Dear Bill Bennett: Get A Little More Reaganesque On Common Core

Dear Bill Bennett: Get A Little More Reaganesque On Common Core

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Common Core has revealed the rot inherent in our government and education system. And Bill Bennett can't tell at all.
Joy Pullmann
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I’m too young to know if Ronald Reagan’s former Education Secretary Bill Bennett has always been a squish. He did preside over an unconstitutional and aggressively statist department Reagan had promised to close, so that seems like a good indicator of Bennett’s commitment to smaller government and bigger individual liberty and community self-determination.

So the gentleman has been getting paid by the well-heeled Common Core squad (Bill Gates has more money than God, and he’s paying everyone to back Common Core) to tack his name and reputation onto op-eds praising their burgeoning education fiasco. Earlier this year, it was in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. This week again, he was on CNN.com insisting that “Common Core has no better alternative.” Right, so the only road to our destination goes off a cliff, so we’d better rev up and ride off it. What?

And that’s the best the multimillion-dollar consultants Gates is hiring can come up with as a slogan? It’s almost as bad as their recent video, in which they insisted “Common Core is better than you’ve heard,” and quickly pulled after it became a laughingstock. There’s a vision to go to the barricades for: “Well, we have nothing better.” “It’s not as bad as they’re making it out to be.” If that’s the best its promoters can come up with, you know it’s rotten.

Same Bat Story, Same Bat Channel

Bennett tells the same story conservatives have been telling since the Reagan administration. He even begins there, with the 1983 “A Nation at Risk” report. Synopsis: American schools are at best mediocre, and we keep lying to parents and children that achievement is higher than it really is. This is all true, or at least I find the evidence for it compelling, and so do most folks on the Right. But then Bennett does the same thing Republicans did after Reagan’s blockbuster “Risk” report: Acknowledge the problem, and then prescribe big-government solutions. Then call it bipartisan and pat each other’s back until the next decade reveals nothing improved, and repeat your announcement of the crisis and prescription of the exact same solution.

The basic ideas of ‘education reform’ haven’t changed since the 1980s. And our schools have not improved. Maybe someone should start connecting those two realities.

Bennett’s solution is the same as that of the Common Core-niks: Centralize education under a quasi-government monopoly uncontrolled by taxpayers or voters, which so far has led to academic mediocrity and chaos. Further, notice he cites no evidence that centrally planned curriculum mandates and tests can raise student achievement. He just assumes this crucial link. Unfortunately for America’s kids, research actually indicates that curriculum mandates have no effect on student achievement, both inside the United States and internationally. Let me repeat: The research shows Bennett’s big-government solution is not a solution. The “research” on other questions Common Core supporters will cite is basically advocacy research funded by the Gates Foundation, which consists of unscientific panels of experts paid by Gates who agree that Gates’ big project is a good idea. Not even joking here. 

Even if we didn’t have genuine studies indicating Common Core or any other curriculum mandates cannot benefit children and society, we have the past thirty years of trying this approach to look at. Bennett must surely be as cognizant of this as anyone else, given that he’s been in the game for at least those 30 years. I mean, following Common Core logic, this suggests that Bennett is the reason U.S. education has not improved. Seriously, though: States have been doing the “education standards” dance at federal behest ever since the Bill Clinton administration. In fact, Clinton led the first national standards movement back in the early nineties before he became president and got it into federal law. Remember Goals 2000 and America 2000? Yeah, those were the establishment’s answer to academic mediocrity: “I know! If we just give states their own tax money back to them in exchange for adopting the curriculum mandates we want, schools will improve!” Weird how that sounds just like Common Core. In fact, those initiatives were led by the very same people and organizations who gave us Common Core. Whoda thunkit. To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To a bureaucrat, everything seems to need bureaucracy. The basic ideas of “education reform” haven’t changed since the 1980s. And our schools have not improved. Maybe someone should start connecting those two realities.

Bill Bennett Needs to Read a Little More, or at Least Do a Google Search

Bennett’s conclusion, as his title, basically says, “Anyway, no one has any better ideas.” This just proves that he’s either not paying attention and has some cheap staffer ghostwrite his op-eds or has stuffed his ears with cotton balls. Every single hearing on state bills to repeal and replace Common Core has included testimony recommending a different route. I know, because I’ve been to about half of these hearings, testified at about a third (it’d be more, but I’ve been pregnant and mothering a new baby for the past year and a half), and have watched the livefeed of the rest. My recommendation is to get the federal government out of curriculum completely, which statute requires anyway. Because the feds don’t give rat’s tail about laws that restrain their power, the U.S. Department of Ed should have its knees (aka funding) cut off.

How many times can I bold and italicize and highlight that no one anywhere has tried Common Core but now we’re all supposed to believe that five people who have never taught K-12 in their lives somehow received revelation from the academia gods explaining what every child should learn in every grade.

Other people typically recommend that states adopt Massachusetts’ world-class curriculum mandates—which Bennett himself nods at in his article—or introduce a system of multiple test possibilities to stop flattening the curriculum and pointing schools at mere compliance. Some even suggest going with ACT’s tests, which I am not keen on because I don’t favor replacing one monopoly with another. But at least ACT has a good track record. Common Core has none. I mean, how many times can I bold and italicize and highlight that no one anywhere has tried Common Core but now we’re all supposed to believe that five people who have never taught K-12 in their lives somehow received revelation from the academia gods explaining what every child should learn in every grade. It’s utter insanity. But that’s what happens when you live in DC. You start to believe that fantasies with other people’s money can be real and morally upstanding. Not just that, they must be done, dammit! for the children! Anyone who says otherwise is a slavering barbarian who only wishes to rip apart what has taken so many people so many years to build with others’ time, sweat, and children.

Look, I was raised to be polite to my elders. It’s extremely clear Bennett has accomplished more in his lifetime than I can ever hope to. He has written some good books about education, several of which reside on my bookshelf and are informing how I raise my children. I’m not trying to be some shock jock jerk. But I had much higher expectations for a man of his caliber than this. It’s really disappointing to see a giant like Bill Bennett side with the establishment and the system that he acknowledges has failed for decades over the parents and genuine experts who have been screaming that Common Core robs us of our God-given right to bring up our children, perpetuates and enhances centralized government, provides a degraded system of mealy-mouthed academics, and gives the establishment a license to cover their own asses with smiling posters of happy children for the next decade while real children pass through the halls of our nation’s schools and continue to learn jack squat.

Reagan may have not rescued us this debate by eliminating USDOE, which definitely bullied states into Common Core at its creators’ request, but he had his first principles right. In 1982, he spoke some words everyone needs to hear again: “This freedom to choose what type of education is best for each child has contributed much to America’s reputation for excellence in education. Unfortunately, the high plane of literacy and the diversity of education we have achieved is threatened by policymakers who seem to prefer uniform mediocrity to the rich variety that has been our heritage.”

Photo Gage Skidmore / Flickr
Joy Pullmann is managing editor of The Federalist, an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute, and author of the forthcoming "The Education Invasion: How Common Core Fights Parents for Control of American Kids," from Encounter Books.
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