Next week, Glenn Beck will livestream “We Will Not Conform,” to movie theaters across the country. Designed to be a “live national night of action against the Common Core,” Beck and his compatriots hope to unify Common Core critics against implementing the new standards.
It’s possible, of course, that “We Will Not Conform” will be a dispassionate, sober-minded critique of the Common Core that empowers participants to make coherent arguments about why the standards will be bad for our nation’s schools, and to propose realistic alternatives. Given past history, though, there’s every reason to believe the event will spiral into an unruly diatribe, more invective than informative. And this is bad news — not for the future of the Common Core, but for conservative education policy.
There are real debates, involving conservative principles, to be had about the Common Core: that an initially state-led effort has been commandeered by an overzealous Obama administration, that the standards will involve very real (and very costly) changes to tests and teacher training that cash-strapped states can’t afford, that many parents haven’t even heard about the Common Core. But these are not the kind of debates that are often occurring on the right.
Rather, the conversations border more on hysteria than reasoned discussion. Thus we have Michelle Malkin — one of the most vehement critics of the Common Core and a guest speaker for “We Will Not Conform” — declaring that with the Common Core, “Traditional literature is under fire. Moral relativism is increasingly the norm. ‘Standards’ is Orwell-speak for subjectivity and lowest common denominator pedagogy.” Or Phyllis Schlafly arguing that Common Core, “English literature selections are not read for the joy of reading and learning, but so they can be analyzed and critiqued by students using left-wing norms.”
It’s impossible to avoid contrasting such sentiments with another conservative Common Core critique out this week, Andrew Ferguson’s excellent essay in The Weekly Standard. “The conservative case” against the Common Core, Ferguson writes, “relies heavily on misinformation — tall tales and urban legends advanced by people who should know better.” He highlights in particular those who cherry-pick horror stories from one of the literally thousands of books on Amazon.com ostensibly aligned to the Common Core, despite the fact that “every educational product imaginable now bears the label ‘common core,’ whether it’s inspired by the standards or not.”
While the Beck-Malkin-Schlafly fury certainly has its appeal, it comes with one major downside: it allows conservatives to make intellectually lazy critiques and avoid the much harder task of offering viable solutions. Screenings of “We Will Not Conform” might channel populist angst on the right against the Common Core, but they do nothing to address the very real concern that inspired the Common Core in the first place — the fact that standards for what kids should know varied wildly across the states — or to propose alternative standards.
In actuality, the Common Core appeals to a lot of conservative sensibilities. Conservatives have long championed high expectations for student learning. And having uniform standards across the states would permit a more accurate picture of student performance and foster a more vibrant K-12 market that would allow new providers to compete. High expectations, transparency of information, and competition are all bedrock conservative principles. If this is true, conservative critics of the Common Core will have to do their part to find alternative ways of first setting that high bar for student learning, then measuring what they know and using the information to wisely inform conversations around school accountability, school choice, and new providers of education. Nights of action can stir up righteous indignation; but they can’t stop there.
There are valid arguments to be made against the Common Core. Ferguson gives one, that the Common Core is just the latest manifestation of the quixotic technocratic impulse to find the silver bullet to fix K-12 schools. My colleagues Rick Hess and Mike McShane have given others. Conservatives critics would do well to take note, shy away from hysterics, and work instead to craft smart, serious policy alternatives.
Daniel Lautzenheiser is the program manager in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.