Common Core: The Paranoid Right’s Latest Existential Threat to the Republic

TennFrontPageThe Tennessean this morning devoted vast dead tree real estate to the Common Core standards that are reshaping public school curricula in Tennessee and 44 other states. Although these standards have been around for a while as states have been adopting them one by one (Tennessee did so three years ago), new testing coming in 2014 has put Common Core on the front burner, especially for opponents and skeptics. Last week hundreds of conservatives gathered at a Franklin hotel to hear speakers rail against Common Core. Indeed, many on the right have reached full-tilt froth mode at the looming horrors they see in Common Core, although figuring out the substance of their objections turns out to be a bit of shell game.

It should be acknowledged up front that Common Core is encountering some backlash from the left as well: Progressives are unhappy with new exams polluting an already toxic educational culture of standardized testing mania, and many teachers (and their unions) are worried that the implementation cart is being put ahead of the teacher-training horse.

But while liberals may be worried that the product is being rushed to market, so to speak, conservatives seem to think the product is itself an affront to civilization and human decency. So just what is the conservative beef with Common Core?

The Tennessean piece last week reporting on the Franklin gathering is unenlightening, offering only two sentences on the substance of opponents’ critique:

Opponents of Common Core accuse the Obama administration of dangling billions of dollars in Race to the Top funds to get states to sign on to its notion of what children should be learning. The opponents say that, rather than raise student achievement and accountability, it dumbs down academics and leads to data-mining of student information.

The first sentence is partially true: To be eligible to apply for Race to the Top funding, a state had to show “its commitment to adopting a common set of high quality standards,” and the way to do so is through “participation in a consortium of states…working toward jointly developing and adopting a common set of K-12 standards…that are supported by evidence that they are internationally benchmarked and build toward college and career readiness by the time of high school graduation” (source: Federal Register, 4/14/10, p. 19503). The Common Core, an outgrowth of an interstate consortium, is essentially the sort of thing being described here, although Race to the Top (quoting from its FAQ) “does not endorse any particular consortium or set of standards.”

The second sentence is outlandish. Whatever one thinks of the existence of national standards (a pretty good idea that happens to work out nicely in most advanced countries), you can’t look at the actual substance of Common Core and see in it a dumbing down of anything. I challenge anyone to review the Common Core standards document covering English, Social Studies, and Science and explain where this dilutes down anyone’s education. It is precisely because states including Tennessee were assessing student achievement so leniently that this whole thing emerged.

For more insight on what opponents are thinking I paid a visit to the Tennessee Against Common Core website, the home page of which blends a confusing attack on Bill Gates (who apparently “can buy whatever he wants, even our children’s minds”) with a curiously unhinged analogy between Common Core and Adolph Hitler’s ordering all children into government schools in 1937. Deeper on the site we encounter a 16-page PDF (cribbed with permission from Utah’s anti-Common Core group) telling us that Common Core is “the nationalizing and even globalizing of education.” Opponents see it as illegally establishing a national curriculum, even though anyone who bothers to actually look at the Common Core standards documents can see quite plainly that it isn’t a curriculum, and in any event no state is compelled to have anything to do with it.

It is true that federal law constrains the U.S. Department of Education’s ability to mandate curricula and assessments, but there is nothing mandatory here. Although the whole Common Core initiative is a voluntary thing among states, conservatives object to standards as a condition for Race-to-the Top funding — these “incentives have clouded the picture,” in the words of Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley and several of his GOP colleagues. This objection is nonsense. Federal money to states is routinely conditioned on policy expectations, and states are perfectly free to opt out and not apply.

At the end of the day the conservative backlash against Common Core feels like yet another case of right-wing anti-intellectual paranoia. As one commenter on the Stop Common Core in Tennessee Facebook page declares, “This is about federal take over and the state, teachers and parents giving up their rights to the feds. Federal government control = mind control.” Another: “If I wanted to live in a socialist/communist society I would have moved elsewhere…what happened to our Democracy!?”

Common Core may not be the magic bullet that will fix K-12 education in the country, but calling it out as a dire existential threat to the republic will accomplish even less — except perhaps demonstrate that opponents haven’t bothered to read the thing.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


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