsense we sometimes hear about. Many on the left oppose the Common Core simply because they reject accountability in education, but I can’t help but find it a little appropriate that the most recent issue of radical leftist education magazine Rethinking Schools contains both an article on “The Problems with the Common Core” right alongside “Incorporating gender and sexuality into 5th-grade curriculum.”
As always, it’s up to local educators to choose the best path for learning and up to parents and citizens to keep a watchful eye on the path they choose. To paraphrase the Department of Homeland Security, if you see bad content in our schools, say something. But do make sure you are saying it to the right people: the educators and school-board members in your own community.
Michael Brickman is national policy director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-of-center education policy think tank, and Governor Scott Walker’s former education policy adviser.