While shopping for their little girls this holiday season, moms across America might discover something different about the popular American Girl Doll: They now come equipped with their own mini Common Core-aligned text book.
It’s not the first time the proposed national standards for education have found their way into children’s extracurricular activities. In April, the Girl Scouts issued a statement touting their “badges” were now fully Common Core-aligned. Exactly how that alignment advances the Girl Scouts’ mission—which is to build “girls of courage, confidence and character, who make the world a better place”—remains mysterious.
These attempts at making the program appear cozy notwithstanding, the Common Core national standards and tests are actually the latest push to centralize what children are being taught in school. Far from being user-friendly, it further removes parents and teachers from the educational decision-making process.
Developed in 2009 by the privately run National Governors Association (NGA) and Council of Chief State School Officers (CSSO), Common Core was immediately promoted by the Obama administration. It offered $4.35 billion in competitive grants to states that agreed to adopt common standards. To make the program even more enticing, the administration circumvented Congress and offered states adopting Common Core waivers from the onerous provisions of No Child Left Behind. States could also receive these waivers if they agreed to have their higher education institutions certify that they met the new “college- and career-ready” metric.
To aid the implementation process, the federal government added to the Common Core bureaucracy by directly financing the two national tests aligned with the Common Core — the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortia — and created the “Technical Review Panel,” housed in the Department of Education, to oversee assessment questions.
For an ostensibly “state-led” and “voluntary” effort, it’s difficult to keep track of all of the federal fingerprints on Common Core.
What does the Common Core contain? For starters, it changes the way math has been taught for decades, if not centuries. Now, how students derive their response is given importance equal to actually getting the answer correct. In English students are being made to read technical manuals rather than the classics, so instead of learning artful language and historical context that encourages analytical thinking, they learn how to follow directions. Parents from coast to coast, of all political persuasions, have expressed their opposition.
Research done by James Milgram, professor emeritus of mathematics at Stanford, shows that mathematics standards will put American students two grades behind international peers by the time they reach seventh grade. Sandra Stotsky, professor of education reform emerita at the University of Arkansas, says Common Core “makes it unlikely that American students will study a meaningful range of culturally and historically significant literary works before graduation.” She also argues that emphasizing informational text over literature “may lead to a decreased capacity for analytical thinking.”
Both Milgram and Stotsky originally sat on the Common Core review committee and refused to sign off on the standards due to their subpar content.
But this didn’t stop 45 states from adopting the standards in 2009.
The diminutive new “envisions math” Common Core textbook that the American Girl doll now carries is a big indication of just how far reaching the standards and assessments are. America’s beloved dolls once reflected figures of historical significance. They offered a narrative that taught young girls history and character traits such as courage, valor, and grace through the stories of girls their age who had lived in America’s most trying times. But since Mattel took over the franchise 15 years ago, American Girl Dolls have a new model: the “just like me” dolls, which omit the historical and moral teaching of earlier models.
Absent that historical context, the American Girl doll of today, if she were flesh and blood, could be forgiven for not knowing that education is not among the U.S. Constitution’s list of roles that the federal government is to fill. The “enumerated powers” our Founding Fathers itemized to restrict Washington from taking over too much of states’ authority and citizens’ lives did not include education decision-making authority. That was left to the states and the individuals.
But the erstwhile historical American Girl dolls would certainly recognize what Common Core represents: a massive centralization of education.
One of the first American Girl dolls, Felicity, was personified as a daughter of the American Revolution who joined in the colonies’ fight for independence from oppressive government. It’s quite the contrast from Common Core national standards, whose recommended reading list de-emphasizes literature in favor of dry informational texts like EPA manuals and presidential executive orders.
Centralized education by the federal government was certainly not on the minds of the American Founders when they laid the foundation for a free and self-governing society. They crafted a Constitution of limited governmental power so that civil society might flourish within the states.
When Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the 19th century, he observed that democracy in America thrived because its civil associations flourish, by which he meant the schools and churches.
The size and scope of federal intervention in our children’s classrooms has ballooned since Washington first became involved in a significant way in education in the 1960s. Since that time, the federal government has spent over $2 trillion on K-12 education.
The results? Academic achievement has flat-lined despite a near tripling of inflation-adjusted, per-pupil spending. High school seniors are no better off today than the seniors of the 1970s. Graduation rates for disadvantaged students have remained stagnant. U.S. students are increasingly surpassed by international competitors on assessments of math and reading achievement. All Washington has done is tie the hands of local school leaders with red tape and further burden education with the bureaucracy of an ever-growing administrative state.
The federal government’s solution is to spend more money and usurp more authority from states and parents over what children are being taught. Common Core is an extension of this misguided logic, placing decisions about what is to be taught in the hands of national organizations and Washington bureaucrats. As the 2014-15 implementation deadline looms near, states are realizing the costs of adopting Common Core, both financially and in terms of educational liberty.
Felicity, who is no longer rolling off the assembly line, would have certainly recognized the folly in further centralizing something as important as education.
Editor: An earlier version of this story misidentified Felicity as the first American Girl doll. She was the fourth.